Category Archives: Christianity

01-14-18 SHAKING DUST OFF YOUR FEET

SHAKING DUST OFF YOUR FEET

John 1: 46-51

 

Today we will do three things: first, we will imagine what it was like for the first disciples to evangelize, that is, bring others to Jesus; second, we will look at the resistance even Jesus himself faced; and third we will look at the probable resistance that you and I might face inviting people to church or to Jesus, or both.

 

First, we will imagine what it was like for the disciples to evangelize. The message was perhaps not perfectly clear to those men who were busy with their trades or businesses when Jesus started to meet them and say “follow me.” To drop what they were doing in order to become, as the old saying goes, “fishers of men,” was a huge shift in their daily work.  As I have read about them, these men were gruff, not ones who could easily be talked into anything. How did they answer the call of Christ? And how would they make the shift to inviting others to follow him too?  In our “Hollywood Jesus” study on Wednesdays, these questions occur in what are called  the “white spaces,”  that is, information that the Bible doesn’t tell us between the words and we have to infer. In the Bible we read this: “Jesus decided to go to Galilee, found Philip and said to him, ‘follow me’” [After that Philip found Nathaniel. We’ll get to Nathaniel in a minute.] But in reading that, your mind may not fill in any response or reaction by Philip. If you were filming it, you’d have to decide: would Philip shrug and follow? Would Philip look at Jesus as if he had lost his mind? Would Philip start to turn away and then turn back? Notice we’re not putting words in Philips’ mouth because the Bible records no response for him. But we are making a decision about reaction. Reactions to the question like “Will you follow Jesus?” are not often followed with an instant “Okay!” The people Christ need should be loyal and not easily swayed to follow a false leader. So it is natural that they might have a reaction to dropping what they were doing to begin a complete change in their lives.  Evangelizing would not be in the wheelhouse of any of those men. But meeting Jesus empowered them; and meeting Jesus in a vision empowered the Apostle Paul to evangelize the rest of his life.  Meeting Jesus—through a sermon, through a hymn, through a testimony, or through the power of the Holy Spirit—has been known to change people’s lives. We’re in the business to bringing people to Jesus to change people’s lives! But how do we face the resistance caused by what some people have read, by other Christians who have sail or don hurtful things, or by a general suspicion—or even paranoia—about religion? Stay with me!

 

Let’s next look at how Jesus handled resistance. Today’s text illustrates how Jesus one time handled caustic comments.  Listen to John 1: 15-19:

Philip found Nathaniel and said to him, “We have found the one of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, son of Joseph.”

 

Now here is where you put on your film directing hat! With what inflection does Nathaniel reply? Does he say playfully “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  Or does he, with a bit of a sneer, ask” “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” If I were the director, I would choose that second one.  I think Nathaniel doubts that any significant gift from God could come from that backwater town of Nazareth.  Remember how the Wise Men first went to Jerusalem to seek the newborn king instead of to tiny Bethlehem? People couldn’t believe that God chose to do significant things in insignificant places. So Jesus hears that sneering answer: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Jesus could have been hurt by the words. He could have taken the words as a challenge and gotten into a shouting match. Those are natural human reactions. But instead, Jesus was ready for Nathaniel. Our Lord offered him a disarming compliment: “Behold, an Israelite indeed in whom there is no guile!” (Guile means “sly or cunning intelligence.”) Nathaniel is caught off guard. And by the end of the exchange, the charisma—(compelling attractiveness, often divinely conferred)—the charisma of Jesus lowered the defensive walls around Nathaniel’s heart.  This is part of Jesus’ authority and part of his draw. Once barriers of resistance drop—and they can be substantial—people who are introduced to Jesus in person, in prayer, in song, or in a sermon get to  “Meet the Master,”  as the Rev. Peter Marshall described it. One of his famous sermons had that title: “Mr. Jones, Meet the Master.” Today I’m inviting you to have that experience of inviting someone else to “meet the Master.” You’ll likely not use those dramatic words, but you can still invite others to come to your church to learn about Jesus!  Like the parable of the sower—that describes how 100 seeds might just yield as few as one good plant—you too might invite a hundred people over the course of your lifetime. But out of those hundred, one might say “Yes” to Jesus; to following like Philip did, and like Nathaniel eventually did. Who knows if that one invitation produces the next, pastor, or Sunday School Teacher, or Billy Graham or Mother Teresa? For Jesus’ parable says, “It is worth the work for the one.”

 

So yes, it was not easy for the disciples to evangelize—to invite others to follow Jesus. It was not easy for Jesus to face sarcasm and rejection—in one instance he actually left the Jewish side of the Sea of Galilee and went to the other side—the Gentile side—where he healed a man and gained a big following of enthusiastic believers. But now we come to you and to me.

 

This is our third and final point, but it matters the most for the future of the faith:  What will you face if you invite others to our church, to learn about Jesus; to hear that God loves them?  Resistance? The word “no?” Hesitating willingness? Yes. Any and all of the above, and I’ll tell you why: religion, church, God, and others such entities are loaded with baggage for many. Almost no one is a clean slate; they have all had either good or bad experiences, or positive or negative thoughts, about all three. So you may get blowback from a person who sharply reacts to your simple invitation: “Would you like to join me at my church on Sunday?” Some may actually accept your invitation especially if they know you will meet them and sit with them. Others may “duck and cover,” not wanting to consider such a threatening or painful venture.  Here’s an example: A man I admired a great deal started coming to our church because his daughter was a member. He came and he kept coming for months, and so one day, I asked him “Jim (not his real name,) would you like to join the church?” The man who I had enjoyed seeing for weeks, even months, gave me a cold stare. “No thank you,” and walked away.  It was eight months later—a long time of seeing him attend, when we met each other under different circumstances. “I’m ready to tell you why I have not joined your church,” he said to me. “One day when I was a little boy (which had to be in the late 1930s) a deacon from our Baptist church came by our house unexpectedly one night. My dad invited him in asking ‘What can I do for you?’ And the deacon said, “We have noticed that you are not keeping up with your pledge. Your church needs that support and I’m here to collect.”  Now times were hard during the Depression and Jim told me, “I could see my Dad’s facing starting to turn red, and the veins on his neck getting big. ‘You’ll need to go now,’ he said firmly to the deacon.” Having the deacon ask for money pushed his family away from that church. “And that” Jim told me, “is why I won’t join a church.” Nearly seventy years had gone by since that night, and the grown man sitting across from me had never joined a church again for that reason. “Goodness that is a painful story,” I said to him. “You don’t ever have to join; just keep coming. But just so you know: We will never treat a pledge like a bill, and no one will visit your home to collect.”

Jim needed to trust again; to trust a church; to trust a man of the cloth. Interestingly, I think it was through our love of baseball that he learned to trust me. He finally joined and set aside the seventy-year-old reason he had resentful feelings toward a church.

 

You know, I think there are a number of people out there—and in here—like   that; they have been hurt, or insulted, or abused by someone in a church.  Jesus said to his disciples if they were ever rejected to “shake the dust off their feet” and move on. I think that is easier said than done. Did you see the 14-year-old girl who got pulled from a mudslide in Montecito California this week? She was covered with mud.  Sometimes I think the pain and anguish that others have felt not just from Christians, but from bullies or other abusers is not like dust on their feet  but mud on their body and soul.  So I think it helps us to realize this: we may be inviting traumatized or hurting people to come to our church. And here I hope they will find welcome, comfort, and hope. They may not trust that invitation initially, but let them be while standing with them. Maybe their hurt can turn to hope.

 

Carol Howard Merritt is a Presbyterian minister who wrote the book just published last year called Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God After Experiencing a Hurtful Church. [HarperOne, 2017] She writes painfully about some even hurt by people in their own church.

 

The wounds were easy to see. People on the Internet hinted at them through status updates with “trigger warnings,” soul-baring from new atheists, and tortured blogs of ex-fundamentalists. I worked with the religiously wounded in church and met them at retreats. They were people with the sort of trauma that comes when your injuries are wrapped up in the condemnation of the soul, the shunning of families, or the shaming of flesh….The lacerations ranged in acuteness. A man revealed a paper cut when he told me about being scolded by a haughty elder lecturing him on his shabby shoes. He knew his parents couldn’t afford dress shoes, and to protect their dignity and his own, he refused to attend church…. Still in other moments, I witnessed deep gouges inflicted by a manipulative man in his collar seducing a young boy …. It was staggering to see what people suffered in the name of God. [p. 24]

 

Friends, the walking wounded are out there, and even in here. But can you join me in gently inviting others, listening to their sometimes painful stories, or feeling their icy responses, giving space for healing, and still leading them to Jesus for unconditional love? There is a hurting world of people, some of whom are turning from churches because of pain. Others have listened to many stories and have lumped all churches and all religions together. Let’s allow the light of love and of Christ to welcome hurting, shamed, and prodigal people back to the Father’s house. He is waiting to welcome those fragile people home.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           January 14, 2018

01-07-18 A DAY OF NEW BEGINNINGS: THE DO-OVER DAY

A DAY OF NEW BEGINNINGS: THE DO-OVER DAY

Acts 19: 1-5; Mark 1: 1-11

 

On my computer, and perhaps on yours, there is an icon I can click that will allow me to restart my computer. A reset button is handy to have on a computer. I also have a button in my car that resets my trip odometer, allowing me to easily calculate gas mileage or distance traveled. In golf when friends are playing, they sometimes offer a do-over on the first tee called a “mulligan” if the first shot is botched. In children’s games when someone doesn’t like the way things are going they might call out “do-over” and hope to re play that last match, or point, or round. With board games players can just clear a scorecard or announce that a new round is starting. Ah do-overs; what a nice world it would be if we all got do-overs especially when we learn what a problem our rash or spontaneous decision has created! Around ages between 20 and 25, the brain in most young adults has formed the part that understands consequences. (As I said, in MOST young adults!) Back in teenage years that part of the brain has yet to form. Parents, therefore, are charged with protecting and guiding their children enough that some lethal or dreadful mistake is not made. In games we may get do-overs, but in life? In fantasy, writers have come up with scenarios where a portion of a person’s life is lived over or viewed until they learn something they are supposed to learn. Wikipedia lists 40 films with that kind of plot! Some films included the famous “Groundhog Day, and the more recent “Edge of Tomorrow;” one called “A Day,” and another called “Before I Fall.” Other titles include “Christmas Every Day,” and “The Last Day of Summer.” Ah if only fantasy were reality, so that if we broke a terrible law, or started an unplanned pregnancy, or made a bad investment or purchase, we could just go back and make a different choice. But realty doesn’t have actual reset buttons; we can repent of things we did; we can ask for and hopefully receive forgiveness; we can seek another job if we lose our last one; or we can move to a second relationship if we ruin a first one. We can learn from our choices and adapt our actions based on yesterday’s choices. But we don’t get a reset. What we do get is a new day! Today is new from yesterday; and tomorrow will be new compared with today! We do get chances to take another run at life after some sleep, or thought, or prayers, or all three. Of all the seasonal tales people watch in December, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is perhaps the best example of someone getting a do-over life, but yes, it is a work of fiction. Ebenezer Scrooge was visited by three Spirits, the ghost of Christmas yet to come was the most terrifying. As the Spirit departed in his dream, the miserly Scrooge cried out “I will live in the Past, the Present, and the future! …The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. O Jacob Marley! Heaven, and the Christmas Time be praised for this! I say it on my knees, old Jacob, on my knees!” [CHRISTMAS BOOKS, Oxford University Press,1954, p.71] What would you give to start a new direction in your life, this day; this hour? You can, you know! You need not be visited by three spirits, but by the Spirit of the Living God! Then the direction of your life can change! The Spirit has done that time and time again. For example in Mark’s gospel, even though John is baptizing people as they agree to repent of their sins, even John admits that his baptism is not adequate; it doesn’t create the change in one’s life that the Holy Spirit creates.  If you activate the Holy Spirit in your life watch out! The Spirit starts to work at your own invitation! Who knows if you will love more unconditionally, or care more completely, or help more intentionally? Who knows how God could change your life if you were to hand the wheel over to Jesus? “Jesus take the wheel!” as the song title suggests. Inviting Jesus, or the wonderful Spirit, into your life can change things for the better!  John said Jesus would actually baptize his followers with the Holy Spirit. [Mark 1:8] Some people who love the King James Bible read that passage this way:  “Jesus will baptize his followers with the Holy Ghost.” Have you ever been baptized in the Holy Ghost?!! Let me tell you, you can’t hem and haw about your answer; you’d know if you were baptized in the Holy Ghost! Some of our Pentecostal friends could describe it; sometimes people speak in tongues; sometimes others fall to the ground slain in the Spirit. Sometimes people raise their hands and openly weep. It is a dramatic event that few Presbyterians have seen. But the Spirit waits for our invitation too. The Spirit has waited on your invitation to the dance of new life; your invitation to the change from spiraling or destructive directions; your invitation to “Take my life and let it be consecrated Lord, to Thee!”  This can be such a day; a to say “Lord, I have had done some things last year I am not proud of doing; and I have said some things last year I am not proud of saying. Today, I want a do-over. I understand it comes with remorse and repentance and all the rest, but I’m all in.” That’s what you can do today. It means you will have to submit to God’s will, but with you in the driver’s seat, how did things go in 2017? There are new possibilities in 2018! If you are ready for a change; a new beginning; a fresh start this is the day. Others have taken that step and did not look back! They embraced their past life (as Scrooge did); they acknowledged their present life too; but their commitment to make changes in their future life was the life changer.

 

There is a commercial for a medication that has people singing “Tomorrow” from the musical “Annie.” Don’t put off to tomorrow what you can do today! Can you embrace a new life even at the end of our communion service, today?  I have a supply of round discs in my office. I hand one out to any person who makes the excuse, when asked about a task, “I’ll do it as soon as I get a round to it.” So I give them a round TUIT! “There!” I say. “Now you don’t have an excuse!

 

Can you make this commitment today? When you take the bread and the cup today, hear Jesus say to you: “I love you and I’ve given my life for you.” Then you can say in a whispered voice or in your head:  “I accept your life, and I give you mine in return.” What a gift Jesus gave us! What a gift we can give Him if we more nearly do what Jesus would do, and respond more like Jesus.  Singlehandedly you could begin to change your world today by taking those steps.  Will you join me?  Let us pray:

 

O Spirit, I will life differently! I will seek to love my neighbors more dearly, and follow Jesus more nearly. I will work for there to be more peace on earth, and I will let it begin with me. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                  January 7, 2018

 

12-31-17 PURIFY

PURIFY

Malachi 3: 1-4; Luke 2: 22-40

 

On a New Year’s Eve like this, many of us take into account the year that is about to conclude.  Some may say “Good riddance!” to 2017 as they place their hopes in 2018.  New Years’ Resolutions came about when people wanted to shake old habits and start new ones.  To do that, there needs to be a break; a clean break. Our souls, like clothes, get dirty. “Jesus’ arrival on Earth is described as being ‘like a refiner’s fire, and like fuller’s soap. Jesus, like the soap used by the launderer’s of antiquity to clean and whiten clothes, was coming to purify people and cleanse them of sin.’”  We once had church members who owned a cleaning shop. I remember how my heart sank as a needlepoint cloth Mary Ann had made got ink spilled on it. I called Linda Abbott, the cleaner. “Don’t try to take it out yourself. Bring it to me,” she said. Four days later I went to pick it up. Gone! The ink stain was gone! How amazing are fullers and dry cleaners!  That’s the way we want our soul to enter a New Year: clean!  These days we use various enzyme detergents, bleach, and other chemicals to make things clean, or to make dull white garments white again. They start fresh! As I showed the boys and girls, we often use antibacterial soap to wash germs from our hands. If you have been on a cruise lately, you’ll notice that every time you enter a dining room, an attendant or a machine squirts disinfectant on your hands.  Cruise personnel and passengers hate the Norovirus! The jug of water I showed the children said it was “purified.” Purifying takes something not clean and makes it clean.  The prophets of old used a more frightening image, ones that revivalist preacher sometimes drew out and used: fire! Exceedingly hot fire would be used to separate the pure gold from the debris to be discarded.  The old term for that material was “dross.” Listen to one verse of the hymn “How Firm a Foundation.”  “When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie, my grace all sufficient shall be thy supply. The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.” We want our dross to drop away and our gold to be purified! This is the day for our spiritual fire; the day when we want God’s powerful word to convict us, and then to convince us to leave behind the destructive habits and begin to take up new ones. The spiritual flames might drive you to apologize for wrongs you have done to others, to show true remorse, then to make amends. The flames might let you leave regrets behind and work to mend some fences. The flames might encourage you to build a bridge to others where an earlier bridge had been burned down.  What might God want you to do, so that you are not carrying sin, and filth, and decay, and infection into the next year?

 

In our world there are sadly many 2017 stories that point to corruption. Politics is such an area. But then there were also stories of powerful men taking advantage of women. There were stories of children, youth, and adults bullying others, which are coercive tactics.  Even church institutions have not been spared corruption stories.  Carrying such tactics into a new year does not give us the chance to come clean with others or with God. Coming clean—sometimes called confession—is good for relationships and good for your soul! If you can believe it, the prophets of old were crying out to those who could hear them about corruption in the priesthood! Of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, named after the twelve sons of Jacob, one son—Levi—was given charge of the priesthood.  Through the line, priests would teach priests and carry on the tradition. But Malachi saw problems and addressed them head on. R. Lansing Hicks, who was a Professor at the Yale Divinity School, once wrote this about Malachi:

“One central theme dominates Malachi’s thought: fidelity to the Lord’s covenant and its teachings. From this standpoint he both condemns the priests for corrupting worship and misleading the people.” Malachi said this of the priests in chapter 3, verse 3: “For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, till they present right offerings to the Lord.”  Fidelity to God and to one another is vital according to Scripture. That could be a cornerstone of our new beginning in 2018!

 

For Jews, like Mary, and Joseph, and Jesus, purity was practiced all the time. Foods, now called Kosher, had to prepared a certain way, and others foods were to be avoided. As faithful Jews made their way to Jerusalem for special days, they were instructed to first take part in purification rituals. There were special pools of water, almost like a baptistery, but they were called mikvahs. Remember what Luke said in chapter 2, verse 22: “And when the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.”  Such purification would occur before holy days, such as Yom Kippur, known as the “Day of Atonement” when once a year people would come to the Temple to pay for the sins they had committed during the past year. Can you imagine? Saving up your sins for a year? Purification and the atonement ritual allowed for a fresh start in the new year. This is such a time for us as we move from 2017 to 2018! What ritual can we go through today? If you have been baptized already, the Holy Spirit dwells in you, and if you have invited Jesus into your heart, he is with you too! But here is something each of us individually can do today! We have a way to make a fresh start, to purify our souls.

 

If you repent of sins that still are lingering in your life—ones that had a direct impact on your 2017, then this is the time to acknowledge those and to have a new beginning. The ritual, practiced by Jews and Christian, includes these steps:

  • Realization of your wrongs
  • Remorse for those wrong
  • Repentance from those wrongs
  • Restitution for those wrongs as appropriate
  • Reconciliation with those you have wronged.

 

Today I invite you to practice those steps:

realization, remorse, repentance, restitution,

and reconciliation. It can restore your relationship

with God and with others.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                 January 31, 2017

 

12-24-17 CELEBRATE!

CELEBRATE!

LUKE 2: 1-14

 

In his book Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church, Lawrence H. Stookey poignantly captures the idea of what we hear in this season: “Emmanuel: God with us.” He writes:

Imagine a scene in heaven before Bethlehem. God has convened a solemn council of all the heavenly host and now addresses them: “Despite our best efforts to be made known through creation, hard-headed humanity has not gotten the point. The do not understand divine love at work among them and rebel against it at every opportunity, often in the most vicious of ways.  Since they do not see the grace we continuously pour on them, we must make our activity more clear to them.  If they are to be saved from themselves, it will be necessary for someone to go there from here, to take on human form, to reveal in person what we intend for creation to be. Who will go for us?” There is a great silence in heaven. The angels stand on one foot and then the other, declining eye contact with one another. Each feels a sense of obligation but an utter unwillingness to take on the onerous task of dealing with humanity. Then the voice of God [speaks] again: “Who will go for us? Who is willing to try to make more clear the message of heavenly grace to people caught in their own selfishness? Which of you will take on flesh and be born in their midst?’ Another great embarrassed silence follows. Once again, “Who will go?” No one stirs. No sound can be heard. So God says, “Then I myself will go.”  [Abingdon Press, 1996]

 

When it came to the joy or celebration of the amazing birth of Christ, perhaps heaven wasn’t the place that occurred, at least initially. When it came to Mary, didn’t she have to feel humbled and perhaps frightened as she heard from an angel [which can be a frightful experiences since angels often say “fear not?”] And Mary would have been exceedingly uncomfortable as she grew great with child. No real celebration there. Plus she was going to have a child out of wedlock–that was no cause for celebration. How about Joseph? No celebration there either. He had to swallow a story that must have seemed like a tall tail.  To his credit, he went along with the incredible request the angel had for him. But there was no celebration on his part. Was there a celebration in Nazareth where Mary and Joseph lived? Hardly. Murmuring might have been more like it. Was there celebration in Bethlehem? No red carpet there. No one even saved room for native son Joseph. What about in Jerusalem? No way. Herod the Great [Self-named] was so paranoid that he killed some of his sons and wives. He wanted no other king, not even a boy king! And later when Jesus was born, Herod was the one who sought to end Jesus’ life. Hmmm. There was no celebration in heaven, until maybe that night. There was no celebration in hell either because, according to the English carol,  “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” he was born “to free all those who trust in him from Satan’s power and might.” No celebration there. Who celebrated this wondrous event?

 

First, if the prophets were still alive, like Isaiah, or Malachi, or Micah, they would have celebrated! It took centuries for one to be born who would be called Messiah. John the Baptist was alive and he celebrated, not with a party but with urgency.  It had taken so long for a Messiah to arrive! Did you see the animated film “Zootopia?” One of my favorite scenes depicted a sloth as the clerk at the counter of the Department of Motor Vehicles! How brilliant to have a place notorious for waiting being staffed by a sloth, that spoke and moved with agonizing slowness!  That was just an afternoon. Imagine the wait of dozens of lifetimes for a messiah to arrive! The prophets would have been exceedingly glad.

 

Second, in Matthew’s gospel we find that the Magi, also called wise men, were exceedingly glad.  Several years ago we showed a powerful film on Bethlehem’s star, and just last week I heard more convincing evidence of the star that was over Bethlehem. According to Gatehouse News Service, “A researcher for the International Star Bible Society believes he has identified the famous Star of Bethlehem that led the Three Wise Men to the newborn Jesus Christ more than 2000 years ago. [ISBS astronomer Ron Allen says the] location for the Star of Bethlehem is a black hole known as X-1 Cygnus in the Cygnus constellation. Allen said the black hole is the remains of a large nova and can be identified as the Star of Bethlehem.”  The Wise Men thought the birth was significant and special so they traveled far and they even brought gifts fit for a king! Oh yes, those men had excitement and joy as they followed the star.

 

Third, there was excitement with the shepherds in Luke’s gospel. First a single angel speaks to them. And, as always, the angel invites the shepherds to “fear not,” to “be not afraid.” Such an appearance in the dark of night could be terrifying for shepherds guarding sheep against predators. But perhaps even more terrifying, after that a “multitude of the heavenly host” appears! Do you know what that is? It’s an army of angels!  This was a big announcement! As shepherds watched the angels go back into heaven, did they just fall back asleep? No! They decided this called for an investigation, and later perhaps, a celebration. So “they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in the manger. In a case where commas matter, my Princeton speech professor always said, “make certain that you always observe to comma after Joseph’s name. Otherwise you’ll get ‘Mary, Joseph and the babe lying in a manger,’ and that would be one crowded baby bed! “So yes, there was excitement with the shepherds!

 

Finally, as the church was taking root in the middle of the first century, there was cautious celebration of the birth of Christ. But with persecutions of Christians, celebrations were not clearly evident. Celebrations grew in 339 A.D. when Emperor Constantine, encouraged by his mother Helena, built a church over the place in Bethlehem where all Christian traditions said Jesus was born.  Since that time, the birth of Christ has caused Christians to celebrate not only with candlelight services and midnight masses, but with timeless carols and the retelling of the old, old story! In the spirit of the magi, there are gifts given too.  From 1985 until 1999 my family hosted a Christmas Day service at the church with a volunteer piano player. My wife and three children ushered and greeted, while she and I sang a duet and read Christmas stories. We also  made cookies and hosted fellowship hour ourselves! We did that to celebrate the birth of Jesus! And as an offering, we put a slip on paper in each bulletin. At the top it said “My Gift to the Christ Child.”  In the spirit of the Christmas song, “The Little Drummer Boy,” we invited people to write down the gift they would give the Christ Child if they could. They then would walk forward and place it under the Chrismon tree. That service had a special and a simply joy about it.

 

Today, and tonight, and tomorrow, we get to celebrate a birth that was hard on Mary, hard on Joseph, and was hard on God. But through them we have Christ, and through Christ we have Christmas!  May you celebrate this day of days, tomorrow, during the 12 Days of Christmas, and beyond!

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                 December 24, 2017

12-17-17 WITNESS

WITNESS

John 1: 6-8; 19-28

 

In the book Small Miracles that is in our church library, authors Yitta Halbertsam and Judith Leventhal write this:

There are moments in life when each of us catch our breath and glimpse God’s presence. Sometimes it is when we see the radiant face of a sleeping child, sometimes it is when we hear a fragment of a melody that stirs awake an unfamiliar yearning…. These epiphanic experiences, common to us all, can help lead us to our unfulfilled destiny. … When consciousness is cultivated and perception heightened, these experiences can serve as vital tokens of growth and transformation. To encounter these moments in their fullness and their richness, to be aware of their message and hear their music, is to truly know God. And predominant among these experiences is the phenomenon we call coincidences…. [Writer Doris Lessing once put it like this: “Coincidences are God’s way of remaining anonymous.”]

 

Today I firmly believe that many of us here today have had a time, or several times, when we were made aware of the presence of God.  Lyricist Lanny Wolfe said it like this: “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place, I can feel his mighty power, and his grace;

I can hear the brush of angels’ wings, I see glory on each face,

Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place.”  Where have you felt the brush of angels’ wings? I’ve felt them when I prayed over a man who had a stroke, was in a hospital emergency room, and who made an almost instant recovery. I said to the family “New drugs can really turn around a stroke,” but the doctor heard me and replied: “No medication could have brought this recovery this fast!” God’s powerful Spirit made the difference. I’ve felt the tender presence of God as I looked into the faces of my three children just after they were born. I’ve felt the Holy Spirit stir my soul when somebody told amazing stories of healing or redemption.  For me and for others, the presence of God’s Spirit can produce goose bumps on my skin.

 

Today I want to suggest that many if not all of us have been witness to some miraculous, life-changing, or amazing experiences that point heavenward. Others have a story to tell about their life before they found Christ, and the way their life is now.  Each of these people can be a witness if they choose to tell their story! I hope you have chosen to tell your story already, or if you haven’t, that you will choose to do so.  Yes, being a witness means you might get questioned, but without your testimony, the light of God might stay under the bushel of your mouth that is not telling it, or your hand that is not writing it. Telling or writing about your encounter with something amazing or divine can, at the least, invite others to consider noticing the “brush of angels wings,” and open them to divine visits. In 1970, a Chaplain in the U.S. Army Chaplain’s Corp, Merlin Carothers, told his conversion story in his book Prison to Praise. In one section her wrote:

Grandmother was a sweet old lady, and I thought a great deal of Grandfather, but going to visit them was an ordeal I avoided as much as possible. They made me nervous. Grandmother always found an opportunity to talk about God!  One day when I went to see them … they were getting ready to go to church…. At the zero hour I had no choice.  Off we went together. The church service was held in a barn, but everyone there seemed to be happy. “Poor people,” I thought, “They don’t know anything about real life out there in the world, or they wouldn’t waste an evening in a barn.” The singing began and I picked up a hymnbook to follow the words. I at least had to look as if I was with it.  Suddenly I heard a deep voice speak directly in my ear. “What—what did you say?” I whirled around to find no one…. There was the voice again: “Tonight you must make a decision for me. ” I shook my head and said, “Why?”…. Was I losing my marbles? The voice was real! …. God was real! The service went on but I heard myself mutter “Yes God. I’ll do it. I’ll do whatever you want.”

[Little did he know that the grandfather who sat next to him was having a conversation with God too!  He had been addicted to tobacco for forty years, but on that night he prayed this: “God, if you change Merlin, I’ll give up my chewing and smoking even if it kills me.” A commitment was being started by two men and God that night.] [Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1972, pp. 20-21]

 

That’s a testimonial. It is offered by one who had a first hand encounter with God. John the Baptist also had a message to share because he had first hand account. He had known Jesus! John was not the light, but he certainly bore witness to the light. How did he do it? One way was testimony. Testimony is when you declare to others what you have seen or heard. Giving your testimony is a wonderful way to witness: you are not making things up, and you’re not exaggerating what you’ve seen. You just tell what you saw, or heard, or tasted, or smelled, or touched.  John gave testimony. He even gave testimony about himself, saying: “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness.”  John knew how to be a witness.

 

Have you ever experienced an extraordinary time when, in hindsight, you saw the hand of God? Here’s one I read:

Every Sunday morning at exactly 9 a.m. the twenty members of a church choir would assemble in the chapel of their small Southern Baptist congregation for a one-hour rehearsal before services…. One Sunday morning the tranquil air of the sleepy southern town was suddenly pierced by a loud blast. Residents rushed outdoors to see what happened and then watched in anguish as flames spurted out of the windows of the small church.  They checked the time: ten minutes past nine. Gasps, wails and shrieks filled the air as the townspeople raced toward the church. The volunteer firemen, who had preceded them by a few minutes, shook their heads mournfully as they arrived. In just seconds, the church had been totally consumed by flames. “It was probably a gas explosion” one of the firemen said. “It happened too fast. None of the choir members could have gotten out in time. I’m sorry. It doesn’t look like there are any survivors at all.”  [Just then, almost all at the same time, twenty cars pulled up to the fire, each one with a choir member on board! Although they were shocked and dismayed to see the church burning, each one individually had been delayed that morning “for separate, different, and unconnected reasons.”] [Believe in Small Miracles, Halberstam & Leventhal, Adams Media Cororation, Massachusetts, 1997, pp. 25-26.]

 

What story might you have about the presence of God? What story might you tell to encourage someone else to not only tell their story, but also to look again for special sights, or times of feeling the brush of angels’ wings?

 

Here’s one: About seven years ago our church published a book of Advent reflections written by church members. One of them was Nancy Force. With her permission, I want to share her reflection with you now. She wrote:

We were a small family of three, my father, my brother and me. But early in World War II that changed when my brother, Johnny, was killed. My father was never the same after that. He was always a loving, kind, Christian man. But a spark had died in him. When I was a young bride I received a phone call that Dad had died suddenly. I was devastated. I prayed long and hard that Dad and Johnny were together in heaven. As I was flying from southern Florida to California on a clear early morning, two rainbows appeared from white clouds far below. I took that as God’s answer to my prayer. There have been many rainbows in my life through the mountaintop and valley experiences. Years later, when my beloved second husband, Harley, died, Dick Wilson, Pastor of First Presbyterian Church said, “I have never seen so many rainbows!” They were over our home, the funeral, home, and the church.

 

By now it might seem like I am offering many stories for one sermon! Indeed. Stories are what witnessing is about! And your story is even more powerful that a second hand story.  Here is one of my own first hand stories.

I believe I’ve heard God’s voice twice. I heard just seven words. The first time was when I was considering whether to ask Mary Ann to marry me. Here is what I am sure I heard from God: “You love her.” Three words. That was in 1977. We got engaged on 7/7/77.  Then I didn’t hear from God again until 1985. I had been the Pastor of the first church I served for almost four years when I heard it.  Just four words: “Your work is done.” And I believed that staying there would not be blessed by God after that. I have not heard that voice since. But I am sure I heard it those two times. Seven words; but how those words changed my life.

 

Testimonies can be powerful. They often involve stories that engage listeners.  You can join me in pointing to the light, in bearing witness to the light like John the Baptist did! Tell your stories! You will find that you are not alone in experiencing Holy Ones touching human hearts.

 

Finally, let me close with a prayer written by Daniel Iverson. Published by Moody Press in 1935, the simple words to “Spirit of the Living God” were formed in Iverson’s mind when he was attending a revival in Orlando with George C. Stephans in 1926. Iverson was a Presbyterian Pastor from North Carolina. He heard Stephans’ sermon on the Holy Spirit and after that wrote this hymn the same day. Iverson’s final home was in Montreat, N.C. This was his prayer, and it is ours today: [The Presbyterian Hymnal Companion, Linda Jo McKim, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993,pp. 228-229]

“Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me;

Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me;

Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me;

Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me.” Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                  December 17, 2017

 

 

12-10-17 PREPARE

PREPARE

Malachi 3: 1-4; Mark 1: 1-8

 

Being prepared can often be a lesson taught through hindsight. For example on December 6, 1941—seventy-six years ago this past Wednesday—there were no preparations being made to protect the US Fleet in Hawaii from a pummeling air attack.  By December 7th, the attacks commenced. Days and weeks later there was talk of being better prepared next time. If you watch archival footage from New York television broadcasts that aired on September 10, 2001, you’ll see that there were no top stories that changed the face of our nation. But the next day was September 11th, 2001. I was in a presbytery meeting being elected to be the 2002 Moderator of Central Florida Presbytery. My phone started to vibrate; it was Mary Ann. I did not answer in the middle of a meeting. But she called again; and again. And other people—an inordinate number—started getting calls. I, and some others, went outside to answer our phones. I had no texting capability in 2001. She said a plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers. As she was relating that incident, she said a second plane hit the other tower. And the rest, as you know, is history.  No one was prepared for that day. But since then the way we board planes; the way we enter theme parks, and the way we scrutinize those coming into our country has changed forever.  After September 11th, there was talk about getting prepared.  On June 16th, 2015, churches were largely places for worship, prayer, and Bible Study.  But on June 17th, 2015, a gunman entered a Bible Study … a Bible Study!… to join a group of kind members in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church who had welcomed that Caucasian man on an earlier date. This time, however, he brought a gun. He took it out and he fired on them all, killing nine, including the Senior Pastor.  Now churches have started to prepare. Our insurance company just ran a webinar on Wednesday. At our Session Retreat in October we talked for the first time about being prepared for such things.  And I am charged by the Session to have a meeting with Shores Police Chief Dembinsky on the subject.

 

Being prepared is very topical. How many people were prepared for months of no power in Puerto Rico? And how many of those people in line in front of me the week of the storm actually used their 15 gallons of water, leaving almost none for the next people? Preparation is a tricky thing; it can be overdone or underdone. Now our nation has a division of Homeland Security, the budget of which is been more than 42 billion dollars in 2017. The cost of preparation can be high.  For those who have children, some begin saving for their college at their birth; others “wait and see what happens.” For those who face their own inevitable death, some of them plan for it by teaching others what they know about the car, or the home, or the kitchen, or the finances. Some share important family stories with their children. Some write out what they would like to include in their funeral, and some lay aside money or an insurance policy to cover expenses. Some people do none of that.

 

In the third chapter of Malachi, he reports that God said this: “Behold I send my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight; he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.” God does not visit his people until the way has been prepared! Preparation is the prerequisite to the visit!  Last Sunday I described to the boys and girls how hard it is to wait; to wait for a baby; to wait for Christmas; to wait for Jesus! But wait we must. And during those hours, we can spend time foolishly or wisely.  We can, for example, do some spiritual assessments, to get ready. Can you create a truthful checklist about what you should do or say before you meet your Lord Jesus? Careful preparation can mean the difference between order and chaos. Did you see the great film “Hidden Figures,” about the under appreciated but absolutely needed women behind the men who were the faces of the space program?  It showed enormous preparation before sending a man into space. I have twice ridden with church members who had their own private plane. Each time we flew to a neighboring area for lunch. But before we took off, both pilots prepared. They did a walk around their airplane. And they followed a detailed checklist before take off, not missing or dismissing any item as unimportant. Preparation is vital to safe air travel.

 

Educators know that repetition of vital information is one effective tool. In Mark’s gospel, the writer repeats something that all faithful Jews had heard for ages: words from the prophet Isaiah.  Did you know, by the way, that in the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem—that houses the Dead Sea Scrolls—the only complete, original scroll they have is of the book of Isaiah! It is big, and it includes these words that Mark quoted: “Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way; the voice of one crying in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”  The implication is that John was such a messenger as was Isaiah! And I submit that there are such messengers even today, even though it generally takes some time for people to look back and say: “that was a prophet.”  But do we have ears to hear? And in our preparation, have we looked over our checklists to make sure that all is ready for Jesus?

 

The story is told of preparations going very well for a great feast. A large number of people who were invited had said “yes” to attending. The anticipation and excitement built. Part of the reason for the banquet was to honor a special person, but it was a surprise! When the night of the banquet arrived, the guests gathered. The tables were beautifully set for the holiday season. The aroma of delicious foods was in the air. The candles were lighted. The musical ensemble was playing. The sound of conversation and of laughter filled the room. Later there would be singing, dancing, and festivities. But the time to start came and went. Soon people in the crowd started to ask what was the delay. The host said; “The dinner has not started because our guest of honor has not arrived.” But in making some phone calls, the truth was learned: in keeping the guest of honor from knowing the plans, it turns out that no one had actually asked him to attend!

 

At Christmastime with all the gatherings to which you might be invited, or that you might host: have you remembered to invite the guest of honor-Jesus? May love—the guest—be included in your Christmas gatherings.

Let me close with a prayer offered by the late Henri Nouwen:

O Lord, all you ask of me is a simple “yes,” a simple act of trust so that your choices for me can bear fruit in my life. I do not want you to pass me by. I do not want to be so busy with my way of living, my plans and projects, my relatives, friends and acquaintances, that I do not even notice that you are with me, closer to me than anyone else.  I do not want to be blind to the loving gestures that come from your hands, nor deaf to the caring words that come from your mouth. I want to see you as you walk with me and hear you as you speak to me …. I know you walk with me. Help me walk with you today, tomorrow and always. Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                 December 10, 2017

 

12-03-17 WATCH

WATCH

Mark 13: 24-37

 

Some of you will remember the game show “The $25,000 Pyramid hosted by Dick Clark. A celebrity guest was paired up with an ordinary contestant who hoped to win money on the show. Money would mostly be won by answering questions within a period of time. Here is an example of the clues:  A Heinz Ketchup bottle; a baby to be born; a train, a red light.  Okay constants! What is the answer? Yes! “Things you wait for.” Here’s another one: A pot to boil; Jesus’ return; a child out past curfew. What’s the answer? Yes! “Things you watch for!”  Watching and waiting are two of the hardest things for many people to do, so certain facilities, such as hospitals and doctor’s offices, have rooms, with groups of people in them. The rooms are called: “waiting rooms!” In a waiting room I have seen people pace, sigh, study their phone, play games on their phone, read a book or magazine, walk back and forth to a coffee pot, bathroom, or vending machine and more, but just sitting and waiting few do well. We generally want to do be doing something. In the old days, a husband at a farmhouse was often told to go boil water while a doctor was tending to his wife about to deliver a child. It might have been slightly helpful, but mostly it gave the anxious father something to do! Here is what Mary Ann said when I asked her about the birth of our first child, Christopher.

 

October 2, 1980.  The day was circled on the calendar.  The day my first child would enter the world.  Nine months of shopping, assembling, doctor appointments, growing larger – waiting!

I was going to work until the baby arrived.  Everything was ready at the end of September. My good friend, Teri, was due to have her baby the week after mine and we rejoiced as we got ready and as we slowed down waiting for the impending births.  October 2 I woke up with great expectation.  Today is the day.  The baby had other plans.  I kept going to work.  I kept answering the phone calls from relatives – “any news???”.  I kept smiling as my neighbors and co-workers exclaimed, “You’re still here!!!”  October 9 came and Teri had her baby.  I visited her at the hospital feeling depressed and wondering when it would be my turn.  More waiting. We lived in New Jersey and it got cold and none of my shoes or coats would fit.  Still heading to work feeling like an elephant.  More waiting.  Frustration abounded.  I’m sure I cried a few times.  Finally, on October 22, I started feeling the labor pangs and we headed to the hospital.  Christopher entered the world on the 23rd – a full three long weeks late.  I can still feel that frustration that I felt during that time.  It was totally worth the wait.  Maybe I have learned some patience from that experience!  A p.s. to the story – I didn’t have to wait as long for Matt and Jenny – they both came 9 days early!

 

Many find it difficult to wait and watch for anything! And on top of that, we have trouble just being, don’t we? We want to be doing. A man retires from a lifetime career. He is more attached than he realized to doing his job. Suddenly there is no job to do; at least not that job.  Can he just be, resting in a job well done, retirement income, and time for things that got pushed aside before? Or will he need something to do? It’s a hard adjustment for many. Women also can go through that when they leave a career or have the last child leave the house. Just being is difficult. Yet in Psalm 46:10 we read:  “Be still, and know that I am God.”  God still has plans for your life, even if you don’t see them. And sometimes the plan is “wait.” “Really Lord? I’m terrible at waiting? Can’t you give me something to do?”

 

At this time of the year we are asked to wait; and to watch.  Through the eyes of a child we are only waiting and watching for another 22 days, which, of course, is Christmas, but it feels like an eternity to them! But what about the times when the prophets preached, and the people heard things like: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name ‘Immanuel’” Isaiah declared that in chapter 7, verse 14. Isaiah proclaimed his message from 742-687 B.C! That’s over 700 years before Christ was born! Sometimes salvation seems to take an eternity. Sometimes God’s response seems to appear slower than ketchup or steak sauce from a bottle. What about “For unto us a child is born; unto us a son is given?” Same prophet; same timeframe. Musicians, theologians, writers, and even pastors can compress the time, so that waiting doesn’t seem so unreasonable.  But babies, and trains, and leaves changing color and people on walkers can hardly be rushed. They are life lessons to us all: to gain some patience; to wait; and to be. Being is the state when we realize that we are loved by God by who we are, not what we have done. Look at newborn children. They can do nothing like to help with the dishes, change diapers, change sheets, or prepare food. The blessing that is a baby is being. We start in a fetal position and we may end our life in a fetal position with God like a caring mother or father, not cherishing our accomplishments, but cherishing the ways we are made in God’s image. God loves to see that in us.

 

There is another group of people who do not wait well: people who say they can read prophecies and tell when the Son of man will return. They are poor waiters, and so they predict when they need to just be in heaven’s waiting room.  Even Jesus saw such people when he was living on earth. He named their predictions and he saw what they saw. But at the end, of all the predictions that have been made, listen to Jesus’ response:

If anyone says to you ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘Look, there he is,” do not believe it. False Christs and false prophets will arise and show you signs and wonders, to lead the elect astray if possible….But in those days … when the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give light, and stars begin to fall from heaven … they will see the  Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory….But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son; only the Father. Take heed, therefore, and watch, for you do not know when that time will come. [Mark 13: 21-33]

 

Who knew our earth’s fate was to be the waiting room for seeing Christ? In this waiting room, we watch; some work who are of able body and mind; and some just wait. Every one of those activities is important, but not easy.

The Irish avant-garde playwright Samuel Beckett penned the intriguing two act play “Waiting for Godot.” It is staged very sparsely with one bare tree and two tramps in bowler hats.  Sparknotes include this summary of the plot:

 

Two men, Vladimir and Estragon, meet near a tree. They converse on various topics and reveal that they are waiting there for a man named Godot. While they wait, two other men enter. Pozzo is on his way to the market to sell his slave, Lucky. He pauses for a while to converse with Vladimir and Estragon. Lucky entertains them by dancing and thinking, and Pozzo and Lucky leave.

After Pozzo and Lucky leave, a boy enters and tells Vladimir that he is a messenger from Godot. He tells Vladimir that Godot will not be coming tonight, but that he will surely come tomorrow. Vladimir asks him some questions about Godot and the boy departs. After his departure, Vladimir and Estragon decide to leave, but they do not move as the curtain falls.

The next night, Vladimir and Estragon again meet near the tree to wait for Godot. Lucky and Pozzo enter again, but this time Pozzo is blind and Lucky is dumb [mute]. Pozzo does not remember meeting the two men the night before. They leave and Vladimir and Estragon continue to wait.

Shortly after, the boy enters and once again tells Vladimir that Godot will not be coming. He insists that he did not speak to Vladimir yesterday. After he leaves, Estragon and Vladimir decide to leave, but again they do not move as the curtain falls, ending the play.

 

 

 

Watching and waiting for Christ will not be like waiting for Godot. Christ will come. But in the meantime, life goes on: with conversations, with tragedies, with encounters with strangers, and with messengers.  Like a sparsely staged play, if your life were a play, would it largely take place in a living room, or on a road; in an office or in a care center? And if you were the director of your own play, how would you stage your life, waiting for the return of Christ?

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                 December 3, 2017

 

11-26-17 CHRIST IS KING!

CHRIST IS KING!

Ephesians 1: 15-23; Matthew 25: 31-36

 

I plan to take people from this congregation for a final time to the Holy Land on July 9, 2019. The first time I took a group was in February of 1998, almost 20 years ago! I keep going back not just because it’s where Jesus was born and performed miracles, but because I also saw evidence of why Jesus is called “Christ” and “King of kings!” I was moved when I saw the empty tomb, an I imagined what it was like to have Peter and Mary and the others peer inside and find no body! Wow! He is a “Risen Savior!” He really is King of kings and Lord of lords as Handel put to music in his masterpiece “Messiah.” Jesus’ fateful journey started on a cross at Golgotha. You can see Golgotha outside of the walls of Jerusalem, even today. Churches around the world have crosses; sometimes they are silver, sometimes gold, and sometimes wood. Sometimes they are plain and other times ornate. They can be at the top of steeples, on walls or tables, or on a necklace around one’s neck. The cross, no doubt, is most recognizable symbol of Christianity. But the cross symbolizes an event that brutally ended one’s life. One person once said he could not imagine people wearing little electric chairs around their neck to remember someone who was put to death. Yet the cross is our symbol because the cross was not the end of Jesus! His body was lovingly taken down, placed in a gifted tomb, and he arose from the dead! He was alive again—the Christ—the King! Still, there is another way to say you are a Christian than with a cross. It is the fish!  Early Christians used that symbol in secret, because living a Christian life was difficult. If a Christian came up to another person and wasn’t sure the other was a Christian, the first one would nonchalantly draw an arc on the ground with a foot as they were engaged in conversation. If the other person was not a Christian, the gesture would be meaningless. If the other one was a Christian, their foot would draw a second overlapping arc in the dust of the ground, creating the sign of the fish like I described to in today’s Children’s Sermon. The sign of the fish—a reminder of the man who called us to be fishers of men—of people—is another symbol for people who call Jesus Christ. It sets apart Christians from non-Christians. But wouldn’t it be nice for buildings and bumper stickers to have depictions of an empty tomb, the main sign that God was doing something big? That is a great symbol! But we use crosses, maybe because an empty tomb is hard to depict. On that first Holy Land trip, our group went to the Garden Tomb next to the place of the skull called “Golgotha” in Hebrew, or “Calvary” in Latin. The life-changing event that Jesus gave was not just that he died for us. That is noble, and it is sacrificial, but it is not unique. People have died protecting our country or protecting their family. The unique, life-changing event that happened to Jesus was that he came back from being dead! Three days dead! Rising from the dead is called resurrection! That Sunday morning, the tomb was empty and Christ had risen from the dead! That is, I believe, the most important and unique aspect of our faith.  Sometimes the world gets it wrong. The story is told of a new boy coming up for a children’s sermon one Sunday. That pastor asked, “What do you think happened when Jesus came out of that tomb?” That new little boy thought and timidly answered, “He saw his shadow and there were six more weeks of winter?”  On the other extreme, there were some disbelievers who have suggested that Jesus’ followers stole his body to make it seem like Jesus’ predictions came true. That is known as “The Stolen Body Hypothesis. But Matthew 27 records that the Pharisees were afraid just such a think would happen, so they asked Pontius Pilate to allow them to guard the tomb. Pilate agreed. There was no robbery of that tomb.

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The apostle Paul wrote about the resurrection in his letter to the Ephesians, to solidify their faith, and to answer the questions of seekers. In chapter 1, verse 20 and the following he declares that “Christ was raised from the dead and was directed to sit at the right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age, but also in that which is to come; and [God] has put all things under his feet and made him head over all things for the church.”

 

One Easter, the late William Sloan Coffin preached this:

[After] 2000 years … it looks more like a Good Friday than an Easter world. In totalitarian countries, politicians have yet to hear [as Pilate heard] “You are not Caesar’s friend,” and away they fall like autumn leaves, while in more democratic countries, politicians seek to minimize their responsibilities, washing their hands and thereby plaiting the crown of thorns. Like Peter, most of us follow our Lord halfway, but not the other half. As for the majority of citizens, are they not like the crowd that gathered at Calvary, not to cheer the crucifixion, but also not to protest it? Failing to realize that compassion without confrontation is hopelessly sentimental, the people go home, beating their breasts, preferring guilt to responsibility. (W.S. Coffin, “Easter and Forgiveness”)

 

We are not filled with the new life Jesus offers if we just use the church to be sprinkled with water, sprinkled with rice, or sprinkled with dirt. There is more to church than rituals and more to Christ than prayer. What a difference there is between being a Christian through rituals, and being a Christian because you are doing what Jesus would do! We can become his hands, feet, and heart! We can actually feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, and help the homeless find a home or work alongside of them building it! We could fulfill Matthew 25! For some, that means putting legs on their faith. We in Volusia County, and even in this congregation, have opportunities to do any of those activities; to do what Jesus would do. If you are unable to do those things, then you can support the missionaries and outreach programs of our church so you can do them through someone else. Or come next Sunday to our Christmas Market and buy a gift of mission, empowering someone else to be the hands, feet, and heart of Christ for the world.

 

Let me close with these thoughts by Dr. Bill Carl, Professor of Homiletics and President of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary:

Christianity is not merely a religion that was marketed well with just the right political spin by gifted writers. It is a living, breathing, ongoing conversation with God, humanity, and all creation, empowered by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Without the resurrection, there would have been no Christianity, no Christendom, no hymns, no seminaries, no churches, and no nativity scenes. Jesus lives, not in the sense that King Lear or Hamlet or [even] Handel’s Messiah live on in the hearts and minds of people, but in the sense that something totally new has happened and keeps happening [!] The resurrection is the ultimate breakthrough of God into our world that transcends all nature and history!”

 

By God’s will and action, Jesus arose from the dead! His name is above every other name! And Jesus Christ is truly King of kings and Lord of lords! If he is Lord of your life, as he is of mine, don’t just say it; let your life and your actions reflect it.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                  November 26, 2017

 

11-19-17 THE REASON WHY

The Reason Why

It was the day August 17, 1960, four men leave on a journey that would be the start of one of, if not the most influential bands in the world.  They would play on and off in Hamburg from August 1960 to December 1962.  The first time they played in Hamburg they played forty-eight nights straight and by the time they were done in 1962, they had started to hone their ability and showmanship on stage; These skills would achieve them a recording contract; a contract that would take them to a greatness that they never knew they could have.  One that they all sought, but that only through perseverance faith and trust, would they achieve.

In the year 354 a man that is known as an early North African Christian theologian and philosopher, whose writings went on to influence Western Christianity and Western Philosophy to this day was born.  He believed that the Grace of Christ was indispensable to a human’s freedom.  He is said to be of influence to such Christians as the Calvinists and Lutherans; and is also thought of as one of the main influences and theological fathers of the Protestant Reformation due to his teachings on salvation and divine grace.  His thoughts profoundly influenced the medieval worldview. The segment of the Church that adhered to the concept of the Trinity as defined by the Council of Nicaea and the Council of Constantinople [8] closely identified with Augustine’s On the Trinity He tells a story in his autobiography, The Confessions. He remembers that he did not steal the fruit because he was hungry, but because “it was not permitted.”[41] His very nature, he says, was flawed. ‘It was foul, and I loved it. I loved my own error—not that for which I erred, but the error itself.”[41] From this incident he concluded the human person is naturally inclined to sin, and in need of the grace of Christ.”

Oswald Chambers a Scottish preacher of the eighteen and 19 hundreds, that served as a chaplain to the YMCA and also in World War one writes this in the back ground to the scripture 1 Corinthians 10:31  whatever you do, do all to the glory of GodThe true test of a saint’s life is not successfulness but faithfulness on the human level of life. We tend to set up success in Christian work as our purpose, but our purpose should be to display the glory of God in human life, to live a life “hidden with Christ in God” in our everyday human conditions (Colossians 3:3). Our human relationships are the very conditions in which the ideal life of God should be exhibited.  Does everything we do glorify the Lord?

One of my classes in Seminary was on mission and ministry development.  The basis of it seemed to be simple; find motivating ways to develop the mission and ministry of the Church and all that that entailed.  The day came, and we started the class; the readings seemed light and the class seemed easy.  A couple of days into the class after reading the opening chapter of the book.  I started to read the next chapter.  What I read stimmed me; stopped me dead in my tracks.  It was stated so truthfully so evident as I had never heard before, “It is not our ministries who make Christ present, it is the present living Christ that makes our ministries alive.”  It’s nothing that I, we or us, do to make Christ alive, the Christ is the reason we are.  I had been looking at it the wrong way.  A better way to say it might be who came first me or Jesus.  This made me think.  It made me reform again as we are called to do; to form and reform; again, and again; as the Church; in the Church; the living church.  The problem was me; I still had power; I still thought for some odd reason I did something; I hadn’t fully realized true grace.  The true grace that Paul was speaking of. (the reason why) A grace that is formed through reliance; A total reliance; a reliance that does not come from anything we do; but a reliance that is built on the true faith of the Christ; in the Christ; and through the Christ; for all the Son of man did and does for us all day every day in our lives.  A reliance that is not a hard yoke to have but had only through the practice of Love and faith.  This yoke is made for all of us, all of us to have. “To participate in Christs ministry means that we share in his life.”  We are alive and acting in the Christ in all we do.  What does that mean; that means the Christ is alive in us; (The reason Why) that those two sets of footprints have become one, that there is no more me alone; no more you alone; that you don’t even have to try to feel him, he’s already there.  He’s been there the whole time!!  This has been said many ways; many times, as it is spoken in the Bible, yelled from the mountaintops, and whispered to you at night when your asleep.  This calling is for us not to be concerned of when the time is for the coming of the Lord; but to know that everything is going to be ok.  To know that it was always going to be ok; no matter what. This knowing, this confidence of course is faith.  A faith that is shown to us by our father in the love and grace he showed to us through the coming of the reason why’ Jesus the Christ.  A faith that we can emulate as we are shown to emulate the actions of our Lord and Savior.

In looking back at the first reading today, we have to look at the Old Testament to get a better grasp.  In the old testament the conception of the Day of the Lord is quite common and all the pictures and ideals that go along with the day of the Lord has been attached to the second coming.  All time was divided into two ages.  There was this present age which was wholly and incurably bad. Then there was the age to come which would be the golden age of God.  In between these times was known as the day of the Lord which would be a terrible day.  It would be a day in which one world was shattered and another was born.  Even though the writers of the New Testament paralleled this idea with the second coming of Jesus the Christ;  Jesus himself said that no one had any idea when that would be except God.  Who are we to be God?  This scripture goes on to say that we are called to be the church; to be upright in all our endeavors and to encourage others to do the same.  As it reads in 1st Thessalonians verse nine “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ and in verse 11 Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.”  This is not a sentence of death as the second coming of the Lord but more as reason to live and live on in the grace of the Christ.  This grace seems to flow through all us, living and breathing in us as the Holy Spirit.  That there is no concern, but to be, to do and to live in this grace so freely given to us by our Lord and savior.  The power of what we are.  This glorification of God.  The Glorification of all that God is; to live in the Christ. As the baptized actions of Love.  The Love that is eternal; divine; pure; the truth the way and the life. The reason why!!

 

Recently I ministered at a celebration of life for two men that I have known for a number of years that recently passed away.  When it came to the time of others sharing about the two men as always it was awkward, at first, for someone to approach the Pulpit, but as the first person came and spoke of the men, then it became easier for the others.  They spoke of them as saints.  As people that went out of their way, beyond themselves to be of service to others.  These were not men that practiced a Godly life, or even dressed the part. But they were men that went out of their way to serve others.  They served to the best of their ability, that others may be shown the same Love that they were shown.  That Love that surpasses all things; Gods love.  They took their lives and their work in a Godly way.  As Court liaisons they helped men in trouble with the law find ways to start over.  From the long term incarcerated to first time offenders they helped men to become alive again. To live again; as we are called in the same manner to live again, no matter what age, no matter who we are to live again every day.  fresh and new in the Christ.  In the living baptism of the Christ.

In the year 1873, on the day of January 2, in Alençon, France A baby was born to the parents, Marie-Azélie Guérin and Louis Martin.  Marie and Louis were normal parents that lived a good life that wanted their children to live that same life.  They were very devout and as soon as their young daughter was baptized she saw the greatness of God.  She was, as it was said, to become empty of all that she was and to become filled with the Christ.  That there was nothing left of her only him.  This was a total commitment she made to God; to Gods love and to become that love more and more for the rest of her life.  She became a Carmelite nun and lived on to be the action of the Christ in all that she did.  She died at a young age from tuberculosis, but because of the life she led she was never forgotten.  She lived out her vocation to the fullest not because she was scared of the end, but because she was; she was alive; reborn again and again.  Even when she  was sick and knew she was dying she never flinched in service to the novices she served or to any other of her duties.  This service, as she is known for coining the Phrase “ The Little way”  was not anything that was seen by many; and even in some people’s views, looked down upon as weak.  But in her heart she knew she had been called.  Called as all of us are called; To be the best we can be at what we are and who we are; the best at what our callings are.

This is our Thanksgiving; our thanksgiving to God.. The definition of thanksgiving, of course besides the day that is always on a Thursday and is celebrated by eating way to much and suffering from the reality of tryptophan, which was always my fathers excuse for napping after Dinner, no matter whether we ate turkey or not, is actually defined as “the expression of gratitude, especially to God.”  This seems to bring this celebration to a new light.  As gratitude is defined as  “the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.” Thanksgiving seems to be built around love, the action of God and all that God is.  To glorify him in all we do; as the people I spoke of earlier that led their lives no matter whether they knew it or not in this glorification of God.

This celebration of gratitude is a celebration of life itself in everything we do and everything we are.  The action of Jesus glorified in us; through us in all our actions to be the best we can be at what ever it is we are called to be. The reason why

Matthew 25, our second reading today, seems to solidify this Godly action of Thanksgiving.  More than that it shows us the great adventure that life truly is and can be if we simply follow him and live in this grace so freely given.

The parable of the talents has somewhat been a little misinterpreted as the word talents has seemed to become in modern day as a form of currency.  The Talent was actually not a coin it was a weight; and therefore the value of it was dependent on whether the coinage involved was copper Gold or silver.  The most common metal used at the time was silver and the value of a talent of silver was about 300 dollars.  Of course when we look at this parable the first thing we focus on is the useless servant.  This is somewhat thought to be and could be looked at as the Pharisees and the Scribes with their attitudes towards the law and the truth of God.  The servant buried his talent in the ground to keep it the same as it was; to give it back to his master exactly as it was; of the same context; same old same old.  Their idea was to keep the law the same.  As William Barclay states ”In their own phrasing they sought to build a fence around the law, any change, any alteration, anything new was anathema.” Or  something that was to be vehemently disliked.  In all true reality he is saying this is why they are condemned.  This seems to verify our action of the church as reforming.  As a Church of change and renewal, not one that buries its head in the ground.

As the servants that received different amounts of talents, one receiving five, another two and another one; we as people of the God all have different callings in life; different gifts, different ways of serving the lord.  We shouldn’t bury them in the ground, but use them to the best of our abilities.  We are to live life in the Christ to the fullest we can. Honing our skills as the Beatles did in Hamburg.  Or becoming the best we can to be of service to God and to others as Augustine of Hippo was.  Or in the humblest form, a servant of all others as  Therese of Lisieux.

May we be called to live the adventure known to us as life; life in the Christ.  To live in thanks for all that has been given to us; that the true servant of God is one who does not give up; but lives in the Christ to the fullest; the best they can.  This is not perfection; rather it is gratitude. The reason why.

We don’t do these things because of anything we do; but rather what Jesus does for us.  This is the gratitude; the reason why. Thanksgiving.  Our missions, our Jobs, our callings, are not based on us, but rather what God is in us and through us.  We as people of God are called in the Holy Spirit to be the best we can, at everything we are. To be adventurous, not to sit; to let the world go by; but to be apart of it as it changes in us and through us; as it changes us; changing the church; building our faith; renewing our reality of grace; growing our faith as Gods people.  The fire that burns over our heads and in our hearts. The reason why, the Father the Son and the Holy Ghost; Happy Thanksgiving; all gratitude to God.

 

 

11-12-17 A WEDDING STORY

A WEDDING STORY

Matthew 25: 1-13

 

So many wedding customs have changed or been altered or neutralized over time that yesterday’s traditions don’t always apply to today’s weddings. Sure some brides still plan to carry “something old, something new, something borrowed, or something blue” to their wedding, but original meanings of dress colors and of bridal veils have largely been discarded. Jesus, in his day, new exactly how Jewish weddings were carried out and we’ll hear about those in a minute. But just as an example, listen to what was written in the book called The Amish Wedding by Stephen Scott in the section called “The Wedding Season:”

Farm work, religious beliefs, logistics, and tradition all play a role in limiting wedding dates for the Lancaster Amish. It is inconvenient to hold weddings before the last of the harvest work is completed. After Christmas, severe weather can make travel difficult. A full day is needed to prepare for a wedding, and making these arrangements on a Sunday would be considered sacrilegious. That leaves out Monday. Many weddings are held on a Tuesday; but Wednesday is out because people in a Tuesday wedding would be cleaning up from the previous day and those preparing for a Wednesday wedding could not attend on Tuesday. Thursday is a good day, but a wedding could not be held on a Saturday because there could be no clean up on Sunday. As for Friday, weddings simply have never been held on that day.  [Good Books, PA, p. 9]

 

Isn’t it interesting how customs change and have gotten started! For example, it is also said that the custom of using a string of XXXXs for kisses when ending a letter came from one of three understandings:

  • From universal illiteracy, in that many people who could not read or write signed their name with an “X.”
  • From the sign of St. Andrew, St. Peter’s brother, and the patron saint of Scotland, who is said to have been crucified on an X shaped cross. A kiss with an X was thus a pledge in the name of St. Andrew.
  • The X is the Greek letter Chi, the first letter in the name of Christ the Lord. (That research was discovered by author Tad Taluja and recorded in his book, Curious Customs. Harmony Books, New York, 40)

So friends, I tell you today that Christians over the centuries, who have longed for the return of their Lord, would cry out “Here Comes the Bridegroom, not “here comes the bride!” And “here comes the bride,” is a song title falsely attached to the Bridal Chorus from Wagner’s “Lohengrin.”  As my Princeton preaching professor explained in his book: That march “was never intended for use in a religious ceremony. The so-called Bridal Chorus, from Wagner’s Lohengrin … occurs in the opera after the wedding in an atmosphere of distrust and hatred that ended in death and separation.” The groom dies and the bride weeps, all to the chorus with the ironic words, “faithful and true.”  [Presbyterian Worship, 1980, John Knox Press. P. 85]

 

Customs have been distorted from their original intended use in many areas of life.  So, then, it should not surprise us that the Jewish wedding guests of Jesus’ day would likely not have cried out “Here comes the bride!” but rather, “Here comes the groom!”  Well before a wedding, the father of the groom would speak to the father of the young woman whom the groom’s father had chosen for his son. The two fathers would negotiate the bride price, which the father of the groom would pay to the father of the bride for the privilege of having his daughter’s hand for his son. It would be a high price. The bride would them go about selecting her bridesmaids and preparing to wait; and to wait; and to wait. They would need to be ready, and there would need to be enough oil for their lamps so as not to disappoint the groom and his entourage on his return.  When would they return? Who knew? They had to wait while the prospective groom and his father talked to him about his readiness to be a husband, a provider, and perhaps later, a father. The father of the groom trained his son in the ways of marriage while they worked together to build a room on the father’s house where the new couple would live. Only when the father decided his son was ready would he release him to return and get his bride, day or night!  If the bridesmaids were not prepared to go at that time, they would be left behind! So the parable is not about waiting like statues with lamps burning for his return; it’s about wise planning and being alert and ready for his arrival so oil supplies were there and at least one lamp was left burning to light the lamps of the others.

 

Why all this talk about weddings? Because Jesus’ parable seems like that’s what it’s about, but it’s about more. You’ve heard of the church being called “the bride of Christ” before?  Last week, for example, we sang “The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord; She is his new creation by water and the word. From heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride.” Did you hear it? The church—the company of the faithful—has traditionally been referred to as “The Bride of Christ” so that a parable like this will describe more than wedding customs. It describes how the groom—Jesus—will return for his bride—the church—at a time unknown by anyone except his Father. And when he returns, he will take his bride to the room he and his father prepared on the father’s house. It’s described in John 14. The father will have paid the bride price, and we will live with Jesus in heaven.

 

So, when will Jesus come again? Paul attempted to comfort the Thessalonians about meeting the Lord in the air, but that was said to a group of people who wondered what would happen to their dead and buried relatives if they died before the time of Jesus’ resurrection. The parable Jesus told us gives us better insights about “the Day.” (The Day of the Lord.) I’ve been getting another wave of literature in my mailbox and on my desk sent by well-meaning people, telling me that their careful and scholarly unpacking of Scripture has revealed the time Christ will come again, and it  is soon! But here’s the point; they don’t know. You don’t know; I don’t know; only the Father knows when his son will return! But is it a warning, or a reminder, to be ready because Jesus will return at an unexpected hour? Yes. And we should heed that news carefully. Until then, we prepare our lamps and keep them at the ready by:

  • Reading God’s Word and being in constant prayer;
  • Spreading the word that Jesus came to earth and he will come again to judge both the living (the quick) and the dead, according to the Nicene Creed and according to 2 Timothy 4:1.
  • Confessing Jesus as Lord and finding the peace of God that passes all understanding.

So how long will you live? How long will I live? God only knows! We are urged to live each day as if we can see the light of Christ returning for us! When that happens, the faithful and true Church—the bride of Christ—longs to hear the voice of an angel, calling down to us from the Holy City, exclaiming, “Here comes the groom!”

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                 November 12, 2017