05-10-20 YOU ARE GOD’S OWN!

1 Peter 2: 2-10

Special; chosen, beloved. These are just some of the words that fill the hearts of many new mothers as they take their newborn in their arms for the first time. Beautiful, perfect, an angel. These are other words I have heard. And at some point, most mothers start by nursing their baby, giving them the colostrum to clear out the baby’s little digestive system, followed by the nourishing milk. Doctors and nurses have told me how perfectly formulated mother’s milk is for the baby. Nature wants our children to grow well, and nurture happens when early parents do their best to protect and comfort their child. Babies are helpless and need a good mother or father to attend to their needs. In time, they start to grow, and learn, and stand. But for now, they need everything a mother can give.

As I said to those who heard my devotional or my sermon last week, the Middle Eastern culture taught mainly with theological metaphors- God comparisons. Here in 1Peter, he starts with this instruction: “Like newborn infants.” There it is: a simile, comparing grown persons to babies because they have not fully learned what apostles like Peter needed them to know! “Long for the pure spiritual milk” he says. In other words, get your guidance from the source, not polluted by culture. Peter was writing to instruct them. Christians in Peter’s day had their own enemy: the Emperor Neron Caesar. Today we face our own enemies: sometimes they are natural or political, but these days our enemy is biological: the Coronavirus. It has killed more people than several wars have. It is tenacious and covert. Here’s one example: a fully functional and physically fit 36-year-old was living his life when, out of the blue, like an alien invader, his body was attacked by the Big C, but this time it was not Cancer, it was Covid-19, the Coronavirus. Air sacs in his lungs got glued together and breathing became labored as the spongy virus clogged his air passages. That Big C won. It overcame him, even at that age. Leaving behind a family, the enemy took him down. And yet, like young children who want their freedom while wise parents insist on some limits, human beings are turning away from wise counsel, stepping into the firing squad of Covid viruses as they go to shopping malls, hold close gatherings on beaches, or engage in other activities without social distancing. Children want to be free like that! The disease just looks for an opening, and then it floats, floats on a spray of air to an opening in our skin. Then its destructive work can begin. At the time this First Letter of Peter was written, there was that different enemy: the description that people love to talk about even today: “The Beast.” Listen to this description from Dr. E.M. Blaiklock, who was Chair of Classics at the University of Aukland, New Zealand. He was an expert on the history of the first century:
The first letter of Peter, written in the early sixties of the first century to a great circle of churches in the rugged peninsula which we call Asia Minor, is a document of immense historical and contemporary significance….In a little over a generation after the death of Christ, communities of Christians were everywhere…. They had broken with the Roman Empire and the empire was about to react to their challenge It was a moment of crisis, for Rome and for the world. [First Peter, Waco: Word Books, 1977, p. 9,10]

Even though we hear about the Beast today, and the number 666 is pinned on political or military entities, the Beast was always only one person, Neron Caesar, the unstable Roman Emperor who was in power when 1 Peter was written. When the city of Rome began burning, he blamed the Christians and, as a public example, started tying them to poles at the Circus Maximus and setting them on fire to illuminate their events. He was brutal and deranged. There have been other brutal or deranged leaders in history and even now, but the beast is not them; the beast was Neron Caesar, whose name in Hebrew spelled out 666, or the alternate version of Nero Caesar, 616, described in Revelation 13. John, when he was imprisoned on the isle of Patmos, used a code to comfort Christians in the late 90s of the first century, when Christians thought that the Roman emperor of their time, Domitian, was Nero incarnate. But, John reminded them: Nero’s own destructive behavior became self-destructive, so he was driven by a military rebellion to commit suicide in 68 A.D. God prevailed over that evil. In the midst of Nero’s persecution, Peter gave comforting and uplifting words to Christians in the Roman Empire! Yes, Christians were one of Nero’s primary deflections and scapegoats. That kind of practice still goes on, but the BEAST is not in the future, the BEAST was in the past! Peter’s comforting words sound like he was treating grown persons like shell-shocked children, telling them to long for the pure spiritual milk. Perhaps he was. Just this past week I’ve seen images of grown adults—like nurses and chaplains—sitting in hospital hallways crying. I’ve also seen the images of a family who lost their daughter, a skilled ER doctor, as the Covid enemy and its advancement into human bodies drove her to take her own life. People are fragile; people need to be spiritually nursed. And yet there are militant demonstrators demanding their “rights,” and people who are starting to pour into businesses and onto beaches. May the enemy not bring them to the ground in a puddle of tears like it has done to some on our medical front lines.

We live in a time when the Covid virus pulls people to their knees. We listen to scientists, and hope for a vaccine, but people are worn down. Peter, if he were here, might call us back to Jesus Christ who he calls the “living stone.” Jesus cared about human beings: body, mind, and soul. Although cornerstones today might be mostly symbolic, structurally a true cornerstone needs to be carefully laid, setting the direction and the angle of a building. A keystone, likewise, is the final piece and locks other stones in place. One stone starts the building process, the other ends it. Peter calls on the Christians in the First Century, who were facing the enemy of the Roman Empire, to anchor their spiritual angles and their foundation in Jesus Christ, not on personal whims or wishes or political leaders. That is good advice today as well, amidst the powerful influence of people who share information on wide-ranging media platforms. Ground yourself in the chief cornerstone, the one who the gospels say was rejected by men, but Peter says” was chosen and precious in God’s sight.” That’s who Jesus is! He is “chosen and precious in God’s sight!” Just as there are evil people today who can seem to own the title of the BEAST, John comforted Christians to move through that age, today I imagine Jesus calling us “chosen and precious in God’s sight” as we seek to comfort others. I was so moved by an illustration I saw on Facebook this week. It was an artist’s rendering of Jesus in his Galilean white tunic, kneeling down in the hallway of a hospital. Behind him was a gurney and beside him a drawer of medical supplies. He is next to a hospital worker, fully gowned with a face mask and a surgical cap who has knelt on the ground, head in hands. Jesus put one hand on the back of the worker for comfort, and the other hand on the head for a blessing. Goodness. What can we do as the Body of Christ today?

Here’s one final thing Peter does that we can do: he becomes an encourager, almost a one person cheering section! I can hear Peter saying words like these to us:
You! You are chosen! You are in the royal court of God! You are set apart for your special work! You are God’s own people! And God is offering mercy to you! Please receive it, as you comfort one another!

Instead of the angry protestors that are in some pockets of our country, there are many more teachers driving by neighborhoods cheering on students! There are ordinary people lining roads outside of hospitals cheering on first responders! And there were the magnificent jets of our Navy Blue Angels and our Air Force Thunderbirds coming together last week in fly-overs to honor our heath care workers! So beloved in Christ: if you feel shell-shocked and frightened, draw close to a comforter as a baby does with his or her mother. As the enemy keeps marching forward, know that the march will one day end. And finally, lift up one another with words, with prayers and with deeds! That was the work of Apostles. And now it is the work for us.

Let us pray: Empower and anoint us, Dear Jesus, to do the work you need us to do,
say the words we need to say, and to show the love you showed others. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner May 10, 2020


John 10: 1-10

It hardly seems necessary to go into great detail about Jesus’ extraordinary care in these pandemic times. So many, in this extraordinary time, are already exhibiting extraordinary care. In spite of critical shortages of protective care, nurses, doctors, and chaplains are diving into the deep end of the virus pool every day. They do so skillfully, caringly, and often sacrificially. They often actually, “lay down their life” for their patients. There is perhaps no better time to help Jesus’ description of himself come to life than in these extraordinary days. In ordinary time, people may pour out their life to protect our country, to serve in a mission field, or as a teacher charged with keeping children safe in a pre-school or day care center. These people, by their choices, are called on to put others first. And they do. Now there are new armies of people who are on the front lines with those who are medically ill, those emotionally in need, and those financially struggling. So factories that made cars are ramping up to make masks; distilleries of fine spirits have started making hand sanitizer, and individuals are pulling out their “Hear I Am Lord, Send Me!” responses to help their neighbors in need. All of us, in so many ways, are becoming shepherds to sheep. Of course, that is a metaphor. My English classes taught me that a simile was a comparison between things using like or as, such as “She is like a shepherd.” But Jesus uses full metaphors, taking out the word “like.” In John’s gospel, he’s well knows for these sayings, known as the “I am” sayings. He declares, in metaphorical fashion, “I am the bread;” “I am the door;” and “I am the good shepherd,” just to name a few. If he were saying that to children, they might argue with him saying, “You don’t look like bread!” or “You don’t look like a door!” And unlike King David, who was clearly a shepherd before he was a king, we don’t have any record of Jesus ever being a shepherd! Yet he claims he is one! What’s going on here? This is the way people made comparisons in Jesus’ day, and when you think about it, we still do! We say things like “I’m cold as ice!” or I’m hungry as a wolf!” We are always making comparisons. It’s not hard to see that our childcare workers, our hospital staff members, and many family members are now like shepherds. Let’s dig deeper into that image.

One thing is for certain: Jesus would have grown up knowing the Twenty-third Psalm. David wrote it as a statement of his faith. So even those who have never been a shepherd have gotten an idea of what shepherds had to do to protect sheep! Philip Keller wrote a book that I own and that is in our church library called A Shepherd Looks at Psalm Twenty-three. I have read it many times. As a shepherd, what insights Keller brings to help us understand David’s words! Sheep are some of the most helpless creatures on earth. Other animals can make it on their own but not sheep! They can only thrive with a good shepherd. So David refers to himself as a sheep, and God into a shepherd, says: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want!” A shepherd can only make sheep lay down in green pastures 1) if he finds a spot of grass in arid Israel; and 2) if he can make them feel secure. When they need water, it can’t be stagnant water that might contain bacteria; but neither can it be running water because it gets up their nose! So, a shepherd has to dam up running water long enough for them to drink. The shepherd has to guide them in right paths, that is, not ones filled with predators, but ones that lead to more food. Sometimes he had to lead sheep through valleys where predators could hide. When he did that, he carried a rod to whack the bodies of predators that get to close, and he knew how to use a slingshot. Good shepherds also carried a staff with the curved end used to gently pull sheep back from any cliffs where they might wander. Shepherds do not actually prepare tables; they prepare table lands; if the shepherd does not first pull out the poisonous weeds, the sheep will simple eat them along with the grass, getting sick or dying. What a job a shepherd has! And as the sheep eat and are distracted, the shepherd watches for their enemies. To help protect them from biting flies, the shepherd anoints their head with a salve, or ointment, with spices that repel the insects. And the sheep feel great relief being in the flock of a good shepherd, described as “their cup overflowing.” So Jesus can easily claim to be a good shepherd; David taught him and countless other readers, what that meant. And now, there are countless good shepherds working sacrificially with those who are young and helpless, those who are old and helpless, or those who are ill and helpless. The prophet Isaiah also used the sheep metaphor for people when he declared “All we, like sheep, have gone astray, each to our own way.” [53:6]

These days, many human beings are even more helpless than usual. These days, many of around us are fatigued, weak as a kitten, or fraught with fear. We are in need of some good shepherds; not just Jesus, but others of us who have the ability to do something! Think about it: you may not be able to get out, but you can telephone others and lift them up or you can pray with them. You can catch up on notes or emails you have been intending to send. These are things I am doing too!
We can journal what it’s like to live through this time, so people in the future will know! On a Zoom chat with other Presbyterians this week, one person asked how people during the 1918 handled the Sacraments of Baptism, and of Holy Communion! We are researching church records to see if a Clerk wrote down what they did! There are many things we can do, as we are busy just being away from others. But one thing to never forget is that we are like sheep, in the flock of a good shepherd.
Let us pray: Dear Jesus, like sheep, we need you. Like a good shepherd, you are there for us. How comforting that is to know! Thank you. Amen.
Jeffrey A. Sumner May 3, 2020


Luke 24: 13-35

Although Emmaus is the name of the village to which disciples were returning after the crucifixion of Jesus in Jerusalem, its location is almost mythical. There are at least two places that advertise themselves to be Emmaus. One is the most likely of all of them, but that doesn’t stop the others from claiming to be the place. It brings in notoriety, and with it, tourist dollars. Although we did not walk to the traditional Emmaus village last summer on our Holy Land trip, we did go there by bus. Some in our church have even experienced a special three-day retreat of discovery that is called a “Walk to Emmaus.” I can tell it is special. Today, however, I suggest that a walk with Jesus is not just an event recorded in Luke 24. It is a promise that Jesus hopes will comfort you. ust as Jesus walked along that road long ago, he walks along with you even today in your most distressing times too.

As I told the boys and girls about a stuffed animal that comforted me and kept me company when I was young, I know people in these times of stress who have something … or someone … to comfort them. Some people I know talk to their electronic device like Alexa or Siri; some talk on their phone with friends; one widow I know got a parakeet just so she could have daily chatter! Some have a dog as a companion, one that might sleep at the foot of the bed or even on the bed. Some have cats. Some have other animals. Most of us really don’t like to be alone. Some just turn on a TV to make it seem like someone is there. And some find Facebook or emailing very comforting. Coming home a month ago might have been a source of anticipation. Now of course many are home a lot. But for those health care workers, coming home after hours at a hospital must be a relief. Some grew up believing, “there’s no place like home.” Fictional accounts foster the comfort many feel as they are making a journey home. From the moment Dorothy’s Kansas house is hit by a cyclone in the beloved film, “The Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy keeps wanting to go home. But as she journeys to Oz, she has companions: a scarecrow that talked, a Tin Man without a heart, a cowardly Lion, and her dog, Toto.
In the musical Finian’s Rainbow, the masterful Fred Astaire’s last film, he plays an Irishman named Finian who travels with his daughter Sharon until he departs from her in the last scene. He strolls away telling her they’ll meet again in “Glocca Morra.” In Mark Schultz’ song called “Letters from War,” his faithful mother wrote every day to her son, never hearing back from him; some thought that he might have died, but she never lost hope. Two years later, he comes into their yard and into his mother’s arms, carrying all the letters she had written to him. Almost everyone, in times of journey or crisis, needs a companion. And returning home is comforting. On the road to Emmaus, two men were returning home from their journey to Jerusalem. Jesus was with them, though they did not know it. Today I want to suggest that Jesus is with you in your aloneness or your sadness, in crisis or on your journey too. Today I believe he is with nurses and chaplains; he is with doctors and scientists; he is with widows and widowers, parents and children. Parents need support; children need to Facetime friends or phone calls or to shout to friends across a street. We are most comforted when someone we can count on is with us. What is it like to move through your life now, with the days running together? To what do you cling besides the cross of Jesus? Do you cling to a blanket like Linus? Or to a special toy, or a doll, or a stuffed animal? Do you cling to your cellphone or computer, or to a photo of a special person? Do you talk to that photo, or talk to yourself? Think about the most difficult parts of your day. Can you picture your Lord Jesus, coming alongside of you, listening in to either your conversations or your thoughts? What if he is really there, though you cannot see him? I want to suggest that Jesus can be, and is, really there. Through the power of God, Jesus can be, and is, with us; not ruling in Heaven like an aloof king. Instead, he is with us. In today’s technology, many can now heavily stream shows for their television programs. It is not is like 20 years ago when there was a set time to start a TV show or record it. Now with streaming services, you and thousands, even millions of other can watch shows whenever you wish. You can start it, pause it, and end it at will. Even the church services that we stream from our website or YouTube you can watch anytime you want to; you can watch them again; and you can watch them at different times from others! It is amazing technology. By analogy, that is the way Jesus can walk with you, and walk with me, and walk with your neighbors, and walk with people all around the world at the same time! But Jesus does not do it through technology, but through the awesome power of God. Jesus walked with two disciples toward Emmaus and they didn’t recognize him. Jesus walks with you too, though you will not recognize him, that is, until something happens: like a familiar voice; or the hair on your neck or your arms stands up; a shudder goes down your back. Then you will know that he is with you.

This week, after finding no public domain hymn that described the walk to Emmaus, I walked over to my piano and I sat; I thought, and I prayed. I felt like I was not alone. I left the piano and went to my computer, and I wrote the words for today’s song; then I went back to the piano and imagined a tune to go with the words. I wrote down the notes to see how they would fit the worlds. Then I called musician Don Kruger to see if he could turn it into sheet music. And he did. And I never felt alone as I wrote it. These are the words I sang for you today:
“Some brokenhearted Christians, walked down a darkened path,
Wondering if the Savior would indeed appear at last.
Then in time of hopelessness, hope appeared again,
The risen Lord had come to join dejected friends.”

(And as if Jesus is singing these words to us, here is the refrain:)
I am here, said he, I am here.
When you cannot see me, I am here.
As you pray to God, your prayers will be heard,
When you cannot see me, I am here.

The other verses also were meant to show people that they were not alone either:
“As women trudged to see the tomb where Jesus had been laid,
They thought about the caring man whose sacrifice was paid,
as in ages long before, an angel said ‘fear not;’
and so the news spread far and wide, salvation had been bought.”

As men walked to Emmaus, we walk our roads today,
Asking if our sadness will turn to joy some day.
And then, as if at God’s command, Jesus did appear,
In a common thing—like life breaking bread—they knew that he was there.

I wrote a final refrain that did not get sung today. Perhaps another day it will be sung. But today, it is the crux of the Luke 24 message to you:

When your heart burns within you, he is here. 

When your heart burns within you, he is here.
If you pray to God, your prayers will be heard,
When your heart burns within you, he is here.

Jeffrey A. Sumner April 26, 2020


Matthew 28: 1-8

This year we have faced first the Crucified Christ on Good Friday, and then the Risen Christ now on Easter, both with the backdrop of the Covid-19 virus. Starting in China, it has shut down or immobilized other countries like Italy, Spain, South Korea, and much of the United States. It has emptied out most commercial airplanes and it has parked cruise ships in any dock where they are allowed to stay; without passengers. This has become a time of war, but not against another country or an army; it is against a virus, marching unflinchingly throughout our globe. Hundreds of thousands of people have been affected. Most Easter services are not being held at all, or they are offered online. Social distancing matters. But even in times like these, there are children being lifted up by teachers driving through their neighborhoods and honking safely from their cars. There are people on Facebook telling others not where to find bread, but where to find toilet paper or sanitizer! We have neighbors offering to take lists of grocery items from other neighbors and to bring back the groceries, limiting the exposure others might have had. And so yes, a pinnacle Christian story about life from death is just what we need to hear at a time like this! Years ago, Carl Hopkins Elmore, after seeing the maltreatment of many people in the world, sent an appeal to all Christians on Easter Eve saying:
I challenge the Christian world to measure itself by the standards of its Christ. As long as any group is judged by its creed or color or country in place of its character, Christianity is a sacrilege rather than a sanctity. To this end, I summon Christians everywhere to make this Easter signify Christ realized, and not merely Christ risen.

My preaching professor, Dr. Donald Macleod, took apart the idea of Christ realized verses Christ risen. He said, “Many, even church members, will greet Easter morning with the triumphant strains of ‘Jesus Christ is Risen today,’ but will leave the world-shaking implications of this fact unacknowledged and unexplored. [Easter for them] means no more than history’s record of one Jesus of Nazareth who lived and died sometime between 4 B.C.E. and 33 C.E., and whose memory time has not been able to flout or destroy. At best, Easter is a delightful festival and provides a pious note as a harbinger of the coming of spring.” Dr. Macleod died years ago, likely picturing sanctuaries teaming with men in pastel colored ties and women in Easter bonnets. A friend of mine send me a meme this week with a group of six women standing next to each other in Easter Egg colored house coats! The caption: “Easter dresses for online church this year!” Likely true! But Christ realized is another matter from the yearly celebration of Christ risen. The empty tomb is a theological celebration, but empty tomb living means we change the world with the message and work of Christ! It means that Christ has to come out of the annals of history, out of the seasonal celebrations of Easter-wear and become a redeeming force for humanity. And the way Christ does that is through the church: the body of Christ; through you, and through me. Christ risen is an annual celebration, but Christ realized means that something has to be done! It implies that human hearts must be shaken by the presence of Christ, his amazing grace, and his inexhaustible love. As Paul said, and I reminded you last week: “Anyone who is in Christ becomes a new creation …and he has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” Bringing together members of the human race to find help and hope at a Christian table, at a Christian pantry, in a prison ministry, or through teaching the gospel is now on us, not on Jesus. For that challenge to have the most impact, Christians must risk rolling back the rug under which politicians have swept issues of immigration, of justice, and of affordable housing or available hospital care in this pandemic. If Christ were here in the flesh, he would likely be standing in the House or the Senate Chambers in Washington, like he took a whip to the Temple in Jerusalem, and saying “well done” to some, and “things need to change!” to others.

But some might pause here, asking “Why are you bringing up these unpleasant, politically divisive issues in an Easter message? Read Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, you’ll that find Jesus’ entire earthly ministry involved those issues; his rising from the dead meant he left us a Great Commission and God left us the powerful Holy Spirit to carry out the work that Jesus began. Ours would be a hollow and groundless religion were we not able to say that once, in the pattern of history, a man appeared who was indeed, as the Nicene Creed affirmed: “Very God of very God;” one who lived a human existence, reflecting someone never known or seen on earth before, who taught us a way of life more original than any philosopher had been able to before. He embraced the will of God so completely that he himself was truth alive, who shared our humanity to the extent that he took on death and overthrew the powers of Satan. After his death, he appeared to many, proving that he arose from the dead! Through the centuries, Christ risen became the impetus for some of the most inspiring parts of culture: paintings by Raphael, and DaVinci, and Michelangelo; music by Handel, Bach, and Haydn. Christ inspired the poetry of Gerald Manley Hopkins, W. H. Auden, and T.S. Eliot. The idea of the risen Christ has influenced many writers and artists through the ages. Yet Macleod also said: “[The risen Christ] can never become a vital and creative truth in us as long as we place our highest Easter offering upon the altars of the gods of commerce and refuse to meet the cost this day entails.”

Matthew 28 included some surprising facts: women were at the tomb as body anointers; a great earthquake shook the ground; an angel descended and rolled back the heavy stone from the entrance to Jesus’ tomb, and there the angel sat! What a scene! Guards were there in Matthew’s account, so no one could steal Jesus’ body; Roman guards were known to be fearless, yet seeing the angel, they become frozen “like dead men.” And then … then, the fear changed to hopeful joy; to the possibility that all Jesus had said was true; that under God’s command he could not only rise from the dead, but also ascend into heaven! This is the historical event that changed the dating system we use and established churches around the globe. Today many sanctuaries are empty, even as the tomb was empty. The power went forth from the tomb, and the power has gone forth from countless sanctuaries, becoming the church without walls! The empty tomb teaches how Jesus’ rising from the dead changed the world. The empty sanctuaries teach us that the people are not gone; they are deployed into the world where need is everywhere. You are the hands, and feet, and eyes, and heart of Christ! Use them, as you bring the world Jesus- on Easter, and in the days ahead.

Let us pray:
Oh Lord Jesus, fresh with wounded wrists, and ankles, and a wounded side and a wounded head: what a sight you are for sore eyes! Who would have guessed you would survive a brutal Roman cross! But survive you did, and now you thrive as the glorious King of Kings and Lord of lords! Now, we can sing “Hallelujah!” Now we can shout “Praise the Lord!” We seek to change the world, even in our own corners of it, so people will know we are Christians by our love. Thank you for loving us so much Lord! Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner April 12, 2020

04-15-20 – Hosanna! Save Us!

John 12:1, 12-16

In our world today when health care workers and chaplains and other first responders are on our front lines of care and protection, they might best understand the exhaustion with which Jesus greeted the crowds on the day known as Palm Sunday. I have chosen the story as told from John’s gospel today. If you were with me last week, you might remember the story of the raising of Lazarus; how his sisters Mary and Martha were friends of Jesus. How they counted on his friendship—and on his power—to keep their brother Lazarus well. I know from my daughter that the health care workers and chaplains have family members in hospitals plead with them—plead with them—to save their loved ones. For this virus, there are no sure things—no sure medicines, no sure protective supplies, no sure answers. And yet the pleading, and the wailing continues. It is exhausting. Health care workers and chaplains go from their possibly contaminated hospitals into their garage, or their utility room, and strip off contaminated clothes, putting them in the washer, and then scrubbing themselves in a hot shower. If they could, they would take their responsibility cloak off too—the one they have worn for an 18 hour, or a 24 hour, or a 48 hour shift. They are done. But yet, they are not done. They might have a spouse or a child who needs care and attention. They might need to eat since they’ve ignored their bodily needs. They might want to cry in private. This is the life of these health care workers now. Then there are the parents—moms, dads, grandparents. I have seen some posts on Facebook, with their child home, saying things like: “First day in home school—my student already needs the principal’s office!” Others tearfully write “I can’t do this—watch my kids and work from home.” One grandson said glumly that he wished he could go back to school; and those parents wished the same thing! Everyone in this day and age is being forced to adapt to something forced on them. Jesus, I suspect, is wrung out by this time too. He’s had his critics from the beginning—people who just said little things in stage whispers that he could hear. He wasn’t made of stone, you know! He was human … and he heard … and he hurt. His best friends—Mary And Martha—were disappointed in him. One of the most painful things my father did to me when I did something wrong was not to spank, or to ground me. He would say: “I’m disappointed in you.” And Jesus has just been wrung out by disappointment. In addition, this man’s man wept for the first time that was recorded. He wept with Martha, perhaps not because he was grieving, but because he was spent. Oh and just before he was with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in that exhausting exchange, the Jews in the area were preparing to stone him according to John 10:31.

Now, like an exhausted health care worker coming home to a child, or like a parent spending days with pent up children, it was time for Jesus to enter the lion’s den. Oh not a real lion’s den, but it might as well have been. There were people who were on high alert for rabble rousers, and trouble-makers, and false prophets.
Jesus started toward the city as he left Bethany on the other side of the hill and came down the east side on the Mount of Olives toward Jerusalem. But his journey down not only gave boys and girls someone to cheer, it gave hope to the Jews that this man
might be a king, or maybe a messiah, or at least a warrior. So, as John’s passage tells us, they waved palm branches for the occasion. Why palm branches? Not just because they were available; it was because the palm branch was the national symbol of a free Israel. A national hero named Judas Maccabeus (not Judas Iscariot) was celebrated for leading a revolt against the Seleucid Empire beginning in 167 B.C.E. In the Hasmonean period that followed, the Jews ruled themselves; they felt free! The palm meant “Save us!” Then the palms their coins meant “we are free!” The season of Hanukkah celebrates that brief time of freedom. But that freedom did not last. Rome conquered Still, there was lingering hope might return one day, and they hoped it was now! Maybe the man who made people rise from the dead would to lead them to freedom again! So they grabbed their national symbols, not from a vendor but from the ground or from a tree, and waved the branch of a palm tree high in their hand! Every good Jewish boy had learned the words of the prophet Zechariah, where in chapter 9, verse 9, declaring: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.” The glass slipper—so to speak—seemed to fit Jesus! And so they chose to cheer him on! Down the steep hillside they went, ceremonially draping their cloaks on the ground as Sir Walter Raleigh did for Queen Elizabeth. In addition, they waved palms and dropped them in the path in hopeful honor, making it more difficult for the little animal to carry a man down the steep path. I have walked that path on one of our holy land visits, and it is not easy. Some chose to get on our bus and meet us at the bottom. So this was a determined—and a joyous crowd—and might we say a desperate crowd? They were so hoping he was the one. The children in the crowd missed the dark or hopeful undercurrent. It was a parade! It was fun! But there were others in the crows who were wary. As Professor Harold Hill sang in “The Music Man,” some people just thought they had “trouble” with him coming to their city! So they watched, and then sent word to others ahead who were there for Passover. He entered through the east side wall through “The Golden Gate.” And it was there that the so called “triumphal entry” was accomplished. All the cheering stopped, and the tensions rose. Jesus, the healer, the man from Nowheresville—Nazareth—had arrived. Like some in our world now, our Lord arrived at the beginning of a week anxious and worn down.
Acting like Hospice nurses, we are asked to give him round the clock care for his last week on earth. Can we do it?

Jeffrey A. Sumner April 5, 2020


John 11: 1-7, 17-29, 32-44

It was my honor to have author, professor, and spiritual mentor Henri Nouwen speak at the Commencement Ceremony as I graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary. In his book Turn My Mourning into Dancing published by the W. Publishing Group, on page 25 he writes these words. I thought of them when I heard an ad three weeks ago for Nick Wallenda, famous son of the Wallenda tightrope team, as Nick prepared to cross an active volcano on a tightrope with no net. Talk about daring! Anyway, here is what Nouwen wrote:
For years I have watched trapeze artists….I am constantly moved by the courage of my circus friends. At each performance they trust their flight will end with their hands sliding into the secure grip of a partner. They also know that only the release of the secure bar allows them to move on with arching grace to the next. Before they can be caught, they must let go. They must brave the emptiness of space. Living with this kind of willingness to let go is one of the greatest challenges we face. Whether it concerns a person, possessions, or a personal reputation, in so many areas we hold on at all costs….The great paradox is that it is in letting go, we receive. [Nouwen, 2001]
Even the wonderful Prayer of St. Francis embraces the benefit of letting go: “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.”
This is one of the great lessons of life, and in a world-wide pandemic, people everywhere are being separated by illness or death. Hopeful migrants get separated at borders, and hopeful travelers remain separated from others as they fly into a new country. I imagine some people flying into another country might find themselves in a situation like Tom Hanks’ character encountered in “The Terminal,” where he couldn’t clearly make himself understood to others, his passport was seized by US Customs, and he was stuck in a virtually deserted airport terminal. People are being separated, even by six feet. It is a different world.
Jesus’ travels were in a small region. As he made his way back and forth from Galilee to Jerusalem, it is clear that he often stopped in Bethany at the home of his friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. It was away from the prying eyes of Pharisees, and it gave him the necessary respite before he plunged into the perils of Jerusalem or made his way back to his home region of Galilee. It was a wonderful connection of friendship between all of them. So these people not only knew Jesus as a friend, they had heard of his powers too.
In our passage, the friends decided to ask Jesus for help. Mary was the one who had “anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair.” [11:2] She clearly not only cares about Jesus, but may have known that act was a burial ritual that foreshadowed what was coming for Jesus. Certainly Mary, and likely Martha, had been involved in Jewish burial rituals, the kind of actions that the women intended to perform on Jesus’ dead body at his tomb when they found he was not there. The ritual always included costly oils, and perfume, and spices. Mary may have offered the sacred ritual to Jesus as a tribute to him. So Mary honored and cared about Jesus; as did Martha; as did Lazarus, but certainly Mary exhibited her honor the most. Now it was time for a request. Their brother Lazarus fell ill, and Mary hoped Jesus would come and heal him. Martha hoped he would come too, but was surprised when he stayed away for two more days! Did Mary and Martha feel hurt? Or slighted? Jesus arrived in Bethany so many days later that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Had they anointed their brother in his tomb? The text does not say. But rabbi’s for ages had declared that a person put in a tomb who did not move for 3 days could be declared dead. No one had clear scientific ways to prove death. So three days meant one was dead. I hope some bells are ringing in your head about our own Lord being in the tomb three days! But here, Jesus came in four days. Charles Dickens might have said Lazarus was “dead as a doornail!” Jesus wanted that. He didn’t need anyone saying “Lazarus was just sleeping, and Jesus woke him up!” Many Jews had come to console Mary and Martha on the death of their brother. Such attention to grief was an important practiced ritual. Did you hear that Mary, the one who clearly honored and loved Jesus, stayed in the house when she heard Jesus was coming? I wonder what was going through her heart? Instead, sister Martha chose to go meet Jesus. She confronted him, not calling him “Jesus,” but “Lord.” “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” [11:21] And Jesus said, “Your brother will rise again.” It’s clear from her reply that Martha had a belief in a life beyond death, even before Jesus died and rose again! Amazing! She said, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Wow! Jesus must have been not only a friend, not only a Rabbi to them, but truly their Lord by his teachings. Perhaps Martha believed she would see her brother in the resurrection, but she wanted a miracle, like most people want. Everyone reads this passage, and reads the passage in Luke chapter 8 when Jesus brings a girl back to life, and wants the same results for their loved one. “Lord, you did it before! Do it again!” How often people focus on one incident, hoping it will be repeated, and pray, “Do it again, Lord!” And that’s understandable. But as Nouwen described the work of circus workers, they have to let go of the bar in order to fly through the air into the secure grip of a partner. A tightrope walker has to go out on the wire to let go of any terrifying fear that would grip him, or her. And as St. Francis prayer reminded us: “It is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.” This time, however, Jesus had a different purpose for bringing Lazarus back to life. As Martha started to cry after confronting her Lord, her Lord himself started to cry. The shortest verse in the whole Bible, according to the King James Version, is here: “Jesus wept.” [John 11:35.] Here I would want to ask Jesus the question that the founder of our Presbyterian Counseling Center, the late Dr. Dan Taylor, used to ask in counseling sessions. “If your tears could speak, what would they say?” Did the tears indicate sorrow, frustration, or exhaustion? Jesus pulled himself together, but not entirely. As the text says, “Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It is clear that everyone believed Lazarus was dead. It was believed that his body was already on its way to decomposing. But Jesus instructed that the stone to be rolled away, and then they saw the miracle for which everyone else hopes. But Jesus’ actions were not just to comfort others. It was to let them hear his prayer to his Heavenly Father as a kind of announcement: “Father, I thank you for having heard me….I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” Jesus had a real and present purpose in raising Lazarus. It was not a forever purpose, described by Jesus to Martha when he said “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, though they die, shall live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” [11:25] That is our forever plan. Those are the timeless words and the timeless promise, even amidst the separations we encounter in life and in death. Certainly we are temporarily separated from others for now. But our forever promise, according to our Presbyterian Brief Statement of Faith, is “In life and in death, we belong to God.” And Paul, in his letter to the Romans, Chapter 8: affirms that “neither life nor death nor angels nor rulers nor things present nor things to come nor powers nor height nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God, in Christ Jesus our Lord.” This is our eternal comfort. For now we will lean on one another, and on the everlasting arms of God.
Jeffrey A. Sumner March 29, 2020

03-22-20 Rethinking Why Bad Things Happen

Rethinking Why Bad Things Happen
John 9: 1-9

When I was growing up, teachers of young children would put a question to children in a playful, rhyming way. The game is called “Who stole a cookie from the cookie jar?” Do you remember it?
Leader: “ (Name) stole a cookie from the cookie jar.”
Accused: “Who me?”
Group: “Yes, you!”
Accused: “Couldn’t be!”
Group: “Then who?”
And then the accused gets to name another person.

We have observed that such childish games do not stop when we get to be teenagers. “Who drove the car and didn’t put gas in it? (Silence.)
Or as young adults: “Where is your assignment?” (“My dog ate it.”)
As adults we hear this all the time; many have not matured enough to accept responsibility for their actions. It happens even at the highest levels of government. Politically Americans have blamed the Russians, the Chinese, the Mexicans and more, warranted or not, for a variety of circumstances. Republicans blame Democrats, and Democrats blame Republicans. Cheating husbands may blame their wives for lack of affection, and cheating wives may blame husbands for lack of attention. It is the story of relationships. And there is still blame going around when dealing with the Covid-19 virus. Where did all this blaming start? In the Garden, of course! When the human race began. “The Lord God said to the first man in Genesis 3:11 “Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” And the first man replied: “The woman, whom you gave to be with me, gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” So then the Lord God turned to the woman: “What is this that you have done?” And the woman replied, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate it.” Isn’t it interesting that the only one who doesn’t blame someone … is the Tempter! He took the responsibility and the consequences! Goodness! I hate to tell anyone to act like the tempter, but to invite people to own what they’ve done is just the right thing to do.

The one who is mostly blamed for bad things happening in the world is … God.
God gets blamed for storms. God gets blamed for taking a child to heaven too soon. God gets blamed when someone dies in a car accident because his friends say, “It was just his time.” Methodist Pastor Adam Hamilton addresses these issues in his book that he simple called Why?” Our church studied his book last Fall. Listen to his chapter titles: “Why do the innocent suffer?” “Why do my prayers go unanswered?” “Why can’t I see God’s will for my life?” and “Why God’s love prevails.” People have asked forever why bad things happen. But you may be comforted to hear that people have forever tried to assign reasons for someone being, hurt, disabled, or killed. Take, for example, the story of a blind man. “John actually says specifically, “As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man who was blind from birth.” [John 9:1] He wasn’t blinded by getting into a bar fight and losing. He wasn’t blinded after he broke into another man’s house. He was blind “from birth.” So, you know who got blamed: God. And here is what happened: it wasn’t a stranger, or a Pharisee who asked this question. It was Jesus’ own disciples! “Rabbi” they asked Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” For Jews in Jesus’ day and earlier, they believed that everything that happened was from God. Wars, deaths, having no money, having lots of money, being able to have children, not being able to have children- it was all from God. So rich people felt like God especially was pleased with them, whether God was or not. Poor people felt like they must have sinned against God and wondered what they had done. Women who wanted to become a mother and couldn’t conceive believed that was because of God too. They thought God let Israel get invaded by Assyria first, then Babylon second, because they were not faithfully honoring God. So, if a man was blind, the disciples believed it was because someone sinned. The only question was who. But Jesus set them—and us straight—with his answer. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” [9:3]

Sometimes children treated at Shriner’s Children’s Hospital, for example, are not there because someone sinned; most often they are there from what is sometimes called a birth defect or some genetic issue or accident. Yet in Jesus’ day, people were ready to assign fault, or blame someone for a person with disabilities. Jesus said no. “So that God’s works might be revealed” Jesus said. Some of the most inspirational stories in sports happen around Special Olympics. Perhaps this shows God’s works being revealed:
In 1976 at the Special Olympics in Seattle, “nine contestants lined up at the starting line for the 100-yard dash. At the sound of the starting gun, they all started off in their own way, making their best effort to run down the track toward the finish line. That is, except for the one young boy who stumbled soon after his start, tumbled to the ground, and started to cry. Two of the other racers, hearing the cries of the boy who fell, slowed down and looked back at him. Then without hesitation, they turned around and began running in the other direction toward the injusted boy. While the other contestants struggled to make it to the finish line, the two who had turned around to run in the other direction reached for the boy and helped him to his feet. All three of them linked arms and together walked to the finish line. By the time the trio reached the end, everyone in the stands was standing and cheering, some with tears running down their faces. Even though by turning back and helping the boy who fell they lost their own chance to win the race, they all had smiles on their faces because they knew they had done the right thing.” [From the Unitarian Universalist curriculum, “Love Connects Us” grades 4-5.]

Mr. Rogers taught children that whenever they were in trouble, look for the helpers. Little did one boy know that his helpers would be young and as disabled as he was. “Was that God’s work being revealed? Is helping others part of Jesus’ entire teaching, to “love your neighbor as yourself” and to follow the Golder Rule: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you?” When you hear others putting the blame on God for things, perhaps you can change the direction of the conversation with words like: “Never mind how it happened. Will you join me in lending a hand?” And perhaps even guiding a conversation away from blaming God for the death of a baby or horrible storm. May our Gentle God comfort you in your abilities and your disabilities, one day sending angels to carry you over life’s finish line.

Let us pray:
Help us, O God, not to give in to tired clichés about you that people repeat. Instead, help us to direct people’s eyes and minds to your great works and gentle mercies, manifested in our world around us. In Jesus’ name who seeks to open sometimes the eyes, and always the minds, of the blind.

Jeffrey A. Sumner March 22, 2020


John 4: 5-21; 39-42

Around 1986, after I was Pastor here for about a year, I learned tha two women in the church regularly made trips to Cassadaga. Have you heard of Cassadaga? There is such a cluster of psychics and mediums, using either tarot cards, or a crystal ball, or holding seances, that Wikipedia now calls it “The Psychic Capital of the World!” Some of you may be thinking, “Make a note to ask the Pastor where that is; I’d like to try that!” So these good Christian women in 1986, card-carrying Presbyterians, would head west from here about 20 miles to that little community and have their palms read, to ask psychics questions about their lives, or to talk with their dead mother. One, a widow, even go to ask if there was a new special fella in her future!. In my mind I wondered how people could possibly put all their trust in God while also making life choices by paying a psychic? What I suspect is that they went to God for some things and to psychics for other things. Unless it is just for recreation, such activities can cast serious doubt on the abilities of a Savior we have never seen in the flesh to be the answers to our prayers. It could make people doubt the ability of Jesus to truly be our life’s guide. But today in the book of John, that same Jesus had the most personal and sensitive insights into a woman of Samaria, so much so that it astounded her, and it astounds readers to this day. He knew all about her past marriages! Let’s explore this side of our wonderful Savior.

A little background. Jesus was quite a daredevil in his day. Not like a high wire act; it’s just that he questioned norms; he crossed boundaries, and he worked to help and love outsiders with a certain defiance toward established rule keepers. As I said last week, if anyone knew the inside stories of Jesus, it was his close friend John. Only in John’s Gospel did he tell us about this astounding encounter. Think of all the pejorative words you would say about some other group of people if that is possible; group that perhaps you detest for some reason? Whatever you are thinking, that could be what Jews thought of Samaritan: Dirty, unclean, untouchables, lower-class, wretches. What did Jesus do with that? Well you know one thing he did with that kind of unmitigated prejudice: he made a Samaritan a hero! There was NO such thing as a good Samaritan in Jesus’ day … that is, until Jesus told about a good Samaritan in Luke chapter 10! Jesus rattled the norms of his day. And he had a direct line to his Heavenly Father to find out who needed to be blessed, and who needed to be prodded. Could it be that his Heavenly Father, the God also the Samaritans, sent his son to cross the border for this encounter at Jacob’s well? What, you might ask, did Samaritans do to make themselves so loathed by Jews? 1) They worshipped God on the “wrong” mountain. They had a Temple on Mount Gerizim that had been a holy mountain for ages. But it was David, King of the Southern Kingdom of Judah, who claimed Jerusalem was the only mount where the true worship of God could occur. As with most decisions, his decision was both political and financial. He wanted there to be no other place where Jews would travel for the Holy season of Passover; and he wanted Jerusalem to get all the money that the people brought with them. 2) Samaritans married people who were not Jews, so that made them face condemnation too. Even today, there is as much Jewish disgust with people who live near Mount Gerizim as there was then. Here is why: Gerizim is Arabic, it is not Hebrew, and the mount is located in the West Bank just south of Nablus near Shechem. That is Palestinian territory today, where both Christians and Muslims live. But to Jews, that is no man’s land even today. It is poor, it is forgotten, it is desolate, and it receives no help from Israel. They hope to cut off all commerce so they will cease to exist. That’s the way things were when Jesus crossed the line and went to the well. Our Holy Land tour had leaders who were both Palestinian and Jew, and they were a team. That allowed us to tour Nablus and to visit Jacob’s well. Jesus is always seeking the hurting and the lost.

In our text today, Samaria was a place Jesus deliberately chose to go, and he happened on (or deliberately found?) a woman at a well at the noon hour. Who goes to a well at noon in heat of the Middle East? Women were the ones to draw water in that day, and most women did it early in the day, not only because it was cooler, but because they got to visit with one another as they collected their jars. A woman drawing water at noon: 1) either ran out of water; or 2) did it as a self-imposed penance; or 3) hoped she would not meet any other women. Likely all factors came into play. Imagine her surprise when she meets a man there; she can tell he’s a Jew; and, he knows so much about her! Did she wonder if he was from Cassadaga?:

Jesus seems to know the cardinal rule for attorneys: never ask a a question of a witness if you do not already know the answer. Jesus, in that “Samaritan courtroom” by a well, even “leads the witness,” saying “Go call your husband and come back.” He knows the answer to his request. But he wants her to say it: “I have no husband.” She doesn’t say, as we might hear someone say today, “He’s just my roommate” or “He’s the man who lives with me.” But Jesus has set her up, albeit for a loving purpose. He says: “You are right saying ‘I have no husband,’ for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.” Before we jump to the conclusion that this was a loose woman, 21st century America is not 1st Century Samaria. If a wife was unfaithful, a man had the right to divorce her by simply saying before a rabbi, “I divorce, you, I divorce you, I divorce you” and they were divorced; he could even ask for her life. But if the woman, who was often younger than her husband, had a first older husband die, and a second, and even a third die, well you can see she could have had five husbands. What is striking is that the fact that she had five husbands does not seem to disturb Jesus. His point is to show his power and God’s glory. Would relationship issues be why she did not want to meet other women at the well? Perhaps there were issues in her life. Don’t we all have issues that we might not want uncovered in public? But Jesus just drills down to the facts; the truth. There is not a drop of shame directed at her. He had another agenda it seems, perhaps like the man who was possessed by demons on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, the man called the Gerasene demoniac. The people from his town originally shunned him too. He acted insane. But when Jesus healed him, Jesus told him to go back to his town and show himself to them. They asked: “Who did this for you?” they asked, and he told them “Jesus.” Likewise, the woman at the well went back into her town, feeling something for the first time or at least for a very long time: accepted and valued. Here’s how John described it: “Many Samaritans from that city believed in Jesus because of that woman’s testimony.” This woman at the well became one of Jesus’ evangelists; like the women who visited Jesus tomb; like the man who was possessed by demons. Many unexpected people have told others about Jesus, perhaps even you. Jesus chooses unlikely to persons to tell others about him; he chooses you, and you, and you, and he chooses me. He must be thinking- some of you run into friends at the market; or friends at work or at school; or friends online. Some of you know others who are searching, and still others know people who are sick or broken. Jesus says to us: “YOU tell them what you have seen in me and learned from me!” You tell them to come and see what kind of power I have!” Did you notice that Jesus had no credibility in the land of Samaria, and the woman was forced to draw her water at noon because of the hostility of others; and that Jesus had no credibility in the Gentile land of the Gadarenes where the demonic was forced to leave in a graveyard because of the hostility of others? Jesus needed those two persons to carry out a task, and if they did it—as they both did—they would get a reclaimed status in their own community and bring credibility to Jesus who had power and personal knowledge about them. They became evangelists; that agreement that Jesus made with those two persons changed their lives.

You don’t need to go to a psychic, or even to a therapist, to deal with any shame, or brokenness, or issues you may have. You can ask Jesus to come to you—and he will—and you can look into his piercing eyes; you can hear his authoritative voice; and you can listen to his guidance. Jesus uses people to carry out special tasks; this is why the church is called “the Body of Christ.” Today we heard about a mission called the “Self Development of People.” Doing that work is exactly what Jesus was doing in Samaria: returning dignity to human beings and giving them new purpose. That’s what Jesus was doing for the woman drawing water in the sweltering sun. And that’s what Jesus can do for you.

Let us pray:
Dear Jesus, what do you see in us that you can use? What do you see in us that you can heal? Come alongside of us, even in this time of health crisis, and give us the comfort of your presence. Hear our prayer, O Lord. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner March 15, 2020


John 3: 1-8; 16-17

As I have told my Disciple Classes before, John’s gospel is so different from the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. If a best friend gave an interview about your life, and a professional writer gave another one, those two reports would likely be entirely different. Goodreads.com lists over 500 books pertaining to the great leader of the British Empire Winston Churchill. I own two of them, and they are very different from each other. In Jesus’ case, it is likely that Matthew who wrote the first gospel was the tax collector Jesus called to follow him. He was an apostle, but not apparently in Jesus’ inner circle. Mark, most scholars think was John Mark, a man who wrote like an historian and is listed in the book of Acts. And Luke was a later writer who filled in some stories that early accounts did not include. He was traditionally described as a physician. John, one the other hand, was one of the closest of the apostles to Jesus. He was almost certainly the one to whom Jesus gave the care of his mother at the cross. “Here is your mother” Jesus said to John. Not his actual mother, but a woman who should be treated as his mother. “Woman, behold your son,” he said to mother Mary; again, a symbolic gesture. She was not actually his mother. John speaks like that all the time; and John includes euphemisms and metaphors that Jesus said. Among those are the famous “I am” declarations. “I am the bread of life.” (He’s not actually bread.) “I am the gate.” (He’s not actually a gate.) “I am the true vine.” (Jesus is not really a vine.) As I said in my message for children, sometimes adults talk in figures of speech. My grandchildren have looked at me in disbelief when they heard someone say, “She’s as big as a house.!” “No she’s not!” they told me. Or “He’s a dead man.” “No! He’s alive!” they told me.. We as adults have learned not to take these expressions literally: “He’s a basket case” doesn’t mean what it says. And saying someone is “sweating like a pig” is a misnomer because pigs don’t sweat! This is the way Jesus talks in John. He doesn’t literally mean what he says; he means what he means. We have grown up learning what Jesus meant when he said he was the light of the world. And when he said he was the good shepherd, history says he was never an actual shepherd, he was a carpenter. But we adults know what he means. One amazing thing I’ve found out: there are still grown adults who read the Bible with flat footed literalism. They say, “God said, it, I believe it, that settles it.” Maybe Nicodemus is such a man. Could he have heard Jesus say to him, “You must be born again,” and literally have thought he needed to climb back into his mother’s womb? Come on, Nicodemus! Flat-footed literalism?
As we hear the question Nicodemus asks Jesus, I almost think that question would come from a child! Children think in concrete ways by seeing, touching, or even tasting. But Jesus says it this way: “I am telling you the truth: persons cannot see the Kingdom of God unless they are born again.” Born-again Christians. Our NRSV Bibles say “born from above” but I believe Jesus must have said “born again.” Why else would Nicodemus be led to ask such a child-like question? When you hear “born again,” do you say, “That’s me! I’m born again!” I once met a man who said, “I’ve met some ‘born againers’ before; they’re hard to be around!” Do such people make you uncomfortable? Let’s think what it means to be born again as adult thinkers.

Dr. Elton Trueblood puts it this way:
“Since the time of Nicodemus, [the experience of Christian rebirth] has been puzzling to those who have not shared it, and we are not surprised that many are puzzled today. It has to do with commitment. A Christian is one who is committed to Jesus Christ!” For a person to be a born-again Christian, a change of commitment, focus, or desire comes over that person. When Jesus was baptized, the Bible says the Spirit descended on him as a dove. He was blessed by that event. Born-again Christian generally describe their Christian journey not just as a progressive set of events, but as a distinct day when things changed. “Before I used to be this way” one might say, “but not I am focused on Christ in a new way.” But when you have known Jesus’ love from cradle to present day, you might not think of yourself as “born again.” Let’s keep examining those words Jesus said in John.
A pastor sat down on the front steps of a sanctuary to give his children’s message. He told them that people who loved God and followed Jesus went to heaven. With excitement building, he said in cheerleader fashion, “Do you love God?” “Yes!” they cried out together. “Do you want to follow Jesus?” he asked. “Yes!” that answered. “So where do you want to end up?” he asked. “Heaven!” they all said. And finally, speaking in a crescendo voice, he asked, “And what must you be to get into heaven?” Thinking they would say, “born again” instead a boy cried out, “Dead!” Yep. That’s the literal way kids think!

As we get back to what it means to be born again, it boils down to this: Persons who are born again have made a conscious decision for Christ, not just doing Christian things because their family wanted them to do so, but because they have chosen to do them on their own. The affirmation of faith asked of youth or adults as they join the church is: “Who is your Lord and Savior?” And they respond, “Jesus Christ.” Being born again is to not only say that, but also to mean that. It is that change in your heart that happens when, as the old hymn says, “I have decided to follow Jesus!” If Jesus is on the throne of your life, you are a born-again Christian. If you ask in a daily fashion, “What would Jesus do?” you are a born-again Christian. If Jesus is your co-pilot, change seats! Jesus needs be the one who carries you above the trees, and the ground, and the valleys.

So let’s recap: First, being born again is the time that you decide to follow Jesus when you were either following worldly ideals before, or you were only Christian because others asked you to be. In your bor again experience, there might have been a time when you heard God’s voice; or maybe a time when the direction of your life took on new clarity; or perhaps you hit bottom and cried out for someone to save you. Claiming Jesus as your personal Savior can be life changing.

Second, being born again makes some parts of your life less important than before, and others more important. Some people develop a hunger to be in touch with other Christians. Some people develop a deeper prayer life, and others have an increased desire to praise God. Some grow extra hungry to read the Word. All of a sudden, you are willing doing for Christ what others could not talk you into doing willingly before! Being born again is when it’s your idea to follow Jesus and spread his light.

Finally, being born again does not guarantee that life will be a rose garden; but followers honor the one who was plaited with a crown of thorns on the cross, the action that blazed a trail to eternal life for them. Nicodemus didn’t understand what Jesus meant. Now I hope you do!

Let us pray: Holy Spirit, keeping helping us to hear as Jesus needs his followers to hear him, and to follow where he leads, bringing others along with us.
Thank you! Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner March 8, 2020


Matthew 4: 1-11

The great catcher for the New York Yankees, Yogi Berra, was known not only for his fielding and, but also for his sayings. One of them was: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!” How delightfully confusing. More philosophical words were written by poet Laurette Robert Frost in his poem “The Road Not Taken.” It ends with these words: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” But my title today was not inspired by either one of those sources. It came from Dr. Suess’ “The Cat in the Hat” when, at the end of a day of unhinged antics by a strange highly mischievous upright cat, the boy who tells the story reports to the readers: “Then our mother came in and she said to us two, ‘Did you have any fun? Tell me, what did you do?’ Then the boy asks the reader: “Should we tell her about it? Now, what should we do? Well … what would you do if your mother asked you?” [Random House: New York, 1957, p. 60-61]
Today, however, is not a time of child-like decisions, nor of philosophical musings, nor of silly sayings. It is a time when the devil asked Jesus to test or turn away from God and to honor him alone! It is a time when the very same devil could ask us the same questions. It is the time when we are asked to consider all the trappings and temptations of this world, the ones that offer us extravagant dining or the temptations of many foods we would best not eat; the time to test the boundaries of our powers, and the time to declare who we serve. Will we really, as the devil suggests to Jesus, try to test God; to see if the Almighty will jump through hoops we set out? Have we been tempted to blindly follow another human being—a lover, a celebrity, a politician, or a sports figure—and give them all the allegiance and devotion that is rightfully reserved for God? Today, there are forks in the road of our lives; there are choices we’ll want to make today. Remember: in the conversation the devil had with Jesus, two roads diverged into a desert. What would you do? If the devil came to you, as he did to Jesus, what would you do? More to the point, what have you done? Early choices you’ve made can set you on a trajectory toward life, or on a trajectory toward death. But today, anyone can pause, and reflect, and decide whether to follow hedonistic temptations—a path many people take; (most recently exhibited at Mardi Gras festivals from New Orleans to Orlando) or we can cut a new path today from the road most traveled to the road less traveled. The road less traveled is the one Jesus took. Last week we learned he could easily have stayed on a mountain with Peter, James, and John and reveled in his glory, but instead Jesus cast his eyes down in the valley and led them there to meet human needs. We could coast through life—not offering time or means to others to lift their level of human experience—or we could seek to make a difference. Assisting with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is just one way you could choose to help others. There are so many temptations that are thrown on our path, some have been called the “seven deadly sins:” envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth, and wrath. These are the temptations of the devil. Such temptations are not ugly; they are attractive and enticing. This calls for wisdom: deciding when to say “Yes” and when to say “No.” Deciding which choice leads toward the light, and which choice leads toward to darkness. Jesus, in his self-imposed 40 days in the desert before his ministry, was physically weakened, spiritually tested, and emotionally extended. In Matthew’s gospel that I read today, one wonders if the scene described was real, or an hallucination, or a dream. But what it did is cause our Lord to become clearly grounded in who he was, and whose he was. It was an experience that caused Jesus to never be knocked off balance by tempters or taunters. He gave an example for disciples to follow.

Although Jesus never set out to be a leader, a leader he was for how he made well-grounded choices for living, not short-term fixes. A wonderful book I have read more than once is called A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. The late Dr. Edwin Friedman wrote these qualities that can cause a person to start a renaissance in his or her age.

  1. A capacity to go outside the emotional climate of the day.
  2. A willingness to be exposed and vulnerable.
  3. Persistence in the face of resistance and downright rejection.
  4. Stamina in the face of sabotage along the way.
  5. Being headstrong—at least in the eyes of others.
    [New York: Seabury Books, 2007, p. 188-189]
    Choosing those qualities, and following our Savior, we can find our way out of the valleys to stand fast against life’s tempting persons and things. Read chapter 4 of the Gospel of Matthew again this week, listening to how Jesus said “No” to temptation and “Yes” to God. Then go and do likewise.

Jeffrey A. Sumner March 1, 2020