Shepherd’s Field / Bethlehem
Scripture Luke 2: 8-12

This year Christmas came early for me. I’ll really never look at the birth of Jesus the same again.
The experience of touching the silver star in the grotto of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem will always be in my memory. But I want to take you briefly to the nearby Shepherd’s field, a hilly, open area east of Bethlehem.
Honestly, I never thought a lot about the Shepherds that Christmas night until this trip. As I stood 2,500 feet above sea level and looked down on the city of Bethlehem, it all started to make sense. It was easy, for example, to imagine flocks of sheep grazing on the slopes.
I could also imagine just how startled the shepherds must have been when the angel of the Lord roused them from their routine sheep watching. “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news,” we all remember from the Gospel of Luke.
Today a Franciscan Chapel marks where the Angel appeared. The chapel was designed to look like the shepherds’ tent.
It reminds me how the lowly shepherds were chosen to spread the word of Jesus’ birth instead of royalty located less than six miles away in Jerusalem. It wouldn’t have taken the shepherds long – less than three football fields away – to walk to the birth site to see what they were told.
As Ref. Sumner so often did throughout our stay, he added something special. At Shepherd’s field we sang O little Town of Bethlehem. For a brief moment it was Christmas in July.

Baptism site/experience
Scripture Luke 3: 21-22

This month, I had the wonderful opportunity to travel to Israel. If you asked me 5 years ago, I never would have thought I’d be telling you about this trip today. To start, I would like to say that fear for our safety, expressed by family and friends, could not have been more wrong. At no time did we ever feel unsafe, or even unwelcome. The people we met on our day tours, as well as the people we met as we wandered down the streets at night, could not have been more inviting and kind to us. In fact, two people invited me and my family to stay in their homes the next time we travel to Israel. Talk about hospitality!

As for our tour guide, Leo was amazing. He often used his catch phrase “Hubba Hubba” (which means HURRY UP; LET’S GO!), and he took every opportunity, each time we passed the soccer stadium near Tel Aviv, to point out the fact that the US soccer team lost to Israel in some tournament, 7-0. Leo had a vast knowledge of every sight we visited and provided insight on archaeological finds, combined with the personal experiences that can only come from growing up in such an amazing holy land.

Now for the real purpose of the trip: a walk through the Bible, and the chance to walk where Jesus walked. The tour included the manger in Bethlehem and a beautiful church marking the site where Jesus was born. We saw the upper room where the disciples were served the Last Supper. We say the dungeon where Jesus was held while imprisoned before He was crucified, and we sat in the garden surrounding the tomb, where He was laid to rest. These are only a few of the incredible places we visited, and each and every one touched my heart.

Two of my most memorable moments were the sense of peace and warmth that filled by body and soul after being immersed in the Jordan River by Reverend Sumner. They say that men aren’t supposed to cry, but I can assure you – tears were shed. Another favorite experience was the ability to cleanse my soul and leave all worries, doubts and sadness in the garden tomb as I exited. We were encouraged to leave everything in that tomb that was broken, and to start afresh. Words really can’t express the feelings you have when you encounter these sites, and different places impacted all of us differently. It was an emotional and spiritual journey that has changed my life, and I think the journey has changed the lives of many of my fellow travelers, as well.

For everyone who says “I want to take that trip someday,” I encourage you to make sure that someday comes soon. This trip will change your life for the better just by the experience, so do it now – because you’ll want to feel like I do as long as you can.

“Down to the River to Pray”

Sea of Galilee
Scripture Luke 8: 22-25

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Mount of Olives/ Gethsemane
Scripture Mark 14:26-28

Today I share my eyewitness insights and reflections based on the prevalence of the Mount of Olives in the Bible—mentioned 14 times—and the Garden of Gethsemane, the place where one of Jesus’ great agonies took place. My text is Mark 14: 26-28 that describes Jesus’ fateful journey there. He was most often coming from the east as he came from his home territory of the Galilee. Often we suspect that he stopped at the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in Bethany. Then he would go over a rise, and he would be either in the Garden, or at the Mount of Olives. The Mount is historical because it was and is believed that the Messiah ascended into heaven from there, (Christians believe that according to Luke 50:24: 50-51) and Jews believe that the Messiah will return there. Thousands of graves are on that mountain, waiting for a Messiah. But off to a side is the Garden of Gethsemane, gethsemane meaning “Olive press.” Olives are a staple food in Israel, and olive oil enriches the lives of many across the world. We remember that Jesus was often looking for a place to get away from the crowds that surrounded him. This was not only such a place, but Jesus must have had a heavy heart when he went there with his disciples. People new to the Holy Land learned that olive tree roots continue to live, some for more than 2000 years. At least one of the trees there today was there in the time of Jesus. But there was a new insight our guide gave us: at the far corner of the garden there is a cave, and it had been there a long time. Some suspect that the disciples gathered at the mouth of the cave at the edge of the garden, about a distance from the main doors of our sanctuary to our front window.  Jesus, this time, was going to cross that span of olive trees alone, to a bolder that he knew was there. Then he prayed, during which time his voice would cry out, with his hopes to be spared the death that was awaiting him. Today we call it “being truly present.” That, it appears, is what Jesus wanted from his disciples. But they couldn’t do it. Sleep overcame them. Certainly no one but Jesus knew the gravity of that night. But our Holy Land travelers, having our time in the garden, and in the church of the Agony where it is believed the rock still is, had time to reflection on what Jesus was carrying: not a cross this time, but the knowledge of impending torture and death. Today as we see a crown of thorns, or a crucifix, think also about the mental anguish our Lord went through in that place, where his prayers were so fervent, that drops of blood dripped from his forehead to the stone below.

St. Peter of Gallinctu/ Garden Tomb
Scripture John 19:38-42

These are my reflections based on our visit to St. Peter of Gallicantu/ Garden Tomb from the Gospel of John Chapter 19:38-42.
I learned many new and wonderful things on this Pilgrimage. On the day we started to follow the steps of Jesus we visited the place that is said to be (/Ki-uh-fis) Caiaphas’ palace where Jesus spent his last night. I have read and grieved for all the torture Jesus went through however I did not know about him being lowered into a pit. We visited this pit below the Church that now stands there. Down into the caverns we went until we reached the pit that Jesus was lowered into. As I stared up at the hole in the ceiling, I imagined him being lowered into this dark cold and dreary dungeon I was overwhelmed with even more grief imagining him spending the night here and for what he went through for us! I broke down. Another pilgrim happened to see me weeping and told me later that she felt my soul touch hers.
Moving forward to the day we were to visit the Garden Tomb in which Jesus was laid I was trying to prepare myself for I thought it would be just as difficult to see. As I walked into the tomb my breath was taken away, but instead of feeling grief, I felt relief. I looked around at the empty tomb and a feeling of Peace just fell over me. I remember saying as I looked around “It is finished.” I was able to let go of all the grief and mourning I have done for many years focusing on all the torture that he endured. My grief was now replaced with Peace and the Amazing Love Jesus has for us. I now focus on the Joy of his resurrection and the sweetness of Jesus.

The Primacy of Peter
Scripture John 21:15-17

In our lives we search for peace. This site on the Sea of Galilee is a place of peace. The first time I visited this area I was struck with the sense that heaven had touched earth (called a thin place). It took my breath away. There is nothing grand here. There is a very small church and inside it is a huge rock called Mensa Christi. This spot is where Jesus met with the disciples for the final time after his resurrection. He saw Peter and some of the others fishing on the sea and Peter swam quickly to see his Master. They cooked fish and ate a final meal together.

Just days before, Peter had denied knowing Jesus on the night of the arrest – three times! I imagine that Peter was consumed with guilt and sorrow. Jesus took him aside and asked him three times, “Do you love me?” as recorded in John 21. Three times Jesus forgave Peter and charged him to go take care of his people. What a sense of peace must have come over Peter at that time. There is a statue depicting this event in a garden adjacent to the church.

This site is the only one where people can go and wade in the Sea of Galilee. I was particularly moved the time our daughter, Jenny, went with us while she was a seminary student. This time I got to share it with my son Matt, and his wife, Vicki. It is such a joy to stand in that water where Jesus walked and ministered to so many. There are also several large rocks in the shape of hearts – no one knows if there are natural or were carved – but they have so much meaning to a pilgrim visiting the area.

This time there was a mass being offered in Spanish in the garden and the singing fell over us. There is a sense of calm and peace at the Primacy of St. Peter, contrasted with the busyness of Jerusalem and other places we visited. Our guide, Leo, shared my love of this as a favorite place on our journey.

Nebi Samuel
Scripture 1 Samuel 25:1a

Honestly, picking 1 thing to talk about when we had 8 straight days of travelling from one living testimony to the next was pretty tough, but, in the end, picking this one sums up not only the trip, but, our mission, in my opinion.
Samuel is considered a great prophet by the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim churches. Seeing his tomb in Arimathea (yes, THAT Arimathea!) was awe inspiring because we could SEE Nazareth and Bethlehem from there, and, on the other side of the building, we could SEE Jerusalem. Seeing that the distances are much closer together than we thought really has me itching to teach some of these stories soon so I can share just how close things are and how the walking times is measured in minutes and hours, not days.
As I’d mentioned, all three religions look to this prophet, so, guess what, there’s THREE churches at this site … a synagogue, mosque, and church. What amazes me most about this is that these three churches are thriving and all doing well, with the leaders and parishioners working together in harmony. While we were at the site we saw a bunch of kids learning the torah under the watchful eye of their rabbi.
I walked away from that site thinking that THIS is what harmony looks like and should be. I’ll close with an observation from our tour guide, Leo … he’d pointed out the 4 different “sections” of old Jerusalem a couple days before and mentioned that “when there’s peace in Jerusalem, there’ll be peace in the world.” …

Safety in Israel/Palestine
Scripture Deuteronomy 6: 4-6

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07-14-19 NEIGHBORS

LUKE 10:26-37 JULY 14, 2019



Everyone is kin to someone. The nature of birth gives us parents and children, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, some kissing and some almost unknown. These, normally, are our most special people. Of all the people on this planet, we love them most. “Blood is thicker than water” the old saying goes and is proven every time a child who seems to hate his/her sibling takes on the bully who would dare to pick on their brother/sister. Parents provide for and protect their children. Husbands die for wives and children. Mothers heroically save their families from the flames of their burning home. Children take elderly parents into their homes and put them in the middle of their lives. If our family member is in trouble, we will drop everything to help, to heal, to save that loved one. That is so right. It is what we should do. Such love if of God. God has given us families – long before we had a vocation. They are our work for God. Raising children, loving spouses, caring for parents is to serve God.
We also have friends and neighbors. Through time and the sharing of joys and sorrows…through giving and receiving support from one another, some friends and neighbors become as close or closer than our blood relatives. We would be greatly wrong if we did not love, minister to, and show compassion for these people. Not only would we be callous for not returning their acts of kindness, we would be proving ourselves to be no friend at all. A friend fills the need of that one who asks. In the very next chapter of Luke, Jesus poses a question, “if a friend called you in the middle of the night needing help, would you not rise and do whatever you could?” The answer is “Of course, I would!”
From the very beginning, Christians have been characterized by the way in which disciples love one another. We can grow to call the congregation our church family; our sisters and brothers through Christ. Often this is more than rhetoric. Like Jesus, who was told his mother and brothers were seeking him, we can say that those, who share our community of faith, are our mothers and brothers and sisters. Congregations have within them such love. I bet that many of you are like my friend whose wife recently died and could not say enough about the outpouring of love and concern for her and him from the members of his church. Called into the church, we are called “to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice – to bear one another’s burdens”. Would any deny that such love is right and should be shown?
Yet, listen to what Jesus says in Matthew 5:43, “You have heard it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say ‘If you love only those who love you what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same…but love your enemies…and your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, for God is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Heavenly Father is merciful.’”
I have found that non-Christians all about us love their families and friends. My father-in-law found himself suddenly being divorced and alone. His boss, who never attended church, was the one who most supported him through this most difficult time in his life. A member in Ormond Beach who was in worship every Sunday, died suddenly without any family. The people who came to the church, arranged, paid for and attended her services, were the people who frequented the bar where she spent much time between Sundays. Christians have no monopoly on human kindness or loving those who love them.
What Jesus adds to the natural humanity of the world is a different definition of neighbor. He broadens the circle. Behind the religious man’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” was the statement Jesus quotes in Matthew, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy”. There was, and still is, dispute among believers as to the extent of ‘neighbor” as it is found in the Old Testament law (Leviticus 19:17-19 but see also 13-16) and the New Testament teachings. General agreement, at the time of Jesus, defined “neighbor” as “fellow Jews” and the Jews would have nothing to do with Samaritans and Gentiles. However, many made “neighbor” even more narrow and the circle for whom one needed to show love smaller. Pharisees excluded non-Pharisees, Essenes hated the Sons of Darkness (those not of their sect), one rabbinic saying ruled that heretics, informers and renegades should be pushed into the ditch not pulled out; and widely circulated was the philosophy that it was acceptable to hate personal enemies, thus, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemies.
The Good Samaritan is about a non-Jew, a heretic and an enemy. The enemy becomes the one who shows who is a neighbor and what it is to be a child of God. Our neighbor, as shown in the care given the man who fell among robbers, is anyone in need, even our enemy. Our neighbor is the person we encounter along our life’s journey that has trouble and needs our help. Our neighbor is the one others ignore. Our neighbor is the family member, the friend the brother or sister in faith, the jerk who lives next door who goes ballistic if you happen to mow one inch of her lawn, the HOA Nazi always nit-picking, the opponent at work, the ALT members on the far right and the activists on the far left, the people whom our government would label as “our enemies”. Our neighbor is the woman, man, child who appears before us with needs, whether it is the need of love and respect or the need for food or security. We do not have to define our neighbor. Life reveals our neighbor to us. We will come upon them and be given the opportunity to show them the love that God bestows on the just and the unjust, Jew and Gentile, saints and sinners.
Jesus models the Good Samaritan in Luke. He is on his journey to Jerusalem to fulfill his destiny. Along the way people keep popping into his life. He’s coming into town and a Roman centurion asks him to come heal his slave who is ill and close to death – read Roman enemy and a slave who is below the lowest. Another time, he tries to escape the crowds by crossing the sea of Galilee and bumps into the Gerasene demonic. A prostitute anoints his feet with ointment, bathes them with her tears and dries them with her hair. Everybody is outraged; Jesus defends her and forgives her. He is rejected at a Samaritan village. His disciples want to command fire to come down and consume them. Jesus rebukes the disciples and leads them to another Samaritan village. He sees Zacchaeus, a hated tax collector up a tree, calls him down and goes home with him and eats lunch at his house during which he pronounces that salvation has come to him. In all these cases, Jesus stops to heal and help. The people are not seen as friend nor foe, just people with needs.
Who is a neighbor according to Jesus? The one who needs mercy and the one who shows mercy. But mercy appears in the other saying of Jesus, the one about loving your enemy: “Be merciful even as your Heavenly Father is merciful.” Merciful extends even to the ungrateful and selfish, to those beyond the ones who love us and who do us good, beyond those from whom we have hope of response. Sometimes we can change a life or make friends by loving our enemy but the reason for our reaching out has a higher source – that is what God does for our heavenly Father is merciful. George Buttrick, the great Presbyterian preacher of the mid-20th century and one of my preaching professors wrote, “Ture neighborliness is not curious to know where its boundaries run; it cares as little for boundaries as the sun and rain care for the contour lines on our maps. It seeks not limits but opportunities.”
This is Jesus’ story, his life, and his commandment, “Go and do likewise!”

07-07-19 Youth Mission Sunday

3 of our Graduated Seniors gave our sermon this year …

Jordan Alves


As some of you may already know. Our youth group this past week was in Memphis Tennessee with the Memphis Youth Mission working around the city. To say that this was the furthest from a stereotypical mission would be an understatement. When you think of a mission trip what comes to your mind? (Pause) “hard labor, giving food to the homeless, or working at a soup kitchen.” Its for a good reason. It’s what’s commonly done during mission trips. And for the most part had been done during the previous ones to Asheville and Raleigh I went on. By no means are these forms of mission work bad, but highlighting the nature of them it makes it more apparent how different this years mission trip was. For starters Memphis is a minority majority city which meant a race that is a minority in America, that being African Americans, was the majority in Memphis. This unfortunately, combined with the fact that Memphis has been crippled by loss of industry and the 1800s yellow fever plague left the city with a large amount of poverty expressing itself in small pockets all over the city. And what truly separated this mission trip from prior ones was of course, the actual mission work done. One of our youth leaders Vance Stiles said many of the locations would be striving for was to solve the causes not just treat the symptoms. I wasnt fully able to grasp at that goal until our second day where we visited the HUB hospitality center. There we met Mac, an African American in his late twenties to his early thirties who was one of the main workers there. After a few jokes were cracked he gave us a tour of the entire facility and talked about what work they do at the HUB. It slowly started to become more apparent. The only real handout the Hub had was free coffee. They were mainly focused of providing services such as counseling, lawyer set ups, phone use, iPad and internet use, and other services that helped the homeless get back on their feet. The HUB would also connect people with other shelters, soup kitchens, and more depending on their needs as well as hosting a Work Local lottery program that allowed those picked to work different labor jobs for $50 a day as long as they had some form of ID. Alongside that, the HUB provided temporary HUB IDs that would provide some identification in case they were caught on the streets by police as well as receive and hold onto any important documents mailed to the HUB for those that needed it. The final part of the tour was where the idea of “fixing the causes not treating the symptoms” became most clear. Mac went on a bit of a tangent about what the HUB aims to accomplish and what it doesnt. Mac explained “when you are just handing out peanut butter and jellies on the street, all you really accomplish is feeling better about yourself”. He knew that although a lot of organizations in Memphis and in the world were doing good work, they were not making much progress towards solving the problem. The HUB was the opposite. People like Mac focus on doing what to others seems like the impossible, solving homelessness instead of just putting a bandaid on it. My time at the HUB and what I learned there stuck with me for the rest of the week as I thought about the ways we often simply “put a bandaid” on problems we have or see instead of really trying to fix them. Ending homelessness may seem impossible to many but to people like Mac, it’s their daily job. Ending homelessness may appear as an insurmountable goal, but that is all the more reason to strive for it. And that’s exactly why it was written in Matthew 19:26 “with God all things are possible”.
Im sure mac is fully aware of what is capable through God and now My hope is that you can all think of an issue you might have or an issue you see in your community and work towards solving it at its roots. Thank you.

Caylee Coleman

Good morning. As said earlier by Jordan, this year’s mission trip was to Memphis, Tennessee. Instead of painting you a detailed day by day depiction of what we did, I have decided to tell you what the word Memphis means to me. As we all know Memphis starts with an “m”. That first M stands for Myfa, which commonly gets mistaken for Mifa. Myfa stands for Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association. Their mission is to support the independence of vulnerable seniors and families in crisis through high-impact programs. Those programs can range anywhere from finding someone a bed in a pinch until a permanent one is found to one freshly cooked meal sent to your doorstep. Each meal is completed with a marinated chicken breast, steamed broccoli, mashed potatoes, one piece of whole wheat bread, and a single 2% milk. The group and I took route 28 on that Monday morning to drop off those exact meals. That is where we learned not only how grateful people were for their hot meals, but also little tidbits here and there. People genuinely were eager to share these things with us because it was important to talk, even if the talk was in fact nonsense. The first of the two examples would be a lady who walked with a crutch instead of a cane, she happily invited us into her home which smelled sweet. She proclaimed happily to those who brought in her meal in, that her home was from the 1920’s and that as much as she could keep original, she did. Or that another man had stopped us on his porch to tell us that someone was trying to buy out the world’s largest bass pro shop, which if you hadn’t know is actually in Memphis, and in buying out the shop they’d in turn make it a casino for gambling and other shenanigans as he put it.
The E stands for everyone loves coffee. Mrs. Denise would wake up and brew her iced coffee before she could even function, The Manna House would have already brewed barrels of the brown liquid and Hospitality Hub, who mind you has their OWN brand of coffee, would have already had it posted up by the front door. After this week I am thoroughly convinced that Memphis’s backbone IS coffee. However, the most impressive thing about the stuff is when these people get their hands on it, the mood in the entire community changes. This week id like to share a Prayer I heard about coffee with all of you.
C: “ Lord may you bless the coffee “
A: “And may you make it hot”
C: “Lord may you bless the sugar”
A: “And make it sweet”
C: “And lord may you bless the creamer”
A: “And may you let the sweetness take away the bitterness of the world”
The second M stands for the Manna House. The prayer we just said could be heard the Tuesday morning as we stood hand and hand on the side of the brightly colored house; Other chants hung in the air as the poor and the homeless pilled in to congregate in the back heard such as “don’t be a dope, get your socks and soap” I’d like to take a moment to explain that chant, Tuesdays are socks and soap days. Which means if asked you could receive a pair of fresh, clean socks and a bar of soap. Manna’s mission is so simple that is actually so beautiful. Manna’s mission is Hospitality. Hospitality includes basic services such as clothing, hygiene items, showers and serving coffee or other beverages. I am sorry to keep raving on about Manna House, but the place is painted head to toe and it feels like a home.
P stands for the power of prayer. Wednesday morning our group of 15, that is including out group leaders Edward and Vance, pilled into the small Episcopel church on a busy road. Those on their way to work, those off the streets, and the regulars also pilled in. There is a beautiful stained glass of sister Constantine in the back of the church. If you don’t know who she is, which I seriously doubt you would know, here is a brief history lesson. Memphis had 2 different outbreaks of the yellow fever, during the second outbreak sister Constantine returned to Memphis while on a pilgrimage to help those in need in spite of her own health. When she returned, she put forth all of her efforts and prayed to help as many people as she could, that is until she had in fact died from yellow fever 7 months before the outbreak had ended. Now ill bring you back to that day. The sermon was focused on two things, the first being to not forget the stranger, and the other is to remember the better angle. To which was a silent nod to sister Constantine and all her efforts during the Yellow fever. I think that she is a figure that we should all try to be like and remember.
H is for none other than HOT. I could lie to you all and say that the weather was perfect, cool crisp air every day but that would be a lie, and we all know that Presbyterians DON’T lie. The air was hot and muggy, your skin would feel slick and yet sticky, but the funny part is that the locals would complain, forgetting that on the 4th of July in Florida, there was a heat index of 110 degrees. It was hot, but we were glad to be there.
I is for independence. Depending on whether or not you were awake enough for the first sermon you may or may not have heard him speak on the independence of homeless people. Did you know that finding a home isn’t the problem, but keeping them in is? Some prefer street life over breaking the poverty cycle. The reason why is than once someone is placed in a home rules are set up to try and reestablish those people in society. The problem with that is, well one rule. At night guests are not permitted to stay. That being said people become lonely and prefer street life because they’ll always have company. Loneliness is the ultimate corruption of independence.
Lastly id like to leave you with S, Someone PLEASE tip the band. You may have noticed our manager on stage. If you are still confused, I am talking about the 5-gallon bucket labeled tips. Wednesday afternoon our group strolled down the famous Belle street. Music flooded the air as a band played “Shake your body down to the ground” by the Jacksons, however they didn’t sing the intended lyrics. “$5s, $10s, $20s tip the band. Someone PLEASE tip the band” This bucket will be used in our offertory today, so you will see it around later on.
And that spell Memphis. However, I have some other points id like to leave you all with just because they didn’t fit into the word Memphis. The first is that because we were such a small group, we often held hands when joining in prayer, I have never squeezed hands when saying amen but I’m almost certain that because of Vance, our group leader, my whole group squeezes when saying amen. The second is if anything I said up here confused you or you have more question about what I’ve said, to please ask any of us we would be happy to tell you more about our trip and what we did, and the third and last thing is the passage I found one late night when I was goofing around flipping through the bible. I thought id share it with everyone this morning just because I thought it was so fitting for the trip, I also implore everyone to join hands much like we did this trip and pray with me after, feel free to squeeze. Isiah Chapter 32 lines 16-18 “The lords justice will dwell in the desert, his righteousness live in the fertile field. The fruit of that righteousness will be peace; its effects will be quietness and confidence forever. My people will live in peaceful dwelling places, in secure homes, and in undisturbed places of rest”
God may you relate that passage to everyone here today and those who need peace most in their lives in Memphis. May you watch over each one of us and love all your children with the upmost affection. In your holy name we pray, Amen.

Sam Bookhardt

This year, as I’m sure you’ve heard, our youth group went to Memphis Tennessee for our, and my last, mission trip. I have been on 6 out of the 7 mission trips since my 6th grade year and all of them in different states so I mean it when I say this one was particularly special. Our group participated in numerous different activities around the city as we sought to serve the community, learn about its history, and discover how god is present in both Memphis, and us. The theme that the organization we were with focused on this past week was bringing the worlds of abundance and scarcity together. As we learned, this is best achieved through the act of being generous. However, generosity never comes without sacrifice and I had the opportunity to learn more about this sacrifice through the many different locations I visited this week in Memphis. Now let me give you a little background on Memphis for anyone who has never had the chance to visit. Memphis used to be a trade and industry center due to its strategic location along the Mississippi River, and also hosted a large African American population following the civil war. The thing that stood out to me most about Memphis however was how diverse the city was in its lower and higher income areas. Often, I’ve found that major cities have obvious areas where you can delineate between the higher and lower income parts of the city as was the case with Raleigh which our group visited last year. This was not evident in Memphis as you could walk 2 blocks in downtown from a major tourist area and find an entire skyscraper that had been abandoned or someone on the streets panhandling for change. There was scarcity all over Memphis but fortunately enough, there were those willing to sacrifice what they had to share their abundance. The first place I visited in Memphis was the Manna House. The Manna House provided showers, clean clothes, hygiene products, and coffee in the mornings for those in need. During my time at the Manna House I helped in the back where I would get hygiene products and clothes as requested by those who stopped by. The House is run entirely by volunteers who donate their time and resources everyday to serve those in need. Later in the week we participated in a church service at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral and following the service, helped to serve breakfast to the homeless and low-income community of Memphis. This time, the church sacrificed its resources to provide a necessity for those who have less. The theme of those with abundance sharing their time and service with those living lives of scarcity was a recurring them at a majority of the sites I visited this week. This theme is not new to me from the many past mission trips I have been on. But what I did discover this week was one of the ways God ties into the theme of generosity. During our evening program with Memphis Youth Mission we read a passage from Matthew about the laborers in the vineyard. In this passage a landowner hires people to work in his vineyard at different times throughout the day and in the evening pays all of the the same 1 day wage, upsetting those who had been working since morning and felt they deserve more than those who started working in the late afternoon. The landowner responds to their complaints saying “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” At the beginning of the passage Jesus claims that the Kingdom of Heaven is just like this parable. When I first read this passage I had thought it somewhat unfair that those working longer had earned the same amount as those who had hardly worked long at all. Yet as I thought more about it I realized that this passage was not about the unfairness of the situation but the generosity of God. God, like the landowner, did not care when the people came to him, but rewarded them all equally. Whether you are someone who has served as a faithful Christian all your life or someone who found God late in life, he accepted you into his kingdom regardless. This was often the case in the sites I visited this week. At the Manna House, all those who showed up that morning would pray before getting coffee and showers. At St. Mary’s, those getting breakfast would attend the morning worship service before they got their food. And sure there were some who showed up only for the food or the opportunity to get a shower. But, most of the time, the people using the services at the Manna House, and at St. Mary’s, the ones who lived lives of scarcity, the ones who relied on those around them with more, to share their abundance. They were the ones who had found God, who have seen his generosity in him and in others. Despite the world constantly being against them, these people had found God and worshiped him as deeply as a lifelong devoted Christian. The way I saw God integrated into this community despite the poverty found all over Memphis is what made my last mission trip stand out to me from all the rest. So now I ask all of you, when have you seen or received generosity? In what ways can you sacrifice your abundance and be generous towards others? And how has God been generous in your life?

06-30-19 FOR FREEDOM

Galatians 5: 1; 13-23

The Apostle Paul was not the last one who commented on the idea of freedom.
Other famous people have said the following:
Author Ayn Rand in The Fountainhead wrote: “Freedom: to ask nothing. To expect nothing. To depend on nothing.
President Franklin Roosevelt said, “In the truest, sense, freedom cannot be bestowed, it must be achieved.”
Author William Faulkner wrote: “We must be free not because we claim freedom, but because we practice it.”
Philosopher Kahlil Gibran wrote “Life without liberty is like a body without spirit.”
And finally, these poignant words from a man who was in prison for years—Nelson Mandela. He wrote: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

This week we think about freedom as we celebrate a time in America known as Independence Day. The colonists were looking to be free from the tyranny of kings and queens in a way similar to Jews wanting freedom from the Caesars in the first century B.C.E. and C.E. What we learn, however, is that just as a disciplined imagination—not a free-wheeling all over the place imagination— helped us bear fruit in the study of the book of Revelation during May, so Christian freedom should not make us feel free to annihilate others or run rough-shod over their rights. Even as far back as the book of Deuteronomy, guiding words have been there for all to consider: The Lord God said: “I call heaven and earth as witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death; blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, so that you and your descendants may live ….[30:19] So the gift of life includes remembering how precious it is. And the gift of freedom perhaps should include guidelines from God and from people like the Apostle Paul. American leaders would do well not to stray from principles of responsibility regarding freedom.

Back in 1941, when our nation and Japan were at war in part because Japan didn’t honor the lives and property of Americans as they dropped bombs on the naval fleet in Pearl Harbor, Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr’s Gifford Lectures given at Edinburgh University were published as a large volume, The Nature and Destiny of Man. In it, this Professor of Christian Ethics at Union Seminary in New York wrote profound words that influenced the rest of the 20th century and beyond. Listen to what he said about freedom:
The essence of man is his freedom. Sin is committed in that freedom. Sin can therefore not be attributed to a defect in his essence. It can only be understood as a self-contradiction, made possible by the fact of his freedom, but not following necessarily from it. [Charles Scribner’s and Sons, New York: 1964, p.17

Now let’s examine what the Apostle Paul said about it in his Letter to the Galatians. “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit to the yoke of slavery.” [5:1] Those words have doubtless been a rallying cry for colonists and immigrants who escaped the tyranny of slavery and oppression in their own countries. Many came to our shores—most of them your forebears and my forebears—seeking the freedom to establish their own laws and claim a piece of a piece of the world where they could live freely. People were, and still are, hungry for that kind of freedom! But as we learned, freedom comes with responsibility. Dr. Charles Cousar, in his commentary of Galatians, wrote:
The language of slavery and freedom undoubtedly suggests itself to the New Testament writers as an apt description of God’s Word in Christ because of the history of the Jewish people. Israel became a nation by God’s liberation of her from the bondage of Pharaoh and his leading her to a new land…. “Christ has set us free” means that God’s decisive salvation has been accomplished and a complete change of allegiances has been effected.(sic) No longer bound to task-masters like sin, the law, and death, Christians are set in the service of God…” [Interpretation: Galatians; Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982, p.106, 107.]

Cousar goes on to say some activities we usually think of as freedom. He says at a ballot box we are supposed to be free to choose a candidate who we wish to elect. People of faith also choose their religion and what commitments they’ll make to honor its deity. And, he says, it is also good that we are free to choose our partners in marriage and do not have them chosen by our parents (although some parents wish they had chosen the partner for their child!) Freedom can also bring emotional and physical peace, a gift that is appreciated by those who find it. Freedom is a precious gift to be used not only for one’s own peace, but also to assist others in finding peace and justice.

Let’s look exactly at what Paul says: “You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence.” [5:13]
Paul then sets up a dichotomy that others have affirmed in their human existence. Even before American psychologist Abraham Maslow diagramed a human being’s Hierarchy of Need—with physiological needs as most important for survival, then safety, then a sense of belonging and love, then the feeling of self-esteem, and finally the most evolved persons reaching a level of self-actualization, showing full potential and creativity. Paul in the Bible described the human lower levels as “carnal.” As he says, “What the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit.” [5:16] Those who stay in the flesh—in the lower levels of actualization—do things that are included in this alarming list, refreshingly re-translated by Eugene Peterson in The Message: This is what the flesh desires:
Loveless cheap sex, a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cut-throat competition, all consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on.

Does that list describe the way we act even today? In some way I think it does!
Part of our problems today are caused by our carnal desires; those of the flesh. When we do that, the results do not honor God.
But there is another list, says Paul. A way to live in freedom and to honor God! It is traditionally called “The Fruit of the Spirit.” People who truly honor God, who truly follow Jesus, can be identified not with their membership card, but with these qualities: “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness,
and self control.” [Galatians 5:22]

What a different list that is! If you want to exercise your freedom, you can do so exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit! That’s the way to let freedom ring! That’s the way to let Christ’s light shine! The way of darkness is the way of the flesh; turn away from it and fight those constant temptations!

Commentators have called Paul’s letter to the Galatians the Magna Carta of Christian Liberty. What a perfect week to think about liberty and freedom.
May God shed his grace on our land, and on each one of us.

Jeffrey A. Sumner `June 28, 2019


Daniel 6: 1-16; Luke 10: 29-37

What a week, with our daily presentations for Vacation Bible School “To Mars and Beyond!” Our drama team presented five great Bible stories, and then Mary Ann and I had 20 more hours a day with two of our four grandsons. We had an exhausting week.
Let me ask you a question: have any of you of any age attended a Bible School other than ours? I did when I was young; and I did not enjoy it! So when God called me to ministry I declared that we would make Vacation Bible School “The most fun a kid can have in church!” For 32 years here I have been involved and in character to do that. Today I want to take you back to your childhood if you attended church, and remind you of 5 of the great stories of the Bible.

In our Bible Story Station this past week, we turned the handbell room into our staging area for our dramas! Here are the highlights of what we taught:
“Daniel Trusts God in the Lion’s Den” Daniel 6
Our Power Launcher was; “Go beyond with faith!” Let’s say it together!
The story included a King of Babylon named Darius; and a Jewish young man named Daniel, who was taken to Babylon during the Exile of all the Jews from Israel; there he was asked to learn the ways of the Babylonians.
The King learned that Daniel had many gifts, including being able to interpret dreams. Some Babylonians were jealous when the King made Daniel second in command. But Daniel had faith as he faced a lion’s den. He prayed to God to save him. Tell examples of faith; like being blindfolded.
Think of times you have needed to depend of faith to move forward.
Faith is important!

Day 2: Queen Esther Takes a Stand
Our power launcher was “Go beyond with Boldness!” Let’s say it together.
That day our story came from Chapters 4-9 in the book of Esther.
The story was about a Jewish woman, who even when she was named Queen, had no power of her own. They were in the land of Persia and the King was Xerxes. His wife was Queen Vashti, who at one point refused to do anything her husband asked her to do (Yep, completely unreasonable, right men? Lol)‘Anyway because of that, he cast her aside and began a lengthy series of try-outs for the women of his kingdom to come and audition to be his queen! At long last he chose a woman named Esther. Esther was an orphan, raised by her cousin, a royal guard named Mordecai. King Xerxes appointed an evil man named Haman to be his second in command, one who hated Jews and was cruel to them. He particularly loathed Mordecai. When Mordecai refused to bow down to Haman, Haman went and squealed to, I mean, told the King. Haman was going to make it very hard on the Jews, even more than usual. Esther had a decision: should she speak up to the King to support her people, possibly alienating herself from her husband? She decided to do so; she acted in boldness to save her people. The King, for her sake, decided to save her people and took power away from Haman in the process. Queen Esther’s boldness saved her people. We talked with the boys and girls about times they acted with boldness, like standing with a friend against a bully, and telling an adult about the situation.
Think about times you might have, or might need to, act with boldness.

Day 3: A Good Samaritan Helps a Fellow Traveler
Our Power Launcher was “Go beyond with kindness!” Say it with me.
We followed the book of Luke, chapter 10, verses 25-37
A man who was an expert in Hebrew religious law challenged Jesus about
Eternal life. “Teacher” he asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” What does the law say?” asked Jesus. The man replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, with all your mind, and all your strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said, “Do that and you will live.” But the man of the law further asked him “Who is my neighbor?”
Then Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan.
A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and got attacked by robbers.
Priest-explain that Jewish law said he couldn’t lead temple worship if he touched blood or a possibly diseased man.
Levite- like an elder in a church; same reason for not helping as the priest.
Samaritans were loathed and hated by Jews, but Jesus said the Samaritan acted like a neighbor. He was caring, and went above and beyond.
Who are the Samaritans in your life? Other races, other religions, other political parties? Do you ignore or shun or hate them?
Jesus calls them “neighbor.”
Some of the children decided they would be kind to some people to whom they aren’t usually kind: one boy said he would be kind to his brother! I asked, “Aren’t you usually kind?” “No.” he replied. It was a start!
You now know who your neighbor is.
Will you be as kind as even the Samaritan was to the beaten man?

Day 4 Jesus Heals 10 Lepers
Luke 17: 11-19; our Power Launcher was “Go beyond with Thankfulness!” Say it!
We learned that there was a big difference between leopards-big cats with spots- and lepers- people with horrible skin diseases. We also learned it would be nicer to call them people with leprosy instead of “lepers.”
Their skin disease made people afraid to eat with them, come close to them, or touch them. They were quarantine in colonies outside of town. But when they saw Jesus, they wondered if he might heal them like he healed others. To be considered clean, a priest had to examine their skin and pronounce them clean. Jesus told them to show themselves to a priest, implying that their skin would be better almost immediately. Nine left, but one stayed. Why? To thank Jesus for healing him. “Where are the other 9?” Jesus asked. He really knew. In our age and his age, only 1 out of 10 people remember to express thanks in more than a word. Giving thanks takes intention and action. The children wrote thank you notes to people they wanted to thank for things. They were instructed to not just put the note in their backpack, but to hand it or mail it to the person. It is good training and a good practice. Jesus only gave a blessing to the one who expressed thankfulness. Go and do likewise to receive your blessings because of your thankfulness.

Finally, Day 5: Jesus Comforts Friends on the Way to Emmaus; Luke 24: 13-35
Our Power Launcher was “Go Beyond with Hope!” Say it with me.
The boys and girls learned what happened in Jerusalem to Jesus on a cross, and how his body was laid in a tomb (a cave-like place) and after 3 days women came to bring spices and fragrance to honor Jesus’ body in his death, and they found his body gone! He had risen from the dead! Where did he go?
One place we learned he went was to a road outside of Jerusalem that led to the village of Emmaus. He started talking to two disciples who didn’t recognize him.
I told them that happens in grief sometimes, people don’t recognize others through their tears. They finally recognized him in the breaking of the bread- a motion that he made many times when he was with them.
The lesson we learned is that nothing is impossible. They saw their Savior risen from the dead because with God, nothing is impossible.
I told the children that our daughter Jenny teaches her son Marshall, who was at Bible School with us, to never say he can’t do something. Instead he is taught to say, “I need some help.” What a wonderful retraining from our times of saying “I can’t” or “God can’t” do something! If only people in the midst of despair, or feeling hopeless, would find the hopeful of words of asking: “I need some help;” or “with God nothing is impossible” before they do something quite irreversible like taking one’s own life. We taught the boys and girls to have hope, because the disciples didn’t think Jesus could rise from the dead; but he did! Whether they can’t tie a shoe, or work a puzzle, or pass a test, they can say “I need some help,” instead of saying, “I can’t do it.” They learned how to have hope again. And today, you learned how too! A visit with boys and girls can be trying one instance and rewarding the next. We hope the lessons we taught were a blessing for you today.
Jeffrey A. Sumner June 23, 2019


Romans 5: 1-8

A story I heard years ago came across my computer recently. It describes the situation in our Bibles today:
One Sunday morning in a small southern church, the new pastor called on one his longtime deacons to lead the opening prayer. The deacon stepped up front and started his prayer: “Lord, I hate buttermilk.” The pastor opened one eye and wondered where this prayer was going. The deacon continued: “Lord, I hate lard.” Now the pastor was perplexed, wondering if he should step in. But the prayer continued: “And Lord I sure don’t like flour. But mix it together with the lard and the buttermilk, and bake ‘em in the oven, they become biscuits. And Lord, I love biscuits. Help us to realize, Lord, when we can’t see how the ingredients of our lives can possibly come together, that you have a recipe for our lives. You call it a plan, or a purpose, but whatever it is, we need to wait and see what you are making of us. And who knows? Whatever it is , it might be better than biscuits. Amen.”

In other words: we may not like certain passages in the Bible. We may want to skip them. Thomas Jefferson actually took a sharp object, like a pen knife, and cut out bible passages that he found offensive! It is still preserved as the Jeffersonian Bible in the Smithsonian Museum of American History! But like the recipe for biscuits, the message of the Bible needs all of its ingredients! Paul said it this way in his letter to the Romans: “We know that in everything God works for good, with those who love God, and who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8: 28)

Today we are looking at Paul’s masterpiece: the letter he wrote to the Romans. Listen to the way the founder of Presbyterianism, John Calvin, describes this Epistle:
“With regard to the excellency of this Epistle, I know not whether it would be well for me to dwell long on the subject; for I fear, lest through my recommendations falling far short of what they ought to be, I should do nothing but obscure its merits….What can never be sufficiently appreciated—that when anyone gains a knowledge of this epistle—he has an entrance opened to him of the most hidden treasures of Scripture.” [Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol XIX, Baker Books, p.xxix.] John Calvin so respected Paul and his writing in Romans!

Romans is like an adult treatise in Christian theology. To thoroughly cover what we believe as Presbyterian Christians would take more time than we have today. We would need to cover the Ten Commandments and our belief in the Sovereignty of God. We would need to cover Genesis 1 and John 1and remember that Jesus became God in the flesh. We would recall that the Spirit is the Spirit of the Living God, and that the one commonly called the Father is our Creator. We would need to cover John 3:16 to remind ourselves that Jesus died to give us life eternally. And we would look at the church’s creeds, like The Apostles’ Creed, and the Nicene Creed, and masterpiece documents like the Westminster Confession of Faith. When we repeat the Apostles’ Creed today, hear these fresh words of explanation:
We believe in God, called Father, or Creator;
We believe in Jesus, the only Son, our Lord, and in all that the Bible says happened to him, including that he descended into Hell: which meant he felt truly separated and abandoned by his Heavenly Father, not for his own sins, but for ours, and that he really died; it was no act or charade.
We also believe in the Holy Spirit (who the Nicene Creed declares) proceeds from the Father and the Son, and along with them, is worshipped and glorified! (Trinity Sunday reminds us of that.) And yes, we believe in the holy catholic Church, words written long before the Protestant Reformation that simply means the holy universal Church contains many congregations, like Paul said in his letter to the Corinthians: “We are the Body of Christ, and individually members of it.” [1 Corinthians 12:27] “How can we tell the true church?” John Calvin rhetorically asked. He answered: “Where the Word of God is rightly preached, and the sacraments are rightly administered, where virtue is encouraged and where vice is vanquished, there, it is not to be doubted, a Church of Jesus Christ exists.” Finally in the Apostles’ Creed we affirm our belief in the forgiveness of sins, [which is what Jesus did for us by his death], the resurrection of the body (meaning Jesus physically rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven) and that we believe in the life everlasting, meaning we have every hope that we will be in Heaven one day.

With all of that said, if a believer wanted to learn the basic tenets of the Christian faith, Romans contains them. Paul’s letter is a treatise of Christian theology. Roman 8, Romans 12, and today’s text of Romans 5 are all Scriptural gold. Although Romans is bedrock Christianity, some statements might need to be read twice. Today, for example, we read: “Since we are justified by faith ….” What does that mean? It means we have been made right with God through our faith in God, not by our good deeds. One woman in the church helped me learn this forever. She said, “Being justified by God is being presented faultless before God just as if I had not sinned.” That is a wonderful way to remember justification. Christians believe we are presented faultless before God by our faith, not by our good works. Some people think we earn our place in heaven by our good works. Instead, we have faith that we already have a place in God’s heart, because we have faith in God, and our joyful response is with good works!

The second thing Christians believe is that we can obtain peace with God once we are put right with God. Notice our order of worship. We start by acknowledging God as we are called to worship, and as we sing a hymn of praise to God. Then we acknowledge our sinfulness and offer a group confession as a reminder of that. God already knows we sin and is ready to forgive us when we acknowledge it! The Declaration of Forgiveness points the way to restoring the broken relationship with our Creator. Then each Sunday, we pass a word of greeting and peace because we have been forgiven! Continuing in Romans, verse 2 of chapter 5 is tricky wording, saying we boast of (or have the assurance of) the hope that we will one day encounter God’s glory and live in the hereafter. We don’t boast in ourselves, we boast in what Christ has done for us, so others can consider being a Christian too! Verse 3 then says: “We also boast of our troubles, because we know that trouble produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.

No one tests the mettle of my faith like those who have suffering, who are good people, and who are wondering about the presence and purpose of God. They ask “Why is this happening? What is the purpose? Where is God in all this?” In the Old Testament, Job was among those who asked those questions of God. In the New Testament, Jesus himself asked some of them. They had their faith tested, as some of you have today. Paul thinks holding onto hope is important in the midst of our struggles. As Jacob once wrestled with an angel to get a blessing from God, you too may need to wrestle with God, crying out for answers to questions and light for your darkness. Ask! And ask again! The great people of faith certainly wrestled with God, from Mother Teresa to the great Reformer Martin Luther. Even the person down the pew from you may be struggling. Wrestle with God, yes, but don’t move away from God, or write God out of your life! It seems odd to boast in one’s sufferings. Some have put it this way: the devil only meddles with the lives of committed Christians. You may feel tested. Hold fast to God. I have struggled with God too, including a life changing Dark Night of the Soul. Some of you have had even worse troubles and have come through your darkness. Some have been on our prayer list for weeks. And as hard as it is for Christians to handle their troubles, it is infinitely harder for the lost sheep of the world to handle them. Keep yourself anchored to the solid Rock of Christ. For our sakes, he was whipped under orders from Pontius Pilate; for our sakes, he agonized in the Garden of Gethsemane about facing the cross but accepted the will of his Father. For our sakes, Jesus felt forsaken. Last week I invited people to claim the words of the famous hymn “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.” Declare it today too as we sing it. In the midst of life, be anchored to Christ.

Jeffrey A. Sumner June 16, 2019


Joel 2: 23-28; Acts 1: 1-5; 2: 1-8

There is something that we must admit to ourselves as we read our Bibles: there were many groups—and there still are many groups—that claimed that the Day of the Lord was near; even imminent. John, in Revelation, heard Jesus say, “Behold I am coming soon!” But more than 500 years earlier, the prophet Joel thought the Day of the Lord—that included the judgments of God—was near too! And as I said in May, we have plenty of contemporary authors and preachers who claim the Day of the Lord when Jesus returns is soon too! Even the Apostle Paul thought Jesus would return soon. What we might want to ask the Biblical writers, and Jesus himself, is “What does ‘soon’ mean to you?” Clearly lots of ink, and prayers, and hopes have been spent on this topic. Today we will find some followers of Jesus trying to connect an early 6th century B.C. prophet’s words with an event happening in Jerusalem around 30 A.D.! Let’s take some time to explore the stories of Bible readers trying to connect the dots in the Bible.

Professor Jacob M Myers, who once was a Bible Commentator and Senior Lecturer at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, wrote this about the Old Testament book of Joel:
The central teaching of Joel is that the Day of the Lord is at hand.(3:13-14) or that it is rapidly approaching. The locust plague with its accompaniments is a sure sign that the great and terrible Day is near. [It reminded people of how God acted decisively during the Exodus, making Pharaoh free the Hebrew people.] …For the earlier prophets—Amos and Zephaniah—the day of the Lord was an evil Day, sweeping away everything before it, like the Flood in the days of Noah. For Joel, it was a day of both judgment and salvation. The constant nearness of the Day, as viewed by Joel is also a feature of the New Testament ….The Day is always near, the harvest ripe, the kingdom of heaven at hand. [The Layman’s Bible Commentary, Volume 14, 1959, p. 73-74]
The guidance to “Be ready!” is probably the most pertinent guidance for Christians, “for He will come at an unexpected hour.” Nevertheless, people often have a knee-jerk reaction to incidents that seem supernatural, mysterious, or prophetic. As planes crashed into building after building on 9/11, I heard people cry out that it was the Day of the Lord. It wasn’t. As we have just honored the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the horrific three months of Allied forces finally forcing Hitler’s armies to surrender in France—I wonder if the blood, the bombs, and the combat might have caused some to think it was like the Day of the Lord? D-Day began some decisive and necessary days of reckoning for freedom loving peoples. Another frightful event, concocted by Orson Wells, was his famous radio broadcast “The War of the Worlds” when, in spite of an announcement that it was a play, made people across America think that the earth was being attacked by creatures from outer space! In our day, many of us get understandably unnerved when we hear what sounds like gunshots. On Friday at church I heard what I thought could have been gunshots coming from the kitchen. What I found was our Custodian stepping on bubble wrap with his foot. We are in times of heightened awareness! Imagine all the times before when people thought we were being invaded, or thought Jesus was coming again. Some called those times “Armageddon,” the end of the world as we know it. Today let’s look at something cataclysmic that was good!

The Apostle Peter, on a momentous day in Jerusalem, started his proclamation by quoting Joel. That might seem like a stretch, but it wasn’t. Jew after Jew had learned the Hebrew Bible. They were as infatuated and engrossed by the amazing and terrifying parts of it such as in Daniel, Ezekiel, and Joel, like people in our day quote from terrifying novels and films. Many of us get inspired by our heroes—like pride in our military personal, or in patriots who created our country, or in biblical heroes like Moses, Judges like Deborah, or Apostles like Peter. To inspire others the way Peter quoted Joel, some in our day have quoted the strong words of Julia W. Howe, who wrote them all the way back in 1861: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; he is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored. He has loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword, His truth is marching on.” Wow. Those words, like the words of Joel, have gotten the attention of people for generations. Joel said [Watch for these things to happen:] “My Spirit will be poured out on all generations. Sons and daughters will start to proclaim the word of the Lord, and will give warnings about the coming of the Lord; old men will begin to hope for a new tomorrow, including a different world for their children; and young men will begin to have clearer visions about the way they’ll fit into the future. When those things happen, says Joel, God is about to do something new in our midst.”

So we come to Pentecost in Acts chapter 2, generally observed in Jerusalem on the 50th day after Passover. It is also known as the “Feast of Weeks” or in Hebrew, “Shavuot.” It was a holy day, but not an extraordinary one; that is, until God’s powerful Spirit broke into the Jerusalem rituals, and an explosion of newness hit the ground! If we start with Acts 1, we are reminded that Jesus ascended into Heaven, and before her departed, he told his followers they should begin to tell others about him, beginning in Jerusalem. When they said they didn’t feel qualified to do that, he said they would be clothed with power from on high. What did Jesus mean? They found out: there on Pentecost, all of a sudden, a mighty wind—perhaps hurricane like—started to blow like never before. Some in hindsight might have called it the “winds of change” but it was more than that. It was the wind of power from on high. When people from different cultures and nations felt anemic on their own, together with others they found strength to proclaimed what they believed God wanted others to hear. Soon people from many nations heard and understood people from other nations! Never had this happened before! In our day we mechanically simulated it as members of the U.N. gather in their large New York conference room and understand each other using dozens of translators. But on Pentecost, the Spirit was the only translator! Peter, who was just getting his confidence back after denying Jesus three times, found his power, as the Spirit gave him voice! He was back, baby, and then some! He claimed the high title of “The Rock” that Jesus bestowed. Then he addressed the crowd. What words did he use to get the attention of the men of Judea? People who have stirred Americans in times of conflict might use the Battle Hymn; Peter, by contrast, recounted the words of Joel! Peter decided that what he had learned from Joel was starting to happen! He added some statements to get everyone’s attention, but basically he quoted Joel. Listen: “In the last days, God declared, I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh. Your sons and your daughters will prophesy; your young men will see visions; and your old men dream dreams.” Then Peter threw in scary stuff like blood, fire, smoke, and mist, saying that the sun would turn dark and the moon would become as blood: things a good horror writer would include. Peter got everyone’s attention! That was the cataclysmic day when God took an ordinary holy ritual and made it an extraordinary event! From that point on, people of all nations and cultures have drawn power from God’s Holy Spirit. Sometimes it’s the power to save someone else from danger; sometimes it’s the courage to finally let God speak to others though you. And sometimes it’s when you have a new beginning, or some say get “born again,” and you say to your family, your friends, or anyone within earshot something like the words Edward Mote wrote in 1834, when he declared: “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand, all other ground is sinking sand.”

Have you had an Exodus event: a time when God parted the waters for you and delivered you, or showed you the way out of your malaise or oppression? Or have you had a Pentecost event: when an ordinary day became extraordinary, or a time when God broke the mold of a ritual and made it new? What new birth, or new creation, or new idea came out of your momentous event? Perhaps yours is still on the horizon. One thing is for sure: what happened on Pentecost to Peter and to others gave birth to the Christian church, who stopped just following Christ; they started proclaiming Christ as well! Tap back into the fire of that glorious day, each time that you need new strength to face tomorrow.

Let us pray: I invite you to repeat this prayer after me:
” Spirit of the living God,
fall afresh on me.
Melt me,
mold me,
fill me,
use me.
Spirit of the living God,
fall afresh on me.” Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner June 9, 2019


Acts 16:16-34

In this age when “Avengers: Endgame” has broken attendance and income records at the box office, I am reminded again how creator Stan Lee wanted superheroes who were broken, or flawed, in some way to be the characters in his Marvel Comics. That is the story of the human race: flawed or broken people sometimes able to do extraordinary things. As we open our Bibles instead of our comic books, we find characters in the Old Testament who also broken, or flawed: Jacob, Leah, David, and Solomon to name a few. When we move to the New Testament, we of course, have Jesus, the Son of God without sin. He had the power to heal, to multiply bread, to raise people from the dead, and to make the blind to see. Aside from our Savior, we have 12 flawed Apostles who were granted the power from God to heal, preach, and baptize as Jesus described that they would have. We will celebrate the gifts of the Holy Spirit of next week in Acts chapter 2! But there was another major player in the New Testament: a man named Paul. Originally called Saul, he became an Apostle of Jesus called Paul, and he had the triple powers of Jewish training, Christian teachings, and Roman citizenship. He also had a “thorn in the flesh,” [2 Corinthians 12: 7-9] and people through the ages have guessed at what that was. Paul was proud to say that Christ made him perfect in his weakness. Almost superhero-like in what he did, one source put it this way:
Paul’s encounter with the resurrected Jesus transformed his life. He went from trying to bring an end to Christianity, to traveling roughly 10,000 miles throughout western Asia and parts of Europe to preach about Jesus and Christianity. And he did so at risk to himself, as Christianity was not a legal religion within the Roman Empire at that time. [azbible.com]

On his first journey, he visited 15 towns or cities; on his second missionary journey, he visited 19 towns or cities; on his third missionary journey, he visited a staggering 31 towns or cities; and on his fourth missionary journey he visited 10 towns or cities, ending his journey in Rome where he remained for two years! He was a giant for Christ! He was heckled, beaten, tortured, imprisoned, and eventually he died, according to the story, because he would not stop his missions, nor recant his message that Jesus was the Savior! British author A. N. Wilson, in his book Paul: The Mind of the Apostle, wrote this:
One of Jesus’ followers in Damascus, a certain Ananias, is told in a vision to go to the street called Straight and to lay his hands on Saul. When Ananias [protests] and says that Saul has been a persecutor of the Way, the Lord replies, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name to the Gentiles and kings.” So Ananias did as he was told and he went and laid hands on Saul, …and Saul began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues saying, “He is the Son of God!” … That is how the story of Saul, subsequently known as Paul, was first written down in the Acts of the Apostles. [Paul:The Mind of the Apostle, A.N. Wilson, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997, p. 16]

Today in Acts chapter 16, we visit our hero Paul doing more amazing things! From Asia Minor Paul goes to Troas in Iconium; he is preaching the gospel and praying. He has a famous meeting with a woman of God named Lydia, a seller of purple cloth in the village of Thyatira. God opened her heart to listen to Paul’s message. She was then baptized, and she invited Paul and his friends to come and stay in her home. To this day if you visit Thyatira, everyone has purple cloth for sale! In our passage for today, Paul was then on his way to a place of prayer, when he saw a woman who was employed (owned) by a man who profited from her ability to tell fortunes. Through her divination, she pointed to Paul and the others, declaring to all within earshot: “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation! [16:17] She said this loudly wherever Paul was for several days. That constant proclaiming certainly got on Paul’s nerves and he wanted to save her from bondage. So using the power of God, he cast out her spirit of divination. Out it came, which, of course, meant no one would pay her to use her gift anymore, and her employers lost the goose that was laying the golden egg. When will Paul learn? So they seized Paul and seized Silas and dragged them into the marketplace, accusing them of disturbing the peace, when the woman was truly the one disturbing the peace; Paul just disturbed their income! The crowd joined in attacking the two men, (as crowds often to do), and the attacks escalated. They struck the men with blows and threw them in prison! Can you believe how, with just this minor charge, Paul and Silas were placed in the inner prison, the most secure part, and their feet were put in stocks! Oh what our hero Paul endured for the sake of truth, justice, and the Godly way!

The story continues. Around midnight they were not letting other prisoners sleep because they were singing hymns and praying aloud! Paul! Have you no sense? But Paul had a secret weapon: not x-ray vision; not the ability to fly, not super strength. His secret weapon was his connection with the power of God, who honored Paul’s continuing praise in all circumstances. According to verse 26, there was suddenly an earthquake that was so strong and violent that the doors of the prison broke open and the chains became unfastened! Paul and Silas would have been free to go as soon as they overpowered the jailer. But you should know something: in the Roman Empire in those days, if it was learned that prisoners escaped, Caesar’s law said the responsible jailer would be killed in a horrible way. To avoid that misery and dishonor, the jailer drew his sword and was about to fall on it. But Paul shouted to him, “Do not harm yourself; we are here!” [vs.28] The jailer rushed in and sure enough, they were there! Amazingly, the jailer asked: “What must I do to be saved?”

So let’s regroup. When Paul comes into Thyatira he meets and, God working through him, leads a leader in her home and community—Lydia—to be baptized and saved. Then, as Paul goes toward a place of prayer, he meets a woman possessed by a spirit. He vanquishes the spirit of divination in her, and she became free from the slavery of her occult insights. Then Paul is taken to prison, along with Silas, but God breaks the prison open, and the jailer gets on his knees and asks, “What must I do to be saved?” Not bad for a day’s work! Again, our hero Paul takes insults, beatings, and jailings, and yet he keeps praising God and leading people to Christ! He is truly amazing. And he has 10,000 more miles to go!

Think about the people in your life that you can influence. Who can you free from their prisons of too much drink, too many drugs, or abject poverty? How might a new life give them a new direction? Think about those who, in spite of comfortable income, still finds their lives broken by physical or emotional issues, some of them serious. How can praying to and praising God hit a reset button for them? Through your gifts, we are able to help people get the therapy, clothing, food, and biblical insights that they need. Through your prayers, we are lifting up those who are hospitalized, weak, worn, and needing guidance for their future. Who knows when and how God will respond to your prayers, and my prayers? Today we use Paul’s example as our guide, for continuing our fervent prayers, and our praise.

Let us pray: Holy God, Scripture contains some unbelievable stories of salvation. Sometimes we wonder if those events still happen. Help us to have our hearts and eyes open to see the moving of your powerful Spirit. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner June 2, 2019


Revelation 21:22-22:5

Today we come to our last encounter for a while with the book of Revelation. Let’s recap:
1) The book is always Revelation, not Revelations! It is Jesus’ revelation to John.
2) We take the book seriously, but not literally; it means what it means, not what it says.
3) The book is a series of letters John wrote to 7 churches in Asia Minor regarding their persecution by the current (94 A.D.) Roman Emperor, named Domitian.
4) John’s message was meant to frighten those with little scriptural knowledge (like those who were guarding him) and meant to comfort people who knew scripture.
5) Of the 404 verses in the book of Revelation, 278 allude to an Old Testament passage.
6) The bottom line of the book: God wins; Satan loses.
7) Numbers are meaningful in this book.

Also as a reminder: Revelation is not an almanac or a predictor of what will happen in coming centuries. Hear what Dr. Craig Koester Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota says about the subject:
Members of sectarian groups have long been attracted to Revelation as a source of clues concerning the time of Christ’s coming. The groups described below exemplify a pattern in which a charismatic individual develops a distinctive interpretation of biblical texts and gathers a group of followers who anticipate that time will end in the near future…. One of the most important end-time movements in America began through the preaching of William Miller (1782-1849)…He settled in New York State, and after extensively studying Daniel and Revelation, … [said] that the consummation (rapture) would come in 1843-1844. As the time approached, Miller refined his calculations, announcing Christ’s return between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844. When the dates Miller set came and went without Christ’s visible return, [Miller] acknowledged that [he] had misunderstood the time foretold by biblical prophesy… A woman named Ellen White, who experienced trances, gathered a few of Miller’s followers who adhered to this spiritualized view into the group that became the Seventh Day Adventists….In the decades that followed [what was called ] the Great Disappointment, new dates for the coming of Christ continued to be proposed….A man named Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916) began popularizing the view that Christ returned spiritually in 1874, inaugurating a millennial dawn period that would climax with the arrival of the Kingdom of God on earth in 1914. Russell spread his views by organizing Bible studies and producing literature through the Watch Tower Tract Society…. Revelation has had a central place in the thinking of Jehovah’s Witnesses [especially the literal interpretation that only 144,000 will have a special place there as priest of God and kings of God.] The idea came from Revelation 7:4-8 and 14:1-5. The other most famous group with a charismatic leader who read Revelation as a predictor of the last days was the Branch Davidians under the leader Vernon Howell, who renamed himself David Koresh.]
(Revelation and the End of All Things, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2001, pp. 14-17)

So, stay on the straight and narrow with me! Last week we learned that John had just given a detailed account of the walls and gates of the holy city. The actual Temple had been destroyed about 20 years before Revelation was written. We might expect news from John that the Temple was going to be rebuilt. But no! The edifice that had been so important was now no longer is needed! Why? Chapter 21, verse 22 tells us: the temple in New Jerusalem “is the Lord God and the Almighty and the Lamb.” In other words, God is present everywhere in that Holy City, not just dwelling in a Temple! Incredible! We might expect street lights or lamps to be there, and we might wonder if we’ll see the sun or the moon. No; they aren’t needed since “The glory of God is the light for the city, and it’s lamp is the Lamb.” (Remember, the lamp is not a real lamb, the Lamb is Jesus Christ, who himself said in John’s gospel that he is the light of the world. John 8:12). In this new city, nations will walk in the light of Christ; and kings of the earth will bring their glory to the one who truly deserves glory! And almost like being near the North Pole, there is no night in the Holy City. Here we read how although the gates are open forever, those invited to enter are ones who call Jesus “Lord” and follow him. Those are the ones said to be written in the Lamb’s book of life. Again, don’t fall into literalism here or in the rest of Revelation. This revealing has a mystical sense about it. Also do not think Jesus needs you to be judge and jury about which of your acquaintances will be there and which ones will not. Leave that to Jesus!

In chapter 22 a new scene is revealed, almost like the curtain in a play rising to reveal it. In this scene, a river—bright bright as crystal—flows from the throne of God! Jesus promised to all who thirst that they will have “water from the fountain.” The thirst for righteousness is now being fulfilled in this new place! And in a vision that is almost a return to Eden, we find a tree—not the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—but the tree of life, with 12 kinds of fruit. Robert H. Mounce, who received his Ph.D. from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, wrote a commentary that our Revelation class used for the entire semester at Princeton Seminary. He wrote this about verse 2: “The imagery has a double source. In the early chapters of Genesis we read that if Adam had eaten of the tree of life, he would have received immortality (Gen. 2: 9; 3:22) In Ezekiel there is also a picture of healing waters flowing from the temple to form a river along whose banks are trees which each month bring forth new fruit whose leaves are for healing. (Ezekiel 47:12) The tree of life was a regular feature in Jewish portrayals of Paradise.” [The Book of Revelation, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing,1977, p. 387] Now we know why there were 12 kinds of fruit: a new and refreshing fruit grew once every month a year! It means there is plenty to eat for all!

Next it is revealed that nothing accursed shall be there: no serpents, not demons, nothing, but only those who love the Lamb Jesus and want to be with him forever! If you want that, then you get to see his face too! People have speculated about the face of Jesus from famous painters, to National Geographic researchers, to a little boy who said he saw Jesus in heaven, described in the book Heaven is for Real. What do you think Jesus will look like? Even though God said in the book of Exodus that mortals could not look upon the face of God and live, (Exodus 33:20) we will get to see the face of Jesus in New Jerusalem! And remember how Revelation 13:16 said people who followed the beast (who was the cunning and brutal emperor) would bear his mark upon their foreheads (perhaps not literally, but symbolically) to indicate that people who looked at them could see their loyalty to the beast? Revelation 22:4 indicates that those who love and are faithful to God “would bear the name of God on [their foreheads.]” (Mounce, p. 388) That means, “We belong to God.” Our Presbyterian Church (USA) “Brief Statement of Faith” begins with these words striking words: “In life and in death, we belong to God.” Indeed we do. Be comforted by those words here, and in the hereafter.

This is the final destination of our guided tour through this “apocalypse” (which means “revealing.”) What else is like this final scene? Very little. I tried to imagine it: Perhaps it is like those who go to Scandinavia and actually see the Northern Lights. Perhaps it is like those who went to the moon, peering out of the capsule windows and looking back at earth. Maybe it would be like legendary people going deep beneath the ocean and finding the lost city of Atlantis. It gives us something to dream about and to hope for. It also is yet another reason our Lord deserves our thanks and praise! Now, shall we gather at the river?

Jeffrey A. Sumner May 26, 2019