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LEARNING FROM LUKE: LOST AND FOUND
Luke 15: 1-11

In October of 2011, Journalist David Grann revisited the notebook of what he recorded the week after 9/11/2001. This is what he wrote:
On the fourth day, I went to get a sense of the devastation. The street outside my building in lower Manhattan was still cordoned off on either end by police, and you needed an escort and proof of ID to get in or out. The young officer who stood guard on the corner said that two of his colleagues from the police station next door were missing. “A man and a woman,” he said. “We’re still hoping.”
I headed uptown to the Pierre Hotel, where I heard that the families from Cantor Fitzgerald—a bond-trading firm that had lost some 700 of its 1,000 New York employees in the World Trade Center attack—had set up an emergency center. It was in the Grand Ballroom on the second floor, where weddings and executive banquets were normally held, a place that seemed utterly incongruous for a crisis room. It was opened, along with the hotel, in 1930 and, according to the hotel’s brochures, had “received royalty, world leaders and celebrities.”
Outside the main door, the company had set up tables with information packets, including hot lines for “investigative tips,” “hospitals,” and “police.” There was a place to fill out missing person reports, and a few people gathered around it. The forms were eight pages thick and asked for anything that might identify the missing, including dental records (“partial plate,” “braces,” “no teeth”) and objects in the body (“pacemaker,” “bullets,” “steel plate”). On page four there was a checklist for build, race, and hair color, as well as items like wigs, toupees, and transplants. “Facial Hair Style: __Fu Manchu __Whiskers Under Lower Lip __Mutton Chops __Pencil Thin Upper Lip __N/Applicable.
Inside the ballroom, tacked along the back walls, were sheaths of white paper, each with a picture and details of one of the missing. Some were written by hand, as if in haste, others typed in bold computer fonts. One said, “Adriane Scibetta, 5 feet w/brown hair/brown eyes,” and had a photo of her with three little girls. Another said, “Francis (also goes by Frank) 28 years old, 5’10”-170s lbs. Light brown hair cut very short. Underneath was a picture of him, his sleeve rolled up, so that you could see the word “Mom” etched on his right bicep. Next to him was a picture of Amy O’Doherty. It had been mimeographed and her face was faded.
Many of us have lost things for a while: keys, household items, and other non-living things. And to lose a dog or a cat: that can put some anxiety in the heart of the owner. Other people have lost their spouse; or a parent; that’s even more-anxiety producing. Perhaps the most dreadful stories over the years are of children being lost. Losing a child in a store or a shopping mall can make a parent’s heart beat faster. But finding your child alive after an abduction really puts exclamation points on the word “Found!!” Fifteen years ago today, planes crashed in New York City, at the Pentagon, and in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Family members assembled, or called, to see if their loved one had been found safe, or was lost, or declared dead. It was a devastating time for them. In the face of wars or disasters of any kind, people ask others questions through tears like, “Have you seen my son? Here is a picture of him.” Or, “Have you seen my wife? I’ll tell you what she looks like.” They are distraught. They are unglued. Having someone they love be lost is the worst news that they could imagine.
If there ever was someone who knew the heart of God, it was Jesus. His parables of the lost in Luke 15 take listeners on escalating levels of anxiety. Remember when I just mentioned things I have lost? A pet for instance. When I was a young boy my siblings and I were sad to learn that our dog had gotten out of his fence. We drove around our neighborhood, with the kids calling out from the car windows and Dad driving. Jesus talks about a shepherd losing a sheep. Such a loss could hit him emotionally, but certainly financially. He would be responsible to the rancher who owned the sheep. Other people might panic if they loss money. The woman in the parable lost a coin. A coin in those days could buy a loaf of bread, or even more. The woman lost a coin and, like some of us, she turned her house upside down looking for it. For us we might check the sofa cushions, or our pants’ pockets. And if we find it, most often we feel very relieved. Sometimes I tell Mary Ann something I’ve lost, but not all the time, because she might say what she has said before: “You are always losing things!” Who wants to feel sheepish when they are trying to celebrate? On the other hand, if you have lost a pet, you have perhaps spread the word on posters, through phone calls, or on Facebook. Then if he is found, you get that word out with relief, and others can celebrate with that find!
But there are some losses that set panic or sorrow deep into the soul: it is bad enough to lose a child in a store or a shopping mall: your heart goes into your throat and your senses go on full alert. And if that child is soon found, perhaps a minute, or an hour or so after being lost, likely the child, but certainly the parent, never forgets the relief of being found! But things get much worse concerning child abductions. They are the worst. Jaycee Dugard, author of the book A Stolen Life, wrote:
In the summer of 1991 I was a normal kid. I did normal things. I had friends and a mother who loved me. I was just like you until the day my life was stolen. For eighteen years I was a prisoner, and was an object for someone to use and abuse. For eighteen years I was not allowed to speak my own name. I became a mother, and was forced to be a sister. For eighteen years I survived an impossible situation. On August 26, 2009, [I was finally found. I got to take my name back and begin to put my life back together.] And she still is raising the child that her captor fathered.
She was lost from her mother for all of her formative years. No one was with her whom she could trust to talk to as she grew up and her body changed; no one to love her, just someone to trap and imprison her. She was truly lost to her mother, and then she was found after some people might have lost hope. Eighteen years.
Jesus talks about a lost son in this chapter. Such a missing young man weighed on the heart of the father. Christian Songwriter Mark Schultz captured the sentiment of a son, thought to be lost, who was found. The title of the song is “Letters from War”
The son goes off to fight for his country and to honor his dad. His mother writes to him every day saying: “You’re good, and you’re brave, what a father that you’ll be someday. Make it home, make it safe,” she wrote every night as she prayed.

One day she gets a letter back a letter from another soldier saying a bomb hit near her son and others. Her son dragged the letter writer to safety but the son was captured. And so the mother prayed; and she cried; and she prayed some more. Then she went back to writing letters. She wrote all the time, reaffirming what she said before: “You are good, and you’re brave. What a father that you’ll be someday! Make it home; make it safe,” she wrote every night as she prayed. Two years later a military car pulled in the driveway. She dropped to the ground expecting the worst but instead, “Out stepped a captain where her boy used to stand, and he dropped all his bags on the floor, holding all of her letters from war.”

Being lost is terrible; being found is joy. In Luke 15:20, Jesus said: “When [the son] was yet at a distance, his father saw him, had compassion on him, and ran to him, hugging and kissing his son who had been lost.”

Friends, there is no day in the heart of a parent, and no day in the heart of the Almighty, that is more special than having someone who was lost be found.

On September 11th, 2001, some family members and friends had a glad reunion when a person lost in one of the attacks was found. After hours or days of looking at posters or searching though rubble, first responders found many wounded and broken people to reunite with their families. What a grand reunion. But for hundreds of people, family members stayed lost, and some only got to recover bodies and to bury them.

Being found is the greatest joy to parents, to grandparents, or husbands or wives, and to others. And it is grand too for the one who was lost. In the Bible, Jesus told people exactly how the Almighty feels when someone gets lost; lost spiritually; lost to drug or drink; lost to gangs; lost to someone else who is a poor influence; or lost to a terrible peer group. Like the father in Luke 15, God looks at the horizon every day, seeing if the lost one …is coming over the summit’s rise. God longs … longs … for that person to find his way; or her way: hopes that there is a day of “realization,” as the son has in the parable; hopes that the beloved person is released or escapes from a captor. If someone you love is lost to death, that person need not be lost to God, for in Jesus Christ, “death is swallowed up in victory.” [1 Corinthians 15:54] Like a shepherd searching for sheep, your Savior will look for you, if you already know him as your shepherd, and he will lead you to your new home in Heaven.

Someone who is lost weighs on the heart of God like it weighs on the hearts of loved ones. But getting found is one of the greatest joys of heaven. May all those who can be found, get found. And may those who never get found, or who lose their life, find their way back to the open arms, and the searching eyes, of their Lord Jesus.

Jeffrey A. Sumner September 11, 2016

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LEARNING FROM LUKE: COST-COUNTING
Luke 14: 25-33

The family had all come to church. This family had a mom, a dad, and a young son. No one was excited about being there. It was Labor Day weekend. Where else could they have chosen to do instead? The father shifted in his seat as the sermon was given. The mother said under her breath: “Why do we have to sing these new hymns?” The boy just listened and colored on the bulletin the pastor gave him during the Children’s Message. He liked to color and he didn’t mind doing it. At the offering time he watch his father open his wallet, look through the bills there, and drop a dollar in the plate. At the end of the service they were walking through the parking lot to their car. The mother said, “There was too much new music!” The father said, “The sermon didn’t inspire me.” But the little boy looked at the bulletin he colored and said, “Hmm. I thought it was a pretty good show for a dollar!”

Is there anybody who doesn’t count the cost of any activity or purchase?” Churches count the cost of making repairs or purchasing music or curriculum. Just this week we found the company from which we bought our children’s bulletins went out of business without notice! This week three of us in the office looked over the costs of buying Children’s Bulletins from a new supplier. And we got them. At home I’ve count the cost of repairing my older car compared to buying a new one. I’s been so reliable! I have chosen to keep it repaired for now rather than buying a new one. If I always had to pay for repairs, I would think differently. Last month, I heard how some parents are grateful to have school uniforms this year, keeping down the cost of buying a variety of outfits.
Some in our congregation I visited in August are having to count the cost of having an in home caregiver compared with going into a nursing home.

When our children were very young, a friend of mine chastised me for going to three supermarkets to get the best deals from each, rather than just buying everything from one store. I said to her, “You count your costs, I’ll count my costs.” With our children now grown, I shop at one supermarket; we don’t eat baskets of food a week like our whole family did before!

When you plan to buy a car, you should check not only the advertised price, but also other costs that must be paid as well, like taxes and registration. Wise persons who plan to buy a house consider what taxes they’ll incur, how much insurance will cost, and what homeowner’s association costs must be paid. And these days, people are wise to count the cost of homeowners, or renters, or flood insurance. So many people in California and Louisiana lost their home with no insurance to help them. Insurance seems expensive—until you need it. One of the best ads I ever saw (I say that because I’ve not forgotten it) was for a brand of oil filter; not the cheapest brand, but a high quality brand, one that tests showed would keep harmful contaminants from entering my engine. The tag line said: “You can pay us now” and they showed a new oil filter, “or pay them later” and they showed a smoking car with the hood up.

Jesus knew how people thought about costs when he invited them to follow him. “What will it cost me in lost income? What will it cost me in family relationships? Will I have to move and if so, how much will that cost? I used the Chair our Presbytery’s Committee on Preparation for Ministry, the Committee that guides, instructs, and mentors those who are interested in full time ministry. Those questions I just reported: “What will it cost me in lost income; What will it cost me in family relationships; and Will I have to move and if so, how much will it cost?” are real questions that Inquirers for ministry asked! Did you imagine, like the disciples Jesus called in the Bible, that people would just drop what they were doing and follow him? I thought that, naively, when I started on that committee. But no. They count the cost before they sign up. Perhaps we shouldn’t cast dispersions; that sounds like a wise way to make choices. In fact, it is the way that Jesus teaches. “For which of you,” he asked, “desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?” When I first told my parents that I was feeling called to the ministry, I was met with a tepid response. With a somber face, my Dad said “Hmmm. You don’t get paid much in the ministry.” And then he said, “It’s not an easy life.” My Mother didn’t say anything as I recall. Were they counting the cost of my decision?

Over the years there have also been those, like the Apostle Paul, doing “tent-making ministry.” That means that use their trade—in Paul’s case as a tent maker—to support themselves in ministry. I think Jesus says, and I have concluded, that some people need to do ministry full time. Still, others have done it effectively as a part time employee or a volunteer. I am “all in” for this work, this lifestyle, this calling. This is what I do. This ministry gets my constant attention, my tithe, and my focus. I think that’s what Jesus asks for. Now that doesn’t mean you have to do what I do, but somebody, your pastors in our case, steer the ship with a lifetime of experiences. Then others can pour their hearts into being a teacher, a singer, an usher, or a repair person as their time allows. A church of Jesus Christ calls for our focus, our support, and our attention to details, needs, and people. This is our calling, yours and mine: to follow Him, and to invite others to follow him.

Let me finally make reference to the hymn we are about to sing. It was in the old maroon Presbyterian Hymnbook and it is a beloved song based on our first lesson today from Jeremiah 18. “The Lord said to Jeremiah: “Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand.” Rabel Parson, a wonderful organist from Deland and a friend to me and to our church, gave me a book on December 2, 2001 called “The One Year Book of Hymns.” Adelaide Pollard wrote one of the hymns in that book, “Have Thine Own Way Lord,” which we will sing in a minute. And the tune is appropriately called Adelaide. In that devotional book William J. Peterson wrote:
At forty, Adelaide Pollard was trying unsuccessfully to raise support to go to Africa as a missionary. She wondered why the Lord would burden her with the needs of Africa, but not make it possible for her to go. During this time of discouragement, she attended a small prayer meeting where an elderly woman prayed, “Lord, it doesn’t matter what You bring into our lives, just have Your way with us.” That night Pollard went home and read the story of Jeremiah’s visit to the Potter’s House, and later that evening she wrote this hymn. She said she had always felt the Lord was molding her and preparing her for His service.

Whether it is through Jesus, or through Jeremiah, or through someone else, keep your heart open for the work God has in store for you. The potter’s lesson is that even in your brokenness, or weakness, (and God might say especially through you weakness, or your stress, or your issues, or your pain,) God can still use you; God needs you. And you and I need God … like a piece of clay needs a potter to give it purpose.
Jeffrey A. Sumner September 4, 2016

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LEARNING FROM LUKE: HUMBLENESS
Luke 14: 1; 7-14

One of the hottest and driest summers in recent years brought out a couple of
items worth mentioning. For one thing, I heard a joke about baptisms.in the midst of water restrictions. But to do it, I have to ask you: “Do you know how hot it was?” And you call back to me: “How hot was it?” So let’s try it: “Do you know how hot it was?” “How hot was it?” I’m glad you asked! It was so hot that Baptists resorted to sprinkling, Methodists resorted to wet washcloths, and Presbyterians gave out rain checks! What a hot summer it’s been in Volusia County! But that is nothing compared to the heat and fires in California and much of the American West. Out of control fires brought an attitude adjustment among many who were in harm’s way. Fierce fires brought people out who were humbled by the sheer threat. I remember in the Florida fires of 1998, woods were burning near our home in Port Orange. It was not a tragic, blanketing kind of fire, but one that needed attention before it got that way. An attitude of pride and self-confidence allowed one fire truck and a couple of firefighters to think they could put out the fire by themselves. When they finally decided they needed help, a neighbor heard them put in a call for New Smyrna Beach firefighters to come help. “Why,” the neighbor asked them, “don’t you call a fire company closer?” The neighbor learned they would never call one of the other fire companies. It had to do with territorial issues and union vs. non-union firefighters. Meanwhile fires were beginning to threaten structures. Out in California, I have heard nothing about territory. The intensity of the fires has fighters working all for one and one for all. Likewise, I have rarely seen a communities behaving like families of God the way they do when natural disasters strike, or in the face of some human menace. Whether with hurricanes, or with devastating shootings like in Orlando this summer, people set aside pride, nationality, and other dividing issues and choose to just help a fellow human being. In Amatrice, Italy this week, the devastating earthquake has everyone helping others, through dirt, and tears, and pain. A spirit of humbleness set in in all of these situations. “We’re in this together” was the way people were thinking. And the world rallies to these devastating events. Prayers, clothes, and food get offered. In earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, or tornadoes, we are humbled before the forces of nature. God’s comfort and tears are often felt in those moments of panic. When someone sees a man with a gun; or a school or a clinic has a bomb threat called in; one may find neighbors helping neighbors. But the threat of nature brings out some of the greatest feelings of helplessness and humbleness in the midst of shock. The world has felt compassion for the little Syrian boy in Alepo, with his face and hair caked with dirt, blood dried in a trickle by his ears, and his eyes staring out, just occasionally blinking. What a sight. It makes some say “Whatever fighting or hatred that brought this bloodshed needs to stop!” It is an ageless problem. Even the Bible has plenty of lessons about brother rising up against brother and looking out for number one: Cain and Abel; Jacob and Esau; Joseph and his brothers; Saul and David; Herod and anybody else! But humbleness was never the crown of the conqueror. A conqueror may be cunning, clever, or ruthless, but never humble. If we contrast them with those God chooses to lead, they are great because they serve their Lord; they are humble to be chosen by God and obedient to him. They end up in the hall of holy fame because they were faithful. Abraham, Moses, Ruth, Isaiah, Jeremiah, David, Mary, Jesus, Paul. They were humble people because they faced human struggles. Humbleness, humility, servanthood; people with those qualities don’t often make the Fortune 500 list. Our world may clamor for polished cars, gleaming towers, streamlined offices, or Martha Stewart perfection in hospitality. Our world may also honor those who sit on thrones of the world or at the head of Board room tables. But what touches God? Who does God seem to notice, and to use to reach others? Think about who Jesus blessed. In today’s text Jesus noticed how some guests invited to a dinner chose to sit in the best seats. Then he told them a story. The story is about the human race. And it is about the people who God spots, through whom God chooses to work; like the small woman from Calcutta who chose to do God’s work with the poorest of the poor. The world called her “Mother Teresa.” Sister Susan of Grace Episcopal Church here in Port Orange worked along side of her for a period of time and will offer a presentation and retreat the Sunday afternoon of 9/11 at her church at 3:00 p.m. called “My Experience with Mother Teresa in India.” Susan saw a woman of humbleness and service. Humbleness and service sometimes look like simple things: like a church member who will give up a day to help comfort another person who has lost a loved one. It’s when an able bodied person decides to stand up in a crowded shuttle so a person struggling to stand can have a seat. It’s about the hostess who serves the guests first before taking a portion for herself, relieved that there is enough food. It’s about not hurrying to be ahead of everyone else in a food line. Treating others as guests, the way Jesus told it in the parable, is also about humility. Sometimes it is even about persons who suffer the humility of embarrassment.

There was a minister years ago who attended a big mission conference in Chicago. He was in a big, downtown church, the kind with the long center aisle that slanted down toward the front. It was time to see the film in the days when churches used a projector and a screen. The host pastor asked the film to be started. But the projectionist hadn’t arrived. He asked the minister who brought the film: “Can you, Pastor, start the film?” “Sure!” he said confidently. Hundreds of people had gathered by that time and were waiting for the film to begin. The projector was in the back of the church and the large screen was set up at the end of the aisle at the front of the church. The master of ceremonies gushed over how grateful he was to have a minister who knew how to handle such equipment. As the minister put the film reel on the projector, the missionary gushed over him, calling him “the audio-visual expert from New York.” The man beamed with pride. The giant reel was in place and the film was threaded to the take up reel. Everything was set; the lights were dimmed, and the movie began. Some of you will remember that on those old movie projectors, some had a little toggle on the stem to hold the reel on the projector. Guess who forgot to latch it? With a quick thwang, the reel with the film fell to the ground and began rolling down the slanted aisle to the front of the church, unraveling film as it went. The flustered minister charged down after it with the movie showing on his backside as he tried to catch and re-roll the runaway reel! Providentially after the film, the program that December evening called for a reading from Mary’s Magnificat. One of the lines was: “God has put down the mighty from their thrones!”

Humility in our day must have set in as some of the Space X rockets they sent into the air blew up or landed and tipped over. But they keep trying! I remember the chagrin at the Cape years ago when two shuttles in a row did not launch successfully. The Space X team will all do their job better next time because the rug of self-assurance has been pulled from under them. In 1912, the White Star Line kept building ships after the Titanic sank, but they added a double hull bottom and stopped allowing headlines like “God himself could not sink this ship.” Smugness and arrogance in part sank that ship. J. Bruce Ismay, head of the company, would not approve having enough lifeboats for all passengers as engineer Thomas Andrews had urged because “too many boats will frighten the passengers and it would give the promenade deck a cluttered appearance.” God brings down the proud, and undergirds the humble. Jesus told parables to back up his words: “Whoever shall exalt himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

The Old Testament has one of the greatest stories of humbleness. You can read about it in 1 Samuel and it includes two main characters: Saul- the tall, handsome, people-pleasing man who had a tarnished character, and the man God chose to succeed, or rather, overthrow him. A humble man with a heart that was true. David was the youngest son of Jesse. He was out tending his father’s sheep when God’s appointed people came looking for a king. After David was asked if he would agree to be king, he was anointed and the Lord’s spirit began to fill him. He who is faithful in the smaller things can be trusted with the greater things: Jesus taught it; God knew it; and David exemplified it. He didn’t go out to run a campaign, or buy new clothes, or hire a manager. He responded with humbleness. Later Saul was jealous and sought to murder David. And at a time when he returned to the land of the Philistines, the one whose giant he killed when he was a boy, David was a desperate man, faking insanity and drooling to escape capture in 1Samuel 21:13. David was panicked. David, the king-elect, retreated to the cave of Engedi. He did what I have done, and perhaps you have done, when he was struggling: he called out to God. David’s cry to God is recorded in Psalm 142. Try reading that lament one night and see if you feel a kindred spirit with David. When you are truly in the cave of your life, humbleness is that quality that starts you back toward God. Pastor and author Chuck Swindoll writes: “some of us are living in an emotional cave, where it is dark and dismal and damp and disillusioning. Perhaps the hardest part of all is that we cannot declare the truth to anybody else because it is so desperate … so lonely. I weary of the philosophy that the Christian life is just one silver-lined cloud after another—just soaring. It is not! Sometimes the Christian life includes a deep, dark cave. The conversion of a soul is a miracle of a moment, but the making of a saint is the task of a lifetime. And god isn’t about to give up [on you.] (Swindoll, DAVID, p. 78.)

Marks of true humbleness: are they yours? Can you give a gift without needing credit for it? Are you expecting God to bless you or choose you for a task, or are you just busy with the tasks of life? Do you push to be first or to be noticed? Do you have an entitlement attitude? As the fires of California and the earthquake in Italy have taken away most of the “I can do this on my own attitudes” there, may we join them, come to our knees before the Almighty, and know that God will be there, for you, and for me.

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LEARNING FROM LUKE: SABBATH
Luke 13: 10-17

This week I learned that there is a new condition that is becoming more prevalent, especially in the bodies of young adults. It’s called “text neck.” From looking down, excessively texting, people are putting a strain on their neck and shoulders. On the older end of the age scale, some are bent over with balance issues or having to watch where they step. In all stages of life the old maxim “Sursum Corda”- “lift up your heart” might be extended to all of us: “Lift up your head!’ Taking the time to pause, to gaze out across a landscape, or a body of water, or to look out of a window can bring relief and rest to minds and necks under strain.

With the strain of life in mind, I am sure that the Almighty created the Sabbath Day for the health of men and woman. With the inclination of people in our world to take things in print and make them rigid, the Lord Jesus demonstrated the flexibility he believed was intended to keep of the Sabbath Day. Over the years there have been those at both ends of the Sabbath debate. At the rigid end of the spectrum are Orthodox Jews in Israel, for example. During Sabbath hours, absolutely no work may be done; no cooking, no schoolwork, no labor. Some who have been to Israel with us before noticed the “Shabbat” elevators in our hotels; elevators that stopped at each floor automatically so that a person would not have to “work” pushing buttons. Looking out of our hotel windows on the Sabbath, the streets looked like an evacuation order had been given and we’d missed it! The hustling streets of the day before were deserted! On the other end of the Sabbath spectrum are those treating a Sabbath just like any other day: people catch up on work, or shop, or pack restaurants or theme parks or grocery stores. That’s what Florida looks like on every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, no matter what day different faiths observe. We fail to observe the Sabbath to our own detriment. But some people in our society think of non-work as laziness. Ministers such as me often have no business acting like an expert on Sabbath because my days of rest are not regularly done well. Today I will admit to you where I have succeeded and where I’ve failed.

Our daughter Jenny is a Hospital Chaplain, a Clinical Pastoral Education Supervisor. She has a trying and taxing profession in addition to being the mother of a one year old. One day last week she told her boss she was overwhelmed and asked if she could take a couple of personal days. (Remember, ministers are always going beyond a 6 day work week) He said, “Of Course.” So on her personal day of exhaustion, she dropped her son off with his teachers and went home to bed. She awoke noticing two text messages: “Jenny, where are you?” And a second one: “Are you alright?” It was from a colleague. He reminded her that they had a meeting that day. Now you should know that Jenny is wired like I am: we always put things on our calendars and are hard on ourselves when we overlook a commitment or let someone down. So Jenny felt terrible; she had missed a meeting. But what was harder on her was hearing the response from that colleague, “Jenny, I’m disappointed in you.” Now, in her state of exhaustion, she experienced shame and tears. Her personal day turned into a day of anguish. Words can be powerful and cutting. By contrast, this summer I had one of the most restful vacations I have ever had. Janet Nace, whose mother died the day before my vacation started, agreed to wait until the end of my vacation for me to do her mother’s memorial service. What a gift. Kristin and Cara and Richard also handled all issues that came up so I did not get regular phone calls or texts. One I sent a business related text to an elder with what I though was an important question. He taught me and encouraged me with his answer: “What are doing texting me now? Take your vacation! You deserve it!” How empowering. Thank you for helping me take time, weekly, or yearly. I am back at 100% because I was granted a hassle-free break.

Sabbaths sometimes have to be molded to the circumstances. People who necessarily work on weekends will need to carve out a different day. I try to make it Mondays. Any of us who keep plowing through the evident stop signs that are intended to point us to a Sabbath time; stop signs like chest pains, tears, depression, excessive drinking, or exhaustion, keep going at our own demise. And God must be watching and saying:” I’ve given you a gift for life; you will see how miserable life can be without regular Sabbaths.” Those of you, like me, who keep your proverbial “nose to the grindstones” will drop in productivity, in joy, and in functionality. So Americans get heart disease, stomach ulcers, or mental illnesses often at a higher rate than those in other countries. One of the reasons: work gives us meaning, to the point at times of giving us our identity. Some get lost when they are disengaged from their work. I have known people who worked very hard, too hard, for years. They told themselves they would work, work, work, until retirement, then take it easy after that. But such a life dwindled the health of their bodies. Others never developed enjoyable hobbies outside of their work. Some I have known became totally bored with retirement; some became hard to live with, and some died soon after they retired. Too much work is detrimental; so is too much free time. Some people in their retirement do other things for their community; things like doing a new kind of work, or volunteering in their church, at a school. My father, for example, a salesman with ALCOA, retired to play golf: something he did all his life. But he also volunteered at their church, read books to children at a local elementary school, and joined the Service Corp of Retired Executives. He was great employee, but he learned how to retire well. The long approach to balance in life is important. But so is the weekly approach. And that brings us back to Sabbath.

On tablets brought down from Mount Sinai, Moses revealed laws for living that he said came from God. We give great weigh to them and have great debates about the meanings of some, like “Thou shalt not kill,” or “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” But another commandment, higher in number but not higher or lower in importance is “Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy.” The other commandments I mentioned cause more ethical dilemmas than the last one for many people. But people regularly disregard the Sabbath commandment. Is it because Jesus healing someone on the Sabbath that allows guilt to govern our choices for that day? We would do well to triage legitimate crises that bring us to break Sabbath from non-rest choices driven by guilt or convenience. If a family member becomes critically sick on a Sabbath day, don’t wait for the next day: call 911 or get to an ER right then! Or if a pipe bursts in your kitchen, don’t wait a day to act: turn off the water ASAP! If a hurricane is bearing down on you, or if you are in Louisiana and water has come up to your roof, preparations, safety, and recovery may take weeks without a break. (I’m preaching to myself as well as to you as I do every Sunday) Do not let ordinary events of life take away your Sabbath, and do not let a Sabbath take away your emergency response when necessary! ‘Jesus said, when people chastised him for healing a woman on a Sabbath: “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox from a manger and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?”

When I was in Israel, I was keenly aware that a Sabbath day had arrived because things were so different. When I was up at Columbia Seminary in Decatur, Georgia working on my Doctor’s degree, on Sunday people went to church. That day classes met, the dining room was closed; even the seminary library was closed until mid Sunday afternoon. There were no distractions from the Lord’s Day. Then I returned from Israel; and I returned from Georgia, …back to Florida. In our state I can hardly tell it’s a Sunday. Cars pack the parking lots of stores, and traffic is still heavy. So I need to do what I advise you to do: carve out your own Sabbath. Receive the gift from God and honor God by observing it. But habits that have been entrenched in our lives can be hard to change. I’ll need your help to keep it. Remind me to keep a Sabbath. And I’ll do my best to help you keep the Sabbath too. To do so honors God, and offers us God’s gift of living that is neither boredom nor a constant grind.

God has given us a gift if we will take it. I will try; I’m not good at it, but I’ll try. What about you?

Jeffrey A. Sumner August 21, 2016

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This is one of those passages we would all rather pretend didn’t exist. There are several that we come across as we read the Bible and I find this one particularly unsettling. I mean, Jesus is the Prince of Peace right? So why is he talking about dividing families and bringing fire to earth?

Division isn’t something I’m all that crazy about in the first place. I will argue when I think something is important enough, but I don’t understand arguing when no one will budge on their position. This is especially true during election seasons when I know that people won’t change their minds but want to argue about it anyway. People end up yelling until they are red in the face and the only thing that happens is that they grow even farther apart. I want us all to be harmonious and unified over the things that are really important, and not worry too much about the things that aren’t.

I think most people feel that way, except for the few who love a good fight. The problem is, of course, that we can’t agree on the really important things. That’s why there are so many different types of Presbyterians alone. Every time there was a big enough theological issue that people couldn’t agree on, the church divided. For instance, in 1973 the Presbyterian Church of America split off from us, the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America, because of our policies including the decision to ordain women. That was a big enough issue on both sides to cause literal division. And that is just one example in one denomination. It is estimated that there are over thirty thousand separate Christian denominations in the world.

It’s hard to argue that there isn’t division when it comes to religion, but surely that is our human imperfections. How is it that Jesus, the guy who said “My peace I bring you,” turns around and says: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

To understand this seeming extreme change of heart from Jesus, I think we need to look at what was happening in the world around him. Jesus lived in an exceptionally volatile time and place; Judea in the first century was a tinderbox of tension and aggression. The Zealots who were active during his time, actively protested Rome’s rule. Several decades after Jesus’ death, Judea revolted against Rome, leading to the Jewish war and the utter destruction of Jerusalem, the surrounding countryside, and much of the people. In the second century, it happened again.

This wouldn’t have been lost on Christians of the second and third generations, who would have read and heard these texts with the knowledge that the Jerusalem temple lay in ruins and that the kind of chaos Jesus described had actually come to pass. Luke writes of these events about forty years after they’ve happened, and as with all the Gospel writers, he shapes his account to address the situation and questions of his community, which had seen the divisions first hand.

There is no getting around the fact that Jesus was indeed an instrument of division. That families split and people were divided over what he said. But the important thing to realize is that division isn’t Jesus’ goal, it is the side effect of his message.

It’s not that Jesus is arguing for division, instead he’s predicting the impact his message of love will have on our self-centered human nature. Some people will follow and some will not. There’s no hidden agenda here. He has come to turn the value system of the world around and that doesn’t happen with complete agreement from everyone.

Did you notice the significance of the divisions Christ talks about? Father and son, mother and daughter, mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. All places where there are often lots of conflict and divisions to begin with. He’s not breaking apart families deliberately, Jesus merely knows the effect of his message.

The text for today comes right after the passage from last week. Jesus tells everyone that they will not know the day or the hour, and Peter asks “Are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?” This passage is the second half of his response where his frustration really shows through.

Jesus is heading to Jerusalem at this point. He is heading towards the cross and his disciples still don’t get what he’s teaching. He comes right out and says “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” That baptism is his own torture and death. Is it any wonder that he says how stressed he is?

Over and over again Jesus makes it clear that following his teachings will not be easy, that not everyone will understand. That some people will mock or ridicule or take advantage of his followers and that they should follow anyway. Though division is far from Christ’s goal, he knows perfectly well that it will happen regardless.

And it still does today. Following Jesus means doing such unpopular things as caring for the poor, showing hospitality to immigrants, honoring the sanctity of all human life, forgiving those who have hurt you, praying for your enemies, showing compassion to the weak, respecting those with whom you disagree, and generally loving your neighbor as yourself. Truly acting this way will leave some people thinking you are naive at best, and crazy at worst. Even if all of the members of your family are Christian, there still can be plenty of division between how you follow Christ.

And following Jesus’ teachings can leave us divided in ourselves, can’t it? On the one hand we want to follow Christ, doing exactly as he did. And on the other hand, we want to see to our own interests first. We don’t always want to stand up for others or love our neighbor. The division goes all the way to our own decisions, between what is right and what is easy.

This passage isn’t a threat, it’s a warning. Follow the teachings of Christ, really live the way he calls us to live, and we will be divided from the rest of the world. Not that being divided is a good thing, but because there will always be some people who do not understand.

Now, Jesus is not saying that we should start the divisions. This passage isn’t a call to war either literal or figurative, or an excuse to exclude those who don’t think just like us. It is just an acknowledgment of the inevitable results of following such a radical way of life.

This is not a comfortable passage. It shouldn’t be. But it is also not a passage we should ignore. We are called, as was Jesus himself, to transform ourselves, to show and to tell the world what it looks like, and how it’s different to live as we are created to live. That may set us at odds with people, even people we love.

And yet the result is people living in such a way that the Kingdom of God is here among us. It may divide us, but it will also allow us to live lives as God calls us to live. It creates a better world, despite the division, not because of it.

Every day we make decisions about how we will live. And those choices put us on one side or another. So the question is, how will you choose?

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It is easy to look at Hebrews 11 and think of it as a list of great deeds by great people in the Bible. Indeed, the verses that our morning reading skipped include even more faithful people of God and what they had done. These people are pillars of faith so naturally they have great faith stories. And if we read it only in that way, it is quite easy to let our own selves off the hook. Of course we don’t have faith like Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Jacob, we say to ourselves. That’s why they are Bible stories and we’re just us.

But what if the real point of this reading is instead that all these people shared one important attribute: they all believed that God is going to prevail in the end. Then that conviction informed the decisions they made and the actions they took.

In his book “Good to Great” Jim Collins interviews Admiral Jim Stockdale who was a prisoner of war for 8 years during the Vietnam War. During that time he was tortured more than twenty times, had no reason to believe he would ever return home again, and yet he retained his faith that he would survive throughout that time. Stockdale said: “I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

But at the same time, Stockdale saw over and over again that it was the most optimistic prisoners who didn’t survive, the ones that were convinced they’d be saved any day now. Stockdale observed, “They were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

These optimistic prisoners refused to acknowledge the reality of their situations. Closing their eyes and assuming the bad stuff would just go away, helped in the short term, but in the end, the reality of their situation would come crashing down upon them and they couldn’t deal with it.

Jim Stockdale on the other hand, accepted the horrible situation he was really in. He knew he was a prisoner, but he stepped up and did everything he could to lift the morale and prolong the lives of his fellow prisoners, creating a tapping code so they could communicate with each other. He developed a milestone system that helped them deal with torture. And hidden in the letters he wrote to her, Stockdale sent intelligence information to his wife.

Collins, the author of the book, names this mindset the Stockdale Paradox, and puts it like this: “You must retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time…You must confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

This Stockdale Paradox does a great job of defining the faith that our author of Hebrews talks about this morning. We just need to replace “You will prevail in the end” with “God will prevail in the end.”

Real faith combines a central, core belief in the existence of God and the ultimate triumph of God’s ways, with a realistic appraisal of the world today. It then acts in accordance with God’s ways, even when it seems counter-intuitive, in order to affect the current reality and move it toward God’s reality. In other words, we act as though God’s kingdom is here even as we know it is not.

Abraham and Sarah had years where life wasn’t going like God had promised. Where they traveled to lands that were not friendly to them. When Sarah continued to not have a child. They didn’t pretend that life was otherwise. But they continued to follow God and what God promised them, even when that promise was a child long after they were past childbearing years.

And then they finally had a child. They saw the beginning of God’s promised fulfilled. But like the scripture says “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.” In Isaac, Abraham and Sarah saw the hope of that promise, but they never saw the generation after that. They never saw the descendants that would “outnumber the stars in the sky.” Yet, God kept God’s promise. And Abraham and Sarah lived in that faith, imperfectly, but persistently.

I love the end of this passage. Because the writer, after describing these saints who lived in suspense, had their doubts, and admitted that they were strangers on earth who could not ever quite fit in, tells us that they desire a better country, God’s country. And then the scripture says: Because of all of that God was not ashamed to be called their God.

In other words, the honest experience of these saints, doubts and stumbles and hard days, made these folks God’s kind of people. God doesn’t want blind faith that ignores the world around it. God doesn’t want us to smile through the worst of things in an effort to cover over the insufficiency of life as it really is. No, God wants honest saints, honest believers, honest strugglers, who somehow manage to keep longing for that better country that just is the kingdom of God, all the while not denying the pain and suffering of living in a world that is still so broken.

That is what faith really is. Not putting on blinders to the world so that we are convinced that everything is great, but instead seeing the world as it is, and living as though God’s kingdom will come anyway. Just like the Stockdale Paradox, we are called to see the world for the mess that it is, and live as though God will prevail in the end.

That means, you get the call saying the test was positive, you deal with the new reality of illness, but still live as though God will prevail. When you lose the job you were counting on, you set up interviews and figure out what comes next, but you still live as though God will prevail. When it seems like nothing can possibly go right in your life, you don’t grin and bear it, but find a way to get help, because God will prevail.

Frederick Buechner once said: “Faith is the word that describes the direction our feet start moving when we find that we are loved. Faith is stepping out into the unknown with nothing to guide us but a hand just beyond our grasp.” God loves us. God’s will will prevail in the end. Faith for us means that we take those steps. It means that we live like we really believe that.

The great spiritual writer Henri Nouwen said received the greatest revelation about faith at the circus! In his book The Only Necessary Thing: Living a Prayerful Life, Nouwen talks about going to see the German trapeze group “The Flying Rodleighs” perform. He was mesmerized by their breath-taking performance as they flew gracefully through the air. At the end of the show, he spoke with the leader of the troupe, Rodleigh himself. Nouwen asked him how he was able to perform with such grace and ease so high in the air. Rodleigh responded, “The public might think that I am the great star of the trapeze, but the real star is Joe, my catcher…The secret is that the flyer does nothing and the catcher does everything. When I fly to Joe, I have simply to stretch out my arms and hands and wait for him to catch me. The worst thing the flyer can do is try to catch the catcher. I’m not supposed to catch Joe. It’s Joe’s task to catch me”

God will catch us. We may not know what that will look like and it may not always be comfortable, but God will catch us. Faith does not stop the bad things in our lives from happening. Faith simply gives us a path to follow while the storm rages.

Think about your life today. Things may be going great or maybe not so great. Regardless, how would things change if you lived your life assuming God’s will will prevail? That at the end God’s kingdom will come here to earth. How would that change the decisions you make? How would that change how you behaved?

“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” We may never see all of God’s plans. We may never see the result of God’s promises. But in faith, we shall move forward in God’s direction, trusting that God will indeed catch us. Amen.

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IN THE CLASSROOM OF CHRIST
Luke 11: 1-13

In the summertime, children often want to leave school behind; to forget about classes and assignments. But when I was home dealing with my father’s funeral in June, I went down to the basement of our family home and found what my parents had stored for me; papers from elementary school, junior high, senior high, and even college. Sometimes being a “saver” can turn a person into a “hoarder.” But I was grateful that they held my papers until I, myself, could choose what to keep and what to toss! One day in June, while others were napping, I triaged the old cardboard boxes of papers and notebooks, deciding what to keep and what to pitch. In fact, I recycled more than three-fourths of my papers. But my trip down memory lane reminded me of things I was taught and the teachers who taught them. People like Mrs. Harris, my second grade teacher; like Mrs. Kerth, my Junior High Sunday School teacher; and like Miss Glick, my High School Music Teacher. I began to remember them all, and what I had learned. One thing that was important was what I learned; but another thing that was hard to quantify was how they made me feel: appreciated; valued; encouraged.

Years ago Robert Fulgham captured the country’s warm glow about early childhood with his book All I Really Need Know I Learned in Kindergarten.
In it he wrote:
All I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate-school mountain, but there in the sandpile at Sunday School.
Then he made a list and it included:
Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. And say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.

I have witnessed and heard about teachers in our church and in community schools teaching those values; Nursery Teachers in our church exemplifying those values; and I have learned those values from many of the teachers who have molded me. I thank people who have been, and continue to be, good examples for living.

Today we are invited to re-imagine our learning experiences, not with book bags or with chalkboards, but with a relationship to a teacher, and a listening ear. If we imagine that we are with the Twelve Apostles, we find in our text from Luke today that “Jesus was praying in a certain place.” Luke doesn’t find it important enough to say where, or perhaps he wasn’t sure of the location. We know that when Matthew reports the same teachings he says they are on a hillside on the northern bank of the Sea of Galilee. It is not a mountain, nor is it flat farmland. It is a slope. Generally a teacher like Jesus would sit at the top of the slope to be seen and heard by all. There was no man-made amplification; and there were not slates or notebooks or books. It was just the teacher, also called Rabbi, who said, in effect, to people who were learning from him: “Let’s talk. I have some things to teach you.” So the classroom of Christ is more like a gathering, like listening to a sermon outdoors. What is the first thing the disciples wanted to learn: Jesus’ position on issues? What he thinks about Samaritans? How to honor the Sabbath? No. They want to do what he is doing; they want to emulate their teacher. They want to learn how to pray the way Jesus does. Disciples in that day and in our day practice prayer. You may have your way and others have their way. The last time our grandson Calvin was here in May, I talked him and other boys and girls through a line by line prayer for the Children’s Sermon. That night before dinner, he said to us “We have to let us pray!” I asked “What?” And he repeated, “We have to let us pray!” He’s four. So I asked, “Would you like to pray?” And he said: “Yes!” Then he folded his hands the way I showed the children to do. “Dear God Jesus: we love you. Keep us safe this summer. Amen.” And I said, “And thank you for this food?” And he said: “And thank you for this food! Amen.” He was trying to pray like I had taught them. And he moved us all. Boys and girls were learning to pray that day and today. Adults sometimes need a refresher coarse too. When you read what Jesus taught his disciples, you’ll probably recognize it as the prayer we call “The Lord’s Prayer.” But it is likely different from the version you usually say. That’s fine. We all say it a little differently. In Matthew it says Jesus told them to “Pray like this.” In Luke Jesus said, “Pray this.” Regardless, this is his example for prayer. It is where we start taking mental notes. As I said to the children, there are some things they should memorize in their lives, and the Lord’s Prayer is one of them. It’s the prayer that, in times of crisis, many people recite and they find comfort in the experience, even with the different ways of saying it. So the way to pray in Luke is likely not exactly your way. That’s okay too. Pray; talk with God. Do it often, not just when you are in need, or when there is a crisis, but when you are glad or want to celebrate. God wants to be included in your sorrows and your celebrations.

Next, like any good teacher, Jesus doesn’t just give content; he gives examples. Sermons too are supposed to have “windows” in them, which are human illustrations. And Jesus knows it is unlikely anyone is writing down what he says. They are listening and will try to remember. So he helps them. “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived and I have nothing to set before him.”” Can you imagine such a scenario? If you get a knock on your door at that hour, are you not frightened who it might be, and if it turns out to be a friend, are you wondering what crisis has befallen them? What is a crisis to one person may not be to another. This neighbor wants three loaves of bread. But in those days, people got up early in Israel to make the household bread, because bread gets stale quickly. Who would have three loaves of bread still stored? As we listen, we learn that this window into Jesus’ teaching is not mainly about bread. He goes on. The neighbor wakened from his sleep says “Don’t bother me! I’m in for the night and my children are with me and sleeping. I cannot accommodate you.” That’s what you want to say, wakened up out of a sound sleep. But what many people will do, but only for a friend or neighbor, is respond to them. That’s the point of this lesson.

Here’s an example. On June 5th my mother was wakened from her sound sleep by the telephone ringing. It was the nurse at the Rehab Center who was caring for my Dad. It was 2:30 a.m. “Mrs. Sumner, do you have someone who can drive you over here? We’re having some issues with your husband. “No,” my mother replied in sleepiness, “I’m alone.” Then she thought of something. She had a relatively new next-door neighbor who knew of my Father’s health condition. She was a married woman with children, yet she still had said to my mother, “Carolyn, if you ever need any help, night or day, you call me.” My mother didn’t think she’d have to take her literally. At 2:30 a.m. She called and woke her neighbor out of a sound sleep. She explained what the nurse had said. “Give me 15 minutes to get ready” Lisa, the next door neighbor said. “Watch my house. When my front porch light comes on, I’m on my way over to help you across the grass and into my car.” And that’s exactly what she did. She drove my mother to see my father, and the two of them were there when he breathed his last. She is still the next door for my mother. And I thanked her at Dad’s funeral. What a neighbor. When Jesus was telling his story, was he thinking about that kind of “above and beyond neighbor?” Perhaps so. But what’s the classroom lesson there? Is it about bread? No. It’s about being a good neighbor, about helping where help is needed, because who knows what night you might have to call in a favor. That’s the second thing Jesus taught that day.

But all his lessons in that brief time were leading to this: “Persistence pays off.” Or as it is put in the King James Version, “Ye have not, because ye ask not.” This sounds like a guarantee of results. But instead it describes the heart of God. God hears what we ask, but wisely gives at the right time, in the right way, if the request is a good one. God, like a good parent, loves his children unconditionally, but sometimes appropriately he does not grant some requests. Have you seen how children turn out when they have parents who give them everything they want? I have, and they grow up spoiled and with a warped sense of entitlement. Cautionary tales through the years have warned about what happens when you are given everything for which you ask. Although the story of Aladdin and the [Magic] Lamp appeared in the 1889 edition of Englishman Andrew Lang’s The Blue Fairy Book, the tale has roots as far back as 2400 years Before Christ! It tells what can happen if wishes are granted according to one’s own greed or limited ideas of what would make life terrific. In no case does a person, when given the chance to have whatever he or she wants, make good choices. But a loving father or mother will not substitute a fish for a snake either! Jesus says, in so many words, that his Father is love; if we ask, the response might be yes, or might be no, but we will always be heard and will receive what is best. God is not locked by time and can see far beyond what our senses reveal. That’s why the Bible says, in one of my favorite passages of a good father teaching his child: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insights. In all your ways acknowledge the Lord, and he will make straight your paths.” [Proverbs 3: 5-6]

Today we have been in the classroom of Christ. Good students observe what Jesus does and they emulate what he did in their lives moving forward. Good students remember the first point—that Jesus, and followers of Jesus, pray regularly. Good students will never forget the story about a neighbor coming to another neighbor at midnight-it means that when we have a prior relationship with someone, they will often go the extra mile for us. And we can do the same for our neighbors and friends. And finally, good students trust what the teacher Jesus is saying: that in our prayers we can ask, and ask often, even be persistent in prayer: but we should also trust that God’s response—yes, no, or not yet—an answer that comes from the source of pure love, not tainted by jealousy, envy, or anger. What a God we have! And what a friend we have in Jesus! Today Jesus has been our Rabbi, teaching like all good teachers do: with his actions and his words.

Let us pray:

Whether it is in the words of the so-called “Lord’s Prayer,” or just a conversation describing events, feelings, hopes, or needs, you certainly love to hear from us, dear God! We communicate so much on our phones; today we are reminded of the way to stay in touch with you, and that you love to hear from us! We begin today, renew prayer relationships, believing with new reassurance that you love us unconditionally and that you will never stop caring. Thank you for that reassurance. We pray as Jesus prayed.
Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner July 24, 2016

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Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?

That is the question that echoes through our first passage for this morning. Indeed, that question can sum up much of the Bible as a whole. Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? Is anything impossible for God?

And yet, the passage we come to here is the end of Abraham’s story. Abraham, and with him Sarah, first come into view when Abraham is called by God to leave their home and family in Ur in Chaldea. Full of hope and expectations of a better life, they set off to find the new land and found the family God had promised to them.

And then time goes by. They are side tracked in Egypt and finally end up where God told them to live. Years have passed and still Sarah is childless. They (mostly) did as God told them to do and lived good and faithful lives and yet still Sarah is barren. How are they supposed to have descendants that outnumber the stars if they never have a single child? Both Sarah and Abraham try to come up with descendants through other methods, but God is having none of it.

At that time Sarah’s whole sense of worth depended on how many sons she would be able to bear. Having and raising children is the only thing that women are expected to do at this time. And being barren in those days was always seen as the woman’s fault. She had to suffer the disgrace, the curious looks and questions, the expectations and the pressure of family and society, and often being put aside by her husband. Men had the right to send their wives away if they didn’t give birth to children – had the right to marry another or a second wife and have children with her. Abraham had never did set her aside, but Sarah had long since ceased to hope for a child.

The Bible comes right out and says“…it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.” She’d stopped bleeding and it was clear: Sarah would never have a child of her own. She was very clearly just too old.

And these visitors come along and say “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.”

Of course Sarah laughed. Who wouldn’t in her situation? It is absurd to think she would have a child at her age. We would laugh just as much if we were put in her position. And if we are being completely fair, Abraham laughed too. He just laughed in an earlier passage when God first told him Sarah would have a son in their twilight years.

God tells them they will get what they always wanted and they laugh. They laugh because it’s too much. Too big a promise to follow or accept. Not now God. Earlier when we planned on having a child would have been one thing, but to expect a child now is just too much. And so Sarah laughs from deep within herself when she overhears the news.

God would not let her shrink from the honest emotion of disbelief, seeing through her lie of “I did not laugh” with the simple rebuttal, “Yes, you did laugh.” I don’t think this was said as a reprimand, so much as an acknowledgment of how crazy it sounded. In a way, maybe what God was saying to Sarah was that, “I know it’s hard to believe what I have promised. Everything about this seems topsy-turvy to the ways of the world. You did laugh, but that’s okay. You’re not the first, nor the last, to laugh at what seems impossible. But that doesn’t mean it can’t happen.”

Yes. It can happen. God’s plans, no matter how huge can come true.

It seems impossible that a virgin would have a son, but she did. It seems impossible that God would become flesh and dwell among us, but God did. It seems impossible that Christ would rise from the dead, but Christ did. It seems impossible that a tiny movement from one small province of the Roman Empire would become a religion that would span the globe long after the Romans were gone, but it did.

As I look at the world today, a lot seems to be impossible. In the last week alone we have seen a coup attempt in Turkey, a truck killing dozens during a celebration of freedom in France, a Pakistani social media star who spoke out for women’s rights was strangled by our brother, and there were thirteen more mass shootings in this country. And that was just last week. It seems every time we look we here more incidents of racism and violence and hatred running rampant in the world.

It seems impossible that we will find some sort of hope. That God will work good out of this mess. It seems like the world is getting worse and worse.

And yet, many things are actually getting better. The rate of extreme poverty in the world was at 37% in 1990. Today it is only 10%. The rate of undernourishment fell from 18.6 percent to 10.9 percent during that same window. The rate of child mortality due to preventable causes has dropped more than 50%. Life expectancy increased by 5.8 years for men and 6.6 years for women worldwide. Worldwide gender inequality has dropped 20%. The ozone layer is actually beginning to recover.

Now most of these things would have sounded impossible a few decades ago, but they happened. God can do the impossible.

God’s plans for the world is not about hatred, discrimination, vitriol and violence. God plans for love and hope. God plans for a world of peace and caring and mercy. And while anyone who watches the news may laugh the same sort of laugh as Sarah did at hearing it, God will bring about all things for good.

Okay great, you may be thinking. Why doesn’t God get started? Why does God let this keep happening?

Because God gave us the ability to decide for ourselves. We have free will. When we choose the paths of violence and hatred, or even when we turn a blind eye to it happening, that is our choice. We live with the consequences of our decisions.

Walter Brueggemann puts it like this: “What God will not (cannot?) do is circumvent the reality of suffering, hurt , the cross. Thus our text does not permit a casual triumphalism that simply believes everything is possible. Because of the character of God, everything is possible for those who stay through the dark night of barrenness with God. For Abraham and Sarah, there is no simple, painless route to an heir.”

There is no simple, painless route to good. And yet, we can choose to be the light in the darkness. We talk all the time about how we are the body of Christ in the world. We are the means by which God reaches out. And God will bring about all things for good through us.

The impact on the poverty rate and child mortality didn’t just happen. Those numbers changed because people did something. We raised money and sent aid and helped educate others. All of those things worked towards the good plan that God has. And while we are not there yet, look at how far we’ve come.

When we talk about racism and hatred and the problems of our country, we have to realize that God is calling us to action. We are supposed to do something about it. We are supposed to speak out and send aid and sign petitions and join campaigns and raise awareness. We begin by praying, and then we start working towards God’s plan.

And God’s plan is so much greater than even we can imagine. Frederick Buechner writes: “Sarah and her husband had plenty of hard knocks in their time, and there were plenty more of them still to come, but at that moment when the angel told them they’d better start dipping into their old age pensions for cash to build a nursery, the reason they laughed was that it suddenly dawned on them that the wildest dreams they’d ever had hadn’t been half wild enough.”

God’s plan for a world of love, for a world that looks like the Kingdom of Heaven sounds impossible. It sounds too wonderful for words. But nothing is too wonderful for God.

Startle us, O God, with your truth and your lively, life-giving presence. Come out of the nowhere into the here and now—this day, this morning, this time together. Touch our hearts with your grace; strengthen our spirits with your love in Jesus Christ, which comes to us in surprising ways. In his holy name we pray. Amen