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SALVATION

Psalm 33: 13-22; Acts 10: 34-48

 

St. Thomas Aquinas once wrote: “Three things are necessary for the salvation of [mortals:] to know what they ought to believe, to know what they ought to desire, and to know what they ought to do.”  A little later than our Acts text today, in the New Testament, the timeless question was asked; “What must I do to be saved?” [Acts 16:20]  But those who are ignorant of the early church theologians like Aquinas, or who do not regularly hear a sermon preached on Scripture but just dip into it to find support for a particular cherished belief, can be swayed to act like their salvation costs them something rather than the way that The New Testament teaches: Our salvation cost God something: a high, high price of love. Still ever since the New Testament was written, there are tales of people trying to work out their own salvation, such as the morality play called “Faust,” where he sells his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and power; or Stephen Vincent Benet’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster” who receives a decade of material wealth in exchange for selling his soul to the devil called “Mr. Scratch.” These stories of people seeking their own fame, fortune, glory, or dare we call it, salvation, are not just in the past; they are happening every day.  What child thought his or her life would be ruined this Christmas if they didn’t get a certain phone, certain, game, or certain toy? What youth thinks life is over without a certain car, a certain guy or girl, or a certain accessory of clothing? Not salvation issues you say? Try telling that to teenagers. What adults try to change the lumps of coal that life seems to have left them by playing the lottery, or quick picks, or any number of sweepstakes, thinking that getting rich will be their salvation?  On any number of game shows or contest shows I have seen over the holidays, a frightening number of contestants have “spent their last dime” to get to the show for a chance at, say, a million dollars. What is not promoted as much, except on news shows, is the misery that comes with getting a windfall of money- the line that forms to borrow or ask for some; the divisions that form when the winners say “no” to requests, and the trappings that come with fame.  The meltdown of yet another star who has sought to work out her own salvation has been one of the stars not to follow this Epiphany season. And there are plenty of more subtle ways that people put shaky saviors on the fifty yard lines of their lives:  husbands or wives figuring ways to get out of their marriages by spending emotional time with others; men or women not investing themselves in the job they have because they believe they deserve the job they want. Teens and college aged girls saving all their money for surgery to get the glamorous look they want; or men and women of any age thinking that getting thin will be their salvation. There are so many who put their fortunes and their faith in charlatans, quacks, and impossible dreams. 

 

Human nature hasn’t changed much over the centuries; opportunists have just come up with new schemes to try to fulfill people’s longings. But once all of the other schemes fall by the wayside, your church is still here preaching Jesus Christ and teaching the faith; your pastor is still here pulling for you, praying for you, and seeking to help rescue from dangers; but most of all, Jesus Christ, whose portrait has been attempted by countless artists and even children with crayons, may be illusive in that we cannot see him, but is dependable because in faith we know he is with us. The real thing came into the world long ago, on Christmas Day.  We know from the Old Testament that an unblemished lamb paid the price for sins at the Temple, so Jesus was called the Lamb of God, by John. We know that magi, who were like the Levites of Judea except they were likely from Persia, were respected prophets and watchers of the stars. They believed that the character of a child born could be seen according to the time of year and time of day in which a child was born. And history has recorded two or three astrological events that would have pointed to Jesus’ birth in Judea. Even Roman historians knew about it. The historian Seutonius wrote: “There has spread all over the Orient an old and established belief that it was fated at the time from men coming from Judea to rule the world.” [Suetonius: LIFE OF VESPASIAN, 4:5] And Tacitus wrote “The East was to grow powerful, and rulers coming from Judea were to acquire a universal empire.” [Tacitus: HISTORIES, 5:13] And so, pulling together the message of Jewish Prophets, and Roman historians, who foretold what came true,  was a man who was both a Jew and a Roman citizen: St. Paul the Apostle, in his many letters. And today, it is St. Peter himself being described in Acts as one who finally understood and preached that Salvation was offered by God not just to Jews but first to Jews. Then, to both Jew and Gentile alike, the salvation that came into the world described in John was a reality. And in naming the child, Mary and Joseph got guidance from the messenger of God to let this child’s role be clear to all the world: his name would be Jesus, the Greek form of the Hebrew name, Joshua, which means: “The Lord is Salvation.”  Count on it, today, this year, and forever. Jesus saves; and Jesus has already saved some of you; and he can save any others who, this day, call on his name and follow him as Savior. So, do you want to be saved?

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           January 6, 2008

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A CHRISTMAS JOURNEY

Matthew 2: 13-15; 19-23

 

In the political year in which we find ourselves, there is much talk about securing our borders.  Of course, we know that has to do with keeping out those who come to our country without legal papers.  We also know there is a cost to our government from those who are in this country yet not citizens and who, therefore, are not paying income taxes. Yes, they pay taxes on goods and on gasoline like the rest of us.  But why do people come to America? To get away from something; get away from someone? Look for a safe place to raise a family?  Ironic, isn’t it, that if Egypt had had secure borders in 6 A.D. the Holy Family would have had a difficult time protecting baby Jesus from Herod. Gladly, we recall that stories have made it into our history books, like the Diary of Anne Frank, that remind us people how protected Jewish refugees at great personal cost. Gladly we remember Oscar Schindler’s, made famous in SCHINDLER’S LIST, protected Jews from annihilation.  Today we look at this Christmas story of a family leaving Bethlehem and departing Herod’s jurisdiction through new eyes.

 

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

 

I cut out the verses from 16-18 so children would not hear the harsh words of killing that Herod carried out.  Often dramatized as the “Slaughter of the Innocents,” it is depicted as the killing of hundreds of children two years old and under. In all likelihood, with Bethlehem and the surrounding areas just having a thousand inhabitants, with a yearly birth rate of about 10-20, and perhaps half of them boys,  that the number of boys under 2 who might have been killed was around 20. Still, 20 is too many, even one is too many, for the grieving mothers and fathers.  But for Mary and Joseph, there was no time to extend their stay in Bethlehem visiting with family or friends, for their newborn was in danger. Going back to Nazareth was no answer since Herod ruled that territory as well, and Herod’s army would have spotted a family with a newborn traveling back. So under cover of darkness, Joseph, again, the right man chosen to protect and raise the Son of God, got his family ready and headed out, not to a promised land, but a land known to Jews from the Exodus story, a place where Moses had been born, a place of civilization and pluralism and safety. This was not the first time a Jew had traveled to Egypt for safety. Raymond Brown reminds us that “It was the classic land of refuge for those fleeing from tyranny in Palestine. When King Solomon sought to put Jeroboam to death in 1 Kings 11:40, he ‘arose and fled to Egypt.’ When King Jehoiakim sought to kill the prophet Uriah, son of Shemaiah in Jeremiah 26:21, he fled and escaped to Egypt; and about 172 B.C. the high priest Onias IV fled to Egypt to escape from King Antiochus Epiphanes, [the horrible ruler in the Daniel story.] [BIRTH OF THE MESSIAH, Doubleday, 1979, p. 203] Whether Mary and Joseph and Jesus just went over the border or deep into Egypt is a matter of speculation and legend as we have heard today; but that Christmas journey saved the life of their child, the one born to save the world.

 

Historians tell us that Herod the Great died in 4 B.C. in all likelihood. (Yes, B.C. because the monk who created our modern day calendars got the date wrong for Jesus’ birth, which was most likely in 6 B.C.) Herod the Great had divided up Israel and bequeathed a portion to each of his sons: to Herod Archelaus, who was almost as ruthless as his father, he gave Judea which included Jerusalem and Bethlehem; to his son Herod Antipas, who was a more sensible ruler, he gave Galilee, which included Nazareth and Capernaum; to his son Herod Philip, he gave the northeastern section of Israel. Joseph, then, upon getting word of which son was ruling which territory, decided to return to his hometown of Nazareth and go around the territory of Judea in doing so. The family finally started, at that point, to put down some roots.  Matthew says this was done to fulfill a prophesy saying “He will be called a Nazarene.” Interesting because there is no recorded prophet who said that, about the Messiah or anyone else! But what we do learn is that Nazareth, according to William Barclay, was the perfect setting for Joseph to raise his new step son.  Both Mary and Joseph had family there for support; construction of Roman amphitheatres in the area would have given stone masons and carpenters like Joseph, and later Jesus, the connection to other workers and the Roman leaders. And with a short climb up a back hill in Nazareth, the boy Jesus could see the mount where the great Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal years before; and the valley of Megiddo, where two great pathways crossed: the way of the sea and the north-south way, where more people and tribes passed through and where more battles had been fought then any place known in the recorded world.  So the boy Jesus had the perfect perch from which to see the world and to grow into its Savior.  But it never would have happened had there not been a country, like Egypt, that welcomed refuges into their land.  Today we are thankful for God’s angels, for Joseph’s open heart, and for the country that gave safe haven to the Holy Family.

 

Let us pray:  O God of Wonder and God of Might: we have had a glimpse of your divine plan to bring Jesus into the world and protect him from harm until his time had come.  Your steadfast love for us makes us feel humble and grateful. In this season, for those who are ready to live differently, here on the cusp of a new year, fill them and let them become changed in ways that people notice, and ask, so they can witness to your wondrous love; in Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                              December 30, 2007

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THE VISIT

Matthew 1: 18-25

 

Our world today would be a tough one for God to enter to plan for any other divine event, like God did so long ago with Jesus.  This week, and this week alone, we and the country watched as council proceedings in New Orleans were disrupted by those who tried to storm the courtroom and by police officers who tried to hold them back with shields, physical force, verbal orders, tazers, and chemical sprays. The crowds did not listen to the warnings of those in authority. In our media frenzied world, some cried that police officers crossed a line of justice with the use of force, while others supported their efforts to keep control. How many television chases make your blood boil when persons driving a car are told to stop and they don’t, driving through cities and highways with careless abandon? What part of stop don’t they understand? “Make them pay for every car, house, and person they hit with their own cash or their own prison term with no leniency!” I say under my breath to the television screen.  But I digress ….   The nation watched as a woman in one of our own electronics stories had to be held and tazed for acting in a totally defiant manner when an officer asked her to stop.  Then the media asked bystanders if they believe the police for overreacted! What part of “Just a moment ma’am” did she not understand? I hope we will still have honorable men and women going into law enforcement after all the scrutiny these officers are under.  May God raise up a new generation of children who respect those whose job it is to teach, govern, or protect them. And may those in positions of authority work to keep conduct high and to bring to justice those among their group who don’t.  Our sense of outrage was raised again this week as a young TV star announced that she would have a child, without marriage, one who just was old enough to shift from a learner’s permit to a driver’s license. “According to one source, she plays a perfect, well-liked and pure teenaged girl in the show Zoey 101 on the Nickelodeon channel. Even our world, with its “blowin’ in the wind” sense of morals, has had trouble with this one, and with good reason.  Children and teenagers have trouble separating a movie or TV character from the actor who plays the part. I’m grown up and I still have trouble with that!  So it can be seen as incongruous when we act differently “at work” than when we’re “at home.”  But still, there are still boys and girls who have a sense of what is right and wrong, who have been taught about God, and who are learning how to connect the dots in their life.  I witnessed some of that good focus as we were preparing children and youth for the 5:30 service tomorrow night; I almost always see it in those playing a part or those reading from the Bible, who treat their role with such careful attention that tears cloud my vision for a few moments. God looks for ones such as them to collaborate with life changing plans for tomorrow.

 

A long time ago, in a rural region called Galilee, not a power region like Jerusalem; and from a small and unimportant town in that rural region called Nazareth, God searched not for a young woman and young man who were stars, nor those who were popular. God searched for and, through an angel, visited two who had hearts that would not react adversely to the request that came from the authority of God, nor did they react to the messenger by suggesting better ways to carry out the plan.  God needed two people who, when visited by rather frightful creatures called angels, would listen, withhold judgment, trust the request, and then follow orders. I used the word “orders” deliberately.  Our Confirmation Class learned that a “multitude of the Heavenly Host” was a description of the army of God, literally, those who were asking/drafting people for a greater cause, including following orders from on high.  So the visit was made, first to Mary, according Luke, and then to Joseph, according to Matthew.  Our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters revere Mary to a fault, perhaps, some would say, going overboard with reverence. But from such theologians we find this description of what happened in Luke chapter 1: “Mary is not the initiator. Her ‘Yes’ is a response, an Amen to the saving initiative of God…. Her response is active, not passive. God deals with her as a free agent, not as an object to be manipulated. As St. Augustine put it, ‘she conceived the word in her mind before giving the Word a body in her womb.”… All of us are invited to … copy her faith, her patience, her obedience, her meditative spirit, her fortitude, her surrender, and her spotless purity.” [Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J, THE LIVING PULPIT Vol. 10, No. 4, p. 30-31]  Most sermons on this Sunday deal with Mary, and certainly not without good reason. What that young woman said and did in response to the request almost certainly made her ostracized by her village because a child was growing in her that didn’t belong to the man to whom she was engaged, but it also made her revered for generations to come.  The hymn known as the Magnificat in Luke chapter 1, shared between Mary at her young age expecting Jesus, and her cousin, Elizabeth, in her old age, expecting a child who would be called John (“the Baptist”), is the song of her young heart and will, as she magnifies God for choosing her.

 

But few sermons talk about the step father, Joseph, the one who an angel also visited to calm him down before news of his fiancée’s condition reached him. What the Heavenly Father could not teach his son, he knew the earthly father would teach, so God made the selection carefully. This man had to have some extraordinary qualities. For instance, if Galilean women were generally submissive in the first century, Galilean men were generally stubborn and sure of what they knew even when they had no business being as sure as they were. I know some men like that today.  So to find a man, already engaged to a young woman by prior arrangement of her father, and have him exhibit the same good heart and character as the young woman, makes me also wonder if God had picked these two long before their daddies had picked each other’s children! Oh, God can be very patient in plans that change eternity!  But even after so much planning, there was still a question mark in the mind of our Creator: God had always agreed not to breech our human will, with the hope that we would choose God’s way, but that we could also choose otherwise. The Heavenly Father must have held his breath until Mary had said “yes” to the request from the visitor, and until the news reached Joseph and he had reacted favorably. Being the honorable man that God knew he was, he decided to “break off the engagement, and part from her,” even though by law he could have had her stoned.  I know that some Bibles translate the Greek word there as “divorce” but there had not yet been a marriage. The word “divorce” is used by some to show the full and complete agreement that had been decided by the fathers for their marriage. Calling one off almost never happened, but could be justified under these circumstances. Joseph, you see, would have been perceived as an honorable man in this event, and Mary, well, much less than honorable. As Joseph laid down for his troubled night sleep, wondering how he and his father could have so misjudged Mary, God had an angel visit him in a dream. Who listens to dreams?  Psychologists tell us that some dream in black and white and some in color. My experience is that some of my dreams make sense but many don’t. God chose a man who listened to his dream: what a rare man indeed, although another Biblical Joseph also interpreted dreams, didn’t he? From today’s dream in Matthew chapter 1, we read that Joseph, not by God’s crushing will, but by his own human will, agreed to the arrangements that the angel outlined. And in next week’s sermon, when a dream again guided him, Joseph took Mary and baby Jesus to Egypt to escape Herod’s maniacal rampage.

One thing some have learned from Joseph is to be a better listener to our dreams. But more than that, to trust that God has a bigger plan in mind for our lives and our world comes through in the Christmas story. If Joseph had had a problem with authorities he may never had said “yes” to the angel’s words of assurance. If Mary had had a smart remark or a quick temper the Savior might not have been born, and certainly not in the same way.  As we look at others from store clerks to co-workers to family members, and children look at parents, and adults look at their parents and at teenagers, we find that attitude, spirit, patience, and faithfulness matter when dealing with others. They mattered as God planned the soul saving events that involved the tiny villages of Nazareth and Bethlehem, and they matter today. How could such qualities either invite or hinder God if holy plans for our world were being formulated even now? With all the clamor of merry muzak in stores and chasing lights on houses, even tonight, God may be looking for a quiet corner, in a rural area, with only the glow of starlight, where hope could be born again into the hearts of those ready to hear and receive a visit; a visit from an angel prepared to break through the crusty, arrogant, or stubborn hearts of those with authority … and the crushed spirits of those with none.  May every heart prepare him room; prepare the way of the Lord.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                              December 23, 2007

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GRACE

Luke 15

 

Once upon a time a teenaged girl in Florida was getting bored with school, was not in a relationship, (partly because she had an “I’m too good for this town and these friends” attitude) and so she isolated herself from others. Her own sister, who had little respect for her because she never pulled her weight around the house or offered to help her out, would often get asked by her mother to do more than her share of household chores. The girl would often be found watching shows that other girls watched like “American Idol,” “Project Runway,” “the Hills,” and “Dancing with the Stars.”  She saw people carrying out their dreams and getting shots at stardom who seemed to have less talent than she thought she had. It was getting close to her 17th birthday, but she would not have true liberation, as she saw it, from her miserable life for another year!  That was an eternity!  So she hatched a plan in her fervent, yet swirling teenage mind to go to Hollywood, to Zac Efron land, to where dreams come true and films like High School Musical 2 are made.  Her mother had been more than generous with her, getting her a decent second hand car and one credit card with a low credit limit. She had rashly maxed out the card almost every month, but with birthday money coming she could soon have a little extra spending money. So with her sweetest charm, and with her bad attitude left behind, she spent an entire evening doing things with her mom. Her father was so out of the picture in this broken household that her mother, doing all she could to both work and parent, did not catch on to her daughter’s ploy, but mistook it for perhaps a fleeting day of maturity when a daughter and mother might bond.  The mother relished the evening.  On her way home from work she stopped to get Chinese take out food for them to share, and they settled into sofas with plates on their laps and the television on for some Dr. Phil and some Tim Gunn’s Guide to Fashion.  What a girl’s night! They even shared some hot fudge sundaes just to splurge on the calories.  And then, the girl asked the question of her mother:  “For my birthday, Mom, I was wondering if there was any possible way, so that I can begin to manage my money better and not be overwhelmed by it, that you could pay off the $1000 I have on my credit card as my birthday gift? I would be soooo grateful and promise to do better! After all, I’m practically 17 and will have something of a right of passage, so starting my account at zero would be the best birthday present!” Her mother, so enjoying the night and not wanting to have the hateful side of her daughter come out and ruin everything, decided to give in to her daughter’s request.  They hugged and shared some tears.  The deal had been made for the sake of peace, the way many parents get manipulated by their children. By the next Monday morning, life for both of them would change forever.

 

The girl, over the weekend, called the one that she called her BFF on Facebook.  She told her she had money and a plan and wanted company.

She was going to Hollywood (on her own, of course!) The best friend, also thinking that Hollywood would have a place for a face like hers, said she’d sign on for the cross country trip. They did not have enough money between them for two one-way airline tickets, and even if they did, how would they get around once they got there? So they decided to take the decent but used car and head across I-10 on the Monday morning they were supposed to be at school.  At first it was exciting: they each had luggage in the trunk, cell phones in their purse, and one credit card each.  They were free! 

 

But, foolishly, they had not added up the miles to get to California. Fortunately when they stopped at rest areas they found some coupon books for motels so they could get off the road each night in modestly priced motels.  They began by eating out, but saw their money dropping alarmingly from gas and food.  They learned how convenience store prices also add up quickly, and that few grocery stores were near highways. But they believed they would get their break in Hollywood, and that’s what drove them on.  Even though the car didn’t break down, at one point the oil light wouldn’t go off as they were about to leave a gas station. A college aged guy asked if he could help, opened the hood, and found their oil was over two quarts low.  They bought the oil and the guy thought perhaps he might get more than just their thanks, but they held firm. Off they went, still best friends forever.

 

After five solid days of driving, the luster was wearing off of their original good idea of fame and fortune. Their clothes were now dirty, their money was low, and they had nothing else between them except the car and themselves. The California state line sign perked them up, but later the traffic around L.A. overwhelmed them: six lanes, eight lanes, and a hillside with the words “Hollywood” but the actual place was hard to find. It was December so the weather was nice, but the places to stay were outrageously expensive.  What would they do?  Every place they tried to stop was a tow away zone. In desperation, they turned off the highway late one night, parked in an “Always Open” restaurant parking lot, put their seats back, and fell into an exhausted sleep. By four A.M. a car door startled them and they watched a police car pull up on the other side of the parking lot. Deciding not to risk getting checked out, they started the car and drove away.  That day they spent looking for talent agencies where they were told that to leave an application would cost an application fee that was more than they could pay. They went to movie studios and found guards everywhere and no one would admit them onto a lot.  Now their credit limit was almost reached.  They found themselves crying more than laughing. When they stopped by the famous Hollywood and Vine, they were propositioned.  With money so tight and their stomachs growling from just eating raw Ramen noodles, the offer to make hundreds a day in the world of drugs and prostitution rang in their heads: was this what the Lindsey’s and Britney’s meant by having to pay their dues to be famous? Surely not. Their dream had become a nightmare, and this time without their moms and their mom’s money and love to bail them out. Finally, the worst day of their life started as the one along for the ride actually had a guy come up and ask her to ride with him, and she went! She got out of the car to the “What are you thinking???!!!” protests from the “Best Friend Forever” who, all of a sudden, was sounding frighteningly like her mom.  The one who thought she needed this trip now thought it had become a bad idea. But how could she get back to Florida by herself and with no money? The tears began to fall as she started driving again. She was reaching for her cell phone to call for her best friend when she momentarily took her eyes off the road. All the cars in front of her had stopped due to a bus in the right lane. She looked up too late, plowing into the back of a big Cadillac.  Her not really new car crumpled in front of her as her eyes and skin burned from the airbags inflating. Her horn started constantly blowing. She heard a person shout: “Someone call 911!” Unable to free her leg from her disabled car, all she could do was wait and cry.

 

At the hospital, they asked for her ID and her insurance card. When they found she was not 18, they insisted that they would give her first aid treatment, but that she needed other medical attention that would require a parent’s authorization.  She knew she was at the end of her rope.  It was time to call mom. 

 

Back in Florida, the caller ID on her home phone listed the name of a hospital that made the color drain from her red-eyed mother’s face: “Good Samaritan Hospital of Los Angeles.” She had filed a missing person’s report, as had the parents of her daughter’s best friend; they had tracked her credit card activity to California, but once the girls ran out of money, finding them in L.A. was like a needle in a haystack for the police. The accident, ID request, and the phone call were the missing links. “Hello?” her mother answered cautiously.  “Mom” her daughter said, starting to cry, “I’ve been in an accident.”  The daughter was just about to say how sorry she was for what she had done, and to say she wanted to come home, and that she was so sorry, when her mother interrupted her. “Hurt? Oh my goodness, honey, thank you, thank you for calling me! I will be right there. Would you like me to come?” “Oh Mom, yes, I’m so sorry; I made a mess of things and the hospital needs your consent to treat me.” “Put them on the phone honey. I’ll talk to them and find out the directions to the hospital. Oh, I was afraid you were gone for good, or abducted, but now I’ve found you!  I’ll be right there, as soon as I can. Hang on, love.”  And story ends, not with a death, or an estrangement, or an abduction, but with a reunion. And is said that it was no accident, that the name of the prodigal daughter’s mother . . . was Grace.

 

 

Let us pray:

Dear God, in life’s estrangements, we sometimes hold out hope that, in a month, a year, or a decade that loved ones will reunite. You wait even longer than that for us to return unto Thee.  When we have an accident along life’s highway, give us the good sense to reconnect, to call home, and to get well.  And show us how to offer grace to others who we love. In Jesus’ name, who first told us the story of a prodigal son. Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                              December 16, 2007

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SIN: THE TROUBLE WE’RE IN

Genesis 4:1-16; Romans 3: 10-26

 

Dr. James Forbes, Senior Minister of the Riverside Church in New York City, once preached a sermon called “Finding and Fixing the Fatal Flaw.” It was not the sense of alliteration which his title possessed that made it memorable: it was the topic-which was human sinfulness-and the congregation that made it most memorable: he was preaching to the graduating class of New York Theological Seminary’s program at Sing Sing Prison.  There was both gravity and hope in his message to those who truly wanted to bring good news to captives.  There were those within earshot paying the price for (and, in some ways, hoping that they might one day get free from) the terrible burden that their actions wrought. Inmates start to get black and white understandings of sin along with lessons on taking responsibility for their actions. Some who start to be changed by Christ even dare to pray for amazing grace and unforgettable forgiveness. In our world there are those who sin which includes everyone. But there are also those who put what they think is sin in the spotlight of condemnation. In Jesus’ day Pharisees did it enough that Jesus targeted them. In our day the sick hate group that they have the nerve to call a church that stands and claps at the funerals of fallen soldiers is one such twisted group that tries to condemn others. It has happened over the years. For example, back in the 1980s, Donald Wildmon and his American Family Association used to send out unsolicited newsletters to me and other pastors that told which shows had violent or sexual story lines or crude language. He condemned those programs in his newsletter that ran for pages covering all the words and actions deemed offensive. His style was “in your face” but he had a point: the standards that movies and television had until the 1960s had gone out the window and were replaced by a rather loose rating system still in place today. But since the 1980s, the potentially offensive and even harmful scenes on cable television today could fill volumes, coming across our airwaves to wide eyed kids and seemingly savvy teenagers whose knowledge of drug use, violence, and sexual acts far surpasses their maturity to make good decisions regarding them.  What is on our airwaves has not just pushed the envelope: it has torn it wide open.  Without youth equipped to discern and absorb the good stuff, and discern and push away the bad stuff, our society will keep spiraling into the excesses that brought down the Greek and Roman Empires in earlier days. Author Annie Dillard, in her book PILGRIM AT TINKER CREEK, tells about an Eskimo hunter asking a local missionary priest this question: “If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?” “No,” said the priest, “not if you did not know.” To which the hunter replied “Then why did you tell me?”  One only has to look at William Golding’s book LORD OF THE FLIES, about a group of stranded boys who made the rules by which they lived and were tortured and killed by their own lawlessness, to realize the answer to “Why.” One only has to look at Genesis chapter 3 and 4 and beyond, when humans first learned right from wrong but had not yet received commandments or consequences for choosing the latter instead of the former, to understand that without rules for living, one’s life runs like a train without tracks, getting bogged down, heading pell-mell down hillsides, and tearing apart the men, women, and children who are in its path. Without knowledge and correction, there is murder, rape, anarchy, looting, and piracy. Again, it began to be described in Genesis and was recaptured in Paul’s masterpiece that we call his Letter to the Romans. The trouble we’re in is not the knowledge of sin: it’s the trampling on the right choices and setting course for the wrong ones.  Now I know this topic—sin—stereotypically belongs to the church:  some may even feel that the church is out of touch with the world because “sin” seems to be the “Johnny one note” of our musical keyboard. Well let’s lighten up for just a moment. Humorist Garrison Keillor once said “I’m not sure I’m in favor of repentance. Sinners are the ones who get the work done. A strong sense of personal guilt is what makes people willing to serve on committees.” Keillor loves to describe his beloved Minnesota “Lutherans,” but he described guilt as heavily felt by the Catholics, the Methodists and, of course, the Presbyterians, and the Baptists! American Baptist minister Keith Russell recalled “As a young person, I was very clear about the nature of sin. Sin, as described in my Iowa Baptist upbringing, was a series of behaviors to be avoided. It was both simple and clear: Do not smoke, drink, dance, swear, or gamble….It was exceedingly clear in my appropriation of the faith that sin was personal….Evil was a set of behaviors to be exposed and changed.” Now let’s get serious again: like John the Baptist ages ago, it is the church, it is the preacher, and it is the congregation who holds each other accountable, who simply must be the voice crying in the wilderness of our lost society to prepare the way of the Lord; to make straight the crooked paths. But where to draw the perimeter lines around living like Christ or living against him has to be measured by the only rule of faith and practice God has left us: the Bible, and, more specifically, the New Testament.  It is most interesting that the word for “sin” in Greek is hamartia, but Jesus uses it in Matthew’s gospel only a few times and in Mark only twice.  So sinning is mildly addressed, certainly not because people didn’t do it, but because everyone was, and is, a sinner. The gospel and letters of John say it frequently and so does Paul in his letters. So what was Jesus’ great focus? It was on another word-skandalizo- which was to cause one to stumble or to sin.  It is one thing to take responsibility for one’s own sinful actions. It is another to push, seduce, or entice someone to fall: on that topic and toward those people Jesus showed no mercy.  Toward the tempter in Genesis 2, toward the Satan character in Matthew chapter 4, toward the Pharisees in numerous places Jesus had cutting comments; it was toward those who encouraged others to sin. Sinners, it seems, can be forgiven through their remorse, repentance, and restitution. But to those who entice someone into stealing, adultery, excessive gambling, lying, or scheming to get what someone else has, Jesus has eyes and a heart filled with condemnation. This is where the bride-the church-joins her husband- Jesus Christ-in united outrage: on casting out those who, with delight, make others stumble; and, working to save those who are lost and following wolves in sheep’s clothing. What do such people sound like?  “Come on; I know a store where you can take stuff and no one will stop you.” “Come on, no one will miss just a few dollars out of the drawer.” “Come on, whose going to find out what we do in a motel behind closed doors?” Come on, every tries this at our age.” “Come on, I can show you a way to bring that girl (insert a worse word here) down so you can be the winner instead!” The light of truth shines itself into the dark corners where such despicable persons lurk.  You see, the other word that Jesus says a lot in Matthew is poneros, which means evil, although the NIV Bible translates it as “wicked” or “sinful” and the NRSV uses the word “evil” for another word, kakos, that simply means “wrong” such as in 1 Thess. 5:15.  Scholar Judith Wray says “While none of our translations is necessarily inaccurate, the nuances implied in the Greek text are often lost in the theology of the translators.” Such is why Presbyterian ministers learn both the Greek and Hebrew languages: to not go first to an English translation of God’s Word, but to the original language and it’s meaning. While Paul was convinced of our sinfulness and described it as “missing the mark” as I described to the children with a target, Jesus himself spent much more time condemning the laws and l
awmakers of his day who were so busy calling others sinners and making people sin that they could not see the egregiousness of their own actions. That’s when Jesus said the humorous retort “How can you see the splinter in the eye of another with such a log stuck in your own eye?”

 

So in the Advent season, the preacher- whether it is James Forbes or John the Baptist or someone else- is swift to remind all sinners who have possibly forgotten their own state of misery, that there can be deliverance to the captives: those who are held captive by sin, by glitter, by money, by threats, by walls, or by government. The preacher, like James or John, dips deeply into the well of Isaiah, for example, with words like: “For unto us a child is born; unto us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder!”  It should be shouted from the rooftops; it should be enacted in branches of the legislature; it should be offered in halls of incarceration and on the street corners of corruption. Jesus coming into people’s lives giving us not only the power, but also the mandate, “to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” And our mandate is to tell the world, the whole world, about Jesus Christ, who came to save us from our sins. But first we tell the world about sin and the trouble we’re in, so no one can claim ignorance of it as they do it. May the coming birth of this child empower you and me to, like the angel that holy night, proclaim the good news to the lowly and the powerful of our world, and tell them to come and hear what all the commotion, that occurs every December around the world, is all about.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                                            December 9, 2007

 

 

 

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HUMANKIND

Psalm 8: 1-9; Ephesians 2: 1-7

 

During our trip to Germany and Italy in November, I noticed a number of copies, in Italian or English, of the original story of Pinocchio, written by a man named Carlo Lorenzini whose pen name was Carlo Collodi, the last name being that of his mother’s home town. Collodi was born and died in Florence. Walt Disney toned down some of the painful encounters of the puppet turned boy, but the original story has to do with a wooden puppet that was made by a woodcarver, and in the imagination and fantasy of the author the puppet longs to be real; to be human; to be, as Disney’s version put it “a real boy.”  Yet when he was magically transformed into a real boy, he got into trouble, he lied, he learned, and he developed a conscience- a little like what happened when God made men and women in the beginning according to Genesis 2 and beyond. In literature, however, there are fairy tales about mermaids wanting to be human, puppets wanting to be human, robots developing human characteristics, and even horror stories of animals turning human. In the heart of many writers and film writers’ imaginations is the longing for humanness.  And what exactly does that mean?  You could tell others, couldn’t you?  Being human means your body aches much of your life, perhaps from age or injury or athletics, but to be human means to live with pain. To be human means you make choices, choices between right and wrong, and to accept the consequences of poor choices.  To be human means that you are finite and mortal, having been given a life span on this earth and in these bodies. This- this flesh and blood, this burden of choices, this life of consequences- is what writers and dreamers have longed to have happen to their puppets or mermaids or robots?  Yes; humanness, with all its weaknesses, has unmistakable drawing power.  Humans know what it means to touch and be touched: sometimes it is harmful, but many times it’s wonderful. Animals know devotion, but humans experience the richness of love with all of its powers and complexities. People live and die for love; it is the topic of songs and poems and troubadours. Yet as good as human ingenuity is, no one has been able to make a prosthetic arm, leg, eye, or organ that equals the wonder of the God-created ones.  To be human is not just a burden because of pain, conflict, and choice; on the contrary to be human is a gift, a blessing, and a fleeting lifetime that is gone too soon.  Humanness is more than just the moaning, self-destruction, and defeatism into which some people turn it. Today, let us remember why God, who loves, knows, and sees all, still wanted the experience and insight on the world from becoming human.

 

Psalm 8 reminds us that we are made higher than creatures and lower than angels and God. So we have a place in the created order! And we are the only ones capable of choices including praise! God needed the human creation to feel complete and glad, to feel appreciated and honored. All creatures great and small God made; but God’s relationship with humans has been the most tortured, yet most desired.  Ages ago, and in some cultures even today, fathers chose marriage partners for their children. Most children resented not having a choice. Like a wooden puppet whose creator made him do everything with strings and a carving knife, not having choices was stifling. Choices, in spite of their risks, were worth fighting for in human history. As Ephesians chapter 2 describes it, once the boy (or girl) turned from wooden choicelessness to human choices, desires of the flesh (gluttony, lust, greed, and others) came into play. It was from those deadly sins that God, having experienced their temptations through Jesus Christ, sought to save us through the one who was and is truly human, but also truly God. God did not choose to get trapped in the weaknesses of humanness, but to have a full and sufficient taste for it and then rescue us from its worst parts. Through God in Christ, we can have the greatest living situation on the planet: humanness; but instead of just ending our human life with nothing beyond, we can, through Christ, end up rising from death, not only to life, but to heavenly life. This is why God came to earth in Jesus Christ. God came to save us and to know us. Today, the bread and cup will barely feed your body, but, if you let it, it will feed your soul.  Let us give thanks to God today for the intricacies and celebrations of being human.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                                   December 2, 2007

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OUR COVENANT MAKING GOD

Jeremiah 31:31-34; 1Corinthians 11: 23-25

 

As our nation ends its official holiday of Thanksgiving, and we look around the corner of November to the promises of December, hear these words from Douglas Stivison regarding one of our nation’s most precious documents: “The framers of the Declaration of Independence believed passionately that covenants were the foundation for all facets of their lives—in private and in public, in the home and in the church, in the marketplace, and in the political forum….The Declaration of Independence, one of history’s most political documents, is inextricably grounded in an unshakable belief in humanity’s covenantal relationship with a loving God…. They were determined to align their political covenants with their understanding of the divine covenant. This reflected a profound understand that our lives are shaped by multiple covenants, and that we need to reconcile, order, prioritize, and align them all.” [LIVING PULPIT, Vol. 14, No. 3, 2005, p. 1]  I have told my Confirmation Classes that a covenant is “a promise between God and people, or between people and people.  We make covenants all the time: there are sacred ones such as ordination vows, or marriage vows, or baptismal vows, or membership vows. They are meant to be kept. When Presidents of the United States have been sworn into office, they swear, that is make a vow or promise, to uphold the Constitution of our land with a right hand raised and a left hand on the Holy Bible.  But before we leave the idea of sacred promises, or covenants, do you know people who still count their business and personal promises as sacred, that is, that their word is their bond?  Do you still know people on whose word you can count? There were supposed “good old days,” before our world became so litigious, when a verbal promise or a handshake sealed a deal. It still does with many with whom I associate, how about you? Alas, most often now we lean on contracts, which are also covenants of a sort, with paper backing up the promises.  We have contracts on homes, contracts on our purchases (if we kept the receipt), contracts on lawn service, pest control, cell phone minutes, and on repair work.  These contracts have paperwork that guarantee something. The paper could be worthless without laws; but promises are worthless without someone’s word or reputation. Reputation is one of the great things that have built businesses, and with broken promises, have made them crumble. It is not a bad idea to trust but verify in most of our initial contacts. How many people fall for scams that come over the internet, or at our front doors, or through the mail because people who pretend to be truthful are really lying or irresponsible? How many, back in the 1920s, a time of general delight in the financial markets in the midst of a carefree society, trusted banks to be able to produce their savings on demand, then with an unforeseen stock market crash,  people tried to pull out their money and couldn’t.  Frank Capra’s holiday classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” depicted situations that occurred during that period of our nation’s glorious faith in itself without a safety net. From that decade of darkness called the 30s, which made some of you eternally frugal, made others of you never trust the stock market, and made still others never able to really trust again, President Roosevelt’s “New Deal” was offered, along with other safeguards, to help bring our nation out of the depression. From dark times, times of failure, and times of broken trust, we come to forks in the road that can weaken us or make us stronger; the choices we make matter.

 

Ages ago, God offered promises that were sacred and that were sealed in special ways.  Just as the times when you put trust in someone who broke it, God had choices to make when people broke their promises: God could either wipe out planet earth and try for another more faithful civilization, or God could mold and make over and begin to forgive humans so that they could see that forgiveness was divine. When the whole world was acting like it was the roaring 20s and worse (in Genesis chapter 6,) God experienced what you may have felt again this week, this month, or this year: regret and disappointment. People disappointed God; don’t people disappoint you? Didn’t you regret being vulnerable with your heart or your body or your secrets when someone betrayed or harmed you? Writers through the ages, from Shakespeare’s classic line of Julius Caesar, “Et tu Brute?’ to modern novelists remind us of the human angst of betrayal. But there is divine angst too.  What is usually the healthiest step to take? For many, they decide not to associate with the one who has wronged them and pour themselves into someone else who hasn’t. Many among us survive and thrive today because they have removed themselves from toxic and corrupting people who used to influence them. God once decided to do something like that! God decided not to be associated with those who blatantly and defiantly lived in harmful ways; God said, (in so many words) “I will pour my efforts into relationships that, while not perfect, includes good values, good hearts, and  willing spirits at the center.” God chose Noah and let his “seed” as it was called, along with his wife and children, repopulate the world, so the story goes. Therefore one way of dealing with broken promises, according to this story, is to remove ourselves from those who have hurt us, and move on.  Trusting again after broken trust either never happens, or it happens differently.

 

Lutheran pastor Roger R. Gustafson described one scene this way: “They sit across the coffee table from me in my office, in pieces. She, weary and bleary-eyed with crying, staring at her folded hands; he, guilty and gazing into space, ashamed to even glance at me, his pastor and friend. He is beyond hoping that there are words to make this better. It had been a routine business trip, complete with routine dinner clients, a routine round of drinks before retiring for the night, [then] a knock on the door from a young lady …. [on a night when the faithful husband and father failed to form the word ‘no’ on his lips.] He came home unwittingly transmitting [that incriminating kind of disease] to his wife. It wasn’t long before the scene in their kitchen. The icy dagger of betrayal had pierced her innocent heart. He had broken their covenant. “Ibid, p. 19]  Flashback to Exodus 32, far beyond God’s covenant to Abraham to always be his God and the God of his people; after God’s Covenant with Moses and the Israelites, offered if they promised to keep the Ten Commandments.  God had thrown every lifeline of faithfulness that holy scribes could create, and in spite of them all, at the foot of the Holy Mountain Sinai, God was betrayed. God felt like you when you have been betrayed, only thousands of times over.  Exodus 32 has the dreadful story of a broken covenant, of promises broken to the one who gave them life. The holy stomach was tied in knots, and the holy heart was broken.  Certainly by the end of Exodus there was a renewal of vows of sorts recorded in the 34th chapter, but God’s trust of people had taken yet another beating. People in general, God learned, would always disappoint and always make mistakes.  Parents learn that about their children; children learn that about their parents; husbands learn that about their wives and wives about their husbands. And in our day, the last 30 years or so, many workers have been socked in their stomachs by corporations that refused to honor promises for pensions or health care. We are part of a bitter world. But like our nation, God had a new deal to present; Jeremiah was one of the first to get the good news, and he told it to a nation that had been ravaged by another because God had lowered holy protection on them since they had chosen other gods. So God tried again; God tried to build a new bridge where the first one was burned by human unfaithfulness. And that bridge was a new covenant, a new promise, foretold by Jeremiah, and embodied in Jesus Christ, and instituted at the Last Supper, and described simply in his new commandment to love one another.  Our loving God would abide in Heaven, but also abide on earth in one we would call the Son, one who would pay the price for our betrayals, and sins, and heartaches, one who would look at Jerusalem one day and weep over it as his Father was weeping in Heaven.  God had shown two vastly different ways of dealing with broken covenants. 

 

Friends, if it is ever our hope to grow closer to God, then human actions most readily will mirror divine actions.  The popular cliché is “What Would Jesus Do?” but the question is broader than that: “What did God do, as recorded in the Bible, the written record of God’s actions in history?” Today we have found two ways to handle broken covenants: The first way is to keep our promises, asking God to give us the strength to do so. And when there are those who break their promises to us, some choose to cut off those relationships and find their joy in others. You may choose to take that route with those who have broken their promises to you- to drop toxic relationships and build new ones. It is not without tears and pain; God has felt those as well. But there is another way that God chose to handle broken promises besides cutting people off: it was an extraordinary choice: when men or women burned the first bridge of their relationship by their broken promises, God chose to build a new bridge, not one built on naïve thoughts, but one built on a cautious willingness to try to stay in relationship differently. That path involved both forgiveness and grace. Some in our world make that extraordinary choice too.  Like the man in the pastor’s office, knowing there were no words to say to make things better, his relationship could start to be mended only by his broken and hurt wife, and then only by grace and forgiveness.  There are couples, and business relationships, and friendships that are restored even today because of grace and forgiveness. It is a costly path on the part of the forgiver. And those fortunate enough to be offered forgiveness are wise to straighten up and fly right. Some of the best relationships I know were built again by this second path, demonstrated by God in Christ, the one who forgives you, to give you the power and example for forgiving others.  Two choices God made and still makes; one of two choices we also can make so that we might have life, and have it abundantly. Choose wisely.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                  November 25, 2007

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GOD: PERSONAL

Exodus 3: 1-6; 13-15; John 14: 1-11

 

My daughter, Jenny, has a pet beta fish named Sam.  I didn’t know what a beta fish was until she got him. Sam lives in a clear plastic tumbler most of the time, or in a mason jar with holds punched in the lid when he travels.  He is very low maintenance; I have been in charge of feeding Sam when Jenny was away one time, and just gave him 5 pellets each day. How easy. I wonder if I get up close and look at Sam, if I must look like that eye on the first page of our bulletin?  What does a giant face, and even closer, a giant eye, look like to a small fish?  I wonder, if God were to look at us in our world, if it would be like a person looking though a clear tumbler at a fish: eyes of love, eyes of wonder, eyes of curiosity? But God chose to not just fill our minds with images; God let the divine voice be heard and let the divine heart be known, particularly in our two passages today. 

 

One of the signs of a theophany, or an appearance by God, is fire; we learned that a few weeks ago. Keeping with that human understanding, the first time God spoke to the central leader of Israel, it was through fire. “Moses … Moses!”  The reader knows who the recipient of the message is; but who is the giver of the message? “Do not come near; take off your shoes, for the place on which you are standing is Holy Ground.” Now we know the speaker; only God can make common ground holy!  God chose to have a rather personal relationship with Moses, a good idea when the request God made was so demanding. God even gave Moses a trump card, so to speak: the person name or God- YHWH- so that if anyone got up into Moses’ face and growled “Who says?” Moses could tell them the name of the true God in stark contrast to the many Caananite gods in that region. Moses was told to say: “The God who is who he is and will be who he will be” sent me.  In sharing our names, we feel like we allow ourselves to be more known and to know others.  When I first came here to this congregation, I worked to know names of those in the flock. And we struggled with the right fit: first names, last names with titles: Mr. Mrs. Miss, or Rev.?  If we know each other, and call each other by name, walls come down and bridges get built. Being personal has its risks, but also its benefits. God risked sharing a personal voice and a personal name with Moses. We can get lulled into a sense of knowing someone who doesn’t know us thanks to television and radio media.  We hear a voice or see a face, say of a newscaster or a celebrity or even a preacher, and we think if we were to meet them they would know us; but then we catch ourselves and remember: all we’ve seen is an image or heard a voice; they’ve seen nothing but a camera or a microphone; it just seems like they have looked right at us!  Some have even been disappointed when they met the celebrity of their choice and found them gruff, distant, or unresponsive. All those years of cheering for, pulling for, and idolizing the great pitcher, Bob Gibson, and upon telling him that at an autograph session, he just looked at me as he handed the autographed cap back to him that I’d just paid $19.95 to get! What a disappointment. Being personal, physically being in the presence of another, can bring either comfort or a discomfort that media sources, including text messaging, blogging, and face books cannot replace.

 

A number of years ago, Bette Midler made a song popular called “From a Distance.”  In it was the claim “God is watching us from a distance.” But God is more personal than that. Christian theology says that God is with us even now, immortal but also invisible. God came down to earth as the Word became flesh according to John chapter 1. Christian Theology says that God in Christ later left the Holy Spirit for us on earth to teach and comfort us. And Christian theology teaches that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” (2 Corinthians 5:19) God also longs for relationship.

Later in John 14, we learn from Jesus how personally God cares.  Jesus told his disciples a story that he superimposed over Jewish wedding customs.  After a father of a boy and the father of a selected girl decide on a price to pay for the daughter’s hand in marriage to the son, the father takes the son away for a period of time, and only the father gets to decide how long. During that time, the bride waits and prepares, the bridesmaids stay ready, and the father and son build a room on the father’s house where the new couple will live. The father teaches his son as they build, about supporting, caring for, and loving his new bride. In this story, the church (the bride), is invited to be the honored guest of the father under his roof, along with his son, to live there and be under his protection, and in return, to honor her new husband and thank the father for the gift of living under his roof as family.  Jesus said to his disciples, in so many words, “You know that story. Now trust that my Father wants that for you; and oh, by the way, like some of you look like your fathers, so, if you have seen me, you have an idea what my father looks like. Do not be afraid.” 

 

Things that are unknown can be frightening: an exodus; feeling alone.  God speaks to us in many personal ways. One way that God’s love and Christian teachings are shared with the world is through missionaries. Today we are blessed to personally have our missionaries with us. They bring the Gospel of Jesus from another country, through another language, but it is the same God who is worshipped and the same Jesus who is Lord. Meet them, share with them; pray for them as we support them. Perhaps in seeing them today, and hearing why they felt called to be missionaries for the Lord, you too might be called by God in even new ways. When God has work to do, in this city, this country, or in another and asks in holy pondering, “Whom shall I send?” perhaps you can say: “Here I am Lord! I will go if you lead me; I’ll hold your people in my heart.” They did. Thanks be to God. And so can you. Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           November 4, 2007

 

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GOD: CREATOR

Genesis 1: 1-12; John 1: 1-14

 

Today let me let you hear something that I’ve only told to a few: there is a program that soothes me for a half and hour if I’m home for a late lunch that drives my artistic wife crazy.  Now I know you’re thinking its Andy Griffith. No; I like Andy when I need to find my smile again. But I like Bob Ross, and “The Joy of Painting.” There, I said it. Perhaps I should join a support group of some sort!  But what is in the head of the man with the paintbrush? Why, he gets to take a blank canvas, add any colors of the rainbow or mixtures of hues, and he, in thirty minutes, creates something out of nothing. Of course, it is not the way God did it; God really created something out of nothing! Bob Ross is more like an editor, isn’t he? The entire pallet of his mind is the nature that God has already created; if it was a painting on a computer screen, he could simply click on a tree and drag it over; or on a mountain or a brook and drag it over. But he looks at a canvas and still gets to decide what will be painted on it, and what scene will come to life before the viewer’s eyes. It’s just that Ross creates a picture from the images in his mind. But creating something from truly nothing: that magnificent, glorious, vast, and humanly overwhelming task belongs to the Holy One we call Creator. God looked into the nothingness, the “void” as it is sometimes called, and had to decide EVERYTHING!  And what was God’s paintbrush: the Word!  With a Word, remember:  “God said,” there shall be brightness to be called “light;” and darkness to be called “night.” Did you notice that, because God can do what God wants to do, night and day were created even before the sun and the moon? Interesting ….  How long do you think it took to decide what to call “day” and “night” and how to divide them? It boggles the human mind, but we are told, perhaps in comforting human terms, that it took a day. Wow! That’s either exact or a metaphor, but we will always come back to Scripture’s caution “With God, nothing is impossible!” Then God, with a word, called forth the colors of blue with white clouds, and gray with black clouds, and called them “sky.” And looking at our planet that perhaps did not yet have water, God named a liquid that gives us life and beauty “water,” and let its color be clear so that it could, a little like humans, reflect and refract God’s creation around it.  What genius! Day two. And you think your days are full! Did you catch the sense that creation, when properly seen, can cause awe and celebration?  Mary Ann and I, who were originally from the north, marveled at our children’s reaction to seeing snow for the first time! What was it like for the Apollo 11 crew to touch and see the moon up close with their own eyes for the first time? What is it like when a mother or father sees their baby, their creation in a matter of speaking, for the first time? These experiences are new and powerful! And you may have experienced a child’s squeals of delight upon seeing a squirrel in her backyard for the first time, or the yearning a child has when passing a pet store window!  At Creation on the third day, God continued to create a playground for us, and it was one without the need for human concession stands. There were apples and nuts; brooks of water and bunches of grapes; there were animals that gave milk and some with fur that could be cut to keep us warm. What a giving God we have! God finished out the creation week with things we love and on which we depend: earth and the sea, plant life and fruit; trees and seeds; seasons that bring warmth and cold and rain and snow and sometimes colorful leaves; and so we wouldn’t have to invent flashlights (even though we did), God gave us the sun as a bright light for when we would most naturally work, and a night light called the moon for when our bodies would naturally want to sleep and the plants could collect needed moisture. What an ecosystem! Then came the day when God got to play the most: a day of naming amazing long necked yellow animals, “Giraffes;” large, trunked gray animals “elephants,” huge water creatures called “whales” that weighed a fraction of their land weight because they were in the sea; and then God created other strange creatures: purposeful to the Creator, later questionable in the mind of the public: hornets, piranha, fire ants, the duckbilled platypus, the gooney bird, and the like.  We’ll have to ask God about those when we get to live above the dome, so to speak! And you’ll notice that the first blessing of the Bible is not on people, it is on God’s creatures. As the verse veterinarian James Herriot loved to quote says: “All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small; all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all!”

 

But then came God’s most complex creation: beings that in some ways reflected the nature of their Creator. The Bible text is quite interesting at that point: let us make humankind in our image” it says in verse 26.  Was God talking like a nurse in a doctor’s office who once asked me, “And how are we feeling today?” “We? I don’t know about you, but I feel lousy and that’s why I’m here!” I once replied in a not too polite and cranky kind of way. Why does God speak in the plural? Some have suggested, thanks to the powerful reminder in John chapter one, that the Living Word traditionally known as the “Son” or the “Redeemer” was also in the Godhead, along with the “Ruach” or “Spirit” that was also present (claim Trinitarian scholars). Others have noted that since God is eternal, like a ring, rather than with a beginning, like a starting line, God had other heavenly beings that were consulted: perhaps angels, perhaps of both genders, that pleased God and encouraged the Creator to make mortals in similar pleasing forms that inhabited divine space.  Again make your list to ask when you cross over to the other side! This magnificent creation story doesn’t explain itself, but leaves us to abide in its wonder and, yes, its mysteries!  So, perhaps in the likeness of angelic beings, God created ones like the ones that already were pleasing: male and female they were called. And to these beings (not creatures) God actually spoke; and remember, it was through speaking (voice and breath) that God brought life to what we call Earth.

 

Finally God, in a divine act of CPR, created eternally interesting bodies and then breathed life into them and chose to abide with them in a spiritual way.  Only later, we find out in John, does God unselfishly come down in a mortal body, to empathize with, hurt with, laugh with, and suffer with us. But God uniquely kept a foot in what was divine, and another in what was mortal so God could experience how we hurt, why we sin, and why we fall. In speaking to humans initially, God gave instructions saying they were to be caretakers of the earth and the creatures and (perhaps implied) of one another.  Human failings were better addressed in the second creation story in chapter 2. But isn’t it likely that life on and care for the Earth has not gone anything like life in and care of Heaven must be like?  Certainly Heaven is not falling apart or being corrupted by dirt, pollution, or sin?  But here we have responsibilities.  I have gone back to children’s playgrounds I enjoyed as a child and been proud of how well some of them had been kept, and saddened by the sight of others. I have gone back to houses where I used to live and felt the same way. Does the home called Planet Earth need a little TLC? We are the managers of these apartments that we named North America, South America Europe, Asia, Antarctica, and the rest. Back in 1854, a Native American named Chief Seattle said these words to President Pierce: “One thing we know which the white man may one day discover- our God is the same God. You may think, now, that you own him as you wish to own our land, but you cannot. He is the God of man, and his compassion is equal for the red man and the white. The earth is precious to him, and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its Creator… Continue to contaminate your bed, and you will one night suffocate in your own waste.”  And in 1937, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that “the Genesis account [argues] that we are ‘a piece of the earth’ …. [And] the essential point of human existence is its bond with mother earth, its being and its body.”

 

Friends. today we have been reminded of the precious playground we have been given; a place where animals, plants, and people are meant to live. And the only one capable of sinning is the one for whom a Savior was sent; for we- you and I and our forebears- are the ones who are to care for, protect, and farm the earth. God’s weeps in wrath over arsonists who destroy acres of forests; and over melting ice caps that make some places too warm or too wet for habitation; and over skies that get clogged with smoke and lakes that get polluted with sewage.  But as much as that affects the Holy Heart, God seems to spend the most time attending to the fickle and the funny; the philandering and sometimes faithful human beings who were made in the image of what was Heavenly.  Awesome; God cares that much, showing us how to care. May we reflect our Creator’s care with what, and who, has been entrusted to our care. In the first book of Scripture for Christians and Jews, God looked at a black canvas, and with the paintbrush of the word, began to create. It was very good. With our renewed care, it still can be so.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           October 28, 2007

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