02-14-21 THE DEVOTION OF A PROPHET


2 Kings 2: 1-12; Mark 9: 2-9

In 1976, America’s Bicentennial offered celebrations of many kinds across our country. One day Mary Ann and I went to downtown St. Louis, facing the Mississippi River, to watch an air show. Perhaps like in the days of Elijah, St. Louis is on the west side of the river, like Israel is on the west side of the River Jordan. As we looked east over the Mississippi River, our heads turned fast to the left, and fast to the right as a jet from McDonnell-Douglas aircraft flew by us. First, they demonstrated the F-4 jets; nicknamed the “Phantom.” They were real workhorses and they had plenty of speed. We were so close, yet we heard nothing, until after the jet passed with a “woosh” in the air, and then we heard the roar of the jet engines. We could have watched it all day. But there was more. There was the McDonnell-Douglas new pride and joy: the F-15 Eagle. What could it do that was better? As it flew in front of the crowd, it suddenly angled skyward and flew straight up like a rocket; not at a steady angled climb, but straight up unto it actually disappeared from our sight! We were astounded; we were amazed; and we were slightly deaf from the engines pointing right at us as the jet ascended! It was a sight to behold!
Can you imagine a chariot, drawn by horses of fire, taken up into the sky, out of sight, not from jet engines, but from a whirlwind? Today in Second Kings we are invited to witness that after a passing of a torch ceremony, though in this case, it was a mantel. The young prophet Elisha did not want to let go of his mentor, Elijah, who was about to go “the way of the fathers.” He clung to his hero, perhaps like we cling to those who cannot hang on to life in this world anymore. Like the expression “O Love, that Wilt Not Let Me Go,” Elisha clings to Elijah, not wanting to let him go. Together, in their last time together, they went from place to place—they left Gilgal and arrived at Bethel. They departed for Jericho and then they crossed the Jordan. And at the apex of the story, Elijah ascends to heaven- he does that on the other side, not on Israel’s side; in a desolate place. They had crossed the River before the final words were shared and Elijah died. Elijah was then taken up into heaven after he gave Elisha his mantel of responsibilities. Elisha had to carry on, in existential and prophetic ways. Afterward, as sometimes happens in our own lives, the mourner Elisha retraced his steps toward home—in this case re-crossing the River Jordan—stopping at Jericho and ending at Bethel again. The story used a deliberate structure that involved Elisha going out and then returning; the same structure was found in the Prodigal Son in Luke 15.
Today I want us to speak openly about a difficult subject: death. What happens when we die? Today we are reminded that Elisha clung to Elijah and begged him not to leave him. When Elijah earlier hid in a cave during his dark night, 1 Kings 19:12 says that after all the sounds of earthquake, wind, and fire, there was a sound of sheer silence. As Elijah and Elisha met with a company of prophets at Jericho, they said to Elisha: “Do you know that today the Lord will take your Master away?” Elisha replied: “Be silent.” It is in the silence that reality hits; that people realize the presence of the imminent. The silence of God whispers words of hope and comfort. Sometimes people ask for material things when someone is near death; at other times they ask for words of blessing. Words ring in the ears of those grieving when the one who is dying says something like: “You have never looked lovelier than now;” or “I will always love you;” or “I’m counting on you.” Even in the movie “Ghost” Molly expressed her love for Sam, and typically, Sam just said, “Ditto” while he was alive. But after Sam was murdered, the message “Ditto,” passed through psychic Oda Mae Brown, letting Molly know that Sam was near. Those are sacred times: when someone left behind is commissioned or commended by the departing one. By contrast, in dysfunctional relationships, the one dying or the one still living may call out curses. Those can pierce the soul of both.

If you search on your phone or computer: “What happens to us after death?” you may discover that some believe there is no afterlife; others believe in the resurrection of the body; others believe in the immortality of the soul; others believe in reincarnation, and still others believe that when we die, we become gods. It can be seriously confusing to search web pages for those answers. Our primary source about life after death as Christians is the New Testament, along with trusted pastors or chaplains or teachers. But today, as Elijah makes a cameo appearance on the Holy mountain with Peter, James, John and Jesus, we go back to his spectacular exit from this earth.

Historically, biblical characters in what is called the Old Testament died were remembered for what they did in their lives. Stones were put on the graves of the dead to show they had not been forgotten. There was no general belief that they went on to an afterlife. Sarah died in Genesis 23, and Abraham purchased a cave at Machpelah, at great cost, in which he placed her body. In Genesis 25 Abraham breathed his last and his body was placed in the cave next to his wife. People mourned for them, and then the mourning stopped. But they were remembered forever. Still, there was no thought that they had gone to heaven. The same was true with most everyone else in the Old Testament; life was lived from birth to death; only after a certain extraordinary event did the idea of a great prophets living on in Heaven ever cross their minds: it was after today’s story of Elijah. He was perhaps Israel’s greatest because he challenged the prophets of Baal in a place called Mount Carmel and he won; but he also was great because 2 Kings chapter 2 recorded that he ascended to heaven in a whirlwind! They did not call it resurrection, because it was not a resurrection. It was Elijah, the great prophet, “taken up in a whirlwind.” But before he departed: he took care of business-like we should take care of business- writing down what you want to write and saying what you want to say. Elijah passed his mantel to Elisha and commissioned the younger prophet to carry on his ministries. Then a most breath-taking thing happened: as he and Elisha were walking and talking on the other side of the river, a chariot—a chariot of fire drawn by horses, came and took Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind! It was unheard of; it had not happened before, and it has not happened in the same way since. But the spiritual anthem we heard today, combining Swing Low Sweet Chariot, and Deep River, My Home is Over Jordan” was written by those who were longing for a better life than they had on earth. So they hoped for, and prayed for, a chariot to come and escort them to a better life on the other side! Times of strain make people think about, and long for, the afterlife.

Elijah became almost mythical because of his transport to heaven; it never says he died; it just says he went to heaven. That was talked about for ages. And when John the Baptist came with great voice and conviction, and people asked him: “Are you Elijah?” (John 1:21) You see, there were superstitious people then as now! They thought that perhaps Elijah’s soul had inhabited a new body! But John the Baptist dispelled such queries: “I am not,” he said. In Matthew’s gospel we read that Jesus once asked his disciples: “Who do others say that I am?” And again the superstitious answer was given: “Some say you are John the Baptist (who had just been killed) and others said you are Elijah (who had died centuries before.) Jesus was not Elijah or John the Baptist. He was the beloved Son of God.

With the same authority that Christians for 2000 years have given to the Bible, we find that in Matthew, in Mark, in Luke, and in John, witnesses gave testimony: Jesus really died on earth, the victim of a brutal death. His body was taken to a tomb; according to Matthew’s gospel, guards watched the tomb during the Jewish Sabbath so that no one could come and take the body. But when the Sabbath ended, faithful women, charged with lovingly anointing the dead body, came to carry out their task. On the day we call Easter, Jesus was not reincarnated. There was no chariot waiting. It was resurrection; the risen Lord- Jesus-appeared to his disciples, and in 1 Corinthians 15 he also appeared to more than 500 others. People called him Lord.

In the last book of the Bible, a man named John was blessed with a vision shared by Jesus. We know it as the book of Revelation. We do not get a guided tour of the heaven, but we get an assurance of its wonder and its beauty! Heaven is a game changer, where there will be no more crying or pain or sadness. What a different world that is! Christians believe that we have life after death. It is a resurrected life, not a continuation of this life. And it can be yours! That is what the church has taught for ages. There are plenty of sources of information, but I choose sources that I trust. Say what you want to say while you are well; write what you want while you are still alive. But choose Jesus! Then when you leave this world, you can have a glorious life in the hereafter.
Let us pray: O God from whom we have been created and to whom we can return: comfort us with stories about good life and good death, so that we will not only be remembered when we leave this world, but we will have made an impact on the lives of those we love. In Jesus name. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner February 14, 2021

02-07-21 ONE INCOMPARABLE GOD

“OUR INCOMPARABLE GOD” Isaiah 40:21-31 February 7, 2021
Westminster by the Sea Presbyterian Radford Rader, D.Min.

Let’s go straight to the heart of today’s passage.  It is not those famous last words, “They shall mount up with wings like the eagles…run and not be weary…walk and not faint.”  Those are the last words, the ending affirmation, but that is not the place to start.  The reason for this prophetic poetry is what Israel is saying. Israel laments “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God.” 
God chosen people had been defeated by Babylon.  Her capital, God’s city, was laid waste.  Her beautiful temple the place of YAHWEH’s sacrifice and worship was destroyed.  A remnant of survivors was carried off into exile and slavery.  They are taunted by their captives who ridicule their God. 
Psalm 137 shares their situation, 

“By the waters of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willow there we hung up our harps. For there, our captors asked us for songs and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ”Sing us one of the songs of Zion”. How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”

Israel is beaten down.  They faith is exhausted. They have lost hope. They live in despair and doubt. The have come to question, “Is our God able? Does our God even care?” It is for these people and to this situation that Second Isaiah spoke.

What he says to them reminds me of the Norman Rockwell painting of the front of a cathedral church with people moving quickly in both directions on the sidewalk at the foot of the steps.  Their heads are down.  Their shoulders slumped.  They appear tired and exhausted.  They do not look at one another.  There is no joy in them.  One man is in a mad dash; his head is not shown as if he has lost it.  At the top of the steps, the only light comes from an open sanctuary door.  The cleric stands there directing the sexton who is on a ladder changing the marque which now reads, “Lift up your eyes!”  

Isaiah tries to redirect the attention of God’s people from their present to what they have seen and what they have heard.  He wants them to remember what they experienced of God who was and still is for them…was and still is with them. He wants to destroy the false premise that because the Babylonians are on top and they are enslaved captives that Babylonian power, empire, gods reign supreme.
In this chapter, Isaiah recalls what was and is still true.  There is only One God, who is maker of all and Lord of all. The creator had no help and no teacher.  God did not consult with anyone when he created; God has no equals. No thing and no one compare with God. “Lift up your eyes,” Isaiah challenges us, “Lift up your eyes on high and see.  Who created these heavenly beings?  He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them by name.  Because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing.” (verses 25-26). This is the God whom Jesus said knows everything even has numbered the hairs of our heads. (Lk. 12:7) 
It is said that after an evening of talk, Theodore Roosevelt and his friend naturalist William Beebe would often go out on the lawn of his North Dakota ranch, where they searched until they found the faint, heavenly spot of light-mist beyond the lower left-hand corner of the Great Square of Pegasus, when one or the other would then recite: “That is the Spiral Galaxy in Andromeda. It is as large as our Milky Way. It is one of a hundred million galaxies. It is 750,000 light-years away. It consists of one hundred billion suns, each larger than our sun.” After an interval, Colonel Roosevelt would grin and say: “Now I think we are small enough! Let us go to bed.”
Isaiah starts, pointing to the creation and its Creator.  We often shrink the God of all down to a size we can imagine or maybe that we think we can manage, something growing out of us rather than the one and only, incomparable God, the God of the First Commandment of whom the prophet speaks in 45:5 “I am the Lord and there is no other. Beside me there is no god”. Isaiah wants Israel and hopefully us as well to capture the vision of the singer in the 8th Psalm:  

“O Lord, Our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth….When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, what are human beings that you are mindful of them, that you care for them…Yet, you have made us a little lower the angels and crowned us with glory and honor.”

Isaiah does not stop.  Isaiah puts everything else in its place. Compared to God, nations which seem so powerful and dominant are like one drop from a bucket (We would say a drop in the ocean); they are like dust on scales.  They may be great for a moment but do not last.  

If you remember in Isaiah 7, God sent Isaiah to speak with Ahaz who is shaking in his boots because two kings are planning to attack, defeat and carve up Judah. God’s message is do not worry and promised a sign: a child, named Emmanuel, will be born and before the child is able to discern, the two kings and kingdoms will be gone.
All nations are as nothing before God; Isaiah’s word for “nothing” is the same one used in Genesis 1 when it declares “the earth was without form and void”.

    The same is said of rulers, kings, emperors, dictators, tyrants.  They have a short life span. Barely do they take root and God blows them away like tumbleweed. The poet Shelley shares this truth about a king named Ozymandias.  What was once a great monument is now “two vast trunkless legs of stone, and a sneering visage barely above ground.  An inscription reads “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! But Shelley says, “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare the lone and level sands stretch far away.”
In troubled times, doubt and despair rise up and take hold.  Even God’s people can trade faith in God for worship of other gods, idols actually: culture, work and success, leisure and pleasure, a leader or a country right or wrong. There is nothing everlasting in these things. They are not salvific.  They are often deadly.  Woe are we, if we become those who put out trust in creatures and not the Creator, in humans rather than God, in things made by humans.   
In Israel’s despair and doubt, Isaiah would point us again to God whose creatures built a towel, thinking they could reach God and control him, but God had to “come down” to even see their silly effort (Genesis 11:1-9).  Isaiah offers again the God of Exodus before whom Egypt was nothing and Pharaoh a tumbleweed.  He recalls again the God who paved a way through the wilderness and brought down the walls of Jericho.  He reminds them of Emmanuel, God with us, who saved Ahaz and Israel and we should remember Emmanuel, the Christ with us.  Isaiah sees what Israel cannot see and sometimes we lose sight of: God is not powerless; God has not forgotten. God is at work.  Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon are doomed and will soon be a nothing. Cyrus and Persia will soon replace them.  Again, God’s people will see God.  They will again go home. They shall mount up with wings like eagles--they will run again and not be weary, they will walk and not faint.  Isaiah knows that God is working God’s purpose out! God is always working God’s purpose out!  
Faith is the remembrance of God’s power and might. It remembers God’s past presence among us and for us and believes that God is still active in the present and expected in the future. Lament cries out in troubled times, rightfully so, as God’s people cry out and seek God’s help; but it should not be the only voice of the people of faith. The true voice is Praise…always Praise. The song of faithful must always include what is sung in Psalm145 

“I will extol you, My God and King/and bless you name forever and ever. Every day I will bless you and praise your name forever and ever. Great is the Lord and greatly be praised; God’s greatness is unsearchable.

IT IS TRUE!

01-31-21 LETTING JESUS SPEAK THROUGH YOU

“Letting Jesus Speak Through You”
Mark 1: 21-28

By and large, it seems that few of us wield great power in life. With rare exceptions, like dictators or pharaohs, or princes of their own country, there is mostly a balance of power and authority. During the Kennedy administration and beyond, The United States regularly condemned the Castro regime for its cruel and communist agenda. As I mentioned last week, the US General Douglas MacArthur had power, but it was not his own; it was granted to him by his country and the President, and ultimately that power was withdrawn. US Presidents have some unilateral powers, but most power is designed by the framers of our Constitution to be in consultation with Congress. And each of those people are granted the power of their offices by the citizens who elected them. CEOs of major corporations share power in consultation with their board and their stockholders. In the Presbyterian Church—designed by founding father, John Calvin, the General Assembly has the highest power, but it has many elected members—called commissioners—voting on motions brought to the floor, often with ratification by presbyteries. Pastors act in consultation with their Sessions. Why these checks and balances? Because John Calvin believed, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Therefore, in our American system—largely based on the Presbyterian form of government—power and authority rests on the shoulders of many. A single leader, without collaboration, can be tripped up on the road to becoming an authoritarian. Powers are checked through our judicial system by those who would bring a suit against another. Flight attendants have the authority to be on-board protectors of passengers, yet their authority is now being challenged by those who try to bring “comfort animals” aboard, and by those who resist wearing masks.

Getting back to John Calvin, he declared that no Bishop, Pope, or any other individual would have the sole authority of Christ in our churches. But any of us can call on Christ’s strength and power through our prayers. The risen Christ was bestowed with ultimate authority. In the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus proclaimed: All authority in heaven and earth has been given unto me.” Whether we are looking at this century or the first century, into a hope-dimmed world slips his gleaming power. Mark’s gospel tells us that the teachings and actions of Jesus were such that all who were around him said he taught, “As if he had authority.” Even the ones in power were amazed at his ability to exorcise unclean spirits.” (1:27) Into the world of the seemingly possessed; into the world of the seemingly incurable, came the power and authority of Jesus. But clearly in the first chapter of Mark, Jesus is in the beginning of his ministry in Galilee. Where did he get his power? We know power, by its very nature, is bestowed or conducted from a power source. What was Jesus’ power source? Tracking back the actions in Mark, there can only be only one place where power might have been connected or transferred to Jesus: at his baptism. “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased,” the voice from Heaven had just proclaimed. The same laws of power that bring it from a power station to a light switch, and from a wall socket to our lamps apply here as well. God Almighty, the creator of light, Heavenly Father of Jesus, is the source of the Son’s authority. By the power of God, Jesus was able to exorcise demons. By the power of God, Jesus was able to make people believe what he taught; that is what enabled him to do what no others could.

Do you wish you had that kind of power when facing crises or opposition? Children, often long for strength they do not possess. They love to idolize fictional superheroes like Superman or Captain America or Wonder Woman, or they long to pick up a wand for spells like characters in “Harry Potter” books and films do. Youth may feel powerful through sports, online gaming, or though acting. Sometimes, however, we can feel utterly powerless, even as adults. Just last Fall, in Dr. Dan Hale’s presentation to our Zoom group, he spoke of his powerlessness concerning his own daughter’s depression, even though he was a trained psychologist. Also as a father, author Frederick Buechner, in his book Telling Secrets, told of his feeling of powerlessness over his daughter’s anorexia. Both of those fathers are men of faith. Buechner loved his daughter so much that he wouldn’t let her go, until …, until he discovered that his kind of love would end up killing her. He had done all her worrying for her. Only when he finally gave power and control back to her did she begin to work toward her own salvation. That too was a power struggle. He wrote in his book, “Stop trying to protect, to rescue, to judge, to manage the lives around you—your children’s lives, the life of your husband, your wife, your friend—because that is just what you are powerless to do. Remember that the lives of other people are not your business. They are their business. They are God’s business whether they use the word God or not.” [San Francisco, HarperCollins, 1991, p. 92] Sometimes we have to “let go and let God.”

Can the transcended Christ speak any word—or offer any hope—to you, or someone you know who is in some way possessed or in need of healing? Yes; today we learn the answer is “yes.” A healing took place in Capernaum one day according to Mark’s gospel. Can the first century power of Jesus speak to those who are in the grip of an addiction, or co-dependency, or illness, or in need of counseling? Again, I believe the answer is yes. Let’s see what Jesus did. First, he prayed to his Heavenly Father to ask for healing for those who were ill. Many were healed. People like Larry Dossey documented in his book Healing Words that people who received prayers and medical treatments got well faster than those just medically treated. All authority has been given to Jesus, so we pray for healing in his name. Sometimes people are healed; sometimes they are not. There are some people who believe that all it takes is more faith to persuade God to heal where there was no healing before. But could it be that, in some cases, God wants to use some illnesses or tragedies for some other teachable moment? When I first was diagnosed with diabetes, I prayed that God would take it from me. But then I found my diabetes as a starter for talking with others about Christ. I now believe that God intended for his glory to shine forth through my illness. If no healing takes place in the form you hoped it would take, then believe that God is still with you, and that God will take your sorrow and use it for good if you will let God do that. Remember, even Jesus could not pray himself out from under the anguish of the cross. That was part of God’s plan. Perhaps, even with the power of Christ, God has a different plan in store for you, as I believe he did with me.

Second, Jesus had authority over winds and waves when he was on the Sea of Galilee. We too can be bold to pray for calm amidst the storms we face. Our prayer group on Wednesdays prayed weekly for calm in our nation; and they can testify to the times that we were able to move certain people or situations from prayer concerns to prayer celebrations. It has happened! Still, there are some people who God seems to hate to disappoint! For example: years ago, a Methodist minister shared a graveside service with me. As we approached the cemetery, the rain that had come down hard ever since the funeral procession had left the funeral home came down steadily. I got out of my car at the cemetery, deciding to bring my umbrella. “Do you think we’re going to get wet out here?” I called the other minister. His wife was the one who answered him. “No!” she said with confidence. “It won’t rain during my husband’s graveside services!” As I was about to ask her how she could be so sure, he replied, “No, it won’t rain. You see, back when I had one of my first graveside service, it looked like we might get wet. So I bowed my head and said to Jesus, “Dear Lord: you did so many things, including calming the storm. I don’t think it’s too much to ask if you will hold the rain while I offer your blessing to a grieving family. Thanks for your help. Amen.” And in more than fifty years of that man’s ministry, it did not rain during his graveside services! Did his prayer to God protect his graveside services from rain?
Finally, as the serenity prayer says: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things that cannot be changed, the courage to change the things that ought to be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish one from the other.” Even Jesus could not change people’s wills. Nor can we. But we can be a Christian witness to others by our actions and our words; we can pray in faith for the things we want Jesus to do through us; and we can connect with that power as we pray. More power for the living of your days can be yours for a prayer.
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, of our Savior Jesus, sometimes we do what the disciples often did: they called on Jesus to do everything. Through the years, people in crisis have said, “Call a priest, call a pastor, or call a chaplain.” But to those who claim Jesus as Lord, power is offered. Send us forth to use our voices, empowered by Christ to pray, to teach, and sometimes to heal or comfort. O God, you were in Christ, reconciling the world to yourself. Now we ask that your Spirit live in us, so that in Jesus’ name, we may banish darkness, heal what is broken, and bring hope where there is despair. Give us the courage to ask for the power to change the things we can change. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Jeffrey A. Sumner January 31, 2021

01-24-21 CONSIDERING YOUR CALL

Jonah 3: 1-5; 10

Do you know people who don’t like to be told what to do? Many of us don’t have to look far: we just pull out a mirror! Of course, there are some people who are so good at telling others what to do that their resistance melts. A long time ago, a church man with Irish roots gave me a plaque as I was beginning my ministry here. He knew how hard it would be for me to change the minds of some in the congregation. The plaque read: “Irish diplomacy is the art of telling people where to go so they look forward to the trip!” I took that as a compliment! He said he meant it that way. Diplomacy is a way of listening to and hoping to change some people’s minds. Our nation truly needs some diplomacy now, as leaders begin the herculean effort of creating some new attitudes about one another. Some days I “get up on the wrong side of the bed” as the saying goes, and my attitude might be bad for a morning or longer! Today we look at the story of a prophet of God who, by his call from God, shouldn’t have had a bad attitude. But he did. He is known as the reluctant prophet: Jonah. Jonah had news God wanted him to share, but he didn’t want to: he resented that God wanted to change people who he resented and even hated. God can choose to work gracious miracles with anyone- even with you and me; your husband or wife; your boss, parent, or child! And even with our nation. Today we learn how Jonah’s attitude needed some correcting by God.

Can you think about the consequences of not listening to anyone but yourself? Our world is in trouble because of such attitudes. In the 90s many day traders went broke and became bitter because they did not listen to other’s warnings. In the armed forces of America, not following orders from a superior officer can be grounds for court martial. The system breaks down when every man becomes his own captain. History records people who thought they were right no matter what: Napoleon and Hitler and Nero and Herod to name of few; in the 20th century I have read that both Patton and McArthur had that distinction. As our own children were growing up, we saw kids who thought they could avoid the guidance of teachers; listening only to the beat of their own drum, they fell into trouble or drifted into lethargy. Our son Matt was and still is a drumline instructor, so we went to see the movie “Drumline” years ago. In it a talented young drummer had to learn the hard way how much his attitude hurt his chances to shine. His demon was his attitude. Attitude is a demon many people fight.

Let’s think about how important attitude is in life. Dale Galloway, in his book called THE AWESOME POWER OF YOUR ATTITUDE wrote: “Someone once said: ‘In war, there are no unwounded soldiers.’ It’s also true that in everyday life, no one of us escapes being hurt or wounded. A practicing psychologist friend of mine estimates that for every physical illness we suffer, there are forty-five to sixty emotional hurts that wound or cause us pain. Can anything be worse than to be hurt emotionally? Yes…. Believe it, there is something worse because it is so self-destructive. I am talking about the destructive attitude of bitterness. If you cut your hand, you know that if you keep infection out of the wound, it will heal. We are the same way emotionally. God has put within us great healing powers that flow from His love. However, we will not heal emotionally if we allow the infection of bitterness to get into our emotional wounds. The thing that you must accept is that no matter what another person does to you, you still have a choice. Bitter, or better: the attitude choice is yours!” [1992, P. 121]

Jonah, one of God’s preachers, was commissioned by God to share a message of hope and salvation with Ninevites. You have to understand some things about Nineveh. One is quite striking: Nineveh was in modern day Iraq. So was Babylon. Jews and Christians alike have had a long history with that part of the world, which is in the heart of early civilization. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers were there. Now America has a newly intensified distrust, (and even dislike?) of Iranians, and long-standing issues with Iraq. In the days when Jonah was written, Ninevite leaders did not think twice about killing the pregnant women of their enemy; they killed and tortured those whom they captured, and they were known in their day as a ruthless regime. Interesting in terms of what the world faces today, isn’t it? An incensed Jonah, who would rather have his enemies burn in Sheol, decided God must be a madman or a fool. God would need to recruit someone else to ask those people to repent. Our story tells us that Jonah did a foolish thing: he tried to run from God. He refused God’s call to offer salvation to such barbaric people. He joined other Jews in wanting to hate Ninevites, not change them. In his flight, he nearly got many other men killed on a ship, and he was swallowed by a huge fish where he spent three days left for dead. But on third day the fish spewed him out on the beach, as the story goes, and God finally had Jonah’s attention. He then did what God asked: and the Ninevites, unbelievably, beginning with the King, repented. Jonah resented that they did. Jonah resented God’s display of grace. Jonah, a prophet of God, chose to be bitter. Doesn’t it seem likely that God was pleased with the formerly wicked Ninevites when they repented and disappointed in his own prophet? Wasn’t the father in the Luke 15 prodigal son parable pleased with his prodigal son returning home, and disappointed with his faithful son choosing to be bitter?

There is no perfect parallel with that story in our situation today. But there are intriguing similarities. Could it be that Jonah did not believe that the King of Nineveh truly repented? Could it be that his history with their leader, like situations we face today, told Jonah that the man and his forces just couldn’t be trusted? On the other hand, if people really do change, (and we read the leader of Nineveh indeed repented,) is it possible that God knows human hearts better than we do? After World War II, many Japanese men were demonized by Americans, and certainly many Germans were scorned by Jews. Today many people in our nation resent others in America and some nations in the world have little use for Americans. Trust is dismally low. Does that mean that such people would dislike you, or me? Or do government policies and leaders create an ideology against which others stand? Jonah, as far as the story goes, could never rejoice with people he resented repenting and turning to God.

I know some people who believe so strictly in their world view and their opinions they their attitude keeps them from experiencing the wideness in God’s mercy. These days, sadly, some people in our own nation treat people who voted differently as Ninevites: they are despised or dismissed. As Dale Galloway said, such attitudes lead to bitterness and violence. The fabrics of nations have been torn by both.

Today our nation is divided due to unbending ideologies and attitudes based on generalizations. To use crude terms from the 20th century, who wants Yankees or Germans or Japs or Iranians or to be saved? In turn, some in other countries may not want Americans saved! Who wants “the enemy” to hear the good news of God’s grace? Who wants God to show mercy to “Ninevites” whoever they are in those people’s minds? There are some in our world today who wish harm to come to their enemies; even death. Jonah wished that on the Ninevites. God’s grace saves us; and grace that powerful could save even Ninevites. A clinical counselor once told me wishing harm on others can change the wiring in their brain. What is the result of that attitude? Bitterness, as Dale Galloway reminded us. But God saw the Ninevites through the eyes of love. They all repented, and their hearts were changed. But Jonah never changed. He chose to stir the pot of bitterness, like the older son did in the parable of the prodigal. Look in your newspaper, look at your tablet or phone; look at the television; look at your neighbor. Then look in the mirror. Who has an attitude problem? Who needs to choose grace over grudge? These words are written in Hebrews 12:15- “See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” The bitter roots have already grown; may the wideness in God’s mercy fill us and transform our world. How might God be calling all of us to think differently in the weeks ahead?

Jeffrey A. Sumner January 24, 2021

01-17-21 IN SUCH A TIME AS THIS


Lamentations 1: 1-7; Luke 19: 41-44
Lament is an expression of grief and anguish that had solid roots in our Old Testaments. Our Lord Jesus would have been familiar with laments growing up: learning from Torah, the writings, and the prophets. We have a lament from Jesus’ lips in today’s Gospel lesson too. But the prophet most associated with lamenting was Jeremiah. An entire book in the Bible was dedicated to such sorrows. The book is Lamentations. Dr. Kathleen O’ Connor was a post-graduate student when I was at Princeton Seminary, and a professor of Hebrew Scriptures when I was at Columbia Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. She has written one of the most widely respected exploration of that biblical book. Called Lamentations and the Tears of the World, in its Preface she wrote:
I began working on Lamentations for another project the year my husband …was receiving extensive infusions in the oncology room at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City… As I worked on the biblical text in the infusion room for hours and months at a time, waiting for his long treatments to end, the worlds of the text, of the cancer center, and of my own inner being crossed over [each other.] In the midst of this intense, struggling life presided nurses and staff, efficient, tender, and wise beyond their collective years, as though somehow their encounters with the courageous and the despairing had made them altered beings, more compassionate and gentle, more fully human than most….They saw and received pain and slowly helped patients put words to it. They accepted fear and rage, along with the physical and spiritual manifestations of the disease. They spoke with patients their patients as human beings, learned about their families, their lives, and treated them as agents in their own care.
[Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY, 2002, p. xiii.]
As she was writing the book, the events of 9/11 transpired, filling her and our nation with toxic and terrible images of what to lament. In our day, many in our nation have new reasons to lament:
In such a time as this:
-boys and girls and teachers are struggling to carry on education in person and distant at the same time with resources stretched thin to the breaking point.

In such a time as this, Covid-19 deaths have climbed to an ever-increasing rate; more than 3000 a day through most of last week, and now over 4000 a day. One mortician told reporters she had requests to receive 200 bodies in one day and prepare them for services. She regretfully had no room to handle any of those requests.

And in such a time as this: The hallowed halls of our Capitol building were breached, not by foreign adversaries, but mostly by a mob of Americans. They not only gathered outside of our Capitol building, but they also broke in violently through windows and doors. As they entered, they defaced the walls and statues, they stole official or personal items from Congress persons, they threatened security officers who swore to protect the building and the people within its halls, and they beat one officer so violently that he died. They shouted to hang the Vice President as they named him. They terrorized all who were seeking to carry out their Constitutional duty to certify the election of the next President.

Those are but a few of the countless reasons for lament in our day. Restaurants and businesses are closed or at such capacity that no money can be made. When it comes to food, as it is said, “the wolf is at the door” for many singles, couples, and families. Never have food banks had such needs in the span of less than a year. Never have bodies been stored in refrigerator trucks because morgues and mortuaries have no place to keep and prepare the bodies properly. Some hospitals have treated Covid-19 patients in their Gift Shop, and in other rooms not designated for such care. I saw the face of a 28-year-old nurse who entered nursing last February “to help people.” She looked full of hope and beautiful. In December, she took a selfie and put it beside her February picture. The comparison was printed in our Daytona Beach News-Journal. What a difference; her face had become haggard, with dark circles under her eyes, matted hair, and her smile was gone. In such a time as this, we lament. Hyman Judah Schachtel, in his book The Shadowed Valley, wrote:
I was acquainted with a young man who, with a religious upbringing and religious interests, turned to the Book of Job in a period of great troubles. But, he reported, he found no consolation there; he wasn’t immediately eased. Discussion revealed that what he meant was that the Book of Job was not pap [baby food], it did not bring the comfort of a mother’s arms to a little boy who had hurt his knee. This is undeniably true—but there are few hurts an adult suffers which can be quite so easily and simply salved. The Book of Job is a profound and poetic grappling with [mortal’s] suffering in God’s universe. Its consolations are profound, but they are nuggets which must be pried out; they do not fall into one’s lap. [Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 1962 p. 186]

If we are faithful people, we might want to know where to turn in our Bibles to find hope or help for the world in which we are living. Few might turn to Lamentations, but help may indeed be planted there. What sentences might speak to our nation today? Perhaps the first sentence; “How lonely sits the city that was once full of people.” Certainly Washington D.C. is normally a crowded place, with bustling persons, some stopping to gaze at buildings, and the occasional demonstration. Then it became overrun with angry and violent people, and the aftermath was destruction of property and the pummeling of human souls. It takes a reorientation to believe we must now guard ourselves against other citizens. Still, we’ve learned this year that people of color have had to guard themselves against others for years. O Lord deliver us from fearing our neighbors. The city in Lamentations is personified, and this is the description of her: “She weeps bitterly in the night with tears on her cheeks.” Later, “Jerusalem remembers, in the days of affliction and wandering, all the precious things that were hers in days of old.” [vs. 7] We look back on days that were more carefree even months ago with longing. Our knowledge now is that some groups of people in our nation have been marginalized and have feared serious injury for years. Now, words amplified near the White House emboldened violent people to shout and to act, many who usually operate under public radar in the back woods of our land. Our world had changed, and we weep over the changes and the needless destruction. Our world has people dying by the thousands daily, and the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines has not made the number of deaths drop. Some teachers who looked with idealist eyes at their classroom as they received their education degree are now dropping away from teaching rather than risk their life to Covid-19. And teachers are beat down, often by lack of support from their school boards. They too lament that the plans they hope to implement, the lives they hoped to educate, are struggling to learn in the ways currently possible. Lament brings God into our conversations as one who hears, and cares, and weeps with us. Ancient prayers to God usually embrace questions like “Why?” And those questions will continue until we look within our hearts and seek solutions based on love and on justice. Our laments do not fall on deaf ears. Laments are not about answers as much as they are about listeners. We agree to listen to one another; to sit with one another; and even to cry with one another. Lament gives space for all those to happen.
Finally, do you remember Jesus’ words as he looked at the city of Jerusalem before he overturned the tables of the money changers? There was a powder keg of situations about to occur, and before they did, he paused and he wept, wishing that people had learned the ways for peace, yet he doesn’t hold them culpable. He says instead that “the ways for peace “were hidden from your eyes.” [Luke 19: 42] But then he proclaimed what awful things would happen.
There is a place for prophets in our nation: they warn and they teach. There is a place for “the Helpers” as Mr. Rogers called them: our frontline workers, firefighters, police officers, the National Guard, and more. And, there is a place for neighbors. Right now we need neighbors; we need friends; we need those who call us or write to us, or text us when close proximity is a danger to our health. We can lament together. How can you be such a person to others? Make it so. Pray for justice; and pray for peace. People are isolated, and fearful, and lamenting. Surround them with the knowledge of your listening.
Jeffrey A. Sumner January 17, 2021

01-10-21 MAKE GOD WELL PLEASED WITH YOU

                       
                   Genesis 3: 1-7; Zephaniah 3:14-17; Mark 1: 4-11

As musical countdowns, self-assessments, and poetry ended one year and started another, I became aware of how much of life is expressed through regret and how much is felt through shame. I was reminded how words matter. Regrets have been expressed in songs by the Beatles like John’s “I’m a Loser,” and Paul’s “Yesterday;” in Elton John’s classic, “Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word; in Brenda Lee’s “I’m sorry” where she sang: “I’m sorry, so sorry, that I was such a fool; I didn’t know love could be so cruel. You tell me mistakes are a part of being young, but that don’t make right the wrong that’s been done.” Adele, Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift and countless others have sung songs of regret. They’ve been recorded through the ages. Regret motivates the soul to strum the strings of one’s heart. And at a time like this, early in a new year, it causes hearts to bare the anguish of one’s pain, either by dealing with it in confession or counseling, or by trying to bury it in the year before, with a gravestone freshly placed on top that says 2020. The trouble is, those issues won’t stay buried; they rise up in addictive behaviors: in too much drink, too much food, too much work, too much screen time, too many drugs or too many violent reactions instead of measured ones. Those are manifestations of unresolved issues. Writer Brene Brown has captured the struggle of the human spirit in her works like “I Thought it was Just Me, But it isn’t-Telling the Truth about Perfectionism, Inadequacy, and Power;” in her 12 session curriculum on “Shame-Resilience;” and in “The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think you’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You are.” I have felt shame since an early age. Perhaps that’s captured in the original stories of the human race in Genesis, chapter 3. When visiting my grandparents one summer, I hit my sister and my grandmother said to me, “Oh Jeffrey! Aren’t you ashamed for doing that?” I was ashamed that day, and I apologized, but my grandmother’s words have played in my head regularly, even though I was a boy when that happened. Do you too find yourself having words of shame or regret play in your head? Do your needs to avoid fears and failures guide many of your life choices? Not all of those voices are bad. Such persons are bestowed with moral compasses; they honor boundaries well, though they can barely tolerate boundary-breakers. Such persons can be very loyal, though they can be exceptionally unforgiving on betrayers. The world has plenty of those persons, while there are others who seem to throw caution to the wind, drinking in the marrow of life with daily abandon. All members of our human race, we believe, had their creation in a Garden: on the breath of God who spoke us into existence. In reading the Bible from beginning to end, it seems to me that God learned over the ages and adapted different holy ways to deal with the human race. For example, at the time when the first man and first woman discovered they were naked, they clothed themselves with fig leaves. That was the beginning of shame. And God scolded. Rule makers have tried to reign in human sinfulness since that time in the books of the Torah as God’s people turned to false gods. The consequence, God decided, was the exile of the Jews from their land. Ever since the serpent tempted the first humans into doing the one thing God said not to do, I imagine, as Don McLean said in his song “American Pie,” that “Satan’s laughing with delight.” We’ve lived through Puritanical struggles over decency. Is there too much shame and too many people feeling repressed? Or by contrast, is there too little shame, as we witness hedonists and anarchists and autocrats in our country embracing sins? Is shame rooted in the continued whispering of the serpent in our ears like the serpent did in Genesis 3? If so, why has the church, in the name of our Savior amplified people’s feelings of shame over the years?
Starting with the Genesis story in chapter 3, choice was freely giving to humans—that is, moral freewill—something not bestowed on other creatures in God’s creation. It was both a blessing and a curse. There was just one tree from which God asked for the humans not to eat—the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. There was a lot of finger-pointing in that story- did they eat of that fruit because of the woman, or the serpent, or the man? The blame game of the human race began and continues even now, as grown people still refuse to take responsibility for their actions. Over the years in the Old Testament, God made covenants with the chosen people; covenants with Abraham, and Moses, and others. But covenants were made, and they were broken. That produced guilt and shame. Then covenants were revised, and words of sorrow and forgiveness were offered. God watched, and God dealt with the fickle chosen people. At one point, the Northern Kingdom of Israel had so betrayed God that, in their moral weakness, an aggressive country called Assyria was allowed to invade and take over. Later, even the Southern Kingdom of Judah became compromised, not listening to words of doom from prophets like Zephaniah. Long before Zephaniah described God’s joy, he described God’s displeasure, declaring God would “Utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth.” [1:1] “Come together and hold assembly, O shameless nation,” Zephaniah roared, “before you are driven away like the drifting chaff.” [2:1] There were few feelings of shame and guilt. But then Zephaniah described the Day of the Lord, and a day of change, declaring: “I will change the speech of the peoples to pure speech, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord.” [3:9] And finally, finally, the people were invited to sing and shout to God! It was a new day! Jerusalem was described as “God’s daughter.” An absolution was declared, as what people get from a priest in a confessional. These glorious words were declared: The Lord “will rejoice over you with gladness; he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival!” [ 3:17] What a stark contrast: do things that we know that are wrong and face psychological, theological, and physical consequences. Or, apologize for those past choices and do what is right in the eyes of the Lord; then there is forgiveness and joy! As I, and probably you, have loved to hear words of approval from parents or grandparents, we long to hear words of approval from our Creator! Judah had felt the corrections from wrong choices, and then the blessings from right choices! What a difference between the two!
Finally, in the New Testament, we find God carrying on some possible learned behavior: instead of instituting covenants that could easily be broken, ones that were hard to hold up, the Lord gave us one who would be called “Son of God,” and gave him to the world. God made a glad announcement, surrounded by those who had gathered at the Jordan River to be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins. It was a rite of purification; it was a sign of new beginnings. What a perfect event to remember today! So with all of those people coming to John, Jesus too asked John to baptize him. Many theologians have concluded that he did that as an example rather than a need to have sins forgiven. But it’s also true that it was finally time to start his ministry, the one his Heavenly Father had planned for him. As Jesus was coming out of the water, he saw the heavens open, and the Spirit descended on him like a dove. At the same time, a voice came from heaven, presumed to be from his Heavenly Father: “You are my Son. I love you. With you, I am well pleased.” What a jubilant day for God! What an announcement! Perhaps you have not heard such words from a parent or grandparent. Today, imagine God saying those words to you, as you repent of actions done or words said in the past. As you are starting this year, turn the page in your book of life! This could be a year of new beginnings; of new devotion to God and others; of a willingness to humbly admit sins, turning away from hurtful actions or words. This is our time! I invite you to join me in tuning out the old shame voices, and tuning in to words from our God, from our Savior, and from our Bibles. They are the lamp unto our feet, and the light unto our path.
Jeffrey A. Sumner January 10, 2021

01-03-21 BE CHILDREN OF LIGHT, NOT DARKNESS


John 1: 1-14

On Christmas Eve I heard the magnificent solo “O Holy Night:” “A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices.” And as I opened the paper on Christmas Day, a lone heading wished the world a Merry Christmas, then the news stories appeared: Covid fatigued nurses, an uplifting series of stories called “Food Brings Hope” politics, weather, and then a special editorial about seeing the Christmas Star- the convergence of Jupiter and Saturn. It was too cloudy on the Winter Solstice for us to see it, but the day after, we got a wonderful picture with a camera phone. A beam of light in the darkness. A thrill of hope. Still Christmas celebrations were very different this year. Does the annual celebration of the birth of Christ still have the power to change the world? The birthday is behind us, but the celebration continues. Centuries ago, the light shone in the darkness as magi came from the east, following a star. People have borne witness to that light for ages. If we fail to do that, the power of the light will dim in the world. In the hymn “Here I am, Lord,” that we will sing today, the Lord tries to decide, “Whom shall I send?” The Lord mulled over that question when prophets were sent, when his Son was sent, and when other witnesses through the ages were sent to places in the dark. “Who will bear my light to them? Whom shall I send?’ The congregation sings what is hoped to be a personal answer: “Here I am Lord.” We, like Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John among others, are called to bear witness to his light. Jesus is the light.

I’ve had pairs of Mormons and pairs of Jehovah’s Witnesses on my doorstep before, wanting to witness to their faith. I have found it fruitless to debate them; I did it once for 2 hours and neither of us would budge on our beliefs. Still, I appreciated the passion with which they witnessed to their faith.

In the last half of the first century, passionate people decided to write down the story of Jesus’ birth and the events surrounding it. One such person wrote the Gospel According to Matthew. He did quite a service to Christianity. He told the story of the birth, teachings, crucifixion, death, and resurrection of this man he called “Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham. (Verse 1.) Matthew told the story of the maggoi (Greek) that came from the east to Jerusalem to inquire about the one to be born King of the Jews. They practiced the dual art of astronomy and astrology and saw in the stars that a king was to be born in Juduh. They came quite a distance to follow a light. Mark told his readers why he believed that Jesus was the Son of God. Luke told an account of Jesus events that the others did not choose to include. Finally, John taught his readers who Jesus was: he spoke in ways that were stratospherically higher than the others, having Jesus say things that the Pharisee Nicodemus even had trouble believing like, “You must be born again.” One commentator put it this way: “John takes us behind the scenes of Jesus’ earthly ministry, letting us see the eternal origins and divine nature of the Man who was more than man. He was eternally present with God, and active in creating the world, the source of the moral and spiritual nature of man.” [THE NEW OXFORD ANNOTATED BIBLE, 1973, p. 1286.] Jesus was more than a prophet, or a child born in a manger. Jesus was God in the flesh, says John. What a bold, radical, and earthshaking claim. Yet John staked his reputation on that stand. John the Baptist lost his life paving the way for the one “whose sandal he was not worthy to untie.”

Thankfully God found another faithful man, John, who told us in the beginning was the Word; and the Word was with God; and the Word WAS GOD. He went on, saying there was a man sent to bear witness to the light, John called “The Baptizer.” John witnessed to Christ as the light. But you can too, and so can I. God is looking for new choices of persons to tell the story of Christ and carry his light in the New Year. “Hmmmmm.” God muses, looking carefully into each of our hearts. “Whom shall I sent?” Perhaps, this year, it is you, or someone you know.

Let us pray: Dear Lord Jesus: you invite us to your table, but you also call us, don’t you? You call us to be the church; to share your light; to do what you would do Drive us to be bold in our witness, whether by our actions, our words, or a pairing of them both, in this new year. In your name we pray. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner January 3, 2021

12-27-20 THE HOLY FAMILY TRAVELS AGAIN


Matthew 2: 13-23

This year the United States had a Census taken. By many standards it was not totally accurate—no census really is—because in our day, some people live in the woods, some wouldn’t answer their door to a stranger, and some just refused to cooperate because they don’t trust our government. Up until this census, it was estimated that 330 million people lived in this country [Census, July 23, 2020]
Out of that number, in September of this year there were reports of 200,000 deaths due to Covid-19 in some form. That number has grown now to over 323,000. The Tampa Bay Times, in their December 14th issue, posted the following statistics:
The Galveston Hurricane of 1900 caused the deaths of 8,000 people: a staggering number. Next, there were 2,977 deaths attributed to the 9/11 attacks. And then we come to Thursday, December 10th—according to the report. 2,937 people died due to contracting Covid-19. By contrast, there were 2,403 persons who died from the Pearl Harbor attack. Losing any lives are tragic. But losing this many lives is catastrophic. When we passed 300,000 deaths last week, the Washington National Cathedral tolled their bell 300 times once for every thousand lives lost. It is one significant event as many national leaders seemed to ignore or not address this growing list of deaths. But frontline workers know all about them, as refrigerator trucks back up to hospital loading docks to address the growing number of deaths. We pray for those with Covid-19, exhausted frontline workers, and those effected with Covid every Wednesday night in our prayer group. Still, the numbers rise. But who wants to talk about such things in this week after Christmas? You’re right; but if the church does not prophetically point out the catastrophe that has engulfed us, who will? Doctors and nurses have pleaded with the public: wear a mask, keep social distance, and wash hands. Our government leaders have endorsed vaccines, but some have been quite silent about the outrage of these deaths. So let’s turn to the Bible for our comfort, our guidance, and our information. Why not go to one of the Gospels, where we get the good news about Jesus Christ? Yes, let’s step away from the misery and even the punitive ways of some in our day. Let’s go to two of the Gospels- the only ones that talk about the birth of Jesus.
First, we turn to Luke. Luke lets us know in chapter one that angels were busy! An angel had spoken to Zechariah about the birth of John, later known as the Baptist, and an angel had spoken to Mary about the birth of Jesus. Angels were speaking, and angels were watching! They still are. We found a girl agreeing to the unprecedented news described by the Angel Gabriel, and Mary stayed by Joseph’s side. Next, we learned in Matthew’s Gospel that an angel also came to Joseph in a dream, encouraging him to take Mary as his wife because she was carrying a child to be called Son of God. Astoundingly, when Joseph awoke from his dream, the Bible says Joseph decided he would stay with Mary. Going back to Luke’s gospel, we read that the Emperor Caesar Augustus called for a census, just as we had a census. But there was a hitch: The Romans were not going to houses in every district to count taxpayers; natives of districts needed to return to their hometown to be counted, and to bring any members of his family. Mary was betrothed to Joseph, so Mary needed to come on his travel, even though she was clearly, “great with child.” They made their difficult journey to Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem. It is assumed that Mary made the trip on an animal and Joseph walked along with her, though we don’t know that for sure. I only tell you because traveling in Mary’s condition was both inconvenient and uncomfortable. Once in Bethlehem, they might have liked to stay and rest.

But, as I described two weeks ago, Herod was a paranoid and maniacal king. He was always afraid that one of his wives, or one of his sons, would try to overthrow him. So he had them killed. Really. That’s the kind of man he was. When Herod heard from the wisemen that they had traveled far and brought gifts for the newborn king of the Jews, Herod’s paranoia bristled. So with sinister intentions in Matthew 2:2, he told the officials in his court: “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” But he had no intention of really doing that. Our text today picks up that story. Herod, believing that he might have been betrayed by the wisemen, took matters into his own hands. In his headquarters, he was, as the Bible puts it, “In a furious rage.” Psychologists have told me that people in a furious rage become clinically insane. Clinically insane. They do things that are very destructive and almost always regretful. We have seen that in our own day and in history. And it is recorded in our Bibles. According to Matthew chapter 2, here is what this furious King did: “He killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or younger.” It was a dreadful decree. Historians and artists have depicted it as “the slaughter of the Innocents.” And indeed it was. How many children were killed by Herod? It is hard to say exactly. Bethlehem was a little town, but his orders were to be carried out through the region. There could have been around 20 children killed by some estimates. 20 children! One child is too many to die, right? But through September of this year, 100 children died of the Coronavirus in the U.S. And we never hear about it. I had to research that number. Yet historians and artists have kept alive the atrocity of the Slaughter of the innocents for 2000 years. Hospital workers cherish lives. Are other humans cherishing lives too? 20 children. 100 children. 300,000 individuals. And a bell tolled to remember them. Have we become numb to the travesty of so many deaths?

God had a plan for salvation that included yet another special angel. Just as Herod was planning his killing spree, an angel again appeared to Joseph in a dream—I am so glad Joseph listened to his dreams—and this angel gave a warning that would save the human race from their sins: “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until the death of Herod.” God saved the Son and his family, the Son destined to save the world, even though I imagine God weeping over the deaths of all people, then and now. Matthew described the sorrow in a lament from earlier Scripture, from Jeremiah, known as the “weeping prophet:” “Wailing and loud lamentation; Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be consoled.” [2:18] In war; in pandemic; in rage, any deaths are too many. God, who gave human beings freewill so we would not be holy marionettes, may have regretted that decision since the Garden of Eden. But we are stewards of God’s world, not just of creation, but of the created ones too. God wants us to care for one another, not ignore the world or ignore the plights of people, or pets, or even plants. As the hymn written by Cecil Frances Alexander puts it: “All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small; all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all.” Let’s do angel’s work as we end this year and start the next: tell the good news that Jesus Christ is born! Give thanks that, when it was safe, Jesus and his family traveled back to their home country and settled in Nazareth. Keep a good heart for all creatures great and small, seeking to protect them, and when they die, remembering them. We remember our dead in locations like Arlington National Cemetery, and a New York City Memorial. Because of God’s plan, Jesus the child was saved so that he could save the souls of the ages. But mourning each death? Well, that’s on us. Let’s continue to celebrate the birth of Jesus—the Savior—and also remember all who have gone before us.

Jeffrey A. Sumner December 27, 2020

12-20-20 THE WORD TO SUBMIT


Luke 1:26-38

Beginning in the fourth century and moving through the ages, Emperor Constantine, with assistance from his mother Helena, began to mark and venerate traditional sites where holy things took place in the areas we know of Palestine and Israel. They started with a grotto where all Christian faiths believe that Jesus was born. Over it, they built what they called the Church of the Nativity. It is now a Basilica (which means the seat of a Bishop in the Roman Catholic Church) and it’s the oldest major church in the Holy Land. Christianity through the ages loved to use Latin and big words to identify special events and locations consider to be holy. So it is the Church of the Nativity. Over other such sites the church erected imposing buildings to keep the land from used for commercial reasons or claimed by other religions. So some buildings in the Holy Land are imposing, even though the events they commemorate are sometimes simple: There was a simple birth in a stable, and a huge church of the Nativity is over it. There was a gruesome death outside a city wall that the church has called the site of the Crucifixion, another big word. The church over that site is massive, and it is called the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Nearby is a site not claimed by the church, but by the British government called “The Garden Tomb.” When that government bought the land, it had a tomb on it, surrounded by a garden, and next to a stone quarry on a hillside displaying a face like a skull. Could it be Golgotha? It feels like it. But the claimed true spot is engulfed by the huge Church of the Holy Sepulcher. On the other side of Jerusalem is the Church of All Nations, also known as the Basilica of the Agony that stands over a large boulder said to be the place, next to the Garden of Gethsamane, where Jesus asked his disciples to stay awake while he went off to pray. The garden, filled with olive trees, is impressive. There is also the Church of the Transfiguration—another big church word—on the top of Mount Tabor, where tradition says Jesus invited Peter, James, and John to join him as he shone like the sun, where a voice from the clouds said: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” All of those places are significant. But off the track, in the dusty town of Nazareth, there is a modern and large “Basilica of the Annunciation.” Annunciation is another big church word that just means “The announcement.” That is the Roman Catholic site said to have been built over the home of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and where the angel Gabriel is said to have appeared to her. It put Nazareth on the map. But a few blocks away is a much smaller Orthodox Church, said to have been built over a well and a home from as early as 6 B.C.E. Here, the Orthodox Christians say, is the simply home in which the angel Gabriel brought his amazing announcement to Mary. Which is the true place? That’s up for debate. What is not up for debate is how an extraordinary meeting between an angel named Gabriel, and a young innocent girl named Mary, changed the world. Today we are going to look at the events around the announcement, that the church calls, “The Annunciation.”
Author of The Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris wrote this:
Annunciation means “the announcement.” It would not be a scary word at all, except that as one of the Christian mysteries, it is part of a language of story, poetry, image, and symbol that the Christian tradition has employed for centuries to convey the central tenets of the faith. The Annunciation, Incarnation, Transfiguration, Resurrection. A Dominican friend defines the mysteries simply as “Events in the life of Christ celebrated as stories in the gospels and meant to be lived by believers.” But modern believers tend to trust in therapy more than in mystery [creating calls to worship that say something like] “Use this hour, Lord, to get our perspectives straight again” rather than express awe …fear, and trembling, as we come into the presence of God, crying “Holy, Holy, Holy.” [Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, Farmington, PA, Plough Publishing House 2001, p. 44-45.]
Today, we visit mystery. We visit the simple home of a girl who had been chosen by the Creator of the World, selected; set apart. How do we know she was set apart? Because God’s messenger, upon seeing her, gave her a new name. Do you remember it? First, he said a word like “Greetings,” or “Hail;” then he bestowed on her this title: “O Favored One.” It takes my breath away to hear that again. A girl, going about her daily chores, got “a visit.” The church might call that “The Visitation.” And in that visit, there is something of a naming ceremony: “Favored one.” Later at the Jordan River and on top of a mountain, Jesus himself heard such an announcement, shared in front of trusted disciples: A voice from the clouds declared: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” How long must a son wait to hear words like that from his father? I spoke to a man who was over eighty years old last year, whose father had died ages ago. He teared up as I offered my own words of affirmation to him. Then he said: “All my life I waited to hear words like that from my father. They never came.” What a blessing we can offer others if we can lift them up with special words! Mary got a new name and, an extraordinary visit! Those words sound like poetry in our Bibles, but they are powerfully descriptive: “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man who name was Joseph, of the House of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.” And so, Heaven’s holy plan unfolded. A named angel—Gabriel—is sent not just to earth; not just to Galilee of all the backwater regions, but to the most backwater village of them all—Nazareth. And there, the angel had to find a certain girl, who was already engaged to a man named Joseph. In such a small town, she would not have been hard to find, especially since God had his eye on her as his chosen handmaiden. Joel B. Green, a Dean from Asbury Theological Seminary enlightens us: “Betrothal (NRSV engaged) was a legal promise that served as a precursor to marriage. In Roman law, minimum age of marriage for girls was 10, and Jewish practices were similar. Marriage generally took place before a girl reached 12 and a half. As a virgin, Mary would have been a young girl of marriageable age (i.e. about 12 or 13) ….” [New Interpreter’s Bible Study Bible. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003. P.1853.] It took the eyes of God to find a girl with the heart that Mary had, just as God passed over all the other sons of Jesse in First Samuel 16. Instead, God chose David, the youngest, because God knew his heart. God knows the heart of those who are chosen. Here, Gabriel continued with the message he was giving. He could see, according to verse 29, that Mary was anxious about what was happening. He tried to soothe her, as angels would also do for shepherds in Bethlehem. “Fear not” Gabriel said or in plain English, “Do not be afraid.” Then he continued: “You have found favor with God.” “What an announcement!” Mary must have been taken aback! “Is there more for me to hear than that?” perhaps she thought. Indeed, there was. She was told she would conceive (even though she’d had no physical relations with anyone) and bear a Son (even the gender was already announced before conception!) and she was instructed to call his name “Jesus.” (Normally the name would have been chosen by the parents after the birth of their child. Sons were often named for their fathers. This was most unusual!) Then, to add to the extraordinary event, she was told about the qualities that her baby would have. Gabriel said: “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” Mary, of course, wonders how this could take place. The angel tells her the extraordinary way that the child she will carry will be connected with her by the Holy Spirit, and he will therefore be called “Son of God.” That’s really all Mary needed to hear from the angel. No more questions. So she said these words:
“Let it be with me according to your word.”

Kimberly Bracken Long when she was on the faculty of Columbia Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, made this observation:
In Henry Ossawa Tanner’s painting The Annunciation, (1898) there is no mistaking that this messenger who Luke identifies as Gabriel is a holy being. The angel is represented as a bright column of light appearing before Mary as she sits on her pallet. This is no being that she—or we—have seen before, but a radiance beyond human experience or understanding. The holy being bursts into the earthy realm, into a particular time and place (vs.26) sent by God to a particular person in a particular community. Already we see that we cannot anticipate the ways that God will break into human history—into our history! Even this announcement of the long-awaited birth, of the Messiah, makes clear that we do not create our own salvation, nor do we have the capacity to imagine the ways of God. [Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2008, p. 93]

     The message of Mary this week is not revolutionary as we named it last week. Last week we were encouraged to stand up for those who are downtrodden, and the work for justice. This week, this encounter makes us feel the divine mystery—the Divinum Mysterium to use the Latin church language. Who could have guessed who God had chosen? How could the divine will of the Lord be anticipated, or figured out?  The Bible points again today to  the surprising will and surprising choices God makes. We love that God chose Moses who felt inadequate; that God chose David who seemed too young; and that God chose Mary, who seemed too innocent to become what some would call her, “The Queen of the Universe.”  God did not go to the households of priests in Jerusalem to find the right handmaiden. He went to Nazareth, where no giant Basilica of the Annunciation stood. Over the years we have venerated Mary, and appropriately so. But God chooses whom God chooses, because God’s name is “I AM WHO I AM.” Imagine; who might God be calling this week to do an extraordinary task? You? A family member? A friend? 

Being a family of Florida Gators, I’ve heard the story of one of Florida’s finest quarterbacks: Tim Tebow. His father was a Christian missionary to the Philippines and he and his wife Pam had four children. When Pam found she was expected a fifth child, a son, the doctors in the remote village where they were ministering believed her placenta had dried up and that it could become a source of infection, risking her life.  They didn’t think the baby would survive, and they recommended terminating the pregnancy. But Bob Tebow, the father, prayed to God saying (and I'm paraphrasing) "If you want me to have another Christian witness in this family, Lord, then let this son, who we are naming Timothy, be born safely and grow strong." The result: the excellent athlete, and the excellent Christian witness we have today: Tim Tebow. Tim's Facebook page this week had this message: "I'm grateful for my highs because they've given me a platform.... But I'm genuinely grateful for the lows as I learned so much through them and they gave me a testimony." This year, as many of us are dragging through darkness, perhaps we will have a low experience from which we can draw strength and testimony too? Who might God be calling to do something extraordinary in the bleak midwinter we are facing?

Sometimes God does not send a messenger in a beam of light. Sometimes God speaks to us in a still, small voice as he did with Elijah. And what was God’s surprise location for the birth of the Son of God? In a fine hospital with the best of care like our elected officials in Washington D.C.? No. Jesus did not ever get a proper bed. No one expected the Messiah to be born in a place “rude and bare” as the Christmas song described it. And yet he was the greatest gift of all. Our unexpected God. What might the Lord be planning now to change the malaise of this world? Who now might feel the brush of angel’s wings? Our unexpected God still choses humans and angels to work heaven’s holy purpose out.
Let us pray:
Holy God: who will you choose to carry out your purpose in this year and the next? Help us to be aware that you choose ordinary people who have extraordinary hearts, ones who have already prepare him room. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner December 20, 2020

12-13-20 THE WORD TO MAGNIFY


Luke 1: 46-55
This year in our gospel readings we turn to the words that made Mary, the Mother of Jesus, a revolutionary. Next week, as we get closer to the blessed event, we will visit Mary, the innocent young woman visited by an angel. In an issue of Christianity Today, a man named Scot McKnight offers these insights on Mary:
There are two Marys. One wears a Carolina blue robe, exudes piety from a somber face, often holds her baby son in her arms, and barely makes eye contact with us. This is the familiar Blessed Virgin Mary, and she leads us to a Christmas celebration of quiet reflection.
Another Mary—the Blessed Valorous Mary—wears ordinary clothing and exudes hope from a confident face. This Mary utters poetry fit for a political rally, goes toe-to-toe with Herod the Great, musters her motherliness to reprimand her Messiah-son for dallying at the temple, followers her faith to ask him to address a flagging wine supply at a wedding, and finds the feistiness to take her children to Capernaum to rescue Jesus from death threats. This Mary followed Jesus all the way to the Cross—not just a mother, but as a disciple, even after his closest followers deserted him. She leads us to a Christmas marked by a yearning for justice and the courage to fight for it. Like other women of her time, she may have worn a robe and a veil, but I suspect her sleaves were rolled up and her veil askew more often than not. [Christianity Today, November 28, 2006]
So we have the next-week Mary—remembered in statuary, in stained glass, in hushed tones; and we have the this week Mary—whose words were revolutionary when they were proclaimed, and they are revolutionary now. Many people revere Mother Teresa, but she was not a quiet, reverent woman working in Calcutta, India. She, like today’s revolutionary Mary, had her sleeves rolled up and her veil a little askew. And though she was less than 5 feet tall, she spoke like a sergeant in God’s army. When my friend, the Rev Susan McCaffrey, went to Calcutta when Mother Teresa was there, “Mother Teresa asked gruffly: “What do you want?” O Mother,” Susan said, “I so admire you.” “I don’t need admirers” Mother Teresa replied, “I need workers! Roll up your sleeves!” She called for workers, not for admirers. She condemned the rich who did nothing to help. She personally helped the poorest of the poor and the sickest of the sick in Calcutta, a city wracked with disease, and stench, and death. This is where she brought her heart for Christ, and this is where Mary, the mother of Jesus, the one who offered words of revolution, would likely have worked with her, sleeves rolled up. What good are powerful words if they remain in stained glass? Today mother Mary is also calling for workers, not admirers.
Revolutions start from cauldrons of anger and social injustice. 1968 was such a year in America. Years from now, might we look back on 2020 and name it as revolutionary too? Mary spoke her revolutionary words around 5 BCE. The Romans were crushing the life and the money out of the Jews, and they had a paranoid and insecure tyrant—self named Herod the Great—who was carrying out the Romans’ orders. If the Jews wanted freedom, he would oppress them, while he lived in a Royal Palace in Jerusalem, a hillside home in the Judean wilderness that he named the Herodian, and a summer getaway at the top of a majestic mountain called Masada. Herod had it all—everything except trust in those around him, even his family members. He decreed that cruel actions should be carried out regularly, so Jews—his own people—both feared him and hated him. At one point in the gospel of Matthew, the paranoid man ordered what both the storied pictures and the Scripture text paint as horrific. Known as the Slaughter of the Innocents, Herod ordered the murder of all children in and around the little town of Bethlehem, hoping that no child could grow up to become King. That is the kind of event that Mary saw in her vision and that she announced in what we call the Magnificat. She took a magnifying glass to history and zeroed in on the events that took people’s lives, or took people’s dignity, or both. Although to this day the world has told and retold the sorrow of the slaughter of the innocents, in actuality many more deaths than that have been carried out under the command of Presidents and Kings and Dictators over the years against children, against women, against people of poverty, against people of color and more. There have been slaughters of innocents even in 2020. And Mary, taking a magnifying glass to a timeline of earth, has helped shine a light on all of their darknesses. Is that overstating the power of the revolutionary words of Mary? Part of the world enshrines her in Cathedrals, while another part is inspired by her fire. The Mary we hear in these timeless words of proclamation might have had the nerve, and the voice, and the passion of Greta Thunberg, a young Swedish environmental activist who gained notice for her youth (she is now just 17) and her straightforward manner of speaking in public and in assemblies. Some admire her; some scorn her; but she brings a revolutionary spirit that the Mary we are visiting today proclaimed. Just for context, most scholars would say when an angel visited Mary, she was even younger than Greta! What an amazing girl Mary was, filled with God’s Holy Spirit! You’ve heard people filled with the Spirit, haven’t you? They surprise listeners with their incisive comments, and they motivate bystanders to become activists, or at least to be involved. Mary was changed after the angel Gabriel visited her. We’ll hear about that visit next week. But today, as we have young Mary, now expecting a child in a most extraordinary way, she was sent away from her hometown, perhaps to protect her from criticism. She was sent to visit her cousin Elizabeth who was also expecting a child, though she believed she was beyond child-bearing years. They rejoiced in each other’s company, and, in fact, their babies in their wombs leapt at the sound of their voices!
Today Mary’s powerful words are first meant to comfort and bring hope to those having trouble finding enough food; or enough money; or enough PPE to protect themselves. Hers is a call to action to help them! Women and men who have heard Mary’s cry today are addressing care inadequacies. They are pointing to people of means who have sequestered themselves in halls of power and in their residences behind walls and fences. Mary calls for social walls to come down! The divide of wealth in the first century Judah is still evident in 21st century America. In Judah, Mary found her backbone and her voice, and her words became the platform on which social justice changes could be made then and now. We can hear again the roaring cries of prophets who warned that going down the path of denial would never make our world become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ. Mary is not just to be adored by the faithful; she is the one who is calling for revolution; for action; for better laws and better working conditions; for people with means and power to bring hope to those with neither. Read her words in Luke chapter 1 again. That is what our Lord Jesus would call us to do! Jesus had a mission with his Heavenly Father, but he also had a mission inspired by his mother! This is what prophets and many preachers through the ages have called us to do: to work for social justice. That is what people like Mother Teresa did with her life. This; this is mother Mary; the mama bear Mary, caring for the human race; taking on the work of the special child she was carrying. We can honor her best by not just adoring her, but by joining the movement she announced that fateful day. We can roll up our sleeves, speak up against injustice, and work to change what we can change. The 21st century and the first century. In terms of the rich and the poor, our ages are sadly similar.
Jeffrey A. Sumner December 13, 2020