John 20: 19-31

Each year that passes by, my grandsons (between the ages of 7-4,) take longer to believe what I tell them. I think their playmates must trick them enough that they stop believing things the first time they hear them. Last week was my birthday, and my daughter asked her son, Marshall, (the five year old) how old he thought I was. “6?” he asked? “No” I said. “7?” He asked? “No” I said. So I said, “I’m sixty-four!” His eyes got big as saucers! I don’t think he could comprehend someone that old! A young Paul McCartney put his stereotypical lyrics into the Beatles song, “When I’m Sixty-Four.” At one point he sang, “Doing the garden, digging the weeds, who could ask for more?” And I thought, he nailed it! Those are some things I see plenty of people doing at 64; and now I expect I’ll be digging weeds too! It’s hard to wrap our heads around some things in our world. It was hard for me to wrap my head around the challenge President Kennedy gave to our nation in a speech he gave on May 25th, 1961, giving the challenge, before the decade was out, to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth. That was in the sixties, when calculations were made by over-sized clumsy computers and, we learned, by some sharp minded women of color described in the wonderful film “Hidden Figures.” Last week, 50 years ago, a later mission, Apollo 13, almost ended in disaster. And 108 years ago last week, the ship touted as “unsinkable” sank; the Titanic. People then doubted the safety of ocean travel even more. NASA stopped sending Apollo rockets into space in 1972. People doubted the safety and necessity of traveling to the moon. But in the late 1970s the cruise industry started growing and the Space Shuttle program became a great success for many years! Right now, in the midst of the coronavirus epidemic, people are doubting if they will ever feel safe taking cruises again; or flying in planes again or shaking hands again; or talking to people face to face again. Fears feed disbeliefs, but with time, courage, and new insights, we can move forward. We as a society learned that we could cross the ocean safely again; that we can fly rockets safely into space again; and I have learned that there is life after 63. It seems that we start as children in a tender and innocent fashion, but we grow wiser with uncles who tell us they can remove their thumb right before our eyes (As I showed the children today,) and we learn who we can trust, and who we can’t. We may have had playmates who taunted and teased us, and that likely brought on two things: tears, and callouses. Tears because the tender parts of our innocence got poked and challenged. We felt hurt or embarrassed or mad. We got callouses on our soul and our psyche, just like with our bodies. Adults taught me this axiom: “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me!” So we join with the rock group “The Who” in declaring, “We won’t get fooled again!”

We don’t know anything about Jesus’ disciple Thomas’ early life, but I’d imagine he was an ordinary boy, learning from his father and sometimes being teased by other children. So by the time he was tapped to be an apostle of Jesus, he joined the band of brothers already jaded; and he joined the rest of us in saying to himself, “I won’t get fooled again!” I get that, don’t you? I don’t want to be caught flat-footed in a group of peers who are in a taunting or teasing mood. I can feel my emotional shields going up in an involuntary fashion. But they do not engage when I am playing with those sweet grandsons! My son Matt told me I should see the new film “Onward.” What’s it about?” I asked. “About brothers who get to bring their father back from the dead for just one day, but only the bottom half of his body comes back.” “What?” I asked disbelieving, wondering if I heard him right. “Just watch it,” he said. “You’ll be glad you did.” Weird, right? “Is that believable?” I wondered.

When do you doubt what someone says? Today it is hard for us to erase the knowledge of Easter; I have been told Jesus arose from the dead since I was a young boy. But a man rising from the dead was unbelievable in 33 A.D. in Jerusalem. Finding Jesus’ body gone was a shock to Mary who went to the tomb with spices to anoint his body. It seemed to stun Peter, who, according to John, had to go back to the tomb after Mary reported what she found. He ran to the tomb for the same reason that we would- to see for himself! When a picture in the newspaper showed a small plane that had crashed into the side of a house, dozens of people got in their cars to go drive by and see it for themselves. When someone says, “It’s gotten cold outside,” how many of us either check the temperature ourselves on our phone, or on a thermometer, or by walking outside? When someone says, “A baby bird has fallen to the ground from a nest” how many of us instinctively want to see it and think about helping it? Me? The words of my parents fill my head: “Leave it alone; if you touch it, the mother will not take care of it; and if you stand by the baby bird, the mother will not return.” But like most of you, my instinct is to look! “Mary went and announced to the disciples ‘I have seen the Lord!’” Thomas wasn’t there when Mary made her announcement. Had the others made the trip to check out the tomb for themselves? Some did. They wanted to see for themselves, just as we so often want to see for ourselves. They had time to process what they had seen; they had time to think back on all the words that Jesus had said before his death and fit the pieces of his puzzle together. Then, wonder of wonders, Jesus himself appeared to them. That hadn’t happened to Thomas, yet.

Some women have told me that after their husband died, a number of days later they saw their husband appear in their bedroom. One woman said she saw him at the foot of the bed; another woman said she felt his warmth beside her and saw his side of the bed sink down as if he were lying beside her. Do you believe that? Do you doubt that? I believe what those women said they saw; but no one has ever told me they touched their loved one physically; it was, by most descriptions, an apparition. Jesus was different. A full week after he arose from the dead, he appeared to his disciples for a second time, to Thomas for the first time. Thomas might have thought he was seeing an apparition too. But Jesus knew human nature, just like Jesus knows you, and knows me. So he said, like I would say to one of my grandsons: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.” Jesus’ goal was not to trick people, or even to amaze people. John knew Jesus’ goal; he wrote about it at the end of this chapter; so that we “may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that through believing, you may have life in his name.” (vs.31) Jesus trusted John perhaps more than any of the other Twelve. He chose for John to watch over his mother after his crucifixion. And he chose for John to write these things down so that people like us, who cannot jump into a DeLorean and go back in time, might believe. Jesus so much wants us to believe in him, and in what he said. No doubt! Doubts can sometimes be voices of darkness, trying to pull us away from the one true voice. Don’t let that happen1 Trust Jesus! Trust John! And trust the message that our Lord Jesus truly has risen from the dead! That is “a foretaste of glory divine,” as hymnwriter Fanny Crosby put it. Fanny was blind from a young age due to the incompetence of a quack doctor. And yet she, in her blindness wrote so many hymns. “How many?” you may ask. Like Marshall guessing my age, would you guess a hundred songs? Two hundred? Her publisher forced her to use several pseudonyms, so she is said to have written 9000 songs! I can picture your eyes growing big as saucers; like Marshall’s did when he learned I was 64; and like Mary’s did when she saw the empty tomb! Try in your life to return to wonder and amazement, not giving in to discouraging, doubts, darkness, and cynicism! Find some things to be wide-eyed about! It could change your outlook on life!
Thanks be to God, for news that makes our eyes wide.

Jeffrey A. Sumner April 19, 2020


SABBATH: MORE THAN REST Exodus 20:8-11 Deuteronomy 5:12-15 and 15:1-15
Westminster by the Sea Presbyterian Church Radford Rader, D.Min. August 25, 2019

Did you notice a difference between the Exodus Sabbath Commandment and the Deuteronomic one?
Exodus focuses on our Creator God who rested on the seventh day. Sabbath is commanded rest for all based on the divine pattern. “Six days you shall labor and do all your work and on the Seventh day, you shall rest.
Deuteronomy’s Sabbath commandment is based on remembering Israel’s slavery in Egypt and God’s bringing them out into freedom and into promised land. Sabbath is more than rest; it is a freedom practice. It is the practice of freedom because slaves were not their own person.
Still they have much in common.
Sabbath is a gift from God as Jesus said, “The sabbath is made for mortals.” It is to declare, realize and practice our freedom from the tyranny and oppression of work – which runs rampant today. Sabbath declares that God is Lord and God’s provision continues so we can take time off. If we stop for the day, we live in the belief that the world will not fall apart, that God is in charge and that God is the ultimate provider. Walter Brueggemann shows this by linking the Sabbath rest to the phrase in the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.” He declares that this refers to the manna gathered everyday by the Israelites in the wilderness. It should also remind us that they did not gather on the Sabbath. God provided a double portion on the sixth day. Sabbath is always a trust exercise and a freedom practice. We show that, “in God, we trust.” We declare our freedom. Every time we pray, “Give us today our daily bread”, we affirm these things and every day we rest in the Lord we practice what we pray.
In both the Exodus and Deuteronomic commandments Sabbath is shown to be for everyone—not just for the landowner or the employer but for family members, resident aliens and slaves as well as animals–all the creatures which God has made not just the rich but also the poor, not just the master but also the slave, not just the Jew but also the neighbor and the stranger. Sabbath is more than rest; it is to be freeing to us and those who serve us. Chick-fil-a continues that practice as it dares to be closed on Sundays for the sake of its employees.
Sabbath is more than a one day a week event in Deuteronomy. There was the sabbath of seven days, and the sabbath of seven years (the sabbatical year), and the celebration of seven sabbatical years called Jubilee. The sabbatical year and the Jubilee both involved concern for the poor and freedom from slavery. In the sabbatical year, the land rested. They did not sow or reap but whatever came up volunteer was to be left for the poor and needy. Even more so, the sabbatical year freed people from debt slavery. Debt happened and it often meant land had to be sold or heads of households and/or family members were sold into slavery. Sabbath was remembering God’s granting freedom from slavery. The sabbatical year placed limits on debt to keep people out of slavery. In the seventh year, all debts were to be cancelled. If someone indentured themselves in payment of debt, they were released in the sabbatical year. If a Hebrew bought a Hebrew slave, the person was to be freed. God’s people were not to be hard of heart toward their neighbors as Pharaoh was toward the Israelite slaves. “Open hands and hearts” was the commandment, even when someone asked for a loan in the 7th year which meant it was cancelled at the end of that very year. If you freed a slave, you were not to send that person out emptied handed but gave from your flocks and field the means to prosper. The Jubilee year was even more radical; all ancestral land was to be returned to the descendants of the family to whom it was originally granted upon entrance into the Promised Land. All these commandments had one purpose – that neighbors would not be crippled by debt or enslaved without hope. “The poor will never cease out of the land”, Moses says “therefore I command you. You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and the poor in the land.” (15:11). The purpose was to have no poor in the land. God had been generous to ex-slaves and God’s intent is that all should thrive.
Reality is that debt still debilitates and enslaves. Poor people and people helplessly in debt in this world still sell themselves or their children into slavery. Some have no Sabbath time; they work multiple jobs to make ends meet but still slide deeper and deeper into debt. Debt comes from recession and depression, from financial loss and business failure, from family crisis, from foolish over-spending, gambling and addictions. The largest cause of bankruptcy in America is medical debt. The average student loan debt is $38,390.00. For many Americans debt reaches the level that complicates and destroys their lives. Debt can become such a burden that life is compromised, the future disappears, families are ruined, and happiness destroyed.

To be honest, I need to tell you that scholars debate whether the commandments of the sabbatical year and Jubilee were ever practiced. Many Christians have in the past and still today state, “The poor you will always have with you” and throw up their hands but they are corrupting how Deuteronomy 15:11 reads or Jesus uses the text. But Deuteronomy’s commandments do show the divine will for society and they have had effect.
In the New Testament, Paul sought an offering for the destitute Christians in Jerusalem. His words to the churches seek a generosity, with the pattern being Jesus “who was rich but for your sake became poor, so that by his poverty you may be rich.” He continues in II Corinthians 8, “I do not mean that others should be eased, and you burdened; but that as a matter of equality, your abundance at the present time should supply their want. So that their abundance may supply your want, that there may be equality. As it is written, “He who gathered much had nothing and he who gathered little had no lack.”
In the early settlement in America, the poor often indentured themselves as servants to pay for their passage to this Promised Land. The term of indenture was 7 years.
In January of 1865, Union General W.T. Sherman and Secretary of War, Wm. Stanton, met with 20 black ministers in Savannah, Ga. asking what could best be done for the freed slaves. The response was land. Four days later Sherman executed Special Field Order #15 that made available 400,000 acres of land from Savannah to the St. John’s river from the Ocean 30 miles inland be divided into 40-acre parcels each with water access for those who had been freed from slavery. He later ordered that Army mules were to be loaned to these new landowners; thus, the saying “40 Acres and a mule. Unfortunately, the order was revoked 8 months later by President Andrew Johnson; but sabbatical intent was there. One part of his order did have some success in the establishment of self-governing black communities one of which was Etonville, Florida.
And it continues today:
Social security, Medicare and Medicaid were created to protect our citizens.
Bankruptcy laws offer resolution for those in overwhelming debt.
Habitat for Humanity is still hard at work building houses with sweat equity and no interest loans.

Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet created the Giving Pledge which invites billionaires to sign a pledge and give away to charitable causes more than half of their wealth now or in their wills. 40 individuals and couples have signed on with them and supported poverty alleviation, refuge aid, global health, education, women and girls’ empowerment, and environment sustainability to name a few.
This week President Trump authorized the forgiveness of all student loan debt for disabled veterans. Earlier this summer, Robert Smith announced in his commencement address at Moorhouse College that he and his family had granted the money to pay off each graduate’s student loans. He encouraged them “to pay it forward and take care of their own communities and to show it thorough actions, words and deeds.:”
The cost of medical care and prescription drugs and student loan debt are in the forefront of campaign rhetoric. Whether this goes any further than Sherman’s Field Order is yet to be seen.
If I had the grand solution to poverty and debt’s part in that, I should run for president.
I don’t but I do know that God has great concern for the poor and debt-ridden. The goal of God’s kingdom is to have no poor among us (Deut. 15:4).
I do know that scripture calls God’s people to give generously of their wealth. If all, Christians tithed, churches could accomplish much more in alleviating poverty and debt relief, helping members and reaching out into the community.
I also know thanks to Walter Brueggemann that whenever we say the Lord’s Prayer, we are committing ourselves to such endeavors. Not only do we pray “Give us today our daily bread” which connects our daily bread to manna and sabbath but also, we pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” which is straight out of Deuteronomy 15 and the sabbatical year. Both of our petitions follow “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done” so they are not only petitions for ourselves but promises that we will help God’s kingdom come on this earth in our time.
I want to issue you a challenge today. It isn’t much but it is a small step to addressing poverty, debt and hunger. It is something we all can do. Next Sunday, when I challenge you to bring canned goods and staples and put them on the tables in the narthex and hopefully we will overload the Port Orange Panty with our genorisity.