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BELONGING: GOD’S CALLED OUT PEOPLE

Isaiah 42: 5-9; Matthew 16: 13-20

 

“Two roads diverged into the wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference,” wrote beloved American poet Robert Frost. Life is not always about taking the easy road or the lazy way, but sometimes making tougher but richer choices.  It was Yankee catcher Yogi Berra who confused the issue when he cryptically was quoted as saying, “When you come to the fork in the road, take it!”  Baby Boomers and those older will remember the yearly broadcast of “The Wizard of Oz” on television, on again this week. Did anyone here see it in a theatre?  As Dorothy joyfully is told by the munchkins to “follow the yellow brick road,” she had no portable navigation device that many have today; there was a fork in the road where she could go left or right, and magically the only one who gave her directions was a scarecrow who believed he didn’t have a brain. But today’s lessons are about choices on the road of life; if you choose one road and then regret it, usually you can backtrack and take the other one, but not without the cost of time, money, or irritation.  Poor decisions about faith, friends, and family can make life droning, dreadful, or disastrous. Life lived with purpose often includes some tough and irreversible choices. Many think there is always a chance to start over, and they are shaken by the things that do not get a do over in life.  An object dropped over the rail of a cruise ship is almost always lost for good; a girl’s first pregnancy, whether welcome or not, does not get a do over; a foolish or inattentive driving mistake that takes a life does not to be lived over. But when it comes to your choices for faith, there is good news: there are do-overs for those today who chose other gods and who now want to follow Jesus!  We don’t get a do-over after we die, but we have one this very day. Is your life in shambles, or are you searching for a purpose driven life? Are you a member of a church but haven’t let belonging to a church change you into a true follower of Jesus? Today you can go back to the fork in the road and choose the path of Christ. Some of the most important pledges we make have to do with declarations that change our lives: citizenship vows; marriage vows, ordination vows, promises backed by a handshake. Those words are supposed to mean something. What about the words most of you said when you became a Christian? Words like, “Jesus is my Lord and Savior,” or the prayer, “Jesus, I need you; enter my heart and rule my unruly life”? The Lord Jesus had three short years to convince followers, not to follow a yellow brick road, but to choose a road on which no one had yet traveled. He showed them what it meant to live out the laws of God interpreted by love, and to live gracious lives. Poor Christian examples have too much law and no grace, or so much grace that there is no adherence to commandments. When Jesus said “I came that you may have life and have it abundantly,” he wasn’t throwing out the commandments; he was following them using an additional interpretation: love God; and love your neighbor. Jesus called follower to think of the needs of the one, when most put greater weight on the needs of the many. The agony of that decision was described by Jesus in the parable of the lost sheep; on film it occurred, for example, in “Saving Private Ryan.”  Jesus also called people to regard women as people instead of property, and to value children as living examples of the kingdom. Yet after people signed on to follow him, he did a few things that startle them: for one thing he talked to prostitutes, something, as we know, that has gotten others in to hot water; for another, he overturned merchant’s tables at the Temple on the biggest selling day of the year; and for another he said a worker who clocked in for one hour should get the same pay as the one who worked for eight.  He told a man that to get in to Heaven he needed to sell all he had and add himself to the welfare roles.  These counter-cultural comments made some who took the road of discipleship turn back to the fork in the road and choose the well traveled road instead. But turning back is not without its costs. First, God said “Thou Shalt Have no Other God’s Before Me.” We have to leave our favorite gods on the road we left in order to honor the God we will seek to serve on the Christian road. One cannot have the gods of another religion, or even become the ringleader of your own life, and still hope to honor God’s Ten Commandments. This is one of those times you cannot have both/and; it must be a choice. No one truly worships God who lives a godless life. The fork in the road is deliberate; one way will lead to those gods made by mortals; the other worships the Creator of angels in Heaven and mortals on Earth. The second cost for turning back and changing courses is this: you cannot follow Christ and; true Christians follow Christ only. He came down to earth as the Son born in Bethlehem, who grew up in Nazareth, who lived in Galilee, and who took a stand and died in Jerusalem. But after three days, his tomb became eternally empty. He rose from the dead!  In whom will you trust between a true and a counterfeit god? You cannot trust a catcher or a scarecrow or even a navigational system to pick the right path; picking the right path comes from the navigational system that we call the New Testament and an encounter with the Lord who is the one who is the way and the truth and the life.  No one can straddle the two paths, no one follow Jesus and the leader of some other faith system. Only those who join Peter in his confession are truly Christian; a Christian is one who may study other paths of faith but who is always grounded in the Matthew 16:16 declaration. A Christian does not find the  grass to be greener in the pastures of other faiths. A Christian steps into the open as Peter did, in the midst of many false gods, and takes his or her stand as he did:  “Who do people say that I am?” Jesus asked. They went through a list of worthy candidates, but Jesus could not be equated with any of them. Only one person can be called Messiah, there is no room for two.  So Peter steps up to the plate and blurted out: “You are the Christ (the Messiah,) the Son of God.”  That gold-standard answer earned him the gold standard blessing:  “Blessed are you Simon, son of Jonah, and upon this rock (the person Simon Peter to some, but the confession of faith to us) I will build my church.” Here in Matthew we get the first mention of the word Church in the New Testament.  Christians who join in Peter’s confession stand before others and say “Jesus is the Christ, and is my Lord and Savior.” Christians who say those words cannot put other gods or religious leaders on the same level as He. People who try it negate their connection with Christ. Did you realize that? And Christians have to choose whether they will do what Jesus would do and make choices that Jesus would make in life, or else not claim the name. There is life beyond this life when you claim Christ as Lord and leave the other faiths in which you may have dabbled or may be dabbling behind. There is no fence-sitting or both/and with Christ! There is no permanent parking on the shoulder of life’s road deciding which direction to take!  All the celebrations about the resurrection of Jesus mean nothing to non-believers; only those who believe in him and follow him, live changed lives now and get a glorious pass to foreverland! Christians belong to him through their baptisms and are connected through Communion. “Who do you say that I am?”  Jesus asked Peter. If he asked you, your answer would be what?  Let your life and lips show forth your choice. May God bless your decisions today and ahead in the Easter season.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                  March 23, 2008

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HOSANNAS FOR TODAY

 

Last week in Sunday School, our Christian Educator was giving our boys and girls a way to begin to understand Palm Sunday.  “If the President were to come to Daytona Beach,” she said, “How would he arrive?” “By airplane!” one boy said. “I think so too!” she answered. “By donkey!” one girl said, anticipating where the lesson was going.” No,” Miss Mary Ann answered, “I don’t think the President would ride over to church on a donkey for many reasons,” she said with a smile. “A limo,” another girl suggested.  “Yes,” said Miss Mary Ann,” probably the Presidential limousine would bring him and the people who protect him (called the Secret Service), and many others would follow his car like in a parade. Probably police from our city would escort him here with lights on their patrol cars and motorcycles. And if people knew about it, they would line the streets and shout or cheer or wave or maybe do all three! That’s how a famous and important person would be greeted today.”  Of course, those of us who watch television know there are other ways that famous people are honored or cheered. It might be in the Rose Garden at the White House or on stage in the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles. It might be in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown or with a Super Bowl Ring on a football player’s hand, or with the winning car from the Daytona 500 left here in town all year for thousands to see. It might be in Hollywood outside of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre with handprints, or in Buckingham Palace in London as a new knight’s shoulders are touched of a sword. Or it also was, without prior planning, with a photograph of the American flag being jammed into the sands of Iwo Jima. In Jesus’ day, the long time capital of the Southern Kingdom of Judah and the location of the Holy Temple was a city of much ceremony: Jerusalem; named “City of Peace” which it has almost never been but may someday be. Especially during the Passover, the city was jammed with people coming to pay their respects and give their offering to God in His Holy Temple. It would have been bristling with Roman guards in armor that to us might appear overdone, but in Jesus’ day they displayed the colors of Rome, body armor for protection, s sword for defense, and a horse for speed. Like police gathering at antiwar demonstrations in the 60s, or officers gathered in great numbers for crowd control at sporting events, many soldiers were gathered for Passover for crowd control. But the Caesar’s of that day considered the Jews of Judah and Galilee to be mongrels to be taxed and controlled; Herod Archelaus was the brutal Jewish King who presided over Judea; he was very much in the pocket of Rome. His brother, Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, is the one who asked for and got the head of John the Baptist on a plate and who examined Jesus in Jerusalem since Jesus was from his jurisdiction. There are lots of Herods in the New Testament, the paranoid father Herod the Great (alive when Jesus was born) and his three sons, (Herod Archaelaus who ruled Jerusalem, Herod, Antipas who ruled Galilee, and Herod Philip who ruled the region around Caesaria Phillipi. But the one you’ll hear about in Holy Week services is Herod Antipas. From the Christian point of view, he is a key person in this Passion Week drama; so is Caiaphas the High Priest, and Pilate,the Roman governor.

 

As with all heroes, saviors, idols, and stars, there can be a bit of drama in deciding who is truly worthy of the attention they are getting. In our day, starlets sometimes entice, and sometimes reject paparazzi that surround them and the fans who are enamored with them. This year political candidates will go to almost any length to endear themselves to constituents who may cast a vote for them. Yet the news media continues to take on adversarial roles in the lives of those in the spotlight. This month we have watched political figures, sports figures, American Idol contestants, and Hollywood stars with spotlights shining light on some of their own dark actions.  For those who sit at home and watch 24 hour news channels, feelings of panic about finances or despair about the moral nature of humanity can bring on measurable emotional impairment. We see that many heroes of our today have feet of clay, and the heroes get jaded by the public that sometimes fights for autographs just to sell them on E-Bay. Would there be a chance that crowds would gather for Jesus today? Certainly there are crowds today in sanctuaries and worship centers across the globe, but aren’t we looking back on Jesus and that historic entry? Instead I am asking; today, could we actually greet the Savior if he came to town, or would we be too jaded by heroes and leaders who have fallen from pedestals one too many times?

 

Heroes may let us down, but if we are looking for a Savior, there is just one place to look:  “Hosanna!” is Hebrew for “Save us!”  We cannot address it to our president, or to a sports figure, or to a singer or a model, or even to a boyfriend or girlfriend.  There is only one who has a history of saving and whose name means “salvation.” Jesus; Jeshua; Joshua; no matter the form of the name, it is the same person who is Savior.  But it’s one thing to think of a Savior within the walls of stained glass with a cross and a big Bible. It’s another to carry that belief into the world. In our jaded world, can we shout Hosannas for today to Jesus?  Can we shake off the shaking heads of doubters, or the rolling eyes of skeptics, to be among those who put their trust in him; in the one who stilled the waters, healed young girls from grave illnesses and raised a man from the dead? Even amidst tragedies, he is with us; we are not alone. For 2000 years there have been scoffers and yet, to paraphrase a famous saying: “All the armies that ever marched and all the Congresses that ever sat, put together, have not influenced the world and the life of human beings in this world, as much as that one solitary life.” Are you depressed? There is help. Are you hurt? There is healing. Are you confused? There is guidance. Are you angry? There are alternatives. But if you are looking for a Savior, look no further. There is only one; his name is Jesus, the one who, if he were here in the flesh, might enter on foot, sit in the back, give his seat to the person who needed one, be in modest clothes, and perhaps be beyond our recognition. Hmmm; the world, we have noted, has offered adoration to all the wrong people! Can a jaded world begin to trust Jesus to save them? Prisoners have; hospitalized persons have; broken people have; and forgotten people have.

 

One day on a Long Island Beach over a hundred years ago, a woman named Louisa Stead and her husband were relaxing with their four-year-old daughter when they heard cries for help. A young boy was drowning, and with no one else nearby, Louisa’s husband jumped in the surf to save the boy who was desperate not to drown. It didn’t work; the frantic boy was big enough and panicked enough to pull Mr. Stead under the water as his wife and daughter watched. He had needed a savior, but this valiant man could not fill the bill. His widow was left in utter poverty to raise a child on her own, done often now, but rarely then. She was a woman of great faith and prayed to Jesus constantly for help. On the day after her last money was spent and her last food eaten, she opened her front door to walk outside for a moment, and there on her doorstep was a basket of food and an envelope of money: no note, just help.  She welled up with tears. After bringing the food and money in her house, she paused to write the hymn we sang this month in one of our evening prayer services: “Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus.” The refrain she wrote is her testimony to you and to me, as one who leaned on her faith and trusted in Jesus as her Savior, even in her darkest hour. The words?  “Jesus, Jesus, how I trust Him! How I’ve proved him o’er and o’er! Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus! O for grace to love him more!” May any sense of helplessness, be transferred into hopefulness, and we will then raise loud hosannas, and finally sing Hallelujah’s to a risen and triumphant Savior. Thanks be to God! Praise the Lord!  Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                  March 16, 2008

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THE TRINITY: ITS MYSTERY AND MEANING

Genesis 1: 26-31; 1 John 5: 1-12

 

Perhaps you’ve heard of the widow who outlived three husbands and was about to wed her fourth. When asked about her many husbands and their occupations, she answered that her first husband was a banker who took care of her, and she loved him very much. Her second husband, oddly enough, was a magician, and he delighted her; she loved him very much as well. Her third husband, it turned out, was a pastor, and he taught her much about Jesus. She also loved him very much. “And now,” the person who was just meeting her commented, “You’re marrying a funeral director! What do you think attracted you to men with such different professions?” To which the lady replied, “Well,” she said, “As I look back, I married one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, and four to go.”

 

Some people in our world move from false god to false god like serial marriages, trying to get one thing out of one, and another thing out of another. God, even our God in three persons, is still one God, but ever present, something very different from the dispenser gods people want, when they put their money in a plate, or a slot, or on a convenience store counter, or on a high rollers green felt table top, and pray that they get a desired result. Today we will look not at many gods, not even at three, but at one. How would one begin to describe the Trinity: our God in three persons?

Let’s begin with a concept with which many of you are familiar: when I was a teenager visiting my grandmother’s house in Georgia with my parents, I watched the three of them, plus my aunt, play Bridge at long sittings, not taking their focus off of their cards.  I learned about the order of cards: clubs are considered the lowest suit, then next highest is diamonds, then hearts, then spades are the highest. I learned that any of them could be made into trump cards in Bridge, and that to be able to trump was a good and winning thing.  Now take that concept and move it to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Long ago, in the first century to be exact, John (in his gospel and also in his letters) made the idea of “the Trinity” the trump card of all belief systems.  “Do you have a powerful God?” some one could ask. All religions could answer, “Yes, we have a powerful god;” some actually had many gods.  “Do you have someone who is both god and man?” another could ask. “Yes” said some in the Roman Empire “Caesar claims to be that!” In Greek mythology experts described beings that were half man and half beast. But when they were asked, “Do you have one God in three persons?” that was Christianity’s trump card; no one had a God quite like ours: one go-to God who deserved all glory and praise. So God the Lord trumped, in a matter of speaking, all the other talk of gods.

 

“Trinity” is a major Christian Doctrine, though, curiously, the word never appears in the Bible.  But the idea does appear and it is clearly found in John’s writings. John 1 connects with Genesis 1 most readily when we hear John pronounce: “In the Beginning was the Word; and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” And the Spirit mention in John 14 is the same breath, (as Cara said last week) that breathed life into creation in Genesis 1.  There is a three-in-one God in Christian theology and in the Bible. Today, however, we get another form of trinity that some scholars call “metonymy,” which words terms that stand for something else.  When John, who describes Jesus as the master of speaking of spiritual things while listeners are thinking on human terms (as when Nicodemus asks how a man can go back into his mother’s womb when Jesus says “you must be born again” and is talking about spiritual rebirth), John says “There are three that testify, the Spirit, the water, and the blood, and these three agree.” (1 John 5: 8)  Some have said that water is a reference to our baptism, blood to communion, and Spirit as the day you were, in colloquial terms, “born again.” But others have suggested that the three testify to the God whose mighty breath made waves across the earth’s oceans in Genesis 1; the God who was truly present in Christ with nails and spear-pierced flesh, who bled and died to take away our sin; and the Spirit who remains on earth when the other person’s of God are elsewhere.  To some this sounds like one of those shell games performed by con artists, making us try to follow which shell the ball is under. Is the Trinity like a shell game? Is it a slippery slope that uses theological language to describe a manufactured doctrine? Is it an idea that has fantasy taking the place of faith? No this is no shell game, nor is it a fantasy; nor is it a game of saying that God is 1/3 present in the Father, 1/3 in the Son, and 1/3 in the Holy Spirit. Nor do we have a case of serial gods, where the Father had power in one dispensation, the Son in another, and the Spirit in the last. Presbyterians call such thinking “Heresy,” or “wrong belief. So why did God reveal Godself in so many forms to John for him to record in his Gospel and his Letters? This is less of a puzzle and more of a blessing as we untie the bow on the Trinity. What will we find if we accept this precious gift from God?

 

Looking in the Old Testament, God refused to be tied to a certain location, or to a certain look (other than the words in Genesis 1 that humans were made in God’s image,) God’s will in times of tragedy was also hard to pin down. It still is for many. Also, even today, don’t you wonder what God looks like? A teacher once was confronted with that thought as she was going around her Sunday School class looking at the colored pictures that her children drew. “Who is that?” she asked of one little boy, pointing to a drawing of what looked like a person.  “That’s God,” the boy replied. The teacher, trying to be helpful said, “Oh Johnny, no one knows what God looks like,” to which the boy, without hesitation said, “They will now.”  And so for people like that teacher, and perhaps for you and me, God came down to earth in the person of Jesus, grew up, and told Philip, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” Be careful here! Remember, John always records Jesus talking in spiritual terms, while people tend to think in physical terms. So even now, we cannot claim to know where God is or what God looks like. The Lord Jesus ascended into Heaven and left God in a frustratingly intangible, invisible, and omnipresent form on earth.  A child in Guam is taught that God is with him, just as a dying woman in Halifax Hospital is taught that God is with her.  A youth at a Pentecostal church that lifts up the Holy Ghost is taught that God is powerfully there, healing and speaking. A Baptist Church that is praising Jesus in Mississippi with his name repeated over and over today feels Jesus as close as the one standing next to them today. A Presbyterian Church in Korea that lifts up the Sovereignty and mystery of God sings “Holy, Holy, Holy though the darkness hides thee” in Korean, affirming the very same mystery of God that we have affirmed in our praise today.  The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who “treads on the high places of the earth” according to the prophet Amos, is the same God who walks in the darkest valleys with David in the most beloved of Psalms.  As it is recorded in 2 Chronicles, in a verse that even personifies God’s all-seeing nature, “The eyes of the Lord run two and fro throughout the whole earth, to show himself to be strong, to those whose hearts are true to him.” 

 

So dear friends, the good news of the Trinity is that God sees all, knows, all and is present in all places. The troubling news is that God doesn’t miss a thing! Sounds rather daunting to have God seeing you in the darkest nights of vice, as well as being on the brightest days of virtue! If you trust in the Lord Jesus and seek to follow his example, then these words may reassure you.  But if you are trying to get away with something or hide your shadowed side from God, it is a foolish waste of effort. Even human beings have found ways to have cameras record our actions at stop lights, in discount stores, on nanny cams, and even at car washes.  Can you imagine all the ways that God can see, and be present, with Heaven’s resources? Find comfort … and a call to righteous living, with the holy surveillance described by the doctrine of the Trinity. God is with us; we are not alone. How will you live differently knowing that?

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                  March 9, 2008                                                       

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Listen.

Can you hear the Spirit?

Some people say that they can. I had a classmate in seminary who swore that when he was quiet, he could hear the Spirit He was always convinced he knew what to do, because he had the voice of the Spirit talking directly to him.

That amazed me – still does in fact. The Spirit has never been so clear in talking to me. No, for me the Spirit likes hints, nudges – a prod in the right direction occasionally, but nothing so clear as a voice. Yet, when I think about it, it’s strange that I have so much trouble hearing the Holy Spirit. After all, even before I was born, the Spirit was with me.

Psalm 139 has always been a favorite of mine. “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” This is a God who cares. This is a God who loved me before I even knew what love was. God took the time to make me – Me. Fearfully and Wonderfully, God made me. God made you – each of you – fearfully and wonderfully.

How comforting! To have a God who loves you that much. To have a God that takes a personal interest in you. How reassuring! Or is it…

You see, because God formed you, knows you, loves you – God also calls you. Each and every one of you. You may not hear it the first time, or the second time, or even the hundredth time, but God keeps calling.

The call of God we talk about is usually through the Holy Spirit. Spirit is a strange word. There’s not really a very clear definition of spirit, is there? Websters says that it is: an animating or vital principle held to give life to physical organism or a supernatural being or essence.

yes, but what is it?

In all of the original languages – Greek, Hebrew, Latin – what we now call spirit translates closer to breath or wind. This passage in Acts calls to a sense of breath and through that living. For breath is what you have when you are alive. Breath is how we know someone still lives. When at deathbed vigils we watch the rise and fall of a chest and we know they are okay. As long as he is breathing, there is still hope. To breathe is to be alive. To have spirit is to be alive. To speak of the spirit is to speak of the power of life that is in you.

There are those in the world who are so strong, so alive, that their spirit will affect others. I’m sure you all know those wonderful individuals whose mood is infective. When they are smiling and laughing, it is almost impossible not to be caught up in their joy. When they are sad it puts a pall over the entire room. This is spirit so strong it can breathe itself out into other lives, becoming inspiring.  Their spirit touches ours.

With God’s spirit we are dealing with the breath of God, the very life of our God. God is the power of life itself, and has breathed and continues to breathe life into his creation. Inspiring it. When the Spirit of God comes upon us, as God breathes it upon us, we cannot help but be caught up in that spirit. God’s spirit will move us, whether we wished to be moved or not.

In today’s passage the Spirit calls a group of people in the middle of a noisy busy city. Numbers of nonbelievers are striding past. People are going about their normal daily business. Its early morning, and with breakfast in their stomachs, people are starting out their day. A crowd of people has gathered together to celebrate the holy days, something they do every year. Life is normal.

And then… out of nowhere the Lord breathes upon them. All of them. Every last one of the disciples there. These are people who just came to worship and who got more than they ever bargained for.

Imagine those poor people. Going along, minding their own business. They were attending the Holy Days like good faithful people do. Life is simple when all of a sudden, out of nowhere, bam. The Spirit falls upon them in tongues of fire, uncalled for and unwanted. They are overwhelmed with the infectiousness of God’s Spirit. God’s breath. They are touched by the life of God, and are wrenched out of their normal pattern. No more will this one weave his cloth. No more will that one sell his wares the way he did. He is called into God’s spirit and the very air he breathes has changed.

          True. You can ignore the call. Many do. I tried to!

Growing up, I never thought I would be in the pulpit. This wasn’t in my plans. I had very careful plans. I was going to go study wolves in the wilderness. I’d live in a tent most of the time and get into arguments with people about funding. Whenever I wasn’t camping out on the tundra, I’d be in church of course. I was raised in the church. I believed strongly in God – but that was about it. 

As the years went by, I began to have an inkling that God was prodding me in another direction. I hated my biology courses and was drawn to theology,  but at most, I thought I would maybe teach theology or ethics in some academic setting. Work in a displaced, far off scholastic realm.

Not in the pulpit. Faced with real problems from real people who were hurting every day.

Not me. You couldn’t mean me God.

Me?  Really?

God calls us all no matter to gender or race, economic class or education. There are no entrance exams, no interviews. It makes no difference if you’ve traveled the world or if you have never been out of your hometown. God doesn’t care whether you are well spoken. The Spirit has chosen you. You.

I see what you’re thinking. Sure, its one thing for me to say that. I’m a pastor. I went to school for years, went before committee after committee to be here. It only makes sense that I would think God has chosen me to do something. But God couldn’t want anything from you, right?

But don’t you see? You are precious. God has chosen you to hear his word. To live in the Spirit’s calling. You are called to do more than you ever planned on.

Make no mistake; the Holy Spirit is calling you personally. No matter what you own plan is. You have been given the Word. The Spirit has called you to serve and your life will never be the same again

          What does this mean? Well you start by listening. The Spirit not always a noisy or clear in its calling. Usually the Spirit is subtle, calling you through the needs of others. So listen. If someone asks you to volunteer for something, listen for the Spirit in that question.

Even easier to miss is when you aren’t asked directly, but instead hear of a need that you are suited to fulfill. Maybe there is a committee that could really use your help. Or you read an article on the growing plight of the homeless in our community. It’s easy to keep on reading there. Easy to see the problem as too big for you to help with. Easy to ignore the Spirit.

We even have good excuses! “I’m too busy.” “I couldn’t do something like that.” “Its too big for me to make a difference.” All are reasonable arguments about the enormity of problems facing us today.

But remember – God knows you. God formed you. God knows exactly what you are being asked to do and is asking you anyway. Because God knows you. God knows what you are capable of.

More importantly, God knows what you are capable of with the Holy Spirit’s help. Even tasks that seem so much bigger than us – so much more than we could possibly do are possible. Through the same Spirit that calls us, we are gifted with what we need to follow the Spirit’s call. So excuses will never fly with the Holy Spirit.

I didn’t think I’d end up in the pulpit. I thought ministry would be a terrible place for me. I was terrified at speaking in public and chronically shy. Given my own way I could have never ended up here. But it wasn’t my way, it was God’s way. The Spirit breathed upon me and gave me the courage to stand in a pulpit and speak the Word. The Spirit gave me the strength to introduce myself to people.

And I’ll tell you a secret, now that I have been breathed upon by the breath of God, I couldn’t possibly imagine being anywhere else – doing anything else. I love my call – even if it didn’t come to me in a bolt of inspiration but in several subtle nudges in new directions – I am still convinced it is the call of the Holy Spirit I am serving.

Listen… The Spirit calls you. Loudly, quietly, insistently, joyously, somberly, urgently the Spirit calls.

The Spirit calls you to serve and if you only accept that call, the Spirit strengthens you to fulfill it. How joyous it is that you are called! It may not turn out how you plan – it rarely does. But you have been breathed upon by God, infected by God’s spirit. And that will forever shape who you are.

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HOLY SPIRIT: GOD PRESENT

Numbers 11: 16-17; 24-25; John 14: 15-21

 

This week I heard that the location where two films were made that, together, garnered a total of 16 Academy Award nominations, is such a remote town that citizens there do not believe that all the press from tonight’s award ceremony will change their community.  Called Marfa, Texas, it has a population of 2000 people and no town movie theatre. In areas away from the town, a camera can pan in all directions and not stumble onto a single billboard, or power line, or airplane, or automobile, or anything that will give away that the movie set depicting a bygone era is being filmed on location in 2007. Tonight as you see clips from “There Will be Blood” and “No Country for Old Men,” think about the little town that, in one year, was the location for two Oscar nominated films!  I’d imagine away from that tiny town one’s cell phone would have no service; I don’t know if OnStar would work, but perhaps it would from satellites.  The point is, to find places around us that are truly remote is difficult in our day and age.  We can be in touch with those across the miles by e-mail and text message; we can check the blog of someone on the other side of the world, and the venerable telephone booths that dotted our landscape for decades are disappearing due to lack of use. Where could Clark Kent change into Superman in this day and age? Telephone booths are gone, closets are locked for security, and alleys are (thankfully) disappearing with the building of new structures! By the I-95/Taylor Road intersection in Port Orange, there are acres and acres of natural land that have been bulldozed level for what someone decided was the progress: a shopping center will go there. To some it’s a revenue stream. Others join Joni Mitchell in her song “Big Yellow Taxi, later recorded by “Counting Crows” in prophetically complaining that “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot!” So in our day, it is rare to be so far away from technology, and from the dozens of ways we can call for help.  But when the Gospel of John was written, the picture was so different. A car would not break down but a donkey might give out. A trip across the small country of Israel was sometimes treacherous with bandits ready to rob travelers. There was no fast food, just local markets here and there; and if one wanted water, it would have to be carried from the Jordan River. There were plenty of desolate places in Jesus’ day. Many people lived far from the Temple in Jerusalem, where they believed God dwelled. To stay close to God, some would pray, some would kiss their mezuzah as they entered their home, and some would have symbols in their homes that reminded them of God. Before God had Moses lead his people to Canaan, Caanan was a land of many false gods.  But God was not going to put up with statues of the Holy One; God was much bigger than a souvenir placed on a shelf in one’s sparce home or around the neck of an animal for traveling mercies.  So God saw to it that a Godly version of satellite radio, of a cell phone, of 911, (all ways we call for human help in our world) was put in place: God left us a gift of a Holy Connection that remains with us to this day, one that trumps all kinds of technology. God left us the Holy Spirit; a counselor to receptive hearts, a guide when one feels lost; and a real presence to those who feel discouraged, confused, or in despair,  The same Spirit, even in the Old Testament, guides leaders who, it is said, are “inspiring” that is, “filled with the spirit.”;  Some over the years have noted that wise leaders were ones said to have “God’s Spirit” in them; unwise leaders became that way when, through selfish or mortal motives, they decided to make decisions that went contrary to God’s ways. When that happened, God withdrew His Spirit from them; and friends, I have no reason to believe that God doesn’t still do that: give the Spirit to those listening to the Holy One who spoke ages ago in a still small voice, and who speaks still; and withdraw the Spirit from the din of chaotic or confused ways that surround others. Our nation needs to pray carefully for the right candidate to lead this nation next year. Our school teachers and administrators and parents need our prayers as they stuggle to teach in an increasingly toxic environment. God is so close by, and so available, that there is no reason why believers in their work life, their personal life, and in their prayer life cannot stop to call on the God who left Holy and wise counsel here on earth, available for the asking. With all the technology we have at our fingertips, God has stayed as close as a prayer since the days of camels, donkeys, and the sound of a messenger’s feet running toward the next village.  An extraordinary gift was left for the world at a pivotal time: It was the Spirit that, long ago, moved across the face of the deep and brought life from it. It was that Spirit that made God present for the disciples then and for disciples now.  It was that Spirit that Jesus described as he was about to leave the earth: the Spirit of Truth (John 14:17), the presence of God that will not leave us as orphans (in verse 18,) which meant in the first century that they still had a Heavenly Father who was, “a very present help in times of trouble.”  God’s Spirit dwelled with them, and there is no record that the Spirit of God has been withdrawn from the faithful.

 

What have faithful people done with that Spirit?  In the book of Numbers, God took some of the Spirit of leadership he had bestowed on Moses and distributed it to the seventy elders he assembled.  Today elders in this congregation and others draw strength from the Spirit of the Living God as well. Wise pastors will constantly pray for that Spirit to rest on them and not leave them; you can tell pastors who have lost God’s Spirit can’t you? They seem to be desperate just to keep drawing a paycheck, they cause conflict because they have lost their way, and cataracts have formed over their spiritual eyes.  We need leaders who do not take God’s Spirit for granted, but as a great gift. We need leaders and followers who are aware of God’s holiness and God’s presence, which is as strong as Gospel Armor, but as delicate as holding an egg. We carefully, reverently, and with awe, come into the presence of our Holy God. Like a lighted candle, we let Christ’s light shine when we let God’s Spirit surround us, and we extinguish our effectiveness when we let sin choke off the Spirit supply in our world.

In our day, with all the ways we stay connected with friends, can call EVAC by dialing three numbers, and can reach our auto club with the push of a button or a toll-free number, how are we doing with our holy connections?  Can you envision the world being like Marfa, Texas, where friends are close and civilization is not? Can you picture that God wants to be as close to you as your friends, and not so far that you feel orphaned? Can you imagine what it is like to have unlimited minutes and text messages to pray to God alone through the operator Jesus Christ himself? That connection keeps us in touch with the very essence of God: God’s heart, God’s mind; God’s Spirit. Jesus came to earth with a gigantic clue about God’s plan: he was called “Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.” God still is.

 

A little man named Henri Nouwen became a giant follower of Jesus during his lifetime. He spoke at my graduation from Princeton and lived his life among the poor and disabled. These are his words about God:

“It strikes me again and again that, in our publicity-seeking world, a lot of discussions about God take it as their starting point that even God has to justify himself. People often say: ‘If that God of yours really existed, then why doesn’t he make his omnipotence more visible in this chaotic world of ours?’ God is called to account, as it were, and mockingly invited to prove, just for once, that he really does exist…. Now look at Jesus: he came to reveal God to us, and you see that popularity in any form is the very thing he avoids. He is constantly pointing out that God reveals himself in secrecy.” [SHOW ME THE WAY, Crossroad Publishing, 1992, p. 84.] God is here. Will you carry out spiritual practices, starting with prayer, that at least make you aware of the presence of God?

Hear this prayer, and this week, offer some of your own to God Almighty, whose Spirit is ever near:

Holy Spirit, Holy God: you are above us so you can show us the way: you are beside us so we will not feel alone; you are in front of us so that we can hope one day to see you face to face; you are behind us, encouraging our actions and discouraging our hesitations; and you are below us to catch our stumbling soul.  With your presence all around, how can we keep from singing? With your ears so close, how can we keep from praying? With you voice so near, how can we keep from hearing? Re-tune our senses so they are on pitch with heaven’s harps, and the voice that cried from a manger, a mountain, and a cross; in the name of Jesus I pray; Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                  February 24, 2008

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FAITH

Genesis 12: 1-9; Hebrews 11: 1-16

 

Every day, you and I will have countless situations that call for faith. Some times in life others betray us, let us down, or neglect to do what is right.  That daily betrayal, or neglect, or sinfulness is what keeps moving our boats farther and farther from the shoreline of our original childlike faith.  What do I mean by that?  When my family went to the beach for vacations when I was growing up- Virginia Beach, Nag’s Head, Myrtle Beach, and now Daytona Beach- we used to ride waves on blow-up rafts. I know it’s not as exotic as surfing, but we could spend hours out there doing that. Now on some days during a week’s vacation, we could paddle out from the shoreline, and waves would push us back into shore just where we started. On other days, or even other times in the same day, we would find waves bringing us in so far from our starting point that we would have to walk our way back after almost every ride in. On rare occasions the waves would even push us in the opposite direction and we would have to walk the other way to get where our family umbrella was jammed into the sand. Think with me about faith for a moment. If we experienced faith, which, for Christians, is unwavering trust in and belief in Jesus as Lord and Savior, then in a perfect world, or in a vacuum, it would be like the days the waves drove us directly into the shore from where we started: we would walk out into the water until it was above our waists, wait for a wave, and invariably let it take us in to the shoreline, ready to go again, or ready to rest, or ready for lunch.  But, of course, we do not live in a vacuum; we do not live in a perfect world; and unlike Jesus, people around us let us down.  We have to trust human beings all the time, don’t we?  When we give a restaurant server our credit card after a meal, we trust that he or she is not copying our numbers and security code down while it is out of our sight.  When we leave our vehicles in a repair shop where, for insurance purposes we cannot stand and watch, we have faith that the oil is changed correctly, that the mechanic does not tell us something is wrong that really isn’t, and that all work is done honestly and properly.  When our children compete in Cub or Girl Scout competitions, or in a swim or gymnastics meet, or in a cheerleading competition, we trust that the judges are honest and not swayed by the presence of special friends also competing, that the other contestants are truthful about their work, and that those around us have the same values as we do.  That is a big assumption.  Now I am a man of faith; I have faith in God and seek to exhibit such faithfulness in all that I do, so that the girls who fell back into my arms during my children’s sermon trusted that I would not drop them.  There are also people in this world who I trust implicitly: anyone who works with me here I trust completely.  But, like the times the waves sent me into shore far away from my starting point, I have had quite a list of times over the years when work said to be done on my car was not done; when a Scout leader looked at cheating with a nod and a wink; when a judge at a college level competition chose his girlfriend over our daughter; when medical bills were over charged in intentional fashion, and when friends who I supported with undying devotion betrayed me.  I’d imagine that I am not alone in feeling burned by others. I see especially senior citizens not trusting banks, or clerks, or service technicians, or even churches, and I suspect that iceberg goes deeply below the waterline of their psyches. We all have wanted to have faith in others, have placed faith in some, and have been hurt by misplaced faith over the years. It makes me, and maybe you, get jaded, but hopefully jadedness does not turn to bitterness.  Sometimes we just learn that people will not keep their promises: I can’t remember every having a stranger who came to church who asked for help for food, gas, or bus tickets ever returning the gift as they promised, or even writing to thank me for it; now I just know that when they swear with their hand raised high, it has no more clout than the vaporous cloud of desperation that accompanies their need.  How can we possibly be asked to trust in a Lord we cannot see, who came to earth at a time long before we were born, and who promises to forgive our sins with all the assurance of paper and ink in a book we call the Bible?  It is surely a stretch for any one of us to have faith at all, let alone to muster up enough real faith to fall backwards into the everlasting arms of the risen Christ and trust that he will never drop us.  How difficult is that when we grow up in the world of Charles Schulze’ PEANUTS, where as long as I have been alive, even with every new promise that came from Lucy’s lips, she never actually held the football for Charlie Brown to kick! 

 

That’s our world; a world of teasing, and laughing at, and taking advantage of others.  Perhaps when Jesus said, “If you want to enter the Kingdom of God, you must enter it as a child, or not at all,” he was not thinking of Lucy in the PEANUTS comic strip, but of Brooke and Reagan and others like them.  The two girls I got to do the faith fall did it perfectly for me the first time; all my own children did it perfectly with me; they all knew I would not drop them. Well placed faith in me, or well placed faith in you, will make it easier to trust in Jesus if we do not break the trust others put in us.  Children have not been in this world as long as we grown ups. And yet, we are called to have faith in Jesus as in a “faith fall,” and to have character in which others can believe.  What a tall order. Can a human being actually do that?

 

Actually, yes!  If Mary had not had faith in an angel with the request to bear the son of God, God would have chosen another way. If Joseph had not agreed to stay with Mary, the Bethlehem story and Jesus’ upbringing would have changed radically.  Early on there was a lack of faith from with Adam and Eve, but human nature took a turn back toward faith with Noah. Then the pinnacle of faith for Jews, Muslims, and Christians was described: a wandering Aramean named Abram in Genesis 15.  Notice he is not the picture of perfection, lest any of us think that faith is an impossible dream. No, even he got ahead of God’s plan by having Ishmael through a servant Hagar, thinking his wife was too old to have children. Fortunately, God took Abram’s and Sarai’s lack of trust and turned it in to a teachable moment. “Abraham, Abraham, Sarah, Sarah,” God later said “Have faith.” And with that, Sarah became great with a child who would be named Isaac, and Abraham’s lineage continued from a tree with two branches.”

 

As I discussed next year’s Holy Land trip with people last week, I reminded them that the place where the Temple was built was called Mount Moriah ages before, the very spot where Abraham trusted God beyond what most parents would do. Like a girl falling backwards, (only with much more critical consequences if God failed to provide) Abraham raised a sacrificial knife to his son Isaac; just before he was to faithfully plunge it deep into his son’s chest, God spoke, and told Abraham that he passed the test, and gave him a goat to sacrifice instead. Faith is not easy when the world keeps eating at our innocence like vultures at a road kill.  Sometimes we think we can trust no one any more. And then there is that special mate, or parent, or teacher or pastor or mechanic or financial advisor or … you fill in the blank if you can … who restores a shred of faith to your soul.  And then you think that maybe, just maybe, you can, like Punxatauny Phil, put your head out of your protective burrow and see in the shadows of morning that there are still people, a few bright shining rays of people, who can be trusted in our world.  Those in our world who are trustworthy carry the sacred light of heaven; it flickers through the darkness of each new dawn, exposing opportunists and charlatans. You, my friends, and I have a sacred trust to carry to the world: to be as good as our word; to live faithful lives; and to give honest confession when we fail. Early childhood specialists tell us that children who experience a safe home believe that the world is safe; conversely, those whose homes are filled with broken promises and anger cannot trust the world when they grow up.  Let us show one another that there are those in whom we can have faith; and when we need human yet holy examples, we can look to Abraham and Sarah; and to Mary and Joseph.

Thanks be to God for enough examples of faith around us that we can risk putting faith in a Savior we cannot see, and trust in everlasting arms that never fail.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                              February 15, 2008

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Acts 16: 16-34 One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’ She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, ‘I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour.

But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market-place before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, ‘These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.’ The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’ The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ They answered, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

 

 

 

Who is your Lord?

 

As Americans, Lordship isn’t a concept we are entirely comfortable with. We believe in freedom and equality and justice. We don’t bow for anyone and claiming someone is our lord makes us uncomfortable. We are free. Independent. In control of our own lives.

 

Yet, admit it or not, we all have lords. Someone – person, thing or concept – rules your life. Your lord is the driving force, the director of your life. Sometimes we’re confused or conflicted about who that lord is, but that doesn’t change the fact that we are ruled by someone – some thing. For some its money, and they build their lives to chase the almighty dollar. For others its pride, or power, or lust. Your lord is the ruler of your life.

 

So I ask again. Who is your Lord?

 

On our drive down to Florida last month I got the opportunity to hear an NPR segment I have never heard before. It was called “This I believe” and on that particular Sunday they were featuring a nun called Sister Helen Prejean. She was talking about her work with death row inmates, but what really resonated with me was why she felt it was so important. She said, “The only way I know what I really believe, is by keeping watch over what I do.”

 

This woman moved from reaching to her neighbors a comfortable, safe suburban home to a violent housing project in New Orleans. That led her to working with the people who had been the victims of crimes, of injustices. And that in turn took her to Christ’s statement “Love your enemies.” So Sister Helen began to work with the death row inmates. And the in turn with the families of their victims. It is clear to see who her Lord is.  

 

So here’s how to tell who your Lord truly is. Look at your life. Look at what you do, where you spend your time, money and energy. Your lord is wherever those are directed.

 

So, are you primarily interested in money? Status? Having the right things? The best and brightest toys?

 

Or do you seek to help others? Do you reach out to the outcasts?

 

Nearly 30 years a study was conducted at Princeton University, designed to figure out the conditions under which good people would act for good, or at least be helpful.

Two psychologists asked a group of theology students to walk to another building on campus to give a short speech, either about their motives for studying theology or about the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan. Meanwhile, the psychologists had arranged for an actor to be stationed on the path between the two buildings, slumped over, coughing and obviously in bad shape. The two experimenters had also led half the students to believe they were late for their speaking appointment, and half that they had ample time.

 

So, what do you think the responses were? Who was most likely to help: those with the story of the Good Samaritan uppermost in their mind or those thinking about the motives for studying theology?

There was a significance difference between groups, but it was not along the lines of speech content. Contrary to what we might expect, the content of the speech made no difference. About the same number of Good Samaritan speakers and theology motivation students stopped. What did make a difference was how rushed the students thought themselves to be. Only 10 percent of those led to believe they were running late stopped to help. Of those told that they had plenty of time, 60 percent stopped to help.

 

In what group do you fall?

 

Now, the thing is, calling Christ Lord is easy. Anyone can do that. The trick, the hard part is actually living in Christ. Saying and Living are two very different things. Christ says to his disciples, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Go. Do as Christ has commanded us. Not just say the words. That’s the hard part. That’s where everyone will screw up at least once in awhile.

 

Jacob is an excellent example here. His all night struggle wrestling with God mirrors the struggle we have every day of our lives. We fight with God over what we should be doing. We want to follow other lords – ones that seem more flashy, more appealing. Most importantly those other lords have easier paths to follow

 

Christ is firm. The road he leads us down is hard. It’s a struggle and we will frequently tumble. We will make side detours to lords that seem like a better idea. They seem easier and the benefits sure seem nice.

 

Its so hard, because following in Christ’s footsteps is more than just telling others about Christ. It is more than saying you’re a Christian and attending services once in awhile.  Truly calling Christ lord means that you stop and talk to the homeless man on the street. It means that you take the time out of your day to buy a total stranger a sandwich. Or you comfort someone you’ve never even met but who is so desperately in need of your time.

 

The really hard part of it is that living with Christ as your Lord means that you have to step outside your comfort zone. You go out of your way to help those you don’t really want to help. Take time for things you don’t want to do.

 

No wonder we follow other lords! Other lords don’t put such hard demands on us. They offer us much more in material gain. They seem to benefit us far more than Christ does. Christ doesn’t promise us riches, or power, or even an easy life.

 

And yet… And yet. So many of us keep wrestling ourselves away from God, yet God continually calls us back. Of all the possible lords, Christ is the only one that doesn’t give up on us. And Christ is the only one who supports us when things go bad.

 

I feel bad for the jailer in the New Testament passage today. He gets handed two prisoners and his world flips upside down. I picture him as your average guy. Goes to work every day to feed his family. Maybe likes to fish on the weekend. Just a regular Joe.

 

And then in come Paul and Silas. I suspect the jailer has seen people in all sorts of states after they’ve been thrown in jail: shock, tears, anger, despair, but I doubt he’s seen anyone quite like these two.

 

They have just been unjustly beaten and arrested. They were a threat to the status quo and would probably be executed in the morning. Yet instead of bewailing their fate, they spend the night singing and praying to their lord! What strange fellows!

 

Then comes the earthquake. The jailer’s world is turned upside down and the faith that he had put in his lords of routine and the government comes shattering down. He has no support there. He has no protection. No comfort. No hope.

 

And then he hears it. The voice of the prisoners he thought were long gone calling out to him. ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’ What a lord these two must have in order to wait patiently in jail when they could easily escape. The jailer wants that faith. These two men are so confident in their salvation that the jailer begs them to show him the way too.

 

He accepts Christ in his heart and is saved. Hallelujah! Does he have days were he slips back into following his old lords? You bet. But I bet he keeps trying to follow this new Lord – a lord that will truly be there for him.

 

So, who is your Lord?

 

Is your lord routine? Status? Possessions?

 

 

Or is your Lord one who loves you so much that he would die for you? Is your Lord someone who will be there no matter what else happens in your life? Is your Lord the one who ate with outcasts and loved the sinners?

 

Who is your lord?

 

As we begin this Lenten season, many people agree to give up something. They give up chocolate or coffee or TV. They deprive themselves of something so they might know what the temptation of Christ was like after his forty days of fasting.

 

This Lenten season I have a challenge for you. I challenge you to seek out the lord you have been following that is calling you away from Christ. I challenge you to give it up. I challenge you to give up all lords who are not Christ in your life. Start with a day. Then a week. Then see if you can follow Christ, and Christ alone for all of Lent.

 

This isn’t an easy thing to do. I suspect I’m going to have trouble but I’ll keep wrestling my way back to God when I’m lead astray. I will keep trying to live my life with the example Christ gave me.

 

You can try to do the same. We can all strive to live our lives so that no one need ask us, Who is our lord. They will know it in every thing that we do. Amen.

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IF IT’S BROKEN, FIX IT!

James 5: 13-16; Mark 8: 22-25

 

The president of Pittsburgh Seminary, where Cara got her degree, is Dr. Bill Carl.  Before he became seminary president, he was a pastor and a professor at different points in his life. But in 1997 instead of visiting parishioners in the hospital, he himself was a patient, for test after test to get to the bottom of his symptoms. Blood work, CT scans, multiple X-rays and more than 5 doctors doing different things were working to hopefully “make the wounded whole.” It was the night before Thanksgiving, and, being a man of faith, he thanked God for his good health that he had enjoyed to that point: good mental, physical, and spiritual health. He said to his nurse: “Tomorrow is Thanksgiving and I’m truly grateful, not only for God’s healing power but for a new insight into care for myself as part of God’s gift of healing.” He then thought to himself: That’s my testimony, that’s my song, thanking my God all the day long. That night he slipped into being deathly sick with nausea. The nurse tried to medicate him to stop his horrible discomfort, but the night dragged on to the point it felt like the longest night of his life. He thought the healing power of death would be welcome.  He had remembered his doctor saying his readings in 1Corinthians 15 reminded him to treat death is a final healing, not the enemy. He remembered also that even though Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, it was a temporary raising because later he died as we all will.

 

Death is part of living. But sometimes in our age of medicine we make the mistake of equating “healing” with “cure;” of thinking one cannot be “whole” if they have an illness or a disability.  There are some in our world, such as Dr. Greg Baer, who founded the REAL LOVE Institute, and Dr. Bernie Siegel who wrote many books including LOVE, MEDICINE, AND MIRACLES, who have found that unconditional love by someone is the one thing that can bring you wholeness in your brokenness. Writes Dr. Siegel: “I am convinced that unconditional love is the most powerful known stimulant of the immune system. If I told patients to raise their blood levels of immune globulins or killer T cells, no one would know how. But if I can teach them to love themselves and others fully, the same changes happen automatically.  The truth is, love heals. I do not claim love cures everything, but it can heal and in the process of healing, cures occur also.” [p. 181] Dr. Baer’s testimony is even more powerful: he was a successful medical doctor, with a big house, expensive car, children in fine schools, and was so unhappy he went into his back yard and put a gun to his head. It was only by grace that he discovered the secret to wellness: “Real Love,” also known as unconditional love. He is not as rich as he was, but he travels the country telling others about his discovery; and he is happy! And studies show that people with supportive mates, best friends, or loyal pets are people who live longer and healthier lives.

 

In the New Testament we not only find reminders of Jesus healing physically: a paralyzed man took up his mat and walked and raised from the dead the only son of Nain’s widow. And in today’s passage with spit and a prayer Jesus made a blind man see. We also find that Jesus healed psychologically, as he showed Pharisees how a so-called “sinful” woman could show love better than they; and Jesus healed spiritually, going to the cross never believing that it was a dead-end or defeat, but naming it as a victory and a spiritual healing: and it was so.

 

I grew up around axioms like “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” That may apply to appliances or automobiles, but it certainly does not apply to relationships or the healing of our bodies, minds, and souls. This last week in the paper was the story of a homeless man who, contrary to what some politicians think, really did not want to live any other way than on the ground, with $30.00 a day for cigarettes, beer, and to give the rest to his friends. Science would say that not attending to dental and medical needs and eating so poorly would have contributed to the man’s death by now. But he feels loved. Could that be extending his life?  What are our teachable moments about what matters most, my friends? When you’re sick? When you hit bottom? When you face death? Funerals are times when, sometimes, we heal time-crusted wounds or test the waters in relationships that had become strained or distant. Often a sense of well-being can result from closing a door on a toxic relationship or building new bridges to healthy ones. In her book MY BEAUTIFUL BROKEN SHELL author Carol Hamblet describes, as a parable, her daily walk on a beach, at first looking for perfect shells, but finally deciding to look for broken shells, for their beauty and uniqueness came alive to her, seeing that their brokenness, like her own, was what made her precious.  Your brokenness makes you precious to Jesus. In our brokenness, we need a Savior!

 

And so I write these words to you this week, my Westminster congregation, as a survivor of diabetes, as one who signed up for every Lifescan health screening on February 29th, as one who had his first MRI for a possible torn rotator cuff this week, and who has coughed and sneezed his way through the last three days. But I know the difference between cured and whole; I know the difference between despair and joy; I know the difference between existing and living. I will make it through my maladies and make it even the Promised Land; for Jesus loves me this I know, and my family and this church family has shown me so much love it can’t help but overflow into loving you. And so today, if you come to the Lord’s Supper or accept an anointing for healing as described in the book of James, ministers will pray that through Jesus Christ, God heals your brokenness; maybe a better way to think of it is to make friends with your brokenness.  It’s a gift of great love, for without it, we wouldn’t need Jesus! Let’s start today, looking at our malfunctioning bodies, wounded psyches, and our sin sick souls as reasons that we need our Savior! We can fix a lot of things in the world with love. May you feel loved today, and in the days ahead. Amen.

 

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                  February 3, 2008

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ATONEMENT

Leviticus 16: 6-10; Hebrews 11: 11-14

 

Human beings, along with any number of other animals, certainly cannot live without water, nor can they live without blood.  Horror movies love to show blood, usually in the form of red food coloring put in Karo Syrup. Alfred Hitchcock, in his famous shower scene in the film “Psycho,” used chocolate syrup going down the bathtub drain instead of blood because he said it photographed like blood for black and white film.  According to the American Red Cross website, 38,000 blood donations are needed each and every day; and every year, there are 15 million blood donations!  When someone is in an accident, almost always there is a need for blood; only those awaiting surgery “bank” their own blood, and it just lasts a short while. So donation of all types of blood are needed; to put the wrong type of blood in a person can kill them; to withhold the right type of blood for an accident victim can kill them.  Blood is liquid life! Now enough about blood for a moment, remembering that my son Chris can get faint at the sight of it!  But our center hymn today is even called colloquially, “one of the blood hymns,” because it proclaims that by Jesus’ blood, shed for us, we are saved. Historically it was with the blood from a Passover lamb, splashed on the door frames of Hebrew homes that notified the angel of death to “pass over” that house, thus keeping those children safe. That story is in Exodus. So the deliverance of the Hebrews from captivity, and the salvation of Christians from darkness all have to do with the blood of “a lamb” for one, and the blood of “the Lamb” for the other.  Both faiths describe a way to bring the children of God closer to God when they move far away through their sins.  For Jews, Yom Kippur is known as “The Day of Atonement,” the day that moves the people of God closer to God.  Can you believe that it is only once a year that Jews get a chance to bring their regret about, repentance from, and restitution for their sins before God for forgiveness? What a burden: carrying around your sins for 12 months before having a Rabbi declare that you are clean!  For Roman Catholic Christians, the upcoming Ash Wednesday is one of a handful of days on the calendar when the “faithful” line up for the Sacrament of Confession.  Priests declare forgiveness after some action of penance or some price of indulgence is paid.  For Protestants, there are a variety of times one can ask for forgiveness. For Charismatic Christians, droves of people raise their arms before Christ in tears of sorrow at the end of evening services, asking to be rid of the devil as they call out Jesus’ name in rapid fire fashion. Baptists and some Methodists hold revivals, and when they do, they sing gospel songs like the ones I have included today.  They weep, they pray, and they sing twenty nine or so verses of “Just As I Am,” listing every known sin under the sun: usually they include drinkin’, smokin’, cussin’, and card playin’, along with stealing and coveting and all the rest. You might have come from such a church. There are other Protestant churches that are labeled by some as “soft on sin.”  In those churches you may never hear a sermon on condemnation of sin, or the redemption of the sinner, or the mention the devil. Their aim is to bathe their parishioners only in positive, uplifting words.  And then there are other churches, like ours, where Christians weekly are reminded of their sinfulness through a prayer of confession, who understand that words of forgiveness are offered by a worship leader, but realize that forgiveness is “actually paid for” by the blood and cross of Jesus. They also join other Christians, and Jews, in believing what Jesus believed:  to be forgiven: remorse, repentance, and restitution had to be in place. They still do.  There are too many times in the world when people say they are “sorry” just when they are caught, just when they are confronted with the truth, or just when they want something!  No; that is not being sorry in the sinful sense!  That is trying to wiggle out of responsibility and lighten the punishment. It is worth remembering that no one gets to go to God and ask for forgiveness before going to the ones hurt by their sins and do the hard work of showing remorse, repentance, and restitution there first. The door to heaven is closed to the ones who have not first tried to make peace, not through the cross of Christ, but with a humble and contrite heart.  Are you tired, as I am, of suspects, running from police instead of stopping, driving off in cars at reckless speeds, destroying property and endangering the lives of others? Perhaps the law should say, “You resist arrest,” your sentence doubles. Does it seem that fewer people are willing to take responsibility for their crimes? Taking responsibility for actions is one of the best lessons of life: it is taught by Jews, Christians, and twelve-step programs.  Yet how many people are estranged from family, co-workers, friends, or neighbors through an event or words that have put a wedge between them? What a rush of joy and peace I get when a conflicted situation gets resolved, don’t you feel that too? God must also have a heart that longs not only for our human connections, but also our Heavenly one. As the old saying puts it, “If God seems far away, who moved?”  Sin moves us farther and farther from the distant shore of Heaven. Church rituals and human confession row us closer to that beautiful shore. But putting Jesus in the back of your boat to be your power and rudder is the most fabulous choice one can make.

 

In Leviticus, we heard a brief portion of the Day of Atonement ritual, the meaning of which may be best understood by splitting the word so it says “At-one-ment.” “This is God’s work to make us one with God. The “Christian Believer” text on this subject writes these words: “The idea of our human estrangement from God and of God’s seeking to bring us ‘at one’ again is quite beyond explanation….The Letter to the Ephesians uses the language of redemption: ‘In Jesus Christ we have redemption through his blood.’ Job declared ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that at the last he shall stand upon the earth.’” [p. 141] In our affirmation of faith today, we will use a portion of Paul’s Letter to the Colossians that ends with the words: “making peace by the blood of his cross.” Only a Jew, or an informed Disciple of Jesus, can begin to understand how the death of the God made man (who was called ‘the lamb’ by John) could possibly give us a highway to heaven and a new life here on earth. In Hebrews, we find another explanation for this mystery: expiation. “Expiation means appeasing or purifying through a sacred rite. It conveys a picture of our being soiled by sin and in need of cleansing.” How is that cleansing achieved? Through Christ’s blood sacrifice. A revival hymn proclaimed ‘What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus!’” Who washes in blood? How does blood make a soul whiter than snow? This answer is traced back to “expiation atonement” a big term described by blood making souls whiter than snow. Finally, the idea of substitutionary atonement traces its roots back to Genesis 22, when God provided a ram for a sacrifice to take Isaac’s place. God’s test provided a “scapegoat,” but without faith, the test would have failed. There are so many ways to get at the idea of being made “one” with God, that is, closer to God. The theory of Christ giving us power over evil (the “Christus Victor” theory) and the “Ransom” theory (where Jesus is exchanged for us who deserved to be on the cross where he hung,) are two more of the many facets of this diamond called Atonement.

God wants us close: the images of wide open arms, lamps left burning, a father running in robes, and a visit from heaven to a Bethlehem stable show us the lengths to which God will go to be close to us. But therapy rooms are filled with people who, because of painful events, are estranged from others, having shut the doors to human connections and sometimes to Heavenly ones. There are also times when people runs from the ones who caused them pain into the arms of exactly the wrong person; and times when, in anger or apathy, people move away from God, citing that they are spiritual but not religious, and connect with a counterfeit god instead. For all of those people: for you and me and others: God came in Christ, so that we might have life, and have it abundantly. Use whatever image that helps you grasp that. The cross, the blood, and the lamb are images that remind us of one thing: God is always throwing out yet another lifeline to those who are tossed to and fro in the tempestuous sea we call life. So remember and never forget: What can wash away our sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus!  Search your soul, sing your heart out, and make a commitment to reconnect, as we stand to sing this hymn.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           January 27, 2008

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