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THORNY PRAYER ISSUES


Luke 11: 1-13


 


Two Fridays ago, my class of doctoral students joinedProfessor Taylor in visiting a Masjid in Atlanta. Often called a Mosque inEnglish, it is the place where, five times a day, Muslims and interested otherpeople gather to offer prayers to Allah, their Arabic name for God. Why do Itell you about this? For just this reason: men, women: what are you usuallydoing on Friday at 1:00 p.m.? Are you taking a lunch hour as I usually am? Areyou at work and can’t leave, or at home watching TV or starting a nap? InAtlanta, we observed what many Muslims were doing: they came for an hour ofprayer. This was just one of five prescribed prayer times daily. As theyarrived, they respectfully took off their shoes and placed them in wooden nooksin the walls of their vestibule; the only other time I had seen so many shoesin such nooks was at a bowling alley! But the wood was beautiful there, and theshoes carefully placed. There was no chit chat, just purposeful movement. Menand women went into separate locations, in part because arms and feet actuallytouch your brothers or sisters in faith.We witnessed men, blue collar, white collar, and boys, going into aspecial purification room where they washed their legs and feet, arms and hands,and face. They then went in to a huge carpeted room where we observed themstanding and kneeling together with other men of the faith. They actuallyprostrate themselves with their face to the ground, their head touching thefeet of the man in front of them, and their feet touching the head of the manin back of them; their elbows touched the man’s elbows on either side of them.How many were there on a Friday at 1:00 p.m.? We counted 700, besides women andgirls in another room! Men prayed together, physically and fervently; women prayedtogether as well. We were moved by the reverence of their prayers.


 


Just three weeks ago I learned about prayer from aRabbi. Rabbi Amy Mayer of Temple Israel just up the street reminded me of twothings that Jews do and don’t do: First she said almost no one asks a rabbi topray for them! She says Jews believe they should bring their own prayers toGod, so synagogue services become a cacophony of a hundred people praying toGod at their own speed and for their own purposes. The second thing I learnedwas that Jews never cut God out of their spiritual life even when a prayerseems to go unanswered. I know some individuals and even some professors whocut God out of their lives when they prayed and believed God did not hear orrespond to them. “A Jew would never cut out God,” said Rabbi Amy. “We go backto God, crying out, getting angry, pleading, and asking, until we find theanswer God wants us to find. And most often, it is not the answer we arelooking for!” From Muslims I watched the power of reverent, corporate prayer.From Jews I learned to never stop knocking on God’s door! Now from Christians,we learn some things as well. Let’s listen to what Jesus tells his closestfollowers about prayer, paying special attention today to the eleventh chapterof the Gospel according to Luke.


 


First, Jesus sets the example of constant prayer. He prayed each morning, he prayed during hisjourneys, he prayed in the garden, and he prayed on the cross. Jesus prayedconstantly, sometimes with petitions, sometimes just talking with his Father,sometimes to give thanks and sometimes just to listen! Such reasons for prayershould be ours as well. Prayer is to give glory to God, as well as praise;prayer is to acknowledge God and to keep us from falling into a philosophy oflife that even some founding fathers had. Thomas Jefferson, it has been noted,was something of a Deist: that is, one who believes that God set the universein motion and created the laws of physics, now does not interfere with orchange any of it. Some Americans believe that, especially when they don’t thinktheir prayer has been answered. But as I showed the children, we’ll need to getbeyond the idea that prayer is like a gumball machine: put in your money andget out the result you want. People do that, of course, because of a line Jesusonce said and it is in our text today too: “Ask and it will be given to you;seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” This week inthe news an Agricultural Department employee who was accused of racism a weekago has received calls of apology because the quote on which the charge wasbased was taken out of context. Christians have a bad habit of taking one lineout of the Bible and making it the galvanized truth. But when you do that witha verse like: “Ask and it will be given unto you,” it turns God into awonderful gumball machine, or an overindulgent grandfather who gives youwhatever you ask, or a spineless parent who creates a child who has no means tomature because she was never told “no” as a teenager. God is not any of thosethings. Prayer with God is about relationship; about listening, not just aboutasking. Remember that strange part of our text in verses eleven throughthirteen; that part about scorpions and snakes and fish and eggs? InterpreterRaymond Bailey explains: “Luke draws on familiar images to make his point onparental care [concerning God.] There was an eel-like type of unclean fish inthe Sea of Galilee. A loving parent would not give to a child anything thatwould be harmful, even if it fit the category of the request. A baby cries forfood, but some food is harmful. A scorpion may draw itself into a ball andassume the appearance of an egg. The eel or scorpion might appeal to the child,but the parent would exercise caution on [their] behalf. A parent must be wiseenough not to be fooled, and our heavenly parent is wisdom itself.” So Jesusprayed constantly, but not about getting what he wanted; he prayed ultimatelyto know and do his Father’s will. Prayer is intended to be more aboutrelationship more than petition.


 


Second, we are in this world together. When Jesus gave the example that we now call the“Lord’s Prayer,” there was no first person singular pronoun in the wholeprayer. While we are most accustomed to asking God to grant one of ourrequests, the Lord’s Prayer is plural throughout: like with Muslims, it’s areminder to pray corporately, with one another, perhaps even touching shouldersor holding hands once in awhile. It invites us to find times to pray in thesame room now and then, but when we’re away, we remember how many others are inprayer with God at the same time.


 


Third, be persistent in prayer.  InBiblical times families would usually bed down on the family floor, perhapsnear a fire, for homes were usually just one room. Usually the father laid downnext to the door, and almost like the men I saw praying two weeks ago, or like arctictravelers with huskies, the father would have his children nuzzle close to himfor safety, and most often the mother was at the other end of the line; thechildren were in the middle. With a knock on the door, not only would thefather have to move, the children would have to be awakened to move as well, sothe first response to a request for bread at midnight is no. But if the neighborwas persistent, the man might give in a) to be hospitable, or b) to get thepersistent man to go away so the father could go back to sleep! Persistence inprayer makes a difference with God.


 


Fourth, read one verse in light of other verses. If you stop with “Ask and it shall be given untoyou,” people miss the shading that the next line adds: “seek and ye shall find”implies persistence; and the next part “knock and the door will be opened” alsosays that your request is not fulfilled right away, nor is it always fulfilledgladly, but there is a response because of the relationship the neighbor hadalready built with his neighbor. If a stranger pounds on a man’s door atmidnight it will first be assumed he is a thief.


 


So the fifth and final thing Jesus teaches us aboutprayer is this:  “Do not be a strangerat the door of your Father.” Godwants to hear from you; God wants to know you, not just as you were created,but as you have become; God want to hear your preferences, your choices andyour beliefs. Certainly Christians believe in prayer; but do we practice prayer to make it a sacred conversation, inviting God into our spaceand for a few focused moments, making it holy?  Instead of just throw away words, I witnessed others whobelieve in God make a time, place, and a posture for prayer. Today I havelistened to Jesus words and heard that he often sets himself apart for prayerwith his Heavenly Father. Today our text commends to us regular and perseveringprayer. Let prayer be constant, corporate, persistent, Scriptural, andfamiliar. Today let us reclaim holytime- once, twice, five times a day, or even more: when we can we praise,wrestle with, talk with, or even question God, who will be as involved in ourlives as we wish. Like Jesus in our facet glass window, God is knocking on thedoor of our hearts today.


Jeffrey A. SumnerJuly 24, 2010 


 

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“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

 

This is probably the best known
parable in the Bible. The story of the Good Samaritan. Seeing it listed in the
lectionary for today gave me pause. After all, people have told this story
before. They have talked about the Priest, the Levite and the Samaritan until
they’ve become almost a bad joke. People have argued that this parable has the
same formula as that of a morality play.

And yet, this parable isn’t your typical morality
story, is it? I mean, if this parable really was just another morality tale, I
think the Samaritan would be the guy in the ditch. Then we’d have a classic
“love your enemies” story. You know the rules: help those in need and
get bonus points because it’s a Samaritan. But that’s not the way Jesus tells it.
In Jesus’ version, the Samaritan is the one who notices – who actually sees
– this beaten man and by seeing him is moved to pity. The
Samaritan, that is, is the one who recognizes that when it comes to the
question of who is our neighbor, there are no rules. Our neighbor, it turns
out, is
anyone in need. Where
does such vision come from? It apparently
doesn’t come from one’s ethnicity, one’s religion, one’s
training, or one’s station in life. How else can we explain that a
Samaritan saw this when the priest and Levite
did not? Having the eyes of faith to see all people are children of God and
anyone in need is your neighbor must be a gift of God, it must be a matter of
faith, it must start with seeing, and only then move to doing.

That I think is worth talking about. And to talk
about the Good Samaritan, we must start with the lawyer who brings this parable
about. He asks what was foremost on his mind “What must I do to get to heaven?”
Its a question many of us have asked at one time or another. Jesus turns the
question back upon the lawyer, as he tends to do, and asks what the Law says.
The lawyer gives the textbook answer “You shall love the Lord your God and your
neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus says “See? You know the answer. So do it”

But then the lawyer gets crafty. “Yes, but who is my
neighbor?”

My neighbor.

Now, for the lawyer who tests Jesus, this identity draws lines around people
and protects us from one another, but it also puts some reasonable limits on
the possibly unreasonable demands of the Jewish Law he cares so much about
obeying. Give me some parameters, he says to Jesus, I mean, who would it be
okay not to
love? After all, I’m only human…just give me a list of which people I have
to take care of and who’s on the outside of that line I need
to draw around my community of care. Yes, yes, of course I know that I need to
love God – that’s a no-brainer – remember, I knew the answer to your question
when you asked me what’s in the Law (I am a lawyer, after all), but give me a
break, okay? Who all do I need to love just as much as I love myself? Who is
this neighbor whose needs and welfare need to be as important to me as my own?
The question itself implies, of course, that there are people who are not my
neighbor, people whom it’s okay not to love.

Now, we can’t expect this question to have a simple answer.  Do you think
the Jesus we know from the Gospels and from the past two thousand years of a
church struggling to be faithful and from our own personal and communal
relationship with him, is going to say, “Well, if you can manage to love
your family and friends and maybe throw a coin at a beggar every once in
awhile, that’s pretty good. Just be sure to worship regularly at the temple,
obey all the religious laws, and pay your pledge every year. Then you’re all
set – or as you put it, you’ll inherit eternal life, and you’ll go to heaven
when you die, because, after all, you will have earned it.”

No. Instead Jesus tells this oh so famous parable,
which never answers the lawyer’s question. Instead, following the parable,
Jesus asks a new question: “Which of these three, do you think, was a
neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” Jesus’
question is challenging, but it is not even in line with the question asked by
the lawyer. The question is no longer who my neighbor is, but who acted as a
neighbor to another in need. Neighbor is no longer about classification, but
about specific action.

According to N.T. Wright, “He wants to know who counts as ‘neighbor.’ For
him, God is the God of Israel, and neighbors are Jewish neighbors. For Jesus
(and for Luke, who highlights this theme), Israel’s God is the God of grace for
the whole world and a neighbor is anybody in need”  Jesus shifts the
focus in his parable from the intent of the lawyer’s question: the issue is no
longer love of God and love of neighbor, but exclusively the issue of love of
neighbor.

Don’t worry about who your neighbor may be. Worry
instead about whether you are acting as a neighbor; especially when the
likelihood, the strain, even the scandal of being one pushes us far beyond what
seems desirable or imaginable. This, Jesus says, will be the benchmark of
whether we love God and love our neighbor. Fail this? Walk by? Then disdain our
enemy who loves when we don’t? And we expose just how little interest we have
in following Jesus, and in doing what Jesus both does and commands. By
extension, we also make clear what little interest we have in the reality of
eternal life: Gods’ love-suffused Kingdom.

We all know the old joke: A minister had just been preaching about the need for
world peace and humanitarianism. After the service, one member remarked to
another on the lawn outside, “I love mankind. I’ve got a real heart for
humanity.” Then she added: “It’s just PEOPLE I can’t stand!” We
laugh, but I think we can all relate to this on some level. Yet Jesus’ vision
sees us as we are and as we are not. Love the world, but fail to love as the
neighbor we are meant to be on any given day – not least towards the
marginalized, the inconvenient, the unacceptable – and we fail in what matters
most.

“But,” the more educated among us might protest “The
Priest and the Levite
couldn’t touch
the man they thought was dead. It was against their laws.” Which is true. They
had legitimate reasons for acting as they did. Any contact with blood or a dead
body would have rendered them unclean according to their purity laws. No one
who was “unclean” could enter the holy places of the temple. So, walking over
and touching this dying or dead man, even just to see if he was alive, was out
of the question. It would have disqualified them from their religious duties.

Believe it or not, we’re not so different from them. Several years ago a group
of researchers conducted an experiment in which seminary students were each
told that they had been selected to help record a talk about the Good
Samaritan.  The problem was that the recording was to be done in a
building all the way across campus, and because of a tight schedule they would
have to hurry to get there.  On the path to the other building the
researchers had planted an actor playing a sick homeless man slumped in an
alley, coughing and suffering.  The excited students each hurried across
campus for their important assignment, and as it turned out, almost none of
them turned out to actually be Good Samaritans.  Almost all of them
hurried past the suffering man.  One student even stepped over the man’s
body as he rushed across campus to teach about the parable of the Good
Samaritan!

The seminary students, of course, were not bad
people.  They were just human.  Like the priest and the Levite, they
simply had other priorities that kept them from acting with compassion.
Knowing the right thing to do and actually doing the right thing are two
completely different things.  For instance we all value compassion. Yet
how many of us act on that value when we are busy, or distracted, or have other
things to worry about?

That’s what sets the Good Samaritan apart. He had plenty of reasons to do as
the priest and Levite did, passing by on the other side of the road. This
happened in a dangerous area. The dying man could have been a trap used to lure
him into an ambush by thieves. Any number of things could have gotten in the
way of his compassion yet he stopped. He did the unthinkable. He stopped,
putting himself at risk. He touched the man and bandaged his wounds, rendering
himself unclean. He put the beaten man on his own horse, slowing his journey on
the treacherous road. The Samaritan took him to an inn and cared for him,
devoting more of his precious travel time. He paid the innkeeper to take care
of him indefinitely, likely costing him a fortune. Remarkably, none of these
things got in the way of his compassion.

Rebecca J. Kruger Guadino adds another layer to this story: “If, indeed,
the priest and the Levite fear contamination, they do so because of laws that
have as their intent the protection of Israel’s holiness before a holy God. But
at what point does the quest for holiness violate God’s commands to love? Certainly
all of us in our own communities have regulations intended to safeguard our
community. At what point does our allegiance to these laws jeopardize the laws
the lives and well-being of our fallen neighbors? Or is it possible that loving
God and loving neighbor are at some point incompatible? If the purity laws lie
in the background of this story, then Jesus questions laws that purport to
honor God while dishonoring God’s creation.”

What is most important to God? When asked this
question, the lawyer didn’t respond with the laws of ritual cleanliness. He
answered “To love the Lord your God with all your heart and to love your
neighbor as yourself.” That takes precedence over everything else, even the
other laws. We follow the law, but this parable is a clear case where you can’t
follow the Law and this commandment. This commandment is what matters.

Mr. Rogers who taught many of us growing up, talked about neighbors a lot. He
taught children how to be neighbors to each other, how to care and how to listen.
Mr. Rogers once said: “The more I think about it, the more I wonder if God and
neighbor are somehow One. ‘Loving God, Loving neighbor’-the same thing? For me,
coming to recognize that God loves every neighbor is the ultimate
appreciation!” That is what matters beyond the laws: loving God and neighbor.

I want to take a moment here to look at the victim on the road. Does he seem
familiar to you? He does to me. We know that the beaten man comes from a very
high place, Jerusalem, to a very low place, the bottom of the road from the
hill. He’s risking suffering and death to get there,going alone on a very
dangerous road, and he’s eventually stripped, beaten, and left dying. His
suffering is even ignored by the religious leaders of the day. I don’t know about
you, but I see Christ in him.

If you think about it, he is the Christ-figure of the story. For ages
Christians have seen Christ in the compassionate self-sacrifice of the Good
Samaritan, but shouldn’t we see Christ in the one suffering as well? Jesus did
teach that whatsoever we do to the least of these, we do to Jesus himself. Are
we not called to recognize the face of Christ in the poor, the needy, the
outcast, and the lowly? We may not be able to force ourselves to act with
compassion, but we can at the very least open ourselves up to the possibility
that Christ is in every lowly, needy, or suffering person we meet. We can seek
to put ourselves in contact with more and more people who are living in need.
We can be friends to those in low places. This has been the calling of the
Church from the very beginning.

We are called to love our neighbors. To be neighbors
in a world that turns away. In a world full of excuses about why we can’t help,
we are called to care. We are called to see the neighbors suffering and to do
something about it. This is not an easy task, at all, but one we must work
towards. It is to that height that Christ calls us. So in the words of Mr.
Rogers: “In all that you do in your life, I wish you the strength and the grace
to make those choices which will allow you and your neighbor to become the best
of whoever you are.”

 

Rev. Cara Gee

July 11th, 2010

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CHRISTIAN KARMA: REAPING WHAT YOU SOW


Galatians 6: 1-10


 


The Urban Dictionary has some rich things to say aboutGalatians 6: 7-9. It includes these six definitions of the basic tenet “Youreap what you sow,” describing “The basic nature of God’s justice.” The firstdefinition: “Everything that you do has repercussions. It comes back to you oneway or another.” The second definition: “You cannot escape the consequences ofyour actions. What you do comes back to you.” Third: “You will see thelong-term effects of your actions.” Fourth: “KARMA- meaning the total effect ofa person’s actions and conduct help determine a person’s destiny.” I’ll comeback to that definition. The fifth one simply says: “What goes around, comesaround.” And the sixth definition: “Your actions all have consequences; Godwill not be mocked. God sees all. You do indeed reap what you sow.”


 


Let’s think about that phrase for a few minutes. If wethink about that phrase as a law of the universe, then you might be thinkingright now about exceptions that you have witnessed or experienced; you know-like taking retribution into your own hands because you didn’t think properpunishment had been doled out. It is justice out of control when a parent killsthe killer of their daughter, when a woman takes another woman’s infant becauseshe has failed to conceive one of her own, or a man takes another man’s eyebecause he was blinded by the first man’s malicious action. As the Hindu leaderGandhi once said, “An eye for an eye justice makes the whole world blind.” Isaid I would come back to the idea of Karma, which is a Hindu term. Today weremember that it is also a Biblical concept. Professor John A Hutchison wrotethese words regarding Hinduism in his classic textbook, PATHS OF FAITH. “One ofthe themes delineated in the Upanishads which overlaps both cosmology andethics and has very great importance for the future of Indian thought and lifeis karma-samsara. Karma is the lawof the deed; it occurs in many religious traditions as the perception thatmoral deeds carry their consequences ‘as you sow, so will you reap.’ (1995,p.82)


 


Those of you who have listened to the words of Jesusor the Apostle Paul before realize this so-called “law” is an agriculturalanalogy. It is generally a farmer who goes out to a field to sow; that is, tobroadcast seeds where he wants them to grow. In our day this is done withmechanical spreaders most often, but in Jesus’ day, a farmer would sow seeds byreaching into a bag and flinging them across soil that had been tilled, thatis, dug and loosened, so that the seeds would hopefully take root and grow.Jesus used that illustration in his parable of the sower, an evangelism messagethat says even if we tell the gospel to 100 people, and do it equally well toeach one, we cannot count on a 100% response. According to nature, or to God’s plan,or to detrimental conditions, some seeds grow, and some seeds just don’t. Theother way seeds are planted is one at a time, and even then, not every onegrows well. I remember that fact from my experience planting flower andvegetable seeds as a boy, and watching how slowly they seemed to grow, and howsome of the seeds never grew at all! Therefore, the phrase, “as you sow, soshall you reap” is based on an agricultural experience of probability, but not total predictability.  Theworld has examples of peoples and nations doing heinous actions in times of warand yet some countries and organizations have carried out their actions withoutlater equitable consequences. The world also has examples of nations helpingother nations, out of grace or generosity, only to find that when the firstnation began to be in need, the second nation does not reciprocate withkindness. We know of those examples. But those are more the exception than therule. In some neighborhoods, people seem to “help God out” in this regard byshunning those who do unkind or malicious things to others, trying to fulfilltheir “what goes around, comes around” sense of justice. There are other formsof retribution that are also implemented by some, such as boycott, warnings,and aggressive actions. But the agricultural basis of the statement: “Whatpeople sow, that shall they also reap,” has room for failure; failure to grow;too much or too little water, too much or too little sunlight, and birds oranimals eating what grows. What do we do when the world seems to be not fair,not equitable, or not just? Paul did the Christian thing: Paul put such justiceissues at the feet of God. It is Paul who reminds those who are tempted totest this principle that God is not mocked; it is Paul who implies that Godsees all, both good and bad, and that God keeps account of our actions. And onthat day when God sees whether we have sowed seeds of kindness or not; when Godsees whether we have been waiting for the master with our lives in order whenGod brings in the sheaves, God takes account of the harvest. The good seeds areused, and the useless seeds and weeds are burned. It is a judgment picture. Andit is worth our noting today.


 


So we have come full circle; we noted that inagriculture not everything grows equally that is planted; we noted that not allgood deeds done are rewarded by others in the world, anymore than all bad deedsare punished by others in the world. It is our hope, but human justice isflawed. That leaves divine justice; Christian doctrine puts all the deeds a manor woman does on the judgment seat of God. And although we are saved throughgrace and by faith in Christ as Lord, our responses to our salvation are surelymeasured as well. So we are charged with working the fields of God’s greenearth; and caring for the sky and the oceans and rivers of the world evenamidst an oil disaster. And we are charged with sowing the seeds of the Gospelof Jesus to all the world, knowing that not all our good work will havepredictable consequences, but it is what God calls us to do. Conversely, alllack of work or malicious actions are seen by the all-knowing, all-seeing eyesof God. And in the hands of God,we have every belief that what wesow whatever it is, we will reap.For those seeking to do harm,that is a warning from Scripture. For those seeking to do good, it is thereassurance that God this day, and all your days, rejoices over you! Offer untoothers what you would want others to offer unto you- it’s another rule of life… that is golden.


 


Jeffrey SumnerJuly 4, 2010    

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HEALTHY EATING: THE FRUIT OF THE SPIRIT

Galatians 5: 13-23

 

In a sport like baseball, players are said to have“the whole package” if they can hit, catch, run and throw. In golf, players whocan manage their woods, irons, putter, and sand wedge are usually good at thegame. College application boards looking at high school students who haveapplied for admission to their school usually look for high grades, the qualityof extra-curricular activities, and even how the students express themselvesanswering prepared questions. Those are all people said to have “the wholepackage.” What is “the whole package” of the Christian faith? Does it includefollowing Jesus as Lord? Yes, but there’s more. Does it include Christianactions, not just Christian beliefs? Yes, but there is still more. And does itis include gathering with other Christians for worship, study, and prayertimes? Yes. But like the Ten Commandments, it really does us no good just tokeep some of them.  With theCommandments, many remember “Thou shalt not kill” but may ignore “Remember theSabbath, to keep it holy.” And most know “Thou Shalt Not Steal” but “Thou shaltnot covet” is to deeply desire what someone else has, and plenty of people dothat. E-Bay is in business because people all over the world will pay goodmoney for something someone else has. So what is the complete package forChristians beyond considering the Ten Commandments? Some people point to Jesus’interpretation of the commandments: you shall love the Lord your God with all yourheart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. But Jesusdidn’t create those; he knew them from Scripture, and our Jewish friends followthe same teachings and had them first! Where else might we turn?

 

One of the best sources of Christian characteristicsis from the Apostle Paul, who we featured in Vacation Bible School a year ago.Paul, in Colossians 3, gave characteristics of a Christian, ones that I offeredin a sermon a month and a half ago. But this week during our wonderful journeyto visit Joseph, the son of Jacob, in Egypt, I saw one of the best lists ofChristian characteristics being lived out by those who attended. This week Isaw the whole package from children, youth, and adults. Certainly as humans weare not perfect, but our week came exceptionally close to that higheststandard.  The list I saw lived outthis week comes from Paul’s letter to the Galatian Christians. We have offereda series of sermons all month from that book and today we continue it; ourstudy will conclude next week. For today, I am pointing to the wonderfulpassage in Galatians 5: 22-23: The fruit of the Spirit. The proof that you andI are what we say we are, is if the fruit grown from the trees of our lives isfound to be Christian. Do you know people who say they are Christian whoinstead show strife, anger, jealousy, and selfishness? Sadly, Christians thatshow those works of the flesh do more harm than good to the one they callSavior: People start scoffing at Christians, calling them hypocrites or simplyturning from listening to their guidance. But even when we fail, let’s make apact together to strive to show the world, and our families, and our friends,the whole package: The Fruit of the Spirit. Here it is once again: love, joy,peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, andself-control. Notice that Paul calls the early list that had such uglyqualities “the works of the flesh.” This week we talked about the fruits andvegetables we most liked, and I learned that we had some very healthy eaters!In the “words to prepare for worship” I included the word “fruits” of theSpirit because that’s the way we grammatically think about them; as if they areplural. But Paul is describing qualities of Christians who have “the wholepackage.” It is no mistake that he calls fruit singular in Galatians 5. Wedo not have the luxury of picking the qualities easiest for us to show andignoring the qualities that are hardest for us to keep. We cannot love but be continuously impatient; we cannotspread peace effectively while failing to exhibit gentleness where appropriate;we cannot show real kindness when it get run-over by an out-of-control temper.This is the total package. As much as you might think you are loving, if yourfamily is on pins and needles because of your temper, you have work to do; asmuch as you think you are a good person, if you accomplish it with a stern andhumorless manner, then any hope for joy gets squeezed dry. You get the picture:when it comes to the fruit of the Spirit, we cannot “cherry-pick,” (an image Iintended to create!) We are called to take the whole bunch of qualities, likegrapes or bananas, not just one quality and call it good.

 

What Paul described, and what Jesus lived is not easy,nor should it be listed in the “impossible” column. We can change! A wise father was trying to teach his middleschool aged son some of the lessons he had learned. “Every time you saysomething harsh, hateful, or with bad words to another person, go out to theback fence with this hammer and one of these nail, and drive a nail halfwayinto the wood.  If you ever decideto apologize for your actions, go out there again and pull the nail out, butnotice that a scar is left in the wood everywhere the nail was. An apology doesnot remove the scar.” Learning self-control can keep the nail of our actions,from being driven into another person’s feelings in the first place. We can dothat; I have been working on it for years; and I’ve seen people this week whodo it well. Still there are others who need to do it better. I’ll keep trying;how about you?

Let us pray:

 

Dear God: what a great list you gave us through theApostle Paul! What examples of hope, ability, wisdom, forgiveness, and familyyou gave to Joseph and our Bible School families this week! Thank you for notgiving up on us, but encouraging, guiding, and correcting us instead. Ourprayers are for parents and grandparents dealing with difficult schedules and aworld with different values. Bless our efforts, we pray, and remind us that weare never too old for loving, playing, and learning. Come by here, Lord, righthere, right now, and abide with us forever. Through the power of your HolySpirit we pray. Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                    June27, 2010

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MAKING THE CASE FOR CHRIST

Galatians 3:23-29

 

Today I want to talk to the dads out there, but alsothe moms; to all who form the faith of children and youth. I want to give yousome bedrock answers with which you might converse, or text, or write to those underyour care. Children are powerfully influenced by their peers, and often theirpeers are not only uniformed, they are misinformed about matters of faith.Today I want you to be sure of some of the facts of the faith that have notjust been believed, but also proven as if in a court of law.  Let’s begin: there are few other bookswith as convincing an argument for unbelievers to believe, and as reassuring tobelievers that they’ve got it right, as Lee Strobel’s book written twelve yearsago called THE CASE FOR CHRIST. Strobel got his Law Degree from Yale and alsowas a published journalist with the Chicago Tribune for thirteen years at thetime he wrote this book. Could there be any better person to investigate thetruth about Jesus of Nazareth, the claims that he is Son of God, and the claimSimon Peter bestowed on him that he is the Christ of God? I submit that there isno better equipped person than one who knows how to build a case and gatherwitnesses like a lawyer, one who has an inquisitive mind and a relentlessdesire to get to the bottom of a story like a newspaper reporter, and a man whoproclaimed himself to be an atheist when he began his investigation! Hisfindings moved him from unbelief to belief, and moved him, like the ApostlePaul, from being a scoffer, and in some ways a persecutor of the faith, tobeing trained as a teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church. He joins ahost of people throughout the ages who, like the Apostle John, had one mainpurpose in writing: as John put it in his gospel:  (20:31) “These words are written so that you may come tobelieve that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through believingyou may have life in his name.”

 

Ages before Strobel, the world was indebted to thegreat Albert Schweitzer, who among his other contributions to society, wroteTHE QUEST FOR THE HISTORIAL JESUS. Did you know, by the way, the Schweitzer wasa Doctor of Medicine, a Doctor of Philosophy, and a Doctor of Theology? With those great credentials,Schweitzer examines all the theories and ideas about Jesus brought out over theearlier decades, giving a critical eye to each stance. He concludes that the historicalJesus brings less to bear on the answers to the world’s problems, while thespiritual Jesus—the one hailed by disciples who follow him and his teachings—isthe one that changes lives and has changed the world. We find in the writingsof the British scholar Arthur Patterson Lee these words: “That Jesus was nailedto a cross is not only central to the Christian faith; it is a historical factverified from secular sources.” Other such conclusions have been drawn bydozens of scholars, some believers, some non believers (as Strobel wasinitially.) We might go back to the Apostle Paul and look at a snippet of theconvincing stand he took in his letter to the Galatians. This letter, like hisothers, addressed particular people and issues and from it we get somefoundations of the Christians faith.Today his words expose the result of the learning curve he gained since meetingChrist in his Damascus vision: Paul has gone from believing that he was savedby knowing Torah, to now believing that he is saved by his faith in Jesus asChrist, the Messiah. “The Law (Torah) was our disciplinarian until Christ came,”he wrote” so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come,we are all children of God through faith.” Paul was just one who wanted toconvince people that Jesus was the Christ. But few have been as thorough andmethodical and tenacious as Lee Strobel. Over the centuries we have learnedreassuring things. For example, the Dead Sea Scrolls of Qumran discovered from1947 – 1956, have shown the extraordinary accuracy of scribes who copiedancient Biblical texts over the years. In addition, we are quite sure that eachof the writers of the four gospels had either personal contact with Jesushimself, or is one who wrote down the material from those who had personalcontact. Matthew and John had personal contact with Jesus himself; Mark isalmost certainly John Mark who wrote down the words that Peter gave to him, andLuke is almost certainly the physician who traveled with Paul who spoke withJesus directly. And each was committed to getting it right for their audience. Inaddition, the Christian teachings we have from Paul’s letters enhance thegospel record immeasurably. It was through Paul’s understanding of who JesusChrist was and what he stood for that brought him to make the extraordinary andcontroversial claims that he made. Paul says that because of Christ, there isno longer Jew (formerly inside the circle of chosenness) and Greek (formerly outsidethe circle of chosenness), there is no longer male (humans with privilege intheir society) and female (ones treated as property in their society) nor istheir slave (one who was owned in their society) or free (ones who could makelife choices for themselves.) Paul says that Christ wants them all on an equalplain. Such pieces of theology are life altering and society bending. But sucha stand is part of the New Testament.

 

Fathers, remember what an influence you have on yourchildren: in so many ways they want to grow up to be like you. Do you come tochurch? Chances are then that they will come to church when they are grown; ifyou stay home, they stay home. Do you talk with them about what you give to thechurch and why? If you don’t guide them in the way of a tithe, they will justhave to guess what go give. Give your children guidance. Do your children eversee you reading a Bible? Do you ever read it to them? Part of being Christianis surely reading our Bibles. Do you help others in need? They will see thatand want to do the same. Do you pray before meals, in the morning or evening,and in times of need or joy? They will learn where you get your strength if youlet them participate in prayers you have with God. If you feel awkward aboutpraying, just practice talking with God in whatever language suits you, fromthe very formal to the very informal. Your Maker will love to hear from you!  There are so many ways you can be agreat Christian example to your children … or a poor one. Choose wisely.

 

So, my friends, to sum up for you: the Bible can betrusted to not have been distorted or changed over the years;  it is the closest thing we’ll have toknowing God’s will except in our knowledge of Jesus Christ. In knowing him wealso see the will of God most clearly. The historical Jesus was a man fromNazareth. But if he were just a man, his death would have been forgotten alongwith others. But for those who had eyes to see, they t
old others about him, andthey lived as he lived. If there is anything that we are commissioned to do: myfellow fathers, and my sisters and brothers in Christ, it is to go and dolikewise. I thank God for good examples I have had in my life, including myfather and my grandfather. Be a good example too.

 

Jeffrey A. SumnerJune 20, 2010 

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JUSTIFIED BY FAITH MEANS WHAT?

Galatians 2: 15-21

 

When I was a child, my father sat me down along withmy sister and told us he thought it was time that we started getting anallowance. I think our hearts leapt for joy! We had heard about other kidsgetting an allowance, many for doing nothing! Some got many dollars from thehand of their fathers. So we waited for the rest of the story: dad produced asingle-spaced type written page; it was typed on his manual typewriter. On thepaper were our daily jobs,  everyday we had to make our bed and make our rooms “ship shape” (Dad’s Navyterminology) We then had to take turns walking the dog, feeding the dog,setting the table, clearing the table, taking out the trash, and a variety ofother chores. Our happy idea of an allowance was shrinking! Then he produced acarbon copy of the type written page for each of us and we saw the bottom line:for all the chores done correctly and without complaining, we got the amount of45 cents a week! But, in addition to that, if he ever asked me to produce ahandkerchief from my pocket and I couldn’t, a nickel came out of that week’sallowance! (I guess I was wiping my nose on my sleeve too much!)  The debate that parents have eventoday, is whether children should be given money just so they’ll have it, orwhether it should be given because they have earned it, or whether money shouldbe given at all. Most parents chose to make a child earn money, since when theygo into the world, few will get to live off of someone else.  It is good to teach children that moneydoes not grow on trees; it is good to teach them that they will have to earnwhat they have, in spite of the game shows, contestant shows, and lotteriesthat hold up the enticing idea that you can plan to win money instead ofearning it. With parents over the years in America and other countriesinstilling the value of hard work, it is understandable why some people don’taccept gifts easily. Yet a gift is at the heart of Christian salvation.

 

Hard-working Christians have trouble wrapping theirmind around sentences in our Bibles like this: “By grace you have been savedthrough your faith, as a gift, and not by your works, that any one of youshould boast.” Hear those words again: by grace (the unearned gift of God) youhave been saved (delivered from sin and eternal death) through your faith(belief that Christ paid the high cost for us on the cross); it’s a gift,not a bill; so we cannot be proud that we paid for it; we can only be humblethat it is offered to us, and if we accept it, it can change our lives. Thosewho do that can spend their lives saying “Thank you Jesus!”  Thepassage I just read has been addressed in countless books about the faith, intracts that are handed out to seekers and unbelievers, and in our Book ofConfessions. In that book the idea of salvation as gift appears in almost everydocument, particularly the Westminster Confession of Faith, the LargerCatechism (for preachers), the Shorter Catechism (for new members), and TheSecond Helvetic Confession (a product of Swiss and German Protestantism). Itappears in all those documents because most of us grew up having to earn ourallowance, earn our pay check, and earn our accolades. Few of us get ready todepart from a delicious meal in a restaurant, ready to pay the bill, and findout that another diner not at your table has already paid your waiter in full.  Most of us go through life believingthat there is “No free lunch.” Who hasn’t seen ads for free theme park ticketsor airline tickets or vacation trips, only to read the small print and find itsays you must sit through a four hour sales presentation in return?  So as we hear the Apostle Paul’s words,read from Romans and Galatians and elsewhere, we rub our eyes with disbelief;we look for footnotes that say we will pay in the end. But instead … we findthat through amazing grace and steadfast love, God pays the price. God, the onewho did not let the world get totally annihilated at the flood, but offered it asecond chance, has picked up the tab. We get a Savior who sweats blood in thegarden, asking for his planned demise to change if possible; yet he stillfollows his Father’s will, with all of the pain and brutality of that path. Wefind that God in Christ and God in Heaven absorb our pain, take the nails, andpay the price not so that we arespoiled, but so that we might be thankful.  Yes the world has usearn money, earn pins, and earn awards; God says: “I want a relationship withyou; and I want your devotion.”Jesus went about teaching us this different way of thinking and got introuble when he taught it. His parables made poor business sense but greatheaven sense. In one, a manager pays a worker the same amount for one hour ashe pays others for eight; in another a shepherd leaves 99 sheep unguarded whilehe goes out and spends his time looking for one that’s lost; and in another aman had a vineyard, leased it out to tenants who beat up two servants who weresent to collect the rent. Instead of calling a collection agency, the owner ofthe vineyard (who the readers finally figure out is God) sends his only son to collect the payment, and the son get murdered inthe process. What kind of God does that? The answer is the one who pursues ustirelessly, loves us completely and forgives us graciously.  God saves us because, unlike thepurchase of items which enough money will buy, there isn’t enough money in theworld that will buy our salvation. It is too precious for one, and it is notfor sale for another. We are incapable of saving ourselves. God and only Godhas paid for and provided the way to salvation. And who needs salvation today?The persons stepping forward to profess their faith today do; the older manfacing his own mortality because of chest pains does; so does the woman who isoverwhelmed with personal issues; and so do the youth and college aged studentswho struggle with the peer pressures of  making grades, finding work, and avoiding temptations.  How about the long time member who hasgiven thousands of dollars to church because she loves the Lord? Yes, even sheneeds it, because salvation cannot be bought by us or others. The church mayclose without people tithing, but salvation is unchanged: you can’t pay for agift.

 

Today we are justified (presented before God just asif we had not sinned) by faith (which means we believe that the cross of Christis the one and only payment that is enough to bridge the gap between sinfulnessand forgiveness, between earth and heaven, and between God and us. Your salvationhas no small print; but it doeshave a God who desperately loves you, and a Lord who wants to be given controlof your life.  If God is yourco-pilot today, (as some bumper stickers suggest) then it is time to changeseats! Let the giver of the giftreceive your gratitude and your trust, because it is God’s amazing grace thatsaves you and saves me.

 

LET US PRAY: Dear Holy One: our world operates in sucha “pay as you go” and “earn what you have” way that we may have troubleaccepting the keys to a new vehicle called salvation. Reassure us that it isours not with fine print, but with love. We will give our tithes and offeringsnot to pay for our salvation, butto thank and honor you for it.  Inthe name of Jesus who hung on Calvary’s cross out of great love for the world,and out of great devotion to his Father. Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. SumnerJune 13, 2010

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ON THE WITNESS STAND

Galatians 1:11-24

 

There are few more excised chapters of books than thechapter known as “The Grand Inquisitor” in Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece, THEBROTHERS KARAMAZOV.  In it the son, Ivan, repudiates God, and Jesus himselfis grilled as if on a cruel and criminal witness stand. The questions includesome that haunt people to this day, like why Christ had to die, why is thereevil in the world, and wondering whether humanity has the willpower to stand againstthe wiles of Satan.  It is a mostpunishing witness stand. In 16th century Germany, professor andpriest Martin Luther took the witness stand with representatives of the Churchinterrogating him.  He challengedthe power of the Papacy in what was called the Diet of Worms.  He was asked to repudiate his writings,including the 95 Theses that he had posted on the blog of his community, theWittenberg door. Instead, Luther answered the council in memorable terms:“Since your serene Majesty and your Lordships seek a simple answer, I will giveit in this manner, neither horned nor toothed. Unless I am convinced by thetestimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason …, I am bound by the ScripturesI have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and Iwill not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go againstconscience…. May God help me. Amen.”

Few of us here today have been put through anycrucible of questioning such as has occurred in some brutal occasions in thepast. But being prepared to witness to our faith is something every Christianought to be prepared to do! Every church member, on their initial joining day,had to witness to his or her faith with answers to questions such as the onesthat we ask: “Who is your Lord and Savior?” Can you, with conviction, even ifunder pressure, answer “Jesus Christ?” Or are there circumstances when youranswer would change?  Perhaps youcannot think of a situation when it really mattered, but deciding when andwhere to stand for one’s faith has mattered throughout the ages. Whencontemporary Christian artist Michael W. Smith was asked to sing something inthe memorial service for students murdered in the Colombine High Schoolmassacre, he learned as much as he could about those who died. One story tookhis breath away. A student, through sobs, shared that the gunman asked anotherstudent, Cassie Bernall, to deny Christ as her Savior if she wanted to live. Atgunpoint, she refused to do it.. It cost her her life on earth. But her witnessgoes on every time we hear Michael W. Smith sing the song inspired by herstand, “This is your time.” As the Bible says, “What does it profit persons tosave their life, but to lose their soul?” Cassie must have known that verse byheart. 

 

As St. Paul opens his letter to the churches inGalatia, he puts himself on the witness stand, producing a strong defense thathe is indeed an apostle of Jesus,though some doubted. He acknowledges his earlier life of persecutingChristians, and then he beautifully describes election, how God has set himapart even before his birth. He makes them aware that he knows the brother ofthe Lord—James—and calls him an apostle as well, even though he was not one ofthe twelve. And he swears his truthfulness in his desperation to be believedsaying: “In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!”

 

A few years ago at Confirmation Class, I handed outtyped cards for every one of them to ponder. I propose it to you today; writeit down if you wish.

The simple question is this: “This week if you werearrested and charged with being a Christian, would there be enough evidence toconvict you?”  If someone checked your Bible, wouldthere be signs of study or signs of dust? If someone opened your checkbookwould there be financial gifts to a church or mission, or just for bills, food,and clothes? If someone looked through your Blackberry or your calendar, wouldthey find evidence of Christian gatherings or worship times, or would they findeverything but a Christian activity? If someone quizzed you about your beliefs,could you describe and defend them clearly? Whatever we may think of Jehovah’sWitnesses, they do know the factsof their faith, building their testimonies on God’s words in Isaiah 43:10:“’You are my witnesses’ said Jehovah” it says in their Bibles. Jesus saidsimilar words to his followers in Luke 24:48: “Repentance and forgiveness ofsins is to be proclaimed in my name to all nations …; you are witnesses ofthese things.” Jesus needs us to witness to our faith. And since we were noteyewitnesses at the cross or at the tomb, we witness to the truth of theaccounts recorded in Scripture by trustworthy historians and converts. Itmatters that you can articulate your faith; it matters that you share yourfaith when appropriate; and it matters that if you are asked to take a witnessstand actually or figuratively, that you could convince both heaven and earthin what you believe.  Nowhere else do we have theunchallenged truth of the words of the Savior himself except in the Bible. Wegive Bibles to people second grade and older. But it is up to each person whetherto read and study it or to just own it. Could an atheist “Grand Inquisitor” oneday approach you, wanting to know the difference between his belief and yours?Could an agnostic acquaintance approach you, wanting to know what you believeabout Jesus compared to what she believes?  What will you say when someone puts you on theirwitness stand?

 

Jeffrey A. SumnerJune 6, 2010

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WHEN YOU CAN SEE LIFE’S FINISH LINE

II Kings 2: 1; 9-12a; John 16: 16-22

 

Astutelisteners to the sermons this month will note a pattern: this is the thirdmessage this month about the end of life! There are reasons for this:

1)People have asked me toaddress this topic

2)Widows and children Iknow have lost their loved ones more quickly than they had planned.

3)May is the traditionalmonth to talk about planned gifts, and we have such a committee

4)A good teacher knows thevalue of repetition

5)I see that people whoknow their time is short prioritize their lives differently, putting firstthings first better than those who think they have decades to live.

 

Thosewho know they might not live as long as they would like to, do some life-givingthings.  Take for example, thechance meeting of characters portrayed by Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson:from just one movie, the world has a new phrase at their fingertips: TheBucket List! Now everyone knows thata bucket list is the list of things you want to do before you die. Sometimesthey can be exhilarating, like sky diving, or driving a race car; but othertimes they can be meaningful, like talk out issues with your son, or plan tolearn more about God.  When you seelife’s finish line, you move your bucket list onto your front burner. Sosuppose that you lived your days working off of your bucket list rather thanjust putting off until tomorrow what you could do today? How would your life bedifferent? What if, God forbid, you do not have a tomorrow? Have you said what youneed to say; done what you need to do; arranged what you need to arrange? Coulda designated relative find your important papers with your instructions onthem? Do you have any importantpapers with your instructions on them? Are they locked away in a safe depositbox that no one will have the key to open!? Is your financial house in order?Is your spiritual house in order? Is your physical house in order? I remembermy grandmother calling her grandchildren into her living room one by one whenwe were teenagers. “Jeffrey” she said, “It would give me such pleasure to knowthat when I die you will have something of mine that you would treasure. Isthere something in the house that you would like to have?” Of course I said“Don’t talk like that! You’re going to live a long time!” (And isn’t that whatmost of us would say? She DID live longer than a day, but not as long as adecade, but her question and the answers she got gave her peace.) Afterthinking a minute I said, “Well, I do like books and I’ve always liked yourbookcase at the bottom of the stairs.” Her face beamed; “Well then, take thispiece of masking tape, write your name on it with this marker, and put it onthe bottom of the furniture. When I die, it’s yours.” To this day it sits justoutside our dining room and I look at it every day. She did the same with herother grandchildren. It gave us a bridge for remembering her with somethingright before our eyes. When you can see life’s finish line, you do such things.It is wise people who do it before theycan see their finish line. I don’t do those things perfectly; I have a will,but haven’t completed a living will yet; I’ve put in writing my love of andgratitude for my children, wife, and parents, but that could be done again.They are good to keep current.

 

Anothergood thing to do is teach a child, a colleague, a spouse, or a co-worker how todo the essential things that you do. I know one person who has written down indetail exactly who to contact and what to do if he were to die today. That is agood idea. I know that I know some things about this church that I’ve acquiredover the last 24 years that I try to pass on to elders and staff; I tried tolearn what Romie Morgan knew about this building, and I tried to learn what RayAmmon knew about this building, and I’m still trying to learn what Mike Yatsukknows about this building. Much of it I share with Cara and with other eldersso I don’t take my knowledge to the grave! Having a protégé learning from youis a good idea! Remember the text in II Kings 2? Elijah was the greatestprophet Israel had ever seen, but he became burnt out and aged eventually.  Look what happened with them: “Now whenthe Lord was about to take Elijah up to Heaven,” Elijah and Elisha weretogether.  Elisha didn’t say “Ifonly I had half of the blessings of God that you have sir!” No! Elisha wasbolder than that: “Sir would that I could have a double share of your spirit!”Indeed, Elisha picked up the mantle of Elijah—literally and figuratively—anddid some amazing work partly because he was mentored by Elijah. In John’sgospel, the disciples are almost portrayed as children: “What does he mean bysaying ‘In a little while you will no longer see me?’” Instructing andrepairing relationships now is better than hoping that, like a Hollywood movie,you will have a last breath in which to reconcile with others. It may or maynot happen.

 

Manyof you will remember Robin Williams in the film “Dead Poet’s Society.”   As Mr. Keating at an exclusivePrep School, he took his class out into the hallway and showed them photos ofall the stars of yesterday. “Lads; they are worm food now! Feeding daffodils!Seize the day, men! Carpe Diem!” This weekend we remember those who fought forAmerica in her times of war. We can visit their graves in Arlington Cemetery,the veteran’s cemetery
here in Bushnell Florida, and in countless othercemeteries. We can look at their pictures, tell their stories, and if we’relucky, see some contents of their treasure boxes. But how much better it is tolook at the names on our prayer list, and to connect with men and women in andout of the service, and check on them now? To learn as Elisha learned; to tryto understand as the disciples tried to understand; to listen and share now isa better way. It is time to seize the day!

 

Thepopular Christian group MerceMe has a song called “Finally Home” that includesthese words: “I’m gonna wrap my arms around my daddy’s neck and tell him thatI’ve missed him, and tell him all about the man that I became and hope that itpleases him. There’s so much I want to say, there’s so much I want you to know,when I finally make it home; when I finally make it home.”  All well and good if that’s the bestyou can do. But what if you could say those things now? In our anthem todaythese words were sung: “Goin’ home; goin’ home I’m jest goin’ home; quiet-like,still some day, I’m jest goin’ home. It’s not far, jest close by, through anopen door; work all done, care laid by, goin’ to fear no more. Mother’s there,‘spectin’ me, father’s waitin’ too; lots of folks gathered there, all thesaints I knew.”

 

Acrosslife’s finish line, for those who have loved the Lord and loved others there isthe hope of a grand reunion, with sharing, laughing, and loving. I imagine I’llsee my grandmother too. But what a memory she created on this side of heaven,by creating a bond between us the rest of her days! We shared so much while shewas alive!  Her gift gave her peacethen, and it reminds me of her every day. What might be better for you to donow, than wish you had done it later?

JeffreyA. Sumner                                                       May30, 2010

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SPIRIT FILLED; SPIRIT LED

Romans 8:14-17; John 14: 25-27

 

A traveling evangelist was known for the dramaticdelivery of his messages, and his dramatic portrayal of his illustrations. Healways got into town the day before he was to preach to see how he mightpunctuate his points with visual effects. Since he was preaching on thisday—Pentecost—in that church he knew exactly what to bring from home. In hiscar he carried a cage with a white dove in it. He knew what he was doing! Thatday he asked the preacher to give him a nimble youth to assist him with hismessage. Exploring the old church, he found a door that led up to an attic overthe sanctuary. He told the boy that on that Sunday he was to quietly go up tothe attic with the bird, and at a certain time in the sermon, he would callforth the Holy Spirit, and the boy was to release the bird through an openingthey had made in the ceiling! The boy got good at getting the bird out of thecage and holding it. The preacher was confident that this effect would makepeople marvel and bring them to the Lord. The next day on Pentecost Sunday theboy went quietly up to the attic while the man started preaching. He was workingthe crowd, and working the message when he came to the crescendo of his sermon.“And so I say in the name of Jesus today, ‘Come Down, Holy Spirit, come downnow!’” There was silence in the sanctuary except for the sound of scufflingabove the ceiling. Slightly unnerved but not to be outdone by this snafu, thepreacher called out in a louder voice: “Come down Holy Spirit, come down now!”Just then the boy’s face appeared in the opening in the ceiling. “Sir” the boycried out apologetically, a big yellow cat just ate the Holy Spirit! Shall Ithrow down the cat?”

 

Without smoke or mirrors; without the tricks oftraveling preachers or high priced technical support, we know that the HolySpirit of the Living God was promised to Jesus’ disciples before his death. It was recorded in John: “I willpray, and my Father will send you another Counselor.”  Jesus was thefirst counselor of how to live as a mortal, and yet commit one’s soul to God.The Spirit came down from Heaven like a dove and lived within the Savior. Jesusleft that Spirit on earth when he departed. We know from John’s gospel that theSpirit counseled the lost, and comforted the hurting. We know that the Spiritempowers the meek, and communicates with the confused. We know that theSpirit’s work was manifested in Jerusalem on that day of Pentecost recorded inActs 2, and that the Holy Spirit has been apparent at various times and placesever since. In Paul’s magnificent eighth chapter of Romans, he says “All whoare led by the Spirit are children of God.” Are you a child of God? Do you prayfor God’s Spirit to fill you?  Manypeople love the one-lined prayer in the simple gospel song “Spirit of theliving God, fall afresh on me; melt me mold me, fill me use me.”  Listen to all that we ask the Spirit fortoday: to come into us, not through a hole in the ceiling, but like a dove sentfrom Heaven; we ask the Spirit to come into us and dwell in a fresh new way.When we sing “melt me” its because God’s frozen chosen have gotten too frostedinto our old habits and predictable ways! The Spirit has melting powers! On theother hand, sometimes we also get brittle, like dried out Playdough! Yet theSpirit can give our souls new texture, like trading in the can that’s filledwith the dry and crystallized stuff, and getting a new can of moldable dough! Thewords, “fill me” imagines our life to be like a vessel, one that has becomedusty from not coming back to God, the source of drenching life and love. TheSpirit can pour water into the fonts of our souls again! And then when weinvite God to use us, the Spiritgives us the strength and courage to do what is required in the face ofadversity, sorrow, or weakness. Thank you Jesus for leaving us your Spirit! Isthere nothing God’s Spirit cannot do? “No,” the Bible says, “for with Godnothing shall be impossible.” So the only things that limit our ministries orour growth are our self-perceived boundaries or the critical voices that comefrom others or from the devil. Sometime the voices people hear say: “You can’tdo that!” Why don’t you just give up on God and have some fun?” or “What’s theuse; you’ll just fail again!” You can give in to those devilish voices, but ifyou do, you will have ignored the clarion call of your Creator’s own Spirit!The Spirit is represented as a fresh wind blowing and as a white dove. Thetempter is mostly depicted as a serpent! To whom are you listening? And whowill you start listening to even harder today?

The one who made you still calls you! Still guidesyou! Still loves you! Still empowers you! All of that: unless you give in toall those “other voices.”

 

We would not be here in this sanctuary today if wiseministers, elders, and congregation members gave in to those devilish voices ofimpossibility, or discouragement, and the fear of failure. We are here todaybecause members of the First Presbyterian Church, and a Presbytery of Rulingand Teaching Elders, listened to the Spirit of the living God. “We need tobuild a new congregation!” God’s voice spoke into the ear of Dr. Paul Edris,Mr. Ernest Hunt, and a handful of other faithful church people. They becameGod’s cheering squad, God’s urgency, and Christ’s hands and feet and heart.“Make it so” a wise captain once said. God must have told them the same thing.As they began their work, Jesus didn’t leave them as orphans. He gave themmore power than they could have dreamed of having. The dream began to form around 1946; but it didn’tbecome the colony of Presbyterians that met in the Wilbur Clubhouse until 1955.This weekend 55 years ago the name of the church was officially used, as yourkeepsake copy of the actual bulletin indicates.

 

When people listen to God’s Holy Spirit instead of thecrippling voices of  defeatism andinsidious despair, things deemed impossible become possible, and things deemedunlikely become a reality. Twothousand years ago, followers of Jesus started to form something that would laterbe called the Church. Fifty-five years ago, a new congregation of Christ’sChurch was born. What amazing things God’s Spirit can do if we take away the powerfrom other voices, read the Bible, and say, “Here I am Lord, send me out inyour name!” Churches—and people—both benefit from being Spirit filled. Godbenefits the most when we let our congregations—and our lives—be Spirit
led.Today can be a watershed, a born-again day for you.  I will pray that you
realize the power God has given you: that you have the power to tune out the negative and destructivevoices; and that you have the chance today to begin to be Spirit-filled andSpirit-led, in whole new ways.

Let us pray for that:

Spirit of the Living God: fall afresh on us. Warm thefrosty places in our hearts; mold our brittle bodies; break our human-formedperceptions; help us tune out the other voices that pull us away from you, andgive us Heavenly hearts. In the name of Jesus, who did that perfectly. Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. SumnerMay 23, 2010

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