12-08-19 REPENT


Matthew 3: 1-12

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

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

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

Jeffrey A. Sumner December 8, 2019

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

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

Radford Rader, D.Min.

December 1, 2019

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

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

11/24/19 THE KING

Luke 23:33-43

November 24, 2019

Radford Rader. D.Min

Westminster by the Sea, Daytona Beach Shores, FL.

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

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

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

11-17-19 THE END OF THE AGE FORETOLD


Luke 21: 5-28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11-10-19 JESUS’ S.A.T. QUESTION


Luke 20: 27-38

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeffrey A. Sumner November 10, 2019

11-03-19 LEARNING FROM A TAX COLLECTOR

LEARNING FROM A TAX COLLECTOR
Luke 19, 1-10

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

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

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

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

Jeffrey A. Sumner November 3, 2019

10-27-19 KNOWING YOU NEED A PRAYER OF CONFESSION


Luke 18: 9-14

One thing that can trip up a person in life is having little or no self-awareness. What are your strengths; what are your weaknesses? Good leaders may surround themselves with people who have strengths they don’t have. If you are not a good organizer, have an organizer at your side. If you don’t have a strong voice, have someone with a strong voice, or a microphone near you. If you don’t seem to be able to stop yourself from overspending, have a financially minded person monitor you. If you can’t stop drinking, find a sponsor to hold yourself accountable. If you can’t stop getting angry, a counselor can train you to make better choices than acting out in anger. Self -awareness is a plus in life. Do we acknowledge there are things that we have said or done to hurt others, things that rise to the level of sin? Years ago, Carl Jung described some of our sinful actions as our “shadow side.” Jung said we could integrate our shadow side by exposing our darkness to light…. We all have shadow sides. When we recognize that, we can acknowledge sins and lead our sin-sick souls to wholeness.

Today a parable Jesus tells invites us to give ourselves a “rugged self-examination,” which is generally understood to be a spiritual examination. Do you acknowledge that you are a sinner, as I do? How do we agree that we are both children of light and children of darkness? Have you told Jesus that you need him as your Savior, or are you just intrigued enough about the Bible to come and learn about it? And are you open to making changes in your life to truly lean on and count on Jesus?

Before we go through that list, let’s get familiar with the situation in Jesus’ parable. Remember that a parable is often an exaggeration or amplification of reality. Jesus taught with parables so those listening to him would remember “their need to pray and to not lose heart.” [Luke 18:1] That’s why he shared the story of the unjust judge that we studied last week, and why he continued with this story about two men who went up to the temple to pray. He has caricatures here, one is the Pharisee—who in Jesus’ stories always seems to be the bad guy: self-assured, confident, judgmental; and the other a tax collector—one loathed by the community because he took their money, and lots of it. The tax collector was even allowed to keep a hefty portion for himself. The Pharisee said things that were over the top; today we might call them sensationalized statements. The Pharisee said, with a loud voice, “O God, I thank you that I am not like other people, thieves, rogues, adulterers—and then he stops and points to the other man—or even this tax collector.” He is clearly grandstanding, and he’s decided his own position before God, not because God declared it, but because he declared it! He became his own judge and jury. He believed that he had earned God’s favor by what he had done. He even listed what he had done: I “fast twice a week and gives a tenth of all my income.” He has decided that God approves of him.

I’ve told this story before, but it bears repeating today. I once visited with a couple who were in our congregation. They have since moved away. At one point the husband said to me: “Why do we have a prayer of confession every week? It’s seems like such a negative and unnecessary prayer.” I replied, “It’s a reminder that we all sin and are always in need of the forgiveness of God.” He then said, “I don’t sin.” “And I said, “Of course you do!” He paused for a moment as if surveying the last months or years of his life. “No” he said slowly, “No I don’t think I do.” “I said “you can go down all of the commandments and answer that you have always honored the sabbath, honored your parents, never stolen anything, never told a lie? You are one remarkable man! I as your pastor know that I have done things wrong. That’s why I need a Savior! And that’s why I regularly pray a prayer of confession.” “Well I don’t think I need one,” the man replied. “I can see why,” I said. Except for that one man who thought he was without sin, and perhaps the Pharisee in Jesus’s story, and Jesus himself, we all have our relationship with God restored when we sincerely offer our prayer of confession. To do so, starts the process of reconnecting with God, something that your sins and my sins have broken. Then the process continues when we also decide to confess wrongs we have done to our family members, or friends, or strangers. Jesus, and later the Apostle Paul, said that we are saved by grace through faith, not by one’s own attempts at righteous living. In Matthew chapter 23, for example, he said:
25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup,[a] so that the outside also may become clean.
27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. 28 So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
Jesus never held back his loathing for those who believed they were self-made non-sinners! And he gave this guidance for the rest of us, in Matthew 5: 23:
So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister[a] has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister,[b] and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser.

Our task is to avoid the delusion that we are sinlessness. Jesus’ most powerful stories of salvation were about those who were lost, knew it, and were saved. People like Zacchaeus in Luke chapter 18> Jesus came to his house after entering Jericho. As Zacchaeus has a change of heart about the money he took as a tax collector, he squared accounts with the people in his village, and gave them extra. Then Jesus declared, “Salvation has come to this house today!” Also in the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15, it’s not the loyal, pharisaical son who gets found, it’s the son who hated his choice and returned to the love and grace of his father.

. Today:
1) Have you established your need for the Savior? I have. I don’t know where I’d be without my Savior. I don’t know how much my soul would be riddled with guilt without the blessing of confession, both to God and even to another human like a priest, a pastor, a chaplain, a counselor, and to the person I have wronged. Confession is good for the soul.
2) Do you join me in acknowledging that we are sinners? Our weekly prayer on Sundays does not seek to cover all the sins you or I might have committed. That’s the job for your own personal prayers. Sundays are reserved for a “General Confession of Sin” that reminds us that we are, as the old song puts it, “Standing in the need of prayer.” We need forgiveness from others and from God. In the words, “not my brother, not my sister, but it’s me, O Lord,” We are not pointing fingers to those around us, “throwing them under the bus.” Instead we are taking responsibility for our actions and throwing ourselves on the mercy of the court. And who shows up as our defense attorney before the court of judgement? Its Jesus! He defends us if we are sorry; he pays the price if we are repent; and he has the role of both Counselor and Savior for those who say, “I need thee every hour, most precious Lord!”
And finally: 3) Are you open to making changes in your lives to truly lean on and count on Jesus? (if you are already leaning on and counting on God, you can ignore this one! :☺) Remember, the tax collector said as he approached God in prayer: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Those prayers have saved people in AA meetings; they have saved men or women who have admitted adultery; but they also can save those who acknowledge the need for a Savior, instead of others who look at Jesus’s outstretched hand and say, “Naw; I’m good.” Today the prayer of confession reminded me of how much I’ve needed Jesus. I hope it reminded you too. Please join me in prayer:
Jesus, many here have decided that they need you; sometimes people don’t act like it, but if they make a rugged self-examination, they may decide that they need you. Enter, or remain in our souls, making it your home so together, you can help us make right choices in our lives. Thank you always. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner October 27, 2019

on text not available at this time —-

10-20-19 A MESSAGE FROM THE WAILING WALL


Luke 18: 1-8

At the end of the southbound I-95 exit ramp in Port Orange, there is a man holding a cardboard sign, asking for help. He stands under a city-posted sign that says: “Please do not help panhandlers.” Yet since July, in most daylight hours, he is there. I have to hand it to him: he is persistent. But what motivates his persistence? Is it hope, hope that one day soon someone will help him? Or is it results—that—in spite of the sign, people are still helping him enough to make it worth his time to beg, out in the sun, or out in the rain?

Over in Jerusalem, one of the most visited places is often called the “Wailing Wall.” It is, in fact, the remaining part of the Western Wall of the Temple of God. I don’t know if the same people who were there in July praying were also there when we visited a few years earlier. Their backs are always toward people who are watching; and it seems rude to get close to the wall and try to see their faces. But I suspect some have been coming to the wall to pray to God for a very long time; perhaps years. I have to hand it to them: they are persistent. But what motivates their persistence? Is it hope, hope that one day God will help them? Or is it results, that is, that God has already answered earlier prayers and they have come back to ask for more?

In Luke 18, we just read about Jesus telling a parable describing why people “need to pray, and to not lose heart.” He said that “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected people.” Why did he say that? Because he’s reminding us that this is a parable: an exaggerated story that is not perfectly grounded in reality. And because he wants no one to think this judge is God; he is not! This was a judge who made arbitrary decisions, not often based on justice or love, or a sense of write or wrong. He was the kind of judge we hope not to face in court. Knowing that, Jesus said a widow kept coming to the judge with a request. A widow; by saying that, he was not pulling on our compassion. He was telling us this woman had absolutely no leverage over this judge: she had no money of her own, no husband who could make trouble for the judge, and nowhere else to turn. She had nothing to lose. But, she was persistent. What motivated her persistence? Was it hope, hope that one day the judge would give in and give her a favorable decision? Or was it results, that perhaps the judge had given a favorable ruling before, and after wearing the judge down, was she asking for another good ruling? We don’t know. But in Jesus’ story, limited as it is, the judge says to himself, “I have no fear of God, and no respect for anyone else. But because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice so she will not wear me out with her continual requests.” Jesus then explains, and I’m paraphrasing: If an unjust judge—one who does not fear God or others—grants the request of a powerless widow, how much more will your loving Father want to grant the requests of his loving children?

That’s the point of Jesus’ story. We are to be persistent in prayer, because others get requests granted when they have much less going for them than we do. We are loved children of a loving God. We are reminded of how persistently Jesus prayed. A number of times, the disciples looked for Jesus when he had slipped away to pray. Then as Jesus approached Jerusalem, he wept and prayed again. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he prayed again; he prayed with profound passion: that the plan his Father had for him might be set aside. Did you hear that? Jesus prayed to his Father that the plan that had already been revealed to Jesus might be changed and set aside. But even in that situation:
Jesus believed in and prayed to God his Father; he didn’t say: “I don’t believe in you!”
Jesus never gave an indication that his Father was heartless or uncaring.
Jesus never said, “Since you aren’t answering my prayers, I will stop praying to you!”

In spite of the fact that Jesus, the Father’s beloved Son, was about to die under the watchful eye of his Father, he went along with the plan. Even on the cross, he constantly prayed to his Father, rather than going it alone.

Today we are not in our parable world. We are in the 21st century in the real world. In this real world, where some say they are spiritual and not religious; where some are atheists, or Jews, or Muslims, or Buddhists or other groups, we have a choice to make as Christians:
Do we pray to God, and keep praying to God, even when we don’t hear an answer? Or
Do we stop praying to God after a time or two, or a month, or a year, deciding that God is nowhere near, or deaf, or heartless or dead?
This parable urges us to keep praying. When Jesus did not give up, God engaged his plan to save the world! What a blessing, when the Father communicating with the Son, said in essence, “trust me.”
There are many examples of so-called “unanswered prayer,” and also of “answered prayer.” In his book, Daring Prayer, author and professor David Willis gave two examples he had heard from others. Here’s one:
I was driving down the freeway with my daughter in the front seat with me, when I saw a car suddenly swerve over the divider and head straight for us. Instinctively I prayed that we be spared. Though we were hit on the side and overturned, neither of us was even seriously injured. You can say what you want, but I know prayer works.

Here’s another, nor connected with the first story. This was spoken to a pastor:
I want to thank you for your visits while [my daughter] was in the hospital. Your prayers especially meant a lot to both of us, but, frankly, more to her than me. I guess at the time I sort of resented [the prayers]: dishonest, raised false hopes. And I was mad as h* when she died after all we’d been through and tried. I still can’t believe how a “loving God” can tolerate such pain, such d*** stupid suffering. Well, let’s not go into that again. The funny thing is that I’m now able to articulate my anger with God. Not really praying, I suppose, but more like arguing. Right or wrong, that’s the way it is.
[John Knox Press, 1977, p. 24]

It is said that even those long prayers at the Wailing Wall are from people who don’t just gently pray to God. They rail; they cry out; they curse; and they move the tops of their bodies, back and forth, in anguish or rage. Jesus wept too and cried out to his Father, but never said, “I don’t believe in you!” “Or I’m done!” All of those things God can take and can understand. But to cut out prayer because you conclude there is no God, well, then you’ll feel adrift on the sea of chaos. Here’s a final story from a chaplain. Hold on; this is a tough one.
Lindsay (name changed) was a patient in a hospital expecting her fifth child. She was Roman Catholic. Her four other children ranged from age 3-12. She developed an internal tear, and her life was at risk. Physicians encouraged her to terminate the pregnancy. Her priest strongly declined that as an option. Lindsay was stuck with how to proceed and argued with God about it. A week went by and the family decided to concur with the priest to not terminate her pregnancy. She asked the chaplain to plan to baptize her baby in her womb so the child would go to heaven if the baby died. Another week went by. Lindsey was feeling her own mortality. She was anxious and said so in prayers to God. She requested that the chaplain pray with her, with her rosary, and to bring her communion. In so doing, she believed she was taking Christ into her to strengthen her body and heart. After another week, the baby was in serious trouble. Doctors believes the baby would not live another week. Lindsey was then in a spiritual crisis with God. Her doubt was escalating, fearing now for both her baby’s life and her own. She prayed and read Scripture with the chaplain. By the next week, she had been away from her family several weeks and it was getting close to Christmas. Her own parents didn’t support her decision to try to keep her pregnancy at that point. Lindsay was moved to a new room where, providentially, the earlier patient left a small Christmas tree in the window. There was an ornament on the tree that said “hope.” Lindsay takes this as a sign from God. She had learned the child she was carrying was a girl, so she decided to name the baby “Hope.” Conversations with Lindsay and prayers with God became all about what it meant to hold onto hope and hold onto Hope. Then Lindsay started having so much pain that she could barely move. With every movement from baby Hope, Lindsay felt grief instead of joy. Lindsay continued to be in spiritual crisis – why would God give her this baby that could potentially cause her to die? Finally, the baby was delivered by C-section; both Mom and daughter needed blood transfusions. Soon the chaplain witnessed Lindsay’s theology (God will be faithful) and experience (Will God be faithful?) bumping up against each other. Lindsay had to walk the entirety of her journey largely independent of her family. Much like a soldier out at war, Lindsay’s story was known and experienced by the chaplain and a few others. Sadly, the story ended in the death of Hope, that is, the child. Her brain developed a bleed, a very common side effect of babies born so early. Lindsay, in her sadness, was discharged back home to her husband and four young children, who had been apart from their mama for a month. She had even been apart from them over Christmas-the time the world celebrates the birth of the Christ child, who brought hope (small h) into a suffering world. The chaplain’s concluding observation was this: I can say for sure that Hope (the daughter) died, but I’m not sure that hope had died.
When people come to the end of their rope; or wear out their prayer book or their rosary beads; when men or women visit the Wailing Wall for the hundredth time, do they, in their pain, cut their losses and turn away from God? Or are they persistent? Are you persistent? Only you can finish the story of your prayer life with God.
Jeffrey A. Sumner October 20, 2019
(Hear now this Jewish confessional prayer to God- Avinu Malkenu)

THE OTHER SAMARITAN


Luke 17: 11-19

When I was young and lived in Richmond, Virginia, there was a time when my grandparents took me back with them to their home in Pennsylvania for a visit, not on a plane, for my grandmother was afraid to fly; not in a car for that particular trip, but on a train! I was perhaps 2 or 3 years old, and they said that while we were on the train, I saw a little African American girl, and headed up the aisle to her seat, and started hugging her! I must have thought she was delightful. “No prejudice there!” people on the train exclaimed. Innocence is a wonderful characteristic that can sometimes be worn away by our changing society. Two years ago, one of my grandsons hugged a girl in his school who he considered to be a friend, but her parents to offense to his hug and asked him to be charged with sexual harassment. He and the girl were both five. Later the school talked the parents to agree to a charge of “adoration” instead of harassment. Sometimes adults get alarmed by childhood delight and innocence. Two years ago in a different grandson’s neighborhood, there was a group of 3 and 4 year olds who loved to play with each other every day after pre-school. Almost every day, the parents sat on the front lawn of a home on a dead-end street, watching their children delight in each other’s company, playing together, and riding each other’s tricycles and battery powered cars. They might still be playing with each other except some of the adults had some issues with some of the other adults that tore apart the adult friendships. “You cannot play with those children anymore,” some parents told their children. The children, with great puzzlement, still see their friends at preschool, but only half of them gather now on the dead-end street. The others are told to stay indoors. Sometimes adult issues can change innocence to suspicion and confusion very quickly. Are there ones from whom you keep a distance for some reason or another? Have you created some distance been created between you and a co-worker, or you and a relative, because you learned they are gay? Or because have you created distance with someone who has what might be called a “mixed marriage?” I know students in some high schools who have very accepting connections with Muslim, Roman Catholic, and Jewish students, but those friendships make some of their parents uncomfortable. I know many college students have both straight friends and gay friends, but they don’t label them anything but “friends.” I know some birds of a feather that flock together because of their political party, particularly in this day and age. We end up with imaginary or real walls dividing human beings in the same school, on the same continent, or in the same community. Jesus would ask us to look to the children, and what how they treat others as friends. I was proud when another of my grandsons—Calvin—introduced himself to every other person at the All Children’s Park in Port Orange, when he visited with us this summer. He asked, no matter the color of their skin, boy or girl, “Hey, I’m Calvin! You want to play with me?” It was heartwarming as we departed that he sincerely said goodbye to each one of them.

Today in Israel there is open suspicion and hostility between Israeli and Palestinian adults. But here is one true testimony I share with you today: in 1998 on my first trip to the Holy Land, we watched some boys playing some kind of kickball on a vacant lot. “Look” our guide said. “Those are Palestinian and Israeli boys, all playing together.” Just then, a camera crew from a United States network pulled up to the field. They pulled out their big camera and a microphone, and one man said “Hey boys! This is going back to the States! DO something!” And they began picking up rocks and pelting each other with them. When the cameras stopped, they went back to playing kickball. Even having the media–or being surrounded by cellphone cameras—can change the way people act, often not for the better. There is more than one reason for Jesus to say, “And a little child shall lead them.”

In Jesus’ day, Jews shunned Samaritans, yet in the story Jesus tells today, one man was a Samaritan, the others were likely Jews. Here was a group of people who all had one thing in common—leprosy—that kept them from letting any usual issues get in the way of that bond. Today we too can have a tie that binds us together, like “We’re Christians!” or “We’re band members” or more specifically “We’re the drumline.” Or “we’re Gators,” or “we’re Noles!” Those who have a tie that binds them pull for each other and for their common cause! Sadly, sometimes people are bonded together by disease or illness, like “We are cancer survivors!” That’s the bond, even if group members are very different. In our lesson today, it seems important to Jesus that he share a story about 10 people with leprosy who approached him asking for mercy. There was very little hope of being healed from leprosy. Those who had the dreaded skin disease were shunned by everyone else, so much so that they often supported one another in what were called leper colonies- they had each other, but they had no one else. So we might rightly assume that they identified with one another as men in the same boat-all with almost no hope for healing. They heard about the man named Jesus. The men seemed to be both Jew and Samaritan, living somewhere near the border of the two territories. As Jesus heading toward Jerusalem, this time he deliberately passed through Samaria, something few other Jews would do.

In the typical colony of lepers, no one was put off by the differences between those in the colony. In their request for healing, Jesus replies “Go and show yourself to the priests.” Plural. Perhaps he meant a Samaritan priest and a Jewish priest, for the Jewish priest would never declare a Samaritan man clean. Again the world divides, but some illnesses or groups can set differences aside to be bound together for each other. At least one, but perhaps only one with leprosy, was a Samaritan. But Jesus (a Jew, remember!) honored him because he gave thanks for being healed! He praised God.

Today there are some lessons from Jesus’s story. Their identity as lepers was the tie that bound them, making other differences between them less important. But, only one praised God for the healing. One of the lost arts of our day is how to offer a proper thank you, not to just to another person, but also to God. We pray and pray to God, but some—not everybody—but some, when I asked ,“Did you thank God for your healing?” they hang their head and say, “No.” Others—who got Christmas or birthday gifts, or had a nice thing done for them, or had been invited over for dinner—also have sometimes failed to really thank the giver. Now that may not be you, but it is an issue with many! A shouted “Thanks!” as you are getting into your car does not cut it. A written note of gratitude makes a difference. I am proud that when Mary Ann and I send gifts to my nieces and nephews, we have always get handwritten thank you notes back. I hold them and look at them for several days, or even longer. It gives me a greater connection with each one of them. Gratitude matters to the giver. “Never forget that” Jesus seems to say.

One-time years ago, I spent several weeks meeting with a boy in our church who was working on a God and Me badge for Cub Scouts. He mother brought him faithfully each week, and we enjoyed each other’s company. I got to show him my badges and my work in Scouting, and he got to show me his. At the end of our time together, he told me “thanks.” But it didn’t stop there. He and his mother (I think) framed his thank you note he handwrote to me, and added a photograph of the two of us, then framed it. That was really big thank you! It hangs on my wall and I never forget it, even as one of my own grandsons has started down the Scouting trail. Giving thanks to others or giving praise to God was so important that Jesus highlighted it. One final note: our communion liturgy every month has the minister saying: “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God!” And the people are invited to reply: “It is right to give our thanks and praise!” And so it is. Give thanks.

Let us pray: God of outstretched arms and abundant mercy: thank you for creating us, for redeeming us, and for sustaining us. Thank you for being just a prayer away. And let this prayer just prime the pump of those who are listening so that they too may give you thanks and praise! We lift up our hearts to you. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner October 13, 2019

10-06-19 MUSTARD SEED FAITH

MUSTARD SEED FAITH
Luke 17: 5-10

Back in 1986, our church offered a production of a children’s musical called,
“The Greatest Gift of All.” Our daughter Jenny was 3 and she was placed on a stage, in a row with other boys and girls, wearing a Christmas package as a costume! In their neat line they attempted to sing the song “Good Things Come in Little Packages.” Charming! We have it on videotape. Sometimes that saying is true: good things can come in little packages. A woman might be dreaming of getting a new car from her boyfriend, but if the small box she receives has an engagement ring in it, could it be “the greatest gift of all” for her? Conversely, when our son Chris was hoping for a car at Christmas, I had arranged to get him a sporty older car. He looked outside Christmas day. No car. I gave him a small box. In it was a key; one that opened the door of a car we had parked down the street! I also know men whose lives were changed by Jesus, who were so thrilled to receive a little pocket cross when they claimed Christ as Savior. They carry it wherever they go. Today we are asked to consider if having a little bit of faith—the size of a mustard seed—is enough to start a fire of faith. On one of my first cold campouts in Missouri when I was a Tenderfoot Boy Scout, other boys and I were challenged to start a fire with flint, steel, and bits of dried brush called tinder. The goal was to get a substantial, hot fire on which to cook, starting with just a spark. With hungry Patrol members standing around, we began to take flint to steel. Three Tenderfoot Scouts were given the task. I can’t say which of us actually produced the spark, but I saw it land on the dried brush; we gently blew on it, and a small flame appeared. Later we cooked on that fire, started by a tiny spark.

I once heard a woman say to another as her husband faced a cancer diagnosis: “I’m not worried. I have faith that God will heal him.” To that, her friend replied: “I wish I had faith like yours!” This week, the Apostles (the 12) hear Jesus give a lesson on when and how to forgive another person. And then he says, in essence, “When you have even the faith of a mustard seed, you can forgive.” Jesus just told them that if a person who had wronged them over and over, turned back and said “I’m sorry and I’ll not do it again,” then they must forgive them each time. It’s a tough action to take without faith. If you have ever been betrayed by or hurt by another person, you may know how difficult it is for you to come to a point when you can say, “I forgive you.” Perhaps you never have been able to forgive another who has hurt you badly. The Apostles must have sighed and said, “Lord, increase my faith” meaning, “I need lots more trust to give my desire for revenge over to God, and then be able to forgive the one who hurt me.” And Jesus says, in so many words: “You don’t need mountain-sized faith to believe God will give you a bridge over troubled waters, you just need a drop of faith (or as a cook might say, a ‘pinch’ of faith to make it happen.” Do you know how much is in a “pinch?” I don’t either, but I’m told it’s a very small amount!

Now, let’s remind ourselves that Bible stories and parables are best taken seriously but not literally. For example, only in Matthew’s gospel does Jesus say the mustard seed is the smallest of seeds; in our gospel of Luke today, there is no mention of size. But don’t we read that when we hear this story? I know I do, so I created a children’s sermon about small things. In fact, botanists tell us that orchid seeds and cypress seeds were actually smaller than mustard seeds in Jesus’ day. So we say to ourselves, “Don’t argue the facts with Jesus! Just listen.” For example, if you read a recipe that says add, “a pinch of salt,” do you know how much to add? How much is in a pinch? That much I’m told (showing pointer and thumb pushed together. How much faith do we need to forgive another? Just (picks up mustard seed) that much.

Did you hear the result of the trial this week when the white female police officer opened an unlocked apartment door that she thought was her own and shot twice, straight into the chest of a black male who was standing in the apartment, only to discover it was actually his apartment and she had shot the man dead? After the jury reached a verdict of 10 years for Amber Guyger, some felt outrage and expressed it. Others were stunned by what happened next. The brother of the man who was killed asked to be heard. The judge permitted it. He took the stand. The man said to the woman who killed his brother, “I forgive you,” and “Your honor, may I have permission to give her a hug?” The judge paused, then permitted it. They embraced with heavy tears as the brother of the slain man said softly to one who had shot his brother, ‘I forgive you.” “Lord, increase our faith!” And Jesus looks into your soul, and he looks into mine, and says to us: “Hmmm. There’s enough faith in you already! Use it!” And then do we step out in the faith we are told we have, or do we pull back? We are reminded of the faith the Amish community in Pennsylvania had when they immediately forgave the man who walked into one of their schools and shot 10 girls. “Oh Lord, increase our faith!” we cry. “Do we have enough faith to forgive like that?” Sikhs in Wisconsin also forgave a white supremacist who entered their temple, killing six and wounding four. Oh Lord, would we have the faith to do that? And when young white man appeared at predominately African American Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, he pulled out a gun and shot 9 people who welcomed him to their Bible Study. Later they announced that they forgave the man. “Oh Lord, do we have that much faith to forgive like that? Do we have the faith of a mustard seed?”

Let me close with a prayer from Francis of Assisi. Let us pray:
Lord make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sew love.
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master:
Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life. Amen.”

Jeffrey A. Sumner October 6, 2019

At the end of this service, ushers or the pastors will hold a bowl containing mustard seeds at each of the Narthex doors, and at the double doors of fellowship hall. You are welcome to look at them, touch them, or take one with you as a reminder of today’s lesson about faith.