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Matthew 5:

beachside communities from New Jersey to Florida often had candy
shops near the shore or the boardwalk with the great taffy machines
working the salt water taffy! It would come in many different colors
but the most interesting thing about it to a child is how pliable it
is! The taffy never breaks in the machine, it just keeps stretching!
In my research I found it that it has just a pinch of salt in the
taffy, leading me to believe that it got its name from the close
proximity to the ocean. Today we want to examine what Jesus meant by
calling his followers “the salt of the earth” and why, I fear,
too many Christians are not like salt that can preserve, flavor, or
protect that to which it is applied; too many Christians are like
salt water taffy: pliable and colorful, taking the shape of whatever
molds us in the world.

Back in
Jesus’ day salt was more than a seasoning; it was a preservative in
the days before refrigeration. “In New Testament times the main
industry at Magdala, on the Sea of Galilee, was the salting of fish.”
[Encyclopedia of the Bible]. So Jesus knew what he was saying, and
knew what he was meaning, when he used his famous metaphorical
language: “You are the salt of the earth.” Although that phrase
today is in the dictionary as meaning “a very kind, honest, and
reliable person”, in Jesus’ usage he meant even more than that.
Salt changes things: for one thing it flavors; for another it
preserves what is good and protects it from going bad. How did Jesus
mean his followers were,
first of all,
to flavor the world? Can you tell how much advertising wants to
change and bend us? From the beginning of the world, enticers and
tempters have tried to get us to take a bite of forbidden fruit. The
voice in our head, or on the lips of friends, or even on the lips of
strangers, can coax us into going over to, as George Lucas put it in
“Star Wars,” “the dark side.” The dark side has negative
characteristics, like being domineering, predatory, cruel, and
Nowhere in
Jesus’ life was he any of those things. And although the world has
plenty of good people, and had good people even in Jesus’ day, bad
people continue to have full reign in many corners of our world. To
use Reinhold Neibuhr’s phrase, they are the “children of
darkness.” Jesus was about creating “children of light,” ones
who, by seasoning the world with the fruits of the Spirit and living
faithfully, could change the world. In identifying his followers then
as salt, he was not saying, you “could be” change agents, nor was
he saying “if you want to I will give you the power to change
others.” No; he said “you are the salt of the earth.” That
power is in us right now! Of course, if you have salt on your dinner
table but never sprinkle it over your green vegetables or your
potatoes or your steak or chicken,
then it has
no effect! Having salt in the vicinity of food does not change it one
(And for now we are not addressing low
salt diets because that was not in issue for Jesus!) But only if salt
applied to food
does it change it. Only if Christians
themselves to the problems of the world can we begin to change them.
It does not happen if you are a Christian and just live next to a bad
person, or just sit on a plane next to a bad person or just sit in
class next to a bad person. If all you do is sit there and do not try
to make changes, the world, like a cancer of dark and aggressive
cells, will grow in its rottenness.
So it
takes us-salt- to flavor or change the world; and it takes us- salt-
to preserve what is good in the world.
world was created good according to Genesis. When it started to rot
with the whisper of a tempter, God still gave people the full
resources to resist the darkness. Some resisted; some succumbed; and
it is happening even today. Jesus is interested in naming the world’s
change agents; he did not say “I am the salt of the earth” he
said to that congregation standing and sitting on the banks of the
Sea of Galilee “YOU; you are the salt of the earth!” And I
believe with everything in me that Jesus preaches that message from
the pages of Scripture so that it reaches your ears today too. The
Lord Jesus says to his congregation even in 2011: “You are the salt
of the earth.” Being in the proximity of what you want to change
won’t change it; being good salt next to decaying meat won’t stop
the decay;
you have to apply yourself-salt-to
preserve values, protect the weak, and flavor the blandness of the
status quo.

second point in that section of his sermon said this: “but if the
salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored? It is no
longer good for anything except to be thrown out.” Jesus had
perfect illustration of polluted salt at the end of the Jordan River.
Because high concentrations of salt in the ground allowed nothing to
grow in the Dead Sea, it contained no sea life or plant life.
Polluted salt, like the salt mixed with sand and dirt that I showed
the children today, would be thrown on roads in ancient days to keep
grass from growing there. So how does salt loose its saltness? Mostly
by either being
so diluted
that other flavors over power the salt, or
that the compromised mixture cannot
be applied to anything to bring health or life.
wants us to be salt for the earth- a mineral of change, protection,
and preservation of the public good- but instead we are more like
salt water taffy
. Salt water taffy contains
salt, but it is in such a small quantity that almost no one notices
the salt, they notice the sugar, and the flavors. Salt makes
virtually no change to the taste or the consistency of salt water
taffy; it is a trace ingredient. And one more thing: notice how
pliable and how moldable salt water taffy is. To Jesus’ chagrin,
Christians who have not taken the message of his Sermon on the Mount
to heart are more tempted to fit in to the world instead of change
and the world has very little problem with
just a touch of Christianity in its public assemblies
Like salt water taffy, a touch of saltness
goes unnoticed in our world; it does not change, it does not
preserve, it does not protect. And when other ingredients dilute it,
as in taffy, it loses its power to flavor, preserve, and protect. And
when other ingredients polute it,
becomes good for nothing, and actually can take life instead of
preserve it. In Jesus’ day, polluted salt was poured out on the on
the lanes and byways, to kill the vegetation in the city run by
children of darkness. I fear that the salt-like power Jesus placed in
each one of us is getting either too diluted or too polluted by the
world. We have let that happen. But we can stop it; the children of
light can draw on their Christ-named power to effect change even now!

We have the power! Jesus has given us a name and purpose. But Jesus
cannot lift the salt shaker and salt the world; that is for us to do.
In Egypt today Christians are in such a small minority that even
banded together they have little effect in their troubled land. The
brotherhood and sisterhood of Christians need our hands, and hearts,
and actions and prayers not just in your neighbor, but in our nation,
and across the globe. How will you show your Savior that you “get
How will you acknowledge the power he
has placed in you, not alone, but with others so that, with a larger
percentage of potency, the world cannot dilute us enough or pollute
us enough to make us tepid, bland, or useless?

When the Titanic was sinking, there was no need for officers to
straighten the deck chairs. They were needed to man lifeboats and to
save souls! The time to rescue the perishing in our world is upon us
again, here; now, in Feb. 2011.

A. Sumner February 6,

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Micah 6: 1-8

you have been in a real courtroom before, you might have found it to
be less exciting and filled with surprises than in “Perry Mason,”
“Matlock,” or “Boston Legal.” I have been on a jury once,
been a witness twice, and been a spectator once. In a real courtroom
almost never does someone stand and announce his guilt as a
spectator, and almost never does an attorney accuse a person who has
come merely to observe a trial. Trials have been held in America and
in other nations since Biblical Times, albeit often without the
decorum and procedures we adhere to in the American court system.
Well today, at least at the beginning, you are a spectator at a
trial; it is a trial of sorts between the Lord God who has been
wronged, Micah who is the prosecuting attorney, and Israel who is the
defendant. You cannot have God’s role, and you cannot have Micah’s
role! But as we look over the courtroom scene, there could be times
we might become
the accused.

in verses one and two, Micah, speaking for the LORD, introduces the
case. Witnesses in this case are all of creation (meaning the whole
world.) The court is reminded of all that the LORD has done for
Israel: he redeemed them from bondage, he sent them Moses, Aaron, and
Miriam, and later he stopped the King of Moab—Balak—from cursing
Israel even when an oracle named Balaam had failed. He even reminded
them how Balaam, a foreigner, considered the Lord to be his God.

between verses five and six, we pause; pause to get the tenor of the
proceeding. The defendant Israel is being accused of sinning against
God, forgetting God, and even being unfaithful to God by pursuing
other false gods. It is Israel, then, acting as its own defense
attorney, who retorts with courtroom hyperbole, with a flair for the
dramatic. Falling right into God’s accusatory trap, the people of
Israel ask what they could do in a worship setting to make things
right in God’s eyes! God certainly wanted to say “You are missing
the point!” but they proceeded anyway. The LORD had
told them what was required—and he would do that here again—but
not before the overly dramatic performance by the defense. “With
what shall (we) come before the Lord, and bow ourselves before God on
high?” Israel asked rhetorically. “That’s not what God wants!”
Micah wanted to object, but hearing the judge’s objection in his
head, he let this sob story continue. “Shall we come before the
Lord with burnt offerings?” And here spectators like us might
think: “Ah, I see what they’re trying to do! They’re giving
examples of high redemption costs that might make things right again!
But the defendant continued: “Will the LORD be pleased with a
thousand rams!!” (Micah rolled his eyes). “Or with ten thousand
rivers of oil?” (“Oh brother!” Micah could have said out loud,
but the judge would have just reprimanded him for talking out of
turn. But how could he be quiet for such exaggerations?) Then Israel
goes beyond the pail, infringing into the territory that false gods
wanted and that the real God loathed: child sacrifice. “Shall I
give my first-born to pay for my sins?” The way it was phrased it
treated Israel as a child-bearing mother, speaking the unspeakable

surely between verses seven and eight Micah conferred with his
client: “Lord, how do you want me to respond to such a heinous
response! It is an outrage!” Something about the calm in the LORD’s
voice must have steadied this prosecuting attorney prophet and
redirected his anger into a steady, jaw-clenched answer: “The LORD
has shown you already
what is good! Don’t you remember? It’s not just what you
in worship, it is how you live outside
of worship that God sees and requires! Do justice! Love Kindness!
Walk humbly with
your God!”
And with that, the state rested, for the time being.

are the times you want to bargain with God? Some do it if they cheat
on a test and are caught; some do it if they don’t tell the truth
on their income taxes and are called in for an audit; some do it if
they cheat on their spouse and are caught. Notice how many people
come to God
when they are caught! “If
you will just make this one thing right and let people overlook this
one thing, I’ll give, let’s see: my whole next paycheck to the
church! Or I’ll help the next homeless man I find on a corner! Or
I’ll volunteer at a food pantry! What will make this right, Lord?”
But the LORD is no fool, hearing each offer as
bribery without correction; of gifts without admitting guilt.

This famous passage gives answers to more than what God requires in
your life;
it is what God requires when you
are trying to worm your way out of a jam.
the right thing! Show kindness! Stop thinking of yourself first!”
That’s Micah 6:8 in plain language.

Lloyd John Ogilvie, who for years was pastor of the First
Presbyterian Church in Hollywood, went to seminary in Scotland and
studied under the great preacher James S. Stewart. After class one
day, Lloyd stayed to ask his professor some questions about preaching
and pastoring. At one point Dr. Stewart leaned across his desk and
said these startling words: “Do you know what
need to do Mr. Ogilvie?” You need to let
your ego die so Christ can find some room in your heart! Upon
reflection, Lloyd Ogilvie said “Something had to die in me before
God could have his way with me.” God doesn’t want our burnt
offerings or ten thousand rivers of oil, or our child or even our
promises for future generosity. They all skirt what God wants most:
us. God wants us, but
with changes: God wants our lives, our souls, our devotion, our
muscles, and our bones. God needs all of us to carry out a plan for
the world that is different from the one our meager minds can dream.

his book called
Worship, Leslie
B. Flynn told this story: “A man was packing a shipment of food
that was contributed by a school for the poor people of Appalachia.
He was separating beans from powdered milk, and canned vegetables
from canned meats. Reaching into a box filled with various cans, he
pulled out a little brown paper sack. At first he thought a child a
bagged just some different items from the list. But when he looked
in, he pulled out a peanut butter sandwich, an apple, and a cookie.
He turned the bag around and read: ‘Christy-room 104.’She had
given her own lunch to help a hungry person.”
looks like that.

ago, Dr. Karl Menninger of the Menninger Clinic was asked ‘If
someone felt a nervous breakdown coming on, what could that person
do?’ ‘If you feel a nervous breakdown coming on,’ the Dr.
replied, ‘I would urge you to find someone else with a problem—a
serious one—and get involved with that individual, helping him
solve his problem.’ That way you are no longer lingering over your
own problems; you are focusing on solving someone else’s issues.
Reid Morrison in this church used to sing a song with this line:
“Others; let that my motto be.” If we show
for others we are doing what Jesus did in his earthly life, and what
he seeks to do through us now. That is

“a young seminary graduate came up to the pulpit one Sunday, very
self-confident and immaculately dressed. He began to deliver his
sermon in his first church, and the words simply would not come out.
Finally tears streamed down his face and he left the platform
humbled. There were two wise women in the front row. One leaned to
the other and said: “If he’d come in like he went out, he would
have gone out like he came in.”

humbly with your God.
Do justice; love kindness; and walk humbly with your God. If you do
that; if I do that; the judge in our trial could very well dismiss
the case against us- for lack of sinful evidence. Oh what a joyful
day in heaven that will be! What will you do differently now, not
just in here, but out there, that will be the first in a series of
life-changing events for you? When you begin, the applause of heaven
can be deafening.

A. Sumner January 30 2011

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1 Corinthians
1: 10-18

are so many ways that human beings compete: certainly it happens in
sports, but that is their essential purpose. In a capitalistic
society such as ours, competition is in our bloodstream: Walmart vs.
Target; Microsoft vs. Apple; in “The Miracle of 34
Street film it was Macys vs. Gimbels; it will be the Orlando Magic
vs. a host of teams and the Super Bowl glues people to their TV
sets. In a few weeks at the Speedway it will be Ford vs. Chevy,
Dodge, and even Toyota. Several years ago Toshiba lost countless
dollars producing the HDDVDs, only to see their format get tossed in
favor of Sony’s Blu-Ray. Now the cellphone provider battles
continue to wage; will the consumer be the winner or loser in that?
Sometimes the alignments we choose, however, foster differences to
the detriment of our society, don’t they? Are we better off because
we now have Democrats, Republicans, and the Tea Party? Has the
airline deregulation of the 1980s produced a better product for the
traveling public? Are Americans always going to qualify their
citizenship with terms like southern, Asian or African Americans?
Sometimes our competitions can hit a nerve.

In the
book of Genesis, readers are introduced to the twelve sons of Jacob
that would later lead the Twelve Tribes of Israel. If you don’t
remember another thing about those sons, remember that Jacob, a man
who schemed with his mother to win the first-born birthright from him
brother Esau, had never seeing a parenting book in his life. Can
anyone, then, be surprised to read about the unbelievable favoritism
he showed toward his son Joseph? His other sons were not blind; they
saw what dad was doing—giving him a special coat—and as they
heard their brother’s ego at work—he dreamed that
would bow down to him—their anger
got the better of them and they “sold” their brother to
Ishmaelites—people who were organized into “clans” according to
Genesis 36! Competition was not too healthy for the twelve tribes!

Now we
move on to Corinth. In a city with too many people entrenched in
their own ways of thinking (like people you perhaps know!) things
were always stirred up and interesting! It was to address those
volatile conditions that the Apostle Paul wrote his letters. Although
in Ireland, Catholics and Protestants have fought bitterly over the
years, believers in Corinth were not to the level of criminality,
they just thought they were right! Family feuds often start over
someone believing he is right, don’t they? So when Paul wrote the
first chapter of his first letter to the Corinthian church, he named
the divisions in that church and stated his hopes for unity. Some in
that church started to show denominationalism. As we might say today:
“I belong to a Calvinist Church” or “I belong to a “Wesleyan
Church” or “I belong to a Lutheran Church,” in Corinth they
said “I belong to Paul,” which probably meant they were Jewish
and Gentile Christians who were sympathetic to Gentiles. Others said
“I belong to Apollos,” which probably meant they were very
intellectual Christians who grouped with other studious Hellenistic
Christians. Still others said “I belong to Cephas” (Peter’s
real name) probably meaning they were Christians who were most
sympathetic toward Christians who passed through the Jewish rituals
first. “I belong to Christ” was the claim by some of the
centrists in Corinth. So Paul appeals to his brothers and sisters in
Christ, and asks “be in agreement, and let there be no divisions
among you.” You see the problem, don’t you? Certainly Paul’s
world was not without divisions as just described. And our world is
just as divided, with litigation clogging our court system. Our
society is not kind to people who are different. Some suggest that
“good fences make good neighbors,” the way oil won’t mix with
water. Despite the theory that America was once a big melting pot, we
are not a society that melted together easily. In St. Louis where I
spent my teenage years, there are neighborhoods where groups are
huddled together: the Italians, the Germans, and the Polish among
others. In some cities there are neighborhoods where Chinese, or
Vietnamese persons gather; and in other cities Anglo Americans may
live in neighborhoods apart from African Americans or Native
Americans. Such heritages make for great food, great stories, and
great bonding!
But if they are people of
faith, can they unite, putting aside differences, so that Christ can
be lifted up? That is the question that brings us to this service

In a
humorous but factual account of clans in Scotland, Rupert Besley
writes “The word ‘clan’ comes from the Gaelic ‘clann’
meaning offspring, tribe, or clan. The Clan System was introduced in
the 11
th century
and was essentially a bureaucratic measure, whereby the population of
Scotland was split up by surname and people with the same name were
required to live together in alphabetical order.( A little tongue in
cheek there!) Thus were forged the strong links between the clans and
their territories—Stuarts and Bute, Macdonnells and Glengarry,
Macbaynes and the Islands. All this did create some difficulties for
the postman, but did at least make family get-togethers at Christmas
rather simple to arrange! The clan system worked relatively well for
a while, but, as so often happens in families, feuds grew up over the
centuries….Intense rivalry and ill-feeling (such as between
Edinburgh and Glasgow) led to constant turbulence in the Highlands.
The merest clash of tartans was enough to cause the clan chief to …
summon clansmen into action against their neighbor. It was a grim
chapter in Scottish History.” [SCOTLAND FOR BEGINNERS, Lochar
Publishing, 1990, p.33,34.] The term “Feudal System” came from a
term categorizing families and attaching them to land. The next time
you hear about a “feud,” you can think back to Scotland among
other countries, where fighting for family and land could become a
long time obsession. For a time the wearing of Highland costumes and
tartans was banned by the government. Finally in the 19
kilts returned as a source of national
pride and even commerce, since a real kilt

took 21 yards of material per person! And today, kilts are, for the
most part, a source of pageantry, family heritage, and national

Joseph demonstrated in Genesis was
What Paul implored in both his first and his second letter to the
Corinthians was reconciliation. And today, what a preacher like the
late Peter Marshall requested was that we human beings—not just
Scotsmen and women, but as members of the human race—lay aside our
It is to Almighty God that we
should cling, and to the Word.
In the place
of short-term arguments or long time feuds, we only ask God to bless
us, and our tartans, if we truly—brother and sister alike—band
together, sing together, march together, work together, pray
together, and evangelize together. Only one Savior could bring about
such unity amidst such strife. It is the name, which is above every
other name, Paul said. For the sake of Jesus Christ, who died for our
sins, and who shows us the way, the truth, and the life, that we come
together to build up the body of Christ. May his Church show love,
honor, and devotion to him as the Head of the Church. For the sake of
Almighty God, may our cloaks of many colors symbolize a patchwork of
Christian clans, and not a divisive coat of many colors.

January 23. 2011  

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Teresa of Avila, a 16th century mystic is though to have written the following poem:
“Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours, Yours are the eyes through which to look out Christ’s compassion to the world; Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good; Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now.”

This is a common theme of incarnational theology – the notion that we are to be Jesus Christ to the world. The idea is that God became incarnate, became flesh, so as to embody God’s love for the world. We are then called to incarnate Christ in our own selves and to love the world as Jesus did. The Apostle Paul writes of this end in his letter to Corinth, saying we are to love even to the point of “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.” (2 Cor. 4:10)

Many Christians strive towards this end, and indeed, I’m one of them. But this morning I’m going to show you a slightly different look at incarnational theology through John the Baptist. We are in the season of Epiphany, that time in the Church year when we celebrate the “manifestation” of Christ to the world, first as a baby and then at his baptism. Epiphany is, in three words, “all about Christ.” But as I read and re-read the passage for the morning what struck me above all else was that the really interesting person in it was John the Baptist.

I have to admit I’ve always been a bit fascinated by John the Baptist. If Jesus came across as the radical of his day, John the Baptist would have seemed like a raving nutter to the average person. He is the equivalent of someone in our day who stands on the street and points out the wrongs of our society. Loudly. Perhaps also holding a sign. The really amazing thing about John though, is that he gathered followers. At the time of the passage this morning, John had a large number of people following him around and listening to him preach.

What I noticed about the
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That is Jesus, the Lamb of God, and this passage if filled to the brim with names for that Lamb. So we have John the Baptist saying, “Behold” (Look at that), and we have John the Gospel writer as well with his plethora of names, too, saying, “Yeah. Do look. Look at him as Son of God, as Rabbi, as the Messiah, as the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. Look. Look. Look.” And if the names aren’t enough to make you do it, consider the action in the story. John the Baptist points and speaks, and two of his disciples follow Jesus.

Everything John says and does in this passage is about pointing people away from himself to Jesus. John’s message is in effect, “
This isn’t about me. It’s about this guy. Yeah. There he goes. He’s the one. Him. Lamb of God.”

Fred Craddock says of John the Baptist “The fact is, there is no evidence of anything unhealthy in the life of John. No power, no influence, no capacity is abdicated or denied; all are fully and vigorously employed in the single service of witnessing to Christ. If he is speaking with one or two, he is a witness; if he is working with a crowd, he is a witness; if he is facing a forest of microphones and blinking into the flashing bulbs of Jerusalem inquirers, he is a witness, no less but no more. As such he is the perfect prototype of the Christian leader: sent of God to witness.

This is not to say there was no struggle, no temptation to use his gifts to elevate himself. On the contrary, such a battle must have raged within him at times. Since temptation is commensurate with strength, the unusually gifted face tests that the rest of us do not. But even with the wrestling, the great can and do turn all their gifts to the service of the gospel, and in so doing discover that their powers are not diminished but increased.”

I find it ironic that with so much effort that John the Baptist puts into drawing the attention away from himself to Jesus, that the lectionary has shoved him down our throats for these Sundays throughout Advent, Christmas, and now Epiphany. It reminds me of a kid who looks at your finger instead of the object you’re pointing at.

“Don’t look at me. Look there. Over there.” And finally in exasperation you rush over and manually turn the little tyke’s head. “See? The Lamb of God.” Maybe we’re guilty, too, of being too infantile to realize we’re supposed to be beholding the Lamb and what
he’s about.

One thing you have to admire about Jesus’ apostles. They get who the finger points to. They drop John like a hot potato and go to see what Jesus is about. And, these weren’t any two disciples; one of them was Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter. That is, John was going to lose some of his “best” disciples, who were going to go on to become the cornerstone of Jesus’ ministry.

Nevertheless, John pointed Jesus out to them. Once he has directed his disciples to Jesus and they follow him, the scene shifts, and John is only mentioned one or two more times. In fact, by pointing out Jesus to them, John was committing professional suicide. He was putting himself out of a job.

The focus wasn’t on him; he was only there to give himself so that others would follow Jesus. Now
that is something that is not simply admirable, but rather amazing. That is what makes me want to say that this passage, though directing us to Jesus, is all about John. And, by thinking of the passage in this way, we are improved and strengthened.

Humility is defined as “the virtue that expresses a spirit of deference.”  We tend to think of humility as a weak virtue in this culture. Something held by the shy and the meek. Not a characteristic of someone with “real” personality. Yet John has an excess of personality with his locusts and honey and with his taunting and coaxing people into baptism. No one could call John meek.

Yet, in the gospel, John showed humility through his witness to the Greater One. In our culture, a good witness gives first-hand information. We are consumed with the “facts.” But, in Jesus’ culture, a good witness had a good reputation. The quality of their witness depended upon the quality of their character. John placed his reputation, his character, and his very life at the service of his witness. His willingness to defer, to be humble, made John’s witness all the more powerful.

John is marked by humility, but this does not prevent him from preaching with boldness. John’s message is not watered down to please his audience. He speaks against sin, whether it be that of tax-gatherers or soldiers or even Herod himself. He clearly identifies sin, condemns it, and calls for repentance. This boldness is not a contradiction to his humility, but a manifestation of it. He is inferior and subordinate to his Lord, the Messiah. He was called of God to proclaim the message he was given. He would do no less than proclaim that message with boldness and clarity. No doubt this played a part in the powerful impact of that message on those who heard it.

The Baptist’s story winds throughout the gospels, connected to Jesus almost from conception. John precedes him, identifies him, baptizes him, defers to him, and in death is affirmed by him as “the greatest of the prophets.”  Yet John was a prophet in his own right, dying the martyr’s death because he would not be silent about the sins of the rich and famous.

That’s the thing about John, he would not, could not, keep silent!  Jesus, on the other hand, builds his ministry slowly, out by the seashore, telling those closest to him not to divulge the secret, nuancing certain aspects of the coming kingdom with parables, similes and metaphors.  John’ message has no filter whatsoever.  Even snippets of his sermons make us squirm yet. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matthew 3:7)

At best, prophets like John help us get our bearings in the world. They throw cold water and hard sayings in our faces and force us to take stock of our lives and the culture around us.  At worst, pursuing the prophetic may mean that we find an excuse to silence the messenger, manipulating our way out of the warnings.  From the Baptist to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the prophetic landscape is strewn with the bodies of the dead, some of whom, though silenced, speak yet.

At other times, the prophetic word is a word of hope in a time of trouble, when things are so bad that the only way out is for God to do a new thing.  In today’s text from Isaiah, the prophet is God’s “servant,” called from his mother’s womb to “raise up” and “restore the survivors,” to be “as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”  Sometimes the pursuit of the prophetic is itself a reason for celebration.

But let’s go back to my original statement about John the Baptist and incarnational theology.  Rodger Nishioka tells this story: “While I fully understand what Teresa and the apostle Paul are saying to us, that we are to live lives that embody Christ, it is equally important that we not take on some messianic identity that says we are Christ to the world. A couple of years ago, a good friend and colleague here at the seminary who was concerned about my schedule and commitments and hectic pace and looking tired, insisted on taking me out to lunch. When we sat down at the table, I asked what was going on. She told me she had some good news for me. Perplexed, I asked her what the good news was. She smiled and said ‘I want you to know that the Messiah has come!’ Now I was thoroughly confused, so she told me she had even better news for me: ‘You are not him!’ The real danger in a distorted incarnational theology is that we come to believe that if we truly are Christ’s body in the world, then if the world is going to be saved, we have to do it.”

We get so caught up in trying to do everything and save everyone, we burn ourselves out. We cannot do everything yet we sometimes fall into the trap of thinking we have to. Maybe sometimes, instead of trying to save the world on our own, we should instead ask ourselves, what would John the Baptist do? Instead of trying to be the savior of humanity, we should try to be more like John the Baptist, calling attention to Jesus Christ and then saying to all who are within hearing distance: “Hey! Look! God is alive. God is in our midst. The Holy Spirit is at work in us and through and for us. Behold! The Lamb of God!”

Imagine living a life like that instead. A life where everything we did, pointed at the wonders of God in our midst. Where rather than taking everything upon ourselves, we lifted up everything to God instead. What would the world be like if rather than focusing on ourselves, we pointed to God? That would truly look like the kingdom of Heaven .

Rev. Cara Milne Gee

January 16th, 2011

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Isaiah 42:
1-9; Matthew 3: 13-17

A wonderful educator and professor at Columbia Seminary,
Rodger Nishioka, taught my first doctoral class. What wit and
insights he brings to each class. He once told the following story:

Kyle was nowhere to be found, and I missed him. In
the weeks following his baptism and confirmation on Pentecost Sunday,
he was noticeably missing. Several other members of the confirmation
class asked about him too …. Kyle and his family had come to the
congregation when he was in the fifth grade. They attended
sporadically, so I was more than a little surprised when I asked him
and his parents if he was interested in joining the confirmation
class and they responded positively! … Kyle and his parents came
for the orientation meeting and agreed to the covenant to participate
in two retreats, a mission activity, work with a mentor, and weekly
classes for study and exploration. Kyle was serious in attending and
rarely missed a class or event. He quickly became a significant part
of the group and developed some wonderful friendships with [others]
who barely had known him. Since Kyle had not yet been baptized, he
was not only confirmed but also baptized on Pentecost Sunday. It was
a marvelous celebration for all the confirmands, their families, and
their mentors. That was pretty much where it ended. That is when I
knew we had done something wrong. [He hadn’t shown up to church
since.] When I checked in with Kyle and his folks, they all seemed a
little surprised that I was calling and checking up on them. I
distinctly remember his mother saying: ‘Oh well, I guess I thought
Kyle was all done. I mean, he was baptized and confirmed and
everything. Isn’t he done?’ That’s the problem. Despite our
best intentions and despite all we say and try to communicate, too
many people seem to think that the baptism of the infant or young
adult or adult is the culminating activity of faith, and then we are
‘all done.’” [FEASTING ON THE WORD, Year A, Volume 1, WJK, p.
236-238]. One other example: As I was going around getting gifts for
people this Christmas, I was invited to save 10% by applying for a
credit card when I bought three of my gifts at different stores. The
purchase totals were each over a hundred dollars so I decided to take
a minute and fill out an application to receive the savings. During
this first week of January, I received three cards and was encouraged
to start using them. With one I intend to do so; with the other two I
do not. In fact, one said the card wasn’t valid until I made a call
to activate it and I used it to make my first purchase. There is a
part of me that believes that the parents with their newly baptized
babies, and youth with their new baptism certificates, leave church
thinking that they have been baptized. And in fact they have, their
certificate says so. But like the new credit card I got in the mail,
it seems like it should say: “not valid until activated.”
Baptisms hardly carry power and meaning until they are activated, by
parents returning their children to church or youth returning to grow
their faith.
It seems to me that people
misunderstand the blessing, assurance, or understanding of baptism if
the one baptized, or the parents, treat it like a commissioning
instead of a commencement! Commissioning means you’ve been given
instructions with a purpose; commencement (although it means the
beginning of a new life,) is treated by most Americans as the end of
student life!
With baptism, others
see it as a holy insurance policy. When people approach it as
something to be
“done” instead
of a new life “
begun,” they
try to claim God’s blessings without accepting the expectations.
Baptism is more like an ordination than a Christening: the one who is
baptized wants God’s Holy Spirit in him or her, not just to get to
Heaven, but to make a difference in the world as well. Baptized
children, youth, and adults are Christ’s body in the world. And the
best witness of the body of Christ is the church. As the great hymn
“The Church’s One Foundation” proclaims it: “And the great
church victorious shall be the church at rest.” We will never rest
until Christ proclaims his victory in the world! Christ needs our
voices, and our devotion, our quiet time, and our presence! The Holy
Spirit does not intend to send baptized children and youth into the
world without further guidance, regrouping, troubleshooting, and
The gathering that we call church is
for that transformation!
Whether it is a
youth group or a Bible Study or an hour of worship, coming together
in Christ reminds us that we are baptized
something much more than to protect us
against something. If
we want God’s blessing, we can plan to accept God’s expectations
Otherwise it is like carrying around one
of those new credit cards in your pocket: it looks like it will work,
but it has not yet been activated.

In our Gospel text today, many years have passed since
Jesus was an infant at Christmas and at Epiphany.

The Bible is silent about Jesus’ childhood
and young adulthood except for a few words in the second chapter of
Luke. Jesus is now about the age of thirty, the age when, generally,
people have already learned how to earn their keep in the world and
not just live off of parents. It is highly likely that Jesus had
learned Torah, and had learned the trade of being a teckton
(builder), and had earned money well before the event of his baptism.
That is an outstanding pattern of understanding baptism: a person
learns the way of faith from family or friends, then is baptized,
then begins a life of honoring God. Before baptism, generally
speaking, life is lived for self; after baptism life is aimed more at
knowing and glorifying God. It is never meant to be a one day
celebration after which people go back to living and feeling as they
did before. Baptism is a commissioning, not a commencement! It is
giving a person a task, new vision, and, as some would put it, “new
marching orders.” It involves both blessing and expectations.

With Jesus on his big day, the clock was about to start
on his ministry. Anyone baptized here today can still pick up the
mantle of purpose given you at your baptism if you have not done so
before or if you laid it down. It is not too late! Be purposeful with
other Christians; study, feed hungry people, invite lost people to
sit beside you, invite them to join you in a life of faith. Put into
action the words that you once said: something like: “Do you
participate actively in the worship and the mission of the church?”
And when you joined, you said, “I do.” It is time to “do” if
you haven’t “done” yet! What would marriage be like if you
promised to “love, honor, and cherish” and then you didn’t?
What good is repeating the Boy Scout or the Girl Scout oath when no
actions or charity follow the words?

On Jesus’ big day, he had gotten to that moment in
good order: and so as promised, God’s Holy Spirit came down and
touched him, assuring him in his heart that he was blessed. And then,
as perhaps your father or mother said to you at an important event:
God said, “I’m proud of you, son.” And in Matthew’s gospel
the announcement is made for all those in the pews or the folding
chairs by the Jordan River to hear: “This is my boy; I love him,
and he has made me proud!” What a glorious time! Can you hear the
angels cheering at your baptism? They were! And now they wait “at
the ready” to cheer you more, not just for being you, but for doing
what God wants you to do! Make a difference! Continue the
commissioning of your baptism; there are so many people with
baptismal certificates who failed to peel the sticker off the back
that said: “To activate, do what Jesus would do.”

A. Sumner
January 9, 2011

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John 1: 1-9

does not come easily to most Presbyterians. Most of us do not go two
by two knocking on stranger’s doors in neighborhoods, the way some
faith groups do. Most of us are not standing on a street corner with
a sandwich board like the man did in Deland pictured on the front
page of the Friday newspaper; most of us do not stand on street
corners and confront others about repenting or burning in h-e-l-l.
The 29 year old woman in Raleigh, NC is not a Presbyterian who drives
around in her car with the words “Save the Date!” all over it,
insisting that Christ will return on May 21
of this year. A few Presbyterians might make the giant John 3:16
poster and take it to a football game so that a camera can be trained
your way and thus, you become an accomplice in witnessing! Around
Halloween some other churches hold awful fright night haunted houses
and keep terrified visiting youth locked in until they confess Jesus
as Lord. It is no wonder, with those choices for witnessing, that
Presbyterians want no part of them.
But we
would be foolish to want no part of witnessing.

In fact, we would stop being New Testament Christians; we would be
ignoring prophets like John; and we would be turning away from the
Great Commission of the Lord Jesus Christ that we are meant to carry
out. How can we witness in authentic ways for us?

The world needs a corrective to the ways
other zealous Christians have witnessed to their faith. We need the
zeal, we need the message, and we need the faith; we just need a
better way to share it. Today, spurred on by the wonderful words in
John chapter one, we will examine first the ways others have
witnessed to their faith. Then we will look at the text about John’s
message, and finally we will learn how to bear witness: nothing more,
and nothing less.

here are some approaches I have experienced myself, and perhaps you
have too. One I call the “bulldozer approach.” This is the
person, whether a stranger on the street, in an airport, or on your
doorstep who bowls you over with a stream of arguments, backed up by
memorized Scripture passages. This approach produces a one-way
conversation since they won’t take “no” for an answer!
want you to commit your life to Christ right then and there, and if
you don’t, in bulldozer fashion, they scoop you up and push you
along whether you willfully agree to go or not. That approach to
witnesses never won me over; did it work for you? On the notebook in
my mind I write: “No bulldozer approach for me!” Another method
I’ve seen I’ll call the “decoy approach:” a person will use
something like the decoy of friendship when what they want most is to
convert you. I’ve had people approach me in public places, ask me
my name, and then continue using it as they walk with me in
lock-step, re-using my first name in every sentence. The trick is to
dangle the appeal of a new friend in front of you and then, in the
name of friendship, ask you to become their brand of Christianity.
This one is harder to refuse because they have already learned your
name and pulling away is difficult. The approach starts to feel
predatory, and people wish they had never engaged in the conversation
in the first place. On the notebook in my mind I write: “No decoy
approach for me!” Finally, another method I’ve seen used I’ll
call “the jealousy approach.” This method is evident when a group
of persons treat their Christian love as something so special and
selective that you are not a part of them unless you join their
church. It is a kind of snob approach. John the Baptist proclaimed
his message to
anyone who
would hear it. Jesus showed his love to any who would accept it: tax
collectors, prostitutes, lepers, and others who were shunned. The
love of Christ is something that
we too are
called to share,
but to those who only
welcome those who agree to join
church or youth group, I make a mental note in my mind: “No
jealousy approach for me!”

chapter one records that John was a prophet sent from God to give
testimony: to bear witness to the light. The old gospel song says
“Jesus is the light is the, light of the world!” It is today’s
passage where we learn John is
the light;
he is pointing to the light;
he is preaching about Jesus! That was
chosen way to witness. Witnessing in the New Testament, and for
faithful Christians today, is done so that all may receive him and
believe in his name. ( verse 12) When this gospel was written, there
were many small splinter groups that wanted to call John the Baptist
the light; to call him the anointed one. To fight that belief, this
gospel over-emphasizes the fact that John is a messenger:
is sent to bear witness to the light: nothing more, nothing less.
is not the Christ; he is, in fact, inferior to the Christ. He simply
points to him. John exhibits insistent humility, directing people who
might want to follow him, and he points to Jesus.

we can learn from John. We too are called to witness. Just like those
Jesus called by the Sea of Galilee to follow him, Jesus has called
each of us in unique ways to be witnesses. At Pentecost, he told his
disciples that
would be his witnesses. The most powerful way you can witnesses to
someone else is to tell them what the Lord has done in your life, or
has meant to you, or how the Lord has carried you the muck and mire
of tragedy. We call friends about great sales, or to warn them about
impending storms, or to check on their health. But we stop short of
saying to our unchurched friends and neighbors
I don’t know what I would do without
Jesus in my life!” We can go a step farther by saying to friend:

Hey! We’ve got a wonderful church! Why
don’t you come with me next Sunday?” If Jesus is the Good News at
Christmas, he could save or bless a friend in 2011.

let’s look at the categories. Some here today fall into the
“nothing less” category.” You are called to do nothing less
than to tell others about Jesus, though it is much easier just to do
nothing. If that is you: the Prophet John’s example is a call to
action: one that begs you to share your faith with someone else. Some
of the most memorable times in Sunday School, Elder training, and
Disciple classes have been when class members shared their faith. I
can imagine the voice in some of your heads: “I can’t share my
faith with someone else! My faith isn’t that strong and I don’t
know the Bible that well!” But if you have that voice in your head
you are perfect for the job! Others are afraid they way you are
afraid, and it is in your faith sharing that you will connect.
Witnessing, according to D.T. Niles, “Is one beggar telling another
beggar where to find bread.” It is one miner donning a lighted hard
hat and putting one on the head of a friend and say: “Let’s
explore our faith together and see what we can learn at church
today!” People are happy to hear that you don’t have it all
together; but you can join them in their journey for truth and
meaning. Most Presbyterians have already witnessed to their faith in
one way: by following their Christian values and living Christian
lives. By doing that, many believe that we are following the John 1
example and the Matthew 28 Great Commission. But
aren’t! We aren’t quite if we don’t put our invitation in to
You may visit a shoe store having a
fabulous sale, and crowds may cause people to check out what’s
going on, but a phone call to a friend is a sure way to get the word
out! We have to open our mouths; just as when we’ve heard other
good news … or bad news … we start talking, or texting, or
We have news to tell, or text, or
call, not just act out!
And if your faith is
shaky, remember that even Peter denied knowing Jesus three times! But
it was not on just his actions; it was on his words that Jesus built
his church: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” He
is still building it, but it will only grow on testimonies just like

we have also witnessed people who need to be reminded to bear
witness, but nothing more. Those come from super-excited Christians
or charismatic, magnetic preachers on television or in mega churches
who begin to give in to the sin of pride and
begin to act like
they are
the light, not just a witness to the light. Our job description is to
bear witness, and no more.

As we
begin this new year, making resolutions is fresh on people’s minds.
Can you decide to tell another person about your faith and your
doubts; can you decide to invite another friend or new neighbor to
come with you to church, or to meet you at church? I am a
Presbyterian because as the new family on the block in St. Louis in
1967, our next door neighbors invited us to their church- thus the
Methodist Sumner family became Presbyterians on an invitation! How
can you change someone else’s life by inviting them to join you in
finding and following … thy light of the world?

A. Sumner
January 2, 2011 

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Jeremiah 15: 15-20; Luke 1: 47-66

Words that have comforted many people over the ages are found in the famous version of “Footprints in the Sand.” If you don’t know the story, it starts “One night a man had a dream.” Then it continues to say that the man dreams that he could look back over his life. As he did so, he saw two sets of footprints: one was his and one was the Lord’s. But, as he looked at the difficult times in his life, he noticed that at those times, only one set of footprints appeared in the sand. Wondering whether the Lord had abandoned him in his most difficult times of life, he asked his Lord about it. The Lord replied: “My precious, precious child, I love you and will always love you. I will never leave you. During the times when you could hardly go on with your life, it was then that I carried you. The one set of footprints in the sand were mine.”

There is a different “footprints in the sand” story that I’ve just recently read. It is written in the second person, saying in the beginning of your relationship with your Lord, two sets of footprints moved all around haphazardly; they zigzagged and went in several direction. You might think that was because you were a new Christian and were excited about your faith. But soon your footprints not only followed the Lord’s, they began to actually step where Jesus stepped. It seemed your feet followed his perfectly, and then his footprints and your footprints got all jumbled again. “What is this?” you asked the Lord. “I assumed my first jumbled steps were because I was a young and exuberant Christian but these second set of jumbled footprints are a puzzle. I love you Lord and keep seeking to follow you.” To which a tear came to the eyes of Jesus: “My precious child; at the beginning of the world, at the occasion of your birth, when you decided to follow me, and when you showed me that you could do it so well, the footprints didn’t indicate confusion. At the beginning of the world, I danced for joy. At your birth I rejoiced over you. And as you chose to follow me and did it so well, we both danced with joy! The jumbled footprints were when we danced!

I can think of people for whom joy is like a happy shirt that they wear: joy, which is generally defined as “great pleasure and happiness,” just pours out of their eyes and is evident from their expression nearly every day. In my life, joy seems to have a shorter life than for those always joyful people! Joy seems to come and go for me. I wonder how it is for you. It bothers me that always joyful people can irritate me. Why shouldn’t they—perhaps you—be joyful always? Joy has seemed fleeting to me: as I look back over my life I can clearly see times of joy, but I can just as clearly remember times of joylessness. What does that mean? Does it mean I fall away from God? Does it just mean that life’s daily opportunities are not always joy-producing? Or am I putting to many expectations on events to make me joyful? Do constantly joyful people have an easier life, or do they just handle life differently? I fear the latter. This year I have made some changes in the way I react to life’s events. I have chosen joy, the road less traveled by many. And this year, it has made all the difference. I’ve discovered that joy can be produced by an event, but that kind of joy is like the flame of a match that lights quickly then the light fades. A child gets a new toy and he or she may be intensely excited for a morning, a day or perhaps a week. But then the excitement dies down. A couple can find joy on their wedding day and night, but it is up to them if it continues. Perhaps you have felt as I did growing up: encouraging words from others could lift me to a joyful state, while cutting comments, however constructively offered, could make joy evaporate. Advent and Christmas have given me some exceedingly joyful memories, which, if I revisit them, still have a glow of joy: getting in the car to look at Christmas lights, hearing “Twas the Night Before Christmas” read to us; piling into the car on cold Christmas eves and attending the Candlelight service, and filling with excitement when Christmas morning finally arrived. Today let’s look at the idea of joy found in the Bible, and perhaps decide to help create joy, not just hope for it.

This week, as last, I have chosen unconventional Advent passages: the first one is Jeremiah 15: 15-20. Ironically I know that this is a lament in which the word “joy” is placed. It seems to me that even faith-filled Jews and Christians—for whom Jeremiah is a Scriptural prophet—seem to live with a mixture of joy and sorrow, of sickness and in health, of richness and poorness in their lives (to paraphrase the familiar matrimonial words.) Those words describe the times when the Lord has also agreed to walk with us—and even dance with us. It is his covenant with us. I imagine that the world of Jeremiah’s day, as in our day, had parents trying to feed their families, men grumbling over taxes, and women struggling with injustice. Sometimes, and on certain days, it seems that “Murphy’s Law” is very much in play: “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” Jeremiah, Hannah, and Elizabeth each asked the Lord to visit them. In the case of Jeremiah, he wanted a protector against persecutors. Today a boy or girl reading that might pray to God to save him or her from bullies or tormentors. In spite of who else you tell about your torment (and telling authorities is important in most cases to get results) pulling God into the conversations about safety, sadness, or satisfaction is vitally important. It is no good to cut God out of your anguish or out of your joy! Emotions are God-given in part to be shared. Looking back at Jeremiah, he then recalls the actions that God took at his call to ministry recorded in chapter one verse nine: How God put his words into Jeremiah’s mouth. God then said to Jeremiah “I am watching over my word to perform it.” In other words, God was proud of him that day, and he was expecting Jeremiah to do follow heavenly instructions. Can you possibly sense that God is proud of you, that Jesus danced at your birth, and that he is expecting you to share his love in the world this Christmas? One way Jeremiah found joy was by goes back in his memory to a most amazing day in his life. As he thought back, he said to God in prayer: “Your words became to me a joy, and the delight of my heart, because I was called by your name, O Lord.” (Verse 16) But with Jeremiah, the moment his memory burst, he was back into reality: he was not fulfilled; he was joyless, he snapped at others, and he felt trapped. There are people here today for whom that is true: the joy and humbleness of your early Christian life, or the excitement you once had in your job, or the initial honor of being accepted into a difficult academic program might have produced feelings of joy and honor in you at first; but now, now that time has passed, human apathy and rudeness, or a general feeling of malaise can make the bloom fall off of that rose fast. It is imperative that we, like Jeremiah, revisit our calls, our hiring, our acceptance, or our honor appointments. It is imperative that we visit the joyful memories often, and to picture our joyful Savior dancing with us! Our minds and wills are very powerful. The world needs more joy and my soul needs it as well. I have decided to live more joyfully, not sit around hoping for a new joyful moment or pining for a past one. God gave us minds that, when working properly, have functional memories. In fact, long term memory stays when short term memories blur. We, like Jeremiah, can visit joy in the past so that we know what it looks like tomorrow. But if we approach tomorrow with radiance from past joy, we can change our days. Are you pining for days of yore? Remember: the mind, by design, remembers past events through rose colored glasses. The hardship of childbirth, of Christmases filled with tension, or anguishing over money, or living through wars fade as a coat of nostalgic, sepia-toned memories make the Kodachrome images of the recent past and the High Definition images of today seem downright harsh. Pining for the sepia tones of the past is not only unproductive, it is like taking God’s container of heaven-sent joy and pouring it right down the drain. Yesterday is a fine place to visit, not stay. Today we can decide to let the Christ in us add joy in the present as well.

Now we turn to the second passage which includes the beloved words of Mary. Can you hear how she revisited the past only to rejoice in God’s coming triumph over injustice? In the staggering news she got in Nazareth that fateful day, her world was certainly turned over. She went, as the Bible says, “with haste into the hill country;” she got out of town while she and her family dealt with having an unwed mother. Betrothed, yes, but not yet together. But there was joy waiting from a wise relative, Elizabeth. She had waited all her life to become a mother; late in life her prayerful request was being fulfilled, and now her joy was magnified by sharing her maternity time with Mary! When she came near, the special child in Elizabeth’s womb “leaped for joy” when Mary spoke! Mary stepped into the footprints of her Lord when the angel spoke to her, and then her maturity of faith showed that God was blessing her with wisdom and understanding! God was preparing her to know the background of this special birth. As the forerunner of Jesus in birth and in life, John’s first days are less repeated but just as memorable, born to “prepare the way.” Both Elizabeth and Mary had unique roles. Here Elizabeth certainly had the pain of childbirth, but it was followed by the joy of seeing her new son. Life seems to be a tapestry, does it not, of the matrimonial vows? Joy and sorrow, sickness and health, plenty and want all seem to be woven together. The danger is when joy is absent. Conversely, when tragedy strikes, it is most authentic to express other emotions before joy: loss, sadness, even anger. But life is not meant to get stuck in tragedy.

Derek Maul was in attendance here when Jenny was ordained to ministry. He is a writer and his wife preached the sermon that day. In his book IN MY HEART I CARRY A STAR, he writes this corrective about joy.

Quite often we allow ourselves to focus on the negative….But something fundamentally joy-filled about Christmas reminds me of how God created a good earth. The world is not so much a dark and evil realm as it is a confused and misguided place. That thought—and it’s a thought that gains a lot of credibility at Christmas—gives me more than a little joy.” [Upper Room Books, 2008, p. 123.] “Tidings of comfort and joy” the carol declares. I visit those places in my mind and in reality: the places where carols are sung, food is offered, help is extended, love is shared, and hope abounds. Where those exist, it is not to be doubted, there is God. In Galatians, Paul reminds all Christians that the fruit of the Spirit, (the test of whether or not we are true or fraudulent in our faith) is present when all of the following are exhibited. Love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self control … oh, and joy! To truly exhibit the spirit of Christmas, make sure people can find all of those in you.

Jeffrey A. Sumner December 12, 2010  

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Psalm 34: 1-14; Matthew 10: 34-39

In the classic BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER there is a prayer that starts with this phrase: “Almighty God: kindle, we pray, in every heart the true love of peace.” Kindle in every heart. At this time when even Floridians have a fire or two in their fireplaces, I hearken back to my Scouting days when, to start a fire in the wilderness from scratch, we first collected little bits of dry grass or rope that we called tinder. Using flint and steel, the sometimes tedious task was started, hoping a spark would ignite the dry brush. The conditions had to be just right, including blowing on it: not too much or too little. Once it caught we could add kindling: very small pieces of wood that would help the spark grow into a self-sustaining fire. Is it possible that God needs to “kindle” in our hearts the true love of peace? In the midst of a world that sometimes thrives on conflicts, how do we build peace, or even create it, when there are tensions, needs, and hostilities?

Today I asked for two non-prescribed, non-Christmas texts to be read: in this season when the church preaches the peace of Christ, church leaders, choral leaders, business leaders, teachers, and parents are often filled with less peace than during other months of the year! How do we preach peace when we often do a poor job of living and experiencing it? So today I have not picked Christmas texts on peace. I hope to illustrate two Biblical texts on peace in a unique way. The first one was read from the lectern and it advocated pursuing peace because good things had happened in David’s life when he wrote Psalm 34. The Psalm is actually an alphabetical acrostic with each line starting with the next letter in the Hebrew alphabet. The second lesson was read from the pulpit and described that following Christ can be anything but a peaceful experience. God’s word, and Gods’ people- like a multi-faceted diamond- deal with peace in various ways. Sometimes we hear that the Messiah is “the Prince of Peace;” today we also heard David implore others to seek and pursue peace” (34:14.) How do we square that with the words of Jesus himself read from the pulpit: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth.” (Matthew 10:34). Today I suggest a more than perfunctory reading of Scripture will bring us closer to the meaning of peace—which is much more than the absence of conflict. Peace cannot effectively be described by what it isn’t; like a vacuum, simply removing shouting, loud noises, antagonistic, or pathological actions does not leave peace; it leaves a vacuum into which harmful actions can enter. Imagine a room filled with smoke. If smoke represents conflict, and a vacuum tube begins to pull the smoke from the room, if the room were perfectly sealed, the vacuum would finally strain to get the last drop of smoke out, creating a room without air. It would be a vacuum-sealed room. But peace is not just the absence of conflict; it is the carefully planned replacement of conflict. In the vacuum example, slowly letting air into the room would be like peace replacing conflict. Or peace can be thought of as a recipe for different living: in our Christmas mixing bowl put in a dash of real listening, a spoonful of justice, a cup of caring for others, and another cup of “What Would Jesus do?” as some ingredients for peace. To think that Jesus always brought peace, or that Christians always offer peace, is to ignore Biblical and historical facts. But to pursue and to work to make peace is the guidance that comes right from David in the Old Testament and Jesus in the New. How do we put the recipe of peace to work in this Advent season? How do you seek to do what God would want you to do in these situations?

Let’s try another image: If we could sharpen the Google Earth lenses enough, we could peer into the lives of people in our communities; we could see people not with their public persona, but with their personal issues. Gated, opulent communities like Islesworth in Orlando , or planned communities like Disney’s “Celebration,” or even the struggling strip of road called the Orange Blossom Trail all had people living out their lives last week. Angst is not income dependent; people have trouble in every income level. There were also people last week making trouble instead of peace. They were from all incomes and backgrounds. They were not bickering over Christ as in Jesus’ example. They were just bickering; fighting over relationships; fighting over who would spend what time at whose house, and fighting over who comes out on top in the divorce wars, the in-law wars, or the personal time off wars. Some may have even been arguing about whether they would have to go to church. Some last week, I’m sure, heard the call of Christ, while others just heard the call to the mall.

By contrast, last week surely some offered tidings of comfort and joy to others: negotiating plans, buying useful gifts, and taking time to be with others, or reading Scripture. Some might have bought their gifts this year at a Fair Trade Market: gifts that would help people in other countries. And some who have enough prepared gifts for those who don’t. That’s how putting peace into action changes the many moods of Christmas for the better.

As we move on with Google Earth to peer into a hospital room last week, there were people wrestling with life and death issues; “No heroics” one insisted; “we have to try everything!” the other tearfully replied. Down the hall a mother was telling her daughter that she’ll go into a nursing home over her dead body, so the loving but exhausted daughter was trying to figure out how she could possible care for her own mother plus her two children and husband and still keep up with her work. Another woman was agonizing over the delay of a necessary surgery for her sister. And in yet another room a father held down his rage against the boyfriend of his daughter who was drunk while driving and caused a serious accident. There was little peace in Any Hospital, USA, last week.

Moving through the community, the eye in the sky saw televisions tuned to escapist programming in some homes, and to news shows that made anxious or mad people even more anxious and mad in others.

Today the question is this: Is there a chance for peace to replace any of your conflict-filled situations in a new way? What would it take? How would it change your Christmas? There were times when Jesus made others angry or suspicious in the short term, in order to bring healing and hope in the long term. Even the unusual conditions of Jesus birth caused family and community concerns. What can you do differently to invite peace and rebuke conflict this year? Could you decide not to always insist on your own way? Could you feed hungry people? Could you give gifts to those who have none or share a meal with someone who would otherwise be alone? Perhaps you will reconnect with God in an inspiring service of worship, or in a dark room with a candle, or perhaps at the beginning of a new day when the sun is rising. Peace is elusive, but it is not impossible. It is ours to make, to share, or to offer.

May peace come into your life this season, not by chance, but by the intentional collaboration you can choose to create with others and with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

Jeffrey A. Sumner December 5, 2010

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2 Thessalonians 3: 5-13


For a short time on television, there was a show called “The Weakest Link,” where, on the public stage of humiliation, contestants were sent home because they did not measure up. The world does not do that in such a public way, but it happens all the time in our unorganized and organized lives. The most ineffective football players can keep a team from winning because of their lack of blocking, lack of clean receiving, lack of kicking ability, or lack of clean passing. In a Scout troop, the boy that slacks off at a campout by refusing to focus on the jobs at hand, such as pitching the tent, preparing the food, clearing the land, or remembering to bring all the parts of his uniform, can build resentment in the troop and cause morale to drop and grumbling to start. In the workplace, persons who make continued mistakes, or show up late, or who demonstrate continued lack of caring about the job, build the resentment of others and may soon be out of work. And all of those examples are with organized groups in the world. Perhaps the most vivid example of what happens when one person doesn’t pull his weight is with a rowing team; with strong men on each side, if one lets up, the team not only will not win, they may indeed go in circles! In unorganized situations, the person who arrives late and tries to break into the front of a long line may be met with shouts, pushes, or security. In traffic, the person who sees the sign “lane closed” a mile back but stays in the lane to try to nose his way into traffic with drivers who have complied with the signs and moved over early may create a highway of angry drivers.


As we have completed one of the costliest and ugliest campaign seasons in history, we see that the world teaches some horrible values: values like the corruption of the Golden Rule: “Do unto others before the do unto you.” Other sayings like “Hit first, ask questions later,” or “Take justice into your own hands, it is the only way to do it right,” and other revenge, top-of-the –heap, survival of the most cunning actions that make the world a jungle. A jungle! I know many men who love nature shows just to watch the work of the “kill before you are killed” natural world. And the underworld of dog fighting and other forms of gambling move human beings below the line of human civility. That’s what the world offers.


By contrast, congregations through the ages have made continuous attempts, failing at times, to provide the alternate universe of Christianity. From the second chapter of Acts on, we read in the Bible of the plan Jesus’ follower’s devised based on his teachings: Christians sharing their food with one another, sharing their prayers for one another, and even sharing their money with others. Christians are called to live life in the closest way possible to the way Jesus lived. The early convents and monasteries were even attempts to wall out the destructive and often godless ways of the world and live a pure and holy life. Such a model only partly works, because human beings are involved. Author Kathleen Norris, in her popular account of monastic life called THE CLOISTER WALK, said that one day she invited a monk friend over to her apartment for breakfast. “How do you like your eggs?” she asked. She found her friend looking dazed, but pleased that someone asked him. “To eat in a monastery refectory is an exercise in humility; daily, one is reminded to put communal necessity before individual preference. While consumer culture speaks only to preferences, treating even whims as needs to be granted (and the sooner the better), [monks] sense that this pandering to delusions of self-importance weakens the true self, and diminishes our ability to distinguish between desires and needs.” [Riverhead Books, 1996, pp. 14-15] I see the influence of culture in every corner of human life. “Me first!” “I’m worth it!” and other cotton candy belief systems begin to make the western world dangerously like the extravagance that finally brought the self-serving Roman Empire to its knees. All the while, the Son of God taught servanthood, others first, and listening to God. He still teaches that. Humans who want to evolve into Godly humans have to work on their focus of transcendent living: that is, living on earth closer to the way we expect to live in heaven; doing more of what Jesus what do and less of what Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra would do.


 For real Christian living, the benefits are great, but the degree of difficulty can be challenging. Let us be honest here and say that sometimes the Church gets a magnifying glass turned on her when sins of the flesh, or of power, or of means, are committed. Those crimes make the judging wrath of God, and of other human beings, burn bright. But where can we start to create a place of light, a training ground for good living, hard work, fair play, and honoring others if not in the church? Church members should lead the way in changing the world with these values. But sometimes church members carry their share of responsibility with less than stellar results. This was the problem that Paul addressed with his second letter to the Thessalonian Christians. Some were carrying their weight of the congregation’s work, some weren’t; some were pitching in their share of money to carry out ministry and to pay bills, some weren’t. Some were exhibiting a good example of Christian living, some weren’t. Even in the letter, perhaps the second oldest in the Bible after First Thessalonians, human nature had crept in. Remember verse six: “Keep away from believers who are living in idleness.” Children and youth especially can be influenced by people who do very little of the work and still get the benefits. So they start to act the same way. But it is the wise person and the mature Christian who realizes if one person doesn’t do the work, someone else has to double up on their work load; if one person doesn’t contribute for the general work and expenses of ministry, the burden may fall on someone else. Those were the lessons Paul was teaching. Certainly other parts of the Bible have Paul giving permission for Christian believers to admonish and correct others who were off track. But in this fledgling congregation, the call was to pull together in work, in means, in prayer, and in worship; to truly make the church the bride of Christ. Paul exhorted the others “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, to do their work quietly and earn their own living.” And to those who did not respond, Paul had an answer: “Have nothing to do with them but just do not treat them as enemies.” This dynamic could apply to other organizations as well. Guidelines are needed for families, condo associations, civic groups, and businesses just as in congregations. The truth is, work is either done by people pitching in to do it and to pay the bills, or businesses, clubs, and even families will grow corrupt, grow complacent, or grow in their arguments. Paul’s work ethic wisdom for the church was to show them a more excellent way to live: to teach others by example. In verse seven he says: “You know how you ought to do things: the way we showed you to do them We were not just sitting around or goofing off while we were with you, were we? We didn’t take advantage of your hospitality; we earned our keep in terms of food and lodging so that we would not burden any of you.”


Paul was always about showing Christians “a more excellent way” to live instead of succumbing to the world’s self-centered philosophies. Paul’s lesson spans the ages to our day. What household doesn’t exhibit more harmony when everyone pitches in with chores and watching costs? And what household breaks down when one or more family members simply don’t do their fair share? It happens also, as I mentioned, in the workplace, in clubs, in associations, and, or course, in churches. It happened in the first century, it can happen in the twenty-first century.  But hear this: I know of no better hope for the world than the shining example that the one solitary life had on the world, when the man from Galilee spent three years showing his corner of the world how to live. It might have ended there, but in spite of secular wisdom of ages past, of national leaders, and all the prophets of other religions, this one solitary life has the power of God to change the world more than any other. Is there any group anywhere who should know Christ, exhibit Christ, and live like Christ any better than the Church, the group that Jesus himself called his bride? He bought our salvation at such a price. Part of a relationship is about receiving thoughtful support from the one you love; but part is also about giving support to the one you love as well. Jesus Christ has given us his all; in return, instead of slacking, or letting other people do the work or carry the load, we can show our love for him by letting our Christian community continue to be a force strong enough to change the world, rather than conform to the broken and destructive ways the world peddles. If I am going to pour my time, my money, and  my prayers into something that can influence my precious family, influence society, and teach people a better way to live than “Me first!” it is through my church. Paul invites you to do your part in Christian community as well.


Jeffrey A. Sumner November 14, 2010

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