02-09-20 A JESUS PEP-TALK


Matthew 5: 13-20

When I was in elementary school, my father and I had a coin collection; we shared the passion of looking for and categorizing coins. Many of them went in cardboard sleeves in a protective book. What I remember most was him saying to me either, “We need more light in here!” or “Will you see if you can read that date?” When I read the date to him, he’d say, “You have good eyes!” I’d beamed at him through my horn rimmed glasses I’d worn since 3rd grade. I didn’t have good eyes as much as I had young eyes. When we were on the church cruise last week, Mary Ann pulled out her phone light to read many menus, as did a number of other passengers. As we age, we especially appreciate good lighting. Just last week I went to the store and came home with my sunglasses on, having set down my regular glasses. “My glasses are in this house somewhere!” I declared. I began to look for them in the house, but with sunglasses on, everything was dark. When I took my sunglasses off for brightness, everything was very blurry. Getting older has its challenges!
Jesus said two interesting lines in his Sermon on the Mount on which I want to focus today. One is, “You are the salt of the earth.” The other is, “You are the light of the world.” Stephen Schwartz, in his musical “Godspell” based on Matthew 5-7, worded them this way: “You are the salt of the earth; but if that salt has lost its flavor it ain’t got much in its favor. You can’t have that fault and be the salt of the earth.” Rhymes are great ways to remember verses. Here is the other wording from “Godspell:” “You are the light of the world. But if that light’s under a bushel, it’s lost something kind of crucial. You gotta stay bright to be the light of the world!”
Let’s talk about light first. Jesus has entrusted his followers with sharing his light in the world. It was the late Rev. Peter Marshall, who I mentioned in our Kirkin’ O’ the Tartans service, who said he couldn’t stand the painters who depicted Christ as gentle, slender, and weak. As he said, the Christ of the gospels was rugged, a carpenter, a man’s man, one who could stand toe to toe with anyone. Jesus was a bright hot light against injustice, arrogance, and corruption. I believe Jesus deliberately said, in his early in his ministry, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12.) But here, in his pep-talk, he shifted his words to tell the crowd: “You are the light of the world.” You know that old style flashlights I showed our children today? And the new style? I can’t believe that Jesus wants us to be light in the world like old dim bulbs. What good are those? They add almost nothing to our ability to see. It’s like asking coal miners to go down into their mine with no light or asking submersibles to go deep underwater in darkness. I can now tell many cars that are older when I encounter them on the road at night; their headlights are cloudy and dim! Jesus, like us, has no use for people to take his light into the world without his original brightness! “You are the light of the world!” he said. Dim lights, darkened by not getting recharged in Bible Studies or sermons, can do little to change the world. And the messages from the world can put shades or filters on his “Light.” How do you take the pure light of Christ to others? First, know your Bible and what Jesus said, so others cannot make you doubt what you believe. I really don’t see how people can charge their light by just attending a Christmas or Easter service. Second, let the light be used not just to illumine, but also to transform. We ask others to follow Jesus, not just to know about him. Virtually everyone Christ encountered came away changed. Our lights grow dim if we equivocate the message of light by letting the world put a bushel of doubt over it. On the years we’ve had Confirmation Classes, we asked those young teenagers to stand before the congregation and answer this question: “Who is your Lord and Savior?” I their answer was “Jesus Christ,” we asked them to say it in a loud voice. Sometimes adults reaffirm their faith and they timidly respond with “Jesus?” No! As one man enthusiastically said when I asked him, “Do you believe Jesus is your Lord and Savior?” he responded “Sure! Don’t everybody?” Such wonderful innocence. No, everybody doesn’t. But others will not be persuaded to consider Christ as their Savior by people who shrug, whisper, or nod their answers. Be the light of Christ to others.

Here is the other line Jesus said: “You are the salt of the earth.” These days that message can lose its punch. We can go pick up a pound of salt for less than a dollar. But salt also was used not just as a seasoning, but also as a preservative. With no refrigeration, meats that were salted would last longer. So, if we are to preserve something, what might that be? I’m struck by the historical words presidential nominees have declared on their election day as they raised their right hand and said: “I do solemnly swear or affirm that I will faithfully execute the office of the President of the United States, and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” I hope you heard that in that oath those who crafted it believed in preserving the Constitution. It was Thomas Jefferson himself who amplified the use of that word when he wrote to John Adams on September 12, 1821 saying: “”Should the clouds of barbarism and despotism (despotism is when a country’s ruler holds absolute power) again obscure the science and libraries of Europe, this country remains to preserve and restore light and liberty to them.” We would do well to still be guided by the Founding Fathers words. There are others in our world who also seek to preserve things; think of the Amish, who seek to preserve their way of life. Think of conservationists, who seek to preserve the forests or the seas. I also think of the jars of preserves my grandmother used to keep in her cellar, allowing fruit canned “in season” to be preserved and eaten out of season. Could Jesus be asking his listeners to preserve his teachings so they could be told to others? You may know that salt becomes useless once it is polluted with dirt. Jesus might say: “Keep the words I gave you preserved and pure; then they will always have their original meaning and potency.” We need to preserve the message of Jesus so that it can always be offered to new generations with the same power and potency. Here’s an example of how to preserve the faith.

One of my ordination questions proposed the following situation: youth leaders were going on a weekend retreat were asked by the youth if they could have Pizza and Cokes and treat it like a communion meal. The question ended with these words: “Give your answer and defend it.” Here was my answer: to make pizza and coke into the Sacrament of Holy Communion would fail to preserve the faith. Jesus had specific words: Lifting bread he said, “take eat, this is my body, broken for you.” “And “this cup is the new covenant sealed in my blood.” Through the years people have used unleavened bread, leavened bread, and gluten free bread, but they have still used bread. During prohibition, most Protestant churches changed from using wine to grape juice; some have changed back and some haven’t. A preacher in a country church was explaining what I just explained to you and then he added, “In Jesus’ day, our Savior certainly used wine.” A woman in the congregation scowled at him. He saw it and asked: “What’s the matter Mrs. Jones? Didn’t you know that Jesus used wine at the Last Supper? “Yes,” she retorted, and then said in a loud voice, “And I’ve never forgiven him for it!!”
We seek to preserve the sacraments that Jesus told us to continue doing until he comes again, and to see that the message is not polluted by the world. Be light! Be salt! Jesus needs us—the body of Christ—to carry his message with conviction and purity of purpose. Then we can change this darkened world with his light and bring the original precious message of Jesus that was preached on the shores of the Sea of Galilee to the United States of America and beyond. Make it so!
Jeffrey A. Sumner February 9, 2020

02-02-20 MERCIFUL BLESSINGS

Matthew 5:7

February 2, 2020
Westminster by the Sea Presbyterian Church

Radford Rader, D.M.

Last week, it was blessed are the meek; this week it is “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.”

A king had a large orchard. He had a great variety of fruit trees planted there. He employed a skilled gardener to take care of the fruit trees. The gardener picked the ripe and juicy fruits each day. Every morning, when the royal court was in session, the gardener would take a basket of fruit to the king.
One day the gardener collected some cherries for the king. Already in a bad mood, the king picked a cherry and popped it into his mouth. It was sour, which caused the king to vent his pent-up anger upon the poor gardener. He threw a cherry at the gardener and hit him on the forehead.
The gardener responded with, “God is merciful.”
The king enquired, “You must be hurt but you say, “God is merciful.”
The gardener said, “Your majesty, I was going to bring pineapples today, but I changed my mind. If you had thrown a pineapple at me, I would have been badly hurt. God is merciful for having changed my mind.”

We can make light of mercy, but it is the very essence of God. In Exodus 34:6 we hear for the first time the refrain that runs throughout the scriptures: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” God need not care about us. God need not do us good. God need not seek us out and forgive us. We may wonder why “in God’s great mercy, we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” (I Peter 1:3). Yet that is the love of God. God’s grace gives us what we don’t deserve; God’s mercy does not give us what we do deserve. To be merciful is to imitate God, to act like God, to live as God wishes all people to live.

Mercy is not easy. It goes against our grain for we are not always gracious. We are quick to act in anger and vengeance, wanting what we think is justice and to see anyone who has done wrong squirm and suffer, particularly if that person has wronged us. The more normal behavior is that of the servant in Jesus’ parable who is forgiven much by his master and then turns around and nails another who owns him little. Mercy is hard because to be merciful we must deny ourselves and identify with the other person, want for them what is good, want to redeem them so that they have wholeness. To do such necessitates that we know that we are forgiven, not because we deserve it or even because we have sought it but because God in God’s mercy has already given it to us. The merciful are those who have allowed the mercy of God to penetrate the very core of their being. We are not to be merciful so we can be forgiven or out of fear that we won’t be forgiven but we are to be merciful because we are forgiven. Mercy is always something we pay forward.

Mercy in Matthew is more than forgiveness; it includes compassion. Two blind men ask Jesus for mercy (9:27). The Canaanite woman sought mercy for her daughter (15:22). The father of the boy with the demons begged for mercy (17:15). Jesus shows compassion and heals their diseases. When he saw the crowd, Jesus had compassion upon them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd (9:36). Mercy is shown in compassion to others in need. Compassion is an attitude of sympathy, where one feels sorry for another; mercy is when compassion becomes action. Mercy does something. The Greek word for mercy is “eleos”, the word for almsgiving is from the same root. Helping the poor, assisting those in need, giving food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, clothes to the naked, visiting the sick, these are acts of mercy. J.M.DeMattheis wrote, “Any time, any of us reaches out, any time we pour even a drop of love, compassion, simple human decency…into the sea of earthly existence—we are, each and every one of us, the being called mercy.” Mercy does not stand above with concern, sympathy and empathy, it gets down into the gutter where the man who has beaten beaten and robbed is lying, does first aid, puts him in one’s own car, takes him to a hospital, stays with him and pays for it all—At least that’s how Jesus described the one who had mercy to his neighbor.

We may not be merciful as we should be, but we know when we see it. We saw it displayed in a courtroom this year. Brandt Jean stepped into the dock to offer testimony in the sentencing phase of Amber Guyger’s trial for killing his brother while he stood innocently in his own apartment. He did not ask the judge to through the book at her although he believed she was guilty. He saw a broken woman and he chose mercy, even at the expense of his family’s gasping disapproval. He requested of the judge an unusual ruling, that he be given the opportunity to step down and hug the convicted Amber. It was granted and we saw them fall tearfully into each other’s arms and heard him whisper to her, “I forgive you.” If we are merciful, we give compassion and forgiveness whenever and to whomever it is needed.

Mercy is a blessing upon the one who receives mercy. It offers them a way to wholeness and life. It is also a blessing upon the one who is merciful for it removes from within a person the hardness of heart that will eat them up and lock them out of the kingdom. Portia speaking to the vengeful Shylock in The Merchant of Venice still speaks beautifully and accurately
The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath
It is twice blessed: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
As Jesus’ said, “Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful!”

01-26-20 HUMBLE BLESSINGS

Matthew 5:5 / January 26, 2020
Westminster by the Sea Presbyterian Church

Radford Rader, D.Min.

Looking at the lectionary readings when I had to choose sermon scriptures and titles a couple of months ago, I came face to face with the Beatitudes. Now the problem is that there are 8 beatitudes in Matthew. No one can do justice to all the Beatitudes in one sermon. I have this week and next to preach and I am not up to even doing four each week. They are just too rich and too important to skim the surface and not dive deep into them. My solution was to choose two, one for each week. This week is “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.” I chose “meek” because it is so foreign to the way we think in our world today.
The problem with “meek” is it sounds like “weak”. We mix the two together. In a newspaper column, Bill Farmer wrote about J. Upton Dickson, who founded a group of submissive people. It was called “DOORMATS” and it stood for “Dependent Organization of Really Meek and Timid Souls”. Their motto was “The meek shall inherit the earth – if it is ok with everybody.” For us, meek describes doormat, pushover, one who never stands up for self, overly submissive and compliant bending like an overcooked stalk of asparagus, spiritless. None of us want to be the child who, every day, hands over his lunch money to the bully. Our society rewards: strong, shrewd, standing up for oneself, striving for success whatever it takes, never accepting a slight and striking back whenever wronged. Of course, this image of meek isn’t biblical. Moses, who stood up to Pharaoh and led recalcitrant Israelites for 40 years in the wilderness, is said to be “very meek, more than all mortals that were on the face of the earth.” (Numbers 12:3)
Meek, in the Bible, is not weak. Rather, it defines a right relationship with God. Meek is to know God in all God’s greatness and goodness, power and love. It is to know who we are in comparison to God and that we are not God. Meek does not count equality with God a thing to be grasps but humbles oneself before God. Those who are meek have given themselves into the care of God and guidance of God. They do not need to prove themselves or justify their worth, for God gives them worth as a beloved child. We may be mortal and of little status in the world but in the eyes of God we are precious and of great worth. The meek are not swelled with pride but humble to be chosen. There was a story in the Ormond Observer this week about Jack Simpson, an elementary student who was one of only 200 students of the over 1,000 who auditioned for the Florida All-State Elementary Choir. His teacher said, “He’d sung in class, but he never really was the kind of kid that’s like, “Hey, look at me, I’m this superstar singer. He never wanted the attention. He didn’t want to make a big deal out of it.”
Jack Wellman, has written, “Everyone who has humility has meekness and everyone with meekness is likely to be humble.” The two go together. Meekness with God breeds humility in us. Humility is an attitude about us gained from of our knowledge of God. We don’t have to be a superstar. We don’t crave attention. We don’t make a big deal about ourselves, making sure everybody knows it. We are proud but not boastful. We are confident but do not demand attention and applause. We can stand in the shadows and be happy; we don’t need to be always in the spotlight to be satisfied. Humility is not self-deprecation. Frederick Buechner writes that humility does not say, “I am not much of a bridge player when you know perfectly well you are.” He goes on to say, “If you really aren’t much of a bridge player, you’re apt to be rather proud of yourself for admitting it so humbly. This kind of humility is a form of low comedy.” In humility we know our gifts with gratitude to God and seek to use them for God’s glory not our own. We can acknowledge achievement and accept applause but always without hubris. In other words, we do not think too highly of ourselves, yet we also know that we are gifted and talented.
There is something of a progression that happens. It starts with meekness in relationship to God. Humility, based on meekness, becomes the attitude we have about ourselves. The Greek word translated “meek” is translated just as many times as “gentle. Where humility is the attitude, we have toward ourselves; gentleness is our attitude toward others that comes from being meek. Jesus describes himself a “gentle and lowly in heart.” Gentleness comes from a quietness of spirit that is at peace with God and oneself. Gentleness rest in humility that doesn’t need to lord it over others or control every situation because God is in control and the Spirit is at work. Gentleness does not react in anger; it may not respond at all come back in love and compassion. When others get loud; the gentle remain quiet according to the proverb, “a soft answer turns away wrath.” Gentleness understands that others are not perfect any more than we are perfect and therefore does not have the need to be harsh and condescending but can respond, gently in calm, caring ways that disarm and diffuse. The Letter of James says, “the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty and insincerity. Certainly, in our day and this time we need more of this language and behavior that what we are seeing, hearing and practicing.
Abraham Lincoln was not weak, but he was meek, and humble and could be very gentle. He knew that he was not a handsome man. When told that someone called him two-faced, he did not lash out but simply replied, “If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?” He did not let his appearance bother him, but others used it to attack him. When they were both practicing law, Edwin Stanton would often call him “gorilla” in public debates. Yet Abraham Lincoln was above the fray and did not let insults get the best of him or alter his opinion of others. Lincoln respected, Edwin Stanton, and when he became President asked him to join his cabinet as Secretary of War. Those close to the President objected but when pressed, Lincoln said, “He’s the best man for the job.” When Lincoln lay dying, Stanton was there and looking on his rugged face said, “There is the greatest ruler of men the world has ever seen.”
Meek, humble and gentle changes us and others for the good. We are blessing and a blessed for we both help build the kingdom and have a place in it.

01-19-20 FINDING JESUS


John 1: 29-42

Today we are going to the land of Loch Lomond as we think about faithful people, special family members, and a nation that eventually became Presbyterian thanks to John Knox. One man, Rupert Besley, gave this humorous tourist tip about how to pronounce the Scottish “ch” sound. He writes: “Place one half-stick of freshly cut celery (4 ½ inches long) in the mouth at a right angle to the tongue and stand well back from those [with whom you wish to converse.] In summer months, rhubarb may be used instead.” [Scotland for Beginners, Moffat, Scotland, Lochar Publishing, 1990, p.7] If I did that for my sermon, this first row would become a splash area! Now you have your Scottish lesson for today! Next, a story:
A country preacher brought his congregation to a nearby river to be baptized and saved. As they gathered at the river, a man they didn’t know walked up; he’d been swimming but asked if he could join the group. The preacher welcomed him and said in a loud voice: “Mister, are you ready to find Jesus?” “Yes, I am!” the man declared. So the preacher took him, immersed him, and then brought him back up, dripping wet. “Have you found Jesus?” the preacher asked him. “No,” declared the man uncertainly. The preacher pushed his head under the water again and held him down a little longer. “Now brother, have you found Jesus?” Again the man said “No!” A third time the preacher pushed his head under the water and held him under for 10 seconds. Up he came. “NOW have you found Jesus?” the preacher thundered. “No!” the man said. “Are you sure this is where he fell in?”

Finding Jesus has been something that our forebears did all the way back to Peter, James, John, and Andrew. It is something that often happens by word of mouth, as happened in our text today, or like hungry people telling others where to find food. Inexplicably, in 1983 when I was living in Arkansas, the federal government allotted huge quantities of American Cheese to be sent to local counties for distribution to hungry people. Cheese! In our county, our Ministerial Association did not advertise the cheese, but we set up a distribution site at a local church. Within a week, the huge allotment of cheese was gone. D.T. Niles called evangelism when “One beggar tells another where to find bread.” But in 1983, it was one hungry person telling another where to find cheese! Seventy-four years ago, the Rev. Peter Marshall, who I mentioned in the opening words of your bulletin, wrote a sermon called “Mr. Jones, Meet the Master.” In it he said this:
The Church rests its unshakeable conviction that fellowship …with the living Lord is possible….The Gospel writers say that at the beginning of Christ’s ministry, he chose 12 men ….’that they might be with him.’ They were very ordinary men. By our standards of judgment, not a single one of them would been considered disciple material. Tax collectors; fisherman, peasants, simple folk, unlettered for the most part with no special qualification. But as Christ chose them he was seeing, not so much what they were, as what they were to become. [He called them, ministered, died, and rose from the dead, making many post resurrection appearances so people to this day may find him who seek him, even if they live after him.]
If this fellowship with the risen Lord, which the apostles experienced, is also available to us, how may we go about finding it? …Do we really want to find him? There is a glorious promise given in the days of old that has not yet faded from the written record: “If with all your hearts ye truly seek me, ye shall surely find me.”
[New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1949, p. 137]

So many people are searching these days. Some call themselves “spiritual.” How can Christians offer Jesus to them? A walk through a bookstore (which gets hard to find these days) shows shelves of books under headings like “Inspirational” or “Religion” or “Self Help.” That’s not all bad. People often search for things that bring peace to their soul. What is the church doing to connect people to the Master?” Mainline churches can keep and gain vitality when they offer the true Gospel of Jesus Christ in an understandable way. Newer congregations that meet in unconventional places reach others who perhaps never have been “churched,” and some come with trepidation. With the rise in popularity of escape rooms, one person this week posted a cartoon, saying, “The Latest in terrifying Escape Rooms: visiting a new church!

In the mid 1990s, the number of songs in the genre “Christian Pop Music” soared. It is now fourth in the list of popular genres with Talk/News radio being number one! But on the dedicated Christian stations, people can find what suits them—country, rock, even chant. So music is one way people can find Jesus! In England in the times of John and Charles Wesley, holding Bible studies and prayer meetings in people’s homes reached many people hungry to know Christ than what they found in the high liturgy of the day at the Church of England. So the Methodist Church was born, having one spiritual beggar telling another where to find bread! You might have heard the hymn “Break Thou the Bread of Life” and thought it described communion. But it was meant to describe the Word of God being shared as Jesus shared it beside the Sea. In our own day, new congregations are taking root in the Presbyterian denomination, not as much through the old ways of wanting a multipurpose building at first, but groups instead are gathering for Bible studies in parks, in gyms, in schools, and even in bars. They call it, “a new way of doing church,” and some have no plans to own their own building. Ever since the middle ages, the church has been reformed and always reforming if it wants to help others know Jesus and make him known. I believe that people are helped by meeting Him. But how do we invite others to meet him? Listen to what happened in today’s text.

John the Baptist had d introduce people to Jesus in a unique way. He called Jesus, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” And with those words, John said a mouthful. Perhaps John’s words reminded people of the Passover, of the unblemished lamb, the sacrifice, and forgiveness. John tried to say to people who followed him: “No! I’m not the one! This is the one!” And he pointed to Jesus. Often I invite people to our church, but I hope you might invite people to our church too! Studies have shown that when a preacher invites someone to church, 10% will try it; but if you invite someone to church, 90% will try it! So here I am, spending my life inviting others to know Jesus, when you might be more effective at it! Since Jesus physically died on the cross, meeting Jesus happens now in spiritual ways; sometimes as we hear our Bibles sometimes as the Bible is preached, sometimes it’s in the sharing of the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, in prayers, in times of silence and even on weekend retreats, summer camps, or mission trips. Churches try to foster possibilities for meeting Jesus, and teaching members how to invite others to know him. I want people to try this church, or another church, as a pathway to meeting Jesus. Then as we open our Bibles, I can say to them with authenticity: “Meet the Master.” “Meet the Lamb of God.” “Meet the Savior.”

In verses 41 and 42 of John chapter 1, Andrew—the patron Saint of Scotland—does three things to introduce his brother Simon (who Jesus later called Peter) to Jesus:
-First, he finds Simon.
-Second, he tells him, “We have found the Messiah!”
-And third, he brings his brother to Jesus.
Can you imagine how many more people would know Jesus if we followed those three steps? Talk to people who seem to be searching; tell them in your own way that you know a Savior who can help when they are lost and who loves them unconditionally. Then bring them to church to hear that message.
Sometimes we think of Jesus as far away; we can infer that from our prayers to a “Heavenly Father” that makes God seem to be almost unreachable above the clouds. Also, our hymns have phrases like: [On a Hill Far Away; “Along the Dusty Roads of Galilee; High on Heaven’s Throne.”] Yet all along the Spirit of the living Lord is right beside us. He is with us. We are not alone. Peter Marshall said Mr. Jones could meet the Master; and you can too! People in Jesus’ day wanted to see God. And to those inquiries Jesus said in John 14: “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” And he said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” [Matthew 18:20] We can thank John Calvin and his Christian school in Geneva for deepening John Knox’s love for and understanding of Jesus. We can thank John and Charles Wesley for helping people in England grow closer to Jesus. And we can thank Felix Mendelsohn’s for reminding us of a message we find in Jeremiah 29: in his Oratorio called “Elijah,” those moving words are sung: “If with all your heart you truly seek me, you shall surely find me.”
Search for the Lord truly, and truly, you shall find the Lord.

Jeffrey A. Sumner January 19, 2020

01-12-20 RETURNING TO THE JORDAN


Matthew 3: 13-17

Presbyterian minister Mihee Kim-Kort helps us imagine what a visit to the Jordan River would be like—actually or spiritually—with these observations:
While baptism represents many things, for some Christians it is first and foremost a reminder that we are God’s beloved. That is rooted in Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan, which clearly marks the beginning of his ministry… [Christian Century, January 1, 2020, p. 19]

We might think the location was arbitrary—this place where John was baptizing others and then baptized Jesus—but it was an important location even before Jesus’ baptism. It was here that Joshua led the Israelites into the land of Canaan to claim it for God. The battle, as the song “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” describes, was at the Jericho city wall, not far from the Jordan River. There, at that place at the river, priests carried the Ark of the Covenant across the riverbed into what became the promised land. Listen to these words from Joshua 3:17 “The priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord stopped in the middle of the Jordan and stood on dry ground, until all the nation finished passing over the Jordan.” You probably have remembered that God parted the waters of the Red Sea so the Israelites could escape from Pharaoh in the event called “The Exodus.” But this was another God event, when the flow of a river stopped!
What else happened there? The great prophet Elijah stood before King Ahab—who did evil things in the sight of the Lord—and declared: “As the Lord, the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by his word.” And the word of the Lord came to [Elijah], saying: “Depart from here and turn eastward, [and go to the brook that is] east of the Jordan. You shall drink from the brook, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.” [I Kings 17: 1-3] A dry land depends on water sources. So Israel had brooks, wadis (or springs), the Sea of Galilee (which is actually a freshwater lake,) and the important Jordan River, fed by its headwaters on the towering Mount Hermon. The Jordan was a stronger river in those days; Israel today has developed irrigation for crops that siphons away a good portion of the Jordan waters. But a water source—like a river—was necessary for physical life, such water can renew our spiritual life as well.

You may or may not remember your baptism depending on your age; and others may not have ever been baptized at all or thought about doing it. Let me give you a primer: Baptism by John was offered to those who repented of things in their lives and pulled them away from God. So John, like us, was surprised to see Jesus—a man he already knew—coming to be baptized. John saw himself as the forerunner of the one coming in the name of the Lord. John recognized that, and said to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you!” But Jesus still asked him for baptism. John complied. Jesus there, dripping with his baptismal waters, had this happen: “The heavens were opened and the Spirit of God descended on him like a dove …. And lo, a voice from heaven [said] this is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” [Matthew 3:13-17] You might say, “Of course God is excited about the baptism of his Son! But be excited about my baptism? Really?” Today I want you to embrace that thought. I want you to think that as you told other people about the plan for your own baptism, or your plan to baptize your child, others either planned to be present too or to celebrate with you! God does both with the baptism of his children on earth: God is both present and celebrating. The book of Zephaniah is sometimes called “God’s love letter.” Hear these words in it, written as God’s people were away for so long were returning home: “The Lord your God is in your midst …he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you with his love; he will exult over you with loud singing, as on a day of festival.” [Zephaniah 3: 17]
Modern Christian pastor and writer Max Lucado puts it this way: “If God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it!” Picture God being excited about the day of your baptism; a day when his Holy Spirit begins to enter your life, or your child’s life; a day of new beginnings. That is what happens at a baptism—theologically St. Augustine called it “An outward sign of an inward grace.” It is a day of rejoicing on earth and in heaven. It is an event that Jesus knew was not only important, but also joyful. So, according to the last verses of the Gospel of Matthew, some of Jesus’ last words were called “The Great Commission. He proclaimed: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”

Some people—especially those who have struggled in life with poverty, addictions, or poor choices and their consequences—find baptism exceptionally meaningful; a do-over time; a time to be washed clean; a time to hear, perhaps for the first time, a voice that says: “You are loved; with you I am well pleased.” Jesus told a number of stories about those who needed welcome and salvation. People like the Pharisees, who had attitudes of entitlement, were often his audience. One of his best parables those who feel lost and those who feel entitled was in Luke 15. There we find Jesus describing a Father who rejoices over a lost son, one who went to a far country and not only fed pigs, but also was so hungry he would have eaten what the pigs ate. Consider that image. The father had another son—one who was hard-working and faithful—and that son resented the lavish grace his father offered to “that other son of yours.” Now, consider all the people, of every color and walk of life, gathering at the river in heaven, the one described in the book of Revelation, having passed from this life to the next. Who might they be? Who will be there? Who might we be surprised by who we see? I want to finish today with a long quote that I will offer without further comment. Southern author Flannery O’ Connor wrote an insightful short story that takes place in a doctor’s waiting room! (Heaven’s waiting room??) The author of our Men’s Bible Study, Dr. Thomas W. Walker, says this about it:
In her short story “Revelation,” Flannery O’ Connor introduces her readers to Mrs. Turpin, a middle-class white lady in the deep south of the mid twentieth century…. For Mrs. Turpin everyone has a place, and her own place is in the upper echelon. She looks with some disgust at people she believes are beneath her, including those she calls “white trash” and the [people of color] in her town. Mrs. Turpin’s husband, Claud, has been injured by a cow on their farm and they find themselves in a doctor’s waiting room. As they wait, Mrs. Turpin both out loud and to herself, makes snide comments, sizing up everyone in the room, and she finds some solace in the thought that her lot is not that of anyone else in the room.
[She says aloud in the waiting room:] “If it’s one thing I am, its grateful. When I think of who all I could have been besides myself and what all I got, a little of everything and good disposition besides, I just feel like shouting, ‘Thank you Jesus for making everything the way it is! It could have been different!’” In response to that soliloquy, a young college girl who had gone away to school up north, (another failing that Mrs. Turpin notes,) throws a book at Mrs. Turpin. The mother of the young woman and the nurse end up having to restrain the girl, and she is eventually sedated, [but not before shouting hateful things to Mrs. Turpin. [Mrs. Turpin dismisses the girl as a lunatic.] The words from the waiting room [and there were more of them] continued to haunt Mrs. Turpin until finally she returns home and actually has a vision, standing by the family pigpen of her farm. {She finished feeding her pigs and began to wash her hands. Flannery O’ Connor closed her story with these words:

“A visionary light settled in [Mrs. Turpin’s] eyes …. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time, and bands of blacks in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people …like herself and Claud, who had always had a little of everything…They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key! Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.
At length she got down, and turned off the faucet, and in her slow way [trudged] on the darkening path to the house. In the woods around her, the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she [most] heard were the voices of the souls, climbing upward in the starry field, shouting “Hallelujah!”

Please join me as we offer a prayer in song to God with our next hymn, “Have Thine Own Way, Lord.” Since it IS a prayer, we will conclude it with an Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner January 12, 2020

01-05-20 THE GIFT

John 1: 1-5;14

At Christmas we give and receive gifts; they might delight us or disappoint us. Finding or creating those gifts takes our time and our energy, as they should. Gifts rightly given, are expressions of our love, or our appreciation, or our desire to participate in a traditional season of giving. But at the heart of it all, is “The Gift.” The Gift is Jesus, born in a stable, and perhaps already born in your heart. If not, you can even prepare him room today. What other gift have you received this year or some other year, that touched your heart, or changed your life? People have written about such gifts and they have been placed into the annals of our seasonal literature. Take, for example the short story by William Sydney Porter, known by his pen name of O. Henry. His story, “The Gift of the Magi,” starts with these words: One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty of it was in pennies. Three times Della counted it…. And the next day would be Christmas. There was nothing to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it…. There were two possessions that Della, and her husband Jim, called valuable. “One was Jim’s gold watch, which had been his father’s and his grandfather’s. The other was Della’s hair.” It was beautiful, cascading, and brunette, falling below her knees when combed out. So—spoiler alert—Della sold her hair to buy Jim a beautiful chain on which he could attach his gold pocket watch, while Jim sold his gold watch to buy expensive hair clips—really hair combs—made of pure tortoise shell with jeweled rims for Della’s long hair. But now what was the use of combs for Della’s short hair? And what use was the chain without Jim’s watch? O. Henry concludes his story saying:
The magi, as you know, were wise men—wonderfully wise men—who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. … And here, I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise these days, let it be said that of all who give gifts, such as they are the wisest. Everywhere they are the wisest. They are the magi.”

So, there are gifts of sacrifice, one of which has been described in the first chapter John, when the essence of God—a gift of love—was born into a world that would receive him not. It was the supreme sacrificial gift, the one around which others may aspire. God—safely in the world of the eternal—came to the world of the mortal. Through the ages, there have been stories of those who have sacrificed their lives for their friends, their families, or for others in arms. More recently, there have been stories of people who have sacrificially given a kidney, or bone marrow, or blood so that others may have life. What a gift that is. I have given blood, and I have decided to be an organ donor at my demise, but those other gifts are truly sacrificial.

This season sometimes includes sacrificial gifts, but most often gifts of love and joy. The gift described in John chapter one is both. Dr Brian Blount, President of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia wrote a significant article for the Dec 23, 2019 issue of Presbyterians Outlook. Here is an excerpt:
God saw a world struggling in injustice, brokenness, and oppression….God came to this world. The Word became flesh and lived among us. Divinity incarnated itself into flesh. And we saw the glory, the glory of light breaking into darkness, so that all who encountered this light-infested flesh would see and know the truth of God’s intention for this world. God committed…. The author of the Gospel of John explained it this way: “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” ….The moment the Word became flesh, the Word took a side. A human side. For there is nothing more human than flesh.
And that was God’s great gift. Gifts from the heart are great gifts.

In this season, other stories have helped expand our image of what a “gift” truly can be. Back in 1941 American classical music composer and teacher Katherine Kennicott Davis wrote a song that at first was called “The Carol of the Drum,” but became known as “The Little Drummer Boy.” “In the lyrics, the singer relates how as a poor young boy, he was summoned by the Magi to the Nativity of Jesus. Without a gift for the infant, the little drummer boy played his drum with approval from Jesus’ mother, Mary. And, referring to Jesus, the little boy said, “I played my best for him,” and “He smiled at me.” [Wikipedia]

“The Gift” has been the title of at least two modern books, one by Richard Paul Evans, and one by Lewis Hyde. But THE gift, the gift to the world, is Emmanuel: “God with us.” The gift was a baby who was placed in a rudimentary manger for his bed. The gift was surrounded by Mary and Joseph, but also by animals and shepherds. Such a place, such a way, for “the gift” to be given. And yet, he was; and he is. That gift has inspired stories over the centuries, along with acts of love and kindness. The Gift of Jesus may have entered or touched your heart this year or another year. Good! If not, as I said, you can still prepare room in your heart for him today. But what other gift has touched your heart this year? Cherish it; give thanks for it, even as you give thanks for Him, the Lord Jesus. Today, focus on the one who was born a King, so that wise men who read the stars would travel long distances to bring him the most meaningful gifts they had.
May this day be the day you remember “The Gift,” and the gifts.
Let us pray: Hear our prayer, O God, as we come from the old year into this new one. As we call on you for guidance, wisdom, and comfort, remind us of your love, and always, of your gift. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner January 5, 2020

12-29-19 THE JOURNEY TO EGYPT

Matthew 2: 13-15; 19-23

As we end a year of political turmoil and head into an election year, the topic of securing our borders continues to be in the news. This week the Pope noted that migrants have been forced by injustice “to emigrate in the hope of a secure life.” As they have done that, they have run into system abuses, roadblocks, and even torture all over the world. Last week, a bill that passed congress two weeks ago to avoid a government shutdown included money for part of a wall on our southern border. Of course, we know that has to do with keeping out those who come to our country without legal papers or legitimate asylum request. We also know there is a cost to our government for those who are in this country yet are not citizens and who, therefore, are not paying income taxes, though they do pay taxes on goods and gasoline like the rest of us. But why do people come to our country and to other countries? Sometimes it is out of fear; to get away from something or someone. People look for a safe place to raise a family. Ironic, isn’t it, that if Egypt had prohibited Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus from entering their country as described in Matthew chapter 2, the Holy Family would have had difficulty protecting their child from Herod! Gladly, we recall protection stories that have made it into our history books, like the Diary of Anne Frank, when a family in Amsterdam protected Jewish refugees, including her, at great personal cost. Gladly we remember Oscar Schindler, made famous in SCHINDLER’S LIST, protecting Jews from annihilation. Today we look at this Christmas through new eyes, as a Jewish family left Bethlehem and departed Herod’s jurisdiction for their protection.

The text in verse 13 starts out “After they had left,” and of course, this means when the Magi, or Wiseman, left. We recall that God wisely chose a human father for his son who listened to his dreams. That quality would come in handy again today as God’s angel—Gabriel— gave an imperative command, “Get up, take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” What would it be like, parents, to believe your child, in this case your baby, was in danger of being kidnapped and killed? Would every instinct in your body be called to attention to protect your child? In this case, the killing machine was not one of today’s terrorists or a man named Hitler, but he was just as bad: a maniacal, powerful, Middle Eastern Dictator self named “Herod The Great,” who had proven his threats in the past by killing some of his sons, his wives, and his armies to keep them from seizing control of his empire. He ruled all of Israel in his day, and no part of Israel would have been outside of his domain. But Egypt was; it had been under Roman control since 30 B.C. Scholars like Raymond Brown and William Barclay told us that Egypt was already a place that had welcomed so many refugee Jews to the outskirts of its cities that there were already a number of Jewish communities there. Mary and Joseph would not have been the first to seek their safety in the land of the pyramids. There is no record of a border patrol or checkpoint: they just migrated and found a place to live for probably two years. Jews in Egypt, like Jews who left Germany for Austria, or for the United States, or other countries, came with their God and their hard work ethic. We do not know if they were liked or despised; but we know that they got to be there, probably as part of a close-knit community, for quite a length of time. What would make a Jew leave his homeland to find safe rest in a foreign land? In this case, it was an angel, a warning, and a belief that the threats that would come to pass would have been deadly if they’d stayed.

Then we come to verses 16-18. Often dramatized as the “Slaughter of the Innocents,” it is depicted as the killing of many children two years old and under. Even today, I flinch when I hear that a child has died from a bomb, or being stuck at a checkpoint, or from disease or lack of proper nutrition. C
Children dying grieves not just their mothers and fathers, but me as well, and probably you. So for Mary and Joseph, there was no time to extend their stay in Bethlehem because their newborn was in danger. Going home to Nazareth was no answer since Herod ruled that territory as well and the family might have been discovered. So under cover of darkness, Joseph—again the right man chosen to protect and raise the Son of God—got his family ready and headed out, not to a promised land, but to the land known to Jews from the Exodus story; a place where Moses had been born, a place of civilization and pluralism and safety. This was not the first time a Jew had traveled to Egypt for safety. Raymond Brown reminds us that “It was the classic land of refuge for those fleeing from tyranny in Palestine. When King Solomon sought to put Jeroboam to death in 1 Kings 11:40, he ‘arose and fled to Egypt.’ When King Jehoiakim sought to kill the prophet Uriah, son of Shemaiah in Jeremiah 26:21, he fled and escaped to Egypt; and about 172 B.C. the high priest Onias IV fled to Egypt to escape from King Antiochus Epiphanes, [the horrible ruler in the Daniel story.] [BIRTH OF THE MESSIAH, Doubleday, 1979, p. 203] Whether Mary and Joseph and Jesus just went over the border or deep into Egypt is a matter of speculation and legend; but that Christmas journey saved the life of their child, the one born to save the world.

Historians tell us that Herod the Great died in 4 B.C. in all likelihood. (Yes, B.C. (before Christ) because Dionysius Exiguus in 525 A.D. and Pope Gregory XIII with his Gregorian Calendar, miscalculated the date for Jesus’ birth, which was most likely around 6 B.C (since it is recorded that Herod died around 4 B.C.) Before he died, however, Herod the Great divided up Israel and bequeathed a portion to each of his three sons: to Herod Archelaus, who was almost as ruthless as his father, he gave Judea which included Jerusalem and Bethlehem; to his son Herod Antipas, who was also a strong and feared ruler, he gave Galilee, which included Nazareth and Capernaum; and to his son Herod Philip, he gave the northeastern section of Israel including the region that was later named Caesarea Philippi. Joseph decided to return to his hometown of Nazareth and go around the territory of Judea to avoid Archelaus. The family finally put down roots in Nazareth according to verse 23. Matthew says this was done to fulfill a prophesy saying, “He will be called a Nazarene.” Interesting, because there is no recorded prophet who said that in the Old Testament, about the Messiah or anyone else! But what we do learn is that Nazareth was the perfect setting for Joseph to raise his stepson. Both Mary and Joseph had family members there for support; construction of Roman structures in nearby Sephoris gave stone masons and carpenters like Joseph, and later Jesus, the opportunity for steady employment. With a short climb up the back hill from Nazareth, the boy Jesus could have seen the mount where the great Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal years before; and he could see the valley of Megiddo, where two great pathways crossed: the way of the sea and the north-south way, and where more battles had been fought then any place in the world-the place often called Armageddon or (Har-Meggido). So the boy Jesus had the perfect perch from which to see the world and to grow into its Savior. But it never would have happened had there not been a country, like Egypt, that welcomed refuges into their land. Today we are thankful for God’s angels, for Joseph’s open heart, and for the country that gave safe haven to the Holy Family.

Let us pray: O God of Wonder and God of Might: we have had a glimpse of your divine plan to bring Jesus into the world and protect him from harm until his time had come. Your steadfast love makes us feel humble and grateful. On the cusp of a new year, some here are ready to live differently. Fill them and let changes in their lives let Christ’s light shine through them to others. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner December 29, 2019

12-22-19 JOSEPH’S DREAM

Matthew 1: 18-25

My text today is this: “An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.’” [Matthew 1:20] There have been times when people have come to my office and asked, “May I speak with you a minute?” We go in, sit down, and they proceed to ask me, in a hushed tone, “Do people ever come here and tell you their dreams?” I’ve whispered back, “Yes!” Then they feel comfortable enough to share a recent dream, and together we think about what it might have meant. Sometimes they believe the dream is just them trying to work out a conflict they had the day before or the week before. Sometimes they have a kind of a nightmare, perhaps caused by a frightening or disturbing event. But other times it seems like the dream is a message from God, or from an angel; words of guidance that sink into their psyche. For example, do you remember hearing this?
One night I dreamed a dream.
As I was walking along the beach with my Lord.
Across the dark sky flashed scenes from my life.
For each scene, I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand,
One belonging to me and one to my Lord.
After the last scene of my life flashed before me,
I looked back at the footprints in the sand.
I noticed that at many times along the path of my life,
especially at the very lowest and saddest times,
there was only one set of footprints.
This really troubled me, so I asked the Lord about it.
“Lord, you said once I decided to follow you,
You’d walk with me all the way.
But I noticed that during the saddest and most troublesome times of my life,
there was only one set of footprints.
I don’t understand why, when I needed You the most, You would leave me.”
He whispered, “My precious child, I love you and will never leave you
Never, ever, during your trials and testings.
When you saw only one set of footprints,
It was then that I carried you.”
I was taught that Danish Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote it. Perhaps that is one of the most famous of dreams. Through the years, others have been noted for their meaningful dreams too. James W. Goll, on his blog called “God Encounters Ministries,” offers this research:
Justin Martyr, the first Christian philosopher, believed that dreams were sent by spirits.
Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, thought dreams revealed the spiritual world.
Clement of Alexandria believe that true dreams arise from the “depth of the soul,” and that they reveal spiritual reality, [a connection with] the soul of God.
A dream changed John Newton from a slave trader to become a churchman in England, the one who wrote the hymn, “Amazing Grace.” We have that hymn because of a dream.
In addition, biblical figures had dreams. Joseph, the second youngest son of Jacob, had a dream that he foolishly shared with his older brothers. In Genesis 37, it says:
5 Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. 6 He said to them, “Listen to this dream that I dreamed. 7 There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.” 8 His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?” So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words.
9 He had another dream, and told it to his brothers, saying, “Look, I have had another dream: the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” 10 But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him, and said to him, “What kind of dream is this that you have had? Shall we indeed come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow to the ground before you?” 11 So his brothers were jealous of him.
That dream led to his brothers selling him to a band of Ishmaelites and it completely changed Joseph’s life. There are 33 times dreams are mentioned in Genesis alone and 27 times in Daniel. The Bible only records Joseph as an interpreter of dreams in Genesis, and Daniel in the book by the same name. But there is one other Joseph in the Bible who had a dream of instruction from God: This Joseph was engaged to Mary, who had an angel visit her with a most extraordinary proposition: that she would bear the son of God. She was engaged to Joseph when that happened. This kind of news would cause quite a controversy in a dusty village like Nazareth. Before Mary could tell Joseph what the angel Gabriel had told her, Gabriel appeared to Joseph, in a dream and spoke to him. In the dream, Joseph got such clear instructions from the angel that he changed his mind about breaking off his engagement to her. Remember? The angel said in the dream: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Mary had a visit from an angel; but Joseph also had a visit from the angel Gabriel in a dream. Joseph must have been more spiritually insightful than we typically realize. He listened to his dream: the dream that brought Mary and Joseph together as the Holy Family. He also had another dream that I’ll address next week.

We are told that everyone dreams. Do you remember your dreams? Do you listen to your dreams? I have been told by several of our Presbyterian Counseling Center therapists that we should try to recall our dreams, to even awaken and write them down immediately and examine them later. Sometimes people can discern the voice of God in their dreams. Sometimes they can figure out a plan to resolve a conflict.
Where would we be if Joseph just rolled over and ignored God’s revelation?

I recently learned of the writings of a woman named River Jordan. Yep, just like the water in Israel! In her 2019 book Confessions of a Christian Mystic, she wrote:
I once had a message that I would have a visitation from God. This came to me in the innermost place of me, that same tone announcing holy visitation in the way that a thought about an item you must pick up from the store comes to remind you: don’t forget the milk. The same way that Anne Lamotte describes Jesus following her around like an invisible stray cat in [her book] Traveling Mercies. So I had received this word, visitation, along with a sense that indeed I had something coming….The promise of a visitation weighed on me more like a threat of a haunting. I slept with the light on, which means I slept very little. I kept telling God not to just show up and shock me. Not to suddenly appear at the foot of the bed. Not to walk out of the closet. The list of not-tos went on and on as I dozed fitfully until after dawn, when I felt this sneaky-in-the-night-visitation thing had been laid to rest. Thinking that surely God, like a vampire, would dare not show up after sunrise. [Faithwords, Kindle book 28%, 2019]

Here was a woman, like many men in the Bible, who tried to avoid having a God encounter! But, we learn in her book, God did show up. In the glow of a candle, before River’s eyes there was an image of gold; the same Triangle of the Trinity that she had doodled for years as a faithful Episcopalian girl. And from that event, she came away with a deep abiding peace, saying it was “a peace so deep there is no space, no inch, no molecule of room for the tiniest of worry, the fretful thought.” [28%] That’s what a visit from Go—in in a dream or in a vision—can be like. Just ask mother Mary; or father Joseph; or a woman named River Jordan.

Maybe there can still be peace on earth, or at least in our hearts, if we are receptive to a visitation from God.
Jeffrey A. Sumner December 22, 2019

12-15-19 REPENT


Matthew 3: 1-12

Repent. It’s the word most associated with a two-dimensional Biblical figure named John the Baptist, or the Baptizer. One might paint him with a brush on a canvas. standing near the Jordan River, crying out to people like a street evangelist, “Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” Then those who decide to listen to him gather–as the hymn says, at the River—repent of their sins, go under the water, and come out a new creation. At least that is the hope. Last summer I donned a robe, stepped into the Jordan River, and welcomed people who journeyed with me to Israel to be baptized, or to remember their baptism. I can say with certainty that some were changed dramatically after that experience. Repenting is the truly different thing that John called people to do; baptism seals the deal and allows God’s Holy Spirit to begin to guide them. John the Baptist is powerful, but as the Lorenz/Hart show tune from the musical “Babes in Arms” puts it, he’s “Johnny One Note.” All he talks about is repentance, repentance, repentance! Still, people in the world, those of us here today, probably need to repent from some habit, some action, or some addiction. Let’s start by exploring this enigmatic man.
Franciscan Richard Rohr says this about John:
John the Baptist’s qualities are most rare, and yet crucial for any reform or authentic transformation of persons of groups. That is why we focus on John The Baptist every Advent, and why Jesus trusts him and accepts his non-temple, offbeat nature ritual, while also going far beyond him. Water is the only the container; fire and Spirit are the contents …. John is the strangest combination of conviction and humility, morality and mysticism, radical prophecy and living in the present. This son of the priestly temple class does his own thing down by the riverside; he is a man born into privilege, who dresses like a hippie; he is a superstar who is willing to let go of everything . … He is a living paradox, as even Jesus says of him “There is no man greater than John … but he is also the least.” [Preparing for Christmas, Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 2008, p.24-25.
Thanks Father Rohr, for reminding us of John’s 3-dimensional nature! We’ve established who the messenger is, now we focus on the message- Repent.
As I simply showed the boys and girls, it’s like a U-Turn. If you realize you are going down a path that is toxic to yourself or others, or destructive or dark, you can, and you have the power to, turn around and travel back from the wrong direction to the right direction; back toward redemption; or back toward love. Here we rely on John because Jesus has not yet spoken a word in the gospel, not until this chapter, verse 13. Beloved Presbyterian writer Frederick Buechner define repentance this way: “To repent is to come to your senses. It is not so much something you do, as something that happens. True repentance spends less time looking at the past saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ than to the future and saying, ‘Wow!’” [Wishful Thinking, New York: Harper and Row, 1973, p. 79.]
Another author, Kathleen Norris, wrote a more intriguing description of repentance:
Once a little boy wrote a poem called “The Monster Who Was Sorry.” He began by admitting that he hates it when his father yells at him; his response in the poem is to throw his sister down the stairs, and to wreck his room, and finally to wreck the whole town. The poem concludes:
“Then I sit in my messy house and say to myself, ‘I shouldn’t have done that.’” My Messy House” says it all; with more honesty than most adults could have mustered, the boy makes a metaphor for himself that admitted the depth of his rage and also gave him a way out…If that boy had been a novice in the fourth century monastic desert, his elder might have told him that he was well on the way toward repentance, not such a monster after all, but only human. If the house is messy, they might have said, why not clean it up, why not make it into a place where God might wish to dwell? [Amazing Grace, New York: Riverhead Books, 1998, p. 69,70]
You might know that people in our AA programs have repented from drinking and are busy every day trying to keep moving toward a life of love and wholeness. From the first day, people in our Gambler’s Anonymous program repented of their gambling and spending addictions and have been moving toward a life of financial security and relationship rescue. But what about those of us who are not in those programs? What about the mother who is hateful to her son-in-law or daughter-in-law? Does she see the need to repent? What about the man who once abused his wife or the man who abused his dog? Have they seen the light? How about the celebrities who tried to buy a spot for their daughters in colleges? Have they felt the need to repent? Repentance is not just a John the Baptist cry, it is a human reality that can change one’s life, one’s marriage, and one’s spirituality. Repentance is a connective tissue for our Spiritual bodies. Without it, we may feel disjointed, disconnected, or broken. And indeed, we are. Yet even in our day, there are situations that keep people from moving from repentance to wholeness. One is a lack of forgiveness. For example, a woman spends and spends and spends and builds up enormous credit card debt. Her husband sees their income diminishing to the point that the nest egg they were building is now gone. Debts ensue, and the man moves toward divorce to stop the financial hemorrhaging of his assets. The wife, with the help of a 12-step group, repents of her spending habits and is showing the changes in her life to her husband. Will he welcome her again? Will he forgive her and remain in their marriage? A lack of forgiveness keeps repentance from moving toward wholeness.\

Here’s an example of our prison system becoming an impasse to wholeness. In the December 4th issue of the Christian Century [p.26,] Caitlin Kandil, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, tells the story of a woman who rolled through a stop sign in San Francisco. Police pulled her over and gave her a $238 ticket. Although she could pay the ticket, she started thinking about others who could not. She called it “the spiral of despair.” She researched and shared these results:
A person gets a traffic ticket for a few hundred dollars. Unable to pay the fine, she misses the deadline for payment, and the ticket starts accruing late fees and creates a debt that hangs over her head. The city sends the ticket to the collections department, and now her credit is damaged, so the next time she tries to rent an apartment, her application is rejected. Eventually her driver’s license is suspended for failure to pay. Without a driver’s license, she can’t perform the tasks of everyday life—commuting to work, grocery shopping, taking children to school, going to doctor’s appointments—and also become ineligible to apply for and work at many jobs. Without secure employment and housing, she is a risk for homelessness. It all started with a traffic ticket.

To combat incarcerations due to mounting fines from an inability to pay them, the Stated Clerk of our Presbyterian Church (USA), at our 2018 General Assembly in St. Louis, marched down the streets of the city, with hundreds behind him, to the St. Louis Justice Center with more than $47,000 raised from GA committees and commissioners. They paid the bail for many people who were incarcerated for misdemeanors. With them released, they could be employed again, be united with families, and begin a new life. Sometimes, the system can stall repentance and forgiveness. Sometimes a generous and timely gift can bring a second chance to a woman who could not pay a minor traffic ticket.
A long time ago, a man invited people to gather at the river, to change their hearts, repent of their sins, and get a new start. John still invites that, as he calls out to each of us from the pages of Scripture: “Repent!” Would you like a new start in your life? Or perhaps someone you know needs a new start in theirs? They can repent—that is, make a U-Turn from the direction they are going—and they can ask for forgiveness for their actions. But before any of that happens, they, and perhaps we, need to ask God to “Change our Heart.” Songwriter Eddie Espinosa wrote this song with this prayerful message:
Change my heart, O God; make it ever true. Change my heart, O God; may I be like you. You are the potter; I am the clay. Mold me and make me; this is what I pray: Change my heart, O God.”
I invite you to offer that prayer today, to God, in song.

Jeffrey A. Sumner December 8, 2019

12-08-19 REPENT


Matthew 3: 1-12

Repent. It’s the word most associated with a two-dimensional Biblical figure named John the Baptist, or the Baptizer. One might paint him with a brush on a canvas. standing near the Jordan River, crying out to people like a street evangelist, “Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” Then those who decide to listen to him gather–as the hymn says, at the River—repent of their sins, go under the water, and come out a new creation. At least that is the hope. Last summer I donned a robe, stepped into the Jordan River, and welcomed people who journeyed with me to Israel to be baptized, or to remember their baptism. I can say with certainty that some were changed dramatically after that experience. Repenting is the truly different thing that John called people to do; baptism seals the deal and allows God’s Holy Spirit to begin to guide them. John the Baptist is powerful, but as the Lorenz/Hart show tune from the musical “Babes in Arms” puts it, he’s “Johnny One Note.” All he talks about is repentance, repentance, repentance! Still, people in the world, those of us here today, probably need to repent from some habit, some action, or some addiction. Let’s start by exploring this enigmatic man.
Franciscan Richard Rohr says this about John:
John the Baptist’s qualities are most rare, and yet crucial for any reform or authentic transformation of persons of groups. That is why we focus on John The Baptist every Advent, and why Jesus trusts him and accepts his non-temple, offbeat nature ritual, while also going far beyond him. Water is the only the container; fire and Spirit are the contents …. John is the strangest combination of conviction and humility, morality and mysticism, radical prophecy and living in the present. This son of the priestly temple class does his own thing down by the riverside; he is a man born into privilege, who dresses like a hippie; he is a superstar who is willing to let go of everything . … He is a living paradox, as even Jesus says of him “There is no man greater than John … but he is also the least.” [Preparing for Christmas, Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 2008, p.24-25.
Thanks Father Rohr, for reminding us of John’s 3-dimensional nature! We’ve established who the messenger is, now we focus on the message- Repent.
As I simply showed the boys and girls, it’s like a U-Turn. If you realize you are going down a path that is toxic to yourself or others, or destructive or dark, you can, and you have the power to, turn around and travel back from the wrong direction to the right direction; back toward redemption; or back toward love. Here we rely on John because Jesus has not yet spoken a word in the gospel, not until this chapter, verse 13. Beloved Presbyterian writer Frederick Buechner define repentance this way: “To repent is to come to your senses. It is not so much something you do, as something that happens. True repentance spends less time looking at the past saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ than to the future and saying, ‘Wow!’” [Wishful Thinking, New York: Harper and Row, 1973, p. 79.]
Another author, Kathleen Norris, wrote a more intriguing description of repentance:
Once a little boy wrote a poem called “The Monster Who Was Sorry.” He began by admitting that he hates it when his father yells at him; his response in the poem is to throw his sister down the stairs, and to wreck his room, and finally to wreck the whole town. The poem concludes:
“Then I sit in my messy house and say to myself, ‘I shouldn’t have done that.’” My Messy House” says it all; with more honesty than most adults could have mustered, the boy makes a metaphor for himself that admitted the depth of his rage and also gave him a way out…If that boy had been a novice in the fourth century monastic desert, his elder might have told him that he was well on the way toward repentance, not such a monster after all, but only human. If the house is messy, they might have said, why not clean it up, why not make it into a place where God might wish to dwell? [Amazing Grace, New York: Riverhead Books, 1998, p. 69,70]
You might know that people in our AA programs have repented from drinking and are busy every day trying to keep moving toward a life of love and wholeness. From the first day, people in our Gambler’s Anonymous program repented of their gambling and spending addictions and have been moving toward a life of financial security and relationship rescue. But what about those of us who are not in those programs? What about the mother who is hateful to her son-in-law or daughter-in-law? Does she see the need to repent? What about the man who once abused his wife or the man who abused his dog? Have they seen the light? How about the celebrities who tried to buy a spot for their daughters in colleges? Have they felt the need to repent? Repentance is not just a John the Baptist cry, it is a human reality that can change one’s life, one’s marriage, and one’s spirituality. Repentance is a connective tissue for our Spiritual bodies. Without it, we may feel disjointed, disconnected, or broken. And indeed, we are. Yet even in our day, there are situations that keep people from moving from repentance to wholeness. One is a lack of forgiveness. For example, a woman spends and spends and spends and builds up enormous credit card debt. Her husband sees their income diminishing to the point that the nest egg they were building is now gone. Debts ensue, and the man moves toward divorce to stop the financial hemorrhaging of his assets. The wife, with the help of a 12-step group, repents of her spending habits and is showing the changes in her life to her husband. Will he welcome her again? Will he forgive her and remain in their marriage? A lack of forgiveness keeps repentance from moving toward wholeness.\

Here’s an example of our prison system becoming an impasse to wholeness. In the December 4th issue of the Christian Century [p.26,] Caitlin Kandil, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, tells the story of a woman who rolled through a stop sign in San Francisco. Police pulled her over and gave her a $238 ticket. Although she could pay the ticket, she started thinking about others who could not. She called it “the spiral of despair.” She researched and shared these results:
A person gets a traffic ticket for a few hundred dollars. Unable to pay the fine, she misses the deadline for payment, and the ticket starts accruing late fees and creates a debt that hangs over her head. The city sends the ticket to the collections department, and now her credit is damaged, so the next time she tries to rent an apartment, her application is rejected. Eventually her driver’s license is suspended for failure to pay. Without a driver’s license, she can’t perform the tasks of everyday life—commuting to work, grocery shopping, taking children to school, going to doctor’s appointments—and also become ineligible to apply for and work at many jobs. Without secure employment and housing, she is a risk for homelessness. It all started with a traffic ticket.

To combat incarcerations due to mounting fines from an inability to pay them, the Stated Clerk of our Presbyterian Church (USA), at our 2018 General Assembly in St. Louis, marched down the streets of the city, with hundreds behind him, to the St. Louis Justice Center with more than $47,000 raised from GA committees and commissioners. They paid the bail for many people who were incarcerated for misdemeanors. With them released, they could be employed again, be united with families, and begin a new life. Sometimes, the system can stall repentance and forgiveness. Sometimes a generous and timely gift can bring a second chance to a woman who could not pay a minor traffic ticket.
A long time ago, a man invited people to gather at the river, to change their hearts, repent of their sins, and get a new start. John still invites that, as he calls out to each of us from the pages of Scripture: “Repent!” Would you like a new start in your life? Or perhaps someone you know needs a new start in theirs? They can repent—that is, make a U-Turn from the direction they are going—and they can ask for forgiveness for their actions. But before any of that happens, they, and perhaps we, need to ask God to “Change our Heart.” Songwriter Eddie Espinosa wrote this song with this prayerful message:
Change my heart, O God; make it ever true. Change my heart, O God; may I be like you. You are the potter; I am the clay. Mold me and make me; this is what I pray: Change my heart, O God.”
I invite you to offer that prayer today, to God, in song.

Jeffrey A. Sumner December 8, 2019