09-02-18 WHO MAY DWELL ON YOUR HOLY HILL

Psalm 15

O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?

Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
and speak the truth from their heart;
who do not slander with their tongue,
and do no evil to their friends,
nor take up a reproach against their neighbors;
in whose eyes the wicked are despised,
but who honor those who fear the Lord;
who stand by their oath even to their hurt;
who do not lend money at interest,
and do not take a bribe against the innocent.

Those who do these things shall never be moved.

While singing our opening hymn “This is My Father’s World” we proclaimed: “This is my Father’s world, o let me never forget that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.” This is a comforting image of God who rules the entire cosmos and sees everything that happens with merciful and just eyes. Often when we think of where God is, it has been a long traditional thought that God is up in the sky high above, looking down on creation and that by going to church we can enter into a sacred place where we can access God. Here we see the Psalmist poetically and artistically describe the presence of God who abides in the tent and dwells on the holy hill, again mixing the images of sacred spaces to access God and the elevated place where God is perceived to be. The Psalmist asks, who may live in these places with God? A few weeks ago, we sang praises as our version of the Ark of the Covenant was brought forward to the front of the church. We know that in the Hebrew scriptures, or the Old Testament, that the tabernacle or the tent is where the Ark of the Covenant was kept, and that the Ark was believed to be the physical presence of God with the Israelites. The “holy hill” is an artistic way of expressing the dwelling place of God, in a high place looking down, and it is seen in numerous other psalms.

It is tempting to only hear the first part of this psalm and believe the notion that we have to go to a specific place to find God, to be with God. While we create these sacred places, our churches, to worship God, to find peace, and to learn about our faith, we do not abide here. We do not dwell here. And maybe that’s the point: we aren’t supposed to. We abide in homes with families, with neighbors next door, hospitals down the road, grocery stores a few blocks away, school buildings full of people, pharmacies, libraries, businesses, and soup kitchens all surrounding our dwelling places. This is good news, because scripture tells us over and over again that God is not limited to one place; God was in the wilderness with the Hebrews when they were liberated from Egypt, God met prophets like Moses and Elijah on mountain tops, the prophet Ezekiel sees a vision of the glory of God leaving the temple to go be with the Jews in exile, Jesus came as the incarnation of God to be with us, and Christ will return again to bring heaven to earth. The God of our church, the God of the tent and the tabernacle, is also God with us. God is with us facing the stress at work, the conflict with our families, the various health battles, the homeless on the streets, and the injustices in our institutions. Although we find peace here in our church buildings, we cannot hide from the problems of the world in our churches, clinging to a safe sanctuary, assuming this is the only place to find God. God is out amongst our neighbors; to embrace our neighbors is to embrace God.

We already abide in God’s kingdom, but the new heaven and new earth is still yet to come. This is when we truly will understand what it means to dwell with God. Reverend Frederick Buechner describes a time when he was driving into New York City, and the everyday streets revealed to him what the kingdom of God might look like. He looked around the city on an average day when nothing was different, but everything was different. He saw the streets alive with traffic and shoppers, people of all races together living and moving together in one place. After parking the car, he saw people eating their lunches together outdoors, some dressed in business suits that cost hundreds of dollars, others dressed in sneakers and jeans. They were peacefully eating their sandwiches together in silence, young and old next to each other flooded in light, surrounded by green foliage. Buechner watched a clown in the park blow up a balloon, “sneakily” twisting it into what he described as a “dove of peace” and handed it to an awe-struck boy. He then describes a middle-aged black woman who walked past him on the side-walk and said very quietly without even breaking her pace, “Jesus loves you.” He was taken aback but such a declaration in this place he was seeing as if for the first time. Buechner elucidates that in this moment as he was walking the streets, he felt as if they were streets of gold and this is what the kingdom of God might be. He explains that we can live into the kingdom around us, with hope for the kingdom to come if we turn away from madness, cruelty, and blindness, and turn toward tolerance, hope, sanity and justice.

Each week we gather here for a worship service, but once we leave the building we are called to continue worshiping God. In the second part of the psalm there are instructions on the conduct we are to live by: Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, speak the truth, who do not slander, and do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbors, who fear the Lord; who stand by their oath, who do not lend money with interest, and do not take a bribe against the innocent. There is a community in Georgia, which I believe lives these standards well. This faith community known as “Koinonia” which is the Greek word for a particular type of fellowship with Christians and God. The Koinonia group was established by Clarence Jordan in 1942. It is an intentional community that was created to reflect the kingdom of God on earth, where people are invited to live together as group to share their lives as extended family. They refused to participate in racial segregation prior to the civil rights era, they pool their financial resources to support one another, and they worship God together. They are not closed off from the world; instead they hope that this community will be a demonstration of God’s kingdom, knowing that their path to following God is specific and unique. They hope to inspire other communities to follow their own unique path in honoring God, so that the Spiritual fruit that people bear will be obvious both to members of the church and nonmembers. Living in this type of community in the modern world doesn’t work for most of us, but it can serve as inspiration to walk blamelessly by standing up against injustice, to honor and fear God by seeking out more people who we can be spiritual family with, and not lending money with interest by sharing our financial resources as we are able to do with no strings attached.

In third part of the Psalm it says that “those who do these things shall never be moved.” Since this Psalm focuses on living with God, this part of the scripture can be interpreted to say that we cannot be moved, removed, or shaken from the presence of God.  Those who do these things will never be moved from living with God; that doesn’t mean we are to be still and motionless. Our faith moves us to pray, to speak to God, which we should do. Thoughts and prayers can be offered in our homes and in our places of worship as our compassion inspires our hearts to intercede on behalf of others. But our words must also be paired with action. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was a Jewish scholar who was deported from Germany in the Nazi regime in 1938. He became an activist, moved to American in 1940, and marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama to Montgomery in 1965. When he reflected on this march, he said that he felt like his legs were praying.  When this Rabbi was deported he was not moved from God. When he moved to America he was not moved from God. And when he marched for Civil Rights he was not moved from God. And yet Rabbi Heschel never stopped moving. Everyone has different physical abilities, different skills they can use to put their prayers into action. Whether this means picking up a phone and making an important call to leaders to demand action, going out to volunteer time to charities, becoming a community leader and organizer, getting involved in the outreach with our church, writing letters to advocate for others, or donating money to causes that show Christ’s love in the world, we can use what we have with what we are able to do by praying with our hands and feet paired with our spoken prayers to God. Since we cannot be moved from the presence of God, God goes with us as we enact our prayers.

Our hymn concluded saying: This is my Father’s world, the battle is not done; Jesus who died shall be satisfied and heaven and earth be one. God lives in holy and sacred spaces, and all places are made holy by God’s presence. Our dwelling place is not on some far off holy hill, removed from the world; we abide here in God’s world where God is here with us. The kingdom of God is already among us; perhaps it looks like an average day in New York City, or a community on Georgia, or like protesters praying with their legs.  We’ve been tasked with living blamelessly, being kind to our friends and neighbors, and being generous with our resources as we wait for kingdom come. We cannot accomplish this by standing still; we move knowing that we will never be moved from God’s presence. Let us take comfort as we dwell with God, and take actions with love as we abide in the world. Praise be to God. Amen.

08-26-18 PUTTING ON THE ARMOR OF GOD

PUTTING ON THE ARMOR OF GOD

Ephesians 6: 10-20

 

Since 1977, When George Lucas released his first “Star Wars” film, people across the globe have become familiar with “The Force.” Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi tells his protégé, Luke Skywalker to “Use the Force.” Now tying down what George Lucas meant by the Force is a slipperier challenge.  It was not a force field of impenetrable strength, nor did it allow a character to fly. One source says “The Force is what gives a Jedi his power.”  In our world people would love to have power at times of terror or anxiety. And we are not the first to feel that. Through the ages people have sought a spiritual power connection, not just for offense, but also for defense. Years ago, the legendary St. Patrick, said to have rid Ireland of snakes and to have brought Christianity to the land, is also said to have put words together that became a legendary prayer. There is a long version of his prayer to God, but the shorter and more familiar version I put at the top of our bulletins:

I bind myself to Thee today, in the strong name of the Trinity, by invocation of the same, the Three in One and One in Three….Christ be with me; Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me. Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

Notice how he envisioned Christ completely with him, surrounding him, and with the power of God present. Through the ages Christians have called on the power of God to protect them in their times of need. And there are times, like the description that Paul used in his letter to the Ephesians, when he encourages others to put on the “armor” of God.  The Romans warriors in his day all dressed in armor for protection. So the Ephesians would be used to seeing armor. Aside from certain films, an outing to Medieval Times Dinner Theatre, or a visit to Rome, you may not see people in armor! But you know what it looks like. In Paul’s day, the Roman army could be brutal in its attempts to keep the Pax Romana, which was “the Peace of Rome;” forced peace! Although it was the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate who ordered the crucifixion of Jesus, Paul was not crucified in large part because he was a Roman citizen. But when he was transported to prison, he was chained to a Roman guard. Paul was in prison when he wrote this letter, and his description in chapter 6 referred to the very armor his guard wore! In the days of chivalry, a damsel in distress might have swooned when her knight in shining armor appeared! Knights were saviors and rescuers! In the Roman Empire, and in the Middle Ages, knights actually wore armor, as did their horses in some instances, so an arrow would not easily take their lives. Armor was created mostly for defensive stances rather than offensive ones; it was made to protect and defend. Armor, whether shiny or colorful or black, is designed not primarily as a weapon, but as protection. As Paul describes it, our task is to put on the spiritual armor of God to bring Christ to the world.

Paul used armor as a metaphor for the Christian spiritual protection. Paul is not a literalist, but he is a wordsmith. Paul calls himself a prisoner (3:1) and an “ambassador in chains.” As he does on other occasions, he turns a weakness (being a prisoner) into a fulfillment of God’s purpose. He does not ask for Christians to physically fight other people (“our struggle is not against enemies made of blood and flesh, but rulers, authorities, and cosmic powers of this present darkness; against spiritual forces of evil.” The armor, therefore, is to withstand the wiles of the devil. (6:11). Soldiers of an empire fight against flesh and blood. What kind of armor does a spiritual soldier need? Paul says we will need the whole armor of God, never forgetting to don every single piece. Actual knights have little protection if they fail to put on all their pieces.  Football players cannot provide strong defense without pads protecting muscles and vital organs. Like a knight, or an athlete, or a first responder, we cannot forget our equipment before we go into the world. Paul first said: “Fasten the belt of truth around your waist.” Lawrence W. Farris has written this: “Truth is the most basic virtue, but in a world of spin, purposeful deception, and deceit, it becomes even more precious and crucial.  The dark powers are led, at least metaphorically, by the ‘father of lies’ (John 8: 44), and truth is spoken in the name of the One who is ‘the way, the truth, and the life.’  The temptation is to take up the methods of the enemy, to let noble ends justify ignoble means, to fight fire with fire. [But Christ had a different message.] The fire of evil is fought not with fire, but with the waters of baptism; the lies of the Evil One are resisted with God’s truth.” So first, we need to put on the belt of truth. Second, we need the breastplate of righteousness to protect the heart of the believer. If our heart is taken over by a corrupter—whether an enticing woman, a charming but corrupt man, or a wolf in sheep’s clothing, we have nothing left with which to balance our judgments. Our decisions will need rational, linear arguments plus heart and grace. Each day we need to put on righteousness, that is, the ability to make right decisions. So first: the belt of truth. We cannot make headway in the world if we cannot distinguish truth from lies. Second, the breastplate of righteousness: use your heart as the deciding factor for action. Third put on your spiritual shoes each day. Spiritual shoes give you the protection to not only stand longer, but also walk farther and to run faster for Christ. We have a gospel to share and the gospel goes nowhere fast without messengers! We are the messengers of the good news of salvation! “Paul misquotes Isaiah 52:10 when he declared: “How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace.” Beautiful feet? No! Beautiful sounds of feet running to bring the gospel! Here’s how Isaiah originally said it in chapter 52:verse 7: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news.” If such good news does not get shared, people have no place to turn except to the bad or untruthful news around them. Fourth, arm yourself with the shield of faith. In ages past, actual shields provided considerable protection against enemies! Personal faith, joined with the faith of thousands around us, reminds us that there is strength in numbers. A shield of faith, when held arm in arm with other Christians, can keep your faith from buckling. Fifth, Paul called for a helmet of salvation, to protect what we have learned. Without our minds to process what is around us, people under stress may fall prey to evil ones, thereby encouraging people to imitate the worldly persons around them instead of imitating Christ. A hymn like “Take Thou our Minds, dear Lord,” is not a plea for God to take our minds so much as to remold our minds, guide our feet, and form our words. Again, the images are often metaphorical and not literal. Christ needs us to not relinquish our minds to enemies, or to people who are just out for political or personal gain. Instead, always try to have the mind of Christ.

Finally, at long last we are given but one offensive weapon: the sword. Sword is such an oddly spelled word for its pronunciation, isn’t it? SWORD! But this odd spelling includes the letters w-o-r-d. The sword of the Spirit is the Word of God. This is our weapon (the Bible) and, rightly interpreted, God’s Word is our weapon, interpreted by Christian minds and guided by God’s Holy Spirit. That Word judges and instructs both the believing community and those it seeks to rescue from evil. So this is what we need to put on each and every day: The belt of truth; the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of God’s Word.

As we sang for our response today:  “Stand up, stand up for Jesus, stand in his strength alone; the arm of flesh will fail you, ye dare not trust your own. Put on the gospel armor, each piece put on with prayer. Where duty calls, or danger, be never wanting there.”

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          August 26, 2018                                                                               

08-19-18 GIVE THANKS

GIVE THANKS

Colossians 3: 12-17

 

Wedding these days are often very carefully planned and very expensive. They are productions! I’ve had beautiful young women spend as many as 8 hours before a wedding ceremony with make-up and hair specialists! The groom? Well, he gets fitted for a tux and shows up! Countless photos are taken of the new couple. And that is appropriate. What I hope is that couples spend plenty of time planning for their marriage instead of just planning for the ceremony! I counsel them and encourage them to think about their lives together. We have people in this congregation married over 70 years!  Even though their looks have changed, (as mine have over my 40 years of marriage) interviewing those kinds of couples might be most helpful; how have they supported each other in every stage of their lives?

 

But beyond Christian marriage, throughout the ages people have written books on how to live the Christian life. In monastic times,
The Rule of St. Benedict was counted on as guide for living.  Chapter 40, for example, is titled: “The Proper Amount to Drink” and is loosely based, it says, on 1 Corinthians 7:7: “Everyone has his own gift from God, and another that.” I told you it was loosely based on that text! I goes on to say: “It is with some uneasiness that we specify the amount of food and drink for others. However, with due regard for the infirmities of the sick, we believe that a half a bottle of wine a day is sufficient for each. But those to whom God gives the strength to abstain must know that they will earn their own reward.” [The Rule of St. Benedict in English, the Liturgical Press, 1982, p. 62]  So now you have your guidance on wine, if you dare to follow it! Through the ages there were other guide journals. In the late 19th century a Scotsman–Oswald Chambers–was born, and in the early 20th century he published a masterpiece of Christian guidance called My Utmost for His Highest. I got a small new translation of it as a gift from a colleague in 1994; and an expanded edition was given to me 10 years ago: it is 1500 pages long based on books of the New Testament that only take up less than a quarter of the Bible! Goodness. But there is much food for thought in those pages. In 1988 Richard J. Foster made a splash in spiritual circles with the publication of his book Celebration of Discipline. In it he addressed the inward Christian disciplines of meditation, prayer, fasting, and study; and the outward disciplines of simplicity, solitude, submission, and service. It has been republished just this past February. Then in 2002 who could forget the publishing splash when Rick Warren published the Christian guidebook called The Purpose Driven Life?  Millions of copies were published, unabashedly described by the author on the dust jacket: “It is the blueprint for living in the 21st century.” Well we can go to the translations and interpretations of the Bible that all these people have published, or we can go to the source ourselves!  When I was in seminary, word of the publication of a new commentary spread across campus liked wildfire! We all wanted to read what some great Biblical scholar had to say about the Bible! My Old Testament professor, Dr. Bernard Anderson, said this to us one day in class: “It is amazing how much light the Bible can shed on those commentaries.”

We all felt sheepish. We wanted the read the commentaries more than the Bible itself! So you, see, we are all guilty of wanting to ready what someone says about the Bible more than going to the source. Today, let’s go to the source. God’s Spirit can speak to our own souls as we read our Bibles again and again.

 

In two of his letters, Paul puts down the qualities needed to live a Christian life. . In both Ephesians, and today in Colossians, Paul has wonderful instructions about how we should live.  I often read it to married couples, but its original intention is to teach Christians how to follow Jesus! He says in chapter 3 beginning in verse 12:

“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved.”  That’s the intro. It says you are not an accident; not a happenstance. You are selected by God; chosen, and have a purpose in your life, part of which is to glorify God. That is our “Chief End” according to the Westminster Confession of Faith. But then, Paul calls followers of Jesus “Holy.” That means set apart, especially for God’s purposes.  So God watches what we do with the gifts and instructions we receive, and the challenges we face. And we are never left alone. We are called “beloved,” a fancy word that says you are deeply and irretrievably loved. Let that sink in.  I have talked to several people up in their years who have felt incomplete because they never heard their father tell them he loved them. But the Heavenly Father of Jesus not only loved him, he loves you and me too! God can complete what human beings sometimes leave incomplete.

“Clothe yourself with compassion, kindness, humility, weakness, and patience.” Every day it is helpful to think about wearing these qualities even as you wear your clothes.  “Compassion” means “a willingness to suffer with.” It’s a quality you might find in your parents, your partner, with church friends or nurses or caregivers.  It’s a willingness to suffer with someone else. Kindness is just what you think it is: showing love in gentle and thoughtful ways. But are you practicing it? Humility is different from humiliation. Humility is thinking of others first. Weakness is not being physically out of shape. It is a spiritual guideline to always remember that you can “do all things through Him who strengthens me.” That person, for Christians, is Jesus. And patience, well you know what that is right? Do you pray “Lord, give me more patience and give it to me now”? Patience is often in short supply in our fast-moving world, especially in traffic!

Bear with one another and if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.

This is huge. We are called to bear with one another. Did you see the Disney film “Zootopia?” In it Judy Hopps becomes the first rabbit to become a police officer. In one scene she needs information from the Department of Motor Vehicles. She arrives and is waited on by a s-l-o-w–t-a-l-k-i-n-g sloth! I felt her pain as I visited with my mother in her retirement home- everyone moved so slowly! But because I love my mother, I learned to move slowly too.  Forgiving is included in the Lord’s Prayer, so I know it was important to both Jesus and the human race. We will spend a series of Wednesday evenings in October all on the subject of forgiveness! The bottom line is: if we want forgiveness from God, it is offered only when we forgive others. I wonder how many of us have Divine forgiveness offered, but not yet delivered, because we have not yet forgiven someone else?

Paul then says to be clothed in love– that is, Christian love; agape; unconditional love. That’s the empowering kind; not conditional love that is manipulative. And let peace rule in your hearts. If you can move toward peace, you are moving closer to God.

 

At the bottom of this piece of instruction, Paul tells his readers that Whatever we do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.

So with all the volumes of Christian help books that have been published, these 5 verses might just hold the key to them all. If you consult God before you do anything, or say anything, and you pray in Jesus’ name, it lines up the pieces of our lives. Like having a limp rubber band pulled taught, going to God in prayer at the beginning of a day can line up your purpose and lead you to honor God and others with words and deeds.

 

At the bottom of that section is the little reminder that is often forgotten. Give thanks. That’s it.  Give thanks.  Giving thanks changes the world. People feel appreciated when they are thanked for what they have given: a present, a financial gift, or whatever. Giving thanks changes the giver because he or she is acknowledged; and giving thanks changes the recipient because it develops a sense of gratitude instead of entitlement. And you know who we dare not forget to thank: G-O-D; for our lives; for being loved so perfectly; and for our salvation through Jesus Christ. For giving us creation with all of its wonders! These are reasons to give thanks to God. We could write a thank you note on paper or in a blog and address it to God; or we could include it thoughtfully, rather than offhandedly, in our prayers. A giver can tell if a thank you if perfunctory or genuine.

 

Giving thanks. Paul saved it for last, perhaps because it should be first in our hearts!  To parents, spouses, teachers, coaches, and to God: give thanks.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          August 19, 2018

 

 

 

08-12-18 LIVING AS CHILDREN OF LIGHT

LIVING AS CHILDREN OF LIGHT

Psalm 27: 1-4; Ephesians 4:25- 5:2

 

In a sort of testimonial, David in Psalm 27 gives us a masterpiece of faith: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” Notice that it’s not addressed to God; it’s addressed to whoever reads it or hears it. It’s a person taking a stand of courage against the tumultuous tides of the world. Artur Weiser, in his commentary of the Psalms, suggests that David “expresses fearless trust in God which enables him to face the future calmly and undauntedly in spite of many perils.”  [PSALMS, Westminster Press, 1962, pp. 245-246.] And James Luther Mays, Professor Emeritus of Union Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, says:

[It] begins with alternating interdependent declarations about God and self: God is light, salvation, [and] refuge to the psalmist—the psalmist fears no human being (vs.1) The declaration would hold even for situations like the slander of evildoers, (vs.2) and the attack of a hostile army (vs.3).  He so trusts the Lord. [PSALMS John Knox Press, 1994, p. 130].

 

Can you think of a time when you hit rock bottom? Perhaps you had a personal crisis; a financial problem; a problem with an addiction; or a problem with your job?  Who could you trust? Could you lean on the everlasting arms of God to carry you over the troubled waters of that time? Perhaps you found others on whom you could depend.  Sometimes the light of God can be reflected from the heart of a person we learn to trust. Some people live as children of light; they are trustworthy, confidential, and wise. If you have found such persons, you know who they are. As we learned over the past several weeks, God’s people always wanted a God they could see, and touch, and face. But God refuses to become what we want; God is who God is. What, however, if God’s plan was for certain human beings to carry around some pure light with them? One person who did it perfectly was Jesus Christ.  He was so sure that he said to others “I am the Light of the World.” When he said, “I and the Father are one” in John 10:30, he claimed the light of God for his life. So that’s one person who carried the light perfectly.  Light is so important; to go into a dark cellar one needs light; to drive through the dark of night one needs headlights; to walk through a dark path one needs a lantern, a lamp, or a flashlight. Light is vital in darkness.  No one can make a room so dark that a single match cannot illuminate it: that’s the power of light, and the weakness of darkness!

 

When the Apostle Paul was writing to the Christians in Ephesus, he knew what spiritual darkness looked like! The Ephesians were surrounded by spiritual darkness: people worshiped at the Temple of Artemis; people bought idols in the markets, and their Emperor demanded to be addressed as “lord and god.”  I shared that with you last week. That was the first century. Now we fast forward to the 20th Century and the time when the world was facing the crisis of World War II. When writing about the strength and value of a democracy, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote these words:

…We may well designate the moral cynics, who know no law beyond their will and self-interest, with the scriptural designation “children of the world;” or “children of darkness.”  Those who believe that self-interest should be brought under the discipline of a higher law could be termed “the children of light.”… [He went on to say] The [western] world came so close to disaster not merely because it never believed that Nazism possessed the demonic fury which it avowed. Civilization refused to recognize the power of class interest in its own communities. It also spoke glibly of an international conscience; but the children of darkness skillfully set nation against nation …. The children of light must be armed with the wisdom of the children of darkness but remain free of their malice. [THE CHILDREN OF LIGHT AND THE CHILDREN OF DARKNESS, Charles Scribner’s and Sons, New York, 1944; pp. 10-41]

 

Niebuhr’s conclusions seem alarmingly timely although written over 70 years ago. Notice how the children of light must know about the children of darkness; they should learn their ways without falling into moral decadence, blindness, or relativism. Some of the most vital information available for winning a war comes from your enemy, Espionage, as we know, becomes a vital resource for collecting information on an enemy.

 

The Apostle Paul in both his second letter to the Corinthians, and again in his letter to the Ephesians, equates followers of Jesus as children of light, and those who don’t know or deny Jesus as children of darkness. Can’t you hear the tempting words of the children of darkness: “Come on, everybody’s doing it.” We now hear of people hiding their taxable income from the IRS and of people hiding their large amounts in off shore accounts. We know that parents and their children work outside of the rules to obtain high SAT schools for college scholarships. Some will do anything for coveted scholarships. We need to know the ways the children of darkness operate, but not follow their paths.

 

Several years ago, a girl in one of our Confirmation Classes had a classmate say to her: “Christians have no idea what the Real World is like.” That’s another phrase the children of darkness say. Real world. It as if to say in the real world people have to lie, or cheat or steal to get ahead; they have to bend a few rules, do a few drugs, or sleep with others to get ahead. But the children of light should not be naïve; need to know what goes on in the ranks of the darkness. Ig’s good to know what quicksand is out there and the consequences those choices bring.  There are examples of children of light and children of darkness all around us. Daily decisions and temptations can have lasting effects. Let me leave you with the words of Ephesians from The Message, The Bible in Contemporary Language, by Eugene Peterson. In this section that has the title: “The Old Way Has to Go,” he records these great words starting with verse 17. Paul says:

 

And so I insist—and God backs me up on this—that there is no going along with the crowd, the empty-headed, mindless crowd. They’ve refused for so long to deal with God that they’ve lost touch not only with God, but with reality itself.  They can’t think straight anymore. Feeling no pain, they let themselves go in sexual obsession, addicted to every sort of perversion.  But that’s no life for you! You learned Christ! My assumption is that you have paid careful attention to him, and been well instructed in the truth precisely as we have it in Jesus. Since then, we do not have the excuse of ignorance, everything—and I do mean everything—connected with that old way of life has to go. It’s rotten through and through. Get rid of it! And then take on an entirely new way of life—a God-fashioned life, a life renewed from the inside and working itself into your conduct as God accurately reproduces his character in you.
Today, make any changes necessary in your life to become a better child of the light.

Let us pray: Dear God of Light, you have already placed your light in us; you gave us your essence as we were being created. But sometimes darkness and bad habits shroud the light in our souls. Help us to remove any shrouds within, to let your light shine before others: in what we say and what we do. We pray through Jesus Christ, the light of the world. Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           August 12, 2018

 

08-05-18 THE PURPOSE OF CHRIST’S GIFTS

THE PURPOSE OF CHRIST’S GIFTS

Ephesians 4: 1-16

 

Long before God formed me in the womb of my mother over 62 years ago, I wonder how the Holy One did it?  Did God, like a child, cut up my features like paper dolls?  Did God, like a teen in chemistry class, mix my ingredients together, and make me?  Or did God, just know how to put the right chromosomes together and then endow me with spiritual gifts- like wisdom, understanding, and respect for the Lord?  Who knows how God made me and gave me the gifts I have? Who knows how God made you? But it is clear that there is not a set recipe for any of us. Like snowflakes, we are all different. But like Christmas cookies, we are sprinkled with characteristics that make us unique.  Some in our midst serve God directly as a minister, a chaplain, a choir director, an organist, a Sunday School teacher, an usher, an elder, a or a person showing great hospitality.  Others have similar ingredients but their work took their gifts in other directions.  Some are excellent at medicine, some excellent with their hands, or with their hearts, or with their minds. There are so many professions, jobs, and important tasks that need to be done in our world.  And yes we can take a raw talent and hone it. With practice, someone can be good at sports, or at music, or at mathematics, or in construction.  As the late Mr. Rogers used to say to his television neighbors: “Each of you is unique. There is no one else quite like you!”  And so it goes.

 

When Paul was writing to new Christians in Ephesus, it was a very cosmopolitan town- and very pagan. In the city was a giant temple to Artemis- the goddess of the hunt and of fertility. People would come and pray to her. And in the harbor was a giant statue of the emperor Domitian—whose ego was as giant as the harbor creation- believed to be 27 feet high on top of a massive base; and the Emperor demanded that people address him as “lord and god.” That was the climate of Ephesus when the apostle Paul started writing to a group of Christians there, trying to talk them into believing in the one true God, and in Jesus the Christ-the anointed one-the one who came to save people from the darkness and guilt of sin.  It was not a fertile land for planting gospel seeds in Ephesus; it was rocky to say the least! But Paul used God-given gifts for the same reason they’ve been given to us: for the building up of the body of Christ, which is the church. They are not given to stoke our own ego; they are given so the Body of Christ can be equipped to face the wiles of the evil one, and the distractions of the world.  Even in our day, finding fertile soil for planting gospel seeds can be difficult. Some people let words from a horoscope guide their important decisions.  Some people leave choices up to chance.  Others find their answers—and sometimes their gods—online or in peer groups.  Some fall into the world of gaming and bit coins that can move from fun to the darkness of obsession or gambling.

 

Into the first century world and—by extension—the twenty-first century word, Paul writes that he is “a prisoner of the Lord.” That is not just a metaphor; Paul was an actual prisoner, imprisoned for his testimonies about Christ! Some of the most powerful letters historically are from those imprisoned for Christ; the German Christian Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a 20th century example that wrote letters from prison.  But in the first century world, when people could often been seen in shackles (or fetters) against their will, Paul’s claim that he is indebted to Christ and no other. He is willfully shackled to Christ. The response to the Prayer of Confession that Glory chose last week declared “O to grace, how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to me; let that grace now like a fetter bind my wandering heart to thee.”  We, like Paul, may choose to be a prisoner for the Lord. But here was the radical proclamation for the culturally diverse people of Ephesus: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the hope of your calling, on Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God.” Goodness. That would really turn people on their heads when they first heard it! “One Lord!” (not Domitian)! “One faith!” (in a community of many faiths?) What a ridiculous idea people must have thought.  Paul had brought a giant culture-shift to them, and today he keeps grounding even us in Christ during the shifting tides of our fast-moving world.

 

Next Paul talks about gifts; and not just ordinary gifts but ones from Christ. He says “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive and he gave gifts to his people.” Then, like a commentator, Paul explains what he meant: “When it says ‘He ascended,’ what does it mean but that he had descended into the lower parts of the earth.” Maybe you wondered where the phrase “He descended into Hell” originated in the Apostle’s Creed; this is one place it is found in the Bible. Then Paul listed gifts; gifts different from the Gifts of the Spirit listed in Isaiah chapter 11. Referring to Christ, He says, “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles (that means the sent ones), prophets (another word for preachers) some evangelists (that is, people who share the gospel with others), some pastors (generally persons who oversee flocks called congregations) and teachers (the a high calling of helping others learn about Jesus and the Bible). All of that is to equip us for the work of ministry.  When I was ordained as a minister back on July 24th 1981, I chose those words from Ephesians to be on the cover of my ordination bulletin. Those words grounded me then, and now, to Jesus Christ.

 

Finally, Paul says why it is important to be grounded, and to use the gifts God has provided. “We must no longer be …tossed to and fro and blown by every wind of doctrine; by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.”  That described Paul’s world but it describes ours too, doesn’t it?  There are people all over our land who want you money, want your allegiance, and want your vote; many of them will say anything to get them! They can try to influence you over the phone, through the mail, by hacking your information, or in person.  This passage implores us to stay grounded, using the gifts God has given us to ward off those who would trick us, entice us, or try to win us away from the one true God.  We may not have a shrine to a goddess at the edge of town, or a huge statue of an emperor off of our beaches, but believe me, there are those with a desire for power and influence who want to turn your eyes from Jesus. Don’t let them! Keep Jesus in your sights.  We who love Jesus are part of God’s plan to change the world!  Together let’s serve our Savior, and no other. Together, let’s give glory to God, and no other. And we can, together, be grounded by the grace and the words of God in the commandment “You shall have no other gods before me”—spoken in love, from the source of love. An anemic body of Christ may fall; but a strong body will stand. Do your part to keep the body of Christ strong.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           August 5, 2018

 

07-29-18 GLORY’S MISSION BEGINS

Ephesians 3:14-21
3:14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father,

3:15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.

3:16 I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit,

3:17 and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.

3:18 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth,

3:19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

3:20 Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine,

3:21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

As I begin my ministry here at Westminster-by-the-Sea, I have spent time wondering what word God might give me to speak as my first sermon. First impressions are hard to nail down, and it’s easy to mess them up! What can I say that might be impressive? How can I convince you that you’ve made the right choice in who is your new associate pastor? I, like some of you may be, am an overthinker. I think about every possible outcome of my decisions. What if everyone falls asleep during my first sermon? What if they have the rotten tomatoes ready to chuck at me the minute I let my guard down? And then I realized the error in my thinking: I am really focused on myself! And if there is anything I have learned from the lengthy ordination process, my years in seminary, and in all of my ministry experience, it is never about me. I have been called to share the good news of Jesus Christ, and that is what I am here to do today. The Holy Spirit reminded me that every step of this process of ministry has been covered in prayer; and prayer is what is going to sustain me and the church for the years to come. So what better way to begin my ministry here with you all than by a prayer? In this letter addressed to the saints in Ephesus noted as a writing from Paul, we see that there is emphasis on unity, living a new life, and putting on the armor of God. This letter is believed to have the most comprehensive and cohesive portrait of God’s plan, using words to paint a picture of a God who is the ruler of the whole universe with a deep love and wide sovereignty for all of creation. This prayer that we just read truly grasps the expansiveness of the God of the cosmos. So now I use this prayer as my own. This is my prayer for this church and for our life together as a family of faith.

I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your heart by faith as you are being rooted and grounded in love. There is a deep richness in this portion of the prayer. This is a powerful blessing to enrich the soul. It is a call for strengthening of the inner being with power through the Spirit. Strengthening our outer being involves good nutrition, exercise, hygiene practices, healthcare, and rest; but strengthening our inner being often involves prayer, care from others, and fellowship. When one being suffers, the other tends to suffer as well. We must take care of ourselves inside and out so that we may be strong individuals and a strong team united in the Holy Spirit. Reverend Nadia Bolz-Weber, founder of the church House for All Sinners and Saints, discusses having an experience of strengthening her inner and outer being. She was preparing for a church event while struggling with a back spasm. Nadia had to load and unload her car full of food, spent hours setting everything up, and had lead worship all while in pain. When much fewer people showed up for the event than she expected, she found herself in a bitter mood, which was only made worse when she found herself cleaning up all alone while others sat around talking and laughing together. One of the congregation members approached her, knowing she was having a rough day, and asked to pray with her. A small group gathered and prayed. Nadia’s back spasm released, and the group helped her finished cleaning. This blessing strengthened her outer being by relieving her pain, but also strengthened her inner being by having compassion shown toward her, being prayed over, and having help to clean up. The Holy Spirit is at work among us, and that is so evident when we show up for one another and strengthen each others’ inner being. According to the prayer, we do this by being rooted and grounded in love. Author Dianna Butler Bass describes being rooted and grounded by looking for God around us. She explains how churches have tall ceilings and architecture that points up to heaven, but she reminds us not to be so distracted with looking up and having a vertical faith practice, that we forget that God is with us, in each of us, and among us as we walk the earth. Our faith must be horizontal as well. This is how we stay rooted and grounded in love and this is what I pray for us, as we strengthen one another.

I pray that you have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth, and the length, and the height, and the depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. What a thing to pray for: to comprehend each direction, every corner of the love of Jesus. What a blessing to wish upon someone, to be filled with the fullness of God. Even as I pray this for each of you, I myself don’t have a complete understanding of this expansive love and brimming fullness. The closest I have come to having this prayed over me and understanding what it even means was during my time in South Korea with a group from my seminary. After flying to the other side of the world and passing into a time zone that is 14 hours ahead of us, I was met with kindness, warmth, love, and hospitality by each person I met while in South Korea. Travelling this far away over a 14 hour period and being met with welcome truly affirmed a comprehension of breadth and length and height and depth of Christ’s love. Our seminary group attended a weekly prayer service held at one of the Korean churches. This prayer service used a type of practice called “tong sung kido.” This is a spontaneous prayer spoken out loud; it is not a prayer spoken in tongues, but instead each person prayers out loud their own prayer to God in Korean. The pastor would stand before the congregation and discuss an important topic, such as sharing about some of the sick congregation members. Then the entire congregation would cry out to God in unison together, which roughly translates as, “Please God!” and then they would each pray their own prayer out loud on behalf of the sick congregation members. After a period of time, the pastor would talk about another topic, maybe about their missionaries, then they would go on in prayer again out loud for the missionaries, and it would continue in this cycle. While we couldn’t understand the words that were being spoken, we could feel the passion and intensity behind these prayers. We were surprised when the pastor asked our group to stand up. We were traveling strangers, a group of foreigners, in this church, but he told the congregation that we were seminary students from the United States and that they should pray for us. So this congregation cried out, “Please God!” And then prayed out loud for us. They cried out with the same passion and intensity as before, on our behalf. To hear voices being uplifted in another language by people who didn’t even know us was an experience so profoundly moving, that I will never forget it. This is the closest to the fullness of God I have ever felt, to be overwhelmed by hospitality, love, and prayer by complete strangers to us foreigners, and this is what I pray for each of you.

Our scripture passage ends with a charge and a blessing to the saints of Ephesus, which I also offer as a charge to you, to us as a team: Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever. Whatever you or I can imagine us accomplishing through love in the name of Jesus is nothing compared to what God can do within us. The potential of this world-changing power is unfathomable, and is the blessing I hope for us. Doing the unimaginable will look different from person to person, depending upon our gifts and passion given to us by the Spirit. For example, this might look like a 102 year-old-man who has logged over a thousand hours of service and traveled thousands of miles to volunteer his time to Meals on Wheels. Edward Kydd, who is not too far from us in Rockledge, FL, is not letting his age slow him down. He wants to spend his time giving to others who might need a hot meal brought to their home. Another example of doing the unimaginable might look like English teacher Bijoun Eric Jordan raising over $50,000 to take his students overseas to Japan. Mr. Jordan teaches at a school in Brooklyn where many of his students,who are mostly people of color, come from economically disadvantaged families and neighborhoods. Mr. Jordan knows his students struggle with poverty and are exposed to crime, and he wants them to see the world so that they know there is more out there than what they may be struggling with now. He believes offering them the opportunity to travel to Japan and other countries can be life-changing for these students who may not otherwise be able to afford to see much of the world outside of their neighborhoods. Like Bijoun Eric Jordan and Edward Kydd, if we use our love for others God can accomplish so much more than we could imagine in the world.

We are standing here in this space together, at the very beginning of our ministry. We’re still getting to know each other, and there is so much for us to learn and do side by side. I have already seen God at work here through VBS and our various outreach ministries, and I am very excited about living the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our community together.  I believe that if we strengthen one another, remain rooted and grounded, and be open to the fullness of God then the work will be good and beyond all that we can imagine. While I pray this for you and for us, I hope you’ll join me in this prayer for our church and for our community, too. If we are sharing this prayer as our mission together, raising our voices as one body with this prayer as our vision  then the power of the Holy Spirit will be a palpable presence. Let us pray and enact this together so that God will be glorified in the church for all generations. Praise be to God. Amen.

07-22-18 THE FIRST EVANGELIST

THE FIRST EVANGELIST

Mark 6: 53-56 (with references to Mark 5:1-20)

 

Were any of you fans of the TV series called “Lost?” I wasn’t, but Mary Ann was, so we watched it! I always said, “They call it ‘Lost’ because the writers said to themselves each week, ‘What direction will we take the story today?’ The plot seemed to jump from one strange event to another. And then there were the flashbacks. So many films and television shows now revert to flashbacks to explain connections with characters, or to explain current plot twists.

 

Well today I am going to use that popular device! Today’s “episode” comes from Mark chapter six that you heard me read. But if you listened carefully, you don’t hear a mention of any particular person who might be identified as “the first evangelist,” that is, the first person to tell others about Jesus. That event could only by flashing back to Mark 4:35—a chapter earlier—when Jesus told his disciples: “Let’s go across to the other side.” You see, if we turned this sanctuary space up front into a clock face, (that’s an analogue clock to millennials and children) imagine that the sea of Galilee is right in the middle of our center aisle and that Jesus is true north! From that point, 8:00 o’clock would be Tiberias, a city with a Roman graveyard and where Roman soldiers gathered—Jesus NEVER went there. Then at about 9:00 o’clock and a few miles away from the sea was Nazareth, Jesus’ boyhood home. Many believe that Jesus and his father Joseph would have walked to the nearby metropolitan city (by comparison with Nazareth) of Sepphoris to find work as carpenters and stonemasons. Then at about 10 ‘clock was Cana also several miles from the sea, the place where Jesus performed his first miracle of changing water into wine according to John chapter 2.  Up at 11:00 o’clock was Magdala—the home of Mary Magdalene. Although not one of the 12, she was still a disciple of Jesus. At 11 o’clock was the place on the shore where Jesus preached the so-called “Sermon on the Mount,” including the Beatitudes, like “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven.” At 12:00 was the adopted hometown of Jesus as a man: Capernaum. He preached in it’s synagogue according to Mark 1: 29-32, and he healed the mother of Simon who lived there. At 1:00 the River Jordan traveled from the snow covered tops of Mount Hermon on its way to the Dead Sea. At 2:00 o’clock was Bethsaida, currently in the Golan Heights. It was the hometown of Simon Peter, his brother Andrew, and Philip. At 3:00 there was a distinctly different population. 3:00 o’clock was the land of the Gerasenes according to Mark 5. These were Gentiles and not Jews. They raised pigs, ate pork, and did not worship the God of the Hebrews. So when Jesus said, that they “came to the other side,” it was radical. Any Jew would have been made ritually unclean by visiting there. Yet Jesus, a Jew, defied custom and went. What did he find? A read challenge for one thing: a man isolated from his hometown and banished to live in a graveyard, a truly homeless man who was believed to be possessed by demons.  There was quite a drama in that “last episode” in Mark chapter 5 as Jesus commanded the unclean spirits to come out of the man, and he sent the unclean spirits into a herd of swine nearby! About 2000 of those pigs, filled with the unclean spirits, ran into the Sea of Galilee and drowned! We’ll get to the man who was healed in a minute, but think about the owners of the swine! They would have lost their entire income because of what Jesus did. If Jesus came farther into that country on that day, he might have been detained or killed. But he sailed off. What was the other consequence of Jesus’ action? The Sea of Galilee is really just a lake. Can you imagine what 2000 dead swine would do to the fish in the sea? The Bible speaks nothing of that. What it does say is that the healed man naturally wanted to follow Jesus. But Jesus knew that no Jew would listen to the testimony of a Gentile. So he wisely said in Mark 5:19- “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he had mercy on you.” Jesus made a leap of faith with his guidance: the leap was for that recently possessed man to now call Jesus Lord! Then he told that total stranger instead of following him, to go and tell his friends about Jesus and what he had done for him! That makes him the first evangelist! Let’s see his results.

 

Fast forward to sometime in the future in Mark chapter 6. Jesus and his friends were near Bethsaida (about 2 on the clock) and there he fed 5000 people with five loaves and two fish according to Mark 6:38. Then they returned to the land of the Gerasenes also called Gennesaret. Remember, according to the Bible, no one would have thought of Jesus as Lord over there except possibly the man he healed from demons. Now Jesus is returning. What will he find? Quote: “When he got out of the boat immediately people recognized who he was, and ran about the whole neighborhood and began to bring sick people on their pallets to any place where he heard he was.” Jesus wanted to be Lord, but he responded to requests for healing too! The point is, one man who was sick, gave his testimony to others about what Jesus had done, and they were amazed.

 

Nobody else can be the first evangelist; that position is already taken. But what about the position of the next evangelist? That could be any one of you! Which child here today might take the envelope handed to them and share it with a friend, telling them about the place they learn about Jesus? Which of you might speak to someone else about what you’ve learned at Westminster By-The-Sea? I know some families who joined us for Vacation Bible School and they also came last Sunday; perhaps even this Sunday they’re here because they have felt welcomed and they’ve heard the Good News! Which person among you has learned about someone’s illness from our prayer list, gone to see them and prayed for them, keeping them in your heart? Who among you knows a new neighbor, or people you’ve met at a gathering, and invited them to join you here on a Sunday?  There are people here right now who were invited to try come learn about Jesus here, and you liked it and stayed! We can all be the next evangelist, the next one to tell others about Jesus by not hiding his light under the bushel of our shyness or reluctance! If you have found Jesus, or have found a wonderful way to learn about him here, why not tell others about it? I often have people call me, or text me, or post on Facebook where they’ve found a great deal on a product or a service! I’m not offended by that. Sometimes I need the same products or service!  I believe there are plenty of spiritually hungry or spiritually searching people trying to wade through the wasteland of the internet for answers. Here Jesus is shared weekly: lovingly, honestly, and with a desire for you to know about him, grow with his teachings, and perhaps even accept him as Lord, just like Jesus hoped the first evangelist would do. But it won’t happen if you don’t do what that first evangelist did: go back to your friends and tell them about Jesus! Then God’s Holy Spirit can go to work on their heart. And maybe, they’ll say, “I too want to know about Jesus!” When we realize all the people Jesus encountered and changed, we soon find out that “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy.” Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          July 22, 2018

07-15-18 THE ARK OF THE COVENANT

THE ARK OF THE COVENANT

2 Samuel 6: 1-5

 

Like many of our Vacation Bible School children this week, years ago there was a little boy who attended another VBS where he was taught that God, who was invisible, was always with him.  They boy thought about it as he was being tucked into bed. The night was dark and thunder was clapping outside and lightning flashing. He asked him mother if she would stay with him. “No honey,” I have to get your younger brother ready for bed. But remember: God is with you.” “ Yeah,” the boy said, but I rather have someone with some skin.”

 

All this week the lessons we taught were to secure the belief that no matter what times of trial we face, God will be with us, even if God is invisible. Mary Ann and I were just in Copenhagen as part of our 40th anniversary, and I made a point of going to Soren Kierkegaard plaza, a rather underwhelming place. On the plane over I was reading some of the writings of that famous Danish philosopher.  One poem, likely penned by Kierkegaard, is called “Footprints in the Sand.” A man had a dream and his life flashed across the sky. He noticed two sets of footprints in the sand during most of his life, and believed they were those of the Lord and himself. But he was troubled when during the times in his life that were most difficult, there appeared to be only one set of footprints. So he questioned the Lord about it. The Lord said, “My precious, precious child, I have taught you that I will never abandon your or forsake you. When you saw the one set of footprints in the sand, it was then that I carried you.” A line in many hymnals imagines God saying to the singers: “When through the deep waters I call thee to go, the rivers of sorrow shall not overflow; for I will be near thee, thy troubles to bless, and sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.” That image, and the themes in our VBS stories this week, imagined a person rolling down the rivers of life, facing rapid places, calm places, cold place, and warm places. But many people—including the people of God—did not just float down a river; they crossed a river or other bodies of water.  The salvation event for the Hebrew people was crossing the Red Sea at a place that God made dry, so they could escape slavery.  Moses was God’s chosen leader. Later as Moses grew old during a terribly trying time wandering for 40 years in the wilderness, God created a tag team to cross a different body of water into his promised land. That body of water was the Jordan River. Moses was aloud to see the Promised Land but not cross over into it. That task was handed off to Joshua. Moses blessed him and God commissioned him. So Joshua led others from Mount Nebo across the Jordan River into Caanan to claim God’s promised land.

 

Those people, a bit like the young boy who wanted a God with skin, decided that they wanted to take God with them. But how? They couldn’t look at him; they couldn’t make any graven images of him or carry them in their robes. They decided the one thing they had from God was the Ten Commandments, words that they believed were cut by the finger of God. So the tablets on which the commandments were written became sacred; special; almost like a child’s security blanket for grown ups. They decided that they would feel safer if God traveled with them. And for good measure, they would feel best if God went first! Thus we come to the story of the Ark of the Covenant the details of which are in Second Samuel Chapter 6. Don’t we know what it’s like to want God close to us; God with us? Some believe God is in their Bible, or on a cross in their pocket, or around their neck, or in their sanctuaries or chapels. Today we learn that even in the days of the people of Israel, God was not just in heaven. God was with the chosen people. And later we learn how God dwelled on the earth in Jesus Christ, … and still is with us through the Holy Spirit! So let’s take the idea that God only resides in Heaven and set it aside! Let’s set aside the belief that people can only approach God in churches or cathedrals. Let’s not believe that we can put a memento of God on a knick knack shelf and think it means God is there! We say to our forbears: “We understand why you wanted to try to carry God with you!  But through Jesus God is in the Temple of our hearts!”

 

This morning our sanctuary includes a replica of the Ark of the Covenant; The ark was a moveable box, built to exact specifications according to God’s instructions, that would contain the Commandment tablets Moses received on Mount Sinai from God.  Israelites, and later the Jews, called those Commandments “God’s Law.” God’s people believed that God’s presence was with them when the Ark was in front of their journeys.   This was not a box God lived in; it was an Ark that carried the reminder of God’s presence and protection.  The Bible records that when the chosen people had battles with others, they honored God by keeping God present, not just with the Ark, but also in leather pouches lashed to their foreheads. They believed if they removed their sacred pieces from their bodies, or failed to put the ark in front of their battles, they could be defeated.  In our day those who hear a message and believe it on a Sunday, but live as if they have not heard it on Monday, may struggle to find God’s presence on Tuesday.

 

The Israelites remembered, and put rituals into place, to honor God on the Sabbath: for Jews that’s from sundown Friday until Saturday night. They had times and places for honoring God. If ever they were delivered from a foe, they thanked God for it and erected boulders they called “altars,” or “standing stones,” saying to future generations,  “God delivered us in this place.” How do you remember times when God has delivered or healed you?  Do you have a ritual for remembering and thanking God?

 

The late German Theologian Gerhard von Rad describes “The Tent, the Ark, and the Glory of God” this way:

The tabernacle is not a tent in the full sense of the term….It consisted of a massive frame of boards overlaid with gold ….Here stood the Ark, a rectangular wooden casket, 2 ½ cubits long, 1 ½ broad, and1 ½ high, which could be carried by means of long poles. [OLD TESTAMENT THEOLOGY, Harper & Row, 1962, vol. 1, pp. 234-235]

The poles were a very important part of the set up. God had not just picked a place, called it holy, and said, “I will live here; you come to see me here!” No; God said, in effect, “Take me with you; I want to be where you are, and you will certainly want me to be where you are!” That’s why the poles are there. The Ark of the Covenant includes angels on top to indicate the presence of God.  It’s called “the Mercy Seat.” The Ark was not intended to be mainly a shrine for people to travel to visit. It was so God could go with the people. Those who were thinking that God would just live in a tabernacle or a temple were limiting our limitless God! But, as the Jews settled around Jerusalem, they lost their need to travel and escape. So a Temple was eventually built to protect the Ark and invite the faithful to, symbolically, come closer to God. Likewise, even though our world has wonderful sanctuaries, cathedrals, and chapels where people can come for reflection or prayer, they are intended to point to God, be a catalyst for our spiritual lives and lift our drooping heads up! They become destinations in and of themselves. Yes, we can take God with us, in a manner of speaking, as we carry our Bibles, cell phones, crosses, or computers. But the worship of God has always involved a community! Some people say they can worship God on golf courses, in theme parks, or other places. They can; that is, if they set their clubs down, or their fast passes down, move to a corner of the property, gather at least three other people, set up a focal point of an altar, a cross, a bowl of water, or a table, and worship the God who is with them even there!  It takes focus to honor God, not just a glib mention. Or you can go to a house of worship, where others come seeking God and community, and use that time for focused worship. Houses of worship are usually built carefully and prayerfully. In 1 Kings we read about Solomon constructing the Temple of God, a task David was not allowed to do. Solomon believed that it honored God to create a house for God.  But the poles on the Ark should never be forgotten: God always wants to go with us into the world, not be left behind! Scripture tags we hand out to children and youth on our back to school Sunday remind them that God is going with them! An old hymn suggests: “Take the Name of Jesus With You.” But today’s text reminds us also that, through the ages, people have created inspiring places to honor God. That’s good too.  Find the place, find the time, and find the words to honor God. It can happen at church, at home, at work, at play … or at school.  Call on, and praise the Living God! We not only have streams to forge, we also have waters cross. In both activities of life, God will be with us. What joyous and comforting news! Thanks be to our very present God!

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           July 15, 2018

 

07-08-18 JESUS ADVISES HIS DISCIPLES

JESUS ADVISES HIS DISCIPLES

Mark 6: 1-13

 

Generally speaking, advice is best sought when needed. Advice is not usually welcomed unsolicited.  “Can I give you some parenting advice?” a mother in law asks her daughter in law.  “Can I give you some financial advice?” a successful investor asks a struggling one.  How many times do we want to answer, “No!” When are people receptive to advice? 1) When they admire the work of another; 2) when they already have established a good relationship; or 3) when they have hit rock bottom or are in a corner, ready to try something new.

 

What we know from today’s text is that the disciples had built at least a fledgling trust in Jesus as one with authority. Some had grown up with him; some had met him and decided to follow him. But they had seen him do wonders, like calming a sea, bringing a girl back to life, and healing a man possessed by demons. He had established some credibility with them. But Jesus was entering a place where everyone had known him “back when.” Back when he was just Mary And Joseph’s son. Back when he and his brothers James, Joses, Judas, and Simon likely did brotherly teasing, and playing, Jesus was known to others. Now grown, he was coming back home.

 

When I was graduating from seminary, people at my home church said, “Why don’t you consider coming back home to be Pastor at the church where you grew up?” The response in my head was “NO!” But what I said was, “People who knew me when, as the church Assistant Janitor, used to clean church bathrooms, polish church pews, and shovel snow from walks, would not see me as their Pastor; nor would the ones who remembered when my friend and I were sent out of my own father’s Sunday School class for misbehaving! We must earn credibility if we are going to give advice. Starting with my childhood burned into people’s minds would have put me twelve steps back. When Jesus went home, Mark recorded in verse 4: “He could do no mighty works there, except that he laid his hands upon a few sick people and healed them.”  Like kryptonite was to Superman, his hometown was to Jesus.  He could not do anything like he could do elsewhere. Jesus had a hard row to hoe as he came back into the Galilee, especially around Nazareth.

 

Remember: advice is best sought when needed, but its often not welcomed when offered up by others.  Yes we can get advice in the third person by reading an advice column like Dear Abby or watching a show like Doctor Phil. But when someone wants to give you yourself advice, do you find your shields going up, yourself getting defensive, and wanting to get away? So what do we learn from Jesus today as he comes back to his home?

 

First, the right to advise someone has to be earned. Billy Graham won many more people to Christ once he had some revivals under his belt and some testimonies from people to share.  An unknown Billy Graham had much less power to advise people in their lives than the man he became.  Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart stores, was the quarterback of his high school football team and he was an Eagle Scout. When it was time to consider a career, he took a job with J.C. Penny in Des Moines Iowa and learned all that he could. Several years later he borrowed $25,000—a large sum of money in 1945—to buy his first store: a Ben Franklin 5&10 Store in Newport, Arkansas. Sam thought the chain should have moved more into rural areas the way Family Dollar has done in the last 20 years. But the Ben Franklin management said “no,” so he struck out on his own. Nobody cared about his past credentials when he was growing up. They just wanted a profitable business that met people’s purchasing needs. Sam opened one store in Rogers, Arkansas marketing the store in his own way: meeting customers personally, meeting with workers personally, and meeting with American manufacturers personally. The idea caught fire and one Walmart became the giant business it is today.  He did not instantly have credibility as he went against the advice to stay with Ben Franklin stores. By the way, Ben Franklin went bankrupt in 1997. Sam had to show that his new idea could make money; he had to show manufacturers that they could start production again and make a profit; he had to build the trust of employees, and he did, visiting each one in his famous old red pick-up truck.

 

There are a few stories of people who refused early advice who gained enough credibility to offer advice to others by writing books, run seminars, or post blogs. But if people are going to seek advice from you, you’ll first need to earn the right to offer it; same with me. Basically preachers have, as one of our purposes, teaching the Bible—yes—but also offering advice for life, especially spiritual advice.  When I started here at age 29, I had little “cred” with people seeking guidance—a new guy from the Midwest, with a wife and three little children. The ability for people to seek, and listen to, advice often arrives over time.

 

Second, the right to advise others comes best through establishing relationships.  Jesus fished with his disciples, listened to them, prayed with them, and shared food or lodging they received. He was one of them, but clearly their leader. They were not yet ready to hear him say that one day he would ask them to be willing to lose their lives; but they were connected enough to keep learning and listening. Interestingly, however, Jesus believed they were ready to hear his instructions about exorcisms of all things: casting out demons! Boy, talk about dropping your disciples in the deep end of the pool!  He “gave them authority over unclean spirits.” “But we don’t want authority to do that,” I’d imagine the disciples saying in their heads! Still, he continued to pump them with instructions: “Take only a staff for your journey.” It was a symbol of a shepherd, someone who was not learned, but also not threatening. He went further: he told them what not to bring.  They were just to arrive unannounced on people’s doorsteps! Yes, there are those who witness in our day like that two by two, but rarely do they expect to stay.  Years ago in my first church we did have a touring gospel group stay in our home and the home of other congregation members while they brought their message to us and other congregations. It turned out that they took today’s passage literally and came in a van with almost no fuel, with virtually no money, and no food until they got their next contract!  What a mess that was when they incurred medical bills! So looking back at our text, Jesus did give them authority, but how quickly might they have “worn out their welcome?”  My father would never stay with relatives longer than three days, because he said “visitors, like fish, start to smell after three days!” How long might the disciples have stayed to earn the right to heal someone or advise them? The Bible does not say. But Jesus did give them instructions on how to leave. “If people refuse to hear you, when you leave shake the dust off of your feet as a testimony against them. Hmm. That was not just an act of cleanliness. I once thought it simply meant, “We’ll move on to the next home.” But maybe it means more. My visit with our Holy Land guide Mike four years ago as we traveled around the Holy Land on a bus gave me another thought.  As I was sitting on a seat across from him, I had my legs crossed with the sole of one shoe facing him. “Here’s a useful bit of information in the Middle East,” he said. “Someone who shows the bottom of their shoes to another in conversation is offering a gesture of insult and derision.” My sitting position was saying:  “I do not respect you.” I just thought I was crossing my legs! So perhaps, just perhaps, Jesus words about shaking the dust off of their feet as a testimony against them is more like “we are through with you” then “goodbye.”  What people can learn when they actually visit a different culture! So I made sure to keep the sole of my foot on the floor so I could establish a good relationship with our guide!  Sometimes our motions or gestures carry great power with others.

 

Finally, the only fast-forward way to be able to advise others—besides earning the right to advise, or establishing a relationship to advise, is through a skill set. What that means is I might trust the advice from a mechanic I don’t know if he has the proper training. I might trust the advice of a doctor I don’t know because he has the approval of the medical board.  I might trust the advice of someone to repair my house because they are licensed and insured. Some people these days even check with “Home Advisor” or “Angie’s List” for recommendations! So with a skill set, my willingness to hear and receive advice goes way up. When people need serious counseling, my own belief in the therapists at our Presbyterian Counseling Center has given others the courage to make the call to a counselor they don’t know. And the process of healing can go faster because your relationship with me lets you trust a counselor faster.

Jesus had his obstacles to getting people to listen to him. So do we. For advice, seek those who have earned your trust or with whom you have established a relationship.  Alternatively, you might choose by credentials. Advice is a delicate thing to offer, and to receive. Jesus gave us advice to move forward in life.  I trust Jesus. I invite you to do so as well.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                                     July 8, 2018

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