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ENCOUNTERING THE WOMAN AT THE WELL

John 4: 5-26

 

Long before modern pop psychologists like Dr. Phil McGraw or even Eckhart Tolle, and long before classical psychiatrists like Sigmund Freud or Carl Jung, people walked through life had to deal with moral burdens and the consequences of their ethical choices in a hit and miss kind of fashion. Perhaps one of the most helpful activities of the burdened soul was and is confession: confession of sin to one who is sometimes called a Confessor. The Roman Catholic Church gives that role to priests. Mystic Teresa of Avila had a confessor in whom she confided: Fr. Diego Yepes. About her he was later permitted to write: “[God] showed her a beautiful crystal globe, made in the shape of a castle, and containing seven mansions, in the seventh and innermost was the King of Glory, in the greatest splendour, illumining and brightening them all…. While she was wondering at this beauty, which by God’s grace can dwell in the human soul, the light suddenly vanished. Although the King of Glory did not leave the mansions, the crystal globe was plunged into darkness ….” These words were included as the introduction to St. Teresa’s masterpiece work called Interior Castle.

 

Certainly there are times when people plunge into emotional darkness, sometimes leading to clinical depression. And other times people just need to confess burdens, or even talk with a perceptive person such as a counselor or a pastor. For centuries through the act of confession, the Roman Catholic Church has done something that helped people transform their sin sick souls. The old spiritual declared: “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole; there is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul. The balms in Gilead were known to be medicinal, but healing a soul was the work of legend. Taking your burdens to Jesus, instead, can heal your soul! Encountering Jesus in a heartfelt prayer can change the trajectory of your life! To carry unconfessed sins for an extended period of time can overly burden your soul. Several years ago our Body, Mind, and Soul ministry had a seminar on posture.  We learned that plenty of people go around with an unhealthy stooped over posture. Sometimes it is caused by genetic issues. But other times, the presenter suggested, such posture is an indication of emotional issues. Yes, emotional issues have a measurable impact on one’s body and mind too!  We can be burdened by our inability to cope with the world around us; we can be burdened by unconfessed sins. Many people today think that if what they are doing does not break a law, or even worse, it breaks a law but they are never getting caught, then no infraction has been committed. They think it doesn’t hurt anybody. But unlawful activities,  acts of emotional torment of family members or neighbors, bullying under the radar of a school, or tempting others to start down a dark path indicate, in biblical language, that the Tempter is at work in those person’s lives.

 

Today we will look at a woman Jesus’ encounters at a well in Samaria. The story tells about three ingredients that can have the power to heal the sin-sick soul: confessions, forgiveness, and unconditional love. John’s gospel and his letters are filled with the message of God’s unconditional love. Let’s look at our text today. Verse three says: “Jesus left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria.” Had to? When did Jesus have to do anything that was not part of the Father’s plan?  It makes one think: did Jesus cut through Samaria as a geographical shortcut, or did he go for a theological necessity? We are made to wonder if this journey home for Jesus going through an area that might be called “the other side of the tracks” was an intentional choice that he made. People of Samaria were shunned and avoided by Jews. They believed that God lived on their mountain, Mount Gerizim, instead of on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The Jews thought it was blasphemy. The Samaritans, they said, also polluted their bloodlines by marrying people who worshipped other gods. If a Jew touched a Samaritan, a Rabbi would declare that the Jew was ritually unclean, and he would be cut off from communion with God. The story of the Good Samaritan throws us off because Jesus praised a Samaritan. But no Jew would have thought of a Samaritan as “good.” Nowhere else do we find this amazing encounter described of Jesus’ ministry.

 

Our Presbyterian Women are studying a book this year called Twelve Women of the Bible. In Session 11, author Lysa TerKuerst writes this about the woman at the well:

We never learn her name. She is simply called a Samaritan Woman. But this amazing individual whom we meet in the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel teaches us a very important lesson. Three things are obvious, but very important to remember. First, she was a woman. In her world and time, this was one strike against her. Women were not trusted, invited into religious discourse, or even spoken to in public by rabbis. In addition to being a woman, she was a Samaritan—strike two! The Jews looked down on the Samaritans because they had intermarried with the nations around them and were no longer pureblooded enough to be considered true Jews. Finally, the woman had a sinful past … and her present circumstances were questionable as well—strike three! We learn that she had been married and divorced five times and was now living with a man who was not her husband. [p. 132]

 

First, confession is at work in this encounter. Without accusing, but by asking, Jesus gets the woman at the well to unburden herself. Jesus said “Go, call your husband, and come back.” Our Lord suspected more than he was letting on. The healing begins as she replies: “I have no husband.” He replies, “You are right; you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.”  In her confession she felt no condemnation, perhaps for the first time in her life. The pieces of her puzzle were coming together for Jesus. She was likely poor; wealthy people sent servants to get water. She was also likely judged and outcast by her town. It is widely believed she came at noon to draw water intentionally. Other women came in the morning, when it is cool. Perhaps her society led her to be the lone person at the well at noon. In those days a woman could not divorce a husband. That meant five had divorced her! If she had been arrogant she could have been beaten or killed. Instead her spirit may have been broken, burdening her heart as she was found unacceptable time and time again. Jesus did not attach a scarlet letter to her garment; there was no apparent sin, (sin would likely have ended in her death.) Others in her town, however, may have decided on her guilt. Perhaps someone you know is just looking for acceptance. They carry around the baggage of unforgiveness. They may long to meet Jesus at a well of living water. If you know people who are causing hurt, harm, or anguish to another person by their deliberate heartless actions, imagine how their lives might change if they knew unconditional love, like the endless supply of living water. If you are the one who is hurt, Jesus truly loves you endlessly; he will go out of his way to meet you, and to offer you living water.

 

Second, forgiveness is at work here. The disciples are astonished find Jesus talking to a Samaritan woman. [verse 27] Without even hearing Jesus say “you are forgiven,” the woman seems to gain the energy of a child and the message of a convert. This new evangelist goes back to her city, telling people that she had met a prophet, one who made her feel so different she wondered if he could be the Messiah! That encounter with the woman at the well was so profound that John says: “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.” [verse 39] Here’s the unbelievable thing the Samaritans did:  They found Jesus and “asked him to stay there two days. And many more became believers.” [verse 40] Jesus had crossed a cultural line. Here’s a cultural line crossed in 2017:

 

In Victoria, Texas, on January 28th—

Early on that Saturday morning, members of the Victoria Islamic Center were notified that that their mosque had been destroyed by a fire overnight.

The small town of 62,000 immediately came together, with leaders of different faiths sharing their support.

Members of the one Jewish temple in the town, the Congregation B’Nai Israel, were the first to offer their house of worship. They handed their synagogue’s keys to one of the mosque’s founders.

“We were very happy to do this,” Melvin Lack, treasurer of Congregation B’Nai Israel tells USA TODAY. “You feel what’s happening in the community and everyone reacts.”

Soon, a how to order Pregabalin online page was created to raise money for        reconstruction. Within only a few days, over $1 million

had been donated, far surpassing the initial goal of $850,000.

 

Grace still changes lives today, as it changed lives in Samaria.

 

Finally: unconditional love is at work here. Preacher Patrick Willson once wrote:

If we read the right stories, we know what kind John is telling. We have been to the well before. A man meets a woman at a well. It was at a well that Abraham’s servant, sent on a mission to find a suitable wife for Isaac, met Rebekah. At a well, Jacob met Rachel. Zipporah comes to a well to water her flocks and is rescued by dashing Moses….All the cues tell us that this is a love story, [but] certainly not the kind we expect. This isn’t the kind the movies give us, nor the kind in paperback novels. This love story has a different author…an author who loves people, but not because they are beautiful maidens or handsome princes by the world’s standards. No; this author, like a loving Father, looks at his daughter through the eyes of love. She is beautiful, no matter how she looks to the world; she is loveable, no matter what she’s done; she is redeemable no matter how many husbands said she wasn’t. This is a love story in many ways; about a Father’s love for his people, ….

 

We too have done things that need confession; we too need to be forgiven; and we too need unconditional love, not conditional love based on our performance, our bank account, or on what we give to get it. We need love, like God’s love, that is never withdrawn: not in judgment, not in disappointment, not in brokenness. The only way you may not experience God’s love and forgiveness is if you turn away from it. But God seeks us out, crossing over barriers of religion, culture, gender, and hostility, like a prophet who deliberately went by a well in Samaria…Samaria… and encountered that broken woman.  Finally, finally …it was well with her soul.

Is it well with yours?

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           March 19, 2017

 

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LESS JUDGMENT; MORE CURIOSITY

John 3: 1-17

One year ago this month I began meeting with a monthly Task Force whose purpose was to look at the future of our Presbyterian Counseling Center when our Director, Dr. Lex Baer, announced he was going to retire last June 2016. We ran close to the bone every month, sometimes in the red, as we tried to cover the costs of doing good therapy with people who had various means of payment. Today, a year later, I am pleased to tell you that we are not only operating in the black, we got a $10,000 support grant from Central Florida Presbytery. We also now take credit cards and are on most insurance panels, plus we accept Medicare and even Medicaid. We have nine providers on our clinical staff with various specialties, including a Doctor of Psychiatry and three people on our administrative staff. We now have our main office at First Presbyterian Church and two satellite offices at Christ Presbyterian in Ormond and at Port Orange Presbyterian. Our Center is back on its feet and even better than before! But today I want to credit Dr. Lex Baer with giving me the title of this sermon. One day I ended up following him in his Mazda Miata convertible and noticed his bumper sticker: “Less Judgment; More Curiosity.” For him it worked like this: anytime a client was sharing information, or a story with him, one that seemed unusual, he would not say “Why did you make that choice?” in an accusative tone. He would say something like: “Hmm. That’s interesting! Tell me more about that.” Less judgment; more curiosity.

 

The Gospel of John, among other books in the Bible, begs to be read in that manner. My New Testament Professor at Princeton, Dr. Bruce Metzger, spoke to my Disciple class on videotape. One thing he taught about that book was this: “Revelation doesn’t mean what it says, it means what it means.” By that we learned that fierce creatures didn’t represent literal Godzilla-like monsters, they represented tyrants in the Roman Empire. So the book had to be read with a light touch, not taking the images literally. The late Dr. Marcus Borg, in his book Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, advocated for “Taking the Bible Seriously, but not Literally.” Writers in the Bible, especially Jesus, often used allegories, metaphors, similes, and parables to describe the Kingdom of God. Therefore it is helpful to approach Bible from that perspective. Here’s an example of the kind of question and answer we can expect in John. A tourist in New York City asks a man on the street, “Excuse me; how do I get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice” is the answer he gets. Now if you get the two meanings of that answer, turn to your neighbors and explain it to them. I’ll wait! …………There is no book where that is more true than the gospel of John. Today’s text is a great example of how Jesus descriptions went way over the heads of many of his listeners; those who want to understand Jesus today need to adjust your receivers.  Let me describe one more reason people can miss the answers to questions. Traditionally people said to be Left Brain thinkers value logic, analysis, sequencing, linear thinking, mathematics, facts, and so on.

Traditionally people said to be Right Brain thinkers value creativity, imagination, holistic thinking, intuition, the arts, rhythm, non-verbal communication, feelings, and visualization.  I, as a traditionally Left Brained person, am stretching myself to take in the world through my Right Brained receivers. In so doing, I’ve found whole new ways to understand Jesus!  For example, today Nicodemus, a Pharisee, sounds like he is a Left Brain kind of man. “He asks a Left Brain question of Jesus: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” In response, Jesus gives him a Right Brain answer: “Truly truly I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again. (Our text says born from above, but if that were the case, Nicodemus would not have misunderstood him. Born again is more accurate as Nicodemus, listening with his Left Brain, doesn’t understand.) Here’s Nicodemus’ reply: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born?” Do you see the problem with literal interpretations of Scripture? The words, so many times, are meant to be figurative, or metaphorical, or heard in a different way than the way a child would hear it. As I told the children today, if you tell a young boy, “You need to clean up your act,” he might go to the sink to wash his hands, not change his attitude or actions!  In 1960 my wife Mary Ann was in second grade. Her father was in the Marines all her life, and on November 10th each year, he had a cake to celebrate the birthday of the Marines. The Marines began in 1775 so in 1960 they were 185 years old. Well it just so happened that her mother’s birthday was also November 10th. She went to school that day, after seeing the cake that day, and told her teacher that it was her mother’s birthday, and that she was 185 years old! “Now Mary Ann, tell the truth, your mother isn’t really 185 years old.” “Yes she is!” insisted Mary Ann. “It’s on the cake.” So Mary Ann’s teacher called her parents to report her for lying to a teacher; except she didn’t lie to a teacher. She had yet to learn that the cake every year was a Marine cake, not her mother’s cake. She was thinking like a child. Even the Apostle Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, told them, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, thought like a child, reasoned like a child. But when I became a man I gave up childish ways.” [1 Corinthians 13:11]

 

In John chapter 1, John the Baptist sees Jesus and says to his disciples, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” What did they think? Yes, a lamb was sacrificed at the Temple each year, but how can a man be a Lamb? Or a door? Or bread? Or a gate? We have drifted into our Right Brains to understand that, and actually, into our mature brains. Mature people need to be able to listen and process with their full minds. But an unusual phenomenon has been discovered, according to Dr. Rodger Nishioka, former professor at Columbia Theological Seminary.  By nature, our brains should mature into minds that can hear things metaphorically or symbolically and around the age of 24 to 28. But astonishingly, some in our day have never “made the jump to light speed.” See, that’s an analogy from Star Wars, but it’s not about Star Wars! It’s an expression that some people never gain a fully functional adult brain; so they can only absorb things literally and actually. Many such people love Christian fundamentalism because it spells things out in black and white. But more things in adulthood are shades of gray.

 

Here’s one more example: In John chapter 2, Jesus says this to those in the Temple. The Sadducees asked him, “What sign have you to show for [overturning the tables of the moneychangers?] And Jesus responded saying: “Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

(It’s a mature, metaphorical response.) Here is the literal response from the Sadducees: “It has taken forty-six years to build this Temple, and you will raise it up in three days?” (That’s literal thinking.) But John, who thinks like Jesus did, rescues the readers when he explains: “But Jesus spoke of the Temple of his body.”

 

The Bible is the inspired Word of God. To take it literally can lead one’s mind down some confusing paths. But to take it seriously, and to believe Jesus said these words, invites us to follow the master, and to listen to him, not as 21st century listeners for our best interpretation, but as first century listeners, imaging what Jesus, or John meant, not just what they said. When you invite the other part of your mind to interpret your world, you will gain new insights and find less objection from film, literature, and particularly from the Bible, where stories are rife with metaphors. Why not take Marcus Borg’s suggestion to heart, and with new openness, read the Bible again, for the first time.

 

Let us pray:

God of Wonder: how can mortals describe Heaven, or your wonders, without using disciplined imaginations? How can we think of Jesus as a door, a gate, or a lamb without engaging our full minds, hearts, and souls? Help us to hear the Bible afresh, perhaps for the first time, so that we can avoid the stumble of a Nicodemus response. Thank you also for Jesus, who reached people on many levels, with many messages, all of them wrapped in love. In His name we pray. Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          March 12, 2017

 

 

 

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I always find the transition from Christmas to Lent to be an abrupt one. Even when Lent starts in March it still feels like a bit of a whiplash when it comes to subject matter.

 

Because during Christmas the focus is on the divinity of Jesus: his Godness. We have a miraculous conception. We have angel choruses in the sky. We have mysterious strangers following a star to worship the child. Sure, any of us who have been around babies can guess that this child nursed and spit up and messed his swaddling clothes. But that’s not the focus of our stories at Christmas time. It’s all about angels and stars.

 

Then, in just a few short weeks, Lent comes along. Now it’s thirty years later and Jesus is getting dunked under the water and thrown into the wilderness where his humanity is painfully evident. And just so we know how human Jesus is, the writer of Matthew assures us that after fasting for forty days, Jesus was very hungry. Lent is about Jesus human side.

 

And part of being human is being tempted. Tempted to take the shorter path, the easier way. Tempted to cut corners. Tempted to reach for what we shouldn’t. Tempted to behave differently when no one else is watching. Our old testament lesson begins humanity’s story with us falling to temptation. “You will be like God, knowing good and evil.” And so we reach out, even when we know we shouldn’t.

 

I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for Jesus, throughout his life, to wrestle with these two natures inside of himself. To have all of the insights, abilities, power of God. And yet to have thoughts, emotions, and the limitations of humanity.

 

In today’s passage, Jesus knows he has a divine nature. He knows can turn rocks into food. That the angels would catch him if he fell. He could easily claim military and political power over the empires. Satan is only reminding him about what he knows when he tempts him.

 

So the test is about Jesus’ faithfulness to who he is and what God is calling him to do: not to ask for special privileges or place or relief, but to enter fully into this human condition of want and need and pain. The temptations attack him in those places, F. Dean Lueking writes, “where humans expect the best: daily bread, sacred spaces, the devotion of the heart.” Or, in other words, at his core.

 

Satan tempts Jesus to settle his identity crisis the easy way: by acting out of his divine nature and leaving behind that pesky human stuff. As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, Jesus’ options come down to this: he “could play God, or he could remain human.” And playing God is so much easier than being human.

 

And yet, over and over again, Jesus stays with his human self. Remaining human is a tough call, but a necessary decision for Jesus to make if he is going to fulfill his role as Messiah, savior, the one who will reconcile God and humanity. If he can’t say no to power and the avoidance of suffering now, how will he ever make it through the crucifixion and death that is coming? So no. I will not turn the stones to bread.  No, I will not tempt God.  No, I will not take on power.

 

We have a habit of equating the temptations of Jesus with various types of temptations we face today. I will admit there are some parallels to be made, because we are all tempted. But let’s be honest, we do not face these types of temptations. The temptations of Jesus are unique to Jesus. Tempting me to turn a rock into bread would be like tempting me to play “Ode to Joy” on the piano. It’s no temptation at all, because I simply can’t do it.

 

The temptations Jesus faced were about remaining human when he could embrace his divinity. He doesn’t have to suffer. He can choose to change it. The fact that he doesnt, shows us just what kind of a person our savior is.

 

We are not fully divine, as Jesus was. We are human and we really have no choice but to remain human. So we don’t have to deal with the temptation to eliminate our suffering and take up power. Instead we have far more insidious temptations.

 

The great CS Lewis wrote a book called the Screwtape Letters about our temptations. The story is two demons, young Wormwood and his uncle Screwtape, writing back and forth about the best way to tempt people into falling. Uncle Screwtape advises his nephew on such things as keeping a person self-involved, and clueless. Keep him spiritual and not practical. Make sure he thinks he is doing better than those around him. Have him pray for tangible things and let him boast.

 

Because Screwtape and Wormwood aren’t trying to create a group of raving, evil madmen. They don’t have to. Instead they are creating people who are defined by selfishness and insincerity, pettiness, fear and a need to control the world. That is all they need to cause good people to become theirs.  

 

And that is what our own temptations are.  Very few of us agree to fast for forty days and know that sort of hunger. We are never dangled off the top of the empire state building and told to tempt God to save us. And most people are never offered the powers of all the people in the world bowing down to us.

 

Instead we are tempted with the things that Screwtape is so familiar with: vanity, selfishness, pride, and indifference. In many ways they are worse, because we meet those temptations on a daily basis and must keep rejecting them.

 

As Maryetta Anschutz puts it: “Temptation comes to us in moments when we look at others and feel insecure about not having enough. Temptation comes in judgements we make about strangers and friends who make choices we do not understand. Temptation rules us, making us able to look away from those in need and to live our lives unaffected by poverty, hunger and disease. Temptation rages in the moments when we allow our temper to define our lives or when addiction to wealth power, influence over others, vanity or an inordinate need for control defines who we are. Temptation wins when we engage in the justification of little lies, small sins: a racist joke, a questionable business practice for the greater good, a criticism of a spouse or partner when he or she is not around. Temptation wins when we get so caught up in the trappings of life that we lose sight of life itself.”

 

It’s easy to say no to the big things. It’s easy to know what to do when it comes to the clear cut right and wrong. It is much harder to say no to the little things we run across every day. The things we do when no one else will know.

 

So how do we deal with temptation?

 

We begin by knowing that we will be tempted. And chances are good that temptation is not going to come in the form of Satan offering us the world. Instead it will come in the choices we make, or do not make, every day. Knowing that we are going to be tempted allows us to be prepared to say no.  

 

And we know that sometimes, we are going to make the wrong choices.  God doesn’t expect us to be as perfect as Jesus. God does expect us to try.In the end, it is God’s grace that saves us, and not our perfect ability to resist temptation. We are saved by the saving work of God in Christ Jesus on the cross.

 

But that doesn’t get us off the hook.  It doesn’t make it so we don’t have to even bother trying to be good and righteous people. One wrong choice is no reason to make more of them. When we slide, we go right back to trying again. We look to our Lord, who said no every time. We turn to scripture to give us strength.

 

As we begin our Lenten journey, we voluntarily enter into our own sort of spiritual wilderness. We take time to contemplate, or pray, or fast. We turn our attention to the temptations we might face and prepare ourselves to do as our Lord did, and chose God’s way instead. As we journey to Jerusalem, ask yourself: what temptations are you facing? What choice will you make? Amen.

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SEEING GOD’S GLORY

Exodus 24:12-18   Matthew 17: 1-9

 

“In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea, with a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me.”

You see? You have heard of that word “transfigured,” haven’t you? Transfigured: a word found in the Battle Hymn of the Republic, ascribing great blessing on Americans. We are, in so many ways, blessed.

Transfigured: to change radically the figure or appearance of; to exalt or glorify.

That’s what we’re talking about today.

We’re talking about a day of wonder, of mystery, and even delight for Peter, James, John, and ages before: Moses.

We’re talking about a chance for personal counsel and divine insight.

We’re talking about a chance to get perspective on that which is beyond us.

We’re talking about a proverbial “mountaintop experience.”

 

Can you remember some of the people who were your heroes, or persons you idolized? My love for and intrigue with ocean liners started with a Titanic survivor coming to my elementary school in Richmond Virginia. I’ll never forget the woman’s story about how that great ship went down. My becoming a lifelong fan of the St. Louis Cardinals included a meeting with pitcher Nelson Briles who came to speak at our church. You may not know his name, but he had a name then. Meeting him intensified my love for the game.   Can you think of people who made such an impact on you that they changed your life? Those are mountaintop days, and when you have them, you hope they’ll never end. Mary Ann and I have waited in line to meet characters at Walt Disney World or at Universal Studios with one of our little grandsons who was star struck to meet a princess.

Teenagers in the late fifties loved to see Elvis, and in the 60s they loved to see the Beatles. Today as the Daytona 500 takes place, I will be reminded what a thrill it was to meet “the King:” Richard Petty.

 

All of those examples, put together, can’t measure up to going up a mountain with Jesus and seeing him “transfigured;” or going up a different mountain and being in the presence of God as Moses did. Like any special meeting you may have had, none one wants it to end.  Peter, James, and John wanted to stay on the mountain and be enraptured by the glory. But God, as always, had other plans. On the day of a baptism, God is issuing a commission, not an insurance policy. A God has special things for Moses, and Peter, and James, and John to do; and for you and me as well. Experiencing God’s glory is to get empowered, not enamored. Being enamored is for fans; being empowered is for followers. Even Moses wanted to stay on the mountain and not face the people, who had already begun to sin. Even Peter, James, and John wanted to stay close to Jesus on the mountain, not face the valley of suffering and need. It was an extraordinary day with ordinary reactions.  Some groups of climbers who have climbed to the summit of mountains have wanted to stay if their food held out. Who wants a special day to come to an end? But mountains aren’t appreciated without valleys. The days of joy are not so appreciated until one of those Murphy’s Law days, comes along, when anything that can go wrong, does go wrong! Just as this week of Mardi Gras, ending in two days on “Fat Tuesday,” is seen by some as the final fling of fantasy and fun before Lent, so the day on the mountaintop ends with the descent into the valley; where the people were; where the needs were; where the journey continued.

 

Mountaintop experiences are ones from which we might date our lives as B.E., before the event, and A.E., after the event. They are that pivotal. Some have told me about the spiritual mountaintop experience they had at Cursillo, De Colores, Via de Christo, or on an Emmaus Walk.  For many Presbyterians, a trip to Montreat, North Carolina creates such a memory. Some of our mission trip youth have been changed forever by their summer pilgrimage. Am I helping you recall any special events?

 

Now, how does one describe God’s glory?  Might we be searching for the right words to say? If you remember the brilliant Anne Bancroft depicting the teacher of the Blind, Annie Sullivan, as she tried to help Helen Keller, portrayed by the late Patty Duke in “The Miracle Worker,” she celebrated the amazing time when Helen made the connection between the sign language she formed and the object she described. How do you teach someone how to connect “water” with the word when she never had the concept of words?  Similarly, in the new non-fiction book The Awakening of HK Derryberry, a boy born prematurely never gained sight and lives to this day with cerebral palsy. Only his grandmother stepped up and cared for that poor child, taking him with her to the coffee shop where she worked eight hours a day. He sat in a booth the whole time. Jim Bradford, a local businessman and Christian from Brentwood, Tennessee, chose that coffee shop over his normal one. HK changed his life; they became best buddies, and HK began to learn about a world he had never seen. At one point in the book, he innocently asks, “Mr. Bradford, what does white look like?”  What does white look like when you have never seen anything?  Grasping for descriptive words might be what it would be like if we were to ask Moses:  “Tell me about God’s glory.” Or ask Peter, James, and John, “What did Jesus look like that day on the mountain?”  Singer and songwriter Bart Millard of the Christian group “MercyMe” tried to capture that idea with these words written to his Lord:  (I Can Only Imagine)

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

I can only imagine what my eyes will see when your face is before me

I can only imagine.

Surrounded by your glory, what will my heart feel, will I dance for

You Jesus, or in awe of you be still

Will I stand in your presence, or to my knees will I fall,

Will I sing hallelujah, will I be able to speak at all,

I can only imagine.

 

Wow. What a good stab at describing the indescribable. All these examples are just attempts to describe the indescribable. Here’s a final one.

 

Oscar Hijuelos, in his national bestseller from 1995 called Mr. Ives’ Christmas, tells of the unusual transfiguration experience his main character has. At the corner of Madison Avenue and Forty-First Street in New York City, Ives begins to feel certain sensations: the sidewalk seems to lift under him ever so slightly; the street begins to flutter and stretch on forever; the buildings bow as if they recognize Ives, and in those moments, he could feel the very lift of the concrete below him. It was as if he could, for a few seconds, hear molecules grinding, light shifting, and the vibrancy of things everywhere. “In one slip of a second, anything seemed possible—had the moon risen and started to sing, had pyramids appeared over the Chrysler building weeping, Ives would have been no more surprised…. He began to experience a thorough love for all things. In the glow of such feelings people truly seemed blessed; truck and car horns sounded like heavenly trumpets; [and] the murmur of crowds and the other voices fell upon his ears like music…. Catching his own reflection in a window, Ives’ face [was] like a sphinx’s one minute, the next like Saint Paul’s, as it might have been when he was stricken with divine light…. To hear, to smell, to see, to feel, all were miraculous. [HarperCollins, 1995, pp.101,102] And looking back on his life-changing day, “He would have liked to tell his son how each time he walked along the street on a clear day, he vividly remembered his mystical experience. He had wanted to explain how a sensation of impending glory came over him, and how, for a few moments, he became aware of God that was like no God he had previously conceived.” [p. 111]

 

On a mountaintop; at the ocean; in a store window; in the face of a child; on a Damascus road experience; or in that time in Gloryland where we all hope to land, may you watch hopefully, and even longingly, for the glory of God.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          February 26, 2017

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Who are your enemies? That’s always the first question that springs to mind when I come across this passage. Who is my enemy?

 

Now, very few people have real enemies: dark hatted villains with curling mustaches that cackle and unleash dastardly schemes.  Instead you have the people who disagree with you. The people who cut you off in traffic. The people who are on the other side of the political spectrum and love to argue about it. The person who just rubs you the wrong way. Or maybe it’s the person you thought you could trust and instead they betrayed you. We can all think of someone we have less than fond feelings for. The question is, how do we deal with them?

 

There are some people who relish the arguments and drama these enemies can stir up. They seem to seek out arguments. Many people just try to avoid their enemies and get on with their lives. But Jesus comes along this morning and tells us to love them. Just like that. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

 

Now, that’s not a very good way to sell the argument Jesus. If I have to love my enemies, tell me what’s in it for me, right?

 

Tell me that I need to love my enemies because hatred and negativity is bad for my mental and physical health. Or that I need to love my enemies because spending energy hating them gives them power over me. Or that it proves who is the better person. Or do what Paul did: tell me to love my enemies because, being kind to my enemies is a way to “heap burning coals on their heads.” Now that’s motivating!

 

But Jesus doesn’t offer any common sense reason to love our enemies. Instead we are told only that we should live that way because that’s the way God lives. We should be perfect as God as perfect.

 

I don’t know about you, but when I hear that I’m supposed to be perfect, my first inclination is to laugh. I know I’ll never be perfect. I know I’ll never get close. After all, only Christ was perfect.

 

But the word we translate as “perfect” is the Greek word telos and it actually implies less moral perfection and more reaching one’s intended outcome. The telos of an arrow shot by an archer is to reach its target. The telos of a peach tree is to yield peaches. Telos is reaching the best you, you can be. Fulfilling your purpose completely.

 

Which means that we might translate this passage more loosely to mean, “Be the person and community God created you to be, just as God is the One God is supposed to be.”

 

So yeah, in that sense when we are called to love our enemies we are also doing it for ourselves. Because by doing so, we live into the best of who we are called to be.

 

Right, but what about the times when it isn’t just someone we disagree with? Is it realistic to expect the families of murder victims to forgive and love the people who took their loved ones from them? Is Jesus asking a battered wife to pray for the one who abuses her, to offer the other cheek to the husband who has struck the first one? Yes, God sends sun and rain on the righteous and the unrighteous alike, but are we called to love and be merciful to people who take us for granted and use us for their own advantage? When someone hurts us or cheats us or those we love, how are we supposed to love them without suffering abuse us again?

 

Because loving them doesn’t mean that we must suffer at their hands. It doesn’t mean condoning actions that are harmful. Martin Luther King, Jr., once wrote: ‘Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship … We must recognize that the evil deed of the enemy neighbor, the thing that hurts, never quite expresses all that he is. An element of goodness may be found even in our worst enemy.”

 

King concludes that when Jesus asks us to love our enemies he is pleading with us to offer understanding and creative goodwill to all people. This is the only way we can truly be children of a loving God.

 

To love the enemy does not mean to like the enemy. Even if you don’t like someone you can still treat them with respect. You don’t have to like someone to behave as though their life and feelings matter.  And loving our enemies also doesn’t mean that we must remain in situations that are harmful to our physical or emotional well-being. Instead to love our enemies means to understand them as human beings, troubled and sinful human beings who have hurt us because they themselves hurt inside. It means to make a decision to respond to them in ways which will benefit them and perhaps lead to healing.

 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer gets right at the heart of this text:  “By our enemies Jesus means those who are quite intractable and utterly unresponsive to our love, … [but] Love asks nothing in return, but seeks those who need it.  And who needs our love more than those who are consumed with hatred and utterly devoid of love?” We cannot control how they may behave, but we can still treat them as though they are also children of God.

 

But just because our enemies may need our love, that doesn’t make it easier to love them, does it? I think it many ways this is the hardest thing Jesus ever tells us to do. Not just to not hate our enemies, but to love them and pray for them. Praying for our enemies is so much more difficult than not-hating them. After all, not-hate is passive; prayer is far more active. And Jesus tells us to pray for our enemies.

 

Now, I don’t believe that prayer will necessarily “change their hearts,” as people often say about the ones they are trying to not hate. But I do believe it will likely change my heart. When I pray for someone, I start to see that person as I imagine God does: as a flawed human being made in God’s image. Just like me.

 

So yes, I pray for my enemies. The prayer usually begins along the lines of “Lord, please love this person for me because I don’t know how right now. I’ll keep working on forgiving them in the meantime.” My enemy’s actions probably won’t change. They won’t suddenly see my side or become a better person or apologize for their past actions. But I will change. And I will come closer to the telos that I should be.  

 

I hear in this passage today the invitation to be those people God has created us to be. When we do we have the chance to flourish, making a difference to those around us by sharing the abundant life Jesus has given us

 

Jesus is calling us to a better way to live, to a higher path than the world sets before us. We can be more than petty arguments and deep resentments. We can be the people Christ calls us to be:  ones who love even the unlovable. We can reach our telos and that will shape the world around us.

 

So today I say to you: Love your enemies. Love the ones who annoy you, the ones who hurt you, the ones who betray you. Pray for them. And grow into the people God always knew you could be.

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WHAT IT MEANS TO CHOOSE LIFE

Deuteronomy 30: 15-20

 

Years ago I was invited to be on the floor of our state legislature when they voted to create the “Choose life” license plates. In that context it was a message affirming adoption over abortion.  That’s one way a person can choose life. And I know there are anguishing decisions about which life to save when pregnant mother is in distressed labor: the mother’s or the baby’s, when saving both is not an option. In cases like that, “choosing life” is not as easy as it sounds. When we prepare for a flight on a commercial aircraft, we are always reminded that if there is the need for an oxygen mask and we’re traveling with a small child, it’s important to put your own oxygen mask on first. Otherwise, in your desire to save the life of your child, two lives might be lost. Have you wondered what conditions lead people to jump to their death from the Golden Gate bridge, or from a cruise ship, or to lie on the tracks in front of an oncoming train?  What conditions make people see life, as we know it, as painful or agonizing?  I was heartbroken last month to read the story on social media suicide of a young Miami teenaged girl who took her own life live on a Facebook feed. Her constant torment and bullying at the hands of others had driven her to find death more fulfilling than life, and as it happened, the video feed recorded texted comments of people still mocking her, calling her names, and posting laughing emojis as she hanged herself from the bathroom door of her Miami Gardens home. Sometimes people make a choice other than the anguish of living. We also know there are times when we take the lives of animals and call it humane, and we prolong the lives of suffering family members and say it is God’s will. Choosing life is not always a clear decision; it is not as easy as choosing to stay on the bank of a river or plummeting over a waterfall. What is the best way to choose life?  Clearly situational ethics are involved, and each situation merits our careful examination before acting like we have the moral high ground.

 

The text I have chosen from Deuteronomy is excised often from its context. What I mean by that is people love saying: God says “Choose life.” But there is more to the quote than that. First, these words are spoken by Moses who received them from God. They were part of Moses’ final address to the people. Second, the longer quote from Moses is the whole passage today,  and it is a dependent clause. Listen to it; and listen for the words “if” and “then.” Moses said: “I have set before you today, life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live ….” Everything described in the beginning of this proposition must be met for the listeners to have life.  There’s a lot riding on it! And there’s more: its a warning. Listen: “But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, and are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish…. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him and holding fast to him.”  Goodness. In order to have life, there is a lot of small print we have to follow! It’s not as easy as many make it out to be. There is a cost at the front end of choosing life; but on the other hand there is great cost on the back end if you choose death or curse, no matter how enticing it might initially be. All that glitters is not gold.

 

When we agree to a contract whether on paper, a phone, or a computer, there is often a requirement to check a box saying “I have read the terms of agreement and understand them.”  Countless people, maybe many of you, just check the box without reading it! The terms can be so long and complicated, filled with exceptions that will void the contract. In Moses’ day, the life choosing covenant was written out by God were on those tablets of stone that we call the Ten Commandments. But the contract was sealed only if the people agreed to the fine print! Even though we may quickly check the box without reading the agreement, the contract in the Bible is talking about how to have life on earth; and in the gospels when Jesus offered his interpretation of the commandments, he was talking about eternal lives! Now, perhaps you are ready to hear the ways that you can choose life:

 

  • Obey the commandments of your Lord God. (verse 15) If you need to re-read the commandments, they are in chapter 5. But following chapter 5 in Deuteronomy are any number of examples of how to apply those commandments. Chapter 6 includes “The Great Commandment” also known as the “Shema” by Jews. Moses said, “Now this is the commandment—the statutes and ordinances—that the Lord your God charged me to teach you…. Hear or Israel: the Lord our God is the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Teach them to your children, and discuss them when you are at home, and when you are away, when you lie down, and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as a frontlet on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” Orthodox Jews take those words and actions literally; but all faithful Jews and Christians would do well to take them In addition to the Ten Commandments, that commandment is one everyone would do well to keep and follow. If you want life, you cannot discard or ignore this fine print. Again, choosing life is front-loaded with conditions; the alternative is back-loaded with consequences. All that glitters is not gold. Moses also cautions against disobedience later in chapter 6, and he tells of the blessings one can receive for obedience in chapter 7. Moses warns not to forget God in one’s prosperity, and he tells the consequences for rebelling. I know there are people who know the stories of Jesus well; many are here today. But if you want to know the words that Jesus knew as a child and by which he lived, these words in Deuteronomy are those words. These words are the contract and the fine print: the Ten Commandments and remembering to the love God and teach your children the same thing. But the details of the agreement spell out how to obtain life; there we also find the warnings regarding how we can lose the life we desire but not keeping our part of the contract. The Bible calls it a covenant and God wants that for us.
  • Love the Lord your God. Put God first. The Christian Mystics did this in ways that straight-laced or more orthodox Christians would do well to emulate. They called God their beloved! God mostly wants to be adored and loved! And in return, you will know without a doubt that God unconditionally loves you too.
  • Walk in the ways of the Lord. Get out your owner’s manual, the one with the code words “Holy Bible” on it, and read it. Particularly read Moses’ words in Deuteronomy.  When Jesus was teaching in those three powerful years of his ministry, he certainly leaned heavily on his knowledge of Deuteronomy for guidance. If you want to see a stellar example of one who “walks in the ways of the Lord,” look at Jesus. Ask yourself often “What would Jesus do?” That will guide you well.

 

Now, you can choose life, but only when you decide to meet the prerequisites, and agree to the small print. It is hard work to choose life, but the alternative can be brutal.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                      February 12, 2017

 

 

 

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There is a story that is told in different variations around the world. It has even been immortalized by Shakespeare in the play King Lear. But in it’s simplest form, the story begins when a king asked his daughter how much she loved him. She said she loved him as much as she loved salt, whereupon in a rage the king expelled her from his palace.  But before leaving she arranged for all of the salt to be left out of the king’s food. Only then did he realise that how much being loved like salt meant.

 

Now I would immediately see that as a compliment. I love salt. Give me a choice between salty foods and sweet and I will pick salty almost every time. But even for people with less salty palates know how much of a difference salt can make in their food. Even a pinch leaves it’s mark.

In Jesus day, salt was extremely valuable.   Not only does salt add flavor to food, it also preserved certain foods such as meat or fish from spoiling, which was essential before the invention of refrigeration. Salt also helps to purify or cleanse meats and is useful in healing or cleansing certain ailments. All of these uses were commonly known in first century Palestine. Indeed, such uses were likely the cause for the symbolic use of salt in offerings and sacrifice, as well as in sealing covenants in Israel

 

Let’s say that you and I were going to make a deal with each other. Now, there was no written contract, but instead you would take some salt from your house and I would take some salt from my house. Then we would throw salt across each other’s shoulder. It was called the covenant of salt. Salt was symbolic of the preservation of a contract.

 

Because of its usefulness, salt was prized and even used as currency.  Special salt rations given to early Roman soldiers were known as “salarium argentum,” the forerunner of the English word “salary.”  It seems that one can write a whole history of the world just by tracing what has happened with salt.  In fact, Mark Kulansky did so in his book “Salt: A World History.”

 

And so it matters that Jesus says to those who were listening then and to those who listen still: “You are the salt of the earth.”  In other words, you are of great value.  

 

Jesus isn’t saying, “You should be the salt of the earth and light of the world.” Or, “You have to be,…” let alone “You better be,….” Rather, he is saying, you are. As in already are. Even if you don’t know it. Even if you once knew it and forgot. Even if you have a hard time believing it.

 

Jesus declares what  his followers are here, and it doesn’t matter whether they know it, believe it, or feel it.  They are salt whether they feel flavorful or not.  They are light regardless of whether they feel particularly shiny.    

 

I want to take a moment to talk about children here. Psychologists suggest that for every negative message elementary-aged children hear about themselves, they need to hear ten positive ones to restore their sense of self-esteem to where it had been previously. And it doesn’t seem like we grow out of that need.

 

Children, to put it another way, become what they are named. Call a child bad long enough, and he or she will believe you and act bad. Call a child (or anyone) worthless or unlovable or shameful, and eventually he or she or we will live into the name we’ve been assigned. In the same way, call us good or useful, dependable, helpful, or worthwhile, and we will grow into that identity and behavior as well.

 

And so Jesus tells us that we are salt of the earth. And light of the world. That is who we are. It is up to us to live into those names.

 

After all, salt does a lot. And if you are salt, just think of all the varied ways the gift you are and the gifts you offer impact the world.  You can help to preserve others and the land around you. You can help to heal and to make covenants. You are what makes the best times better. Just by being you.

 

Take a minute and think about your actions over the last few weeks. Think about the variety of ways God has used you to be salt and light. Did you offer words of encouragement to someone who needed it?  Did you volunteer? Visit the sick? Feed the hungry? Did you speak out against injustice? Did you stand up for the alienated and the marginalized? You have added salt to the world. You have been a light on a hill.

 

Because, so far as I can tell, in spite of Jesus’ assertion, salt never actually loses its taste. It’s a stable element and cannot “go bad.” No, the only way salt can lose its saltiness is when it is never used at all. Think about it. It doesn’t matter how much salt you have sitting on the shelf if you forgot to add it to the soup. Salt is meant to be used, whether it is in soup or on icy roads. It does no good at all stored away.

 

In the same way, a light is only useless if you never see it. If you hide it under something. Light is not meant to be stored up, but rather, to be shared with all who need its guidance and warmth.

 

We are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. That means we are called  to demonstrate the difference God’s grace makes in real human life on a daily basis.  Our first lesson from Isaiah 58:6-7 makes it clear how we are to use our salt. What our God desires of us is “to loose the bonds of injustice, … to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke … to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them.”  When we live our lives in this way, demonstrating the difference God’s grace makes in real human life on a daily basis, we are being the salt of the earth. We are shining a light on a hill.

 

Matthew even repeats what we are to do in his gospel: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” That is what we are called to do. That is who we are told to be.

 

You are salt. You are light. It is up to you to use your salt and our light “so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Because salt cannot help being salty. Light cannot help but shine. They are set apart, unique, endowed with a clear and certain purpose and identity. You too have a clear purpose as a follower of Christ.

 

Jesus says these words to you today.  You are of great value.  Who and what you are and all that you give to the world makes the world a better, richer place.  All you have to do is get out of the shaker, out of the bag, off the shelf and do what you were made to do.

 

“You are the salt of the earth.”  Believe it.

 

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WORDS OF COMFORT AND CARE

Matthew 5: 1-12

 

Monty Python is the name of the British team of friends who have made fun of dozens of events. In their irreverent and bawdy film called “Life of Brian,” they have a scene that depicts the way the Sermon on the Mount might have gone. The camera zooms in on Jesus while he starts with the text that we just heard from Matthew chapter 5. “Blessed are those of gentle spirit, for they shall have the earth for their possession! How blessed are those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail, for they shall be satisfied!” As he continues, the camera pans back to where the people are standing; the voice of Jesus gets fainter and fainter. The people in the back are having trouble hearing his sermon. “Speak up!” one shouts. “What did he say?” asks another. “I think he said “Blessed are the cheese makers!” one farther up replied. “What’s so special about the cheese makers?” the woman in the back then asks. And all the people become agitated because they can’t hear!  Being in an outdoor area, or indoor room where you can’t hear the speaker can be maddening.  A cartoon shared on Facebook last week depicted a minister who was speaking to his congregation, but they were having audio problems. The minister, speaking into a dead microphone, said ‘There’s something wrong with this microphone.” And the crowd, not able to hear him clearly, automatically intoned, “And also with you!”

 

We don’t know how everyone heard what Jesus said in that sermon; we aren’t even sure if Matthew wrote it down initially or if someone else did. But there, on the north end of the Sea of Galilee today, are eight windows in an octagon shaped building that remind us that the Sermon on the Mount—Matthew 5, 6, and 7—happened there.  The beginning of that sermon was thsse few sentences we heard, not a joke nor a quote —both tools that preachers have used over the years. Matthew wrote in chapter 4 verse 25 that “Great crowds followed Jesus from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Jordan, and from beyond the Jordan.” Then in today’s Matthew says: “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain.” As was parodied in  “The Life of Brian,” there was a big crowd present; many more than his 12 apostles. When Matthew said Jesus went up a mountain, we can infer two things: one, going up higher allowed him to be seen and heard a little better. And two, that was not just a geographical description, but also a theological one. The place where Jesus gave this sermon was not mountain; it was just higher ground. So why did Matthew record “Jesus went up the mountain” when Luke, describing the same scene, says “Jesus stood on a level place with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people?” [Luke 6: 17] If you were here last week you remember me saying the Matthew was a faithful Jew when Jesus called him, and Jews did not call the name of God out of respect, so they would say “The Kingdom of Heaven” instead of the “Kingdom of God.” There’s something else that Matthew remembered: when God spoke to Moses about the Ten Commandments, it was on a mountain. When God spoke to his prophet Elijah, it was on a mountain. Matthew believed God-things happened on mountains, and that something holy was happening with Jesus. Therefore he called a hill a “mountain” to shine a light on the importance of these words.

 

One thing that goes through preachers’ minds as they prepare a sermon each week is who the congregation will be: will there be someone who just lost a spouse; someone applying to college; someone starting the raise a baby; or someone feeling the aches and pains of age? Preachers want to “know their audience” and to reach them. It does no good to preach to a hypothetical crowd of people or to guess their issue through statistics. When you do that,  you simply preach a hypothetical sermon to people you don’t know well. I think that when Jesus gave the Beatitudes, it was his initial attempt to connect with the people who had followed him. He had learned who many of them were and what their fears were. So he begins with these words, in effect, saying, “I know you.”  He had met many of them, healed some, and knew their hurts. So our “masterpiece,” the Beatitudes, that some want to turn into an eight-point sermon, is mostly an effective introduction; a way for people to say to one another: “He really sees me; he really knows me; and he really cares about me.”

 

And so, he begins. As all orators learn, timing and pauses create an eagerness to hear. We read in verse two: “He began speak.” Could he have looked out at the large group of people who had gathered and notice the ones he knew and noted others who came? Was he thinking about the issues they likely faced every day, and the ways that some were feeling defeated or exhausted? Well-employed, satisfied persons might not have taken time out of their day to come hear this new preacher. There is no record that this was a Sabbath, so many were at work or doing chores. Who would have come? Perhaps some who were feeling broken were there, or those seeking spiritual help.  Jesus addresses them, first saying: “Blessed are.” Some translations say “How happy are.” But “happy” points toward a joy that people might not yet have felt. “Blessed” means “God loves you and has plans to show you that, even in your trials.”  “Blessed are the poor in spirit (verse 3) for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” What carefully chosen words. “He uses “theirs” instead of “yours” because “yours” would seem too personal; too intrusive; as if this carpenter from Nazareth was speaking directly to you. So he says “theirs” to create some emotional space. There are certainly people here today who feel like they are poor in spirit. But who wants spotlights to be turned on you to reveal who you are? No; a little anonymity is powerful, as the people in 12 Step Programs such as Alcoholic Anonymous know.

 

There were other groups also gathered to hear Jesus. Some likely were lamenting the death of a loved one; it happened often in the first century, and if it has happened to you, loss becomes very real. To them, and perhaps to you, he says, (likely after a pause to let his first blessing sink in) “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Again, carefully chosen words. They give the mourners hope that, even though they have yet to find comfort, they will. Maybe soon, maybe in a little while, but that rawness, the unexpected tears at night or even in the day, will subside. And remember: your Heavenly Father knows what it is like to mourn, having his son die brutally. God sees you and knows you. And God even knows the future. Those who finally let faith, hope, and love back into their life will be comforted.

 

I imagine these lines were not offered in a rapid, staccato fashion, but slowly, letting the power of moments, and of time, to sink in. Also, in their world as in our world, there were those who were powerful, surrounded by  laws that favored them and allowed them to keep their money and their status. That is even true today. Those people hardly need to go to a rural region to hear a new preacher; life is treating them well as it is. But what about the others; others who might be sitting around you today? Jesus sees them too, when he says: “Blessed are the meek.” “Oh sure” they think,  “We really feel blessed.” But Jesus surprises them saying, “They will inherit the earth.” Getting an inheritance is a big deal, especially for those with modest income. But to inherit the earth? What could that mean? Then Jesus also offered hopeful words for those who hungered and thirsted “after righteousness.” In their day and our day, it seems that justice systems are broken. Parliamentarian Edmund Burke once famously said: “All it takes for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing.” Jesus lifted up those who are swimming upstream but still seek to do the right things in life instead of the wrong things, or the expedient things or the things advantageous to themselves.  Every week I hear about people who witness crimes who will not cooperate with officers or detectives trying to get to the truth. They “do not want to get involved” they say. But if your daughter or son or spouse is held at gunpoint, or robbed, or shot, don’t you hope a witness will identify the perpetrator? Doing the right thing is not only right; Jesus says it will be blessed. Then  there is a move toward justice. The world of the first century believed justice was “an eye for an eye,” far better than  “your life for an eye” as some even in our day carry out. But Jesus was a man who believed the human heart could change, and that second chances made the world a better place. One who read Jesus thoroughly was Mahatma Gandhi, who famously said: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” So Jesus holds out hope for people to repent and to consider accepting God’s amazing grace. Solutions By-The-Sea, for example, where our own Tobias Caskey is the chaplain, holds out a hand of mercy to men recently released from incarceration. They believe with the right support, and the guidance to stay free of drugs and drink, that men can become contributors to society and be re-united with families. “Blessed are the merciful” is music to the ears of those men, and to those who unfailingly try to guide them.

 

Those who are pure in heart get to see God. That seems clear to me. They are among the saints who have received the gift of salvation and eternal life with God in Heaven. What a reminder. And those who make peace—not just those who shush children, or suppress protests, or force silence through brutal regimes—but those who work for peace- you are blessed too. Peace happens when people feel heard, they believe justice has been done, and when they conclude that those around them might be more like neighbors more than enemies. Those who work for peace are doing what God wants them to do, so God’s Kingdom can come on Earth, as it is in Heaven.

 

Finally, if you are trying to do the right things in this world, and you are persecuted for it, history and God will rise up and call you blessed.  Many recent people in that category can be a lightning rod of controversy. But history paints people like Abraham Lincoln in a wonderful light. Historians have pointed out the intense persecution he felt, and the threats he received by people in both the Union and the Confederacy. He was a great man, yet was persecuted intensely and assassinated. What reward is that? But Jesus points to a greater notion: “Your reward is great in heaven.” He wants those people to know from his lips, that God is most pleased with them—and with others—who take that the road less traveled.

 

What a way to start a sermon! With those few words, people felt heard and understood. The rest of the message was just a cherry on top of that sundae.  Thanks be to God, that Matthew has shared it with us.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                 January 29, 2017

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LEAVING HOME; LOVING GOD

Matthew 4: 12-22

 

In the John Calvin commentaries—the commentaries on God’s Word written by the Father of Presbyterianism—Calvin wrote the way he preached: he preached and wrote in an expository fashion. Expository preaching is when the preacher goes line by line, explaining what is happening in Scripture and what the meaning and message of each line is. Calvin, you may be aware, preached to crowds that did not each have a personal Bible. Most Cathedrals had a large Bible in Latin, but a few other Bibles were available. Most people had to just trust their priests for the sermons they preached, and they had no easy way to check if what was being preached was being properly offered. Calvin decided to include not only interpretation in his sermons, but also the Bible sentences from which he was preaching. It has gone in and out of style over the decades, but I plan to use it today to model the style Calvin often used. Today I am not convinced that people in our age are much more Biblically well read than our forebears were. We have Bibles, but sometimes they go unread! So today I will give a Biblical sermon with Biblical examples. By contrast, the famous Baptist preacher from Atlanta, Charles Stanley, has a son named Andy Stanley who is the pastor of the giant North Point Church in the Atlanta area.

He was once asked this question:

What do you think about preaching verse-by-verse messages through books of the Bible?

Stanley’s answer…

Guys that preach verse-by-verse through books of the Bible– that is just cheating. It’s cheating because that would be easy, first of all. That isn’t how you grow people. No one in the Scripture modeled that.

So be it. But today we will join Calvin in his method of preaching!

 

Today hear the Word of God from Matthew chapter 4 beginning with verse 12. “Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested he withdrew to Galilee.”  What did that mean? John, in this case, was John the Baptist, cousin of Jesus. John was the forerunner, the one who announced, and prepared the way, for the one who was coming after him. John knew he himself was not the light as I told you last week; he bore witness to the light, who was Jesus himself. John had a ministry of baptism and of repentance. It was important. Jesus believed Baptism was so important that he himself got baptized as an example. Have you considered baptism? Or have you ever found your baptism certificate, looked at it, and thanked God for those who led you to that special day? Remember: your certificate is not an insurance policy: it’s a commission! You are the eyes and hands and heart of Jesus because you have been baptized in his name! Jesus also proclaimed John’s message of repentance. He said, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” At least that’s the way Matthew recorded it. Matthew, you see, was one of the 12 followers of Jesus, but he was also a Jewish man by birth. Jews never used the name of God in prayers or in conversation out of respect for God. Luke and Mark and John did not have that concern. So wherever Matthew says, “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” the other Gospel writers would say “the Kingdom of God.” It was not a message about “going to heaven” at all. It was a message that in Jesus, God was breaking into the world in a distinctive and unmistakable way. So Jesus said, in so many words, “It is time,” and left his dusty hometown of Nazareth and went to a town that became his second home: Capernaum, on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. Do you understand the meaning of that line? He was leaving home; and he was loving God by starting a ministry that would make him be tested and derided, thanked, and appreciated. Next is verse 13: “He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali.” What does that mean? Do you recall what Cara read in the first lesson? It was Isaiah chapter nine! When do we generally hear Isaiah chapter 9 each year? Astute ears will remember it is read on Christmas Eve, picked up and made famous by Handel in his magnificent “Messiah.” “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light! Those who dwelt in the land of deep darkness, upon them has the light shined! For unto us a child is born! Unto us a son is given!” Is it coming back to you? Hold on to your seats and hear this: Isaiah said those words 700 years before Christ! So are we sure Isaiah was talking about Christ? Here is where knowing your Bible matters. The verses before those famous lines in Isaiah are almost never read. They are: “But there will be no gloom for those who are in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time, he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.”  Did you hear it? These places—Zebulun, Naphtali and the region of Galilee—are being changed by God from being places of gloom and nothingness, to become the new hometown of the child who has grown into a man, beginning his ministry where Isaiah said it would begin! You may know that Zebulun and Naphtali were regions to the west and north of the Sea of Galilee divided into twelve territories named after 11 of the sons of Jacob. The other son, Levi, did not get territory; he was in charge of the priesthood. So Jesus is setting the stage for the next events that God has planned for that land, that he claimed for himself, when he sent Abraham there from his own hometown of Ur.

 

Next Matthew quotes Isaiah, the passage that Cara read. Jesus left his home and settled in a new place, just as Abraham had done; just as John Calvin had done when he left France for Geneva, Switzerland; as John Knox had done for a time when he left Scotland and went to study with Calvin in Geneva. And Martin Luther, born in Eisleben Germany, also left his home to go to school in Magdeburg and Eisenach, Germany, and later to become a theology professor at the University of Wittenberg. Leaving home opened their hearts to the message and ministry God had in store for them.

 

What did Jesus do after he relocated to the north shore of the Sea of Galilee? You know because you have Bibles! He began calling men to follow him. He saw them fishing according to verse 19, and he, with a turn of a phrase, said: “Follow me; I will make you fishers of men (or of people we might say today.) Would you imagine these rough fisherman might have said to one another, “How do you fish for people? What a strange idea!” But Jesus meant what he said! He called Simon, who he nicknamed “Peter” (which meant “the rock.”) He also called Simon’s brother Andrew, who to this day is the patron saint of Scotland and is associated with the sea. Of all the things that might have been going through your mind, or my mind, it is humbling to read how these rough fishermen responded. Verse 20 tells us: “Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” Wow. Let’s pause in honor for a moment. Even the Virgin Mary had a question for the angel before agreeing to bear the Son of God. Even Zechariah questioned the angel telling him about the birth of his son John the Baptist, and he was mute until the naming of John. Many ages before, God had approached Abram and they talked. After a brief time, God took Abram outside and said  “Look toward the heaven, and count the stars if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be.’ And Abram believed the Lord.” “Immediately” is not the response we usually give when we are asked to move, or drop our employment for something untried and untested to follow someone like the man who stilled the waters and calmed the sea.  But to the credit of Simon Peter and Andrew, they did. And because they did, the discipleship ball started rolling: James and a different man named John (who were brothers) signed on. And they too, verse 22 tells us, “Immediately left their boat and their father and followed him.”

 

One more time, let’s take that in. First fishermen left their nets. Nets don’t grow on trees, they cost money! Yet Simon and Andrew left their nets. And we know how much money a boat costs, and yet James and John left their boat, but at least their father was there. Wait! They left their father with no plan to do so? Like rural farmers in our day, losing two strong sons would leave their father in a bad situation; it would be received as disrespectful and unthinkable. It was expected to happen when was getting married, but not when another man asked them to literally “jump ship!” What higher purpose was being worked out in those amazing first days of Jesus’ ministry! What amazing higher power was reaching into the soul of at least four men and changing their lives forever! That is the power of God! That is the power of the call of Christ. People in our day, and in ages past, have often left their parents to be trained, not only in colleges, but in seminaries, or monasteries, or in convents, or in Divinity schools They sought to know Jesus and to make him known. But today, you have been in a kind of Christian school for these few minutes too! You, with your heart, your experiences, and with your life, can do many of the things that others spent years learning to do! You can commit yourself to learn about Jesus and to know him, if you don’t already. John Calvin’s Christian schools started empowering people to learn about the Bible and Jesus. You can do it through Christian Education classes we offer, or by listening to preachers you trust, or by your own study. There is a great tradition of learning for Presbyterians! Be informed! Come to know Jesus as you Savior! And once you do, make him known! Witness to others with your life, as well as with your lips. Listen for things that Jesus might be calling you to do! And then instead of saying “No! Not me!” You might come to a point of saying:

“Here I am Lord. Send me.”

As we move to our hymn, let me tell you about it.

The text comes from the life of the Iona Community which had a practice of sending youth volunteers to live for a year or two in impoverished parts of Scotland, supported only by welfare payments and working out their discipleship in hard places. At the end of their agreed periods of ministry, there would be a farewell ceremony, always held in the house where they had been living and from which these authors would create an appropriate song. This was such a song… In stanzas 1-4, the voice of Christ calls a person to a life of service and witness; in stanza 5 the person answers affirmatively. [Glory to God: A Companion, by Carl P. Daw Jr., JKP, 2016.]

 

Let us now sing this song of the Iona Community, a community formed in Glasgow and Iona in 1938 by the Rev. George MacLeod.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          January 22, 2017

 

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