03-11-18 WORDS OF JESUS THAT BLESS US

WORDS OF JESUS THAT BLESS US

John 3:14-21

 

Many of you who grew up with King James Gift Bibles often had part of the print in red.  In opening your Bible when it was new, you found that an editor and a printer had painstakingly, and at significant cost, put just the words of Jesus in RED! Goodness! Jesus’ words must be very special! They are. What are some of those words? They include blessings like:

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.

 

Those are just three blessings from the mouth of Jesus recorded in Matthew chapter five. Here is one more recorded in Matthew:

“Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.”

Also, hear these words of blessing that Jesus offered in John’s gospel:

“Peace be with you.”

And:

“Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet believe.”

 

Now: according to the red-letter Bible, Jesus said these blessing words too:

“God so loved the world the he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever

believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.”

 

Even though we have found words that are intended to bless us, are there actions too, that we receive from above, or from others, or from unexplainable events that could also be blessings from Jesus?

 

The gifted theologian Henri Nouwen wrote these words in his book Our Greatest Gift:

The younger we are, the more people we need so that we may live; the older we become, the more people we again need to live. Life is lived from dependence to dependence. That’s the mystery that God has revealed to us through Jesus, whose life was a journey from the manger to the cross. Born in complete dependence on those who surrounded him, Jesus died as a passive victim of other people’s actions and decisions….[He goes on to say] I have been blessed by an experience that has made all of this clear to me. A few years ago, I was hit by a car while walking along a roadside and brought to the hospital with a ruptured spleen. The doctor told me she wasn’t sure that I would make it through surgery. I did, but the hours lived before and after the operation allowed me to get in touch with my childhood as never before. Bound with straps on a table that looked like a cross, surrounded by masked figures, I experienced my complete dependence…. All at once, I knew that all human dependencies are embedded in a divine dependence and that divine dependence makes dying part of a greater and much vaster way of living. This experience was so real, so basic, and so all-pervasive that it changed radically my sense of self and affected profoundly my state of consciousness.

 

Could it be that our states of dependence are supposed to bless us rather than burden us? If Jesus continues to want to bless us, in what form does it happen? Isn’t the burden of a young child being dependent on parents actually the blessing of having a newborn? Could it be that our dependence as people grow older is intended to bless the family too?  Here’s my example: my mother and father were healthy and independent people through June of 2016. My dad did regular email communications with me and my brother and two sisters. Then my Dad died, and my mother started to grow more dependent: dependent on friends, repairmen, Women’s Circles, and her family. After a stroke she became even more dependent so she moved from our home of 52 years into a so called “independent living” Community, which in fact, includes very little truly independent living. I have been witnessing dependence and acknowledging what Henri Nouwen described. My brother and two sisters and I have communicated more with each other now than when my father was alive. We have each, independently, gone to visit and assist my mother. My two sisters will go again this week. Perhaps it is a strangely divine gift that my mother’s need for us and for others is drawing us more together.

 

Are any of you, like me, old enough to remember Roy Rogers and Dale Evans?

Dale Evans wrote this in her book called Life is a Blessing:

On August 26, 1950, my husband, Roy Rogers and I became the parents of a baby girl, Robin Elizabeth, who was called our “little angel” by her Daddy. Had we not been committed Christians when we were told that she was [a Down’s Syndrome child] the news would have totally destroyed us, since we are quite vulnerable to the needs of children. When advised to put our Robin in a foster home, one that understood the plight of the Down’s syndrome child, Roy said, “We are taking our baby home. God has a purpose for allowing this, and if we put her away, we will never know it.” As for myself [Dale Evans Rogers continued] I could not imagine putting away any child of mine. Romans 8:28 declares: “All things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to his purpose.” How I thank God for the two years He let us minister to our little angel, for she really was the “cementer” of our Christian commitment.

 

“God so loved the world that he gave his only son.” Jesus is saying that about himself, not out of pain, but out of love! “I and the Father are one” Jesus once said. This was a team decision. Could the Father/Son team have considered: “How can we show the human race how much we care? How can we show them that purpose can be pulled from the jaws of tragedy, or what appears to be a tragedy at the time?” How many ways does Jesus bless us, not only with words shared in dreams or during our day, but also through events that pull us out of life’s routines and schedules?

Here’s another true story:

A woman in our congregation has a grown son Frank. He was driving to his home in St. Augustine this week. The traffic was very heavy. He was crossing a bridge and stopped because of traffic. It was frustrating. Suddenly he witnessed an accident: one vehicle in front of him ran into the back of another. The front car occupants actually drove away! The man behind them appeared to be very hurt. Frank pulled off the road and ran to help. The driver of that vehicle was unconscious and looked to be dead. He was very large. Another man and Frank pulled him out and laid him on the side of the road. He had stopped breathing and there appeared to be no pulse. So Frank got on top of him and started doing CPR on his chest, pushing hard to perhaps make him breathe again. It was tiring and seemed useless.  He paused for a moment when suddenly a firefighter ran up and said “Please move aside sir.” They looked at each other; the firefighter happened to be Frank’s son, Zach, a firefighter, responding to the call! Running up, Zach hadn’t realized it was his father. His team took the unconscious man to the hospital. Later that evening, Zach called his Dad, “Dad, you gave CPR to that man, didn’t you? “Yep,” his father said, “but I’m not sure it did any good.” “Dad, you did it!” Zach exclaimed. The man started breathing and it looks like he will make it!” His Dad said, “I was just at the right place at the right time.” He later spoke to his Mom and told her the story. She replied: “This was part of God’s plan, Frank, for you to get stuck in that slow traffic and be there for that man. And then for Zach to be the first responder on the scene!”  Frank said, “If I had gone through the drive-through at McDonalds instead of walking in, or if I hadn’t been in such traffic, I would not have been there at the right time! But Mom, the beginning of God’s plan was when you adopted me.”

Could it be that your burdens turn out to be blessings? Could it be that your rainy days of pessimism could instead be turned into rainbows of optimism? It has been said that attitude is everything. But there is more than attitude; we also have a Savior who loves us and has a marvelous plan for our lives! “ The apostle Paul said: “When I was a child I thought like a child, but when I grew up I gave up childish things.” Today I want to take you back to the lesson I learned as a child before crossing a street: “Stop, look, and listen.” Imagine that you are at a crossroad now. How can you stop, look, and listen for the blessings of Jesus?

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                                     March 11, 2018

03-04-18 ACTIONS OF JESUS THAT TROUBLE US

ACTIONS OF JESUS THAT TROUBLE US

John 2: 13-22

 

There is one time—one time!—that Jesus got angry in the Bible, and people often quote it to me as justification for anger! They say: “Well, you know, Jesus got mad! It’s in the Bible.”  Do not let this one instance justify your constant anger! Even Mother Teresa got angry, just not on a regular basis. Let’s try to get into Jesus’ head. He grew up knowing the importance of the Temple; it’s holiness; the place revered as God’s house. John had an interesting perspective on Jesus. He knew Jesus in Jerusalem; Matthew, Mark, and Luke knew most of what Jesus did in Galilee. So John says Jesus came to the Temple as many as three times. Why? “Scottish Scholar William Barclay gives us the story, saying:

The Passover was the greatest of all Jewish feasts [like Easter is to Christians.] ….The law laid down that every adult male Jew who lived within fifteen miles of Jerusalem was bound to attend.  [But Jews actually came from everywhere.] Astonishing as it may sound, it is likely that as many a two and a quarter million Jews assembled in the Holy City to keep the Passover.   [The Gospel of John, Volume 1, Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1975, p.p. 108-109.]

Two and a quarter million people! Think of Easter Sunday and Bike Week crowds, double the numbers, and then you get an idea of how many people poured in—out of obligation or out of love for God—but also how many merchants and vendors were there to make a buck, like we see at our huge events in Daytona Beach. Jesus had just finished his first miracle—turning water into wine as he attended the wedding at Cana clear across the country. He was there with his disciples, his mother, and his friends. But the next thing on his agenda was this religious obligation in Jerusalem. Jesus already knew that decades later people would find God in the Temple of their hearts because the physical Temple would be destroyed.  He was right. In 70 A.D., 50 years after his Passover visit, the Temple was destroyed. After all these centuries, it has never been rebuilt. But the Western Wall of the Temple is still there, in Jerusalem today.  It is a most Holy site for Jews; they believe it is the closest they can get to God.  So they come, and bow, and pray, and wail at the wall, as if it were the Temple.  That’s how important the Temple was to Jews. On top of Jesus being a Jew, he was also standing up for his Father’s house. In fact, in Mark’s gospel he says, “Is it not written that my Father’s house shall be a house of prayer for all nations?”  I’m focusing on these details so you can compare their way of getting close to God, and our ways. The Temple had a number of courts—areas where people could gather. The Holy of Holies was a place only a High Priest could enter by lot once a year. Next to it was the Court of the Priests, and priests could get that close to God. Outside of it was the Court of the Israelites, and all Jewish men could get that close to God but no closer. Outside of that was the Court of the Women, and all Jewish women could get that close to God but no closer. And then there was the outer court: the Court of the Gentiles was created for non-Jews.  It was reserved for any seekers after God who were curious and wanted to try to get close to God—an admirable cause! Jesus thought so too, perhaps knowing what a task he would have spreading the gospel into all the world. So he came to the Temple and guess what? All the vendors were hawking their wares, changing money, and selling animals in the Court of the Gentiles, not outside the Temple where selling properly took place. It was a loud and raucous time: men bargained with one another, animals bleating or squawking, and cue lines stretching around the Temple. How could anyone hear the still small voice of God with noise like that in God’s house? So that’s why Jesus had to make a statement, and a strong one. People always have the need—and the right—to be in prayer with God! But Jesus was just one man among many merchants; he had to be quick and decisive.  If he had just asked them to move their tables, how might the merchants have ganged up on him? So he was startling and decisive in an act called the “Cleansing of the Temple.” He reclaimed the Temple, including the Court of the Gentiles, for God and not for merchants.

 

Today how fortunate we are as Christians! Jesus said “Tear down this Temple and in three days I will raise it up!” I tell all my Bible students to take the Bible seriously but not always literally and this is a perfect example. Jesus was not talking about rebuilding the temple made of stone. He was talking about what would happen three days after his death; he would rise, and his body would be the Temple.

 

Now two thousand years later, people have heard Jesus knocking on the door of their hearts, and they have let him in. As our Apostle’s Creed study points out, if we let Jesus in, we have let God in. Into where? Into “the temple of our heart,” as the hymn puts it that we will soon sing.  What a privilege we have! God is not up there past Alpha Centauri! God is not two thousand years in the past! God is here; available. And if you have already invited God (or Jesus—same power) into your heart, then God’s mighty power and mighty Spirit are there for you. But: are they under-used, just sitting on the bench of your heart? Are they like a racecar with the clutch pushed in? Let out the clutch, so God can work with you and through you! Otherwise, life is like trying to push a long screw into a piece of wood with a battery operated drill …without the battery! Put in the battery to live a God-honoring life!

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           March 4, 2018

02-25-18 WORDS OF JESUS THAT SHAKE US

WORDS OF JESUS THAT SHAKE US

Mark 8: 31-38

 

The Psalmist in chapter 118: declares “This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.” Oh, will we? Will we be glad in this day if deaths occur, or if a son or daughter is in trouble at school, or if a dear friend is in an auto accident? Will we rejoice when a half a dozen people in our area, just in the last month, died of opioid addiction? Will those in later years rejoice as their hearing, their eyesight, or their mind starts to fade?  Author Josephine Robertson, in her book Meditations for Later Years, writes this: “Sometimes we have days which we wish the Lord hadn’t made, days when things go wrong, when energy is low, when physical aches and old griefs occur.  Far from ‘rejoicing,’ we can identify better with the Psalmist’s cry of despair, ‘ The waters are coming into my soul.’” [Abingdon Press, 1974, p. 22]  Last week we recalled that Jesus was driven into the wilderness by the Spirit—that is by God. That must have been a hard time. We then looked at Jesus’ wilderness testing and temptation. Jesus was fully human and fully divine according to the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, (and based heavily on John chapter one.) Maybe so, but Jesus seems to set aside any ability to save himself in the wilderness; his full mortality was on display. Was he tired at the end of 40 days? Most likely. Was he hungry? Certainly. But in our text today, he was back on his game; he was finally in tune with his Father’s plan. But being in tune and cluing other into it were two different things. Nevertheless he jumped in, telling disciples that he would undergo great suffering, be rejected, be killed, and rise again (meaning come back to life.) What temptations did Jesus still have at this point in his life? Was his divine self sure, and his human self unsure about his future? Can you imagine Jesus being on the fence about anything? Let’s re-imagine the next scene:  Simon Peter, who sometimes acted before he thought, took Jesus aside to try to fill him with his own human agenda! “No!” Peter might have said. “I’ll be your body guard!” And his words might have dangled the temptation for Jesus to eject from the heavenly plan before him. Like a fighter pilot finding his or her plane heading toward the ground and ejecting with a parachute, Peter was offering a parachute to Jesus—a  caring but misguided effort. Still, I wonder if Jesus was tempted, for a moment, to say “yes” to Peter’s offer. Then he remembered the plan—heaven’s plan—when he gave his sharp retort. He said, “Get behind me Satan!”   Author of the book Courageous Faith, the Rev. Emily Heath, has an insightful comment here:

The Hebrew equivalent of the word Jesus calls Peter is ha-satan, which doesn’t mean devil at all. It’s not ever a proper name, really. It  means, “the accuser” or “the adversary.” Jesus isn’t saying that Peter is the devil incarnate; Peter is being an adversary. He is standing between Jesus and God’s plan….Almost all of us know what it’s like to have an adversary that keeps us from truly being a disciple. It might be an actual person,…[but more often] we call our adversaries by different names: doubt; fear; pride, addiction, hatred, greed, insecurity, and a million others. They may not be the devil we hear about from fundamentalist pulpits, but they have just as much potential to stand between you and God’s plan.

 

In my wilderness times, I can recall hearing the voices of my adversaries saying: “You can’t finish!” “You should throw in the towel!” “What if you fail?” “You just don’t have what it takes.” Sometimes my adversaries were people I leaned on for guidance: sometimes adults spoke their opinion to me, but other times it was my friends. As a teenager and beyond, I put a lot of stock in my friend’s words. And sometimes, in hindsight, they were my stumbling blocks. When I built up the nerve to tell my parents I felt called to go into the ministry, there was no parade, no cheering section, no “Thanks be to God.” They said. “Hmmm. That’s a hard life.” And with that I had to say “Get behind me Satan” to those comments. (I didn’t say it out loud!) How might you have been thrown off track over the years by well-meaning friends, coaches, or mentors whose words put a wet blanket over your Spirit-soaring plans?  In hindsight, were they right in advising you, or were they a stumbling block for God’s plan? Did you retort, like Jesus did, or did you walk away, troubled or defeated?  You see, the adversary is also the adversary of God. We can find that acted out in a biblical play called Job. The adversary, no matter who embodies one in your life, whispers “hopeless” in your ear when God says “hope;” “death” in your ear when God says “life; whispers “doubt” when God says “faith;” whispers “be afraid” when God says “fear not.” Too often our human insecurities cause us to listen to the wrong still, small voice. We listen to the carnal voice instead of the heavenly one. And we can let those voices cripple us, when Jesus is telling us “take up your pallet and walk.”

 

Perhaps in my examples you have pictured some people in your life who have been adversaries or accusers. They are not Satan, capital s. But they can stand in the way of your potential or of God’s plans whether you are 8 or 18 or 80.  So many voices can fill our heads. But who wants to treat finding the voice of God like a “Where’s Waldo?” picture? No. We will need to weigh the adversarial voices with perspective, listening to a neutral voice: a counselor, a pastor, an objective friend, or to God in prayer. The time I was left in a hospital for my health at age two, I called out for my parents: “Mommy, Daddy, Mommy, Daddy!” Little did I know that they were saving me, not abandoning me. Sometimes we go through deep water, and it is necessary. Trusting God to be a good parent, like my parents were to me, can make the question “Who can I trust?” a little easier.  Listen to these words:

Two of the most powerful metaphors used by mystics over time are the cloud of unknowing and the dark night. The cloud, as immortalized in The Cloud of Unknowing, envelops you with mist and fog and renders all your attempts to “know” God (in a mental, cognitive sense) ultimately useless. Meanwhile the dark night, as explained by John of the Cross, can visit you more than once….The experiences of darkness, of the cloud, of unknowing, of radical letting-go, may tempt you to abandon your spiritual journey—to retreat into cynicism, into despair, or even ego-driven fantasy. The best safeguard against this derailing of your spiritual journey is continual prayer.  [The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Hampton Roads, VA. 2010, pp. 238-240.]

 

Adversaries are all around us, sometimes taking the roll of friends, like Peter was to Jesus. Sometimes well-meaning comments can drown out the voice of God. In turn, we can choose not to be a stumbling block to others either. In Jesus’ future was a cross, so we could have a ride one day on the celestial railway. We do not want an adversary to derail that train.

 

Jesus had a cross to bear, and, if we follow him, we may have one too. I’ll close with these words from Thomas a Kempis:

It is not in the nature of [humanity] to bear the cross, to love the cross, to buffet the body and bring it into servitude, to bear insults willingly, to despise oneself and desire to be despised; to bear any adversities and losses, and to long for no prosperity in this world. If you look to yourself, you will not be able to do any of this; but if you trust in the Lord, strength will be given to you from heaven …. But you shall not fear your enemy, the devil, if you have been armed by faith and marked by the cross of Christ.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          February 25, 2018

02-18-18 DEALING WITH WILDERNESS

DEALING WITH WILDERNESS

Mark 1: 9-15

 

Today I am glad to examine Mark’s version of Jesus’ being in the wilderness. Instead of going into extensive discussions brought on by Matthew’s version, regarding the tempter, and bread, and the temple, or Luke’s version that has similar details, today we are told that the Spirit—that means God, by the way—drove Jesus into the wilderness where he faced certain darkness, hunger, and images or voices that sounded evil.

If that is the case, could it be that God also drives us, or allows us, to enter places that seem like a wilderness compared to the life we had been living? Could the wilderness be a way to refine and harden our mettle—m-e-t-t-l-e, which is “a person’s ability to cope well with difficulties or face demanding situations in a spirited and resilient way?”  Could God actually be intending to strengthen us for what is ahead in life, instead of trying to break us down? Jesus did not just stumble into the wilderness; he was made to go into it by the Spirit. His initiation into ministry, almost still dripping from his baptism, included being dropped by God into the deep end of the pool.  It was his wilderness, and today we’ll explore ours.

 

As the world was watching the Olympics this past week, stories of valor and strength have abounded, but so have stories of struggle and testing. Olympic skater Scott Hamilton told the story of being diagnosed with testicular cancer, and then being treated for 4 cancerous tumors in his brain. When he learned the news, he was reminded of his own mother’s struggle with cancer 20 years earlier, and he said his fear of it was unbelievable. But then he said, “You know, it’s a really weird thing, my fear was replaced with a sense of determination, like I wanted back on the ice and I didn’t want this to be the end, but the beginning of something else.” And so it was. Because of cancer, Scott met the woman who would become his wife in 2002.  “Because of cancer,” he said joyfully, I met my wife, I became a father, and it’s like none of that would have happened without cancer. I look at every one of these things and say there’s always something on the other side if we choose for that.” Over time, Scott and Tracy made another choice: While Traci was helping out in Haiti after the hurricanes, she fell in love with two Haitian children and she and Scott decide to adopt them: 11 year old Evelyne, and her 13 year old brother, John Paul. They brought them to their home in Nashville, Tennessee. And it all was started by a time in the wilderness with cancer. What a test. Scott concluded in his interview: I think we are designed for struggle; we’re more in touch with who we are as individuals in the struggle more than in the good fortune.”

 

What might your wilderness be?  Here’s another one. In his book The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, writer and professor Belden C. Lane wrote about his wilderness. With all the geography described in the book, his wilderness was a mother’s diagnosed illness. He put it this way:

First, you weep. The starting point for many things in grief, at the place where endings seem so absolute….When my mother was diagnosed with bone cancer, she was given six months to live.  It seemed like such a sudden and abrupt ending, so inarguable. But she was eighty years old and signs of Alzheimer’s disease had already begun to appear….In the coming weeks I would travel with her through surgery, radiation treatments, and the painful experience of being uprooted from her house and placed in a nursing home. Roles were reversed, as I (am only child, the last of my family) became mother to my mother, wondering at midlife who would be left to mother me. It was an experience of discovering an unlikely grace in a grotesque landscape of feeding tubes and bed restraints, wheelchairs and diapers, nausea and incontinence.  [Oxford University Press, NY, 1998, p. 25]

 

That wilderness was made up of beeping monitors, tubes and a mother who wets her pants. It seemed heinous, wrong, and testing. It is so foreign to the pulled-together and otherwise obliviously grace filled people we were before the wilderness. In that wilderness, grooming gets done sporadically; eating is often from vending machines, with bad coffee, and public restrooms. What a wilderness. What is yours? Surely, instead of thinking of the desert outside of Jerusalem as the wilderness you can think of your own. Some wildernesses will surprise you, test you, and if you will let them, teach you.

 

Here’s another: Award winning author Karen Armstrong, who wrote more than a dozen books including The History of God, and Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths, says her wilderness was, surprisingly, in a convent. She left her wilderness and wrote about it in a book called The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness. Listen to her words:

[I’m telling] the story of my seven years as a Roman Catholic nun. I entered my convent in 1962 when I was seventeen years old. It was entirely my own decision. My family was not particularly devout, and my parents were horrified when I told them I had a religious vocation. They thought, quite correctly it turned out, that I was far too young to make such a momentous choice…. I wanted to find God….And because I was seventeen, I imagined this would happen pretty quickly. Very soon I would become a wise and enlightened woman, all passion spent. God would no longer be a remote, shadowy reality but a vibrant presence in my life….At the end of nine months, we receive the habit and began two years [as a noviate.] This was a particularly testing time, and we were often told that if we did not find it almost unbearable, we were not trying hard enough. [Anchor Books, NY, 2004, pp. vii, viii, xiii.]

She cried almost daily over three of those years. Later she left her place of testing. One commentator put it this way: “After 7 brutally unhappy years as a nun, she left her order to pursue English Literature at Oxford. But convent life had profoundly altered her….Her deep solitude and a terrifying illness—diagnosed only years later as epilepsy—marked her forever as an outsider….What she found, in learning, thinking, and in writing about other religions was an ecstasy and a transcendence she had never felt [before.]” [Back cover of the book.]  She had come through what she said was a wilderness of testing, and when she came out if it, she was different. She became the gifted writer who is still changing the world with her words.

 

How would you word your story about a wilderness time? Or might God be preparing you for such a time? Wilderness places mold us in a cauldron of testing. The wilderness of testing may be a casino to a gambler, a shopping mall to an obsessive spender, or a school to one being bullied or feeling isolated. What are the events that have tested you, ones that have made you who you are today? And what might still be in store for you ahead? Remember the story I said at the beginning, of the Spirit taking Jesus, practically dripping wet from his baptism, and dropping him in the deep end of the pool Mark calls “the wilderness?” It was a desert outside of Jerusalem. Remember this: in that pool God was the lifeguard, nearby and watching. In that desert, God sent angels to assist Jesus as he can do for us. God is not far away or absent in our trials; God is with us in all the dangers and temptations of life. Perhaps today you will join me in now believing that tests and wilderness times are to strengthen us, not to break us. May God’s angels minister to you as you endure your wilderness times.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           February 18, 2018

02-11-18 THE ANNOUNCEMENT

THE ANNOUNCEMENT

Matthew 17: 1-5

 

Some words, intended to be an announcement, can double as a blessing.

Words like: “This my son, Chris! I’m so pleased with his life choices!” Or “This is my son Matt! I’m so pleased with his life choices!” or “This is my daughter Jenny! I’m so pleased with her life choices!” I’m announcing that sentiment to you, but if they read the sentiment, I think my children will feel blessed, even though I have told this to each of them. I felt blessed when a parent introduced me with pride. Sometimes an announcement is a blessing.

 

As a boy, Sir Walter Raleigh was left weak and lame by a severe fever, much the way the daughter, Beth, was left after being sick in the classic book and film “Little Women.” Some thought Walter Scott would not be able to do anything with is life because of his weakened condition.  When he was a teenager, he was a guest in a home where some famous writers were gathered. The Scottish Poet Robert Burns was among them. After a brief encounter, Burns put his hand on top of young Walter’s head saying, “Ah lad, I’m certain you’ll be a great man in Scotland someday!” Walter Scott took the words of the blessing as sincere, and they were a source of encouragement the rest of his life.

 

Long ago, a voice came from Heaven, and the Spirit of God—like a dove—came down to bless Jesus as he was baptized. The announcement was heard by many, but the blessing was especially received by Jesus: “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.” And because God certainly knows the power of repetition to underline words, a voice came from Heaven again, as Jesus was on a mountain transfigured (changed before the eyes of his disciples) into a new brightness, and that same voice, that familiar voice, the voice he longed to hear, said to the disciples:  “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased! Listen to him!”  What a special time! In an earlier place in the Bible, Psalm 2 verse 7, God spoke through a Psalm writer for the blessing of a king, saying, “You are my anointed king; today I have begotten you.” I have heard from grown men and women who are hampered as adults because they are missing the part of their lives when their parent’s words blessed them. They keep living, but if their image were on a jigsaw puzzle, a piece would be missing: the piece would have words written on it saying something like: “You are my own dear child. I love you and am proud of you!” That’s the piece so many wish they had heard from a parent. And so they go through their life, as writer Shel Silverstein puts it, “lookin’ for their missing piece.” Like a stone disc with a triangularly shaped pie piece removed, they bump down the road of life. [The Missing Piece] Joyous announcements matter; and blessings matter. Can you think back to a time when someone said they believed in you, or accepted you the way you were?  Friends we have the power offer such words to children, workers, or friends. On this Scout Sunday we honor those adults who have mentored Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, Brownies, or Girl Scouts in entrusted to them.  Those leaders, like teachers and pastors and youth leaders, have the power to bless young people just wanting to be loved and accepted.

 

One minister who did that very well was the later Fred Rogers of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”  He was a Presbyterian minister and went to Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.  His ministry sent him to the public broadcasting studios in Pittsburgh to write, produce, and tape his award winning children’s shows. Some adults may have found the show “simple.” Some teenagers found it boring. With little or no technology, Mr. Rogers put out a message, one that told viewing boys and girls, “I like you just the way you are.” He took his philosophy right from the Jesus of the New Testament. Now his work continues on PBS with staff and family members still producing the cartoon, “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.” We still have new children who need to feel affirmed and loved.

 

Every time you come to a service here, it is intended that you receive a blessing before you depart. The raised hand at the end of the service comes from practice of the head of a Hebrew household symbolically placing his right hand on the head of guests as thy departed. Perhaps Robert Burns knew the power of the blessing when he placed his hand on Walter Scott’s head that fateful day. At the end of a service I will seek to bless each of you if you will receive it. I hope it will encourage you. I always ask God to guide my choice of words. If we understand that we have been blessed, then we can be a blessing to others! I’ll close with these classic words from Oswald Chambers’ book My Utmost for His Highest:

Whenever you get a blessing from God, give it back to him as a love gift. Take time to meditate before God, and offer the blessing back to him in a deliberate act of worship.  If you hoard it for yourself, it will turn into spiritual dry rot, as the manna did when it was hoarded in Exodus 16:20.

 

Today I tell you, you are loved! Prepare to be fed at the Lord’s Table, so you can be a blessing to others.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           February 11, 2018

02-04-18 Going About Your Business

Going About Your Business

Thomas Merton says it beautifully “It is by the Holy Spirit that we love those who are united to us in Christ. The more plentifully we have received of the Spirit of Christ, the more perfectly we are able to love them: and the more we love them the more we receive the Spirit. It is clear, however, that since we love them by the Spirit Who is given to us by Jesus, it is Jesus Himself Who loves them in us.”

One of my favorite books of the Bible along with all the other books of the Bible is our first reading, the book of Isaiah.  Chapter 40 is part of the books that are said to be thought of through recent research, to be the books that presume that Judgement has been pronounced and restoration follows soon. It can thus be read as an extended meditation on the destiny of Jerusalem into and after the Exile. (40-55)   The book’s essential unity has become a focus in this current research. Isaiah 1–39 promises judgment and restoration for Judah, Jerusalem and the nations, while the later books 56-66 describes how God will make Jerusalem the center of his worldwide rule through a royal savior (a messiah) who will destroy her oppressor (Babylon); this messiah is the Persian king Cyrus the Great, who is merely the agent who brings about Yahweh’s kingship.   Isaiah speaks out against corrupt leaders and for the disadvantaged, and roots righteousness in God’s holiness rather than in Israel’s covenant. Isaiah 44:6 contains the first clear statement of monotheism: “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no God”. This model of monotheism became the defining characteristic of post-Exilic Judaism, and the basis for Christianity.  Isaiah was one of the most popular works among the Hebrews in the Second Temple period (c. 515 BCE – 70 CE). In Christian circles, it was held in such high regard as to be called “the Fifth Gospel”, and its influence extends beyond Christianity to English literature and to Western culture in general, from the libretto of Handel’s Messiah to a host of such everyday phrases as “swords into ploughshares” and “voice in the wilderness”.  John the Baptists quotes Isaiah as he states from the book of Isaiah 40:3, “A voice is calling, ‘Clear the way for the Lord [YHWH]  in the wilderness; make smooth in the desert a highway for our God.”

William Barclay explains the wonders in this text of Isaiah as “The imperatives of the first part of this chapter “Comfort,, prepare, cry,, get you up,, fear not, contrast with the theoretical questions of the second”  verses 12- 31  The logical connection between the two parts is the deliberate contrast between, on the one hand, the frailty of chastened, frightened Jerusalem, and on the other hand, the incomparable power of God as revealed in the sheer cosmic scale of his creative activity, as the scripture states “Put your faith in the former and you will wither like grass; put your faith in God and you will “mount up with wings like eagles”  How glorious a sound”

This first reading shows us how our past can live in our present; and how our present will live on in our future.  As it ties to the readings in Corinthians and lives in the second reading of Mark, it shows not just the reality of God and how God is our true power and savior over all things; it shows us just how connected we are to that power and how all things were and are created by the lord, showed to us how to live as he gave himself for our sins and lives through us as the Holy Spirit; the Christ.

This is a comfort for us to live and move as he did; to know the creation of God is doing wonderous things all the time that we cannot even fathom.  As easy as our hair growing; well your hair growing; haha our fingernails growing; The grass and the trees growing.

It’s the day of Sabbath and the people of the town are celebrating the lord’s day.  A woman sits in the dark; in a room by herself as she shakes and writhes with a fever.  Her son in law is very concerned about her and what has become of her.  She has collected a bad sickness. The people of the time call it a “Burning Fever” as it will read later in the Talmud.  She doesn’t know what to do as her son and law leaves for synagogue.  This was normal during the time as Paul of Tarsus the Disciple often had bouts of a fever that he had gotten from were he lived in the swamps of Tarsus.

As Peter talks to the others they converse over the mother and laws sickness and what to do about it; as they speak to each other; as they ask around for a cure they are told by the ones that know, the teachings of the time taught by the priests.  This is the practice that is handed down and is to be done for her.  They figure out the plan as they discuss what must be done as she becomes sicker and sicker; they need a Knife, a knife entirely made of Iron.  They need a braid of hair as they are to take the braid of hair, tie it to the knife.  After they have tied the lock of hair to the knife, then they are to tie both to a thorn bush.  After successive days of this there is a magical formula pronounced and thus the cure is to be achieved.  As much in the time that there were exorcists in practice along with Jesus as Jesus was starting to show to the world that he was Jesus son of man; Son of God; others also claimed to have these same powers but not really powers at all.  But this was the ritual cure of the Burning Fever; this was the way that it was done.  So why would anyone think that Jesus, this man from Nazareth; would be the reason for this women’s cure; for this woman’s freedom.  Freedom from pain; from here fever; freedom from all sin as we are shown.  Why would he be different than the exorcists that ran about.

So, the men followed as all good Hebrews did on the Sabbath and went to synagogue.  Jesus preached that day by showing his true grace to all by the exorcism of demons; maybe not by what we think as demons as thought of in those times but maybe as we think of demons to be today; as the pain and hate of someone, that their freedom may be held at bay but brought to life; that they may be brought to life again resurrected by the Christ, to serve the Lord.  After Jesus performed this great feat of Grace that he is the living God; the son of man; the truth they left the synagogue; Jesus joined his friends and went to Peter’s house.

They were astonished by what he had done; that Jesus had brought out these demons that as even as they followed him they followed him blindly; with a faith that had not even really been defined; the faith of a mustard seed; as they all had more trials and tribulations to overcome, their whole lives to overcome; to be followers of God as much as we all do, they put their faith in this man who showed them love.  They put their trust in a man that showed them as we are shown everyday that he is our way; our path to Love; the truth; the way; and the Life.

Jesus joined Peter and John as they came out of the synagogue and they went to the house of Simon and Andrew.  As the mother in law still suffered from here sickness this was no time for pleasantries as it says in the scripture. “Immediately after they went to the house of Simon and Andrew.  Peters mother in law was in bed with an attack of fever. Immediately they spoke to Jesus about her.  He went up to her and took her by the hand and raised her up, and the fever left her, and she attended to their needs.

As we look a little deeper into the time and all that it entailed; the day of Sabbath was and is a lot different then what it was then.  Sundays for Christians have changed and even we have maybe become a little jaded as we might be thinking of what were going to cook for the game today rather than what the Sermon is on.  But as we are shown on a constant basis; as it speaks of in Isaiah of our strong loving God, as Jesus is our loving action our reason of a new life.  We are shown this Love; this unstoppable love every day; every minute.

Th time of Sabbath was a time of celebration as it should be; to celebrate the love of God much like we do here every Sunday in celebration; in fellowship; in fellowship of the Church; of the Christ.  Of the true action of the Holy Spirit; in us and through us.  In the synagogue Jesus spoke and acted in the most amazing way; the true action of Love, the authority of God.

According to Jewish custom the main Jewish meal came directly after the service at 12noon.  The Jewish day started at 6 A M and the hours are counted from then.  Jesus might well have been tired of such an exercise as in the synagogue but again his grace was appealed to; once again he gave himself for others; as he shows us the way; to give ourselves for others.

This seems to show us a couple of realties about Jesus and what Jesus truly was and is as God.  Jesus did not need an audience to be the power of God.  He was the healing spirit of God in everything and everywhere; as he is now.  He was the love of God in all places, whether it was in front of a huge crowd as in the synagogue or when he died for our sins; as well as in the little places; the little ways that Jesus is Love.  Like seeing the sun through the trees; or looking a loved one in the eyes.  Or just being happy to be alive.

He is never too tired to heal no matter who it is.  The need of others took precedence over his own desire for rest as he shows the reality of Gods endless love to us in action.  But as I spoke of earlier about the exorcists, Jesus shows us the true Love of God that he is.

As I spoke of earlier about the knife with the braid of hair tied to it; tied to the thorn bush and how the knife was to heal the woman; the exorcists of the time used many elaborate incantations and spells and formulae that would baffle the crowds as a magician showing his wares at the fair; or like the fire eater; or the juggler.  But as Jesus healed in the synagogue with one authoritative word; no fire; no fakeries; he healed the women in the same way.  The disciples were changing as they’re faith was growing as they were starting to see the Messiah, much like all the people that were there were changed; as they were all starting to believe that Jesus was who he was; the Messiah the true answer to the question. Our question.  Maybe not the one everybody expected or expects; maybe not even the one everybody wanted or wants.  But the true messiah; the unswerving; unending grace of God.

The disciples in this growing to Jesus started to take all their problems to him, as we should take all our problems to our Lord in prayer.  As we might follow the simplicity of conversation with our best friend as conversation with God.  Paul Tuornier states as I believe “We should talk to our lord as we have known our Lord and savior all our lives, as he has known us all our lives; a close fellowship that Jesus, as Jesus lives, lives in our lives, every part of them.”

 

Let me read to you this great hymn; lyrics written by Nolan Williams Jr.

What a friend we have in Jesus All our sins and grieves to bear What a privilege it is to carry Everything to God in prayer Have we trials and temptations Is there trouble anywhere Our precious Savior He is still our refuge Take it to the Lord in prayer Some things we have not Because we ask not When we have a friend who’s there When we’re weak and heavy laden Cumbered with a load of care We should never be discouraged When we take it to the Lord in prayer Some things we have not Because we ask not when we have a friend who cares Oh what peace we often forfeit Oh what needless pain we bear Oh what peace we often forfeit Oh what needless we bear Oh what peace we often forfeit Oh what needless pain Oh what needless pain Oh what needless pain we bear We should never be discouraged when we Take it to the Lord in prayer.

This is the basis of our life with God; as shown to us in the action of the Disciples as they started to see; as we start to see; see more; more and more.  As we form and reform again; we should bring all our problems to our Lord in prayer.  This is a habit of a life time as shown to us through all in the Bible.

The end of the reading shows the loving action of God healing the women of her fever as that same love heals us every day.  That same simplistic love that isn’t fake; that isn’t a juggling act; just pure true love.  As soon as she was healed she went about her business to be the action of God to Jesus; As we are called in Mark 12: 28-31 The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.

As the mother in law shows this commitment it seems as she was washed clean of her sickness of her fever; of her demons; that she is reformed in the grace of Christ.  That in this resurrection; this reformation that she is cleansed of her past and lives now in the true commandments of the Lord.  To be Love.  As a great Scottish family’s motto says, “Saved to Serve”

Jesus shows this same commitment to us in the morning as when his Disciples came to him as he was meditating he said “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” 39And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

This is his commitment to us as we are called to make the same commitment.  As the mother in law showed her saving grace to be the action of God.  How Jesus shows us through his action to be that same love.  How the Holy Spirit acts through us to all we meet and see; how God acts and reacts in our lives in creating and recreating all day every day.  We are called to join in this same action of grace that was given to us by God, one on three and three in one.  The way the truth and the Life.

 

Martin Luther wrote “God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars.”  We are apart of the living Gospel to act; to love; to be; all that Jesus is; all that Jesus shows us.

Let us commit; commit as God commits to us every day.  As the Disciples committed to Jesus; as the Mother in law was saved to serve.  Let us wash ourselves in the grace of Christ, let us be about his business.  May Gods peace be with you:

 

01-28-18 THE AUTHORITY OF JESUS

THE AUTHORITY OF JESUS

Mark 1: 21-28

 

Is there an authority crisis in our world? Those with authority sometimes wield their power carelessly or in self-serving ways, like the doctor examining our young female gymnasts while violating them. Or powerful bosses have also been shown to bully or pressure people into doing thing against their will. With the exceptions of dictators or pharaohs or monarchs, we hope for justice and a balance of power. Until the last few years, Cuba has been kept years behind other countries because of the oppression of the Castro regime. North Korea puts up a good front of authority, but visitors who get a peek behind the veneer see poverty and ignorance. It was this week in the year 2000 that General Douglas McArthur’s widow passed away over one hundred years of age. McArthur at one time had unquestioned authority and power. But it was not his own; it was granted to him. Yes, generals act in consultation with their governments. CEOs of major corporations may share power with their board or staff. By contrast, in the Presbyterian Church, by the design of founder John Calvin, our General Assembly has the authority to enact only what its commissioners empower it to do. The actions can start with church members, then go to a local Session, then on to a presbytery and, perhaps, a General Assembly. There is purpose in the way we are ordered. “Absolute power can corrupt absolutely” Calvin said, so no one individual is granted the authority that we give to Jesus, and to the Bible, or God.  But any of us can call on God for strength and guidance. The twelve disciples—and by extension you and I—have the power of Jesus for helping, healing, and witnessing if we call on that power!  Jesus empowered us when he said this “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20)  Powerlessness may have pervaded many areas of society, but recently some women, people of color, and people of poverty are working to reclaim dignity and power.

 

Whether we are looking at this century or the first century, into a hope-dimmed world slips glimmering beams of power. Mark’s gospel tells us that the teachings and actions of Jesus were such that all who were around him said he taught “as if he had authority.” Even the ones in power were amazed at his power to exorcise unclean spirits.  (Mark 1:27) Into the world of the seemingly possessed; into the world of the seemingly incurable came the power and authority of Jesus. We know Jesus had the authority to do what he did; he always told others it came from above, it was not his own. At the end of Matthew’s gospel in what is called the “Great Commission,” Jesus claimed his power saying, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given unto me.” After that, the implication was to go and do what he told us to do: baptize, make disciples, and teach others about Jesus. We have been commissioned to do that, and like a military command, it is an order, not a softly worded request. Jesus empowers our work by the Holy Spirit! Jesus needs our partnership because he no longer has a physical body! We—the church—have become the body of Christ, going into the world with human care and hope. We have the authority and the commission to do that! Jesus is counting on us!

 

Do you wish you had great power when dealing with human issues? Sometimes situations can make us feel powerless. Here’s an example: thirty-two years ago today, NASA programmers and engineers felt powerless as they watched the Space Shuttle Challenger blow up in the air on a cold January day. Dreadful powerlessness. Another example: some children who long for strength they do not possess become enamored with superheroes that have powers far beyond their own. They imagine being powerful. Others love fantasy stories like those found in the Harry Potter series and try to claim the power in each individual wand. Youth may seek power through sports, role-playing games, or acting. Still, sometimes people can feel utterly powerless.

 

Anorexia nervosa and depression can be power-draining diseases. My friend Dr. Dan Hale, a psychologist, has spoken painfully about how powerless he was to save his daughter from depression. She died in its darkness and its grip. No one in singer Karen Carpenter’s family could save her from the body image she perceived through her eating disorder that took her life. And Presbyterian author Frederick Buechner, in his book Telling Secrets, says depression took his father’s life. He sat in his own car in a closed garage and secretly started his car. As young Fred grew up, he learned how to give power to another person, and not to try to control them. Only when he finally gave power and control back to others who were struggling did they begin to work toward their own rescue.  That power struggle, skimmed from the milk of enlightenment, led Beuchner to write these words: “Stop trying to protect, to rescue, to judge, to manage the lives around you—your children’s lives, the lives of your husband, your wife, your friends—because that is just what you are powerless to do. Remember that the lives of other people are not your business. They are their business. They are God’s business whether they use the word ‘God’ or not.” [San Francisco:  Harper Collins, 1991, pp. 92.]

 

Can the transcended word of Jesus whisper any word of hope to you, or someone you know, who is (in a way) possessed a disease, an obsession, or a weakness?  I believe it can.  A healing took place in Capernaum one day, and Jesus performed it. And the same power that healed that day can turn around the lives of others who are broken, over-medicated, co-dependent, or addicted.  Here are three directions we can follow.

 

First, Jesus prayed to his Heavenly Father, asking for healing for those who were ill. Many were healed. People in our day, like Dr. Larry Dossey, have shown our modern minds how those both prayed for and medically treated heal faster than those who receive medicine without prayer. Trust that God loves you and your loved ones and can see life’s picture—including the future—better than we can. Even with his authority, Jesus did not pull rank and save himself from the cross. By remaining faithful to the last, he now sits at the right hand of power.

 

Next, Jesus had authority over wind and waves when he was on the Sea of Galilee. Back in 2016, did the people of Daytona Beach pray hard enough that Hurricane Matthew jutted east just enough that the dangerous winds largely missed us? Go back and look at the storm’s track. Just off our coast, it seemed to move east; then it moved back on track. Here’s another story: A Methodist minister shared a graveside service with me some years ago. As we approached the cemetery, the rain that had come down hard every since the funeral procession had departed from the funeral home came down steadily.  I got out of the car deciding to bring my umbrella. “Do you think we’re going to get wet out here?” I said to the other minister. His wife answered me. “It won’t rain during my husbands’ graveside services!” As I was about to ask her how she was so sure, he was the one who replied. “No, it won’t rain. Back when I had my one of my first graveside services, it looked like we might all get wet. So I bowed my head and said to Jesus, ‘Dear Lord, you did so many mighty things, including calming the storm. I don’t think it’s too much to ask if you will hold the rain while I offer your blessing to a grieving family.. Thanks for your help. Amen.’ And in more than 50 years of that man’s ministry, it had not rained during his graveside service! Sometimes could it be that we have not because we ask not?

 

Finally, as the serenity prayer puts it: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”  Even Jesus could not change other people’s willfulness. Nor can we. But we can be a witness, with our actions and words.  We can pray in faith for the things Jesus wants to do through us. All authority in heaven and earth has been given to him. We can connect with it if we are bold enough to ask for that power.  Let us pray:

Heavenly Father of our Lord Jesus: sometimes we want to do what the disciples did: they called on Jesus to do everything! Through the years people in trouble have said, “Call a priest, call a minister, or call an elder.” But to those who ask for Jesus to work through them, power is offered. Send us forth empowered to pray, to teach, and to invite others to know Jesus. Give us the courage to both ask and to act, so that through Jesus, we can change our world. Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          January 28, 2018

01-21-18 A GLIMPSE OF ST. ANDREW

A GLIMPSE OF ST. ANDREW

Mark 1: 14-20

 

The late William Barclay was one of the most beloved commentators on the New Testament. He was the one who wrote the Daily Bible Study series, used by many classes here at Westminster. What you may not know is that he was a Scot; an author, a radio and television presenter, a Church of Scotland minister (which means Presbyterian to us!) and a Bible Professor at the University of Glasgow!  In his book called The Master’s Men, he says about Andrew, the first (some gospels say the second) disciple called by Jesus:

Andrew has the very unusual distinction of being the patron saint of no fewer than three different countries:[and the other two countries may surprise you] Russia, Greece, and Scotland. There is not very much direct information, but the information the gospel story does contain is such that it paints an unmistakable picture of the kind of man Andrew was. [He] was a native of Bethsaida (John 1:44). He was a fisherman by trade and it was when he was plying his trade and mending his nets that Jesus called him to be a fisher of men (Mark 1: 16-18; Matthew 4: 18-20).  Andrew began by being a follower of John the Baptist, and according to John’s telling of the story, Andrew was the first of all the twelve to attach himself to Jesus, along with John…. No sooner did Andrew discover Jesus for himself that he went to find his brother Peter [really called Simon] to bring him to Jesus. [Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1959, p. 41]

 

We should add that Dr. Barclay missed an important other fact: Andrew is the patron saint of golf too! In fact he has a course or two named after him!

Tradition says that he was crucified by the Romans on a “Chi” shaped cross (just check out the “Chi” on the front of our lectern; it’s a Greek letter that looks like an X, but it’s the first letter in the word “Christos” for “Christ. ”) Andrew, interestingly, is a Greek name, not a Jewish one! Do you know what it means? Manly! One author put it this way: “He seem[ed] to have a quiet strength of character and a helpfulness on which others could always rely. At the feeding of the five thousand, it is he who tells Jesus of the boy with the five barley loaves and two fish. Again, it is to Andrew that Philip comes to for advice when some Greeks requested a meeting with Jesus.” [Jesus and the Twelve, Good Will, Inc. Gastonia, N.C.]

 

So we know those things about Andrew directly. But what can we infer about him, and what can we learn from him?  What is it after all, that makes Andrew such an honored man to so many groups of people?  First, along with the other 11 Apostles, he was called to come as he was by Jesus, to be a disciple. There wasn’t a test; there wasn’t an interview. There was invitation. He just responded and followed! There isn’t a person alive who cannot be a disciple of Jesus. The extraordinary thing that disciples of Jesus do to change them is they accept the invitation! “Come and learn!” we may say to others. “Come and be baptized if you aren’t already, and start a new life following Jesus!” Those words might be part of your invitation. Andrew invited his own brother to follow Jesus according to John 1: 40-42. Listen to the way John’s gospel records it: “One of the two who heard John [the Baptist] speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother, Simon, and said to him, “We have found the Messiah!” [Messiah means “Christ.”] Andrew invited others to find the one who he found too! Yet Andrew was just an ordinary person who followed an extraordinary Savior. He followed; then he invited others to do that too!

That could describe you and me. Ordinary people, like Andrew, turned to his brother, Simon, and said this: “We have found the Messiah.” And this is what he did: “He brought his brother to Jesus.” Two great actions for any of us to do: inviting people to meet Jesus or bringing others to meet him! By that action, Andrew was an evangelist. As we said last week, being an evangelist is just bringing someone to Christ. Then we can let Christ do the rest! How do we do that when Jesus lived ages ago? One of the most common ways is for you to invite someone to, or you bring someone to your church! I met Jesus in church; others often do too! I declared Jesus as my Savior in a church—a common place for such a life-changing declaration. Andrew said it this way according to John’s gospel: “I have found the Messiah.”  John Calvin, the founder of the Presbyterian Church, wrote this about Andrew:

Andrew has scarcely a spark [of faith], yet, by means of it, he enlightens his brother. Woe to our indolence, therefore, if we do not, after having been fully enlightened, endeavor to make others partakers of the same grace. We may observe in Andrew two things which Isaiah requires from the children of God: namely, that each should take his neighbor by the hand, and next, that he should say, Come, let us go up into the mountain of the Lord, and he will teach us.” (Isa. ii. 3.)  [Calvin’s Commentary]

 

Part of my call and faith story involves a man named Andrew. I share this story with our elders whenever I train them. My first paid position in a church was as “Assistant Janitor.” That was my title! After school in my high school years, I would drive to my large Presbyterian Church, the place where I was baptized, the place where I sang in the choir, and the place where I ushered when the choir was not singing, and I would clean God’s house.  I put money in the bank for college and I built ties to my faith that are still with me today. The Head Janitor was a tall black man. His name was Andrew, and he was a man of great faith. After we would take a break from waxing floors or vacuuming carpets, we would sit down and drink a soda. On more than one occasion he said to me: “You oughta be a preacher!” “No I would say quickly.” “I’m going to go into business like my Dad.” And he would look at me and shake his head. It was as if to say, “The Lord has different plans for you!” He did. Thanks to Andrew for inviting me to be a Christian minister.

 

In my work for the Theological Education Fund of the Presbyterian Church (USA), I was always on the lookout for people to go into the gospel ministry. In less than10 years, Baby Boomers like me will be retired. Who will carry on the preaching, the teaching, the administrating and the Pastoral Care of a church? The need will be great. So people like Elder Tobias Caskey has said “yes” to the call to get the advanced degree and become ordained Minister of the Word and Sacrament. There might be some here today who want to do that. But for the rest of you, all you need to do is be an Andrew; a man of integrity who invites others to meet Jesus. You might say: “Come try my church,” and here they might indeed meet Christ. Invitations can make disciples. Not everyone accepts the invitation. But we know 12 did in the Bible and how many more have followed? I invite people all the time! Last year forty-one persons said “yes” and joined our congregation! Congregations grow in part by doing what Andrew did: “He brought someone to Christ.” I tell this to my elder classes as well:  I am a Presbyterian because when we moved to St. Louis we had not found a nearby Methodist Church. Our next door neighbor walked across his back yard to ours and invited my father to bring the family his Presbyterian Church the next Sunday. It was there, a few years later, that I found Jesus Christ, was baptized, and claimed him as my Lord and Savior. And I cleaned pews! Who knows what God has in store?

 

Remember, in our text from Mark we heard that Jesus invited, and Andrew and Simon dropped what they were doing and followed him. Like Scotland sometimes feels forgotten in the shadow of England and the seat of the queen, Andrew might have felt slightly forgotten. He had been invited first, but Simon Peter got the spotlight. So what did Andrew do? He still followed, and kept connecting others to Jesus. Being an Andrew blessed Jesus and his ministry.

Go and be like Andrew: follow Jesus, and lead others to the Christ.

 

Let us pray: Dear Lord Jesus: many here have learned about you, found you, and followed you. Remind us that not just the Twelve, but also disciples who came after them, have the power of the Holy Spirit in them too. Give them the courage to say what needs to be said, do what needs to be done, and to invite those who might be lost to be found. We will stand in solidarity with them. Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                  January 21, 2018

 

 

01-14-18 SHAKING DUST OFF YOUR FEET

SHAKING DUST OFF YOUR FEET

John 1: 46-51

 

Today we will do three things: first, we will imagine what it was like for the first disciples to evangelize, that is, bring others to Jesus; second, we will look at the resistance even Jesus himself faced; and third we will look at the probable resistance that you and I might face inviting people to church or to Jesus, or both.

 

First, we will imagine what it was like for the disciples to evangelize. The message was perhaps not perfectly clear to those men who were busy with their trades or businesses when Jesus started to meet them and say “follow me.” To drop what they were doing in order to become, as the old saying goes, “fishers of men,” was a huge shift in their daily work.  As I have read about them, these men were gruff, not ones who could easily be talked into anything. How did they answer the call of Christ? And how would they make the shift to inviting others to follow him too?  In our “Hollywood Jesus” study on Wednesdays, these questions occur in what are called  the “white spaces,”  that is, information that the Bible doesn’t tell us between the words and we have to infer. In the Bible we read this: “Jesus decided to go to Galilee, found Philip and said to him, ‘follow me’” [After that Philip found Nathaniel. We’ll get to Nathaniel in a minute.] But in reading that, your mind may not fill in any response or reaction by Philip. If you were filming it, you’d have to decide: would Philip shrug and follow? Would Philip look at Jesus as if he had lost his mind? Would Philip start to turn away and then turn back? Notice we’re not putting words in Philips’ mouth because the Bible records no response for him. But we are making a decision about reaction. Reactions to the question like “Will you follow Jesus?” are not often followed with an instant “Okay!” The people Christ need should be loyal and not easily swayed to follow a false leader. So it is natural that they might have a reaction to dropping what they were doing to begin a complete change in their lives.  Evangelizing would not be in the wheelhouse of any of those men. But meeting Jesus empowered them; and meeting Jesus in a vision empowered the Apostle Paul to evangelize the rest of his life.  Meeting Jesus—through a sermon, through a hymn, through a testimony, or through the power of the Holy Spirit—has been known to change people’s lives. We’re in the business to bringing people to Jesus to change people’s lives! But how do we face the resistance caused by what some people have read, by other Christians who have sail or don hurtful things, or by a general suspicion—or even paranoia—about religion? Stay with me!

 

Let’s next look at how Jesus handled resistance. Today’s text illustrates how Jesus one time handled caustic comments.  Listen to John 1: 15-19:

Philip found Nathaniel and said to him, “We have found the one of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, son of Joseph.”

 

Now here is where you put on your film directing hat! With what inflection does Nathaniel reply? Does he say playfully “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  Or does he, with a bit of a sneer, ask” “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” If I were the director, I would choose that second one.  I think Nathaniel doubts that any significant gift from God could come from that backwater town of Nazareth.  Remember how the Wise Men first went to Jerusalem to seek the newborn king instead of to tiny Bethlehem? People couldn’t believe that God chose to do significant things in insignificant places. So Jesus hears that sneering answer: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Jesus could have been hurt by the words. He could have taken the words as a challenge and gotten into a shouting match. Those are natural human reactions. But instead, Jesus was ready for Nathaniel. Our Lord offered him a disarming compliment: “Behold, an Israelite indeed in whom there is no guile!” (Guile means “sly or cunning intelligence.”) Nathaniel is caught off guard. And by the end of the exchange, the charisma—(compelling attractiveness, often divinely conferred)—the charisma of Jesus lowered the defensive walls around Nathaniel’s heart.  This is part of Jesus’ authority and part of his draw. Once barriers of resistance drop—and they can be substantial—people who are introduced to Jesus in person, in prayer, in song, or in a sermon get to  “Meet the Master,”  as the Rev. Peter Marshall described it. One of his famous sermons had that title: “Mr. Jones, Meet the Master.” Today I’m inviting you to have that experience of inviting someone else to “meet the Master.” You’ll likely not use those dramatic words, but you can still invite others to come to your church to learn about Jesus!  Like the parable of the sower—that describes how 100 seeds might just yield as few as one good plant—you too might invite a hundred people over the course of your lifetime. But out of those hundred, one might say “Yes” to Jesus; to following like Philip did, and like Nathaniel eventually did. Who knows if that one invitation produces the next, pastor, or Sunday School Teacher, or Billy Graham or Mother Teresa? For Jesus’ parable says, “It is worth the work for the one.”

 

So yes, it was not easy for the disciples to evangelize—to invite others to follow Jesus. It was not easy for Jesus to face sarcasm and rejection—in one instance he actually left the Jewish side of the Sea of Galilee and went to the other side—the Gentile side—where he healed a man and gained a big following of enthusiastic believers. But now we come to you and to me.

 

This is our third and final point, but it matters the most for the future of the faith:  What will you face if you invite others to our church, to learn about Jesus; to hear that God loves them?  Resistance? The word “no?” Hesitating willingness? Yes. Any and all of the above, and I’ll tell you why: religion, church, God, and others such entities are loaded with baggage for many. Almost no one is a clean slate; they have all had either good or bad experiences, or positive or negative thoughts, about all three. So you may get blowback from a person who sharply reacts to your simple invitation: “Would you like to join me at my church on Sunday?” Some may actually accept your invitation especially if they know you will meet them and sit with them. Others may “duck and cover,” not wanting to consider such a threatening or painful venture.  Here’s an example: A man I admired a great deal started coming to our church because his daughter was a member. He came and he kept coming for months, and so one day, I asked him “Jim (not his real name,) would you like to join the church?” The man who I had enjoyed seeing for weeks, even months, gave me a cold stare. “No thank you,” and walked away.  It was eight months later—a long time of seeing him attend, when we met each other under different circumstances. “I’m ready to tell you why I have not joined your church,” he said to me. “One day when I was a little boy (which had to be in the late 1930s) a deacon from our Baptist church came by our house unexpectedly one night. My dad invited him in asking ‘What can I do for you?’ And the deacon said, “We have noticed that you are not keeping up with your pledge. Your church needs that support and I’m here to collect.”  Now times were hard during the Depression and Jim told me, “I could see my Dad’s facing starting to turn red, and the veins on his neck getting big. ‘You’ll need to go now,’ he said firmly to the deacon.” Having the deacon ask for money pushed his family away from that church. “And that” Jim told me, “is why I won’t join a church.” Nearly seventy years had gone by since that night, and the grown man sitting across from me had never joined a church again for that reason. “Goodness that is a painful story,” I said to him. “You don’t ever have to join; just keep coming. But just so you know: We will never treat a pledge like a bill, and no one will visit your home to collect.”

Jim needed to trust again; to trust a church; to trust a man of the cloth. Interestingly, I think it was through our love of baseball that he learned to trust me. He finally joined and set aside the seventy-year-old reason he had resentful feelings toward a church.

 

You know, I think there are a number of people out there—and in here—like   that; they have been hurt, or insulted, or abused by someone in a church.  Jesus said to his disciples if they were ever rejected to “shake the dust off their feet” and move on. I think that is easier said than done. Did you see the 14-year-old girl who got pulled from a mudslide in Montecito California this week? She was covered with mud.  Sometimes I think the pain and anguish that others have felt not just from Christians, but from bullies or other abusers is not like dust on their feet  but mud on their body and soul.  So I think it helps us to realize this: we may be inviting traumatized or hurting people to come to our church. And here I hope they will find welcome, comfort, and hope. They may not trust that invitation initially, but let them be while standing with them. Maybe their hurt can turn to hope.

 

Carol Howard Merritt is a Presbyterian minister who wrote the book just published last year called Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God After Experiencing a Hurtful Church. [HarperOne, 2017] She writes painfully about some even hurt by people in their own church.

 

The wounds were easy to see. People on the Internet hinted at them through status updates with “trigger warnings,” soul-baring from new atheists, and tortured blogs of ex-fundamentalists. I worked with the religiously wounded in church and met them at retreats. They were people with the sort of trauma that comes when your injuries are wrapped up in the condemnation of the soul, the shunning of families, or the shaming of flesh….The lacerations ranged in acuteness. A man revealed a paper cut when he told me about being scolded by a haughty elder lecturing him on his shabby shoes. He knew his parents couldn’t afford dress shoes, and to protect their dignity and his own, he refused to attend church…. Still in other moments, I witnessed deep gouges inflicted by a manipulative man in his collar seducing a young boy …. It was staggering to see what people suffered in the name of God. [p. 24]

 

Friends, the walking wounded are out there, and even in here. But can you join me in gently inviting others, listening to their sometimes painful stories, or feeling their icy responses, giving space for healing, and still leading them to Jesus for unconditional love? There is a hurting world of people, some of whom are turning from churches because of pain. Others have listened to many stories and have lumped all churches and all religions together. Let’s allow the light of love and of Christ to welcome hurting, shamed, and prodigal people back to the Father’s house. He is waiting to welcome those fragile people home.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           January 14, 2018

01-07-18 A DAY OF NEW BEGINNINGS: THE DO-OVER DAY

A DAY OF NEW BEGINNINGS: THE DO-OVER DAY

Acts 19: 1-5; Mark 1: 1-11

 

On my computer, and perhaps on yours, there is an icon I can click that will allow me to restart my computer. A reset button is handy to have on a computer. I also have a button in my car that resets my trip odometer, allowing me to easily calculate gas mileage or distance traveled. In golf when friends are playing, they sometimes offer a do-over on the first tee called a “mulligan” if the first shot is botched. In children’s games when someone doesn’t like the way things are going they might call out “do-over” and hope to re play that last match, or point, or round. With board games players can just clear a scorecard or announce that a new round is starting. Ah do-overs; what a nice world it would be if we all got do-overs especially when we learn what a problem our rash or spontaneous decision has created! Around ages between 20 and 25, the brain in most young adults has formed the part that understands consequences. (As I said, in MOST young adults!) Back in teenage years that part of the brain has yet to form. Parents, therefore, are charged with protecting and guiding their children enough that some lethal or dreadful mistake is not made. In games we may get do-overs, but in life? In fantasy, writers have come up with scenarios where a portion of a person’s life is lived over or viewed until they learn something they are supposed to learn. Wikipedia lists 40 films with that kind of plot! Some films included the famous “Groundhog Day, and the more recent “Edge of Tomorrow;” one called “A Day,” and another called “Before I Fall.” Other titles include “Christmas Every Day,” and “The Last Day of Summer.” Ah if only fantasy were reality, so that if we broke a terrible law, or started an unplanned pregnancy, or made a bad investment or purchase, we could just go back and make a different choice. But realty doesn’t have actual reset buttons; we can repent of things we did; we can ask for and hopefully receive forgiveness; we can seek another job if we lose our last one; or we can move to a second relationship if we ruin a first one. We can learn from our choices and adapt our actions based on yesterday’s choices. But we don’t get a reset. What we do get is a new day! Today is new from yesterday; and tomorrow will be new compared with today! We do get chances to take another run at life after some sleep, or thought, or prayers, or all three. Of all the seasonal tales people watch in December, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is perhaps the best example of someone getting a do-over life, but yes, it is a work of fiction. Ebenezer Scrooge was visited by three Spirits, the ghost of Christmas yet to come was the most terrifying. As the Spirit departed in his dream, the miserly Scrooge cried out “I will live in the Past, the Present, and the future! …The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. O Jacob Marley! Heaven, and the Christmas Time be praised for this! I say it on my knees, old Jacob, on my knees!” [CHRISTMAS BOOKS, Oxford University Press,1954, p.71] What would you give to start a new direction in your life, this day; this hour? You can, you know! You need not be visited by three spirits, but by the Spirit of the Living God! Then the direction of your life can change! The Spirit has done that time and time again. For example in Mark’s gospel, even though John is baptizing people as they agree to repent of their sins, even John admits that his baptism is not adequate; it doesn’t create the change in one’s life that the Holy Spirit creates.  If you activate the Holy Spirit in your life watch out! The Spirit starts to work at your own invitation! Who knows if you will love more unconditionally, or care more completely, or help more intentionally? Who knows how God could change your life if you were to hand the wheel over to Jesus? “Jesus take the wheel!” as the song title suggests. Inviting Jesus, or the wonderful Spirit, into your life can change things for the better!  John said Jesus would actually baptize his followers with the Holy Spirit. [Mark 1:8] Some people who love the King James Bible read that passage this way:  “Jesus will baptize his followers with the Holy Ghost.” Have you ever been baptized in the Holy Ghost?!! Let me tell you, you can’t hem and haw about your answer; you’d know if you were baptized in the Holy Ghost! Some of our Pentecostal friends could describe it; sometimes people speak in tongues; sometimes others fall to the ground slain in the Spirit. Sometimes people raise their hands and openly weep. It is a dramatic event that few Presbyterians have seen. But the Spirit waits for our invitation too. The Spirit has waited on your invitation to the dance of new life; your invitation to the change from spiraling or destructive directions; your invitation to “Take my life and let it be consecrated Lord, to Thee!”  This can be such a day; a to say “Lord, I have had done some things last year I am not proud of doing; and I have said some things last year I am not proud of saying. Today, I want a do-over. I understand it comes with remorse and repentance and all the rest, but I’m all in.” That’s what you can do today. It means you will have to submit to God’s will, but with you in the driver’s seat, how did things go in 2017? There are new possibilities in 2018! If you are ready for a change; a new beginning; a fresh start this is the day. Others have taken that step and did not look back! They embraced their past life (as Scrooge did); they acknowledged their present life too; but their commitment to make changes in their future life was the life changer.

 

There is a commercial for a medication that has people singing “Tomorrow” from the musical “Annie.” Don’t put off to tomorrow what you can do today! Can you embrace a new life even at the end of our communion service, today?  I have a supply of round discs in my office. I hand one out to any person who makes the excuse, when asked about a task, “I’ll do it as soon as I get a round to it.” So I give them a round TUIT! “There!” I say. “Now you don’t have an excuse!

 

Can you make this commitment today? When you take the bread and the cup today, hear Jesus say to you: “I love you and I’ve given my life for you.” Then you can say in a whispered voice or in your head:  “I accept your life, and I give you mine in return.” What a gift Jesus gave us! What a gift we can give Him if we more nearly do what Jesus would do, and respond more like Jesus.  Singlehandedly you could begin to change your world today by taking those steps.  Will you join me?  Let us pray:

 

O Spirit, I will life differently! I will seek to love my neighbors more dearly, and follow Jesus more nearly. I will work for there to be more peace on earth, and I will let it begin with me. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                  January 7, 2018

 

Westminster by the Sea Presbyterian Church – Daytona Beach, Florida, USA