Category Archives: Christianity

10-14-18 JOB

Rev. Cumbow Preaching

When I read this Hebrews passage of God’s word being a two-edged sword that cuts, slices, lays bare, so that someone can be examined, I could only think of the trials of Job. In the second part of the scripture, that talks about approaching the throne of grace with boldness, I could only think of Job who spoke boldly and honestly with a rawness that is shocking. Job is cut down by God’s word, and his faith is examined. Job says harsh things to God and about God, and yet God shows up and shows Job grace. Not so coincidentally, Job was also one of the assigned Old Testament passages for this morning that was assigned by the lectionary. So this morning, I will provide a narrative retelling of Job, weaving in the book of Hebrews into the story. May you hear a new word, gain fresh insight, and hear the good news of the Gospel from this well-known Bible story:

There once was a man from the land of Uz whose name was Job.  He was blameless, upright, turned away from evil, and feared God. He had a wife, three daughters, seven sons, hundreds of sheep, oxen, and donkeys, thousands of camels, and many servants. Job was a faithful man who was very blessed, who rose early in the morning to give burnt offerings for all of his family…just in case they had sinned. While Job was relishing his rich life on earth, the heavenly beings gathered and presented themselves to the Lord. Questions arose about Job’s character among the heavenly beings. Was Job really faithful? Or did he just appear faithful because he had been so blessed? Would he be so pious if he wasn’t so blessed? Satan, the Accuser approached and asked God, “Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” God caught onto the rising suspicion and agreed to let Satan the Accuser to have power over Job’s family and belongings, with one condition. God said, “Only do not stretch out your hand against him.” The word of God was alive and active, spoken to judge the thoughts and intentions of Job’s heart.

It happened in an instant. All in one day Job lost everything. He was blindsided when a few surviving servants came breathlessly running to tell him that Sabeans and Chaldeans came to raid his livestock and killed his servants, that a fire from heaven fell down to kill the rest of his livestock and servants, and that a great wind knocked down the house of the eldest son killing all of Job’s children. In just a blink, everything and everyone that Job had or cared for was gone. In a rush of grief, Job stood and tore his clothes, then shaved his head stripped bare, saying, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” The living word of God laid Job naked and bare so that he might render an account of his actions; and that he did. Job did not curse God; but the Accuser wasn’t yet convinced. So Satan went before God again, and again God consented to let the Accuser take control so long as Job’s life was spared. Just when Job thought he had nothing left to lose, Satan inflicted loathsome sores on his entire body, from the sole of his feet to the crown of his head. Job, now a broken man, sat on the ground, slowly scraping his skin with a potsherd. The two-edge sword that is the word of God pierced Job, divided his soul from his spirit. He was mourning, miserable, and distressed.

Job’s friends found him sitting on the ground in an unrecognizable state. Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite came to sit with him on the ground with him for seven days. They sat together, in the pain and in the silence, for a week. Sitting in the pain with a friend is the most powerful thing a person can do. However, these three friends made the mistake that every person makes: they got uncomfortable with the pain and began saying unhelpful things to try to “fix” it for Job. When people get uncomfortable with sitting in the pain they try to make sense of it, saying there must be a reason behind it, that maybe the person who is experiencing pain somehow brought upon themselves. Or even worse, there are the platitudes like, God will never give you more than you can handle, which anyone who has experienced loss or tragedy will say is untrue. This is the mistake we all make when our friends and family suffer, and this is what Job’s friends did.

Eliphaz said, “Those who plow iniquity sow trouble and reap the same.” Bildad told Job to make a “supplication to the Almighty.” Zophar warned Job that, “God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves.” Together they said that Job had created trouble, so he was reaping trouble; he must repent because he has gotten the punishment that his sins deserved. These words were spoken to try to fix what was happening, but they only served to kick Job while he was down. This cycle repeated itself 3 times where Eliphaz condemns Job, Job defends himself, Bildad condemns, Jobs defends, Zophar condemns, Job defends, and it starts all over again with Eliphaz. Over and over again these friends slammed Job with accusations and with shallow comfort. Surely Job must have done something to deserve all this right? These friends could only come to this conclusion. Any other conclusion might have threatened their understanding of God; it was easier for them to beat up on Job than it was for them to assess whether or not their beliefs and their theology might need to be challenged, questioned, and stretched. They chose to guard their beliefs instead of showing compassion to Job.

Job stood firm and bold. Each time one of his friends came after him, Job defended himself. Job called out to God, demanded answers and sought out help. Truly, this is what it means to approach the throne of grace with boldness when he said, “I loathe my life! I curse the day I was born. Oh that it would please God to crush me. My complaint is bitter! God has made my heart faint; The Almighty has terrified me.” Such strong and powerful words that Job dared to speak aloud to his friends and to God can be a shock to hear; and yet scripture said he never cursed or sinned when he spoke. Job said, “God has crushed me with a tempest; if it is a contest of strength, God is the strong one! How will you, my friends, comfort me? Your answers are nothing but falsehoods.” These are the words of a man who had nothing and no one, and was only left to defend himself with boldness. If his friends could not answer him, who was left?

There was one more friend who has been silent this entire time, a young man named Elihu. One would think a fresh set of eyes and a new perspective would be a breath of fresh air for this toxic cycle of despair, but Elihu rebuked Job as well, and said, “You said I am clean without transgression, but you are not right. Why do you contend against God?” It would be easy to dismiss Elihu, but he provided a segue into what was to be the living, active, and physically present word of God. Elihu told Job about the elusive wisdom and action of God, and said, “God is greater than any mortal. For God speaks in one way, and in two, though people do not perceive it.  See, God is exalted in power. Who is a teacher like God?” Elihu explained that Job and all people do not see what God is at work doing in all of God’s wisdom. There had to be something happening behind the scenes that no one was aware of.

This is when the word of God became living and active in a completely new way when God directly answered Job. God made a theatrical entrance by way of whirlwind. God from this whirlwind declared, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place, so that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth, and the wicked be shaken out of it? Look at Behemoth, which I made just as I made you; it eats grass like an ox. Its bones are tubes of bronze, its limbs like bars of iron. Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook, or press down its tongue with a cord? Its breath kindles coals, and a flame comes out of its mouth.” God tells of the wonders of creation with incredible and mighty animals like behemoth and leviathan. God speaks of the wisdom of the cosmos, that no one else has but God. How can someone like Job judge God when Job doesn’t have the wisdom of all creation? Job repents in dust an ashes.

Here comes the twist, and the surprise of this distressing story: God said that the friends have not spoken what is right about God, but Job had. The friends had defended God, or at least their beliefs about God; Job was the one who defended himself and said shocking, audacious things about God. Job had dared to approach the throne of grace with boldness, and God approved of the rawness and honesty that Job brought before the throne. God’s wrath was kindled against the friends who had to go and sacrifice burnt offerings. God’s compassion is shown when Job’s possessions and family are restored. There is no pretty bow to tie up this story neatly with a satisfying resolution, because Job still suffered and his previous family is gone forever. Maybe that is the point: life is messy, God’s word is often unclear, but God always shows up in the mess. So let us learn from Job that when we cannot grasp divine wisdom when God’s word cuts us like a two-edged sword, we are allowed to approach the throne of grace boldly, honestly, daringly, baring our souls and seeking compassion. Praise be to God. Amen.

10-07-18 Jesus’ Place in the Cosmos

Jesus’ Place in the Cosmos

Hebrews 1: 1-4; 2: 5-12

 

Last week if you were here, you’ll remember that Jesus’ had his disciples telling Jesus that they had witnessed person who were not following Jesus casting out Jesus in his name. Jesus told them, in so many words, ‘So what? Those who are not against us are for us!” This week we get to go from the bottom of the ladder of life—demons and the devil—to the top of the ladder of life. My absolute favorite source of such heavenly information is from the book of Hebrews in the New Testament. But it is a deep dive to discover the gold in this letter! Dr. Tom Long, who taught Homeletics at both Princeton Theological Seminary and Columbia Theological Seminary said this in his commentary on the book:

Among the books of the New Testament, the epistle to the Hebrews stands out as both strange and fascination. Unique in style and content, as a piece of literature it is simply unlike an other of the epistles. Though some of its phrases are among the best known and often quoted passages in the New Testament, some contemporary Christians are largely unacquainted with the book as a whole, finding themselves lost in serpentine passageways and elaborate theological arguments.  For those who take the ropes and spikes and torches and descend into the murky cave of Hebrews, there is much we wish we could discover, but our historical lanterns are too dim. [Intrepretation, Hebrews, Louisville, John Knox Press, 1997, p. 1]

 

Today we will and the rest of this month we will sermonically plumb some of the depths of the Hebrews cave. I once spoke with a woman who claimed that the Bible told her that her husband was the designated coffee maker of the family. “Where did you find that?” her husband asked. “Right here, see?” she said. “He brews!” Today we will  go deeper than that!

 

As we are whisked into Heaven we find a description of Jesus’ place in the world, we read: “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being …. He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.” [Hebrews 1:3-4] In the early 1990s there was a flurry of interest in “angels.” Dozens of books hit the market including  “On the Wings of Angels,” “Know Your Angels,”  “Angels Ever Near,” and “Angels: The Mysterious Messengers.” We collected those and 10 more in our church library at that time. Angels, it seemed, were easier to imagine, to appreciate, and to communicate with than God or the Holy Spirit. People began to pray to angels (not something I recommend) and study angels.  The Bible does acknowledge angels, not only in today’s passage from Hebrews, but also in  Gabriel’s appearance before Zechariah to announce the birth of John the Baptist, in his annunciation to Mary about Jesus, in the comforting visit to Joseph, and the annunciation to the shepherds in Luke. The shepherds received a heavenly host, or “army” of angels in Bethlehem. Gabriel also appears in Daniel 8 and Daniel 9.

And an Archangel, or “chief angel” named Michael, is in Jude verse 9, in Revelation 12, and in Daniel 10 and 12. John Calvin, in his masterful Institutes of the Christian Religion, says: “The angels are the dispensers and administrators of the divine beneficence [kindness and mercy] toward us …”  [Book I]

 

In the last 10 years interest in Saints and Mystics has grown. People yearn to know what ancient followers of Christ taught and how they lived. Many books on those topics hit the shelves again, describing Saints, mystics, and Early Church Fathers. . Some of what the mystics wrote was distinctly unorthodox. In the past few years many people say they are “spiritual” instead of “religious.”  But self-taught spirituality  can become a vegetable soup of every kind of faith. Does your spiritual soup need a touch of Judaism, a pinch of Buddhism, and a smidge of Eastern Religion in a Christian broth, of Christianity, its hard to know how it will taste! Spirituality on the internet is not always grounded in one faith; it explores what seems holy, or mystical, or wondrous.

 

The Christian pulpits  must keep pointing to the Christian true north to be a compass for the faithful and for the seeker. Today’s passage from Hebrews is the right kind of text that grounds us in the powers of God, the messengers of God, and the people of God.  Hebrews is a wonderful book that puts Christ in his rightful place at the right hand of “The Majesty on High” according to Hebrews 1:3. According to verse 1, God is the Creator of the world. This is what we have studied the entire month of September in my Wednesday Bible Study. According to Genesis 1:26, human beings were given the unique ability to choose right from wrong. They were given “dominion” over God’s Earth and God’s creatures, but the better translation is we were given “responsibility” for God’s earth and God’s creatures. Creatures and plants and mountains honor God by being; people honor God by their choices. So at the top of the order is God; there is not a bunch of gods, there is one. But in this time in which we are living, which the writer of Hebrews called “the last days,” “God has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed to be the heir [the inheritor] of all things, and through whom [meaning the Son] God created the world! Here it is! The other confirmation that Christ, the Son was fully present with the Majestic Creator in the beginning! John says it; this writer says it too! So the Son is not just a Johnny-come-lately Jesus born to Mary. Before he became human, he was fully Divine and at the Creation! What a claim! The writer continues to describe the Son in verse 3: “He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power.” Wow! This is where the early creedal writers grounded some of their beliefs. John Calvin again says: “To sit at the right hand of the Father is no other thing than to govern in the place of the Father, as deputies of princes are wont to do to whom a full power over all things is granted. And the word majesty is added, and also on high, and for this purpose, to intimate that Christ is seated on the supreme throne whence the majesty of God shines forth.” [Calvin’s Commentary, Vol. 22, Baker Books; reprinted in 2005, p. 39.] So friends, the one who is glad to receive our adoration; the one to whom all glory and praise is due, is God, the Majestic! Along side is the Son called Christ, given all the fullness of the Divine. But the blessing we receive through Christ is when he came to earth he experienced our humanness as well, with all our temptations and pains and joys. If anyone can plead our case to the Majestic Judge and Maker of all the earth, it is our Lord Jesus! So we pray in his name, almost like a cc. in an email or a carbon copy in earlier days. We want Jesus to hear our prayers too! After our praise, God can hear our requests, our pains, and our hopes.

 

The writer of Hebrews continues” “When he [meaning the Son] had made purification for our sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.”

Like a priest in the Jewish Temple practices, Jesus has to purify [or completely wash clean] the sins of believers before they are presented on the Throne of Grace. It is called “justification,” which simply stated means, “Through Christ, we are presented before God just as if we had not sinned.” That’s what Jesus Christ does for us; no angel, no mystic, no saint has been given that power. Only the Son has it.

 

Today as we prepare to share this joyful meal with other Christians, we also share their beliefs: The one called “Majesty is supreme; equal power and status has been given to the Son; under the Son, but still Heavenly, are the Arch-angels, and the angels. They praise God and do the work of God, but they are not God. Ad on the earth, humans are God’s crown jewel according to the Bible. Sometimes we don’t act that way, but that’s what God has always thought of us in a “glass half full” kind of way. God thinks no less of his creatures and creation, but they, by their nature, glorify God, not by their choices. God wants people who can choose; to choose life and to choose the one called Majesty, and the one he metaphorically calls “the Son.”  So appreciate angels; study mystics, or revere saints. But glorify God through Jesus Christ, and come to prepare for this meal as an invited guest of God! Let us pray: Almighty God: we are preparing our hearts to come humbly into the presence of your holiness one day. Until then, we are honored to break this bread and drink from the cup to connect us with Christ and with Christians around the world. Bless, us we, pray, and the food we will share, in the name of Jesus. Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           October 7, 2018

 

09-30-18 ACTIONS THAT MATTER

ACTIONS THAT MATTER

Mark 9: 38-50

 

Believe it or not, the biggest event all year for Universal Studios, Orlando, is Halloween Horror Nights. The night event features “Scareactors” on the street and sidewalks of the park, plus 10 Haunted Houses, featuring themes from Poltergeist, the television show “Stranger Things,” and eight others. Thousands of people pay dearly to be scared out of their wits. It seems that no one wants the devil tormenting them in real life, but they like to watch scenes of horror from the comfort of home, or a theme park, or a movie theatre! I call it “controlled terror” where you can leave the ride, go out to the lobby of a theatre, or just close your eyes and get away from something sinister! One of the most graphic of the films from this genre was “The Exorcist.” Blending horror with bad theology, millions of people flocked to see it over the last four and a half decades. It’s a movie that threatens to pull faith from the faithful, as a priest is portrayed as being virtually powerless against a demon.  But scripture clearly puts Jesus on his own higher level with the power of God; under him are angels, and then, according to some sources, there are fallen angels, and humans. Time and time again in the Gospel of Mark and other Gospels, we find Jesus exorcising demons, and others doing it in Jesus’ name. Although Roman Catholic priests are probably asked to perform more exorcisms than any other clergy or layperson, today we are asked to consider if there is anything wrong with other people actually casting out demons in Jesus’ name?  Should we be concerned if someone who has never professed Jesus as Savior, is able to cast out demons using his name? That’s the issue the disciples had.  Today we have Jesus’ answer to that question: “Do not stop them. For no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon after to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.” Brilliant. Jesus has co-opted another person as a Christ believer if he casts out demons in his name; and then he makes them almost friends with his famous line “Whoever is not against us is for us.” What a way to build a bridge between professing Christians and others! It’s a good practice.

 

Sometimes it appears that churches try to almost copyright certain sacraments. Take baptism for example. It is performed in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit according to Jesus’ own words in the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19. The church for centuries said only ordained ministers could perform them. But now the church has looked back on Philip, in the book of Acts, and how he baptized an Ethiopian eunuch. The Presbyterian Church (USA) recently decided that Commissioned Pastors (which are laypeople) with permission and supervision from a Session, can baptize too. Like our lesson today, does it matter who baptizes, but that people, led by God’s Spirit, feel led to claim him as Savior? It’s a celebration time! Likewise, Jesus seems to say, “What does it matter if a person not following me is able to cast out demons by using my name?” This is a good thing!” (I’m paraphrasing.) We celebrate healing from demons no matter how it’s done. In today’s lesson we do not have someone doing evil; we have someone doing good through another method. And that gets under the skin of the disciples. Even they think there are right ways and wrong ways to achieve good results. In modern mental health, the goal is for a person to be healed from torment, or mental illness, or perceived demons. Does the manner of treatment matter if the person finds peace and healing?  In our world, there are competitive ads about diets that work. Isn’t the right diet for you the one that works?

 

Today, congregations across the globe are unified in their desire to glorify and praise God, and to lift up Jesus as the King of kings and the Lord of lords. Yet we disagree on the best way to do that! Since the  1990s, we have had what we’ve called the “Worship Wars” between those who think traditional worship is best and those who think contemporary worship is best. Marva Dawn, a church theologian, musician, and educator, wrote this in her 2003 book  How Shall we Worship?

Worship is a much-debated subject in twenty-first century North America. In the past three or four decades, many churches have had bitter fights over worship issues, and in many congregations have split internally or externally. …. How shall we sing the Lord’s song in this strange land? How should churches conduct their worship in the midst of a culture that less and less knows what worship is? …Why do congregations seem so often to be fighting over worship and music, styles and forms? To end the battles, some churches start multiple services, with two or three styles featured at separate times and labeled with such terms as “contemporary” or “traditional” or “blended/convergent.” Other churches specialize in a certain kind of “praise and worship” or advertise their services as “exciting and upbeat.” Do these descriptions and understandings enable churches to be all that they could be for the sake of the world around them? Why don’t churches seem to be affecting our culture [like they once did?] Why do so many say they are “spiritual” and want nothing to do with our churches’ worship? [pp. xiii-xiv]

 

Today’s lesson could be a modern-day parable that might go like this:
“Teacher, we saw someone who does not worship the way we worship, praising God! We tried to stop them because they were doing it wrong!”

It is to our own peril if we forget the goal of worship: not primarily self-gratification, like “I got a lot out of that service!” Not primarily “Did we do it the right way?” The goal is to glorify and praise the living God, maker of Heaven and Earth! The goal is to continuously be thankful that Jesus came to save us and show us the Way, the Truth, and the Life! The goal is to feel—in your own life—the power of God’s Holy Spirit moving within you, and empowering you to be the leaven for the world! Worship should send us forth reminding us why God needs us to change the world rather than to conform to the world. Worship should remind us that we—whether you are a church member, a seeker, or a visitor—can do things in Jesus’ name that bring healing and wholeness to others! Why should we fight about how we achieve these things? If some achieve Godly goals by speaking in tongues, let them! If some achieve Godly goals with contemporary worship, or traditional worship, let them! If some achieve Godly goals by being spiritual and not religious, let them! That’s what I hear Jesus saying to the church today: “No one who does a deed of power in my name will be able to speak evil of me; for whoever is not against us is for us.” [Mark 9: 39-40.]

 

Actions that matter are ones that honor God; that build up one another; actions that seek truth and justice. Wasted actions are ones that tear down or disparage others. Wasted actions seek to harm or to deflect. As Jesus’ disciples were concerned about the way someone else cast out demons in Jesus’ name, Jesus wanted to celebrate that demons were cast out! I will admit that I have said disparaging things about another congregation or two over the years. When I did, it did not make me feel bigger, nor did it make the other congregation get better. And God wasn’t glorified.  I learned because it got back to the other pastor that I had said rather unkind things in a thoughtless way.  But I learned. I swore to his face that I would never do that again. And I haven’t.  Now I think God is more pleased by the whole situation and is more honored. And I sleep better at night.  No matter how someone follows Jesus, let’s celebrate it! No matter how someone worships God, let’s honor it. And no matter how a person casts out demons, let us rejoice and be glad in it! All glory and praise to God, now and forever!

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                 September 30, 2018

09-23-18 JESUS REINTERPRETS WORLDLY LOGIC

JESUS REINTERPRETS WORLDLY LOGIC

Mark 9: 30-37

 

In our competitive world, I have heard it said more than once that if you do not win, you are the first loser. Football teams, dance squads, singers in competition, and especially politicians work very hard to win. Being first is important in our society.  I was amused on one occasion when Mary Ann and I were getting out of our car to walk toward the door of the restaurant, that out of the corner of my eye I could see another couple, she even with a walker, start moving amazingly fast to get to the door first! They were walking slowly and then, the race was on!  Being first matters in scholastics; and being first mattered in our nations’ race to the moon. But what about manners; do people still let ladies go first, or do people let someone who is elderly go first? Today we listen to Jesus himself as he reinterprets worldly logic.

Sometimes people who are last, who literally “miss the boat,” are the fortunate ones instead of the winners.

The conductor Arturo Toscanini was set to return to Europe aboard the Lusitania when his season at New York’s Metropolitan Opera ended. Instead, he cut his concert schedule short and left a week earlier, apparently aboard an Italian liner.

Toscanini, at the time, was in his late 40s. He lived for another four decades, until his death at age 89, in 1957.

 

Broadway composer Jerome Kern, then just 30 years old, supposedly planned to sail on the Lusitania with the producer Charles Frohman, but he overslept when his alarm clock didn’t go off, and he missed the ship. The makers of the 1946 MGM musical biopic of Kern’s life, Till the Clouds Roll By, apparently didn’t consider that sufficiently dramatic, so the movie has Kern (played by Robert Walker) racing to the pier in a taxi and arriving just as the ship starts to pull away.

Kern lived for another three decades and wrote the music for such classics of the American songbook as “Ol’ Man River,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” and “The Way You Look Tonight.”

He died in 1945 at the age of 60 of a cerebral hemorrhage.

 

William Morris

The founder and namesake of what’s said to be the world’s oldest and largest talent agency, William Morris, born Zelman Moses, not only missed the Lusitania’s last voyage in 1915 but also the Titanic’s first and only attempt to cross the Atlantic three years earlier.

In both cases, Morris had booked passage but canceled at the last minute to attend to other matters, according to The Agency: William Morris and the Hidden History of Show Business by Frank Rose (1995).  William Morris died of a heart attack in 1932, while playing pinochle.

 

More recently, this past summer a woman named Tia Coleman told her tragic tale of losing 9 family members in the Duck Boat that sank in July on a Branson, Missouri lake. All 11 of them were booked on a different departure time, but she literally missed that boat by arriving at the wrong departure location. Her ticket were changed to sail on the ill-fated 6:30 sailing. Only she and her 13-year-old nephew survived.

 

Those were some fortunate examples of being last, or late, and one very tragic example. In June of 1999 our Body, Mind, & Soul ministry was conducting health screenings. The nurse, Janet Conners, passed out the consent forms to participate. I held back, allowing others to get their screening first. They ran out of permission slips just when they got to me. “That’s alright, I don’t need one,” I said to Janet. “Oh Rev. Sumner,” she responded, “You are their leader! You need to do this too! I have another form in my car and I’ll go and get it.” That day I was the only one they screened that had a problem. That day they discovered I had diabetes. Being last and an alert nurse giving me a screening too let me get an early start treating a manageable disease.

 

When we think about others first and ourselves last, we are in Jesus’ arena. Could you believe his own disciples were talking amongst themselves about which of them was the greatest? There it is in Mark 9: 34. That was when he got the attention of his followers by saying: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all, and servant of all.” That is a message that turns the world’s message on its ear.  I know, for example, that some persons who end up being addicted to alcohol, or narcotics, or gambling, or food get better when, according to the Big Book used in 12-step programs, they hit their “Personal bottom.” They say to others, and to their Higher Power, that they are helpless to control their addictions without others holding them accountable. And so these 12-Step meetings, of which we have several meeting in our facilities, are not run by a leader. No one is first, or at the top. They have a convener. And each person becomes a follower of a new plan for his or her life. What a difference: to think of others first.  Lives change for the better when people do that.  We have a Twelve-Step small book in our church library. Our librarian looked it over as I asked her to check it out to me for this message. She said, “You know, I learned there is a lot of Christianity in that book!” Yes. Yes there is.

 

How might you make one change, or two changes in your life, to think about others more; to cheer them on as they make their way through life? We hear a lot about success stories. How often do we hear about the unsung heroes who make a difference?  How different would the world look if more people followed this lesson from Jesus, or the Twelve-Step principles?

 

I will not forget that in September of 2000 I learned another story of the last being first: A humble and intimidated swimmer named Eric Moussambani from Equatorial New Guinea won the hearts of the world. In his outdated, poorly fitting swimsuit, he swam to win in one of the slowest times on record because his competitors fouled out in the 2000 Summer Olympics. He trained for just nine months in a hotel swimming pool! He had never seen an Olympic-sized pool. It overwhelmed him! He was interviewed about his goal before the race: “To survive and not drown” was his answer!  The last became first and after his struggling finish, the Speedo company presented him with a new swimsuit! And an Orlando swim center also invited him to train at their facility instead of in a hotel pool! Wow.

 

Church pastors, teachers, and members, on our best days, try to model servant ministry. We are not perfect at it. “There are different gifts, but it is the same spirit who gives them.” Jesus modeled servant ministry by girding himself with a towel and washing the feet of disciples, cleaning them of dirt and mud.  In seminary one of my professors required us to read a little paperback by Herbert H. Farmer called “Servant of the Word.” His advice to upcoming preachers as I recall it: “Remember, you are not the light; your task is to let Christ’s light shine from the Word of God.” If we truly follow what Jesus modeled today, more of us could be people who think of others first.  Ironically it was no Christian, but an ancient Greek playwright named Sophocles who said this: “I’d rather fail by honor than succeed by fraud.” May any desire to be first in the world slip aside as we seek to let the servant Christ shine through us.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                 September 23, 2018

09-16-18 THEOLOGICAL SUNDAY SERMON

Tobias Caskey – Preaching

As it is an honor again to preach here at Westminster by the Sea to celebrate this beautiful day the Lord has made; the 24th Sunday in normal time; the 17th Sunday after Pentecost; we also celebrate Theological Education Sunday. While I was at Dubuque Seminary just recently for the well-defined Intensives, which consisted of classes from eight in the morning till six at night for two weeks; I was told of a beautiful definition of Theology and how Theology seems to fit in the sermon today and all that we are really.  Meriam Webster defines Theology as “The study of religious faith, practice, and experience; especially: the study of God and of God’s relationship to the world.”  Our Professor defined Theology as what all of us are and how we live in our faith and our lives in relationship to God.  This seems to state that we live Theology; that we live out our theology everyday in our relationships; in our lives with and in God; that as we create history everyday’ we create our own theology; our own identity in God.  Scottish theologian Richard of St. Victor (1110–1173) reflected this early theology. He taught at great length that:

for God to be truth, God has to be one:

                                      for God to be love, God has to be two;

                                                             and for God to be joy, God has to be three!

As we look at the scripture today we see a purpose; a purpose of what we are called to be; in this glorious action of the Christ; and how that action is to be acted out in all our affairs.  This is the greatness of God; Jesus shows us how to live that we may live for and in God.  The story of the scripture today takes place in the village of Caesarea Philippi which would be what is now in modern day Syria.  Outside Galilee in the territory of Phillip it had quit an amazing history; In the oldest of its history it was a center of Baal worship known Balinas.  The word Banias, a form of the word Panias is what the town is called to this day because of a cavern up on the hillside that was said to be the birth place of the Greek god Pan, the god of nature.  It is thoroughly amazing and quite a beautiful reality;

that Peter saw; in a homeless Galilean; a Galilean Carpenter;

where the remnants of Baal; The ancient religion of Palestine;

the God’s of classical Greece; as no doubt the pipes of Pan could still be heard lingering; still lingering in the air;

that Peter saw the son of God. that the presence of the one true God would bring himself to light in such a distorted place; as God always seems to be there for us in the distorted places.

A wandering Teacher of Nazareth; a teacher headed for the cross; the Son of God.

Jesus went on with his disciples to the village of Caesarea Phillipi and on the way, he asks his disciples “Who do people say I am? And they answered him “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others one of the Prophets.”

The place where this text lies, in the center of the gospel of Mark and the relevance; it has in laying down the truth of Who and what Jesus is, is the end of wandering; wandering who this man is for the disciples; who this man is for us.  Jesus’ reality of who he is, as Peter states:

“you are the Christ,”

This statement of enlightenment shifts the theological focus of the scripture to what it means for Jesus to be the Christ and what it means for his followers to be Christian; what it means for us to be Christian and what it means for Jesus to be the Christ.

“Who do you say I am” “You are the Christ”

My studies in Dubuque lead me to meet many people that were following the Christ; following the path that God layed out for them, living out their Theology; as I slowly realize throughout my life; as I see more and more the creation of God and all that God is; the beauty of what God does for us and through all of us on a daily basis; everyday; whether I want it to happen or not, the more I realize of the great intricacy of God; That as God is love; for definite as many of the miracles I have seen given for our creation, to our creation, I also see a deeper side of God that orchestrates the world; that as the day begins; as ignited in the book of Genesis; as the world ignites in sound and in color;

It’s living color; as it lives and breathes in every part of creation;

every part of our bodies; living breathing showing its theology of God.

Friedrich Bechner, a Presbyterian Minister says this about theology, he states; “THEOLOGY is the study of God and his ways. For all we know, dung beetles may study man and his ways and call it humanology. If so, we would probably be more touched and amused than irritated. One hopes that God feels likewise.”  Beechner says this as an attempt as we all do; an attempt to try to understand; to explain; to put into words what and who God is.  After all is that not what we thought theology was?  To be able to explain who God is; what and why God does everything God does; why God is?

I was speaking with a man over the past week that made a comment; a comment that I had heard so many times before.  He said that religions were made; that God was made for people to be able to explain why and where they came from; As I have heard this voice so many times in other parts of my studies; throughout my studies in history; throughout my life; this train of thought seems to come from many who have either been hurt in their relationships with the people of the Church;

or who have yet to find the truth of the Church in their hearts;

the reality of faith as it works in our worlds;

the truth of the living one in three; three in one; I asked the man after he had explained all of his ideas that in all true reality; what makes you think you or people created God?  That in our simple self-centered realities of not even being able to explain what keeps our hearts beating; that we could orchestrate anything as beautiful as this world; as beautiful as all of you are; creations of God; as serene and gracious as the dance of life we lead; the living grace of God the Christ.  In the same manner as the Dung beetle watches us in our humanology; we are to be the witness of the loving action of the three in one and the one in three;

Witnesses in this giant living; loving; intricate action of God.  As we don’t even know in the beginning of our lives how to tie our shoes, that we could come up; dare I say make up; such an intricate reality of love; to explain anything of this world and why we are who we are.  We don’t know.

As Jesus is our verification; a third of the reason why we claim this Christian faith; he shows us in the scripture what it is we are here to do.  As we look further in to the scripture, we see our purpose and our message.  “He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  For those who want to save their lives will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the Gospel, will save it.”

Right before this we hear the words,“get behind me Satan” after Peter try’s to rebuke Jesus, this is not because of who Jesus is to Peter but rather that Jesus was tempted as we are in the positions we play in life; that we as God’s anointed can avoid suffering; that we are safe from the slings and arrows of life; As Lamar Johnson says it “ That God’s rule means power without pain; glory without humiliation; this is Peters way of human thinking.  Jesus shows him of his error and deadly ways as he is quick to remind, but also quick to remember as we should also remember and live this practice, that we are not saved from pain; that as we are apart of the living action of the Christ that life happens; that things will happen to us; that we are not untouchable through the grace of God, but saved by God’s grace; that as well as telling others of what we see in them we should be weary of acting them out in our own lives.  That also as he say’s this historical statement to Peter in his rebuke the words “behind me” and “after me” are identical in Greek translation.  That Disciples are to follow Jesus, not protect; guide or possess Jesus.

This sounds harsh at first and might even seem somewhat wrongly spoken that we are not to protect, to guide or to possess Jesus.  We should and are called to possess Jesus in our hearts for sure as we are told in Revelation 3: 20 as I read it out of the New Revised Standard Version;

20 Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.

This is the great reality that if we take God into our hearts that God will live with in us and show us the true unending unceasing pure love that God is; that we can; if we try; as we only have to try with the faith of a mustard seed to be that love to all of creation as God loves all of creation all of us.  What Jesus is saying as he speaks to Peter and to all of us is;

that it is not us who orchestrates the world;

That it is not us who calls the shots in this creation of loving living grace given to us

That it is the one and three and the three in one; that did; does; and will do all things;

The three in one stands alone; we did not make them; they made and make us daily.  That as much as we think we are the mission of God; that as we act out our lives in this greatness of God’s creation; as we are called in this text to do exactly that; that we do; only because they are. Only because God is; This is easy to know but it is hard to live;

We do not stand alone as we live in the Christ standing with all of God’s creation together.

How quick we are to forget the Lord even in small areas of our lives.  But let us remember that as our god is a loving God, that we only have to try our best to live out these ideas.

As Jesus says to the disciples and to us in these last words in the scripture today, the text changes from what being Christ means; to what being a disciple means.

Jesus says as he called the crowds and his Disciples “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,[b] will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words[c] in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

This is the two ideas brought together; to deny oneself in the reality of God is for us not to live out some rigid denial of asceticism but just to admit that God is God and that we are not.  To let God be God;

Not to read the word of God and change it for ourselves but to let God’s word change us;

To let God; the one in three and the three in one show us the path;

That we live in God as god lives in us. “A Person can never possess their own Life.”

St. Gregory of Nazianzus emphasized that deification does not mean we become God, but that we do objectively participate in God’s nature. We are created to share in the life-flow of the Trinity. As Jesus states in the book of John, John 14:3 “so that where I am you also may be” (John 14:3).  That as we have been given this gift freely; it is only because of God we are, and we have it; but in that same manner we are invited and called to live this life with God; apart of God; apart of the world; as almost to be seen as the fourth part of the trinity;

To live out God’s love in all we do; to see the miraculous splendor of God’s creation;

to be the miraculous loving splendor of God’s creation;

A part of as apart from.

This could almost be seen as us living a full participation in life; living life; loving life; participating in the Christ; being alive; feeling living; loving as God does and always will.  We are invited to be; to be a living part of all of creation; as Jesus says to you “who do you think I am” answer back from the top of your lungs “you are the Christ” let us find God in all of creation; let us live in the Holy Spirit; the Christ; let us be the action of Jesus as Jesus dies for us.  And all the people said Amen

 

 

 

 

09-09-18 JESUS MEETS A FOREIGNER

JESUS MEETS A FOREIGNER

Mark 7: 24-37

 

Are there any other Perry Mason fans here? I confess I enjoy watching old episodes on a streaming service we have. And I’ve discovered there are some episodes I had never seen! There was one episode, and only one, that started with the judge rendering a guilty verdict on one of Perry Mason’s clients! In the next scene, an unshaven Perry Mason is at his desk looking humbled, apparently wondering how he lost a case. The uproar from the public avalanched CBS Studios, imploring the producers to never show that episode again! And they didn’t; not in the entire first run of the show.

 

In a similar fashion, no one really wants to read about our Savior losing an argument to a Gentile woman; nor do they want to hear about the harsh language he uses. In politics over the last two years we heard the phrase “dog” used to describe other human beings.  It seems harsh and rude. But did you know that first century Jews sometimes called Gentiles “dogs?” The description was harsh.  You see, in times of great drought, the Jewish farmers of Galilee produced crops for the entire region; even the countries across the border purchased produce from them. In years when crops were slim, some of the poor farmers would harbor resentment toward the wealthy Gentiles, some of whom bought items and re-sold them for more. A certain sense of privilege, even arrogance, had set in with them, as if they were first class passengers on the Queen Mary and others were second-class. So today we wonder in what sense Jesus said, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” (7: 37) We will explore how Jesus seemed to grow in his sensitivity toward all foreigners in this very unusual exchange. Today we learn that Jesus encountered this woman—from an area that combines the lineage of Syrians and Phoenicians—and got into a debate with her!

 

Mark’s gospel, considered to be the oldest of the four gospels, shows our Lord in all his humanness.”  But there is corroborating evidence: this encounter is also in Matthew 15! It really happened! A strong insistent Gentile woman begged Jesus to reconsider her request to heal her daughter. And many who have taken a second look at this exchange say she equated her position to being like an actual dog, begging at the feet of her master, waiting patiently for a crumb to fall from the table. Dr. Stan Saunders, one of my New Testament professors at Columbia Seminary, wrote these words about this meeting: “The bread, a symbol of God’s provision for God’s people, is sometimes used to refer to Gentiles, but here in it’s diminutive form it carries the connotation of household pets.  [In so many words she says] ‘Yes Lord, I am a dog, so treat me like one. Give me the crumbs.’ With this, Jesus is beaten. He commends her great faith. The healing takes place at that very moment.” [Preaching the Gospel of Matthew, Westminster/John Knox Press, 2010, p. 153.]

 

When I am at our daughter’s house, I am keenly aware of the constant presence of their golden retriever Hemi, whenever I get a snack or sit at the table. He is right there; waiting; looking; hoping for a morsel to drop or be given. It’s astounding that the discussion between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman went there. The woman was so desperate she sat at his feet, like a dog. “She fell at his feet….and she begged Jesus to cast a demon out of her daughter. He said ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’” Sadly, it seems that in that time of his life, even our Lord thought only Jews got to sit at God’s table, while others got scraps. But this resilient woman had nothing to lose by challenging him. She replied, perhaps respectfully and not defiantly, it is hard to tell: “But sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” True. No one cares if Hemi eats anything under the table. But the food on the table is for the “children.”

 

Rap music often contains some of the harsh and degrading words describing people. In the hate literature that blankets certain websites on the Internet, there are also some ugly and degrading names being used for human beings today. Some of those who think of certain groups of people as inferior would include members of groups of Neo-Nazis, the Alt Right Movement, or the KKK. Our nation continues to be divided deeply by them. Some of you will remember the 1970s show “All in the Family,” created by Norman Lear. Lear said in an interview that he made the show to make people see how ridiculous a bigot like Archie Bunker looked. But to his astonishment, viewers embraced Archie’s outlook on life! Bigotry was, and still is, alive in America. In that day, there were plenty of people who were threatened by people of other races, countries, and sexes, and other colors of collars that might take their job or marry their daughter. As you can see in the headlines, we haven’t progressed over the last 40 years later; we have reverted back to angry, fearful, or suspicious views of others.

 

To judge people, as it has been said, “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” seems like wise counsel to me. To turn the rhetoric I hear today on its ear, let me give a testimony to the contrary.  I have known some trashy white people and some crummy Christians. I have admired a great many people of color, and a number of Jewish people.  And some of the people I’ve admired most were deaf, blind, or in a wheelchair. It took a law in 1990 called the Americans With Disabilities Act to at least take a step toward making some of our neighbors feel less like second-class citizens. Sometimes our laws go too far in restricting liberties- I know that. And yet lifting up the value of human beings is clearly something Jesus grew to do, especially as with the Gentiles who became some of his best evangelists.

 

Jesus gained new eyes for all people in that encounter with the woman, not just for God’s original chosen people. Gentiles who were healed by Jesus became more faith-filled and showed more thankfulness than his own people who were fraught with murmurings about him. Later he spent much of his ministry healing lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes, women, children, and others who felt like second-class citizens. By the end of his time in those foreign lands, Jesus had ministered to them and embraced them.  The Sea of Galilee represented a separation between Jews and foreigners.  When Jesus went to the other side, he made evangelists of them as they started telling others about him! The Bible quotes the grateful people as saying: “He has done all things well! He makes the deaf to hear and the mute (the older word ‘dumb’) to speak!” (7:37).

 

Jesus learned and he grew. We can too. Realize that others who are foreign, or downtrodden, or hurting may have significant issues that overwhelm them. How can we, like Jesus, be taught to understand their situation? How can we learn how to walk a mile in their shoes?

 

To summarize: Perry Mason losing a case in court, or Jesus actually losing an argument, was a chance to learn and grow rather than to experience failure.  How can we see through those new eyes of Christ, and whom can we reach with the wideness in his mercy? The world is so filled with an “Us and Them” mentality.

 

A girl was walking along a beach where thousands of starfish had washed up in a terrible storm. When she came to each starfish, she picked it up and threw it back into the ocean. A man watched her do that with each starfish. He approached her and said:  “Why are you doing that? Look at this beach! There are so many starfish! You can’t really think you can do this long enough to make a difference!” The girl seemed surprised and a momentarily deflated. But then, she picked up another starfish, and hurled it as far as she could into the ocean. Then she looked at the man and said, “Maybe not. But I know I made a difference to that one!”

 

Jesus saves!

Let him work through you to love your neighbors, one person at a time.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          September 9, 2018

09-02-18 WHO MAY DWELL ON YOUR HOLY HILL

Psalm 15

O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?

Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
and speak the truth from their heart;
who do not slander with their tongue,
and do no evil to their friends,
nor take up a reproach against their neighbors;
in whose eyes the wicked are despised,
but who honor those who fear the Lord;
who stand by their oath even to their hurt;
who do not lend money at interest,
and do not take a bribe against the innocent.

Those who do these things shall never be moved.

While singing our opening hymn “This is My Father’s World” we proclaimed: “This is my Father’s world, o let me never forget that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.” This is a comforting image of God who rules the entire cosmos and sees everything that happens with merciful and just eyes. Often when we think of where God is, it has been a long traditional thought that God is up in the sky high above, looking down on creation and that by going to church we can enter into a sacred place where we can access God. Here we see the Psalmist poetically and artistically describe the presence of God who abides in the tent and dwells on the holy hill, again mixing the images of sacred spaces to access God and the elevated place where God is perceived to be. The Psalmist asks, who may live in these places with God? A few weeks ago, we sang praises as our version of the Ark of the Covenant was brought forward to the front of the church. We know that in the Hebrew scriptures, or the Old Testament, that the tabernacle or the tent is where the Ark of the Covenant was kept, and that the Ark was believed to be the physical presence of God with the Israelites. The “holy hill” is an artistic way of expressing the dwelling place of God, in a high place looking down, and it is seen in numerous other psalms.

It is tempting to only hear the first part of this psalm and believe the notion that we have to go to a specific place to find God, to be with God. While we create these sacred places, our churches, to worship God, to find peace, and to learn about our faith, we do not abide here. We do not dwell here. And maybe that’s the point: we aren’t supposed to. We abide in homes with families, with neighbors next door, hospitals down the road, grocery stores a few blocks away, school buildings full of people, pharmacies, libraries, businesses, and soup kitchens all surrounding our dwelling places. This is good news, because scripture tells us over and over again that God is not limited to one place; God was in the wilderness with the Hebrews when they were liberated from Egypt, God met prophets like Moses and Elijah on mountain tops, the prophet Ezekiel sees a vision of the glory of God leaving the temple to go be with the Jews in exile, Jesus came as the incarnation of God to be with us, and Christ will return again to bring heaven to earth. The God of our church, the God of the tent and the tabernacle, is also God with us. God is with us facing the stress at work, the conflict with our families, the various health battles, the homeless on the streets, and the injustices in our institutions. Although we find peace here in our church buildings, we cannot hide from the problems of the world in our churches, clinging to a safe sanctuary, assuming this is the only place to find God. God is out amongst our neighbors; to embrace our neighbors is to embrace God.

We already abide in God’s kingdom, but the new heaven and new earth is still yet to come. This is when we truly will understand what it means to dwell with God. Reverend Frederick Buechner describes a time when he was driving into New York City, and the everyday streets revealed to him what the kingdom of God might look like. He looked around the city on an average day when nothing was different, but everything was different. He saw the streets alive with traffic and shoppers, people of all races together living and moving together in one place. After parking the car, he saw people eating their lunches together outdoors, some dressed in business suits that cost hundreds of dollars, others dressed in sneakers and jeans. They were peacefully eating their sandwiches together in silence, young and old next to each other flooded in light, surrounded by green foliage. Buechner watched a clown in the park blow up a balloon, “sneakily” twisting it into what he described as a “dove of peace” and handed it to an awe-struck boy. He then describes a middle-aged black woman who walked past him on the side-walk and said very quietly without even breaking her pace, “Jesus loves you.” He was taken aback but such a declaration in this place he was seeing as if for the first time. Buechner elucidates that in this moment as he was walking the streets, he felt as if they were streets of gold and this is what the kingdom of God might be. He explains that we can live into the kingdom around us, with hope for the kingdom to come if we turn away from madness, cruelty, and blindness, and turn toward tolerance, hope, sanity and justice.

Each week we gather here for a worship service, but once we leave the building we are called to continue worshiping God. In the second part of the psalm there are instructions on the conduct we are to live by: Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, speak the truth, who do not slander, and do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbors, who fear the Lord; who stand by their oath, who do not lend money with interest, and do not take a bribe against the innocent. There is a community in Georgia, which I believe lives these standards well. This faith community known as “Koinonia” which is the Greek word for a particular type of fellowship with Christians and God. The Koinonia group was established by Clarence Jordan in 1942. It is an intentional community that was created to reflect the kingdom of God on earth, where people are invited to live together as group to share their lives as extended family. They refused to participate in racial segregation prior to the civil rights era, they pool their financial resources to support one another, and they worship God together. They are not closed off from the world; instead they hope that this community will be a demonstration of God’s kingdom, knowing that their path to following God is specific and unique. They hope to inspire other communities to follow their own unique path in honoring God, so that the Spiritual fruit that people bear will be obvious both to members of the church and nonmembers. Living in this type of community in the modern world doesn’t work for most of us, but it can serve as inspiration to walk blamelessly by standing up against injustice, to honor and fear God by seeking out more people who we can be spiritual family with, and not lending money with interest by sharing our financial resources as we are able to do with no strings attached.

In third part of the Psalm it says that “those who do these things shall never be moved.” Since this Psalm focuses on living with God, this part of the scripture can be interpreted to say that we cannot be moved, removed, or shaken from the presence of God.  Those who do these things will never be moved from living with God; that doesn’t mean we are to be still and motionless. Our faith moves us to pray, to speak to God, which we should do. Thoughts and prayers can be offered in our homes and in our places of worship as our compassion inspires our hearts to intercede on behalf of others. But our words must also be paired with action. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was a Jewish scholar who was deported from Germany in the Nazi regime in 1938. He became an activist, moved to American in 1940, and marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama to Montgomery in 1965. When he reflected on this march, he said that he felt like his legs were praying.  When this Rabbi was deported he was not moved from God. When he moved to America he was not moved from God. And when he marched for Civil Rights he was not moved from God. And yet Rabbi Heschel never stopped moving. Everyone has different physical abilities, different skills they can use to put their prayers into action. Whether this means picking up a phone and making an important call to leaders to demand action, going out to volunteer time to charities, becoming a community leader and organizer, getting involved in the outreach with our church, writing letters to advocate for others, or donating money to causes that show Christ’s love in the world, we can use what we have with what we are able to do by praying with our hands and feet paired with our spoken prayers to God. Since we cannot be moved from the presence of God, God goes with us as we enact our prayers.

Our hymn concluded saying: This is my Father’s world, the battle is not done; Jesus who died shall be satisfied and heaven and earth be one. God lives in holy and sacred spaces, and all places are made holy by God’s presence. Our dwelling place is not on some far off holy hill, removed from the world; we abide here in God’s world where God is here with us. The kingdom of God is already among us; perhaps it looks like an average day in New York City, or a community on Georgia, or like protesters praying with their legs.  We’ve been tasked with living blamelessly, being kind to our friends and neighbors, and being generous with our resources as we wait for kingdom come. We cannot accomplish this by standing still; we move knowing that we will never be moved from God’s presence. Let us take comfort as we dwell with God, and take actions with love as we abide in the world. Praise be to God. Amen.

08-26-18 PUTTING ON THE ARMOR OF GOD

PUTTING ON THE ARMOR OF GOD

Ephesians 6: 10-20

 

Since 1977, When George Lucas released his first “Star Wars” film, people across the globe have become familiar with “The Force.” Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi tells his protégé, Luke Skywalker to “Use the Force.” Now tying down what George Lucas meant by the Force is a slipperier challenge.  It was not a force field of impenetrable strength, nor did it allow a character to fly. One source says “The Force is what gives a Jedi his power.”  In our world people would love to have power at times of terror or anxiety. And we are not the first to feel that. Through the ages people have sought a spiritual power connection, not just for offense, but also for defense. Years ago, the legendary St. Patrick, said to have rid Ireland of snakes and to have brought Christianity to the land, is also said to have put words together that became a legendary prayer. There is a long version of his prayer to God, but the shorter and more familiar version I put at the top of our bulletins:

I bind myself to Thee today, in the strong name of the Trinity, by invocation of the same, the Three in One and One in Three….Christ be with me; Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me. Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

Notice how he envisioned Christ completely with him, surrounding him, and with the power of God present. Through the ages Christians have called on the power of God to protect them in their times of need. And there are times, like the description that Paul used in his letter to the Ephesians, when he encourages others to put on the “armor” of God.  The Romans warriors in his day all dressed in armor for protection. So the Ephesians would be used to seeing armor. Aside from certain films, an outing to Medieval Times Dinner Theatre, or a visit to Rome, you may not see people in armor! But you know what it looks like. In Paul’s day, the Roman army could be brutal in its attempts to keep the Pax Romana, which was “the Peace of Rome;” forced peace! Although it was the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate who ordered the crucifixion of Jesus, Paul was not crucified in large part because he was a Roman citizen. But when he was transported to prison, he was chained to a Roman guard. Paul was in prison when he wrote this letter, and his description in chapter 6 referred to the very armor his guard wore! In the days of chivalry, a damsel in distress might have swooned when her knight in shining armor appeared! Knights were saviors and rescuers! In the Roman Empire, and in the Middle Ages, knights actually wore armor, as did their horses in some instances, so an arrow would not easily take their lives. Armor was created mostly for defensive stances rather than offensive ones; it was made to protect and defend. Armor, whether shiny or colorful or black, is designed not primarily as a weapon, but as protection. As Paul describes it, our task is to put on the spiritual armor of God to bring Christ to the world.

Paul used armor as a metaphor for the Christian spiritual protection. Paul is not a literalist, but he is a wordsmith. Paul calls himself a prisoner (3:1) and an “ambassador in chains.” As he does on other occasions, he turns a weakness (being a prisoner) into a fulfillment of God’s purpose. He does not ask for Christians to physically fight other people (“our struggle is not against enemies made of blood and flesh, but rulers, authorities, and cosmic powers of this present darkness; against spiritual forces of evil.” The armor, therefore, is to withstand the wiles of the devil. (6:11). Soldiers of an empire fight against flesh and blood. What kind of armor does a spiritual soldier need? Paul says we will need the whole armor of God, never forgetting to don every single piece. Actual knights have little protection if they fail to put on all their pieces.  Football players cannot provide strong defense without pads protecting muscles and vital organs. Like a knight, or an athlete, or a first responder, we cannot forget our equipment before we go into the world. Paul first said: “Fasten the belt of truth around your waist.” Lawrence W. Farris has written this: “Truth is the most basic virtue, but in a world of spin, purposeful deception, and deceit, it becomes even more precious and crucial.  The dark powers are led, at least metaphorically, by the ‘father of lies’ (John 8: 44), and truth is spoken in the name of the One who is ‘the way, the truth, and the life.’  The temptation is to take up the methods of the enemy, to let noble ends justify ignoble means, to fight fire with fire. [But Christ had a different message.] The fire of evil is fought not with fire, but with the waters of baptism; the lies of the Evil One are resisted with God’s truth.” So first, we need to put on the belt of truth. Second, we need the breastplate of righteousness to protect the heart of the believer. If our heart is taken over by a corrupter—whether an enticing woman, a charming but corrupt man, or a wolf in sheep’s clothing, we have nothing left with which to balance our judgments. Our decisions will need rational, linear arguments plus heart and grace. Each day we need to put on righteousness, that is, the ability to make right decisions. So first: the belt of truth. We cannot make headway in the world if we cannot distinguish truth from lies. Second, the breastplate of righteousness: use your heart as the deciding factor for action. Third put on your spiritual shoes each day. Spiritual shoes give you the protection to not only stand longer, but also walk farther and to run faster for Christ. We have a gospel to share and the gospel goes nowhere fast without messengers! We are the messengers of the good news of salvation! “Paul misquotes Isaiah 52:10 when he declared: “How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace.” Beautiful feet? No! Beautiful sounds of feet running to bring the gospel! Here’s how Isaiah originally said it in chapter 52:verse 7: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news.” If such good news does not get shared, people have no place to turn except to the bad or untruthful news around them. Fourth, arm yourself with the shield of faith. In ages past, actual shields provided considerable protection against enemies! Personal faith, joined with the faith of thousands around us, reminds us that there is strength in numbers. A shield of faith, when held arm in arm with other Christians, can keep your faith from buckling. Fifth, Paul called for a helmet of salvation, to protect what we have learned. Without our minds to process what is around us, people under stress may fall prey to evil ones, thereby encouraging people to imitate the worldly persons around them instead of imitating Christ. A hymn like “Take Thou our Minds, dear Lord,” is not a plea for God to take our minds so much as to remold our minds, guide our feet, and form our words. Again, the images are often metaphorical and not literal. Christ needs us to not relinquish our minds to enemies, or to people who are just out for political or personal gain. Instead, always try to have the mind of Christ.

Finally, at long last we are given but one offensive weapon: the sword. Sword is such an oddly spelled word for its pronunciation, isn’t it? SWORD! But this odd spelling includes the letters w-o-r-d. The sword of the Spirit is the Word of God. This is our weapon (the Bible) and, rightly interpreted, God’s Word is our weapon, interpreted by Christian minds and guided by God’s Holy Spirit. That Word judges and instructs both the believing community and those it seeks to rescue from evil. So this is what we need to put on each and every day: The belt of truth; the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of God’s Word.

As we sang for our response today:  “Stand up, stand up for Jesus, stand in his strength alone; the arm of flesh will fail you, ye dare not trust your own. Put on the gospel armor, each piece put on with prayer. Where duty calls, or danger, be never wanting there.”

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          August 26, 2018                                                                               

08-19-18 GIVE THANKS

GIVE THANKS

Colossians 3: 12-17

 

Wedding these days are often very carefully planned and very expensive. They are productions! I’ve had beautiful young women spend as many as 8 hours before a wedding ceremony with make-up and hair specialists! The groom? Well, he gets fitted for a tux and shows up! Countless photos are taken of the new couple. And that is appropriate. What I hope is that couples spend plenty of time planning for their marriage instead of just planning for the ceremony! I counsel them and encourage them to think about their lives together. We have people in this congregation married over 70 years!  Even though their looks have changed, (as mine have over my 40 years of marriage) interviewing those kinds of couples might be most helpful; how have they supported each other in every stage of their lives?

 

But beyond Christian marriage, throughout the ages people have written books on how to live the Christian life. In monastic times,
The Rule of St. Benedict was counted on as guide for living.  Chapter 40, for example, is titled: “The Proper Amount to Drink” and is loosely based, it says, on 1 Corinthians 7:7: “Everyone has his own gift from God, and another that.” I told you it was loosely based on that text! I goes on to say: “It is with some uneasiness that we specify the amount of food and drink for others. However, with due regard for the infirmities of the sick, we believe that a half a bottle of wine a day is sufficient for each. But those to whom God gives the strength to abstain must know that they will earn their own reward.” [The Rule of St. Benedict in English, the Liturgical Press, 1982, p. 62]  So now you have your guidance on wine, if you dare to follow it! Through the ages there were other guide journals. In the late 19th century a Scotsman–Oswald Chambers–was born, and in the early 20th century he published a masterpiece of Christian guidance called My Utmost for His Highest. I got a small new translation of it as a gift from a colleague in 1994; and an expanded edition was given to me 10 years ago: it is 1500 pages long based on books of the New Testament that only take up less than a quarter of the Bible! Goodness. But there is much food for thought in those pages. In 1988 Richard J. Foster made a splash in spiritual circles with the publication of his book Celebration of Discipline. In it he addressed the inward Christian disciplines of meditation, prayer, fasting, and study; and the outward disciplines of simplicity, solitude, submission, and service. It has been republished just this past February. Then in 2002 who could forget the publishing splash when Rick Warren published the Christian guidebook called The Purpose Driven Life?  Millions of copies were published, unabashedly described by the author on the dust jacket: “It is the blueprint for living in the 21st century.” Well we can go to the translations and interpretations of the Bible that all these people have published, or we can go to the source ourselves!  When I was in seminary, word of the publication of a new commentary spread across campus liked wildfire! We all wanted to read what some great Biblical scholar had to say about the Bible! My Old Testament professor, Dr. Bernard Anderson, said this to us one day in class: “It is amazing how much light the Bible can shed on those commentaries.”

We all felt sheepish. We wanted the read the commentaries more than the Bible itself! So you, see, we are all guilty of wanting to ready what someone says about the Bible more than going to the source. Today, let’s go to the source. God’s Spirit can speak to our own souls as we read our Bibles again and again.

 

In two of his letters, Paul puts down the qualities needed to live a Christian life. . In both Ephesians, and today in Colossians, Paul has wonderful instructions about how we should live.  I often read it to married couples, but its original intention is to teach Christians how to follow Jesus! He says in chapter 3 beginning in verse 12:

“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved.”  That’s the intro. It says you are not an accident; not a happenstance. You are selected by God; chosen, and have a purpose in your life, part of which is to glorify God. That is our “Chief End” according to the Westminster Confession of Faith. But then, Paul calls followers of Jesus “Holy.” That means set apart, especially for God’s purposes.  So God watches what we do with the gifts and instructions we receive, and the challenges we face. And we are never left alone. We are called “beloved,” a fancy word that says you are deeply and irretrievably loved. Let that sink in.  I have talked to several people up in their years who have felt incomplete because they never heard their father tell them he loved them. But the Heavenly Father of Jesus not only loved him, he loves you and me too! God can complete what human beings sometimes leave incomplete.

“Clothe yourself with compassion, kindness, humility, weakness, and patience.” Every day it is helpful to think about wearing these qualities even as you wear your clothes.  “Compassion” means “a willingness to suffer with.” It’s a quality you might find in your parents, your partner, with church friends or nurses or caregivers.  It’s a willingness to suffer with someone else. Kindness is just what you think it is: showing love in gentle and thoughtful ways. But are you practicing it? Humility is different from humiliation. Humility is thinking of others first. Weakness is not being physically out of shape. It is a spiritual guideline to always remember that you can “do all things through Him who strengthens me.” That person, for Christians, is Jesus. And patience, well you know what that is right? Do you pray “Lord, give me more patience and give it to me now”? Patience is often in short supply in our fast-moving world, especially in traffic!

Bear with one another and if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.

This is huge. We are called to bear with one another. Did you see the Disney film “Zootopia?” In it Judy Hopps becomes the first rabbit to become a police officer. In one scene she needs information from the Department of Motor Vehicles. She arrives and is waited on by a s-l-o-w–t-a-l-k-i-n-g sloth! I felt her pain as I visited with my mother in her retirement home- everyone moved so slowly! But because I love my mother, I learned to move slowly too.  Forgiving is included in the Lord’s Prayer, so I know it was important to both Jesus and the human race. We will spend a series of Wednesday evenings in October all on the subject of forgiveness! The bottom line is: if we want forgiveness from God, it is offered only when we forgive others. I wonder how many of us have Divine forgiveness offered, but not yet delivered, because we have not yet forgiven someone else?

Paul then says to be clothed in love– that is, Christian love; agape; unconditional love. That’s the empowering kind; not conditional love that is manipulative. And let peace rule in your hearts. If you can move toward peace, you are moving closer to God.

 

At the bottom of this piece of instruction, Paul tells his readers that Whatever we do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.

So with all the volumes of Christian help books that have been published, these 5 verses might just hold the key to them all. If you consult God before you do anything, or say anything, and you pray in Jesus’ name, it lines up the pieces of our lives. Like having a limp rubber band pulled taught, going to God in prayer at the beginning of a day can line up your purpose and lead you to honor God and others with words and deeds.

 

At the bottom of that section is the little reminder that is often forgotten. Give thanks. That’s it.  Give thanks.  Giving thanks changes the world. People feel appreciated when they are thanked for what they have given: a present, a financial gift, or whatever. Giving thanks changes the giver because he or she is acknowledged; and giving thanks changes the recipient because it develops a sense of gratitude instead of entitlement. And you know who we dare not forget to thank: G-O-D; for our lives; for being loved so perfectly; and for our salvation through Jesus Christ. For giving us creation with all of its wonders! These are reasons to give thanks to God. We could write a thank you note on paper or in a blog and address it to God; or we could include it thoughtfully, rather than offhandedly, in our prayers. A giver can tell if a thank you if perfunctory or genuine.

 

Giving thanks. Paul saved it for last, perhaps because it should be first in our hearts!  To parents, spouses, teachers, coaches, and to God: give thanks.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          August 19, 2018