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A SIMPLE THING TO DO

John 13:31-35

In radio days, many boys would listen to “The Batman,” syndicated program. The episode would end with a reminder like “tune in next time to see what happens to the Caped Crusader!” The “Batman” series of the 60s on television had two episode programs on television every Wednesday and Thursday night. The 1980s created the age of the mini-series when audiences were urged urged to tune in for the next show in the series. Two weeks ago I introduced you to a new way of hearing Jesus’ questions about love to Simon Peter.  The research I shared had many people telling me how helpful it was to share ministerial tools—that is, the original Hebrew for the Old Testament and the original Greek for the New Testament. That even led to one person commenting on the translation of Psalm 23 in the New Revised Standard Version reading last week. So I researched it. We all love to hear King James declare: “And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” As Christians, most people tell me they picture themselves living in Heaven in God’s big house for an eternity, because they believe in Christ and the everlasting life he made possible.  But when David wrote Psalm 23, he had no such concept. So I learned that the NRSV translation “and I shall dwell in the House of the Lord my whole life long,” was accurate. Dr. Charles Briggs in the International Critical Commentary of 1906 said this about that line: “the House of Yahweh [or The Lord] is indeed the Temple, and the feasts [mentioned] are the sacrificial feasts continually provided in the Temple. That conception that Yahweh is the host to those partaking of the sacrificial meals in his Temple is not uncommon.” He further translates “forever” as “for length of days,” or, more commonly, “for as long as I live.” David had a different idea of how long he would live compared to followers of Jesus who believe in the resurrection from the dead; and in the words, of Revelation 21 that we heard this morning: in the New Jersusalem “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

But today let’s return to the description of love two weeks ago. (Think of this as the second and final episode!) I told you that Greek had more than three terms for love while English has only one single word that represents them all. You may recall that Eros is romantic or sexual love, from which we get the word “erotic.” Philios is brotherly love, from which we get the word “Philadelphia.” And Agape is unconditional love, sometimes called “Christian love.” Today I will tell you the fourth word that means love: it is “storge.” [Pronounced “Stor-gay”] Storge love is the love human parents give their children, or that animal parents give their offspring. We could call it “instinctive” love. And although the Song of Songs in the Old Testament talks about erotic love, in the New Testament we are dealing with Philios and Agape.  Two weeks ago Jesus learned the way Simon Peter loved him. Jesus asked him twice if he loved him unconditionally, but Simon Peter would not go that far; he would only say he loved him like a brother. So relenting, the last time Jesus asked if he loved him “like a brother.” And the answer was yes. But brotherly love is not the gold standard when it comes to Christian actions.  God loves unconditionally, as we learn from stories like the prodigal son in Luke 15. Jesus loved unconditionally as we learn in today’s text and also at the cross. There John was called “the disciple who Jesus loved.” Jesus did not love him erotically, nor just like a brother. Jesus loved him with agape, unconditional love: so-called Christian love. And today we find Jesus instructs his disciples to love in the same fashion. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Perhaps it was painful to Jesus to realize that he taught this all his disciples in John 13, but much later, in John 21, Simon Peter could not even love Jesus unconditionally! Goodness, was that disappointing? The man seen as the top disciple could not love even his leader the way Jesus was teaching people to love. It seems like a simple thing to do, but Jesus had asked twice, and never got him to commit.

Early in today’s passage, he says the same words that sound simple in English, but are a big request in the original words: It’s in the part of the New Testament called “Jesus’ Farewell discourse;” some of his last instructions were included in this section, like: “Let not your hearts be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in me.” In these final instructions, Jesus asks the high bar question that sounds simple to English ears: “I give you a new commandment: that you love one another unconditionally. Just as I have loved you unconditionally, you also should love one another unconditionally.” That is what followers of Jesus ought to do.  But doing it is another matter. I watched the two-night PBS story of Jackie Robinson last week, featuring the man for whom our ballpark in Daytona Beach is named. He not only broke the color barrier for baseball, but he also campaigned tirelessly for equal rights for men and women of color. But there have been, over the years, some who claimed to be Christians that burned crosses in the yards of families of color, and that torched black churches. Such actions cannot square in any way shape or form with the Christian life. Some people today claim to be Christians too who show acts of extreme bigotry toward people of other faiths, or people of other backgrounds, or other countries or toward men or women with gender issues. There can be disagreement on these subjects, but without vitriol, and hatred, and violence. Jesus spoke to and showed kindness even toward a foreigner who did not even believe in God: the Syrophonecian woman! She challenged him in Matthew 15: 27. Jesus also did not judge or show hate to the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. Jews considered Samaritans unclean, yet he received water from that woman and he drank it! She was living with a man who was not her husband and she had been married five times before! There was no hate; no ugliness; no violence.

Let those who have ears, hear. There are believers and non-believers in our world who show brotherly love; plenty of people on Facebook claim they have a BFF- a “Best Friend Forever.” But I know some who have former best friends forever because of a conflict, where one decides that she or he is through with the other. Sadly that happens sometimes in eros too- in marriages or with boyfriends or girlfriends. It happens in philios too- when a friend who was once a friend becomes un-friended. Sadly, sometimes it happens with storge too, when a parent cuts off a child forever. But there should never be a time when Christians do not show agape, unconditional love, to another human being. It doesn’t mean you like everyone. I don’t think that even Jesus liked everyone. But it means that you give your bigotry, your racism, your sexism, your hatred, and you ugly condemning language to the devil who seeks to divide our world night and day. Our world cannot survive with the hatred of the underworld; it needs the love born in Heaven to take hold. Do not let the conversations you have or the television reports you watch, or the blogs you read lead you into less than Christian living. Jesus’ instructions are so simple, yet so difficult, aren’t they? To love unconditionally, not selectively; and of course, loving like that can lead to people disappointing us with their choices or actions. Or making us sad when the person we love dies. So some people give up on people; they just love their pets. But the kind of love God offers, that Jesus lived, and that he asks of us, does not give up on the human race! I’m so glad the love God offers has never given up on the human race [with the possible exception of the flood in Genesis 6-9, when God promised never to do that again.] C.S. Lewis, the famous Christian author and encourager of Britain during World War II, offered these intriguing words:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung or possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe…. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”

So love is risk; agape love is great risk. But so was Christianity in the first century, and so it is in the twenty-first century. If we are working to change the world, rather than being corks bobbing in the waters of media and popular opinion, we have to think differently and act differently. We have to put on, as the Apostle Paul tells us, “the mind of Christ.”

Let me close with the words of American poet and novelist Madeleine L’ Engle:

In his own day, Jesus was a monster to many; disconcerting them with his unpredictability and the company he kept, vanishing to go apart and pray and to be alone with his Father just when people thought they needed him. Perhaps if we are brave enough to accept our monsters, to love them, to kiss them, we will find that we are touching not the terrible dragon that we feared, but the loving Lord of all Creation. And when we meet our Creator, we will be judged for all our turnings away, all our inhumanity to each other, but it will be the judgment of inexorable love, and in the end we will know the mercy of God which is beyond comprehension…. To the ancient Hebrews the love of God for his chosen people transcended the erotic love of man and woman. For the early church, it was the love of Christ for his church. For all of us it is the longing love of God for his creation, a love which is too strong for many of us to accept.

There is an old legend that after his death, Judas found himself at the bottom of a deep and slimy pit. For thousands of years he wept his repentance, and when the tears were finally spent he looked up and saw, way, way up, a tiny glimmer of light. After he had contemplated if for another thousand years or so, he began to try to climb up towards it. The walls of the pit were dank and slimy, and he kept slipping back down. Finally, after great effort, he neared the top, and then he slipped and fell all the way back down. It took him many years to recover, all the time weeping bitter tears of grief and repentance, and then he started to climb up again. After many more falls and efforts and failures, he reached the top and dragged himself into an upper room with twelve people seated around a table. “We’ve been waiting for you Judas,” Jesus said. “We couldn’t begin until you came.”

Agape. It can change the world.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          April 24, 2016

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The passage this week begins with a loaded question. Now, our Bible may translate it as “How long will you keep us in suspense?”, but a closer translation of the original Greek is: “How long will you take away our life (psyche)?” In modern Greek, this idiom is still used and it means, “How long will you continue to annoy us?”

So Jesus is being ambushed in the middle of a celebration and asked to prove he was the Messiah to people who weren’t going to believe him no matter what he said. After all, he had already healed and taught and showed who he was, but that wasn’t enough for the people who were questioning him. They were looking for an argument.

And Jesus, in response, calls himself a shepherd by telling them that they aren’t his sheep. Now, for us, the Bible is full of images of Jesus as shepherd. We have the 23rd Psalm we heard earlier this morning. We have the stained glass window right here in the church. Today is even known as “Good Shepherd Sunday” in the liturgical calendar. Jesus as shepherd is a familiar and comforting image for us today.

But the people who were questioning Jesus and all of those who were listening in to his answer, would have had a very different idea of shepherd. Shepherding was a common occupation during the time of Jesus, but it was a lowly and undesirable one. Shepherds were typically those who had no property or obligation to family, those who turned to the itinerant life of herding sheep in the wilderness as a last resort to making a living.

For the rabbi Jesus to call himself the “good shepherd” would have been a slap in the face to the religious elite of the time. This is a claim with a deliberate edge to it. A modern-day equivalent to shepherd might be for Jesus to say, as Nancy Blakely has noted, “I am the good migrant worker.”

That Jesus would compare himself at all to one of society’s best-known outcasts is striking, but becomes even more so when in the same breath he declares “the Father and I are one” . There is something about the life of a shepherd that tells us about who Jesus is. There is something about shepherding that reveals what God is about.

Shepherding is not an easy job. When I was in high school, I was a 4H member. Now, my love at the time was horses and I joined mostly so I’d have another place to show. But I also spent some time learning about the other animals, including sheep.

Sheep are by nature pretty skittish animals, which is why they need so much care. A shepherd has to be with the sheep all of the time to make sure they do not follow one another into danger. When taking on a new flock, a shepherd has to spend hours with the sheep until they know that the shepherd is not a threat. Over and over again the shepherd leads the sheep to places with plenty for them to eat, to water that is calm enough that they can drink.

In The Preaching Life, Barbara Brown Taylor tells of a conversation she had with a friend who grew up on a sheep farm in the Midwest. According to him, sheep are not dumb at all. “It is the cattle ranchers who are responsible for spreading that ugly rumor, and all because sheep do not behave like cows. Cows are herded from the rear by hooting cowboys with cracking whips, but that will not work with sheep at all. Stand behind them making loud noises and all the sheep will do is run around behind you, because they prefer to be led.”

You lead sheep, and they will not go anywhere that their shepherd does not go first, showing them that everything is alright. Sheep know their shepherd and their shepherd knows them. A shepherd can walk right through a sleeping flock without disturbing a single one of them, while a stranger could not step foot in the fold without causing pandemonium. Sheep & shepherds develop a language of their own.

Being a shepherd requires patience, kindness, and presence, all things that Jesus offers those of us who follows him. He offers comfort and reassurance to all of those who listen to his voice.

Because sheep doesn’t just know a shepherd’s voice. A sheep learns it as the sheep follows the shepherd, learning that the shepherd’s voice means food and shelter and safety. The shepherd can’t just tell the sheep to trust him.

Have you ever argued a sheep into doing what you want it to do? Chances are good the sheep will blink at you and then go do whatever it wants, usually following the rest of the sheep wherever they are going.

The questioners at the beginning of the passage today are not Jesus’ sheep because they do not trust him. They aren’t interested in following his ways. And no amount of argument or proof is going to convince them, so Jesus doesn’t bother.

Instead he uses a metaphor they will understand. The sheep will follow me. Not because I argued with them or because I offered firm proof, but because they already know me. They know I am who I say I am because they follow my teachings. And so it is with all of us.

A large part of belief depends on what we do. We may say all we like that we believe Christ is our Lord in savior, but if we don’t follow Christ’s teachings, how much belief do we really have?

Which is more convincing? Someone who tells you that they think that there are far too many people going hungry in our community or someone who goes around working in food pantries to make sure people have enough to eat. Who really believes something needs to be done about the problem?

Most of us come to belief not through a creed or a cleverly worded sermon, but from the daily, hourly business of belonging to Jesus’s flock — of walking in the footsteps of the Shepherd, living in the company of fellow sheep, and following our shepherd’s call through rocky hills, hidden pastures, and deeply shadowed valleys.

The Jewish authorities wanted proof before they would accept Jesus as the Messiah. We often demand the same: “Prove it, God: Prove to me that you’re really here; prove to me that you’re really taking care of my situation; give me proof, then I’ll believe.”

The message of Jesus in the scriptures seems to suggest something else: “Follow me, visit the sick and hungry, relieve the oppressed, receive little children, welcome the outcast. Do these things in my name, and then you will believe.”

Creeds and theology matter. They help shape and influence and guide us. But simply sharing a creed with someone won’t help them believe themselves. That takes an invitation to join in the walk, to accompany the sheep as they follow the shepherd. That’s when people start to believe, when they see the way the sheep live. The early church grew dramatically, not through doctrines or creeds, but because people experienced the living lord. Sermons and creeds help people to know more and to grow and deepen their faith.

But talking about the scripture isn’t enough to know the voice of our shepherd. We must follow where he calls. Our Shepherd calls us even today.

The voice of God, the voice of Jesus, calls out to us across the ages, across time and space, through the words of scripture, through communion, through one another’s ministries of comfort, support, and grace. The voice of Jesus calls out to the lost, the lonely, the forsaken, the hopeless, and the burdened. Age after age, hour by hour, every day of the year, that precious voice keeps calling to everyone.

To hear the voice of the Shepherd is to do God’s will. It is to love our neighbor, and to forgive even when we have been badly hurt. It is to keep before us the incredible vision of God’s persistent love for a bunch of sometimes cranky people. It is to move forward without proof into this world and do our best to share love with those we meet.
Our Shepherd calls. What will you do?

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I’LL FOLLOW JESUS: NOW WHAT?

John 21: 1-19

When Rick Warren wrote his best selling book The Purpose Driven Life in 2002, he subtitled it, “What on Earth Am I Here For?” Indeed. How many people have looked at their life as they know it and said: is this all there is? Or have said, “There must be more to life than this!”  When Warren’s book came out, a man in our church, the late Stan Trusty, asked me, “Jeff, what are your goals in life?” I told him, to honor God by being the best husband, the best father, and the best pastor I can be.” “You’re doing those already,” he said. “Perhaps you need some new goals!” Nope. That will be enough. Sometimes our purpose in life not overly complicated. Jesus once put it this way:  “Love one another as I have loved you.” And when he spoke those words, I believe he meant, “Unconditional love,” or what Dr. Greg Baer has called “Real Love.” In his book by the same name, he tells this story:

Once there was a rich and beautiful kingdom …but the prince of that kingdom was very unhappy. He had warts all over his face, and everywhere he went, people teased him and laughed at him. So he mostly stayed in his room, alone and miserable. Upon the death of his father, the prince became king and issued a decree that no one—on pain of death—would ever laugh at his warts again. But still he stayed in his room, ashamed and alone. On the rare occasion that he did go out, he put a cloth bag over his head, which covered his warts, but also made it difficult for him to see.

Finally after many years, the king heard about a Wise Man living on top of a nearby mountain. Hoping the Wise Man could help him, the king climbed the mountain and found the old man sitting under a tree. “Taking the bag off of his head, the kind said to the old man “I’ve come for your help.” The Wise Man looked intently at the king for several long moments and finally said, “You have warts on your face.” The king was enraged…. “No I don’t!” Ashamed and angry, he put the bag back over his head. “Yes you do” the Wise Man insisted gently…. Angry and frustrated, the king ran from the Wise Man, falling repeatedly because he couldn’t see very well with the bag on his head. Finally the king fell down a steep slope and into a lake, where he began to drown. The Wise Man jumped in, pulled the king to shore, and took the bag from his head so he could breathe. …”You’re laughing at me,” the king said. “Not at all, the Wise Man replied, smiling. [The king, with his eyes down, said] “The boys in the village laughed at me, and my father was ashamed of me.” [The Wise Man said] “I’m not one of the boys in the village, and I’m not your father. That must have been hard for you.” “Yes it was” the king admitted, with tears in his eyes.  The Wise Man repeated, “But as you can see, I’m not laughing at you, and I’m not ashamed of you.” “I really do have a lot of warts,” the King said quietly. “I know,” said the Wise Man. [But seeing your warts reminds of my early years when I minded that I had warts.” “You DO have warts,” the king noticed for the first time. “Why don’t you wear a bag over your head?” “I used to,” the Wise Man said, “but it made it hard to see and I took it off.” “Didn’t people laugh at you?” asked the king. “Oh sure, some did. And I hated it just as you do. But gradually I found people who didn’t laugh, and that made me very happy. [And I really felt loved.] [Pp. 41-43]

Jesus said to Simon, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”  Here is what the English translation does not reveal. There are at least three kinds of love in Greek: One is Eros, which is passionate, romantic love. A second kind of love is agape, which we could call Christian love, or “unconditional love.” The third type of love is Philios, which is based on a good friendship, like brotherly love, from which we get the name “Philadelphia.” What you may not realize is the great shift in the conversation that, to English speaking ears and eyes, sound and look the same. Doesn’t it sound like Jesus is just asking Simon the same question 3 times? What teenager doesn’t get on a parent’s last nerve by being asked to do something 3 times? What employee will last long if he or she has to be told more than twice to carry out a task? So many people hear this passage and wonder why Jesus asks, and asks, and asks. Traditionally people have assumed that Jesus asked three times to undo Peter’s denial of Jesus three times. Perhaps so. That makes sense, doesn’t it? There is nowhere else in Jesus’ recorded words when he repeats a question three times to the same person.  Jesus is purposeful about his life and is efficient with us instructions to everyone: to his disciples, to a centurion, to Pharisees, to others, and to us. What purpose might Jesus have had to ask the question this way? Join me with a bit of Greek detective work.

The New Testament was originally written in Greek, the formal language on which the less formal Aramaic (spoken) language was based.  Pulling out my Greek New Testament and setting aside my English translations, I’ve discovered that Jesus asked his question actually two different ways. Interesting! But Simon Peter never changes his answer. I will insert the Greek translated word for “love” in each case.” Listen to this:

“Simon son of John, do you love me unconditionally” [agape.]? To which Simon answers him, “Yes, Lord, you know we are best friends, like brothers “ [philios.] “That’s not actually what Jesus asked, so Jesus asks again, for clarity: “Simon, son of John, do you love me unconditionally [agape]?” And Simon answered him again, “Yes Lord, you know we are best friends, like brothers” [philios]. Now here is where Jesus shifts his question, perhaps because Simon will not directly answer the question Jesus asked twice. So Jesus actually asks a different question the third time. He couldn’t talk Simon into agape, so it sounds like he settles for philios. Listen—“Simon son of John, are we best friends, like brothers?” This question Simon could answer exactly, because it was his answer before; it’s just not the answer Jesus hoped to hear. This time alone, Simon could match the answer with Jesus’ question. “Yes Lord, you know that we are best friends, like brothers.” Wow. Jesus was seeing where Peter would come down on his answer. He was hoping for unconditional love, but Simon never budged from saying “I love you like a brother.”

What if Jesus asked you: “Do you unconditionally love me?” Some over the ages have answered in lukewarm ways. “Not really,” one says. “Yes” one says, but says it because everyone around her was saying it in a Confirmation line-up. Conversely a young man answers, “I guess so.” Would Jesus feel affirmed by that?  And how many people over the years said “Yes” to that question with their lips, but “No” with their life?” Jesus is looking for people who will say, “I do and will love you forever. Let me show you how much.” Jesus looks for people to say, “I’m all in. You can count on me.” That’s that kind of answer that can make for a lifetime friendship, or even a lifetime marriage, rather than responding with shuffling feet or equivocated answers. The kind of love that stands by another person, no matter what; that’s the kind that Jesus is planting and producing. Where did he get such a notion? Nowhere else but the God who is unconditional love: the Almighty. The one who looks at our hairline, or our hair color, or our complexion, or our height, or our weight, and says “You are my beloved child;” not “You’re my child but I wish you’d do the following things differently with your looks or your choices.” That’s not gold standard love. Like the king who was hurt by his friend’s teasing and his father being ashamed of him, God’s sees us differently; through the eyes of love. Jesus hoped for disciples who would have loved him unconditionally and never would have left him. Instead he got a group of fickle friends. Today again he’s looking for followers who see others through loving eyes: seeing people the way God sees them.  Ideally, Jesus hopes that we will love him and one another like that. But he still has some followers who cannot declare, “Jesus I adore you, lay my life before you, how I love you.” Instead many can only say: “What a Friend I have in Jesus.”

Let me close with this story: A man I know exudes what I’m trying to describe, which is seeing someone else through the eyes of unconditional love. He has been married to his wife for 65 years. He has lived through times when she has not even recognized him. You see, she had some brain events that made her mind and speech not work too well. She has bruises on her arms from falls or blood thinners. Her hair is not fixed like it used to be. She generally stares straight ahead and speaks through clenched teeth. Yet when I come to visit them, he treats her like his bride!  He calls her “Sweetie” and “Honey,” tells her how beautiful she looks today, and stays by her side day and night in a small apartment, sacrificing his own activities because she cannot remember on her own not to get up without assistance. As she sits in her wheelchair or lies in her bed, he looks at her and says: “We sure are lucky to have each other, aren’t we Dear?” And she mumbles, “Yes.” In order to keep her safe, and make her feel very, very loved, he is beside her all the time, showering her with unconditional love.

Peter’s answer, therefore, is not really the gold standard of unconditional love. What could Jesus have hoped to hear?

As he looks at you, or he looks at me, he asks: “Do you love me?”

And what he hopes to hear is “Yes Lord. I love you! Let me show you how much!” Then we will be together with our Lord, side by side, word for word, for the rest of our earthly lives and beyond.

It could be … beautiful.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                             April 10, 2016

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WHAT DON’T YOU BELIEVE?

John 20: 19-31

Years ago, Paul E. Little was the Director of Evangelism at the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship.  He wrote many books and tracts, including “Know What and Why You Believe.” In one of his books, he said this:

I’ve met more than a few college students who could honestly say, “I believe everything about Christ,” but [then they] add: “It doesn’t mean a thing to me. My faith is like Pepsi that’s lost its fiz.”… Have we forgotten, [Little says] that becoming and being a Christian involves more than something to believe it? There is also someone to receive and to go on receiving, living with, and responding to…. Being a Christian requires continual commitment of one’s self to the living Lord.

Today, one week after we celebrated Easter—the resurrection of Jesus—the gnawing doubt that it might not have happened can be dispelled today.  Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, with virtually no reference to one another’s works, record that the tomb was empty. The facts vary because different people reported what they each heard or saw. There is even the report in Matthew 27 that the Pharisees insisted that the tomb be guarded, believing that someone might steal Jesus’ body and proclaim that he had risen from the dead. So Pilate ordered it. Guards were posted. They learned, and we now know: there was no body snatching. It is also reported by Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day, and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter] then to the Twelve. Then he appeared to more than 500 others.”  So, that Jesus arose from the dead need not be doubted. Even Jesus tried to put any doubts to rest. We heard today the familiar passage about Thomas, who through history was called “doubting Thomas,” because of this passage alone. But who could blame him? What an extraordinary thing happened as the disciples returned, probably to the Upper Room, feeling defeated and in grief. Who would think that Jesus himself would appear to them? As I said last week, they might have thought they were seeing the ghost of Jesus. But they weren’t. Jesus made sure to demonstrate to Thomas, and to John who would eventually compile his gospel, and to the others that he was real. He let them watch as Thomas touched him physically, putting his hands in the wounded hands of Jesus, and in his side. Then Thomas believed. But John hoped that recording such an action would help dispel the doubts of others too. After all, none of us has put our hand in his side. And so he wrote his gospel. Then at the end of our passage today John recorded Jesus’ blessing on people like you, and me. He said we are especially blessed if we believe without seeing first hand. It takes a leap of faith; one Jesus encourages us to take. John concludes chapter 20 with these words: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing, you may have life in his name.” [John 20:30]

The late Dr. Georgia Harkness was a Methodist minister who earned a Bachelor’s Degree, two Master’s Degrees, and a Ph.D. from Boston University. Most of her work she did in the 1950s and 1960s when it was more rare for a woman to have three degrees. Yet with them she taught, dedicating her life to helping people understand, and finally embrace, the Christian faith. In her book, What Christians Believe, she writes: “The death of Jesus on the cross is a plain historical fact.  About the resurrection there is more uncertainty about what happened.  The Gospel accounts all agree that it did happen, and the church came into existence in the faith that it had happened. In the assurance of the living presence of their Lord, a disheartened little band of disciples became flaming witnesses for Christ. [Abingdon Press, 1965, p. 47.]

We believe that the living Lord Jesus is with us even today, as gather in his name for the Lord’s Supper. Do you believe that? Is that a struggle? Jesus himself said: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” [Matthew 18:20] So we are not alone! Christian beliefs vary widely regarding Holy Communion. Some believe that the bread and wine actually becomes the body and blood of Christ; others believe that Jesus is mysteriously in the Bread; and still others believe he is not here at all, we are just remembering what he did. We believe that Jesus is spiritually present with us because of what he said in Matthew 18:20. See? You are in good company if you are not sure about those kinds of things! But if you hold on to and believe that Jesus lives, and that Jesus loves you, that is perhaps the best of all.  It was the famous German theologian Karl Barth who, when asked if he could boil down all of his work into what he believed, said: “Jesus loves me this I know; for the Bible tells me so.”

Hymns give us some of the greatest assurance of what we might believe, with words like: “The day of resurrection, Earth tell it out abroad!

The Passover of gladness, the Passover of God! From death to life eternal, from this world to the sky, our Christ has brought it over with hymns of victory.” Or “The head that once was crowned with thorns is crowned with glory now! A royal diadem adorns the mighty Victor’s brow!”

Or Michael W. Smith’s contemporary prayer to Jesus:

Above all powers, above all kings;

Above all nature and all created things;

Above all wisdom, and all the ways of man

You were here before the world began

Above all kingdoms, above all thrones

Above all wonders the world has ever known

Above all wealth and treasures of the earth

There’s no way to measure what you’re worth-

Crucified, laid behind a stone

You lived to die rejected and alone

Like a rose trampled on the ground

You took the fall and thought of me, above all.

Several years ago we heard about the book and the movie

“Heaven is for Real.” It gave a powerful testimony. This year other faith films have appeared that may indeed be thought provoking to you; films like “God’s Not Dead 2.” There are people in every generation giving witness to what they have experienced for others to consider the truth of the resurrection—that Jesus rose from the dead; and the person of the resurrection—that Jesus is alive and still wants you to follow him.

On Palm Sunday I mentioned Catherine Marshall’s book Light in My Darkness. As she was coming out of the dark night of her soul, she believed God let her see a glimpse of Heaven out of an act of grace. She described it like this.

In her morning prayers with Jesus she said:

Lord Jesus, how radiant and glorious is that light of Yours! Yesterday afternoon you gave me a glimpse of your Kingdom that I cannot reflect on even now without tears of gratitude. [She goes on to say]

I was seated in a chair in the living room alone, thinking about all that I had been learning these past few months. I did not fall asleep, so this was not a dream.  Nor was it an ethereal, other-worldly “vision.” It seemed real, as real as the fabric of the chair, or the Florida sunlight pouring through the windows, or the trilling of a mockingbird in a ficus tree outside. Suddenly I felt the living presence of Jesus. What joy to have this again in my life!

“We’re going on a journey,” You told me.

Soon we were in what seemed to be a large and impressive throne room. Crowds of people lined the walls on all sides. As we walked the length of the room approaching the One whom I knew to be God the Father, I spotted in the crowd those I love who had gone on before: my father; Peter Marshall; my grandson Peter Christopher—now not a baby, but a curly-haired five year old. Crawling delightedly about his feet was a bright-eyed one-year-old I recognized as Amy Catherine [my baby granddaughter who had not lived but a few days.] Then I looked down at myself. To my horror I was dressed in rags—torn, unwashed filthy. How could I bear to stand before the Father, the Lord God omnipotent, clothed so vilely? When we stopped before the Throne, I could not even look up. I had never felt so unworthy.

In the same instant, Lord Jesus, You spread wide the voluminous robe You were wearing, completely covering me with it. “Now” you told me, “My Father does not see you at all! Only Me. Not your sins, but My righteousness. I cover for you.”

May the righteous robe of Christ cover your sins; may your repentance and the waters of your baptism continually wash your sins away.  And then may He, the risen Lord, present you faultless before the throne of grace, just as if you had not sinned. That’s what a relationship with Jesus can do for you.  What do you say?

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          April 3, 2016

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Please scroll below for the audio and text of Rev. Dr. Sumner’s Easter Sermon, but, first, here’s two videos from our Easter Service we thought we’d share 🙂 …

EASTER: AN IDLE TALE?

Luke 24: 1-12

 

Thomas Cahill is an author I’ve come to admire and enjoy. He is skilled at bringing history to life. He has written a series of books that he calls “The Hinges of History.”  It includes How the Irish Saved Civilization, The Gifts of the Jews, Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter, and three other books. One of the other ones is called Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus. That book, perhaps more than all the others, rightly describes the major hinge of our history: that is, the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Without the last piece—the resurrection piece; the Easter piece—Jesus might have been known as just a loving man, or even a failed messiah. But on this morning ages ago, Easter made Jesus the hinge of history. Our calendars are organized around him with dates that are listed as either B.C. (Before Christ) or A.D. (Anno Domini: the year of OUR Lord!) What an honor for the risen Lord! Some have renamed the years before Christ as BCE or Before Common Era, and the years after Jesus as CE, or Common Era, but the hinge is still Jesus. What a tribute.

 

People through the ages have given testimony to the power of this day and to this man Jesus. Methodist minister and author Leslie Weatherhead, for example, wrote: “’Did the resurrection really happen?’ you ask. It was a long time ago, and the accounts vary. I am not going to attempt, this morning, to answer the question ‘How did it happen?’ I’ve attempted that in my book The Christian Agnostic, but in my mind I am certain that Christ survived death, proving his survival to his followers, [and] appearing to them repeatedly in ‘another form.’ And the fact that accounts differ seems to me to authenticate the story. Streamlined identity of story would make one suspicious of collusion.”  [“The Sunday After Easter,” sermon by Weatherhead]  Days before Jesus’ crucifixion, when he was gathered with his disciples, Jesus comforted them with these words according to John’s Gospel: “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?” The preacher Henry Sloan Coffin commented on this text, juxtaposing it with Jesus words from the cross. Coffin said: “Suppose when Jesus cried, ‘Father into Thy hands I commend my spirit’ there was no Father there, but an impersonal Force—the uncaring, unfeeling Order of Things—His life and death [would be  considered as] a ghastly blunder. ]That] he was pitiably deluded; and with the best of intentions he deluded others. He would then have been considered by] history as the supreme Charlatan.” Preachers today may be considering the Case for Easter from their pulpits, as a prosecuting attorney and a defense attorney may argue the merits of case before a judge. But on Easter, preachers do not consider the merits of the Easter event before a judge; they do it for congregations, where some are doubters; some are seekers; and some are followers. And some are just bystanders with cheerful clothes! But what have others said about this Hinge of History event, this Easter event? Is it, indeed, an idle tale? Twentieth Century English Mystery writer Dorothy Sayers once wrote: “[This] is the outline of the official story—the tale of the time when God was the underdog and got beaten, when he submitted to conditions he had laid down, and became a man like the men he had made, and the men he had made broke him and killed him. Is this the dogma we find so dull—this terrifying drama of which God is the victim and hero? If this is dull, then what, in Heaven’s name, is worthy of being called exciting? The people who hanged Jesus [on a cross] never, to do them justice, accused him of being a bore—on the contrary; they thought him too dynamic to be safe.” {“The Greatest Drama’]

 

Years of paintings, stories, and Sunday School classes may have watered-down, or made us paint pictures of Jesus with a soft brush. Instead, the one who shook the foundations of the world urged listeners to see the world as it might be, not the way it was. He urged people to love those who hate them; he told people not to retaliate, but to turn the other cheek. He talked about a world where everyone would have enough, in part because people shared with others.  He challenged human authority when it didn’t line up with Divine authority. But when it came to his Heavenly Father, he submitted, and listened and carried out Heaven’s plan.  This extraordinary man was not an earthly king, nor a prince, nor an elected leader. He was a carpenter from Nazareth who wanted people to think and feel on a higher plane. He asked the world to change when it was not ready to do so.  Is it ready now? Is the world ready to set aside vengeance for kindness? Hardly. How long will it take? Who can bring this message if not this King of kings and his bride, the church?

 

People throughout history have tried to describe Jesus’ impact on the earth, but few have done it as well as the anonymous person who wrote these words:

He was born in an obscure village, the son of a peasant woman.

He grew up in another village, where he worked in a carpenter’s shop until he was thirty. Then for three years he became a wandering preacher.

He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family or owned a house. He didn’t go to college. He never visited a big city. He never travelled two hundred miles from the place where he was born. He did none of those things one usually associates with greatness.

He had no credentials but himself.

He was only thirty-three when the tide of public opinion turned against him. His friends ran away. He was turned over to his enemies and went through a mockery of a trial. He was executed by the state. While he was dying, his executioners gambled for his clothing, the only property he had on earth. When he was dead he was laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend.

Twenty centuries have come and gone, and today he is the central figure of the human race and the leader of mankind’s progress. All the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of man on this earth as much as that One Solitary Life.

 

Who is Jesus to you: an historical figure; a religious leader; a Savior? Your answer matters, especially to God. If Jesus was just a Charlatan, as Leslie Weatherhead mused, or a scam; then 2000 years of faithful people have been fooled. But if we let the testimony of countless men, countless women, countless youth and children through the ages count for anything, we have a legacy of testimonies to the power of God, made most evident in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. “He saved others; he could not save himself.” But God could save him; and did! And God, through Christ can save you too. You too can have everlasting life! Honor him; follow him; and learn from him. That can make all the difference.

 

It is Easter! We have followers here; seekers here; doubters here; and indifferent people here. Without lining up miles of people to testify to you, I hope you might consider Easter as nothing like an idle tale. It is the event around which our calendars are ordered.

 

Let me close with these words. The author of books like The Chronicles of Narnia, and Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis, started life as a non-believer. He became a Christian, convinced of the things about which we speak on Easter. That is quite a change in worldview! In his essay “The Strangest Story of All,” he writes this:

We come to the strangest story of all, the story of the Resurrection. It is very necessary to get the story clear…. Christ had defeated death. The door which had always been locked had, for the very first time, been forced open. This is something quite distinct from mere ghost-survival. I don’t mean they disbelieved in ghost survival. On the contrary, they believe in it so firmly that, on more than one occasion, Christ had had to assure them that he was not a ghost. The point is that while believing in survival, they yet regarded the Resurrection as something totally different and new. The Resurrection [reports] are not a picture of survival after death; they record how a totally new mode of being had arisen in the Universe. Something new had appeared in the Universe: as new as the first coming of organic life. This Man, after death, does not get divided into “ghost” and “corpse.” A new mode of being had arisen.

 

May the resurrected life, today, be more than a theory for you, from this day forward. May it be your reality with Jesus in the next life; in that Holy City.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          April 27, 2016

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Luke 19: 29-40

Have you ever felt like you were forsaken? Left to handle things on your own?  Wondering where God was?  The prophet Elijah once wondered that. Even though he was God’s prophet, his fear overcame his confidence in God. He was spent—worn down—after the contest of Mount Carmel, when King Ahab’s wife, Queen Jezebel, made him feel like a marked man.  In 1 Kings 19 he asked the Lord if he might die.  I have heard people ask that; tell me that they have asked the Lord if they could please die. Elijah was feeling that. He was discouraged and felt overwhelmed. So he lay down under a broom tree, a pathetically sparse tree that provided no shade. But God had not left him. God instructed an angel to be a holy messenger; holy messengers are around even today. This one said to Elijah, “Arise and eat, else the journey will be too much for you.” The angel had a destination for him: a holy mountain: Sinai also called Horeb; the place where Moses encountered God when he received the Ten Commandments. Elijah went there and encountered God too, but not like Moses did. Instead, he faced wind, and earthquake, and fire: things often associated with the power of God. But God was not in them. Where was God? Gone? No; God was there, in a still small voice. God could be heard in the silence. And Elijah finally felt that God not only heard him, but responded to him. God never abandons his prophets.

At another time, the Bible tells the story of Job; most believe it is a fable of sorts, where God allows Satan to do whatever he wished to Job because he had faith that Job would never forsake him. And so the story goes that Job is faithful but he endures painful and agonizing events in his life. His wife doubts him; his friends taunt; and they say that Job must have done something wrong because God was cursing him so much.  Only later, after everyone had his say, and God thundered back a reply, did Job get his fortunes restored, twofold more than he had. God had never abandoned his faithful man Job.

The annals of history leave us with some others who also wondered about the presence of God: St. John of the Cross for example; the Spanish Carmelite monk imprisoned as a Christian by Christians. At first God seemed missing or distant; but eventually the scales fell from John’s eyes and he found God again, and he loved God with all his heart. Mother Teresa, we learned after her death, did her tireless work but sometimes wondered if God were present, or if God even cared as much as she did.  She was privately discouraged over many of her days, even though publically she showed faith.  God never left her either, and those for whom she cared were forever in the heart of the Almighty.

As Jesus entered Jerusalem all those years ago, he had cheering crowd of supporters, the scolding of Pharisees, and the threat of Romans close to calling a stop to Passover, which always drew Bike Week-like crowds for that holy week. Everyone was on edge because of the crowds, the noise, the people seeking lodging, and the many gatherings. One could cut the tension with a knife. In spite of that atmosphere, Jesus was headed into that mix. He was coming down the Mount of Olives, and a cheering crowd containing many political nationalists, met him, believing him to be the man who would overthrow the present government and return Israel to self-rule. Other people called him a king, and spread their garments on the road in front of him. The Nationalists waved the palm branch because, during the Jews’ one time of self-rule, the palm was the national symbol and was on their coins. They shouted “Hosanna,” which did not mean “Praise the Lord” like “hallelujah” meant; it meant “Save us!” It was a cry for political, and perhaps personal, revolt. In the beginning, Jesus heard and accepted the cries of adoration; he bathed in them to the point that when Pharisees told the disciples to quiet down, for fear of inciting a skirmish or riot, Jesus dismissed them. “If they be quiet,” he responded, even the stones will shout!”

Our Lord feels charged up; affirmed; and ready to carry out his tasks. There is darkness looming ahead for him, but not today. Today he feels bad for the city.  There is a place on the Mount of Olives where tradition says Jesus paused to utter his lament. He, begins to weep out of sorrow, and says: “If only you knew today the things that would keep the peace, but you do not. So peace will elude you and those who come after you.”

This week that we call Holy Week in the first century A.D. was a trying and dreadful time for Jesus. We don’t know if it was just to fulfill Scripture, to repeat it, or because he felt it, but on the cross he quoted Psalm 22, crying out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Had God left him? Perhaps it felt like it. Have there been times of trial when you couldn’t pray to God; or hear any response; or see any actions; or find any angels? Jesus felt what you have felt. And so as this service will close with more of a sense of foreboding, contrasting with the joyful processional in the beginning, it reflects events in our own lives that can cut both ways. Like a couple being overjoyed with the news that they are expecting a child, and then a miscarriage brings sorrow. Or when you and your spouse have shared many happy years together when along comes a challenging illness that changes your plans. Or when you are just about to make the home purchase of your dreams, and you lose your job. These are the manic/depressive situations of life, and Jesus knows them too.  Wallace Hamilton, Pastor Emeritus of the Pasadena United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg, Florida addressed the question of feeling forsaken in his famous sermon “Where Now is Thy God?” Catherine Marshall, beloved writer and the widow of wonderful Presbyterian minister Peter Marshall, felt such emotions that she described in her book, Light in My Darkness: An Intimate glimpse of Her Season of Disappointment and anger with God, offering hope to Anyone Who has Ever Experienced Spiritual Silence and Darkness. When her granddaughter, Amy Catherine died, she wrote these words in the chapter she called “The Clouds Descend,” she wrote:

I believe that Satan won the victory last summer in the Amy Catherine situation. His handiwork is all through it…. At the time of Amy Catherine’s death I could not feel Jesus’ presence in her hospital room. On the contrary, I felt evil there. We did not walk in any glory days following. Far from it! There was dissension, blame flung about, nitpicking over various decisions, a sense of failure.

She was asked: “You’ve been through these dark times before, haven’t you? What about those occasions during your widowhood when you felt estranged from God?”

And Catherine answered: “They were more like dry periods … they never lasted very long…. [But] For months now there has been real darkness. I feel like I’m talking to the ceiling [not connecting with God].   Pp. 169-175

Jesus, of all people, felt forsaken too. Catherine Marshall, Mother Theresa, St. John of the Cross, and maybe you, or someone you know, have felt that way. In each case, light dawned to drown the darkness, but only after time, and work, and crying out.  I have felt such darkness and wrote about it in my doctoral paper. And today, you might expeerience the silence of God, or feel forsaken the way Jesus thought he was. But he was not forsaken. And God will never forsake Jesus, or you, or me.  Be comforted by these words from Deuteronony 31: “Do not fear or dread; for the Lord your God goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.”

And from Hebrews 13:5 “I will never leave you or forsake you.”

Several people have claimed authorship of the beloved story called

“Footprints in the Sand.” It has comforted generations of people who wondered about God’s presence in their darkness. It goes like this:

One night a man had a dream. He dreamed that he was walking along the beach with the LORD. Across the sky flashed scenes from his life. For each scene, he noticed two sets of footprints in the sand: one belonged to him, and the other to the LORD.

When the last scene of his life flashed before him, he looked back at the footprints in the sand. He noticed that many times along the path of his life there was only one set up footprints. He also noticed that it happened at the very lowest and saddest times in his life.

This really bothered him, and he questioned the LORD about it. “LORD, you said that once I decided to follow you, you’d walk with me all the way. But I have noticed that during the most troublesome times in my life, there is only one set of footprints.  I don’t understand why when I needed you most you would leave me.”

The LORD replied: “My precious, precious child, I love you and would never leave you. During your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”

This is the week when Jesus experienced the fickleness of humanity: cheering for him in one instance, and shouting “Crucify him” in the next. He knew the agony of darkness and of feeling alone. Because of what he felt this week, he assures us that he will never do that to us; he will never forsake us. During most of our lives we might agree with the sentiment of the old spiritual that says: “I want Jesus, to walk with me.” But this week, it is Jesus who feels alone; abandoned by his followers. This week, Jesus wants you … and me … to walk with him. Can you do it? Can you think about his agony this week, and his dark days, and not skip over them to Easter? It is the most wretched week of Jesus’ life. After the palm branches have withered and the cheering has faded, who will stand with the Lord?

Who will be at the cross with Jesus?

Let us pray:

Dear Heavenly Father of our Lord Jesus Christ: today our service has had palms, and passion. We have cheered for Jesus, and remembered those who jeered against him. Today we waved palms as we assigned a special title to Jesus: Savior. The Palms cry out to him “Save us!” And save us, he has!

Thanks be to you O God, for your amazing plan for salvation.

Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                  March 20, 2016

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SETTING PRIORITIES

John 12: 1-8

For better or for worse, grief and guilt are powerful motivators. Out of them, people may purchase a casket beyond their means; out of them, grown Millennials or Baby Boomers may feel the need to move back home to help an aging parent. Out of them, we may agree to do something our spouse asks us to do that pushes the boundaries of reasonableness. But we are human; we are emotional; and we react to our feelings. Sometimes emotions change the agendas of our week, or even of our lives. Grief and guilt in particular can change our schedules. Take grief for example. In just the past two weeks, we have had hundreds of people come through our church doors because of grief, attending memorial services. They changed their Saturday plans to be there. As many in our nation mourn deaths—recently former first lady Nancy Reagan, and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia among others in the national spotlights—television coverage has shown how many people rearranged their schedules to be at the service.

Guilt, on the other hand, can cause us to do things for people that we may not have done ordinarily, but we—playing judge and jury due to something we did to someone in the past—decide that we must do what we’d rather not do. Like going to a big family reunion instead of going on your own vacation; perhaps it’s doing something for a classmate because you ignored or treated him or her badly at an earlier time. Or it’s giving in to a request someone makes of you that goes against your principles, or even against the law. Guilt and grief are powerful motivators, and sometimes they change our priorities for a day, or even for a season of our lives.

Today in our John 12 passage, there is much more to think about than what the nine verses tell us.  Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are not just people Jesus met, they are his friends; good friends.  Just a chapter earlier, Jesus was told that Lazarus was dead. But, according to John 11: 5 “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he [still] stayed two days longer in the place where he was.”  Jesus had a plan; he was not being heartless. But Martha, in her grief over her brother’s condition, could not think; she could only beg her friend Jesus to help them. And in her mind, Jesus failed them. Later, in John 11:32, her sister Mary came to the tomb. Jesus had arrived, and she fell at his feet saying, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” We don’t know the exact tone of her voice, but we know she was crying. Was she uncontrollably sad; was she filled with anger; how was her grief making her respond? We don’t know. What we do know is that, like other people in grief, she had not forgotten her sad event. In Mary and Martha’s case, their anger or sorrow ended up turning to joy (and possible embarrassment) because they hadn’t trusted.

So now we get a complication: Jesus himself was less than a week from Passover, the time when he planned to go to Jerusalem, foretold to be a very painful week ending in his own death. Jesus had foretold his fate to his disciples; perhaps had he shared it with his friends in Bethany too?  Jesus was deliberately staying out of the public eye. According to John 11: 54, “Jesus no longer went openly among the Jews, but went to the country near the wilderness called Ephraim.” Now in our text, Jesus returned to the vicinity of Jerusalem, to Bethany just two miles off. He returned to the place where he had raised Lazarus; but this time the emotions were different. Now, instead of grief—a powerful “g” word—other emotions filled Martha’s and Mary’s souls: guilt and gratitude. Perhaps they were feeling guilty for not trusting Jesus with their brother’s care; or perhaps they felt grateful for what he did, but they had never properly thanked him? Mary knows, I believe, that Jesus is going to the Passover and that, perhaps, they will not see him again. What could she do to make amends for doubting him? What could she do to bless him on his journey?  Mary comes up with a striking action, perhaps motivated by both guilt and gratitude: she anoints his feet with very costly oil, called Spikenard, or “nard” for short. It was a fragrance of extravagance for wealthy people, and one of necessity for those who are burying loved ones. She might have had a supply of it to use on her brother’s body that never got used because he came back to life. Most Jews would have been used to being anointed with other less costly oils on their foreheads. The head of a household might do to that then send guests on their way.  Or as David proclaimed about his Lord did for him: “Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.” So anointing was natural; anointing feet was not; wiping it off with ones’ hair was not. Was it out of guilt, out of gratitude, or even out of grief that Mary chose the costly nard?  The great author and observer of nature and humanity Annie Dillard, has said this:

“One of the things I know … is this: Do not hoard what seems good for a later place …; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water…. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

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Nard was an extravagance that a person not wrapped up in the emotions of a moment might call wasteful. Someone like Judas, for example, called it wasteful. But in Mary’s state of mind, it was the right thing to do. You know: because of guilt, gratitude, or grief, priorities can get re-set. Some people have very expensive funerals, for example. Rare is the funeral home hearse that is not a Cadillac or Lincoln or some other fine automobile. We honor our dead; and as people who rave about Hospice remind us, we honor our dying people too: with extravagant loving care and attention. It is what we do, so often. But in Mary’s case, she was extravagant in an unusual way: she anointed Jesus’ feet. Why anoint the feet? And why use her hair? One Presbyterian minister, MaryAnn McKibben Dana, suggests that “by wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair, Mary ensures that the fragrance will linger on her own body in the days to come.” [Christian Century, March 2, 2016, p.18] Reputable women did not let down their hair in public in the first century. Except, that is, to show great love, when people were known to set aside social mores. Last week we learned from the prodigal son story about a father  who ran to meet his son; ran in his robes and pulled them up to expose his legs; something no respectable man would have done; but he—like she did it—out of love. And, as the saying goes: “It was meet and right so to do.”  Feet; this was not an ordinary anointing by a householder; it was an extraordinary act of love by one who felt unworthy of Jesus and his mission. And this woman, out of deference to Jesus, bowed down like a servant before him and wiped his feet. Jesus honored her servant posture and action just a week later, when, according to John 13:5, he himself knelt down and washed the feet his disciples. Mary’s example likely inspired Jesus’ action, and today it can inspire us:  Jesus came to serve, not to be served. It is a message for our day too.

When you leave today, grief and guilt might guide some of your actions. There are times when extravagance helps your soul and honors loved ones. But on your other days, let gratitude guide your actions; gratitude to God, to the Lord Jesus Christ, and to those who have shown you grace, love, or hospitality.

The Apostle Paul said “Return no one evil for evil.” {Romans 12: 17] How might our world change if we followed that imperative?  May Mary’s example of extravagant love comfort you in grief, assuage your guilt, and lead you to gratitude for the rest of your days.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           March 13, 2016

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… sorry, but sermon audio is unavailable for this sermon 🙁 ….

The parable for today is one we have heard time and time again. This well known tale of Luke’s is possibly the most famous and and retold parable in the Bible. Some have said that it condenses the message of the gospel down into one compact story.

 

A son tells his father the first century equivalent of “I wish you were dead, so give me your money,” and the father, rather than getting mad, sells off half his land and gives the cash to his son.

 

The son makes the kind of wise financial decisions that many young people setting out on their own make, and soon finds himself broke. He is half starving to death and working with the most unclean of animals to his people. Realizing anything would be better than this, he goes home to beg his dad for at least a job.

 

But Dad, instead of doing what is expected, runs to meet him and welcomes him back as a son and a member of the family. He is so happy his son is back he throws a party. The story could well end there and we would get the same sense that the other parables of the lost give us: the lost will be found and their return is celebrated!

 

But Jesus keeps going, in part I suspect because the Pharisees are there listening and grumbling. He tells of the older brother, sulking out in the fields instead of coming and joining in with the party. Dad goes out and says, “Come join the party!” And the son spews out resentment and anger and how dare dad give away stuff to his no good younger brother when he had been here and behaving all along.

 

Dad says to the older brother (and the Pharisees listening in) “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” End Scene.

 

I think part of the reason we keep coming back to this story is that we can relate to the characters. Each of us has felt like the younger son at times – eager to get away, abashed by our mistakes, willing to do almost anything to get back to our old lives.

 

While we may not have told our parents the equivalent of “I wish you were dead already,” we have all disappointed the people we love. We have all run away from responsibilities. We have all done things we are ashamed of and we have all found ourselves in situations we regret.

 

We all have days when we feel unloved and worthless.

 

And yet, each of us has felt like the older brother as well – hardworking, diligent, and then resentful at the undeserved gain or unpunished wastefulness of another. We have all been overcome with resentment of the seeming injustice of the world. We have all had those days where we felt like we did everything right and played by the rules and yet the reward, the love, the joy goes to someone else. Someone who doesn’t deserve it nearly as much as we do.

 

There are days we want to cross our arms and stand out in the field and avoid the party because it is not fair.

 

But, at the heart of it, this story isn’t about the sons. It’s not even about us. This story is about the father, about our Father, and the way he loves us even when we are being our most rotten and undeserving.

 

When the younger son returns, shamed and broken, by all rights the father should cast him aside. Indeed, the neighbors would have been within their rights to curse or attack him for the shame he brought upon his father. Certainly the father would have considered to be very gracious indeed if he had just accepted the younger son back as a hired hand.

 

But instead, the father runs to meet his son to ensure none of the neighbors would get to him first. He lifts up his robe and runs as fast as he can to welcome this son he thought had been lost to him. No one above the age of childhood ran back then, No one would let their ankles show in public like that. To welcome his son, the father brings even more shame upon himself.

 

And yet, he welcomes his son with joy and celebration, not even bothering to listen for an apology or wait for an explanation.

 

Ernest Hemingway wrote a poignant short story called “The Capital of the World.” In it he tells about a Spanish father who wants to reconcile with his son who has run away to Madrid. In order to locate the boy he takes out this ad in the El Liberal newspaper: “Paco, meet me at the Hotel Montana at noon on Tuesday. All is forgiven. Love, Papa.”

 

Paco is a common name in Spain, and when the father goes to the square he finds 800 young men named Paco waiting for their fathers. “All is forgiven.” How many of us have longed to hear that in our lives? How many of us would show up for that promise?

 

As long as one of our sisters or brothers is broken by the world, cast aside as irrelevant, called a sinner by the rest of us, then we are at a loss, and God’s heart is broken. God will never stop reaching for the one because God’s love is too wide, God’s grace too rich to cease looking for the lost, for those whom we deem unredeemable.

 

Then there is the son who stayed. The one who went out to the field instead of joining in because he was so mad that his father would welcome back the other son. He yells at his father who comes out to find him, for welcoming his brother, for not giving him more. For not offering him a party that he never asked for.

 

Rather than arguing with him, the father instead tells him. “Everything I have is already yours. I am with you. But I had lost him. And now that I have him back I shall celebrate. ” The older son loses nothing when the younger is welcomed home. But he is still angry that his brother doesn’t get what he older feels he deserves. He wants him punished. The older son wants his brother to be cut off from the family forever for what he did. That is what the younger deserves.

 

Yet God isn’t about deserving. Grace isn’t about fairness. God is about loving God’s children, even on days they are being rotten.

 

It used to frustrate me that we never found out how the elder son responded. Does he come and join in the celebration? Does he stay in the field sulking? Does he ever get a party of his own? Does he ever even ask for one?

 

But we never find out because the story isn’t about the elder son or what he does. This parable is about the father, about the God who goes above and beyond welcoming all. God welcomes the wayward sinner who reluctantly returns when he has nowhere else to go.

 

And God welcomes those who resent the widespread nature of God’s grace, those who complain that it is not fair. God welcomes all of us at our worst, whether we accept that welcome or not.

 

This parable is about who God is and how God welcomes and calls all of us in to the celebration. As we read this text, we have to ask ourselves, how will we respond?

 

On days we relate to the younger brother, do we come back to God, trusting in our welcome home?

 

And when we are being the older brother, do we come inside and join the party, even if we don’t think the other guests deserve it?

 

God is waiting with open arms for all of us. In this Lenten season, what will you do?
Let us pray. “Holy Lord, sometimes we return to you because we have nowhere else to go. And sometimes we leave your celebration, upset by the people you include, the ones who don’t get what they deserve. But you run to meet us any way. You welcome us with open arms and say “Come home. Come to the celebration. Come.” Help us to hear your welcoming call and return again to you. Amen.

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Luke 13: 6-9

There is common wisdom associated with nature that sometimes gets shared as facts. For example, when we were going on vacations when I was growing up, my mother would look out the window and say, “Look! The cows are lying down. That means it’s about to rain.” I have since been told there’s really no connection between cows lying down and rain. But I still look to the sky when cows are lying down! There is an old saying “Red sky at morning, sailors take warning; red sky at night, sailor’s delight.” I am told there is some truth to that one. We can read what Jesus said about it in Matthew 16: 2-3. He says to the Pharisees, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather; for the sky is red.’And in the morning, ’It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening. You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.’” Jesus had numerous sayings and many parables. Many of them had to do with agriculture or the sky or the stars. But today’s text, and the one just read about the sky, both concern a theme that Jesus was always proclaiming: “Be ready; for the Kingdom of God is at hand!”  We in Florida, for example, can have a hard time discerning what season it is just by looking around. In the winter our days might be in the80s only dropping to the 50s at night. Up north when the leaves start to turn, people comment that fall is upon them; when the corn is ripe in the Midwest, it is summer; and when the cherry blossoms are in bloom in Washington D.C.,  it is spring. In Florida, how can we tell? Halloween items are on store shelves in August and Christmas items by the end of September! No wonder we’re all confused! But when it comes to our connection with God and our end of life issues, there should be clarity. Yes, gray hair or no hair might seem to indicate that life’s finish line is upon us, but plenty of persons, especially in our congregation, live well into their 80s, 90s, and even 100s. By contrast, we learned this month that a baby just minutes old, and young people their 20s, and some only in their fifties have died. Commercials on television tell young people what AARP aged people have already been learning: start saving early for retirement! But even though many young people do not do that, most young people are not thinking that one day sooner rather than later might be their last. Why am I talking like this? It is to be a voice in the wilderness saying, “It is never too early to put your spiritual house in order. No one on earth knows the day that will be their last.”  This parable today is about observing fig trees and, like a farmer or a good garden center person might advise, deciding when to cut it down.  I once told a church member that I thought we needed to cut down a tree on the church property because I thought it looked dead. He went out to look at it with me and showed me new life: little leaves, starting to grow. “This tree’s not done for,” he said. Give it a little time and it should come back.” And it did. We have to learn how to carefully read the signs about the Kingdom of God in our lives.

Israel, as we are learning in Disciple 1 class, was an unfaithful nation to God. Israel put other gods first and often; they forgot about the social care for others that the statutes commanded them to observe; and they often thought of themselves as blessed instead of in need. Jesus joins his Heavenly Father in his concern for Israel’s faithfulness; might our Lord have concerns about our nation as well? Jesus often taught in parables: an effective tool that invited people to come to their own good conclusions rather than have Jesus just say them plainly. Today it is about a fig tree, but it is really about the people of God: then and now.  If you have been to Israel, you know that figs are everywhere. When we were in Jericho I was given a free sample of a fig. I didn’t think I would like it. Having been proved wrong, I bought a bag of them! Figs in Israel are generally grown in vineyards along with grapes. The vineyard is tended by a farmer or vinedresser. Often Israel is compared to a vineyard: if plants are healthy, they get watered, tended, and cared for so they can produce more. If the vineyard has plants that start dying, for whatever reason, the vinedresser or farmer, perhaps with careful observance and abundant grace, might give them a season to rest and then see if they produce fruit. According our text, the man looks for fruit on his fig tree for three years. He had then concludes that it should be cut it down. But upon advice from his vinedresser, he offers abundant grace and patience instead. “Let it alone sir for one more year; let me give it extra water and care, then let’s see if it bears fruit. If not, then you can cut it down.” Can you hear that message? It’s really not a garden center message. It’s a God message. Looking at Israel, or perhaps looking at our nation, or at you, or at me, some spouses, some parents, some voters, or some employers say to themselves: “Why should I continue in this relationship! I am so exasperated! I am just going to end it.” But before you do, perhaps you’ll go home, kneel by your bed, and consult the vinedresser. Later that night perhaps you’ll hear this answer: “Let it alone my child, for a period of time. Let my Spirit tend to the person or the issue that troubles you. Let me water the dry places. Then let’s see if there is change. Give it some time. If there is no change, and you and I have tried everything, then, sadly, we can let the relationship lapse.”

Israel was trying the last nerve of their prophets, but also the last nerve of their God and our God! But because God is omnipotent and God is eternal, God has a reserve of amazing grace that is beyond human reserves. So God, although not infinitely patient, is a God of second chances. When one hears God and has a change of heart, the vinedresser looks at our heart, like a man looks at the branches of a tree and sees new life there, and like the man I described who saw new leaves on a dead looking tree. So the wise vinedresser does what anyone might do trying to cultivate a sick plant: he gives it a little extra attention. And then he’ll see if it comes back.

Don’t be lulled into complacency by God’s apparent grace. God also believes in, and has demonstrated resurrection. That is, when necessary, God will allow something or someone to die, knowing that something or someone new and vibrant can come along. It is not heartless; it is purposeful. God will work his purpose out through us, or—if we are lazy or disengaged—in spite of us. God’s business is to redeem the world, and it sadly needs redeeming! God want us, in the name of Jesus, to help transform the kingdoms of this world to become the Kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ, who will eventually reign forever and ever! But for now, the great gardener, is giving us the parable of the fig tree for today. There are some people and some places in our world that look dead for Christ. No one can tell by their actions whether or not they are followers of Jesus or not. As one person once asked pointedly: “If you were ever put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”  Our gardener has a hoe, a trowel, and a rake. Our gardener has a barn where the crop may be safely stored or cured. But out gardener also has fire that will burn up the chaff: that which is no longer productive or worthwhile. Listen to the teachings of Jesus. Learn from the lesson of the fig tree. It is so much more than a lesson about figs.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          February 28, 2016

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