Luke 4: 1-14

For many people the devil is the doorkeeper of Hell, the picture of evil, and the darkest of beings. In the book of Job in the Old Testament, the one called Satan is invited by The Lord to try to break down a faithful man. In religious folklore, Satan would often lead fallen angels to do malevolent things to people on the earth.  And we know there was a serpent in Genesis that was the epitome of a tempter. Sometimes these titles and tasks of the Evil One get muddled in our minds, with roots coming from different traditions. Today Luke describes the devil talking to Jesus. Was this devil an actual being, as some have believed since they were young? Or was this devil a voice in the head of an emaciated Jesus coupled with a mirage in the desert? People may love to say “The devil made me do it,” but it could also be, as I pointed out in my children’s sermon, that a voice seems to speak to us in one ear to commend us for a decision with words like: “That’s the right thing to do; good choice!” while another voice entices us to make bad choices with words like:  “Go ahead! Have a little fun! No one will know! You deserve it!” Today’s lesson is almost like a play, a morality play about making choices, and having to bear the consequences of each choice. The devil challenged Jesus to do three different acts as tests. At the end of the day, you too may decide the devil is less of a living being and more of a weakness of conscience in one’s own mind. Let’s see.  God gave us free will to choose and said: “Choose you this day whom you will serve.” [Joshua 24: 15]

That struggle has been depicted in this story:

An old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two “wolves” inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, doubt, sorrow, regret, greed arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, forgiveness, truth, compassion, and faith.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins?”

And his grandfather replied, “The one you feed.”

That was Jesus’ choice in the desert, and our choice every day.

Years ago I read this story in the first issue of Events Magazine:

A journalist assigned to the Jerusalem Bureau had an apartment overlooking the Western Wall. Every day when she looked out, she saw an old bearded Jewish man praying vigorously.  Certain he would be a good subject to interview, the journalist went down to the Wall and introduced herself to the old man. She asked, “You come every day to the Wall? How long have you being doing that? What are you praying for?” The old man replied, “I have come here to pray from twenty-five years. In the morning, I pray for world peace and the brotherhood of man. I go home and have a cup of tea, then I come back and pray for the eradication of illness and disease from the earth. And very, very important, I pray for peace and understanding between Israelis and Palestinians.” The journalist was impressed and asked this follow-up question: “How does it make you feel to come here every day for twenty-five years and pray for all these wonderful things?” And the man lowered his head and said: “Like I am talking to a wall.”

Our goal as Christians, I believe, is to always, in every situation, make the devil feel like he is talking to a wall. Jesus gave just a passing reply to each of the temptations he heard. But often we can be more like Adam and Eve. They gave in to the temptation to eat from the tree in the middle of the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3. It’s as if Eve decided to make an apple pie from the fruit for dessert and Adam decided he couldn’t pass it up! But it was bitter fruit. It made their heads spin. As they ate that fruit, what came to my mind was the Disney scene when a wicked witch gave a poison apple to Snow White! “No! Don’t eat it!” The world spun and those first humans tripped into the irreversible world of sin. In their perfect world, the glass that was more than half full became half empty. Poor choices brought on consequences. For example: the tempter was now a slithering serpent; disagreements grew in the Garden like dandelions; and childbirth became so difficult it would be called  “labor.” History would call it the fall from grace; Christian doctrines often refer to it as the original sin; the event from which Jesus was born to save us. Jesus was both human and divine, which is important. He had to be connected with God so his actions could save our souls, not just lose his own life. Also his humanness really mattered, because he was tempted as you and I are tempted. A person in Alcoholics Anonymous once told me, “It takes a drunk to connect with another drunk.” In a similar fashion, prisoners often listen better to former prisoners, and people who want to get clean from drugs may listen best to someone who used before. Today we’ve been reminded: “Jesus was tempted as we are, yet he did not sin.” So what is the secret for doing that? Here are two thoughts:

Sister Molly Monahan, herself an alcoholic, said this in her book Seeds of Grace- A Nun’s Reflection on the Spirituality of Alcoholics Anonymous:

“I know from the sad stories I have heard from or about others who have had relapses even after years of sobriety, that I am always in recovery, never cured; that if I denied my alcoholism and began drinking, I would lose all the good things in my life. By analogy then with my disease, that is what I think sinfulness looks like, what we all look like in our sinful state; these are the lineaments of the visage we bear as children of Adam and Eve; the marks of what we call original sin. 1) Our sinfulness is always destructive … in some way to ourselves and others ….And 2) We cannot save ourselves. We are utterly dependent on the love, and power, and goodness of God who is willing to help us, and we need others to bring us to this knowledge and power.” [pp. 150-151] 

The Apostle Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, described our situation writing: “As in Adam, all die; but in Christ, shall all be made alive!” [1 Corinthians 15:22]  Without Jesus, we have no sure hope of being saved from the consequences of choosing our way instead of God’s way.

A second thought comes from the Scottish preacher, James S. Stewart in his book The Life and Teaching of Jesus Christ. In it he says:

“The Master’s fight with Satan happened out in a desert, far from the beaten track and the eyes of men  ….Yet the evangelists are able to give a vivid and detailed account. How has that come about? Clearly there is only one explanation: the story came from the lips of Christ himself. Why did Jesus tell it—why did he go back and bring it to light? For curiosity? For biography? No. To first help his disciples through their own temptation hours; and second, because the titanic struggle of the desert days and nights had marked his soul forever and he could not forget.” [Abingdon Press, 1978]

Don’t we at times, like Jesus, have great struggles against sin regarding, drink, or drugs, or sex, or stealing or suicidal thoughts that put us in the wilderness with the devil? Can you remember times when your thoughts were unholy or your actions were destructive; when you thought your salvation might be in jeopardy? Jesus’ preparation for ministry was marked by vivid, rigorous soul testing. In honor of the price he paid not just on the cross, but in his time of trial, we too know we can enter our own deserts, prepared for the tempters we will face. Today, remember the verse of the hymn “This is My Father’s World” that said: “Oh let me ne’er forget that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the Ruler yet.”  Stand firm with Jesus, so the devil, when trying to tempt you, will feel like he (or she!) is talking to a wall.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           March 10, 2019

03-03-19 THE FACE OF GOD

EXODUS 34: 29-35; LUKE 9: 28-36
The wonderful mystic Teresa of Avila, who lived in the 16th century in a Carmelite Order, wrote: “The best place to find God is within yourself.” She went on to say: “When we are seeking God within ourselves … it is a great help if God grants us this favour… This is a good habit and an excellent kind of meditation, for it is founded upon a truth—namely, that God is within us.” [Interior Castle, Dover, Mineola, 1946, p. 57.] On one mountain east of Egypt, Moses almost saw the face of God, but resisted, since “mortals cannot look upon the face of God and live.” [Exodus 33:20] And yet, Moses was allowed to grow close to God, and talk with God on that mountain called Sinai. Afterward, Moses came down the mountain but didn’t know the skin of his face shone because he’d been talking with God.” [Exodus 34:29] Moses, the leader who faced Pharaoh saying, “God says, ‘Let my people go!’” carried the renewed the covenant for the people of Israel. In the New Testament, another chosen leader—a Son—revealed his power and his relationship to trusted disciples, also on a mountain. Could it be that our Savior, on the day that he was on that mountain apart, was revealing the divinity that lived within him; that the light of God lived within him? Our opening song invited Jesus to “Shine, Jesus, shine.” If God’s Spirit lives in us at our own invitation, then imagine what it would be like if the divine presence were within us too rather that “up there.” Today we go to the mountain with Jesus.

Historian and author Thomas Cahill, in his book, Desire of the Everlasting Hills, wrote: “[The] Christian life [is] an alternation of two activities, prayer and kindness, each feeding the other. The plight of those in need sends me to prayer; prayer strengthens me to help those in need.” (1999. P. 190) Today I want to suggest that in this transfiguration and daily life of Jesus, he modeled these things for us: both prayer to be in touch with God, and mission to carry out the work of God. Christians are called to be both prayerfully mystic, and then mission-minded. The dichotomy between mystic and mission may alternately be described as reaching the Holy One in prayer, and reaching the human ones in need. The dichotomy includes going to the mountaintop in order to be strong enough for the valley. How does Jesus model that we need to recover “mystic sweet communion” with God and others? Mysticism is defined as “a spiritual discipline aiming at union with the divine through deep meditation or contemplation.” When Jesus went up on the mount of transfiguration, Luke wrote: “While he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” To Jews who knew Torah, some might have said to themselves “He is the new Moses!” But on that mount of Transfiguration, a voice from the cloud declared: “This is my Son; listen to him!” [Luke 9:35] Jesus was ready to share the power that was within him; he showed the balanced life of mystical prayer and missionary zeal.

Another mystic in the 16th century was a friend of Teresa of Avila named John of the Cross. He was tortured for more than eight months and went into hiding for two years after that. In addition to being a mystic, he was a Carmelite Monk whose involvement with the Carmelites led to his arrest and eventual banishment. In a monastery in Toledo, Spain, he was kept in a dark cell without any human contact and fed just bread and water for months. During his captivity, he had frequent visions of God and composed many mystical poems, committing them to memory. Two of his greatest were called, “The Dark Night of the Soul” and “The Living Flame of Love.” In “The Living Flame of Love,” St. John of the Cross describes the happiness and peace experienced by the soul devoted to God. In his commentary, he wrote these words. Picture Jesus on top of that mountain as you hear them:
If the soul shall have attained the highest degree of love, the love of God will then be wound into its inmost depth or center, and the soul will be transformed and enlightened in the highest degree in its substance, faculties, and strength, until it shall become most like unto God. The soul in this state may be compared to a crystal, lucid and pure; the greater the light thrown upon it, the more luminous it becomes by the concentration thereof, until at last it seems to be all light and indistinguishable from it; it being then so illumined, and to the utmost extent, that it seems to be one with the light itself.

Jesus does not bring Peter, James, John, or us to the mountain to be dazzling. Among other things, he brings us there to teach us. “This is your strength,” he seems to be saying. “Stay connected with the Father in prayer.” Peter, James, and John seem to miss the point. They just want to stay on the mountain. But Jesus had a journey ahead. As we begin the season of Lent on Wednesday, we are called back to the one who had union with God and reminded us how to be connected with God. We cannot expect to make it through the valley if we have not been to the mountaintop, asking for the light to brighten our darkness. If you are continually tired, or discouraged, or have a life that is out of focus, go to the mountain of prayer to get in touch with the Holy One. Jesus showed us how.

Jesus prepared for his 40 days by connecting with his Heavenly Father. He then went into the valley as we are about to do. It’s the forty days of Lent. Dr. Donald Macleod, in his book PRESBYTERIAN WORSHIP: ITS MEANING AND METHOD says: “Lent consists of doing something, not just doing without something.” Therefore today we are invited to look inward for our power and look outward for our purpose. We are the arms, legs, hands, voice… we are the body of Christ in the world. After the transfiguration, what did Jesus do? He went and reached others; healed others taught others; confronted some, and comforted others. Let this season be a time of new beginnings for you. Connect with God for strength, encouragement, and light. Then, decide ways you can bring light to darkness. Jesus cast his eyes on the valley as he left the mountaintop. Ready yourself, through prayer, study, and his Great Commission, to join Jesus in the wilderness ahead. Let us pray:

Oh God, as you prepared Jesus for the wilderness with powerful words of encouragement on that holy mountain, prepare us for the days ahead too, letting your light be shared with others. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner March 3, 2019

02-24-19 Messy Relationships

Genesis 45:3-11, 15

In his book The Price of the Ticket author and civil rights activist James Baldwin says, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.” As a man who faced discrimination for his race and sexual orientation during the civil rights era, James Baldwin knew pain. He knew the brokenness of human relationships that led to discrimination, and he knew what it meant to be treated as less than a person. He used his platform as a writer and a professor to fight for equality by digging openly and honestly into the messy, complicated issues that we as society face. While James Baldwin eventually left the Christian faith, he still kept to the message that we as the church know to be true: we are a broken people who have broken relationships with one another. We know we are a sinful people; our sinful choices that point us away from God’s will of goodness, peace, truth, and love causes rifts between us and the people we love. However, we also humble ourselves and confess these sins every Sunday together. We know that God forgives and restores us when we seek reconciliation with God and the people around us. Our messy relationships are a fact of life, but if we turn to God in humility, forgive others, and seek reconciliation then God’s peace can prevail.
As we see in this scripture passage, Joseph and his brothers have complicated feelings toward one another because of their messy, broken relationship. Joseph had been arrogant about his status as the favored brother and bragged about the dream he had that one day his brothers would bow down to him. The brothers had been so jealous that they had become murderous; their bloodlust was satisfied by selling Joseph into slavery, which was only marginally better than killing him. After years of being separated and Joseph suffering from imprisonment from false accusations, Joseph had risen to power over Egypt at the side of Pharaoh. A famine had overtaken the land, and Joseph’s brothers had travelled to Egypt to buy rations of grain. Joseph had the opportunity to use his power to accuse his brothers of their crimes and withhold grain from them; instead he hugged them and they wept together. Joseph had decades to sit with the pain and anger at the betrayal from his family. Instead of holding onto grudges he chose to see God at work in his life to help save people from the coming famine. Instead of adding to the brokenness, he chose to embrace the messiness of the relationship with his brothers by humbling himself, forgiving them, and reconciling with them together. Their family was able to be reunited and made whole again in Egypt; there might have still been tension and pain, but they were able to come together and move forward.
Humility is the starting point for peace. Humility doesn’t mean sacrificing self-worth for the sake of keeping the peace; when someone’s self-worth is unimportant in a relationship, then that is abuse. Abusive parents or spouses or friends are people who manipulate others into thinking that their self-worth is not important, and that they are only as valuable as the abuser says they are. This can be manifested physically, verbally, emotionally, and sexually. We cannot let abusers steal our value; all people are valuable, important, and worthy of love. And true humility recognizes this. Humility means taking responsibility for wrongs done and recognizing that the needs and wants of yourself, and those that you love, deserve to be honored and respected. In her book, Letter to My Daughter, Maya Angelou describes a time when she travelled to Senegal to visit a friend and learned a lesson in humility. Her friend was throwing a dinner party and her home was beautifully decorated with many guests visiting and enjoying each other’s company. In the middle of the room was a gorgeous, expensive rug that everyone was avoiding stepping on. Maya assumed that her friend had told her guests not to step on the rug, and she wanted to challenge this notion because she believed rugs were meant to be stepped on. So, she went around the room looking at paintings and socializing, while intentionally stepping on the rug several times. As she began conversing with someone at the party, she noticed two maids who came into the room, rolled up the rug and laid out a new one with silverware, dishes, and food. Then everyone was invited to sit down at it and eat. This had not been a rug at all, but a tablecloth. Maya realized her mistake and felt deeply embarrassed for her assumptions of another culture. She is quoted to say, “In an unfamiliar culture, it is wise to offer no innovations, no suggestions or lessons. The epitome of sophistication is utter simplicity.” Maya did not have to set aside her value and self-worth in learning humility, but she did have to take some time to open her eyes to the value of the traditions and culture of the people around her. Joseph went from being the favored son, to being enslaved and imprisoned. He learned a hard lesson in humility, but this allowed God to use him to save the people in the land from famine and allowed him to be able to reunite with his family.
Following a lesson in humility comes a lesson in forgiveness. It seems like we, as people and as the church, really struggle with forgiveness because when we are hurt or wronged, we want the person to receive justice. We want them to admit their wrongs and then pay for it. We want them to get on their knees and offering a sobbing apology. If none of that happens, and we all know that in reality it almost never happens, then we hold onto the anger towards them as if it punishes them. Again, this is not reality. We are punishing ourselves when we let our rage burn. Forgiveness does not mean we excuse a wrong done toward us, and it doesn’t mean what they’ve done is okay. It means that we are refusing to allow the bitterness to erode all the goodness that God has placed in our soul. It means we are trusting God with our pain and rage and allowing our souls to reflect the forgiveness that God has extended to all of us through Jesus Christ. When we forgive, we can heal.
Author Jen Hatmaker writes in her book Of Mess and Moxie of a time when her life erupted in pain and anger. Her friends and her church turned against her and her family, and they lost many of their friends. Months, even years later Jen found herself having pretend arguments out loud with the people that she held grudges against, practicing in the mirror so that if she ever encountered them again she would make them feel the wrath of the pain that they had caused her. She would go over old conversations in her head, re-read emails from people who’d hurt her, and just re-open the same old wounds over and over again. One day she decided that she couldn’t remain this bitter and this miserable anymore. So, Jen decided to pray for her enemies just like Jesus wanted us to do. After months of praying for these people, she found that her rage was gone and that she was healing. She had finally forgiven the people who hurt her. She hadn’t forgotten the pain, because there really is no such thing as forgiving and forgetting; but she had allowed her wounds to be healed so that she could finally move on in her life and find peace. Jen was making room for God’s peace in her heart, like Joseph. He was able to make room for peace by forgiving his brothers by telling them not to be angry over the past anymore.
Joseph was able to reconcile with his family. They were able to reunite in Egypt and live through the rest as their days together as a restored family. In Madeleine L’Engle’s novel, A Wind in the Door, a fourteen-year-old girl named Meg must save her brother, Charles Wallace, from an evil force that is making him deathly ill. She must shrink down and go inside his body to fight off the evil that is infecting him, but she doesn’t go on this journey alone. Meg must go with the school principal, Mr. Jenkins, who she detests. She doesn’t like Mr. Jenkins because he hasn’t stopped the bullies who beat up her little brother. However, the evil in her brother’s body feeds on the anger and the tension between the two. Meg must find empathy for Mr. Jenkins and see him as a valuable human being before they can work together to save Charles Wallace. Mr. Jenkins risks his life to save Meg’s brother, and this helps her to forgive him. Once the two reconcile their differences, Charles Wallace is saved. This type of reconciliation is the ideal: when we are able to heal from our hurts, repair our relationships, and be at peace with one another. This is a possibility in many circumstances when we humble ourselves and forgive each other; but in some circumstances this is impossible. People who are abused should never be required by anyone to go back and live with their abuser. Some people are rejected by their families for marrying someone they don’t approve of or refusing to go into the family business. In many of those cases, the family remains estranged. In our broken relationships, sometimes even when we do the very best that we can our relationships can’t, and maybe shouldn’t, go back to the way they were before. This is the harsh reality of our messy relationships. When this happens, we try to find reconciliation with ourselves and with God, trusting in the hope that God’s perfect justice and reconciliation will restore the relationships that we cannot heal in this lifetime. God can make us whole in and of ourselves.
Joseph’s story is a messy one: his parents choose favorites, he shoots off at the mouth, his brothers want to murder him, then they sell him into slavery instead, he’s falsely accused and imprisoned, and then he rises to power alongside of Pharaoh. In all of this God was working to save the people from starvation and to heal the broken relationships in Joseph’s family. Whatever situations we might be facing, whoever has hurt us, whatever fight we find ourselves in, this pain and anger doesn’t have to define us. We can learn right along with Joseph that humility, forgiveness, and reconciliation help us embrace and heal the messy relationships that we inevitably find ourselves engaged in. Also like Joseph, may we also trust that the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives, so that we might know that we do not face our hardships alone.


Luke 6:17-26

Even though we may love blessings, sometimes they can be hard to see, and sometimes we may be looking for them through the wrong lens. Christian songwriter and singer Laura Story has written a beautiful piece of music that you will hear later on. Called “Blessings,” listen to one of the questions she asks God in this prayer:
What if your blessings come through raindrops,
what if your healing comes through tears,
what if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to
know you’re near?
What if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise?

What if? What if my contracting Diabetes was God’s mercy in disguise? What if there are blessings in your life that at first seem like woes? What if your glass is really half full, but you see it as half empty? Years ago I took a group from our church on a Holy Land trip with an extension to Rome. On those trips, the hotel rooms sometimes were not uniformly sized. As we were checking into one particular hotel, Mary Ann and I found our room. We opened the door and found a room uniquely decorated, with accents of the region we were in. We thought it was lovely. About 15 minutes later my phone rang. It was one of my passengers. “Our room is completely unacceptable,” he declared. “It is cramped, dark, and I want another room.” “Oh my goodness,” I said. “I am so sorry. We love our room. We’d be willing to trade with you. It’s room 215. Want to come over and look at it?” “Yes,” he said, “I’ll be right there.” Soon there was a knock on the door. In walked the man. As he examined our room, a sheepish look came over his face. “This is exactly the same room as ours.” he said. “I guess we’ll stay put.” Perspective is everything. The lens through which you see the world is everything. Perhaps you remember the Randa Haines film “The Doctor” starring William Hurt. Hurt plays a man who is a brilliant surgeon but is oblivious to the complaints of his patients. He displayed professional arrogance. Then he got sick. He had to have an operation there in his own hospital. He complained about his gown, the food, the treatment, and the nurses. But his experience changed him. More accurately, it gave him an empathetic lens through which he began to view his patients. He became more grateful and more caring. It’s an inspiring film. Likewise, I recently read the true testimony of Dr. Paul Kalanithi in his worldwide bestseller, When Breath Becomes Air. He was a neurosurgeon who held degrees in English literature, human biology, history, philosophy of science, and medicine from Stanford and Cambridge universities before graduating from the Yale School of Medicine. “At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, the next he was a patient struggling to live.” [Back cover, Vintage 2016.] He ended up dying. But before he did, Dr. Kalanithi gained a new lens through which to look at life. He wrote: “God, I have read Job, and I don’t understand it, but if this is a test of faith, you now realize my faith if fairly weak, and probably leaving the spicy mustard off the pastrami sandwich would have also tested it? You didn’t have to go nuclear on me, you know.” [Kalanithi, p. 162] But this doctor turned his feelings of woe into a blessing. How? He wrote about them; he left a legacy for others to appreciate. Reading his story has enriched countless people.

I think Luke, the gospel writer, also had a lens through which he saw Jesus; and I believe Jesus had a lens too, and that Luke captured the way Jesus saw the downtrodden, the poor, and the outcast, perfectly. Go up to any of the displaced homeless men in our city and see how happy they are with their city government officials and with the police. See how suspicious they are of authority. Jesus is speaking to that crowd, I suspect, when Luke includes not only the blessings of physical wellness toward the poor, but also the warnings of woe toward those in power. Luke did not hear that Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit. No. Luke heard that Jesus said; “Blessed are you who are poor!” What a difference! He was speaking directly to the faces of poor people! And he was saying they will be blessed? Yep. God is going to turn this world on its ear through Jesus. Luke did not hear that Jesus said: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness.” Luke heard that Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are hungry now.” What a claim! Really hungry people may have scoffed, but again God has a plan for them If you are poor, you are a Kingdom person. If you are hungry, you are a Kingdom person! Luke told his readers in his first chapter that “since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the event that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you … so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed. [Luke 1: 1-4]
Luke fills in the gaps in the gospels. He tells the stories of shepherds around the announcement of a child to be born. Shepherds were almost the last and the least in the world. He tells the story of baby Jesus having a feeding trough for his baby bed. What a detail to include! He tells stories that include women—the members of the human race almost ignored in the Bible. He tells the story of a Samaritan (who he called good) and a prodigal son who actually felt more blessed than his wealthy brother! Only Luke decided that these particular stories were important to tell about Jesus. Only Luke! And so when Luke talks about blessing in regarding physical issues, (and not just spiritual issues as Matthew does) I listen. When Luke says he heard that Jesus also describing woes—likely to those who were rich—he was not condemning them; he was holding a mirror up to them saying “Examine who you are; you can still make changes! You can be part of my Father’s plan of feeling blessed and offering blessings to others.”

In the world today most people don’t feel blessed by being dirt poor. But on the other hand, there are people of means who do not deserve the declaration of woes. They give to their churches, to their community, and to worthy charities. So we learn that Jesus—like preachers that come after him—sometimes preaches with hyperbole (exaggerated metaphors) and with dynamic comparisons to keep the attention of his listeners. Jesus had the job of waking up complacent people, and prophetic preachers through the ages have continued his tradition.

Blessings can hide in plain sight; but through the half-empty lens, people miss seeing them; they can’t see them because they believe the grass is greener on the other side of a fence. Look for the grass in your own yard! Look for the blessings in your own life! Imagine God actually being delighted with blessing you! I think God often blesses us with small things, but our eyes are closed to them. People who go on mission trips, or build Habitat houses, or feed people locally or deliver Meals on Wheels, find out there are plenty of people who are struggling with life. And then they come home and take account of what they have, and who they are, and they sometimes change their grumpiness to gratitude. The late Robert Schuller founder of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove California, once said: “The good news is … the bad news can be turned into good news … when you change your attitude!”
[ The Be Happy Attitudes, Word Books, Waco, TX, 1985, p. 61]

I’ve decided to close with a funny story instead of start with one. The Founding Pastor of New Hope Community Church in Portland Oregon, Dale Galloway, wrote:
Some people today think the whole world stinks. Once a cranky grandpa laid down to take a nap. To have a little fun, his grandson put some limburger cheese on his moustache …. [He] awoke with a snort and shouted “This room stinks!” On through the house he went shouting louder, “This whole house stinks!” He charged out to the porch and shouted, “The whole world stinks!” Galloway said: “The truth is, it was grandpa who stunk.” [The Awesome Power of Your Attitude, Scott Publishing, 1992, p. 1.]

Looking at situations in life as blessings—rather than looking for people to blame—can change your life. Blessed are you, and those around you, if you look at others through the eyes of Jesus.
Let us pray: God Almighty: Jesus found blessings in the strangest places: with the poor, the hungry, with those who weep, and those who defame or defile us! Help us to see blessings even in the corners of our lives as well, and in the world.
Jesus did it; perhaps we can too. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner February 17, 2019

02-10-19 JUST DO IT

Luke 5: 1-11

There are some famous ball players, politicians, and military men who were exceptionally stubborn—some would call them bull-headed—sometimes to their detriment. Here are some examples:
When your commands come from a guy called the commander-in-chief, that pretty much says right there that they’re not up for debate. (No, I am not talking about President Trump. This is about President Truman and General Douglas MacArthur.) The stubborn general sought to bring the Korean War directly to the Chinese via a nuclear bombing campaign. Fearing World War III, President Harry Truman ordered MacArthur to keep his opinions to himself, but MacArthur wanted them in the public debate. So, he mailed a letter criticizing official U.S. policy to the House Republican Minority Leader. When it was leaked, Truman relieved him of command. It wasn’t the first time MacArthur disobeyed a president, either. In 1932, he disregarded Herbert Hoover’s orders by attacking and burning to the ground a shantytown erected in Washington by unarmed World War I veterans demanding an early bonus payment. MacArthur’s stubbornness usually served him well, helping him win several key brave and brilliant World War II and Korean War victories, and the hearts of most Americans. …However, that pales next to what some historians think he would have been able to achieve by dialing down the bullheadedness a peg or two–a presidency of his own. [History.com]
Stubbornness can be a good thing if you’re stubborn about the right things. But stubbornness in the White House, the Senate, and the House also has produced a recent shutdown. Is another looming?
Let’s turn to the Bible instead, for examples of when such attitudes both helped and hurt. In three of the four gospels, the story about a woman who was hemorrhaging blood for 12 years is included.
Now we don’t know anything more specific than what Scripture says, and none of the Gospels give us any clues as to what the ailment was exactly. We don’t even know if she had a rare blood disease that didn’t allow her blood to clot. So she may have had open wounds all over her body….My mind immediately goes to the worst-case scenario. For twelve years! Not only was she suffering physically, but this particular constant suffering automatically categorized her as unclean. This meant she was also cut off from all spiritual activities. For twelve years! This is compounded by the fact that anyone who made contact with her would also be unclean, she was also socially outcast….for twelve years! [Word of Life Bible]
And so, she was determined to touch the hem of Jesus’ cloak, not letting other’s repulsion of her keep her from reaching Jesus. What rejection she must have faced, but she was determined to “just do it!”
And then there was Simon, later called Peter. Ah Simon; the headstrong, stubborn fisherman that Jesus chose as one of his prime disciples. That fisherman who was told that he would fish for men … and women. “Simon?” we might ask Jesus. “That’s your choice Lord? You know how stubbornness and bull-headedness can break up the best-laid plans, Lord?” Do you know how much chaos can ensue when people choose their own path in a business, in government, or in a family? My son Matt and his wife Vicki have two boys: Shane and Simon. Shane does exactly what he is told to do most of the time. If we are walking down a sidewalk together and Shane asks me if he can run ahead to the corner, if I say yes, I can count on him waiting at the corner. Then there is their other son. With a smile that has mischief written all over it, and a twinkle in his eyes, he will push the boundaries every time. And … his name is Simon! His mind seems to be on his own choices rather than following directions! The Simon of the Bible certainly showed his stubbornness later in the Gospels when Jesus told him that, before morning, Simon would deny Jesus three times! “No!” said Simon Peter defiantly. And yet, he did it. This time Simon Peter showed his respect for authority even in the midst of an exhausting and discouraging night of fishing. Fishing with nets exhausts the whole body, as nets are cast and dragged back in. He was not yet an apostle, but a fisherman. The Twelve had not yet been chosen, But Jesus and Simon were not only acquainted, Jesus had just healed Simon’s mother-in-law from a high fever. Later Jesus went away to rest, and he finally ended up at the water’s edge. The Sea was called Gennesaret; (also called the Sea of Galilee and the Sea of Tiberius.) While Jesus was re-grouping, Simon had been fishing. Jesus, seeing Simon coming to shore with empty nets, got into his boat and asked Simon to take him out from shore. Simon must have wished he could call it a day. But this, time he did what Jesus asked. He owed Jesus a favor. “Go to deep water” Jesus said to Simon, words captured in our anthem today. “Let down your nets to catch fish” Jesus continued. The old Simon replied: “We have worked all night and caught nothing!” Then the new Simon took hold: “Yet since you ask it, I will let down the nets.” Because Simon did what Jesus asked, there was a benefit; a great benefit: his nets were full of so many fish, even two boats couldn’t hold them all! Simon couldn’t believe his eyes. He had a great catch that would bring a good price. More importantly: he had even more belief in the powers of Jesus: he knew he could heal, and now he learned that he could do things that other men could not.
Jesus “called” Simon and the other apostles. We talk about a “call” as if everyone knows what that is. But I learned differently when I was working on a Doctoral project through Columbia Seminary. Professor Barbara Brown Taylor had given us the assignment to interview the religious leader closest geographically to the place where we served, but it could not be a Christian. Just four miles north of Westminster on Peninsula Drive was Temple Israel with a Rabbi named Amy Mayer. I called and set up a time to meet with her. She toured our facility and I toured hers. I learned a lot from her, but one thing surprised me. “Tell me about your call” I asked her. “What?” She asked. What do you mean?” “You know,” I said, “your call to being the rabbi of this synagogue. Your call like Moses was called, or Isaiah was called.” She looked at me and said: “It was not a call. It was a job. I interviewed and I got it.” It was my turn to be surprised! When I was asked to explain my sense of call to Committee on Preparation for Ministry years ago, I knew how to answer that. But a Rabbi, who shared her story, did not.
The Bible talks a great deal about a call. Dr. Alan Culpepper, when he served as Dean of the School of Theology at Mercer University, wrote:
Peter’s call to leave everything to “catch people” is the counterpart [to Paul] in Acts, where the commission is actually communicated through Ananias. [Acts 9:15] Both Peter and Paul were called dramatically, through a miraculous event, while they were in the midst of their routine activities, and both were given a commission to devote themselves to bringing others to Jesus. [New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, Abingdon Press, 1995, p. 118]
When C. Frances Alexander wrote her hymn “Jesus Calls Us” that we sang today, she clearly suggested that Jesus did not just call the Twelve, and Paul, and a few others, but that Jesus calls all of us to invite people; not catch them in nets, but to engage them with an invitation. Many of the new members introduced at our luncheon two weeks ago said they came in part because they were drawn by the beauty of the facility, but stayed because people made them feel so welcome. Whose life might you change for the better, with just an invitation to follow Jesus at your church?
Jeffrey A. Sumner February 10, 2019

02-03-19 A Conversation Between Malachi and Paul

A Conversation Between Malachi and Paul
Malachi 3:1-4
1 Corinthians 12:1-3, 11-13
First and foremost, I want to stress that these two texts are unrelated to one another. They were written for different people in a different time. The Malachi text is a prophetic message to the Israelites after the exile when they were allowed to worship together in their homeland again. The letter to the Corinthians is addressing a diverse congregation established as a church of Jesus Christ with prominent members and members of a lower social class. Malachi’s text is before the Messiah, while Paul’s letter is after Christ has died, resurrected, and has been ascended into heaven for quite some time. But both passages are challenging the audience, pushing them to grow, and making them uncomfortable all so that all who hear might be transformed into a more just and loving community that glorifies God. This is why I have put them in conversation with one another, to examine the similarities and differences between Malachi’s and Paul’s calling for transformation. We are inviting a prophet and an apostle to sit down together and discuss what is required of their audience to honor God. Imagine if you will, these two meeting together to discuss the problems they are facing and how they might address their communities. They are crossing space and time to speak to each other face to face, as friends and colleagues.
In this conversation Malachi might take a seat across a table from Paul and stare down into his coffee deep in thought. Paul would wait patiently as Malachi gathered his thoughts, knowing how hard it is to speak difficult truths. After taking a deep breath, Malachi would begin by telling Paul about the mess that he and his people are in now that they are no longer exiled. They are dealing with the trauma of homelessness and displacement, while struggling to find their identity as God’s people. Just as they have suffered, their worship to God has suffered. Their grain offerings and burnt offerings are not the best that they have to offer, and now God is sending a messenger to set them straight. At this moment Malachi might pause and rub his temples. He’s frustrated and exhausted. He has compassion for his people, and he’s dealing with his own trauma! This is such a heavy load to bear. So, Paul might reach out and give Malachi an encouraging pat on the hand. Malachi would continue on, saying that the day of the Lord is coming! This is good news because that means God is coming to restore the people of Israel. But God’s presence is overwhelming. If God is coming to be among them who can truly stand before the awesome, terrible, encompassing presence of God? If God is going to transform God’s people, then that means they’re going to be judged and changed before being made good. Such a powerful transformation will not be comfortable. In fact, it will likely be painful.
Malachi would then sit back in his chair and shake his head. Paul would nod vigorously and agree. Paul knows what it’s like for God to speak from the heavens and transform him completely. He’s well aware of what God’s judgement, although it leads to goodness, really means. So, Paul might take a quick sip of his coffee, and begins telling of the letter he has to send to the church in Corinth. You see, Malachi, this city has so much promise and potential for spreading the good news of Jesus. Corinth was diverse in culture, ethnicity, and in economic trade. Most of the congregation were Gentiles, which meant the message of Jesus was truly reaching the hearts and minds of new people. This church could really reflect the diversity of God’s kingdom! But diversity meant that not everyone had the same social standing and economic income. There were prominent members of means and comfort, while there were also people who were just getting by. Paul had emphasized that all people were important to God and had gifts to offer, but the people who had fewer worldly possessions were being treated as less essential to the church. They were being excluded from all the meals and celebrations of the church because they couldn’t afford to bring food to share. Their spiritual gifts weren’t being used to bless the church. Paul might take a moment to pause to put his head in his hands. Malachi would stand up, squeeze Paul’s shoulder and pour him some fresh coffee. Paul would take a sip of his coffee and tell Malachi that if Christians act without love, then it’s all just noise. If the church has faith but doesn’t have love, then it’s all nothing.
At this point the two men might take a moment to sit in silence and share a knowing look. This look communicates their desire to honor God, their compassion for their communities, and their frustration with how hard it is to be a leader. Paul would then stand up to stretch his legs and lean against the window. Malachi would stare out the window too, reclining in his seat. He would then tell Paul that as exciting as it is that the day of the Lord is coming, it will be a day of refining fire and fuller’s soap. It will be a day of purification. Being cleansed means checking into habits, being self-reflective of flaws, admitting that there is room for growth and change, and really tearing away all the darkness that’s bound to one’s soul. Are the people of Israel really ready to sacrifice parts of themselves for the sake of the transformation that God brings? Malachi, himself a prophet, may even have doubts about the pain of transformation and the sacrifice that it takes. Malachi would take a break to stretch and take a sip of his coffee. He would then stand up and grab some cheese and crackers from the kitchen counter and set them on the table.
Paul might sit down and finish his cup of coffee. Then he and Malachi would grab some crackers and cheese and munch on them quietly for a while. Paul then would say that people can do mighty acts of faith, they can give away their possessions and even sacrifice their bodies for the sake of Jesus Christ, but if all of these great faith acts are done without any love then there is nothing to gain from it. The church falls apart without love and the church of Corinth is truly struggling to show love to one another! Honestly, the way that they treat people who are rich and have a high social standing as more important than anyone else is childish. Paul would then stand up suddenly, very frustrated, knocking over Malachi’s coffee. How could these people act like children, reason like children, and speak like children? It’s time for them to set aside their childish ways! The future of the church is at stake! Paul would then see the mess he made and grab some napkins to help clean up. Malachi wouldn’t be angry. Instead he would agree that all people are made in God’s image and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. God calls all to share what they have with one another, instead of making powerful people even more powerful and impoverished people even more oppressed.
And then as the two are mopping up the spilled coffee, it would click. They would look up each other and nod, coming to an understanding. Both had different people in different circumstances that they would be addressing, but there was an inescapable similarity that both of these messages contained. God’s judgement is never separate from God’s mercy. There is always a way to repent and turn back to God. Malachi was talking to all the Israelites so that their nation would be restored as a whole. Paul was emphasizing the need of unity within the congregation in Corinth so that people in all social classes would be treated with love, honor, and dignity. In both of these scenarios the people of Israel and the church of Corinth needed to be redeemed as a community. Their faith in God was inseparable from their responsibility to love and serve the people around them. Malachi says that this would make the offering of Jerusalem pleasing to God, just like in the days of old. Paul would agree and say that while it’s hard for the church to understand this because they see through a mirror dimly, they would soon fully know that the greatest out of faith, hope, and love is, in fact, love.
Then two men would be feeling a little more light-hearted, ready to speak to their communities about the hard truths, and the good news that come from God. After they cleaned up the kitchen, the two would share a hand shake and a pat on the back and go their separate ways to do God’s work. Malachi would go to prophesy to Israel, telling them that God’s judgment is coming, and it’s not going to feel good; but if they are willing to withstand transformation then God will restore them. Paul would go to write his letter to Corinth, telling them that they must love each other fully with their whole hearts or else it undercuts all the good and faithful work that they do as a church. And both are going to tell their communities that they have to work together, serving one another. It’s not just about a personal relationship between an individual and the Creator of the universe; a relationship with God is inseparable from relationships with others. Now as we come back to our time, out place, and our congregation we have been fortunate enough to overhear this conversation between a prophet and an apostle. Since we have had an inside look and picked the brains of our ancestors, let us learn from the mistakes of the faith communities past, and move forward into a loving, refined future.


Luke 4: 14-21
A missionary in Zambia wrote these words three years ago:
My blog post today is a little different, but bear with me as I hope it will give you all some insight into who I am as an individual, my faith, and my motivation for service as well as what a great privilege it is to walk this land in service with our partners.
Throughout my time working and serving in Zambia, I have been privileged to visit, live on, and work from many “mission stations”. These mission stations were in the large part set up in the latter part of the 19th century by our missionary forebears. I am always struck by these missionaries’ incredible dedication and sacrifice to God and the communities they served. The attrition rate of these missionaries was huge, close to 100%. Very few ever returned to their homeland and loved ones. In those days you left home with the knowledge, understanding, and expectation that this was going to be a one-way trip.
While the reasons for service may be different, I guess the closest modern day comparison you could make is to NASA’s plan to send a group of volunteers to Mars on a one-way trip. Setting aside the ethical arguments and different theological reasoning attached to this, the circumstances related to the two “journeys” are similar: both involve journeys of great distance in the service of others that have no guarantee of return.
I have always used the stories of these missionaries’ service and sacrifice as a motivational tool. I think that this is a legacy that all those who walked this land in service before us would be proud of. I am not walking in the footsteps of giants but indeed standing on the shoulders of giants. [Ruairdh Waddell, World Renew Blog)
Over the years, there have been preachers with big shoes to fill. Look at the children of Robert Schuller; the children of Billy Graham; the children of Martin Luther King Jr. Look at people who aspire to go into space following in the steps of astronauts Sally Ride or John Glenn or Neil Armstrong. Look at people who want to be athletes, following in the footsteps of basketball star Michael Jordan or tennis star Serena Williams; or in the footsteps of a quarterback Tom Brady or a gymnast like Simone Biles. Countless people have role models, or people they admire, who inspire them. Sometimes they are people in history books or biographies; other times it’s people that they’ve met in person. Having aspirations can lift both a civilization and the human spirit.
Imagine the young man Jesus of Nazareth, the hometown boy, having to step into his new role of listening to Divine guidance. It is likely that he was not uneducated. Expert in Middle Eastern New Testament studies, Dr. Kenneth Bailey, wrote this:
In Jesus’ day, across the villages of Galilee and Judea, there were associations of serious-minded Jews who called themselves the haberim. These associations were composed of men who were employed in secular trades but who spent their spare time debating the law and trying to apply it to the world. A young Jew … had the option of joining such a group. If he decided to do so, he was committed to becoming a “student of the rabbis” and participating in their discussions…. It seems natural to assume that Jesus joined the habirim. [Jacob and the Prodigal, Intervarsity Press, 2003. Pp. 24-25]
Have you ever had an aspiration to enter a field of study, or play an instrument, or join a sport because someone in your family, or someone you admired, was good at it? And were you scrutinized, and perhaps even dismissed as you tried your hand in that work? Then you may know what Jesus faced on that day in his hometown. On the day described in Luke chapter 4, Jesus was handed a passage to read; it was from Isaiah, one of the greatest prophets in the annals of Judaism. There are 66 chapters in the book of Isaiah, but by the providence of God and the selection for Jesus, he read Isaiah 61, words saying that the Spirit of the Lord was upon the great Isaiah, the almost mystical prophet of old, and now this 30 year old Jesus claimed his words as he finished the reading and said to the congregation: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The shoes of Isaiah were too big for Jesus in the sight of the townspeople! They could not buy what he was selling. And—as often happens when an Old Testament passage is included in the New Testament—a few words were dropped or changed. Jesus left out the phrase that he’s been sent to “bind up the brokenhearted.” And he added “to set at liberty those who are oppressed” from Isaiah 58:6.” “The Mishnah (guidance of Jewish practices) stipulates that in any public reading of the Prophets, the reader is permitting some editing.” [Bailey, p.25]
Clearly Jesus was trying to slip himself into very big shoes; the shoes of the great Prophet Isaiah. And the listeners were caught off-guard. They were there to hear a local man read Scripture, not a declaration of God doing a new thing through him. It was a rough time for both the congregation and the speaker. Can you imagine Jesus saying in his nightly prayer: “Father, things aren’t going too well here!” When we start to do a new thing, and not just follow in the paths of the great people who have gone before us, people will resist you. Jesus felt it that day.
After so much time has passed, we in the 21st century may take that scene flat-footed, not getting the radical nature of what was said and claimed. But it was radical. And thus Jesus’ began his impact on our world. And he met resistance. Stepping into a role filled by other competent men or women has always been a challenge. If you recall such times, perhaps we stepping into big shoes or, standing on the shoulders of giants. In golf new golfers stand on the shoulders of Ben Hogan or Arnold Palmer. People in government today may feel like they are standing on the shoulders of Abraham Lincoln or Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Who are the people who have gone before us, carving a niche in our chosen field, or setting the standard for the tasks? Instead of feeling like we can’t measure up, imagine all of those who have gone before you are calling out their encouragement to you! Turn off the voice of the critical mother, or father, or coach. Listen to the great cloud of witnesses, both here and in the hereafter, who are smiling at, and calling out to, you. I wonder if in Jesus’ prayer time, he heard not only encouraging words from his Heavenly Father, but perhaps good words from his insightful mother Mary. And who know? Maybe he heard words from angels or prophets themselves.
Breaking new ground is never easy. Imagine if Steve Jobs or Bill Gates just let IBM keep cornering the market with giant, heavy, slow computers. Imagine where NASA might be now if an insightful manager had not realized the brilliance of three women—Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson—depicted in the wonderful film “Hidden Figures,” and counted on them for their calculations to steer rockets out of harm’s way and back to earth. What a contribution they made. Some just stood in their own shoes, cutting a whole new course across time. They had no prior shoes to fill. Sometimes we need people of courage, skill, and integrity to offer the shoulders on which the next generation can stand.
In addition to great prophets and great judges in the Old Testament, God decided to do a new thing. He did it through Jesus. There was no glass ceiling to break, but there were townspeople to convince. It didn’t go well. Take comfort in knowing things didn’t go well for Jesus. But it was necessary. Sometimes we listen to our heart, where God dwells, and forge ahead. May you listen to God as you choose the path you will take today, and in all of your tomorrows.
Jeffrey A. Sumner January 27, 2019


John 2: 1-11

Dr. David H.C. Read was a minister in Scotland first, before he became the Pastor (now Emeritus) of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City. He preached from this very pulpit on October 9, 1986. In his book This Grace Given, he told this story:
One wintry day in the late nineteen-forties I was driving in my ramshackle open car from Edinburgh to St. Andrews, where I had an engagement at the university. After crossing the Firth of Forth I was soon in the vicinity of Cupar, the capital of the county of Fife, which happens to be my birthplace. (Happens to be? The cliché slipped out. Does anything just happen to be? Since the point of these reflections is the search for the directing presence of God, I should avoid this expression, which really conceals a popular pagan philosophy of sheer chance, the goddess of Fortune.)…To add to my confusion it was growing dark and so great clouds of mist came rolling in from the North Sea. By the time I was a mile or two beyond Cupar I was totally lost. Peering through and over the windshield, I caught sight of an ancient signpost and pulled over to the side of the road. As I stood for a moment looking around, a curious feeling swept over me. As I far as I could see through the mist, I was stranded on a bleak stretch of moorland, and there was not a sound, not a trace of a human being, not even an animal. Yet I sensed what I could only call a Presence, not exactly spooky but vaguely disturbing. There are quite a few places in Scotland where this seems to happen. In fact someone recently remarked to me that the island of Iona is a “thin” place—where the barrier between the seen and the unseen worlds are stretched thin.
[Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, 1984, pp. 1,2]

Others have told me that thin places are where heaven seems to connect with earth, or where God’s presence on earth is felt more earnestly. It is a wonderful yet mysterious concept. Some have found such places in their travels and they’ve retraced their steps to feel that divine presence, the wind of the Spirit, or even to hear divine words.
Being in touch with, or in the presence of the divine, is classically what we call “Holy Ground.” When you find it, you’ll want to return.
The start of such an event in Jesus’ life was at the wedding in Cana.

If you have been in a church the last three weeks, you know that Christians first remembered the birth of Jesus, then Jesus going to the Temple as a boy, and last week Jesus being baptized as a man. Perhaps he gradually understood his divine role after living a mortal life for 30 years. Theologians such as Eric Butterworth suggest—I think credibly—that Jesus had a progressive revelation of his divine work in the world. Listen to this description from his book, Discover the Power Within You.
About a hundred generations ago in far-off Palestine, something happened that may well be the greatest event in human history…It happened to a young lad, the son of a simple carpenter. His name was Jesus, the son of Mary and Joseph. This was no ordinary boy ….I can imagine the young boy, Jesus, spending many hours in the hills of Galilee, like any normal youth pondering the wonders of the heavens—the sun and drifting clouds by day, the moon and stars by night. I can visualize Him asking the question posed by the shepherd Psalmist a thousand years before: “What is man?” And then, one day it happened. Into the consciousness of this thoughtful lad came an idea so great that he probably didn’t catch its full implications at first. It was the concept leading to the full realization of His unity with God….We don’t know how this great breakthrough was actually accomplished in Jesus, how long the process took, or when he achieved self-mastery. But we know he made his appearance at the Jordan River to be baptized by John. He was a committed and polished teacher with the amazing message that “the Kingdom of God is within you. [HarperOne, 1992, p. 6-7]

That brings us to this time a few days later, when Jesus and his new disciples were invited to a wedding. Jesus was certainly aware of his divine gifts and was preparing for his ministry. It was a “soon but not yet” time in his life. The clock was about to start ticking for the three years he would have until his death. Calendar time is commonly called chronos; God’s time is known as kairos-officially defined as “a propitious moment for time or action.” It was almost God’s time for Jesus to begin his work according to John 1 and 2. “Some scholars … believe the Fourth Gospel wishe[d] to portray a week of seven days to open his ministry.” [Raymond Brown, THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JOHN Doubleday & Company, New York, 1966, p. 105-106] God, in effect, was “ramping up” the revelation of Jesus’ role in the world from John 1: 19 through John 2: 11. First, John the Baptist gave testimony to his own role on Jesus’ behalf; then Jesus was baptized, then he called his disciples, and then they went to the wedding at Cana. It was at the wedding when what might be called a holy hand-off occurred: it was from Jesus’ earthly mother to his Heavenly Father from whom he was about to take instructions. Here’s what John records about that first miracle: It started in John chapter 2: “On the third day.” Sunday is the first day, Monday the second day, and Tuesday is the third—not an unusual wedding day in first century Galilee. There was a situation—either from too many guests or too little wine— in a region where hospitality was famous, and no one wanted to put the host to shame. We hear about a rare time when the older Mary—mother of Jesus—is with her grown Son. He is about to take his ministry reigns: does he know how? Or when? Do any of us know how, or when, a divine awareness may come to us, instructing us to carry out a task or a ministry, or to change a ministry? That day Jesus relented and began to claim his new power. As his mother informed Jesus of the social dilemma (she didn’t ask him to do anything, just informed him of the situation,) Jesus said to her these key words: “My hour has not yet come.” Dr. Gail R. O’Day of the Candler School of Theology observed: “The reference to Jesus’ hour in verse 4 explains why Jesus adopts a posture of disengagement toward his mother. While “hour” is used in the Fourth Gospel to indicate the passing of time, it also is used metaphorically to refer to the time of eschatological fulfillment …. [THE NEW INTERPRETER’S BIBLE, Vol. IX, Abingdon Press. Nashville, 1995, p. 537.] In other words: the time for which Jesus was born was about to begin. As his mother makes the request, he, for the first time, performs a glorious miracle: not just changing water into wine, but also drawing his followers into the metaphor of a wedding feast. Heaven is like a wedding feast; the Kingdom of God is like a wedding feast, and later on, the imagery of Jesus as the groom and the church as his bride will fill many commentaries!

Perhaps your awareness of God’s presence started with a baptism, or your Confirmation; a retreat; an Ordination; or an urging. Some people follow Jesus because they were urged by family members or friends to do so. Others follow Jesus while family members or friends discourage them from doing so. But as many will tell you: when God calls you, you go. Or “when the Master calls,” (as Scottish American preacher Peter Marshall said in his book Mr. Jones, Meet the Master), you go. Last week we sang “Here I am Lord,” and some, I’m sure, sang it as an answer to God’s call. Maybe this too is such a day; a day when you’ll remember the “thin spaces” you visited where you felt the brush of angel’s wings. Maybe this too is a day to join Jesus on his journey, and ultimately for the wedding feast. The journey will include tensions and rejections along the way as you let Divine light shine through your words and your actions. Instead of wondering “What Would Jesus Do?” in the weeks ahead, try asking this instead: “How can I let the light of God shine through my words and my actions?” It we can do that, perhaps we can create even more thin places on the earth, and become aware of our wonderful God who lives in the temple of human hearts.

Hear now this prayer from the Book of Common Order of the Church of Scotland: “O God, whose blessed Son came into the world to do Thy will: grant that we may ever have the pattern of his holy life before our eyes and so it will be our delight to do thy will and finish thy work; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Jeffrey A. Sumner January 20, 2019


Matthew 2: 1-12

Gold; frankincense; and, myrrh; three gifts are ones that so called “wisemen” brought for a newborn baby. On the Internet I saw a cartoon with three women in different colored clothing looking at Mary, Joseph, and the baby. The caption read: “After the three wise men left, the three wiser women arrived bringing diapers, casseroles, and wine.” You decide what were the best gifts! Yes, of course, the wise women’s gifts were much more practical; but history his shown that the wise men’s gifts were more meaningful. Let’s see why. Today I want to connect some dots that occurred to me on Wednesday, and then in yesterday’s News Journal, Pastor Shane Looper confirmed them too. I’ll to those dots in a minute.

Some have said that it’s not the gift that is most important, but what is behind the giving of a gift. If a father gives keys to a car to his oldest teenage son, it is not just a new car, it is a symbol of trust in the son. If a woman gives a family Bible to her daughter who is expecting a child—a Bible that was had belonged to her parents before her—she is not just giving a Bible, she is passing on a tradition and her faith. And if a woman gives hand made and cross stitched dinner napkins and table cloth to a friend, it is not just a nice gift, it’s a sign that she’s giving some thing special to her to some one special to her! Think about why you give gifts, and what others may have been thinking when they gave you a gift. Today I have some gifts that I appreciate more with each passing year. My grandparents gave me my first Timex watch; I have it with me today. It was a loving gift, to help me learn how to tell time when I was six years old. I wonder how many children today can tell time from a clock with hands; an analogue clock? My grandmother gave me an heirloom wooden box with a musical movement inside. She knew I had admired it; it has belonged to her son who died at age 14. I think she wanted her first born grandson to have it. It’s here today too. Gifts best given are not just the first thing picked up dashing through an airport or going in a discount store. Sometimes the gift is emotionally costly or chosen carefully.

In the Gospel of Matthew, we find a sketchy report about men coming quite a distance to see baby Jesus. We don’t even know if there were three men; we only assume that because there were three gifts. And where was the “East” from whence they came? The late Biblical scholar Raymond Brown wrote a 600 page commentary called The Birth of the Messiah on just Luke chapters 1& 2; and Matthew chapters 1 & 2. Yikes! In that commentary he reminds us that the ones we call “wisemen” or “kings” were called magoi in Matthew and we have Anglicized it into the word “magi.” Says Brown, “The magi were Zoroastrian priests….In the Greek form of the Book of Daniel (second century B.C.) the author can describe magoi as flourishing in every corner of the Babylonian kingdom Nebuchanezzar. Along with the enchanters and the astronomers, they were thought to have the power of interpreting dreams and visionary messages.” (Daniel chapters 1, 2, 4, & 5) [Image Books, 1979, p. 167] I hope you heard those words! Did they ring a bell? Nebuchadnezzar sacked Jerusalem in those days and took precious vessels from the house of God back to his land of Babylon. That was in the second century B.C.. And among those Jews he took back to his kingdom were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, but he changed their names as they became his prisoners in Babylon to Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego! According to the Bible Study Tool website, King Nebuchadnezzar promoted them to the rank of magi. The ruthless King from the land dreamers, visionaries, and astrologers eventually long died, but the tradition continued in Babylon. And where is Babylon compared to Jerusalem and Bethlehem? Due East, 300 miles! So the magi if they came from there—had a long history of reading stars and interpreting dreams. And perhaps the idea of a king to be born in Judah was planted in the minds of the Babylonian magi by none other than Daniel years before! Could it be? Magi read in the stars that a king was to be born when there was a certain confluence of lights in the sky shown in the constellation of Leo symbolized as a lion, when a scepter was prophesied to appear at the feet of Judah. Could it be that these people of both faith and science believed that a king, a special king, was to be born in Judah? And if so, maybe even the treasures taken from the temple centuries before that were never returned, were used to honor God in the Temple? Gold was there—the most precious of metals and most beautiful. Frankincense was there—burned regularly in the Temple. As people smelled the aroma and watched the smoke rise, they believed it was pleasing to God. And Myrrh was there; a fragrant oil used in Jewish practice to anoint the bodies of the dead. The Temple would have had all of those. The magi would have traveled for many, many weeks, not knowing exactly when the newborn king was to be born, but having historical traditions to know his identity! In the giving of those particular gifts-instead of more practical ones—they might have been the actual items stolen from the Jerusalem Temple centuries before by Nebuchadnezzar, or they were similar gifts given to pay rightful homage to a newborn King.

Gifts matter. It is one thing to get something to please the recipient; that’s what we usually do. But sometimes, the gift pleases the giver more, like giving the gifts of historical family stories, or items that have been in a family for generations. This summer, as my mother moved from our house to an independent living facility, we began to consider what to do with all the things my parents had collected. The piano that was bought by her parents for her to play—a piano that was in the house where she grew up—had gotten transported to our house in a moving van in 1966. It had it’s home in our living room all that time. I took piano lessons on it; and my mother played it for special occasions. But there was no space for that piano in my mother’s independent living facility. What would we do with it? She asked her children who would like it. None wanted to move a piano across many states. We thought about selling it, but wondered how much to ask. Then my sister came up with a brilliant idea: my mother’s next door neighbor—the one who had driven my mother to see my dad the day he died—had a daughter who was interested in playing the piano! Well it took no time at all for my brothers and sisters and my mother and I to agree to give the piano to the neighbor! It was so natural! We don’t know if they will love it forever, but my mother could not be happier with the new home of her childhood piano. What we know is that the giver—my mother—is delighted, and perhaps her parents before her would have been delighted with helpful neighbor getting the piano for her daughter to practice playing. Sometimes a gift carries more meaning to the giver than to the oblivious recipient. Could it be these gifts of the magi pointed to Jesus as the greatest gift of all; the gift that God loved to give? Sometimes a gift lovingly given only gets appreciated in hindsight. Who knew that a newborn King would change the world? I know who knew: the magi. And now, you do too.
Jeffrey A. Sumner January 6, 2019

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Luke 2:41-52

We live in a world where people on both sides of politics have claimed “Fake News” at one point or another. In Christianity, there is a version of what one might call “Fake News.” It is called the Gnostic Gospels. What are those, you ask? They are scrolls discovered near the Upper Egypt town of Nag Hammadi in 1945. They are written in the Coptic language that is native to Egypt. Gnostics were a group of Jewish-Christians mainly in the Second Century. Part of their belief, that Christianity of today debunks, was that the divine spark was “housed” inside our evil human bodies. They believed all matter was evil and all spiritual thoughts were good. Another scroll that has been found is thought to be from the late second Century. Here is part of that “Fake News” scroll, called “The Infancy Gospel of Thomas.” Scholar Bart Ehrman says:
The narrative begins with Jesus as a five-year old boy and relates a number of incidents, most of them miraculous, that betray a streak of the mischievous in Joseph and Mary’s precocious son. Here are anecdotes of Jesus at play with his childhood companions (sometimes harming them with his divine power, sometimes healing them), in confrontation with his elders (usually bettering them), and in school with his teachers (revealing their ignorance) and in the workshop with his father (miraculously correcting his mistakes. [Lost Scriptures, Oxford University Press, 2003, p. 57.]

Today’s Luke text carries us over from the Christmas Eve texts when Mary, and the man to whom she was engaged-Joseph, go to great lengths to be together at the time of Jesus’ birth: instead of leaving Mary behind in Nazareth—where her family could certainly have cared for her and may have wanted to tend to her as she gave birth—Joseph took her with him in her condition as he fulfilled the census requirement put out by decree. In fact, if I were her mother and father, I might have insisted that she stay home to give birth in Nazareth. The Daytona Beach News Journal, just this week, ran a series of 8 stories about midwives having babies die due to complicated births. We will never know if it was Mary’s understanding of the angel’s decree that made her agree to go to Bethlehem in her condition or if it was just at the urging of Joseph. The Bible doesn’t say how they got to Bethlehem; the apocryphal (some might call it “fake news”) Infancy Narrative of James claims that Mary started to deliver the child before they arrived in Bethlehem and that Joseph left her in a cave while he ran into Bethlehem for two midwives. But no matter the exact details, the birth of Jesus came at great personal sacrifice on both of the parts of his parents, like a child born today takes sacrifices of time, money, and attention. On the eighth day, according to the law set out in Leviticus 12, Joseph and Mary made all the arrangements to have Jesus circumcised (Luke 2: 21). What followed after 33 days (a law from Leviticus 12) was the trip Mary, Joseph, and Jesus took to Jerusalem for her purification (Luke 2:22). What ordeals children bring into our lives! Nothing done to that point was done because Jesus was the Son of God; it was done just because Mary had a baby boy! What a difference there is between gifts such as a dolls or stuffed animals, compared with a real child!

Children around the world, and certainly those of us near Disney World, know one story of magic when a toy marionette is changed into a real boy! It’s the story of a blue fairy that magically brought a toy maker’s favorite toy to life. The marionette that became a boy was Pinocchio, and he only came to life when he gained the virtues of bravery, loyalty, and honesty, that would be needed in a real life. The toy maker, Gepetto, loved Pinocchio like a son. In another story that we studied during Advent, “The Gift of the Nutcracker,” we also learned that in her dream, Clara saw the inanimate nutcracker become a real king. Stories about people longing to be real are all around us. Isn’t it amazing that we sometimes complain about the cost of humanness: the heartbreak, the body aches, and the disappointments, and yet God wanted to feel humanness, and stories keep describing unreal things becoming real?

In Margery Williams’ tale of THE VELVETEEN RABBIT, the stuffed animal rabbit sat on the nursery floor one day and asked the Skin Horse, who looked old and wise, what it was to be REAL.
“What is real?” the rabbit asked.
“Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become REAL.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes” replied the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are REAL you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” Rabbit asked, “or bit by bit?” “It doesn’t happen all at once,” replied the Skin Horse. … “It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily or have sharp edges or who have to be carefully kept. Generally by the time you are REAL most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joins and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are REAL you can’t be ugly. The Boy’s Uncle made me REAL” said the Skin Horse. “That was a great many years ago; but once you are REAL you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”
[Doubleday, New York, 1991 Reissue, pp. 2-3]
God chose humanness to know the gamut of our emotions; to know what it was like to have skin, and to know both the joy a Zacchaeus conversion, and the sorrow of a Judas betrayal. In Jesus Christ, God chose to become human, with all of its complications. And then, as Jesus grew up, he came to a milestone year: 12. Twelve years old was a special age for a Jewish boy. He had a right of passage from a boy to a young man. But this young man had more than his share of Godly knowledge. So as his parents attended to their religious obligations in Jerusalem, Jesus wandered around the Temple Mount. It was a time to discuss his faith with someone other than his father. This was surely a time when Jesus would not just begin to learn his earthly father’s trade in Nazareth, but also go to his Heavenly Father’s house. His questions of the Temple elders foreshadowed what was to come, even though he would not begin his ministry for another 18 years.

Life’s milestones come and go. As we are on the cusp of a new year, how might you make different decisions? What might you decide to do, that you haven’t done so far? What practices do you deem good to continue? At light speed in the Bible, Jesus goes from infancy, to age 12 to age 30, (disregarding those stories of him as a boy in the Gnostic Gospels.) Life can move very fast for us too! Take time to remember your milestones, to learn from them. What milestones may occur in your life this year? God in Christ stands ready to shine a light unto your path.

Jeffrey A. Sumner December 30, 2018