08-26-07 JONAH

UNDERSTANDING GREAT BIBLE STORIES: JONAH

 

Today our Bible story takes us to Iraq. This last quarter, American armed force recruitment quotas have been down sharply.  A report this week concerning particularly the Army said men and women of color, who have for years found enlistment as a means to afford college and decent income, have their parents imploring their children not to enlist!  Are these parents unpatriotic? They say no; but in these volatile times they do not want their son or daughter being deployed in Iraq.

 

Years ago, like an Uncle Sam poster, the Lord God pointed to a native of Israel and said “I want you to become a chaplain in an Israeli army of one! In other words, I am sending you to the unfaithful Iraqi city of Nineveh.” With an objective, that in his heyday, may have even made Billy Graham shudder, Jonah was asked to Nineveh, which still exists in Iraq, to speak out against their wickedness, their killings and such, and see if they would turn to the true God who had no use for their antics.  Jonah muttered under his breath that he’d rather chew gravel than go to Nineveh, so he decided he’d ponder the choice by taking a European cruise instead.  You can relate, can’t you?  Taking a cruise to get away from obligations and work?  Well he paid his fare and decided that Spain would be a nice place to visit that time of year.  His personal agenda had to come first! He must have left his unselfishness at seminary. None of this enlistment in the army of the Lord for him!  No putting God first, when God asked outrageous things of him like risk, commitment, and changing priorities!  How would you have answered God?   Often we look at Jonah from afar, but isn’t there a lot of you and me, and those around you, and those not in church, in Jonah?   Especially those who are doing something that crowds God out of a busy schedule, they can relate to Jonah, can’t they?  This is the trap of personal agendas; in our day it is encouraged by coworkers, by television programs, and by advertisers. This is the first time the Bible records that Jonah’s spiritual cruise had run aground.  He chose not only to ignore God, he chose to run away from God’s request.  Like a little child who covers her eyes and thinks by doing so that no one can see her, Jonah thinks he can hide where God can’t find him. Nonsense. It is as much nonsense for us today as it was for Jonah. We cannot run from God; God just teaches us lessons along the way and waits us out.

 

Jonah, nevertheless, boards his cruise; even as the steel drum band was playing as they cast off, the crew saw no red sky that night and, being a superstitious lot, they began to get anxious. They could tell a storm was coming. And sure as the National Weather Service, their instincts were right. The storm was so strong, at least a category two, that each crewman cried to his make-believe gods of the sea to save them. But it was fruitless.  They even thought that a costly offering to Poseidon, their ruler of the deep, would settle things down, so they dumped their valuable cargo overboard. Still the wind howled and the ship pitched almost to the point of not righting herself. They knew that an Israelite was with them and that he had a different God.  They asked him to also pray to his God.  Isn’t it just the way when people, who set out on their own agenda, get in to trouble, that they begin praying the Rosary which they haven’t touched since their last crisis; or they dust off their Bible and become religious; or they make a frantic attempt at a remorseful speech like a prodigal son or daughter.  The crew was a desperate group but nothing worked. Finally and unbelievably, Jonah set his personal agenda aside and, in not his first and not his last moment of self-pity, he offered to let them throw him to the sharks.  He almost decided to jump from his balcony but thought the better of it. At wits end, however, the crew pushed him overboard.  Like cold water added boiling water, the sea became instantly still; the ship righted herself and the crew members stopped hanging their head over the side; calm began to prevail.

 

A shark might have put Jonah out of his misery more quickly; but God had other plans for his servant; he wasn’t going to avoid the Lord simply by dying!  So God arranged for a very large fish, some have even said a whale, (which we now know is a mammal) to swallow Jonah and miraculously give him the only spot underwater with breathable air. Now don’t ask me who the narrator of the story was who could follow this escapade like a cable news crew, but they managed to record everything in this book by his name. They even heard his frightful sense of penance, with his seemingly heartfelt prayer: being in the damp and gooey belly of a fish can make even the Army seem inviting to a man!  He was deciding that like Uncle Sam, if the Lord wanted him, he would go.  “Good!” said the Lord after the fish spewed him onto a Mediterranean beach, with no umbrella or cabana to be found.  He would indeed need his sand shoes, but not for the beach; he was headed over the desert east by northeast to face the people he dreaded facing; he thought they were sinful, inferior, and he had no business mixing with their kind. He had built a life-long prejudice.  You know people who have done that; even we have some “learned” prejudices that we can unlearn over time.  When Norman Lear created the character of Archie Bunker for “All in the Family,” he asked Carroll O’Connor to portray an exaggerated caricature of a bigot. He thought people might laugh at him and the foolishness of such attitudes; instead, he was shocked when people agreed with Archie’s ignorant bigoted beliefs! Jonah, however, wasn’t Archie Bunker. Jonah was, in all likelihood, like some in our day who just don’t like certain people, even before they get to know them, because they are of a certain color or orientation or creed or nationality or party affiliation.  “I’ll never accept them!” some people mutter under their breath. That’s how Jonah felt about the Ninevites. But when he delivered his fiery sermon, he was floored when they actually said, “Okay, we have heard you and your God. We will repent, and show true remorse, and change our ways.  Few preachers have such unequivocal success! That would make Jonah happy right?  “Grrrrr” muttered Jonah under his breath. He wanted a reason to continue disliking, griping, and alienating. Have you ever witnessed parents, children, neighbors, or a boss, who wanted you to agree to their terms in a situation, and then after you agreed to them they still groused and made additional demands?  These are small people; Jonah, a prophet of the Lord, a preacher, was a small person that day; wouldn’t be the first believer like that or the last, but it was a low day when God’s army, the Heavenly Host, wanted to cheer for the repentant Ninevites and Jonah’s response took the cold water that had calmed the furious sea and threw it in their faces.

 

Personal agenda; prejudice; and finally pride had brought a man of God down to a level below the ones he hated.  God was more pleased with the ones Jonah hated than with Jonah!  Have you ever had the thought that God may be more pleased with those you hate than with you?  We can make ourselves into an embarrassment before our family, friends, and God just like Jonah did, can’t we?  It’s like holding a mirror up to a time that you hoped others had forgotten.  Chapter 4 of Jonah paints a pathetic picture of a pouting man.  Jonah was unhappy that his enemies had repented, and even more unhappy that God had forgiven them. “I knew you’d do that since you’re so patient and loving!” Jonah cried out.  “That’s why I was running to Spain.  I wish a shark had eaten me rather than be responsible for the salvation of those awful people!”  Jonah stomped away, forgetting that God could follow him as easily as he could on the ship. You or I never really stomp away from God; like a cable news network, God stays on the story and never lets it go. So Jonah sulked under the shade of a plant that God provided, which made him feel back in control, until God let a worm eat at it and the plant died, which made Jonah feel worse.  Finally, in a classic change of subject to close the book, Jonah is arguing with God- not about Ninevites- but about the now withered plant.

 

Although few of us see ourselves as Ninevites, in our most pathetic moments of running from discipleship or the teachings of Jesus if we sound like Jonah, we are most to be pitied. How pathetic.  May you not fall into the traps that this prophet fell in to: traps of personal agenda, of prejudice, and of pride. Instead, the Lord asks for your enlistment, your discipleship, your faithfulness- call it what you may. And when you live more like Jesus and less like Jonah, suddenly for you, there will be a multitude of the Heavenly Host praising God and saying, “Glory to God!” For the Bible says that Heaven rejoices over one sinner who repents. Heaven rejoiced over the Ninevites; may Heaven rejoice over your choices and my choices this week as well.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                  August 26, 2007  

08-19-07 RUTH

UNDERSTANDING GREAT BIBLE STORIES:

RUTH: (Ruth 2: 14-23)

 

It has been said that desperate times call for desperate measures. Just in the last week, we have prayed for and sent our hearts out to families and friends whose loved ones were trapped in a Utah mine cave-in; we have learned of the deadliest attack in the Iraq war history; we have been shaken by the news of an earthquake in Peru (Where Kendra’s daughter, Anne, lives, although we learned she is alright.)  We also are bracing with the Caribbean islands and the gulf for category 4 hurricane Dean to wreak havoc with their lives.  In our own country besides the mine accident, we have learned of deaths due to record temperatures and poor water quality; even deaths by toys with lead paint have hit our radar screen. Sometimes things seem to come unglued.

 

For generations people have turned to the Bible for words of comfort, guidance, and hope. Some turn to the Psalms, some to the Gospels, some to Paul’s letters. But Ruth; the book of Ruth?  Let’s listen to the storyteller whose story is set in the midst of tragedy.  And by the way, the Woman’s Bible Study that the Circles will use all year is written by Carol M. Bechtel and deals with Ruth and Jonah. I make some references from that study book today and will preach on Jonah next week.

 

Once upon a time a faithful man from the land of Judah and the little town of Bethlehem, (which, ironically means “House of Bread”) did what he thought was necessary to keep his family from starving: Elimelech, by name, took his wife, Naomi (which meant, “pleasant”) to Moab, (the Hebrew people were fond of giving their children meaningful names that they hoped would help them fulfill their God-given destiny. If so, then why did they name their two sons, whom they took with them, Mahlon (which means sickly) and Chilion (which means frail?) Seems like this trip had two strikes against it!  But they must have already been sick and tired from famines and lack of good water because soon after their arrival, Elimelech died. Since the famine was still going on back home, they humbly tried to stay in Moab, almost like an immigrant or illegal alien might come to our country for survival. Naomi, being an Israelite woman, was persona-non-grata in Moab, but along with her sons she and they could offer cheap labor. As they stayed, they found the Moabites not nearly as wretched as the old stories that had been told about them. (And isn’t that true once you meet the ones told in stories? In Arkansas, my secretary at my first church, which turns 125 years old this very day, used to say when she was young that she was told many horrid stories about Yankees: she pictured them with horns and fangs and claws.  When she was about to meet her first Yankee she was terrified, but soon discovered Yankees were “sorta like southerners, only not as good!”) Well, I suspect the Moabites thought Naomi, Mahlon, and Chilion were sorta like Moabites, only not as good! But good, kind young men of marrying age often eye young women who are also interested, and sometimes love is so blind that one falls in love with another regardless of nationality, race, creed, or color.  Such was the case with those boys.  One day they ended up getting married, going  against Jewish tradition never to marry non–Jews, but by that time, the people of Moab had been kind to them and some of their ways had altered them. So down the aisle went Mahlon and Orpah (which Oprah’s mother misspelled when naming her) and Chilion and Ruth. All was well for years, so much so that the men taught their wives about their faith, but they didn’t go back. They grew accustomed to that new land. After 10 years there, the sons of Naomi both died, so the widow by custom had no means of support and her two daughters-in-law had not either.  In the back of Naomi’s mind, she remembered the old levirate marriage law and other customs that said family takes care of family. Perhaps in New Orleans, the Caribbean, in Utah, and other places that has happened. Perhaps if you have experienced the death of a loved one even you were taken in by, or moved closer to, family. So Naomi decides she must go back to her native country and find a relative who will take her in. She expects her daughters-in-law to stay in Moab with their kin. But a bond has been created between them in their hardship. They have been through so much that they can hardly be parted.  Naomi is far beyond marrying age but Ruth and Orpah are not; she sees hope for them if they stay. But they say no; they will take their chances going with her. She has heard rumors that people are surviving in Bethlehem again, but they are only rumors. She cares for these daughters-in-law, which goes against the stereotype. She implores them both to stay in their land for their own survival; they cried in each other’s arms and Orpah finally relented to Naomi’s request. But Ruth could not be persuaded and she goes into the two line speech that is recorded at the beginning of your bulletin and has made it into countless weddings even though it is a daughter-in-law pledging devotion to a mother-in-law and to her God.  Ruth had a chance because she would be considered a convert to Judaism as she came to Judah. But Naomi was already so angry with God and with life that she was going through some of the stages of grief that Dr. Lex Baer of our Presbyterian Counseling Center cited in this month’s Spire, the church newsletter: “Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally and hopefully, acceptance.” People who have lost their home, their spouse, their children, or their homeland go through those stages in different ways. Naomi was so overwhelmed and looked so bad, with her face lined and expression void, that those who once knew her said to her face “Is this Naomi?” to which she replied stoically ( I would imagine) “No longer call me Naomi (pleasant), call me Mara (bitter.)” Life had been hard on her.

 

So there they were in Bethlehem and they found one of Noami’s relatives by marriage. His name was Boaz and was a man of means.  Ruth selflessly began working and gleaning in a field, allowed also by Levitical law in Leviticus 19 and 23.  But Boaz noticed her; she was different, she was working, perhaps she even had a certain beauty! She falls at his feet acknowledging that she is a foreigner. She then says she hopes the Lord, the God of Israel, rewards him for his deeds. What an interesting woman! She is from another country yet she speaks his language (thanks, we are sure, to her late husband and to Naomi). She also believes in his God, shows proper respect, and is willing to work hard.  Why, she would be a welcome immigrant in any country with her good attitude and good work! Sometimes people have grown fond of those from other countries or faiths who have exhibited undying gratitude for blessings and undying devotion to a country whose God is the Lord.  Boaz began to protect and care for Ruth. 

 

Boaz, being an honorable man, begins the social security process for her; he protects Naomi as a kinswoman; but Ruth is of a marrying age and could be made a part of his nation if she were to marry and have children. By the Levirate marriage law, she was to be offered to the man closest by blood to her late Jewish husband, and she was allowed and encouraged to marry him if he wanted it, even if he were already married. (Leviticus 25: 25) So a sort of legal polygamy turns the theological heads of many of us today.  But that man declined the offer, which was perhaps a part of God’s divine plan, and the man who had shown wisdom, maturity, means, lovingkindness, and mercy was next in line: Boaz. Would Boaz like to marry Ruth? Yes. Would Ruth like to marry Boaz even though he was older? Yes. The Bible says in the original Hebrew that Boaz was ish gibbor chayel.  Used when describing a warrior, it meant he was both physically and financially endowed! Yup! There would be a wedding!!

 

And so our story winds down including something that many family albums include: a place for the family tree to be listed. This devoted, converted Moabite woman, and this true-blood Jew who was strong, kind, God-fearing, and blessed, had children. Naomi was even blessed to be asked to be the child’s nurse, so the child was nourished by this Jewish woman who had become smitten bonded to her daughter-in-law Ruth. Five lines from the end of the book it is put this way: “The boy was named Obed; he became the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David.” And Matthew knows that story and puts more leaves on the family tree, tracing all of those generations down to who? To the Lord Jesus who was born, of course, in Bethlehem. God’s never-failing goodness can now be traced from the Old Testament to new. Sadly, it is highlighted at times by distorted stories about other nations, creeds, colors, or faiths that aren’t always true; it is also highlighted by times when families took in other people during times of grief and crisis; and it is highlighted by people praising the Lord who shows steadfast love amidst crisis. That God, that story, and those lessons are recorded in history for people like you, and like me, to never forget.  God cares for you; there are good people of many stripes, and you might be among those who, amidst crisis, will be called to practice open-hearted hospitality.  May we each look at others, as God sees us:  through eyes of love and grace.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           August 19, 2007

08-12-07 THE PRODIGAL SON

GREAT STORIES OF THE BIBLE

The Prodigal Son (Luke 15)

 

Mark Twain; Anne Tyler; William Shakespeare, Mary Shelley, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ken Follett; these are but a few of the countless experts on story-telling and human nature. In each one’s works, we find human flaws: both arrogance and self-pity; we find examples of human learning from humility or from desertion of family or friends; we have examples of community and how others regard their children, their parents, or their friends after little secrets have been exposed.  But one of the master story tellers of all times could lift a mirror up to the lives of his listeners: the Lord Jesus himself.  The parables of Jesus are masterpieces of storytelling and the human condition. And today we learn at the feet of the master with one of the master stories of the Bible. Before we begin, the situation in your own life aligns you with one of the characters in this great drama.  Are you the parent, scorned or hurt by your children? Are you the child who once got tired of house rules and decided to run off to “join a circus,” a band, a boyfriend or girlfriend, to leave school, or to move into a world of drugs, drink, or desperation? Or conversely, are you the child who did the right thing, dutifully, perhaps anxiously, never wanting to disappoint a parent or boss, and secretly resenting those who rashly misplayed the hand that life had dealt them?  Finally, there is a fourth group to which you may belong: it is the townspeople, those who saw what went on and approved or disapproved of it; those who may have been invited to the “fatted calf celebration” and came, or those who, to show disapproval of the son’s behavior, stayed away.  This is one of Jesus’ greatest stories about, well, what IS it about? Grace? Forgiveness? Doing the right thing? Learning from mistakes?  Let’s listen to the storyteller.

 

Once upon a time a man had two sons.  The younger one, apparently tired of the house rules and chores, or not wanting to wait until his brother got the larger share from his father’s will as was the custom in those days, decided life was too short and he was too broke, and there was a whole big world to embrace.  “Father” he said, because he did not feel close enough to call him ‘Dad,’ I know you are still alive, but could you give me what I am bound to get once you die?” Do you ever feel like the children around you act like they are entitled to bling and things, not when they earn the money for it, but because other children have it: like a cell phone,  an I-pod,  an I-phone, a car, or you name it?  “When you earn it you can buy it if you still want it” my parents used to say to me. Why have parents forgotten how to say those words?  Why is the use of the internet for long hours on end an entitlement?  If you are incensed, you are thinking like the brother and the townsfolk in our story. To the younger child, the request seemed quite reasonable.  If you were the parent in this story; would you have said no to the inheritance request? Or as this parent did, holding his tongue, would you have drawn your property lines in the dirt and told your son which part was his? The father had given his son a rope, not to hang himself, but to tangle himself, and what a tangle he created! Few in town would buy his part of the property because they were so disgusted when they heard what he had done. With what money he did put together, he headed out of town fueled by excitement and a little sense of freedom, but no plan. Since he had never known the true cost of living, especially in a hostile environment, he was hit with expenses and with the cost of fun. The money poured from his pockets. You see, children living at home don’t get it when you say “turn off the light when you leave a room!” or don’t get the implications when they whine “Can’t we make it a little cooler in here, I’m burning up?” or think their parents are unreasonable when they hear the voice through the bathroom door, “Turn off that shower!”  Chris’s own auto insurance, Matt’s own utility bill, and Jenny’s own gasoline costs have been sobering experiences for them. These life lessons must be started early!  WHAT A DISSERVICE WE GIVE OUR CHILDREN IF WE DO NOT START TO GIVE THEM SOME RESPONSIBILITY BEFORE FULL RESPONSIBILITY VIRTUALLY DROWNS THEM. So the younger son was learning a lesson; the older son had yet to learn one. The younger son actually ate the most unspeakable and distasteful things to get by, like a human being eating dog food to exist. Finally, the young man reminisced about the good old days of “rules, three hots, and a cot.” He remembered that even his father’s farm workers ate better than he was now. He knew the community and his brother would not just let him slip back onto the property without disdain, so he decided on a plan.  (Most would say this boy was not yet sorry, he was just hungry, but some believe as he formulated his speech he gained remorse.) Again, all he was thinking of was himself; and let’s be frank; children, even teenagers, do not have the mental maturity to predict the outcome of many of their actions. That’s why they make careless choices behind the wheel, try to push the limits of society, and look for ways to say they are grown up when they aren’t. But back home, this boy had been written off; written off by the brother who always found him maddening; written off by the community, literally, who called him irresponsible and disrespectful toward his father. But wait: there was at least one who hadn’t written off that child, and there is still at least one who hasn’t written you or me off either! It’s the one with a mother’s heart and a father’s stature.  Everyone in town still greatly respected the father in the parable. So, why did he seem so downtrodden? Why did he stir his food around his plate so long before eating it? Why did he not fall straight to sleep late into evenings, but stayed sitting up, looking out at the moon by night?  And why, during the day, did he regularly cast furtive glances toward the rise where he last caught a glimpse of his son’s dusty trail? All was NOT right with one of his children missing. The father’s heart was troubled.

 

One day, early in the afternoon, the father sat down to cast his eyes longingly in that direction. This time he was rewarded and troubled at the same time: a dust cloud was forming at the summit’s rise and the unmistakable outline of his boy appeared, in disheveled clothing, but nevertheless, coming home! A homecoming was about to happen! Oh dear!  Without hearing the boy beg for forgiveness and without the father having yet publicly welcomed him, the townspeople would stone him or shun him!!! What could a dignified father, in robes sandals, and necklaces, do to save the situation? Only one thing could be done: for the sake of his child, he would feel foolish and run toward his boy, with fabric tearing and flip flops flying! If he greeted the boy as if he were expecting him, the community would not shun or stone him. They would believe there had been reconciliation! So his father did what he had to do and wanted to do: he RAN to him, EMBRACED him, and KISSED him! AND MOST SCHOLARS AGREE THAT IT WAS IN THAT ACT OF AMAZING GRACE, THE ACTIONS OF UNMERITED FAVOR, THAT SELFISHNESS GOT REPLACED IN THE YOUNG MAN’S HEART WITH REMORSE. IN THAT MOMENT, HIS SPEECH ABOUT SORROW BECAME GENUINE. From the school of hard knocks, the young man came back a little wiser, a little more grateful, and much more humble. There was a changed child in the story from that point on.  And there were a few changed townspeople who came to rejoice at the reunion and share in the gigantic, out-of-proportion feast the father had ordered. There were probably still some townspeople who resented the lad who had been so sassy, spoiled, and selfish.  To them, any new trust or respect had to be earned. Perhaps they were still suspicious and judgmental. But there was one other person in the story who needed to be rescued. He was fuming in the field. 

 

Again, this patient father, who never would have trudged through the fields where his servants and sons worked, left his guests and went outside, though the light was fading, to again meet his son, his other son, the one who could not make his heart rejoice; the one who deeply resented his father’s over-the-top welcome.  “Come in, my son, join us!” “I’ll not do it!!” he replied. “I’ve been good, I’ve been faithful, I’ve worked until I ached and you’ve never thanked me like this! What’s wrong with this picture? It’s wrong when wasteful and lazy people get rewarded!” I can imagine a genuine smile crossing the Father’s face.  “Son, is THAT what you think? NO! I have always noted your hard work and I am especially proud of you! You’ve already seen that the lion’s share of my estate is yours! But, you see, yesterday my hope was fading that your brother was still alive; I thought I’d lost a son, and I wondered where I had failed. Then when he appeared, why, it was like having the dead return to life! Don’t you see? By seeing your brother, I not only have my other son back, I have him back hungry and grateful instead of feeling entitled to what I gave him. He is, in some ways, a new creation!  Now come on; sit with us at the table.” What happened next? Jesus doesn’t tell us; great storytellers usually don’t. But in your mind, haven’t you finished the story? Did the son come in from the field? Did he stay outside? Did the son stay resentful of his brother? Was there one son found that afternoon, and a different son lost son that evening?

 

You’ve really messed up some haven’t you; really done something you wished you hadn’t? Who hasn’t? So what kind of God do you want to judge as you cross the river to the other side and stand at those pearly gates?  Do you want the judgment of a mob that I called the townspeople? Do you want the judgment of the son who believed he never did anything wrong? Or would you settle for the Father, whose exceedingly patient actions showed compassion and whose heart poured out grace? Our Lord is always calling sinners to come home.  Our human condition and our response have been examined in stories again and again. When the winds of mortal sin, choice or corruption blow down the house of cards we call our life, amazing grace can enter and rebuild remorseful lives on the solid rock of Christ. May judgment day will look entirely different than what you may have pictured: perhaps it will look more like a father running to embrace a lost and remorseful child in a homecoming, while, left behind, clouds of disappointment began to form over another child, sulking in the cornfield.

 

“Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling: Calling: ‘O sinner, come home!’”

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                  August 12, 2007

07-15-07 PAUL’S PURPOSE DRIVEN PASSAGES (Romans 12: 9-21)

PAUL’S PURPOSE DRIVEN PASSAGES

Romans 12: 9-21

 

Newsman Clarence W. Hall followed American troops through Okinawa in 1945. One day as they traveled by jeep, he and his driver came to a small village that looked different from the other villages. He pulled out his pad and wrote: “We have seen other Okinawan villages down at the heels and despairing; by contrast, this one shone like a diamond in a dung heap. Everywhere we were greeted by smiles and dignified bows. Proudly the old men showed their spotless homes, their terraced fields.” He went on to write that there were no jails and no drunkenness and that divorce was unknown. He was told an American missionary 30 years earlier had come and helped two elderly men in town to know Jesus Christ and they chose to follow him.  He had left them a Bible translated into Japanese. Hall finished his quote in his notebook by writing, “So this is what comes out of only a Bible and a couple of old guys who wanted to live like Jesus.”

 

Is there anyone’s home that does not have a Bible?  Is there a hotel room without one?  In America, for those who claim to be Christians, there is a Bible in the home.  But with such huge sums of money put into advertising, and many people learning and being entertained by television and video games, and some lining up to read the latest Harry Potter fantasy or the recently finished work of J.R.R. Tolkien,  THE CHILDREN OF HURIN, or adults having on their summer reading list works by Janet Evanovich, Robert Ludlum, or you fill in the blank, reading is a wonderful way to learn, to escape, and to connect with others.  But for those who sit in a prison cell, with the choice of reading materials being a pile of old novels, some magazines, or a Bible, some decide to live differently, choosing life and asking for forgiveness for their crimes. So they choose a prison ministry Bible and often grow to cherish its words, its guidance, and God’s promises. Some inmates, I am sure, know the Bible better than regular church goers. 

 

A missionary and a Bible made the difference in that original true story in Okinawa; our denomination has gone from 1000 world missionaries 30 years ago to just 247 now, mainly because people in churches read slanted articles about Presbyterians in newspapers and say, “Let’s not give to the General Assembly! We’ll show them!” And so collectively they show villages, tragically, and their choice dries up funding for a missionary to come to their remote village with sermons, classes, and a Bible; lowered support means mission cannot happen with the fervor and numbers once there.  And that is tragic; Marj Carpenter, the magnetic, mission minded, former Moderator of our General Assembly who preached from this pulpit, weeps over that news. Because of our mission work in Korea and Africa years ago, each country now has more Presbyterians than we have in America. An independent group, the Gideons, are proud of the knowledge that a Bible in a Hotel room has saved many a troubled soul. And many of our troops are pouring over their copy of a Bible with new eyes, finding what a nugget of gold it is to have a belief in God when bullets whiz by their heads and their next step might be on an I.E.D. (Improvised Explosive Devices).  We, by contrast, who have Barnes and Noble, Amazon.com, and other booksellers, go right past the Bible rack so often. “Already have one, or several of those,” some think. And so they go to the self-help section, or the psychology section, or the Eastern religion section, all in search of peace and purpose when the answers were first, and still are in, the Bible that sits on their nightstand, coffee table, or bookshelf at home.  Few passages in this bestseller condense more vital advice than the 12th chapter of Romans. Today we will look at the heart of New Testament purpose-driven teaching: ways to change the world.

 

First, “Let love be genuine.”  The Apostle Paul, and even Jesus himself, grew up in the shadow of the Greek Theatre, with its comedies and tragedies. On stage the people playing a role would don a mask, either a smiling one or a frowning one, and become that character. Those people were called actors, except the Greek word for actor is hypocrite. A hypocrite was one who personally may not feel a certain way, but one who, to paraphrase the commercial, “plays the role on stage.”  Jesus knows that there are plenty of people who can fake love; in our day they do it for cameras all the time.  And these hypocrites are sometimes the role models for many dewy eyed girls and star-struck boys who use their example of relationship love! Yikes! Paul says, “Let love be genuine.” Our kids, our neighbors, or family members sorely need some good examples. Find them in your life and learn from them. Be a good example yourself!  Read about unselfish love in the book of Ruth. Look at it on the cross of Calvary. But remember what genuine love, Christian love, and friendship love, not just romantic love, is all about. That’s Paul’s first point.

 

Next, “Hate what is evil.”  Dr. Scott Peck once wrote a book not because it was easy, but because it was needed. In PEOPLE OF THE LIE, he addressed human evil, not random weather patterns that seemed evil, not evil like Hindus and Buddhists and more recently Christian Scientists believed which is that evil is not the force that goes against God, evil is just the necessary flip side of goodness; nor did he write about evil as Martin Buber put it his book GOOD AND EVIL, calling it “‘the yeast in the dough,’ the ferment placed in the soul by God.” No, Peck described the traditional Christian model of evil that he called “Diabolical Dualism” where God was the strong one, the Creator, with the Evil One also at work in the world as the Destroyer.  Peck, who became a Christian by Baptism at the age of forty-three on March 9th, 1980, produced a whole book describing the evil in human nature that we are encouraged to hate, cautioning us, as St. Augustine did in his famous book CITY OF GOD, to “hate the sin, but love the sinner.” Hating evil empowers us to combat it, to transform it, stay away from it, or rescue others from it. You can think of destructive behavior I am sure, that has torn apart a family, or a worker, or a friend. God is in the connecting business; through chaplains, pastors, and missionaries, we try to introduce others to Jesus who are stumbling in the dark. Henri Nouwen calls our role, “Wounded Healers.” John Claypool calls it being a “Fellow Struggler.”  Paul knew what it was like to fight against evil, persecution, and misunderstanding. If you too know what that is like, then read the Bible!! Read Romans! Read Acts! Read John!

Then Paul implores readers to “Hold fast to what is good” after telling them what to avoid. He adds: “Love one another in mutual affection.” At a wedding 30 years ago, I was asked to sing a solo with these words: “Love one another, love one another, as I have loved you. And care for each other, care for each other, as I have cared for you. And bear one another’s burdens; and share each other’s joys. Love one another, love one another; and bring each other home.”  Taken from 1 John and John’s gospel, the words summarize the commandment Jesus gave us: it’s not like Bill Cosby in his comical skit about Noah when, after arguing with the Lord every step of the way and having the heavens start to pour rain, he looked up into the clouds and said sheepishly, “Me and you Lord, Right? Just me and you!” No! The love Jesus offers is not just for your personal salvation; it is so “that the world might be saved through him.” Paul then moves quickly forward, believing that his listeners have gotten his drift: “outdo one another in showing honor.” In a culture of disrespect, what a world changing idea that is! Paul was saying, of course, that in his world that demanded honor be shown only to Caesar, people of every walk and class deserved honor as Jesus himself did. One summer I was in the housekeeping department of a fine department store three days a week, and sold fine women’s shoes three different days of the week in the same store. When I was picking up trash behind registers, the clerks would not look at or speak to me. When I was selling shoes, the same clerks would stop over and ask me to go to dinner with them. What a lesson in judging people by the kind of work they do instead of by the content of their character! Showing honor to all is Christ-like work.

 

“Do not lag in zeal.” How many times has the gospel been put into the hands of a milk toast or spineless preacher? What a disservice to the urgency of the gospel! We have only so many chances to try to help others come to Jesus and open their hearts to him. And to just own a Bible and even belong to a church, but not walk the walk is the greatest disservice a person can do to him..  People run from Christianity when they witness hypocrisy: that is, when, people where the mask (read here, clothes, crosses, or car fish) of being Christian but don’t live like one. Either follow the book and walk the walk, or renounce claims to Christ and the eternal benefits and responsibilities. You cannot have it both ways. Instead, as Paul says, “Be ardent in spirit and serve the Lord.”  Churches whose leaders are spirit filled and serve the Lord in mission are, in the opinion of Paul, the final frontier to be claimed, the last hill to climb, the finest witness of the faith. And letting that spirit infuse your life at home and at work and in public is vital Jesus lives in you. As he once preached and Matthew recorded: “Whenever you did it to the least of these, you’ve done it unto me.” So Paul puts a bow on this gift of a passage by saying “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.”  Paul has a longer message on hope and suffering in the 5th chapter of his letter. And to contribute to the needs of the saints was a reminder not only to tithe back to God what was already God’s (1 Corinthians 4), but also to give to Christian mission and the poor (2 Corinthians 8). If Christians forget that action part of their discipleship—being a good example, being a good giver, being one who cares for others—it is like having Christ under the hood of your car but never putting the car in gear. No Christian decals on the side of the car will prove the power of what’s under the hood when there are no gears to transmit the power to the wheels.  So without the actions, the Christ that is supposed to live in our hearts has only the decals of the faith, but not the dealings of the faith. And when people see your Christian life as “all show and no go,” then onlookers will begin to snicker one word under their breath: “hypocrite.”

I’ll use Paul’s concluding thoughts for today’s closing charge and benediction. No matter what else you read this summer, turn also to the book, the Good Book, for direction in the Purpose Driven Life.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                         July 15, 2007

07-08-07 PAUL’S PURPOSE-DRIVEN PASSAGES (Colossians 3: 12-17)

PAUL’S PURPOSE-DRIVEN PASSAGES

Colossians 3: 12-17

 

Princeton professor Dr. Shane Berg relates the story of his “Grandma Inez’s Back Stoop” in a sermon he preached last January.  He said that as a boy he dealt out innumerable insults and hateful remarks to his brother.  When he was with his parents, his babysitters, or even his teachers, they were at a loss to curb their cruelty toward each other.  Only one person knew how to handle them; only one person’s consequences they dreaded: she was a small woman in her early seventies: but she was smart and tough. “Even in the last years of her life,” Dr. Berg said, “[my grandmother] had no problem handling her two rambunctious grandsons when we came to blows at her house. When such a dust-up occurred, she would come marching out of the house and grab each of us hard by the back of the arm, depositing us on her back stoop. We knew what was coming next, and we hated it. She insisted that we sit side by side on that stoop until each of us said something nice to the other one, and we had to mean it (she could tell when we were faking it.) This was always an exercise of excruciating pain and agony—at precisely the moment I wanted to throttle my little brother, I was instead compelled to speak kindly to him. Sometimes we sat for over a half an hour before we could muster the will to spit out some expression of affection for each other. But here is the interesting thing: on those days when we were forced into such an encounter, my brother and I would not fight again. The words of kindness that we had exchanged seemed to sap the energy from our feelings of hostility.” [Princeton Seminary Bulletin, Vo. XXVIII, Number 1, p. 7-8]  Today I have noticed an abundance of hateful and intolerant words and actions in our world; have you?  Cable news channels pit a Democratic pundit against a Republican pundit and sometimes civility goes out the window and they both need Dr. Berg’s grandmother to grab them by their arms.  This week the color drained from the faces of many in the Western world upon learning that it was doctors who were masterminding the Scotland collision that failed: DOCTORS; People who take an oath to “First, do no harm!”  What hate possessed them? What evil was so heinous that they turned to the dark side?  Or was it they themselves, in a warped or demented sense of honoring God, who took words, twisted from a Koran or distorted by an Imam, and became living breathing symbols of evil? Do they deserve the suicidal death they apparently wanted but failed to achieve? Or would it be better to substitute the chest-thumping actions of testosterone-filled officials with a grandmother who sat them down next to some Western human beings and waited until they said something nice to each other? Of course, that is a naïve thought, isn’t it? But my fellow Christians and seekers after Christ hear this: it was the Lord Jesus who welcomed Samaritans, who forgave women who sinned and men who betrayed. By contrast, it was Christians in the 4th century who, in the name of the Lord, attacked a temple in Alexandria, killed people, destroyed priceless art, and ages of history that can no longer be reclaimed. What? This is what Jesus would do?  In this century, the German ruler named Hitler, using a twisted cross as his party symbol, decided to try to rid the world of Jews. Would he have unwittingly marched his so-called Savior, Jesus (himself a Jew) to his death as well?  What is a redemptive answer to human bickering and maneuvering beyond the already tried responses of retaliation, pre-emptive strikes, and an eye for an eye?  Where are the brave men like Winston Churchill in the Second World War who are willing, with oratory that shows not an ounce of cowardice but also shows overflowing wisdom and encouragement, to take two enemies out to the back porch until each sees the other one also as a human being, sharing the same planet, wanting virtually the same things for his children and his world? But it is naïve to consider that each wants God to be revered, laws to be observed, and safety for his family, isn’t it?  We in the church today, taking a fresh look at the New Testament, will not relinquish control of religion to radicals so it can be hopelessly twisted or despicably distorted. The Christian faith, as demonstrated by Jesus and proclaimed by Paul, has a different way to change the world. As writer Kathleen Norris has put it, in a measured tone, “Religion’s abilities to restore sick people to health are downplayed these days—I know a chaplain at a historically Protestant college who has had to fight to keep a campus ministry going because the school now has a counseling service staffed by a psychologist. But it is my firm conviction that some people may more readily be reached, changed, and even healed through religious means than through psychiatry.” [AMAZING GRACE, Riverhead Books, 1998, pl. 179.] So we could turn to the preacher of Ecclesiastes, a person so burned out that he had virtually given up on humanity, and find the painful words that were read from the Old Testament. What hope is proclaimed from that pulpit? Such an ilk, like the “whisky priest” depicted in Graham Greene’s novel  THE POWER AND THE GLORY goes through the motions of faith but has stopped living it or believing in it.  It is terrible to think that there are preachers, and other human beings, who are as sarcastic, hopeless, bitter, and empty as that preacher and that priest, but indeed there are. Our world cannot be saved by such a bleak outlook; O Lord deliver us from giving up on people and their sometimes shallow, sometimes materialistic, sometimes self-serving, sometimes manipulative, sometimes horrific deeds! No! When people seem to wallow in their own mud, or when people try to get ahead with such franticness that they spin their wheels, burying themselves axle deep in sand, then a different way out needs to be found; not as if it has to be invented-not at all. It just has to be discovered, or, in some cases, rediscovered. It is the way of Christ without the layers of interpretation that institutions or bishops or priests or pastors have put on them.  Today, from the New Testament, were read words that the Apostle Paul chose to tell Colossian Christians who were not acting like Christians. In a sky full of stars that we call choices, these words point to true north. Paul could have written with the tone of the preacher in Ecclesiastes, but thankfully his heart was opened to these inspired words from God.

“Put on then” {as if putting on clothing, or even armor} as God’s chosen ones, holy {one who is set apart from others} and beloved {if no one has told you lately that you are loved by God, let me tell you that now!} put on compassion {that is, be ready to suffer with others in the bonds of humanity} kindness {show mercy and love beyond what might be expected} lowliness {do not think of yourself as higher than the next person}, meekness {quiet gentleness, not loud obnoxiousness} and patience {hold your tongue longer than you think you can, then wait a little longer}, and if one has a complaint against the other, forgiving each other {hard for angry boys or girls to do, or angry men or women, but necessary; Why? Because} As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love {wearing love as if it were a prayer shawl} which binds everything together in perfect harmony. {Those who show love and feel loved feel whole and blessed.} And let the peace of Christ {which is rooted in the love just described} rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. {All are one in the body of Christ which is the Church. Then Paul uses these three freeing words:} And be thankful. {Thankful people move toward wholeness; bitter people act like victims.} Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly, {yes, your New Testament is the original purpose-driven guide for life} teach {others what you learn by word and example} and admonish one another in all wisdom {like in the old days when moms in neighborhoods each had the permission and authority to put anyone in a gang of boys or a group of girls in line. Permission to admonish lets brothers and sisters in Christ work to hold each other accountable to their Lord and their promises.} Then Paul’s words end with thanking God, praising God, and letting gratitude be the order of the day. 

 

Friends, film and file footage remind us that health care, education, common moral values, and ways of worshipping God that are not mostly a narcissistic activity, are each lacking in our day.  Those who have a steady diet of talking heads on television can easily become pessimistic and sarcastic like the preacher in Ecclesiastes. But Jesus came that we may have life and have it abundantly. Even here, this church works to make a difference through health ministries, Christian Education, youth groups, and services that focus on God. Let us work to make a difference rather than give up and despair.

 

When I came to this church in 1985, the air was filled with suspicion, distrust, bitterness, wariness, and spiritual paralysis. Going to Paul’s passage and asking for God’s Spirit to return, I invited any who would listen to help turn this ship around that was on a course of choppy waters.  It was slow hard work. One Sunday morning as I turned the lights on in my office, I found a note surreptitiously dropped on my chair. It wasn’t the first time I would get unsigned notes; it wouldn’t be the last. The note read: “All that it takes for evil to prosper is for good men to do nothing.” I wondered if the writer meant I was doing nothing, or if the person meant that good things were happening because I was doing something. It was another of many anxious Sundays, only to have Elder and charter member number one Ernest W. Hunt, pull me aside after worship. “Did you get my note?” he asked. “That was your note? I asked back. “Yes,” he replied. “You’re doing a fine job. Keep up the good work.”  I’ve never forgotten the sense of relief I got with his words and his smile.  I’ll never forget the words that Paul told the Colossians that I have used at many a wedding and with Confirmation Classes. And I’ll never forget the story of a small woman who was able to get two fighting grandsons to be kind the rest of the day. There is hope for our world. And the hope starts first with Jesus: Jesus in you, and Jesus in me.  Let’s grab the world by the arm, shall we?

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           July 8, 2007

06-17-07 LIFE CHOICES: ANGER OR SELF-CONTROL

          LIFE CHOICES: ANGER OR SELF-CONTROL?

Proverbs 15: 1-4; Galatians 5: 16-23

 

Today I have been married for 29 years and have already made plans to celebrate our 30th next year!  One of the things I have learned over the years is to change or re-direct angry responses to situations.  In 1991, for example, I preached a Mother’s Day sermon that I called “Hallmarks of a Healthy Home.” It started something like this:  “The car pulls into the driveway. The expected joy of having this significant person come home is now replaced by anxiety and silence.  Only the dog dares to come to the door, greeting his master with the undaunted hope that the man will be glad to see him. The children’s stomachs start to tie in knots; the wife’s heart races a little faster.  He reaches the door, opens the door, and then slams the door. Dad is home, and everyone knows it. With fire in his eyes, he ignores man’s best friends and the children hide in their rooms. His wife comes out to greet him trying to soften any verbal attacks from their children’s ears. And so, the evening begins.” Such is a scenario not just found in family abuse cases; it happens all the time in homes where incomes are high, middle, or low. When I told that story in ’91, two people who heard the message saw themselves in the story, changed their ways, and are now still happily married. I have told people who get ballistically angry that when they do, they become clinically insane, but only a fictional story like the one I just told helps them recognize how they must look to their children or their wife. Their face gets red, veins may pop out on their forehead, or instead, with calculated coldness they cut a swath of fear like a tornado. Of course, anger can pour out like a volcano from women or teenagers as well.  What do we do with this emotion called anger?  Do we try to clamp the lid on a boiling pot to keep it from boiling over? Do we hope that flammable mixtures do not explode when we create sparks?  Or do we let our anger go, like a lava flow, cooking and hardening everything in its path? If people in this world expect to be effective parents or grandparents, mentors or examples, life choices between anger and self-control must be made.

 

Last week I started this series on Life Choices with the subject: “Enmity (making enemies) or Kindness.” Today’s list also comes from Galatians 5, when Paul the Apostle heard that grown people in the Galatian Church he founded were acting more like carnal Christians than spiritual ones. The list that was called “works of the flesh” included “anger;” the list that was called “fruits of the Spirit” included “self-control.”  He even cut right to the chase in writing the letter, doing away with ordinary salutations because things were so out of hand. One might conclude that anger is always wrong. But if we turn to the Gospels, there are clearly times that Jesus gets angry, yet he was without sin, wasn’t he? Therefore, there must be some ways that anger can be productive instead of destructive. Let’s consider them today. The most famous account that looks like anger is Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple. We find simmering anger in Jesus’ words also when he addresses Pharisees, King Herod and the Chief Priest. He sometimes displays passive anger, sometimes aggressive anger. What can we learn about anger and self-control from Jesus?  First, anger is not needed for the trivial, but for the tremendous. There were times when clearly crowds tugged on his robe and hung on his arms and followed him relentlessly. He could have gotten angry at them; instead he used self-control and directed anger at the people in political and religious power, who could have but didn’t make conditions better for women, children, beggars, and invalids.  Many a justice issue would never have been accomplished if one or two good people had not decided that they were mad as could be and were not going to take it any more. Jesus set a standard that only a few over the years have grasped. Most of us let a frivolous incident draw power and focus away from our day, instead of saving our anger to fight injustice. A car cuts a man off in traffic and he tailgates and flashes lights or blasts the horn. (I used to do that; what a waste of energy.) One time I imagined the driver in front of me was some punk kid; I started to get mad, but on closer inspection found that she was an old, confused woman from the church! (Don’t start guessing, this was years ago!) I decided to picture rude drivers as being in crisis, oblivious, or senile, none of whom should be given the power to ruin my day by their actions, but that was exactly what I HAD been doing. So, by and large, I have stopped giving them the power to do that. I slip up sometimes, especially when I feel drained. You too can try to save your anger for causes that matter. That leads me to the next point: “Anger can be used to change unjust laws and actions instead of making withering attacks on loved ones or strangers.  In this passage, I am confident that the Sadducees had already been told by Jesus that the Temple was a House of Prayer for all Nations. As they ignored his warning, he turns over the merchant’s tables, cooking his own hide in the process. That often happens when anger is unleashed: we get fired, we get divorced, we get emotional turmoil, or we get killed. But Jesus does the work that fits into his Father’s bigger plan. Did you also notice that Jesus could have gotten angry with the crowds who hounded him, or at the invalid who never had the help or speed to be first in the Pool of Bethsaida for healing (they believed only the first ones got healed.) But instead Jesus uses self-control, just asking the man if he wanted to be well, and he healed him. You may also recall the woman caught in adultery. Jesus told her to sin no more and he let her go, knowing that it took two to have a relationship, but in those days there was no law to condemn a married man of the crime, just a law against the woman. If he had had more time, would Jesus have worked to change that law? Too many spend their anger energy on daily occurrences that inconvenience or startle them. I know persons who, because they are in a slow check out line or the store has a cumbersome system of price checks or returns, who have said harsh or thoughtless things to cashiers. (Even I have done that, before I worked to change those foolish and hurtful actions.)

 

Third, write letters to legislators instead of graffiti on someone’s house, car, or anonymous notes.  Made famous by American Idol, country star Carrie Underwood, sings “I dug my key into the side of his pretty little souped-up 4 wheel drive, carved my name into his leather seats,” to get back at a cheating man.  The world of the flesh cheers such a nervy and destructive way to get back at a jerk. But the fruit of the Spirit asks how much destruction is healthy for us to leave in the wake of a broken relationship?  Relationship specialist Dr. Greg Baer, the author of the book REAL LOVE, is now on his second marriage because he was so good at destroying his first one. Now he says, “I have learned that anger is always wrong.” I might amend that to say almost always wrong. Angry people can channel their energy into passionate feelings. Anger is destructive, but when it becomes passion, then funds are raised to help cure diseases, laws are changed to help accommodate those with disabilities; rules are put into place to make the world a more just place, and rights to those who have earned them. Well-channeled anger has given men the right to work, women the right to vote, people of color the right to enter a business through the same door as others, and passion-driven leaders have brought down tyrants from their thrones. Channeled anger becomes productive, not destructive.

 

Finally, and now I’m especially talking to the fathers: deal with your anger in appropriate ways. If a sale goes bad, don’t blame your wife. If your boss makes you mad, don’t blame your kids. If a driver in traffic is thoughtless, self-centered, or distracted, don’t punish your pet. How ironic that we treat the ones we supposedly love most with our misdirected anger.  Take note and make the changes. Find the right outlets to deal with your work frustrations, even if you need to talk with a counselor or do something physical—like sports—to direct your anger into action.  Our well-being as men and fathers, and the well-being of our families, both depend heavily on us.  Remember Paul’s words in Galatians; remember Jesus, the pioneer of the faith, as ones who took anger out of the driver’s seat and put self-control in. It is life giving and life changing to make that change I know. May you trust good divine and human guidance in this tough and important work.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                  June 17, 2007

06-10-07 LIFE CHOICES: ENMITY OR KINDNESS

LIFE CHOICES: ENMITY OR KINDNESS?

Matthew 5: 43-45; Galatians 5: 16-23

 

 It was baseball player and dry wit philosopher, Yogi Berra, who once confused listeners with this sage advice: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!”  It was American poet, Robert Frost, who made the idea of making right choices significant with his famous line:  “Two roads diverged into the wood, and I, I took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” And it was the Lord God who, through Moses in Deuteronomy, said to all who were listening: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse:” And then God offers this wonderful piece of advice: “Choose life! Then you and your descendents will live.”  Every day we make choices: what clothes should I wear; what shall I eat; when will I call it a night?  Only children, unable to make wise choices without a parent’s guidance, generally have less say on these questions. But through life, the questions get harder: Will I take this test and cheat or study and do the best I can? Will I keep having these friends even though they always get me into trouble? Will I tryout for cheerleading or run for student government, or join the French Club or do all of them? Will I be in Boy Scouts and try out for basketball and join the Flying Club or just do some or none of them? (I actually did all three in high school.) Every weekend, someone is deciding whether or not to take a drink, and if they do, whether they will then drive under the influence of alcohol. Sometime along the way you may have chosen to stay with a boyfriend or girlfriend or to break up. On the other hand, someone may have broken up with you which is one of the most difficult hurts for teenagers and college aged students to overcome. Some say, when they lose their patience or their temper, that another driver or a husband, wife, child, or friend made them do it.  No; no one has the power to cause your bad behavior.  Only you allow your bad behavior. I hate it when I cannot blame my behavior on someone else as much as you do! I could parade a dozen specialists in front of you today- psychotherapists, pastoral counselors, even 12 Step Program mentors – and they would agree with that statement. Life is full of choices, and behavior is one of them. How you feel carries no moral weight; how you act does. Today and the rest of this month the sermon series is on LIFE CHOICES.

 

As we begin, the first question juxtaposes a term from Paul’s the “works of the flesh” list: enmity, with one term from the “fruit of the Spirit” list: kindness.  “Enmity” is, as you might surmise by looking at the word, “is a posture of making enemies of others.”  “Kindness” on the other hand, has its roots in the Old Testament, the Hebrew word “hesed” which means “steadfast love,” or “kindness.” Sometimes neighbors become enemies, perhaps out of different viewpoints, or from rudeness, or from stubbornness. When you make enemies, your body, mind and soul, all of them, go through physical, emotional, and spiritual changes. Enmity has been documented to bring about physical symptoms: not only does one’s soul get troubled when one has enemies, one’s mind gets troubled so that sleep gets interrupted, life gets so filled with maddening distractions so that one can hardly function, and smiles go away from everyone’s faces involved. Our bodies go into “fight or flight” mode, a reflex intended to help in an emergency, but not intended to be used for weeks or months on end.  Those in threatening situations are often tortured by a syndrome called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for years of their life. Fighting enemies, whether another condo owner, or a bully at school, or your mother in law, or law breakers if you are on a police force or the system if you are a social worker, all of that is stressful. Enmity also causes health care costs and pharmaceutical profits to rise as medications are used in quantity for headaches, chest pains, stomach problems and indigestion.  There may be times when enmity is a necessary evil:  “Americans have traditionally stood firm against enemies, both foreign and domestic, as military officers and presidents have taken aim at enemies in Oklahoma City, in New York City, in Hiroshima, and in Berlin. Enemies of all shapes and sizes who do diabolical things to other human beings become the enemies of God and of those who stand by ones unjustly killed or tortured. Sometimes our country has joined arms with other nations so that allied forces have the strength to stop a dictator or ruthless regime.  And sadly, sometimes the places in the world where such force may be warranted are not the places where force is aimed. There are, for example, documented human atrocities going on in Sudan, North Korea, Zimbabwe, and Uzbekistan. Many Scripture passages show that God condemns, and will judge harshly, those who carry out such acts.  Such brutality was agonizingly captured about the regime of Idi Amin in the 2006 film THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND. But interestingly enough, Herod the Great (self named), and Herod Antipas, his son, were among the most ruthless of dictators as well, but there is no word from Jesus that they should have been killed for killing others. “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for and eye,” Jesus said, but I say do not resist one who is evil.” And it was a Hindu leader, Mohandes Gandhi, who read and respected the teachings of Jesus and taught tolerance toward Muslims (and he was killed by a fanatic because of that tolerance), who said the actions of “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” In many cases, with steady pressure or undying patience, offering handshakes after agreements can take the place of making enemies. It was President Reagan who brokered peace between the United States and the Soviet Union. It was President Carter who brokered the Camp David Accords to deal with Arab/Israeli conflicts between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Prime Minister, Menachem Begin.  History has recorded both successes and tragedies when it comes to work for justice and reconciliation. We need not chose the path of making enemies first when the Savior of the world once said “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” That is radical, isn’t it? Have our nation’s leaders asked us to pray for Osama Ben Laden, Fidel Castro, or Kim Jung Il?  But in our ordinary run-ins with people that escalate into confrontations, might there be ways to ratchet down the anger or threats? It is our nature to react in human ways; it is our goal to react in Christian ways. As Christian professor Marva Dawn once put it: “Most Christians say they love Jesus; fewer of them love what Jesus loved.”

 

An alternative path to take in life is kindness. We might call it love, a means of grace that the King James translates as “charity.” Some of the best charitable (unselfish, caring for others) events have been from eclectic sources: pop stars have sung to feed hungry people in Africa; comedians have given us Comic Relief.  Millard Fuller, founder of Habitat for Humanity, tells the story of Paul Newman calling him personally to ask what particular projects needed supporting through his “Newman’s Own” brand. When he heard about all the international projects, he asked Fuller, “Why have you included countries outside of the United States? The money I gave you was made from sales in the U.S. I think we should use the money in the U.S.”  “Then that’s where it will be used,” replied Millard Fuller. “By the way, why do you help in other countries?” Newman asked. To which Fuller replied “First of all, it is good religion to have a worldwide concern and ministry. God is not an American citizen. God’s love is universal and our expressions of love should be the same. We should put no artificial boundaries on our various expressions of love.” He then went on to point out that America could not accommodate all the immigrants of the world if the only livable country in the world were the U.S. He said if all good but poor people could have at least a decent place to live, then some would turn to God in thanks, some would think kindly about America, and some might “pay forward” the kindness that was offered to them.  Learning that, Paul Newman said use his money wherever it would do the most good. [THE THEOLOGY OF THE HAMMER, Smyth & Helwys Pub., 1984, p.121.]

 

When Paul the Apostle wrote the words in Galatians on the works of the flesh and the works of the Spirit, he had witnessed both of them first hand. The members of that early Galatian church were acting more like they were led by the flesh instead of the Spirit. Some in our day act that way too. This Roman citizen, Paul, who was a Jew who turned Christian, had found a way to look at life and at others differently after his conversion. Paul, for the first time in his life, saw the possibilities, the potential, and the positive nature that others could have if they claimed Christ and acknowledged that God loved them.  Sometimes I have run in to those true “born again” people; no, not the ones that bash you on the heads with their Bibles and judge your Baptism and your salvation, I mean the ones who, at one time, were fighters against Christ or at least apathetic about Christ and his teachings, then one day they get it! The scales fall from their eyes; they go from having desires of the flesh to desires of the Spirit. They begin to care about others instead of living in the infantile stage of self.  I wonder if Paul Newman, or even Millard Fuller, a lawyer on the brink of divorce who gave up on law but not on his marriage to help poor people get a home, I wonder if they had conversion experiences? Fuller has had his personal problems, so we can choose to shun him or appreciate him: we have life choices too.  What I DO notice from some prominent politicians and preachers is that those who condemn the loudest are among those whose personal sins are later exposed or whose judgmentalism squeezes all the juice out of the “fruits of the Spirit.” We are not to live as victims of circumstances, nor are we to live as Monday morning quarterbacks, analyzing the “plays” of others perfectly, but never casting a glance on our own sins. It is exasperating to be around those people for very long. Our life comes down to choices, not down to blame or criticism.  How are you doing with your life choices? Are you busy making enemies, or making friends? Are you busy making noise or are you busy making a difference? Are busy making people mad or are you making them glad they know you?  Take responsibility for yourself and your actions. Do the tough work of being honest with yourself. Acknowledge that you cannot change others, only the way you react to others. And then try some fruit for a change, perhaps some love, joy, peace, or patience; maybe a taste of gentleness and self-control. But this week, try kindness; people can be unreasonable; try it anyway.  Paul believed it so much that he made the list right after the works of the flesh list: the first list made him sick about the Galatians; the second list gave him hope. Perhaps God thinks that way about us.  I’ll close with these words from Mother Teresa: “

          “We are all capable of good and evil. We are not born bad: everybody has something good inside. Some hide it, some neglect it, but it is there. God created us to love and to be loved, so it is our test from God to choose one path or the other…This shouldn’t be such a struggle to achieve.”

[A SIMPLE PATH, 1995, P. 51] Jeffrey A. Sumner                  June 10, 2007

06-03-07 A TEXT THAT CHANGED THE WORLD

A TEXT THAT CHANGED THE WORLD

Romans 5: 1-5

Thomas Friedman, in his book THE WORLD IS FLAT, points out many events over the ages that have changed the world. Among them: the invention of the printing press in the 15th century; pasteurization in the 19th century, the use of a production line in the 20th century along with the automobile, and the invention of the internet along with good search engines   just before the 21st century to make information sharing occur at light speed. There are also some books that have changed the world; certainly they include the Bible, the works of William Shakespeare, Einstein’s book on the theory of relativity, the work of Emperor Constantine’s Council that produced the Nicene Creed, and the ingenious musical writing of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Two of the aforementioned events affected those who could read our Romans text today: one, the printing press, allowed more people besides the wealthy or educated to be able to read a Bible. The second event was sacrificially produced by John Wycliffe and others: seeing that the Bible was translated into native tongues instead of just Greek, Hebrew, or Latin.  When that happened, more and more people could read God’s word and begin learning it, discussing it, and sometimes questioning what they had been taught. One such period of time was the convergence of print, distribution, unrest, when God’s Holy Spirit urged troubled souls to speak out. It was the period known as the Reformation, and people like Martin Luther from Germany, Ulrich Zwingli from Switzerland, John Calvin from France, and later John and Charles Wesley from England and John Knox from Scotland to name a few, each rested their theological cases not on what had been taught to them, but on what they themselves had read in what they called Holy Scripture. I will be leading a study on these leaders in August and September. To a church that, in its misguided days, tried to put a price on salvation in addition to the blood of Jesus; had convinced people that the ultimate fate of the dead could be influenced even after death by the prayers and contributions made by loved ones; and had a leader who, over the years in un-Christlike fashion, was coercive, abusive, and enormously powerful.  One of the passages to which these Reformers returned time and time again was Paul’s letter to the Romans. Among their eye-opening texts was the 5th chapter, verses one through five. There are people in our world even now who find themselves in desperate situations: a loved one’s health is in jeopardy, a marriage is failing, a child or grandchild is in harm’s way, or job cuts have made it so that money is gone before the bills are paid.  In desperate times, some people can be talked into magic fixes, refinancing with balloon payments, new age remedies, and products from snake oil salesmen.  As an alternative to those questionable choices for guidance in life, Paul wrote these masterful words, words that have redirected and inspired countless numbers of persons over the years.

 

“Since we are justified by faith” (not through works, good deeds, or the actions of others), “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Jesus is the reason we have peace, he paid the price, he took the nails, he pleads our case, he wins our case in Heaven) “and it is through Him that we have obtained access to this grace” (unmerited favor but thankfully imparted) “in which we stand” (on Christ, and the promise of God’s grace, we stand, all other ground is sinking sand) “and we boast not in ourselves, but in the hope of sharing the glory that surrounds God.” Following this famous “justified by faith” passage came a logical argument, a favorite debate strategy used by the Greeks in Asia Minor:  “We even boast, though we suffer, for we know that if we suffer, it produces endurance, and if we endure, it produces character, and character produces hope, and hope in God never lets us down.” Such are the brilliant, inspired words of Paul; Romans is unparalleled in the New Testament. His words gave Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Knox, Newton, and countless others the fortification of their faith in time of need. Ages earlier St. Augustine was troubled, tormented by the weight of his sins, and he found guidance in Romans. “First I shall try to grasp the apostle’s purpose which runs through the whole Epistle, and I shall seek guidance from it.” Later Martin Luther, after reading Romans, wrote “Trying to merit grace by preceding works, therefore, is trying to placate God with sins, which is nothing but heaping sins upon sins, making fun of God, and provoking His wrath.” John Wesley read the words on grace and wrote “In all my trials I had always a confidence in Christ … but it was a confidence mixed with fear: I was afraid I had not done enough….But now the clear light shined.” And John Calvin observed: “Faith is a firm and sure knowledge of divine favour toward us.” The world will offer you many choices when you deal with your troubles, doubts, or sorrows. Some seem more tangible and attainable. Those who have followed these five verses have been among those who changed the world. From that great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us who were set free by Romans, I hear, ever so faintly, shouts of encouragement from the saints, to hold fast, to not give up, and to not give in.  No matter your dilemma, these words can be the lamp unto your feet and the light unto your path. They have been such for others for centuries. May they guide your feet, and hands, and eyes, and mouth also, because you are already blessed, by God’s amazing grace.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                                                 June 2, 2007

05-27-07 UNDERSTANDING THE LORD’S PRAYER

UNDERSTANDING THE LORD’S PRAYER

Matthew 6: 5-15

 

Author Kurt Rommel, in his book on the Lord’s Prayer, says that in this prayer: “We are invited to speak with God, to talk openly with the Father. For two thousand years now Christians have been speaking with their Father in words that we call the Lord’s Prayer. During those years these words have been variously used and abused. They have been screamed and shouted, babbled and stammered, whispered and sung. They have been mouthed in theatrical performance and in terror’s prison. They have also been thoughtlessly recited and fervently prayed….We are invited to think about the words we say, and know what we’re getting into when we pray these words of Jesus.” [OUR FATHER WHO ART IN HEAVEN, Fortress Press, 1981, pp. 5-6.] So, are you ready? Are you ready to study the words that can tumble from a sleepy tongue as easily as “Amazing Grace?” Are you ready to set aside what you think is there to know what is actually there? Let us come to Jesus’ own words as we seek to understand our Lord’s Prayer.

 

“Father of us all” is actually the Greek translation of Matthew. It is universally translated “Our Father.”  The unfortunate thing to learn is that the familiar way, “Our Father” sounds like God is that because we who believe in him call him that. But the original translation “Father of us all” means God is your Heavenly Father because he claimed the world’s people as his children first, not because we call God “Father.” And what about the name “Father” that some find troubling and others find comforting? It is a relational title tied originally to the time in which it was said. The analogy of a Father being a protector in his community, the planner of a child’s marriage, and the provider of the family (first century model, remember!), along with Jesus being the first born son who would naturally inherit all that was the Father’s, and who will come to claim the bride (which is the church) who his Father has already chosen for him: that’s the relationship that is lifted up. God protects, God plans (read providence here), and God provides. This is a title of gratitude offered back to God. “The one in the Heavens:” that’s actually the next phrase. It sets God apart as holy, mighty, and omniscient, unlike any human king or power. It puts a gap between us and God and between Heaven and Earth that is bridged by the Son. There is rightly a gap between the role and responsibility of parents and the role and responsibility of children. Families with troubled households too often have parents who have abdicated their power to their children who are only to happy to take it, but who have the inability to predict the outcome of their choices. It breaks the first rule of parenting which is: the parent is the parent and the child is the child. Seems simple, but gets mixed up so often. God is always God and any time children try to act like god there is trouble. Heaven has a different role in life’s plan than earth has: one rules and the other is ruled. By our actions, the next phrase suggests: “may your name be hallowed,” or “holy,” set apart from common use to its special place in our lives.  It gives God and God’s name the extraordinary respect that Jews gave it, not ever uttering the name of God, unlike some on our streets who, in profanity, seem to be breaking into prayer with their thoughtless and angry words. How many times God must be hurt and disappointed when one in the world calls his name just to put emphasis on a thought or to swear! The English language has so many adjectives and adverbs and exclamations that are hardly used because people fall back on cheapening and defaming the name of God. Is it any wonder when some really do want to pray, that God has trouble differentiating the prayers from the cries of anger?  This first part of the Lord’s Prayer gives glory and reverence to God- appropriate starting words. Now come the words of petition.

 

“Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven.”  These words are revolutionary except that they have been prayed so often in ordinary and distracted ways. If God’s Kingdom is to come on earth; if God’s will is to be done by humans on earth as it is done by angels in Heaven, then it will take an extraordinary realignment of human priorities, human wills, and human actions. These words call for changes in the praying person before God can make any changes! We can pray for others to change, and God’s Holy Spirit can change a heart whose soil has been tilled and in which the seeds of the Gospel have been planted. But for those humans whose hearts are like rocky soil, the Gospel seed cannot take root, and no amount of watering can get a seed sitting on a rock to grow. So we ourselves can help bring in the Kingdom by our actions, lives, and words. If our bumper stickers and necklaces show others a fish, but our actions only look fishy, we are a disservice to the Kingdom of God. Be sure of your willingness to collaborate with God if you pray that part of the prayer.

 

Now here come the petitions:  “Give us this day our daily bread.” Before good preservatives and refrigeration, bread would get hard or moldy quickly. Bring home a delicious loaf of warm bread from a restaurant and set it outside to try it yourself. This petition implores God to let us find food enough for each day, but not enough to hoard it from one day to the next. Our daily task, this petition suggests, should be about having enough for today and caring that others are fed as well.  It is a request and a moral mandate. “Forgive us the debts of us, as indeed we forgave (past tense) the debts of others.” In plain English, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgave our debtors.” The traditional reading makes “forgave” past tense, but “forgive,” present tense, perhaps reflects reality. You’ll notice that trespasses are not in the prayer; it is a tag line listed in verses 14 and 15. “Debts” had to do with the Jewish formula for forgiveness, and Jesus knew and practiced it. “Remorse” is the first step towards forgiveness, then “repentance” and then  “restitution:” paying for what has been broken. Sometimes Christians forget that, because Jesus paid the price for our sins. But the price paid by us to those we have hurt (or by Jesus when we sin against God), should never be forgotten. The original text in Matthew does not soften the words to “trespasses” but keeps the power of the price of sin with the word “debts.” It is not as popular, but it is there in the words of Jesus. “And do not bring us into temptation.” This is a petition to not test our faith and resolve, for fear that we might cave in a fail. There are many examples in the Bible of food or lust or power testing men and women of faith. We don’t relish the thought of being the next person God tests. “But deliver us from evil.” This tag line says, “Alright, if I am going to be tested, please give me the courage, moral backbone, and strength to say “no” to temptations. How vital it is that we have that and pray for it “each day,” like our request for daily bread. We need daily prayer to fight off the wiles of evil ones.

 

In some manuscripts, the prayer of Jesus stops there; but in most Bibles there is a footnote saying that the majority of manuscripts close the prayer with an ascription of praise back to God; Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, and most others include those words of praise: “For Thine (Yours) is the Kingdom, power, and glory, (a threefold ascription) forever (or “forever and ever just for emphasis). Amen.(Close prayer, “So may it be.”)

 

The Lord’s Prayer. We will pray it in many languages in a few minutes. It is powerful, it is necessary for daily strength and connection with God, it is the prayer Jesus himself taught, and it asks things both of God and of us. Few words are more powerful when taken seriously.  May you use the prayer as a shepherd uses a rod and staff: for protection and connection.

Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           May 27, 2007

Westminster by the Sea Presbyterian Church – Daytona Beach, Florida, USA