11-04-07 GOD: PERSONAL

GOD: PERSONAL

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           November 4, 2007

 

10-28-07 GOD: CREATOR

GOD: CREATOR

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           October 28, 2007

10-21-07 THE WORD OF GOD CALLED SCRIPTURE

THE USE OF SCRIPTURE

2 Kings 22-3- 23:3; 2 Timothy 3:10 – 4:5

 

In our church library, which in its present form is 21 years old this month, many copies of the Bible are catalogued. There are also children’s Bibles, commentaries on the Bible, concordances for the Bible, a 20 volume series set of sermons based on the Bible, dictionaries of the Bible and, well, you get the picture.  From Mary Ann Sumner’s recent note and from the Abingdon Bible Commentary, we learn that the word “Bible” means “Library,” but for many growing up it has just been “the Good Book.” In Jesse Lyman Hurlbut’s classic book, the Story of the Bible for Young and Old, Dr. Hurlbut’s grown son, Charles, provided these memories in the forward to his father’s book: “One of the earliest recollections of my childhood is sitting with a group of other children, with my father in the center, and a huge Bible on the table in front of us…. My father … was a wonderful storyteller; so nothing thrilled us more than to sit on his knees to hear him tell the stories as he turned the pages….My father learned the language that holds a child’s attention and the way to make a story real to him….[and he finally put his great storytelling down in a book.]It was his hope that the reader would find in it not only stories from the Bible, but also THE STORY OF THE BIBLE in one narration.” [Zondervan, 1967, p. vii]

 

So the Bible, to us, is not just a library of books, it is also a book, and more importantly, the book.  It is important enough that we call it “Scripture,” even though the word “‘scripture’ is simply the Latin rendering of the Greek word for ‘writing.’” [ABINGDON HANDBOOK OF THE BIBLE, Abingdon Press, 1975, p. 17]  The Old Testament was almost certainly the exclusive Scripture about which the Apostle Paul spoke in all of his New Testament letters, for most scholars believe that the Gospel writers did not put pen to parchment until between 65 A.D. for Mark, 85 A.D. for Matthew, 70 A.D. up to 90 A.D. for Luke, and 90 – 95 A.D. for John.  If, according to the calendar, Jesus died in 33 A.D. what was the foundation on which the church began to be built in Galilee, in Greece, and in Asia Minor?  The church was built, and still stands, on the solid rock of Jesus Christ, on the confession by Simon Peter that he is messiah, on the solid rock of the words that Jesus taught, and on the evangelistic work of those who believed in and followed him. The church has always had it’s foundation on the Living Word, which is Jesus Christ. It has been instructed by the Written Word that we call the Bible, inspired by the Spoken Word in sermons, and welcomed and fed through the Visible Word of Baptism and Communion.  So we truly base our lives and beliefs on the unfailing Word of God.

 

But today we are talking about a text; a library, sacred writings, and all the other ways by which people refer to that giant family Bible on the coffee table, that pocket New Testament, that annotated study Bible on one’s desk, or that devotion Bible on one’s nightstand. Many own one; some read one. As Lloyd R. Bailey pointed out in his book called THE WORD OF GOD: “Persons have been saying for years that present-day people cannot understand the Bible since documents produced by members of a pre-industrial society some 2,000 to 3,000 years ago cannot be relevant today. How can such books have anything important to say to a society grappling with problems of urbanization, industrialization, technology, and our incredible capacity for inventiveness? And yet we have not invented a new sin in 2,000 years. Perhaps it is the very timeliness (or timelessness) of the message of the Scriptures which makes it so significant today.”  [John Knox Press, 1982, p. 14]  Do you remember what it was like to get your first Bible? I love books and still have mine that I got in the 3rd grade. Perhaps you got one then or when you became a Christian.  Do you remember your parents having a family Bible?  We treasure the stories and truths in that sacred book.  And even the Bible tells stories of corrupted people needing to get back on track. We see our sins in the events of Biblical stories. The Bible is a looking glass, or mirror, it is a lens and a magnifying glass, helping to focus on the parts of life that will heal our soul this week.

 

Once upon a time, according to Second Kings, like a family moving into a house and finding a treasure, (which happened in my grandparents town of Ellwood City, Pennsylvania two weeks ago where a new owner found a copy of Batman number 1 in the attic, a find worth thousands of dollars for nickel comic)  people were cleaning a ruined and filthy temple due to the poor leading of King Manasseh, who followed the sins of his grandfather, Ahaz, instead of the good deeds of his father, Hezekiah. Finally under the good but young rule of King Josiah, they were getting the temple back in shape to be fitting for the Lord. In their dig, they came across a book, probably in the form of some old scrolls, and their eyes were reminded of the power of timeless words being spoken in a new time.  Like the unexpected finds by scholars of the Nag Hammadi writings in Egypt in 1945, or the unexpected find of what are called the Dead Sea Scrolls by a shepherd boy in 1947, these finds have shed unimaginable light on the translations based on translations available up until the 1940s. Just like those scrolls changed today’s Biblical world, the “book” found in the Temple during Josiah’s reign gave a sense of revival and redirection for Judah.  The people, upon hearing the words of the sacred book, joined their king in making the promise to serve the Lord and do his will.  It was a time when God was pleased to be both honored and worshipped.  The finding of the book recorded in Second Kings, like an intentionally buried time capsule, was a find that seemed to have both mystery and power attached to it.

 

Likewise, in the New Testament, we were guided today to one older preacher teaching a younger one, named Timothy, the value of preaching by the “Book.”  The writer has known of Timothy’s faith as the son of a Greek Christian man and a Jewish woman who became Christian. He had been taught the sacred writings according to verse 15; he had been taught that if something is called “Scripture,” it has been called “sacred” or “holy” and is therefore inspired by God, that is, in the reading or preaching of those words, God’s Holy Spirit guides the preacher, the reader, and the hearer to new truths, to guide them in their daily decisions and struggles, according to verse 16. And so, in chapter 4 verse 2, Timothy is urged to preach the Word when he feels like it, and when he doesn’t. Some days preachers feel like preaching, some days they don’t. Some days people don’t feel like worshipping God, some days they do. I told our confirmation class this week that how I feel should be irrelevant; I will preach with energy, emphasis, and zeal as much as I am capable. Thus, it is irrelevant if they, or you, feel like worshipping God; we are here to do it!. And what I find is if I act as if I am energized, I end up being energized in the end. Praise God when you feel like it, and when you don’t! Preach the Word, Timothy is told, when it is a time to commemorate Jesus’ birth, and resurrection, and also at other times. “Preach the Word both in and out of season.” And, he is warned that, as has happened before (and because of human nature) there will still be times when people will stop listening to and following the Word. 

 

Today whether we together assess our world, or whether we assess your life, the decision is this: is our world in a time when it is listening better to God’s Word and the guidance that is there, or have the ears of the world become so filled with I-Tunes, cell phones, or commerce that few can hear the still small voice of God today? To be more specific, when people go off the road by either the distractions around them, the bad decisions by others near them, or the circumstances of the road in front of them, they get back on the road usually with the help of a tow truck.  The tow truck for most people whose lives have gone off the road is the Bible that points the way back to God through Jesus Christ. Prison ministries, 12 step programs, and many pastors pull people’s lives out of the ditch with the power of God’s Word.  There are poems in print that are helpful; and there are songs and hymns that lift people’s hearts; but it is Scripture that is God’s inspired way of leading us to know Jesus and his way, his forgiveness and his salvation. The sacred word has been passed down through the ages, written on the tablets of people’s hearts, written on parchment or paper, or now even in audio and Pod casting forms.  Chaplains in prisons change people’s lives with it; missionaries convert the world with it; college evangelists bring people to Christ with it. The world is being changed by giving them something that most of you already have: a Bible.  On your list of must reads, where does your Bible land?  Whether it is old or new, with pictures or with notes; whether it weighs 5 ounces or 5 pounds, you have a treasure that can be rediscovered in your castle. May pulling it off the shelf or the table and opening its sacred pages bring you alongside of the stories and teachings that, for 2000 years, have been called a treasure.

Jeffrey A. Sumner         October 21, 2007

 

 

 

10-14-07 REVELATION: OUR SELF-REVEALING GOD

REVELATION:  OUR SELF-REVEALING GOD

Exodus 3: 1-6; Romans 1: 14-23

 

A Sunday School teacher watched one of her young students intently drawing a picture on paper.  The boy was totally immersed in his work. “What are you drawing?” his teacher asked him.  “A picture of God,” he replied. “Oh,” she said kindly. Deciding to take it one step further, she said, “You know, nobody knows what God looks like,” to which the boy, never taking his eyes from his work, said, “They will now.”

 

If someone were to come up to you on the street one day and ask “Have you seen God lately?” what would you say?  That was the question I posed in my very first sermon in seminary on January 29, 1979.  It used today’s passage about God’s voice coming from a burning bush to Moses; and I used the Noah story to lift up God’s presence and promise through a rainbow.  Other texts on the topic of God’s appearing have been included in anthems, stories, and sermons.  In Deuteronomy we read, “You will seek the Lord your God and find him if you search after him with all your heart and soul.” (4:29). The CHRISTIAN BELIEVER writer put it this way: “Israel [could] find God because God had already found and chosen them.  Centuries later, when the people were captives in Babylon, the prophet Jeremiah reassured them on God’s behalf, ‘When you search for me, you will find me’ (Jeremiah 29:13.)” And it was Isaiah who melodically implored the people of Judah to “Seek ye the Lord, while he may be found; call ye upon him while he is near.” (55:6) Today our texts suggest that if we haven’t found the Lord it’s because we don’t know where and how to look. As far as seeing God with our eyes, that’s a different story.   Let’s lift up three places where we can find God and God’s handiwork.

 

First, look for God in nature.  Can a sudden shower, or a sunrise or a sunset, or a rainbow or a storm be a spiritual moment? Yes; but when we are looking for God there we are less likely to see a face and more likely to find evidence. Some feel the majesty of God at the Grand Canyon or at Niagara or Teton Falls.  Can the growth of crops for farmers, or the birth of baby animals on farms or in nature remind you how to wonder, and how to marvel at all that God has created?  Even science, when one looks at the stars, or under powerful microscopes, looks at living cells, gives us glimpses in to the mysteries and powers of God.  Is frost on the ground the hem of a holy garment?  Are stars at night the jewels in the holy crown? Can earthquakes and tsunamis remind us of the power God could exert with one footstep? In the Bible God’s handiwork is revealed at creation, reiterated by the Psalmist, and in metaphors. God raises people up as on eagles’ wings in Isaiah; God is like the sun: generating light and warmth. And whenever God gives a prelude to the Old Covenant or the New, it is with water:  the Red Sea in the Exodus story, and the Jordan River at Jesus’ baptism and the start of his ministry. Finally, when God speaks with Moses on Mount Sinai to deliver the words on which Jews and Christians depend that we call the Ten Commandments, it was through a mass of lightning, clouds, and thunder. Moses is told not to look for God directly, as he is warned: “Mortals cannot see my face and live.” So God uses indirect ways of revealing holiness through nature.

 

Second, look for God in people. Though many times God speaks to us unconsciously, God also communicates to us through other people. There are times when I have prayed for an answer from God and it comes from the mouth of an acquaintance or even a stranger.  Several years ago, a woman named Barbara Hall was intrigued by the idea of God being with us, perhaps even appearing before us, and giving us answers in surprising ways. As with the Matthew 25 passage when disciples were puzzled by Jesus telling them that they had or had not fed him, given him something to drink, visited him when he was sick or in prison, or clothed him when he had no clothes, Barbara Hall created the television series, Joan of Arcadia, which was cancelled too soon. In it Joan built a relationship with and talked with and listened to God, but not like Moses did. God appeared in the form of a boy in class, a lunch lady, a homeless man, a janitor, and the list went on. Joan never knew when God was watching, what form God would take or what God was going to say to guide her in her moments of teenage angst. I think it was worth watching, if for no other reason than to remind us that not only is God watching us, we might, indeed, see God in other people. Films, such as “Oh God!” and “Evan Almighty” have unpacked the idea of talking with and having God watch us from up close. The God of the heavens, after all, came to earth as a human being. Is there anything too difficult for the Lord? Is there any length to which God will not go to try to reach and guide us, if we just have the eyes to see, and the ears to hear? Last week I even mentioned that in Luke 24, disciples, who should have known what Jesus looked like, did not recognize the risen Lord until he broke bread in their home.  Sometimes, perhaps, our Lord Jesus keeps us from recognizing his face in the crowds. But other times, if we look, we might see the face of Jesus.

 

Finally, look for God, like the Sunday School boy, through the eyes of faith. We learned last week that when evidence of something is brought forth, faith is no longer needed. So we live by faith, and not by sight. Even if we can’t see the wind, we can see ripples across a lake to let us know that wind is present. Just as Jesus called his Heavenly Father “Abba” or daddy, the name a child might call his father, so faith calls for child-like trust in God. That kind of trust is exemplified in the little book MISTER GOD, THIS IS ANNA, a true story of a young man named Fynn who finds a little girl named Anna.  One day the four year old explained God to the man like this:

“You see, Fynn, Mister God is different from us because he can finish things that we can’t. I can’t finish loving you because I shall be dead millions of years before I finish, but Mister God can finish loving you, and it’s not the same kind of love, is it?” [Fynn gulped to answer but she went on.] “Fynn, what is the word for when you see something in a different way?” After a minute or two of scrabbling about, the precise phrase she wanted was dredged out of me: point of view.  “Fynn, that’s the difference.” [A little further questioning cleared up what she meant: Humanity in general had an infinite number of points of view, whereas Mister God had an infinite number of viewing points. [That meant, Finn deciphered, that God was everywhere.] Anna burst into peals of laughter. “You see?” she asked. “You see?” I did too.

[Ballantine Books, New York, 1974, pp. 27-28]” Anna’s story is true. She was only four years old when Fynn found her on London’s fog-shrouded docks. He took her back to his mother’s home, and from that first moment their times together were filled with delight and discovery.

 

Delight and discovery; I had with a group of women and children yesterday. God wants it for us as- through nature, faith, and other people- he makes his playful and his guiding sides known. God is here; for us and with us. Don’t let a word, or a glance, or a whisper confound you. Listen for God to guide and bless your life.               

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           October 14, 2007

10-07-07 BELIEVING

BELIEVING

Job 42: 1-6; John 20: 24-26

 

Today we have heard an example of unwavering faith in the Old Testament and an example of classic doubt in the New. Job and Thomas; bookends for a row of volumes with entirely different content: one with trust, one with proof; one with faith, one with science.  Somewhere in the middle, I suspect, is where many people live. There are, of course, some with unwavering faith, “like a rock.” There are also some with shaky or little belief that quiver like a feather in the wind. We are leaving out the supposed total non-believers from this debate for now.  The CHRISTIAN BELIEVER text states it this way: “To be human is to be a believer. We differ in what we believe, and in the intensity of beliefs, but we insist on believing in something. Life simply cannot exist without some such basis. These beliefs become the set of sails that determine the direction of our lives and our destination [along with] the nature and quality of our journey.” (p.9)  Today we are briefly addressing the idea of believing in God, or if one is a Christian, believing in Jesus Christ as Savior.  The Apostles’ Creed, which you are invited to profess in a few minutes, is what theologian Helmut Thielicke once described as “The Super-steep wall of faith.” About it he writes in his book titled I BELIEVE: “I admit that reciting the Apostles’ Creed in the service is somewhat of an annoyance to me. I am somewhat troubled by the fact that [it] seems to almost diffuse an atmosphere of misunderstanding…. [Some wonder if we’re allowed to join the man in the gospel who said to the Lord Jesus; ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’]  I am not very happy [that] the people for whom the promises of faith were intended suddenly grow faint and lapse into silence [in certain parts of the creed.]”  [1968, Fortress Press, p. xii.]  So can we, like Thomas, and dare I say even Job, choose what we believe, and affirm parts of the faith, and not fully understand or, dare I say, doubt other parts? When a candidate for ministry at our last Presbytery meeting was asked if she affirmed the doctrine of the Virgin Birth, she paused and answered “I affirm it, though confess I do not completely understand it.”  And so we stand in a great line of saints in the faith from Cyril to Augustine, from Anselm to Aquinas, from Calvin to Zwingli, who, by their own confessions, admitted that God Almighty, was part of a MYSTERIUM TREMENDUM, and that the teachings of Scripture were sometimes hard to understand, hard to believe, and even harder to live.  Believing in a God that science cannot prove; believing in a Savior whose death on a cross 2000 years ago wonderfully and powerfully changes lives today; believing that a chosen young woman named Mary complied with an extraordinary heavenly request to start the holy presence on earth; and believing in a God who is not an absentee landlord but one present even now through one called the Holy Spirit, can make a believer a laughingstock among skeptics and can send skeptics smugly back into their corners of disbelief.  But reluctant people like Moses and Zechariah and Mary were visited by Heavenly voices of visitors; they were not looking for greatness. Intelligent people like Joseph of Arimathea gave away his entire family’s burial plot to Jesus because something about the Savior changed his heart. A woman at a well evangelized her entire village after Jesus spoke to and counseled her. And a man possessed by a demon who was healed by Jesus soon became enthusiastic enough for Christ that his whole community was converted even before the Savior returned. Story after story is told about lives that are changed by those who came to believe.  But as Job found out, believers can and will be tested by scoffers.  As Thomas found out, God sometimes will bless those who see and believe, but God grows faith in the hearts of those who believe without the benefit of seeing or proving. Once proof is evident, faith dissipates. What use is faith in the light of proof? So our elusive belief system pours out its blessings on those who live by faith and not by sight.  What a challenge that is; but what untold joys are being held for faithful souls.

 

Today Reformers like John Calvin, in pouring over all the accounts of the gospels, found evidence, for example in Luke 24, of Jesus being really present with, but not evident to, believers in the breaking of bread and sharing of the cup. For us, if we actually saw our Lord, we might box him into humanness: “That’s what he looks like? I thought he’d look different from that!” some might say. In Godly wisdom, Jesus is kept from appearing, but his presence, like wind that is felt but not seen, surrounds his disciples wherever they are. We are here in his name; he is among us. Let us prepare our hearts for the humble news that the risen Lord, who rules on high because he was made worthy, invites one as human as you, and as me, to share this meal which he has prepared.  He is overjoyed to have this time with us; may you find the joy that is perhaps even dormant in your heart, and tell him in prayer about your joy in meeting and eating with him again today.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           October 7, 2007

09-30-07 GOD’S WORD IN A SHAKY HOUSING MARKET

GOD’S WORD IN A SHAKY HOUSING MARKET

Jeremiah 32: 1-3a; 6-15

 

My grandparents used to live outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a land that, decades ago, was home to dozens of steel mills. The industry of Western Pennsylvania carried our nation in the middle of the 20th century. But as recently as the 1960s and certainly the 70s and later, steel mills have all but completely shut down.  As a child visiting each summer in the 60s, I remember the concerns residents had about the mills starting to close and the unemployment that would result. Lower income later meant lower revenues for cities, and the infrastructure- roads, bridges, sidewalks, and parks- just began to look more and more run down. In the gray overcast skies of that state, people began to grow blue or anxious.  Some of those laid off drank more heavily; some faced foreclosure on their home or repossession of their car.  Young people couldn’t wait to get out of their dead-end small town and head somewhere warm or sunny, or at least different, where a job could be found.

 

On a video tape that I gave Pete Zahn’s class to view next week, the Presbyterian Churches of Western Pennsylvania, during the 1980s, looked at ways, not to leave, but ways to do faithful work amidst a changing climate.  They smartly canvassed their neighborhoods and asked people, (whether they were Presbyterian or not) what their greatest needs were. Then they got their most creative and willing people together, some blue collar, some white collar, to address the issues. Instead of just thinking how to keep church doors open, they decided to take Christ to their community.  One huge concern was children in school without health care. Well-connected people knew who to contact with Blue Cross, Blue Shield of Pennsylvania and worked with the company to create a low cost group policy that would allow children to at least have minimal coverage.  Many older people could no longer get out because of limited mobility and harsh winters, so one of the churches started a meals-on-wheels program for them. Other working mothers needed affordable after-school care so one of the churches began to offer that.  And as they, together, weathered their winters of discontent, Pittsburgh Urbanization teams began to get a vision and a plan for revitalizing downtown. Gleaming new buildings, shops, a ballpark, arts museums and halls began drawing businesses back to the city and the surrounding areas. There are still some dreary places in the land that I love in Western Pennsylvania. But instead of everyone moving away, now there are many, including young families, who have stayed, moved back, or even moved there for the first time to cities where vision helped to keep people from perishing.

 

As new home sales across the nation hit a seven year low this week, those of us who live here in Volusia County, which the News Journal dubbed “Low-tech Land,” have wages below the national average while rents and mortgages have climbed.  We have areas still hurt from hurricanes three years ago, and some areas have been nicely rebuilt. We have leadership in Daytona Beach and surrounding cities that seems more sensible and visionary than in years past. And yet plenty are still leaving Daytona while others move in.  What could a church do–ours for example–to take a lead in helping our community like the successful Pennsylvanian Presbyterians did? What could a church do in hopeful ways to make God’s earlier promise true even for us: “Houses and fields will again be bought in this land?”  Realtors take heart.  There will be more people moving here and we will seek to be their caring community after they arrive. Our church deliberately works to provide health ministries and vaccinations, to become a cultural lighthouse for music and a haven for families with quality educational programs. We have had Kids Klub and MOPS until the need for such abated, and something new will take their places. We have spiritual growth Disciple groups for all ages and monthly mission work. We have fellowship outings from cruises to pilgrimages, ballgames to golf, and picnics for all ages. We feed hungry people and give children a home who don’t have one. And we support a counseling center that helps make wounded people whole. Even as church receipts are down, as income is also down for many, taxes are up, and homestead exemptions have changed: there is hope on the horizon.  Many areas in our communities are gleaming again, even as there is more to be done.  But if we Presbyterians are called to live faithfully in our communities, to look carefully at Scripture, and listen prayerfully to God, what might it look like if we mobilize our spiritual armies and not become obsessed with institutional maintenance? Our work would need to be planned well; some could encourage those in government, construction, law, or social services by sharing ideas and a vision of directions that would be mutually beneficial. Together we could plan for a future, not like today, but better, letting God guide our feet and minds and hearts.

 

As we conclude our month long study of Jeremiah, (a book assembled in the midst of national calamity) we find that—although terrible judgment came on the people of Judah for their sloppy servanthood, faulty faithfulness, and endless desire to have all the toys that the Babylonians had, God said, “Enough. You want to be like the Babylonians, then you shall be Babylonians.” And with God’s blessing, if you can believe it, Babylonian King Nebuchadrezzar stormed and pillaged the city, including the heart of Jerusalem, the Temple.  It became Babylonian territory and many, mostly the best craftsmen and leaders, went back to Babylon to work as slaves of progress and infrastructure.  So the people of Judah, because of their careless and lackadaisical worship of God and study of Torah, experienced the consequences of their decision. That’s how God works: from your decisions will either come blessing or curse, depending on your heart and your goals. But now in the Jeremiah text, the price has been paid, the lesson has been learned, and the agony was over.  With the interesting lesson about buying houses, fields, and vineyards, God called his people to repopulate Judah again, to come home, and to bring their newly learned skills to bear to rebuild of the Temple and make Jerusalem the grand city it was intended to be. 

 

Proverbs says “Without vision, people will perish.” Others have said without hope, nothing makes us trust that, as it has been said “the sun will come out tomorrow.” All the possibilities of a new day will be light unto thy path of what seemed hopeless yesterday.  What has made your heart sink in the past, or has made you feel low today? What is your Pittsburgh, your Daytona, or your Jerusalem? Is it a job or lack of one? Is it the feeling that you have lost your ability to motivate others? Is it this fall term at school or perhaps a yearning to change majors? Is it making a decision that impacts your family or a decision regarding your health that you dread? Is it the dread of wondering how long you can live alone or whether now is a good time to look into assisted living?  Everything that happened in the Jeremiah passage flowed out of the re-emphasized message: “Thus says the Lord.” God’s word and will can be consulted in the decisions before you. God will accompany and encourage you in your unknown lands, if, as it has been said, “you will but trust in God to guide thee.” None of the strange business deals of today’s text were Jeremiah’s ideas, they were God’s. And it was another Jew, later named Paul, who took that Jewish idea and made it Christian with these words: “We know that in everything God works for God, with those who love him and are called according to his purpose.” Robert Schuller once put it, “God can turn your scars into stars!” And so he can. Even when some people mean things for harm, God can turn them into good; watch for it with hopeful and faithful eyes.  The timing may not be your own, but in God’s time, with faithful people catching the vision of a new day, there will be light where before there was darkness, and creation where before there was destruction.  God’s Word gave faithful people guidance in the past, in the present, and, if we pray for it: in the future.  May God in Christ be Lord of our lives through all our circling years. Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                        September 30, 2007

09-23-07 YOUR SPIRITUAL PREPAREDNESS KIT

YOUR SPIRITUAL PREPAREDNESS KIT

Jeremiah 8:18 – 9:1

 

Dr. Dan Hale and Dr. Richard Bennett are revising their book that came out ahead of it’s time in 1999: BUILDING HEALTHY COMMUNITIES THROUGH MEDICAL-RELIGIOUS PARTNERSHIP. In the revised addition, due out in 2009, the first chapter will be about this church and how I and dozens of others have been helped by our Body, Mind, and Soul health ministry.  Dr. Hale and I have sat down twice in the last two months to go over the programs that have literally changed people’s lives.  Because of Billy Walter and David Corcoran, we have had skin screenings that have helped catch melanoma and carcinoma cancers in early stages and treatment has brought healing. Because I discovered I had diabetes, we continue to feature people describing the symptoms and having people see if they or someone they know might have it and not know it. In fact, the wonderful diabetic educator, Janet Connors, who sat across from me in our fellowship hall and gently told me, with blood sugar numbers of 355, that I should see my doctor because she suspected I had diabetes, will be here next month to speak again on that topic. Because we learned that strokes are sometimes called “brain attacks” and quick treatment is vital to healthy recovery, people like Woody Starrett are fine now after getting prompt treatment and prayers after a stroke.  And with the offering of flu and influenza vaccines and information on topics ranging from colon cancer to home safety and avoiding scams, the Body, Mind, & Soul ministry of this church continues to bring good physical results. In addition, speakers such as Dr. Lex Baer from our Presbyterian Counseling Center, who spoke last week, help us with our emotional well-being, while DISCIPLE Ministries stretch our spiritual lives and Biblical knowledge. We have learned what power we have in preparedness. 

 

As hurricanes and tornadoes have still hit or threatened to hit Central Florida, some of you have your hurricane kit ready, some have one from an earlier year and, like bread that has gotten moldy from being kept too long, it needs to be refreshed. Others live by the seat of their pants and plan to hit Home Depot or Lowe’s a day or two before a storm comes near.  Those who are ready with batteries, food, tarps, or even generators are the ones who will make it through that dreadful day, and the ones who feel more peace at being prepared.  We have had some hard lessons to learn about preparedness over the years.

 

A long time ago, it is believed that a man in the bondage of slavery was remembering what he had heard a preacher say.  “Some days,” the preacher moaned, “Don’t we all feel like Jeremiah? Our land, our women, our children are ravaged and as the harvest winds down, there still is little income and even less hope? There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole; there is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.” Jeremiah and God’s dialogue in Jeremiah 8 and 9 were the backing text for those words. They said: “My grief is beyond healing and my heart is sick within me. Listen to the cry of the daughter of my people from the length and breadth of the land. … I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.”  Musicologist Austin Lovelace has written that “in Jeremiah 8:22 the question is asked ‘Is there no balm in Gilead?’ and the expected answer is ‘No.’ But the spiritual [There is a balm in Gilead] turns the negative into an affirmation, and hopelessness into hope. The balm in Gilead may have been from a local tree, or brought from Eastern Caravans passing through, but the balm of the spiritual is Christ.” {HYMN NOTE FOR CHURCH BULLETINS, GIA, 1997, p. 103.] And black historian James Cone has written “Hope in the black spirituals, is not a denial of history. Black hope accepts history but believes that the historical is in motion, moving toward a divine fulfillment.” {THE SPIRITUALS AND THE BLUES, Orbis Books, 1991, p. 86.} Could it be that the preacher long ago read the prophet Jeremiah and answered his own question with a spiritual answer? Could it be that, instead of just reaching for a medicine cabinet, or first aid kit, or only consulting a doctor, that something else heals the sin-sick soul and that prayer completes the body, mind, and soul connection?  Countless testimonies and blind scientific studies by Dr. Larry Dossey and others have shown that medicine and prayed-for people do better than medically treated people for whom prayer was not offered. Even in our own church, on at least three different occasions, I’ve had people at the front door or on the phone say, “I can tell that my name is no longer on the prayer list!  I feel worse! Please put me back on the list!” And we do; and they actually feel better.

 

Austin Lovelace, in the quote just mentioned, made a leap that others may not be willing to take. He closed his quote from Jeremiah, an Old Testament book, by saying “The balm of the spiritual is Christ.”  Do you believe that? And if you do, just as you believe that one day you will die, and just as you believe one day another storm will come this way, are you ready for Jesus Christ?  I can’t tell you how many ways spiritually unprepared people are harmed by their lackluster planning for their souls.  They fall for theological drivel that appears in print or in conversation; they get blown by whatever church advertising campaign is the most clever or most popular.  They don’t understand the theology of their baptisms, the power of Holy Communion, or how important it is to move deeper into Biblical discussions than the Bible stories and interpretations they learned as a child. And they certainly aren’t ready when it comes to death.  So what are the things, if we were to pack your spiritual preparedness kit, that should be included?  Here are some things to put in, along with faith, hope, and love, that can heal a sin-sick soul.

 

First, John 1: “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.” Even as God created the Heavens and the Earth, Jesus the Word was also God, and with a word (ruach, wind, spirit) God created.  God was in the beginning; God will be in the end. To not acknowledge God in the middle can, in a manner of speaking, cause you to be written out of God’s will, that is called the Lamb’s Book of Life. How important it is to have a relationship with Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, in this worldly life! Second, at Jesus’ baptism, recorded in Mark chapter 1 and two other places, a voice came from heaven saying “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased.”  Your baptism, either received as a child and confirmed as a youth, or received and confirmed as an adult, is the beginning of God’s sanctifying work in you. God’s Spirit is in you spending this lifetime trying to make you into mature Christians that can mentor younger ones and to get you ready for Heaven. For those who do not include God in their lives, they have a virtually insurmountable task of sanctification in their last moments of life. Too many hang their hope on Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross “Today you shall be with me in paradise.” There is serious repentance and soul searching that is part of our life long journey. Counting on a deathbed confession of faith discounts not only times when your life might be snuffed out instantly, but also misses the blessings of a Christ-filled life. Third, being active in a church is vital for spiritual growth.  The apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians 12, said to even those who were listening to Peter, or to Apollos that “You are the body of Christ, and individually members of it. … For just as the body is one and has many members, all of the members of the body, though many, are one, so it is with Christ.” We need to be challenged by, lifted up by, and walking along side of others. Like a car in a road race that goes into a ditch and is left behind, people who try to figure out their own salvation without corrections or challenges are also left behind. They hold on to cherished beliefs that are simply not true because, away from the strength of the body of Christ and the learning that comes from discussion, their hearts grow cold and their minds become lame. Always risk running the race with others. The mystic sweet communion that people have sung about for ages is more than the spiritual nurture of bread and cup; it is also the risk of and strength gained from being together. Like after a dreadful storm when you find that neighbors near and far can be a great help, God wants you to need others and to need the Lord Jesus.

Finally, know God’s Word.  There is no one more helpless than someone unarmed with the Sword of the Lord; God’s Word is sharper than any two-edged sword,” (Hebrews 4:12).  And I must tell you that the way one congregation teaches the Bible can be drastically different from another one. Stay with the place you trust.  Here we encourage people to get Bibles with good notes, suggest good commentaries and make available sound study guides to help people grow closer to their Savior. Of course others do that just as passionately.  Like different ways of treating pain, either with medicine, or surgery, or acupuncture or herbs or prayer, so preachers also take vastly different approaches. Some Christian churches, for example, do not treat Jeremiah as Scripture the way we do. Choose wisely; and then don’t just put your foot in the River Jordan to see if the water is just right! Like Stephen Curtis Chapman’s song suggests, dive in!  Take the plunge; risk being with one another!  Together we will work to care for our bodies, our minds, and sin-sick souls. All can be made whole. 

 

Let us offer our prayers for change and wholeness in our lives today as we pray “Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me. We’ll sing it twice.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                  September 23, 2007

09-16-07 AVOIDING HEAVENLY WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION

AVOIDING HEAVENLY WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION

Jeremiah 4: 11-12; 22-28

 

The Rev. Clyde Fant, respected former Dean of the Chapel at Stetson University, endeavored to once describe the delivery and content of, perhaps, the most famous sermon ever preached. Fant describes the 18th century preacher, Jonathan Edwards, who was a strong Calvinist with Puritan persuasion. From a pulpit in Enfield, Massachusetts, a frail, soft-spoken, weak-eyed, sickly man scared the wits out of his congregation one day with his address to them ominously called “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” This was the text of his sermon: Deuteronomy 32:35: “Their foot shall slide in due time.”  That was it. The congregation he was addressing was, from the youngest child to the oldest man or woman, “apathetic and unconcerned about spiritual matters. At one place in the sermon Edwards referred to Suffield, a town in the neighborhood where he had earlier preached, and asked the people of Enfield if they were not equally concerned about entering the kingdom as were the people of Suffield, ‘where they are flocking day and night to Christ?’ … At one point the preacher was obliged to speak to the people and desire silence, that he might be heard! At another point in the sermon a minister sitting behind him became so overcome with distress at the severity of Edward’s presentation of God’s judgment that he tugged upon his coat and cried, ‘Mr. Edwards! Mr. Edwards! Is not God merciful?” [20 CENTURIES OF GREAT PREACHING, Vol. III, Word Publishing, pp. 51-52] As far was we know, Edwards neither stopped preaching nor turned to answer him, creating even more dread in the congregation as this little man was reminding men, women, and children personally by pointing them out, that they were sinners in the hands of an angry God. No sermon title has been as etched in the annals of history as that one. His sermon’s first sentence could be our first sentence: “In this verse is threatened the vengeance of God on the wicked, unbelieving Israelites,” except our text is Jeremiah and the vengeance is aimed at the inhabitants of Judah who just took God and the commandments too lightly, as if they just had advisory authority.  Every Presbyterian who knows the Book of Order realizes that there are those who have the power to cast a vote at a meeting, called the power of vote, and others who just have the power to discuss and advise, called the power of voice.  Surely God’s Word is not to be taken into the lives of Jews in Jeremiah’s day, or into the lives of Christians in our day, as just being treated as moral advice, with the same authority as Dear Abby, Dr. Phil, or a horoscope. Surely NO!! But that’s the level of complacency that had swept over Jerusalem and the surrounding area like a plague. And that’s the kind of complacency that sweeps not only across this nation, but across this community; not only across this community but, in corners of even this congregation!  And so Jeremiah, perhaps as a frail young man with a Jonathan Edwards thin voice, that seemed as diabolical as if coming from a maniacal Hannibal Lecter, had had enough of trying to plead with his people. That day long ago, his blood ran cold; his eyes grew dark and menacing, and with the measured voice of one someone might mistake as a madman, said these words according to former Union Seminary Professor Dr. John Bright, in his translation from the Hebrew. Verse 23: “I saw the earth—lo, chaos primeval!  The heavens too—its light was gone!! I saw the mountains—and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills rocked too and fro. I looked—and behold, no human was left, and the birds of the skies had all flown. I looked—and behold, the tilled land was a desert before Yahweh, before his fierce anger.  And Yahweh said: ‘A waste shall the whole land be; for this, let the earth lament. The Heavens above don mourning clothes, for I’ve spoken … and not relented; I’ve purposed, and will not turn back.”  In modern terms we might call such a barrage, “God’s weapons of mass destruction.” They are terrifying and awesome, not like Alfred Hitchcock horror, but like Orson Wells’ frightful broadcast of “War of the Worlds” on Halloween eve of 1938. Or in non-fiction terms, one recalls Elie Wiesel’s Short account he called NIGHT about the annihilations he witnessed in Auschwitz; or even what was in the mind of the spiritual writer of our introit today, who moaned those words in fear of the power of that dreaded night for unbelievers: “My Lord, what a morning; my LORD what a morning; MY LORD what a morning: when the stars begin to fall.” And one of you, too frightening to ask it, considers in his mind: “I thought God was gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”  And the answer is that God is not, not to those with flippant, arrogant, or indifferent attitudes: could YOU be among those for who grace is not offered by God? Are you, brother or sister, one who has muttered, “I can do without you God, leave me alone!” God has no use for people who treat the Almighty like a pesky fly or like a vending machine where money is put in and products drop down from Heaven as if mechanically determined to do so.  God will not be made to orbit your life, or yours or yours or mine!!!  The sun will not orbit planets; the source of all light will not be at the behest of planets that would be dark and lifeless without them.  Jews in Jerusalem were treating God like that as Jeremiah preached, and Christians in Massachusetts were doing it as Edwards preached.  No one should fall in to the trap of thinking that God will grade arrogance on a curve, or give self-sufficiency his pleasure, or fail to see that we deserve God’s condemnation. The Bible reminds us that destruction is what we deserve; getting something besides destruction takes a different approach.  How do you rebuild a broken relationship? Does it work to go to the family member, friend, or boss and say all the ways they are wrong and you are right? Does it build bridges to explain that you walked away because you were tired of all the rules, or that you just can’t stand being around the other person?  Those tactics bring on Heavenly Weapons of Mass Destruction if you try them on God by offering excuses, defending of your position, or with backtalk. Conversely if, hat in hand so to speak, and head bowed, and a lowered voice, and a remorseful heart, you say you can’t make it alone, and you are ready to try it God’s way, then in the glare of the porch light that has been turned on for your homecoming, with the aroma of  roast beef wafting in from the grill, with trails of tears making cheeks shine, and arms that open wide, there is forgiveness offered in countless ways, by a Heavenly Father who sent his son so that we could clearly know the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

 

There are two sides to every story; there are the “heads or tails” sides of a coin, and there are two sides of the love of God: judgment and grace.  Even when I was being spanked as a child, I was been corrected, not destroyed; even when I was rewarded as a child, it was to encourage and not to spoil. Our Lord still wants to hear us say something like Jesus said: “Father, I need you. ‘As the song once put it: melt me, mold, me, fill me use me.’  Guide my unruly life. I am moving from the driver’s seat of my life and asking Jesus to take the wheel. I’m tired of driving in the glare and rainstorms of life through which I cannot see well. I am glad to have Jesus running things now. Thank you for Him. Amen.” The God who longs to have a relationship with you never forces his Son into your heart. He stands at the door and knocks; some here today will invite him in, and others already have, but others need to stop back-seat-driving for Jesus! Either let him drive, or you drive! You can’t say you’re a Christian and then call all your own shots. Still others think that prayers are for the weak, that church gets in the way of life, and that God is just needed when it is time to be sprinkled with water, sprinkled with rice, and sprinkled with dirt. If you think that, my friend, then you will need far more protection than man made devices can give you, for you yourself will face Heavenly weapons of mass destruction. 

The choice, today, is yours.

 

Jeffrey Sumner                                                      September 16, 2007

09-09-07 THE MISTAKE OF THINKING YOU DON’T NEED GOD

THE MISTAKE OF THINKING YOU DON’T NEED GOD

Jeremiah 11: 1-12

 

Do you remember what was happening in the first half of 2001? You’ll recall one president leaving office with a tarnished and slick image, and another taking office in a controversial election with Florida being accused of “hanging chads!” You’ll remember the good news that we began the year with national surplus of funds rather than a debt, but an expensive defense system and cutting off talks with North Korea made for a tense stage that summer. Here in Daytona Beach, news of the death of Dale Earnhardt in the 500 made world wide headlines. Members of our church went to the Holy Land just before tensions escalated, precluding anyone else from feeling safe visiting Israel for several years. Tech stocks had been a gravy train for investors, but by then the bottom had dropped out.  The nation was, perhaps, no more and no less a nation under God than it had been over the past several decades.  But then as three elders joined me at a Presbytery meeting on 9/11/01, life was about to change. (Ironically, our next meeting this week is on 9/11!) But on that Tuesday in 2001, life changed. The morning news stories made it seem like Armageddon, or World War III, or an invasion from outer space. Cell phones started ringing all across the room where we had gathered in that isolated, retreat like setting in Lake County. For periods of time, the world grew smaller as help and messages of concern poured in from other countries, some of whom we had helped in the past. Who, we wondered, could have done such an audacious act to the huge towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington D.C.? The smoldering images will stay with us forever. But has that event brought you or our nation closer to God?  Do wars and natural disasters make a difference in moving us from lives focused on other things?  Listen to these prophetic words by Lutheran preacher Walter Maier, all the way back in 1942:  “What is the worst disaster that can overtake our beloved land? We ought to agree that the most devastating danger comes not from without, but from within. Just as a man can recover from ghastly surface wounds, broken or even amputated limbs, while below the surface, diseases like cancer or internal injuries can [make healing more challenging], so a nation with its cities, towns, and villages can be restored to health after wide epidemics of influenza or typhus. It can also rise victoriously from the ashes of fire, the debris of flood, earthquake, tornado, and the ruin of bombs and cannon. Yet history testifies that there is one inner loss which is final; one can remove national glory forever and permanently reduce any country, however rich and powerful. That deadliest danger is unbelief, ingratitude toward God Almighty, the blasphemous ridiculing of his Word, the rejection of the Lord Jesus Christ, the denial of his cleansing blood, the contempt for the Gospel, and with this comes a carnival of crime, the sweeping rule of sin, and  the glorification of evil. God’s truth, majestic in its plain unalterable force warns, ‘the nation and kingdom that will not serve [the Lord] shall perish, and every time an empire has collapsed: Egypt, Babylonia, Syria, Media, Persia, Greece, Rome, and above all Judah—the truth of that warning is fulfilled. The most vital necessity for America today is, therefore, to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ’s power to forgive sins and restore us to God.”  Ages ago, it was God’s Word through Jeremiah that told the Southern Kingdom of Judah to put away all that distracted them and return to their roots and to their God.  When they did not, God instructed Jeremiah to give a children’s sermon the point of which no one would miss: God, the great potter, could take the vessel he had made, which no longer was serving it’s intended purpose, and would make a new vessel instead that would be purposeful. Such was the message then; could it also be a message for you personally, or for our nation, or even for other nations?

 

Like the prodigal son who left his Father because he was tired of all the rules; like his brother who moved far away from his father emotionally because he didn’t believe in grace; like Jonah who tried to run from both the demands of and the message of salvation; like the radical religious practitioners who condemn others—wrongly taking the judgment seat of God with divine designs but human minds, the Lord watches and weighs his pleasure and displeasure. There are actually religious persons who think it pleased the Almighty to kill perceived infidels in towers in New York City, to kill doctors, nurses, or mothers in planned parenthood clinics as justification for ended pregnancies; who have set off bombs in Israeli or Palestinian villages, mistakenly calling human anger “Divine retribution.” Some live lives grief-stricken and devoid of grace; others stop believing in God and just go on calculated rampages against humanity.  There will come a time in every man and woman’s life, if their souls are hate-filled, or if they are tormented about the abyss of hell or the uncertainty of forgiveness, when they will either emotionally self-destruct, or they will fall to their knees in a moment of, (in some regards, being born again) giving in to and giving up to a Lord is waiting to put control in their out of control lives. In a Pauline-like Damascus road experience, they cry Heavenward with words like this: “All right, Lord, if there is anything you can do with this rotten stinking mess I have made of my life, then do it.  I am yours, and you are my Savior.  Take control of my out-of-control life. I am tired of trying to run from you, fight you, and deny you. I need you now.”  I’ve known good people with rational, or stubborn, or scientific minds who don’t believe there is an active, loving God who works among us in this world and to whom we will return one day. To them I say: “If you don’t believe in God, and in so doing you do not live for him or honor him with your choices, when you die, you’d better be right! Could the hope of truth and grace and love be enough to have you, my friend, to live differently the rest of your days and open some new portal to the possibility of life beyond this life? Is your choice, which doesn’t hold out the possibility of an afterlife of either darkness or light, (the most logical stance to take in a world when countless new discoveries make science and medical books be revised yearly, to continue to try life without God? Or conversely, if you do believe in God, but don’t worship, thank, or acknowledge God because the great trickster and tempter of the world has planted seeds of doubt, sarcasm, false assurance, or the fantasy of purely independent living, then running from, hiding from, or living life adjacent to God but without God is the most foolish of positions to try to defend in the end.  Like the spy cameras from space such as Google Earth, God is watching and is following your every move, and, like the Hound of Heaven that He is, the Lord waits until you tire of the game of running, or the children’s game of thinking if you close your eyes to God’s presence tat God will not see you, and then God waits until you paint yourself into a corner. Only then you look heavenward, and with a sense of the futility of your actions, saying “All right Lord. I’m ready to stop running and try it your way; I’m ready to stop sitting out on Sunday mornings as others go to church, pretending that reading a paper or playing golf or going to theme parks or getting extra work done is best for me and that you really don’t mind. Now I’m ready to put you first, not only because it will be better for you, but also because it will be better for me.”

 

Christian writers like Bruce Wilkinson and Max Lucado have pointed out that “God has bundles of blessings he’s just waiting to pour out on those who, with pure motives, ask for them. Also, if God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it! Like a caring mother or a concerned Father, God cries out to all who are lost or wandering: ‘Come home, child!’ And like the child who does return to the arms of God finds out, home is not without its responsibilities, but they seem much lighter and can be done more joyously when you’ve experienced the agony and loneliness of the Godless life.

 

Years ago, with the image of a skilled potter remaking what was no longer working, God showed Jeremiah what he could do with his people whose lives had been broken by their choices lived outside of the commandments and with an inability to see the consequences of their actions.  Perhaps there are parts of your emotional or personal or professional life that—like pottery—have shattered, and human ingenuity has not been able to glue them back together well.  God-the great potter-can take your mess, and with great warmth and care, remold your life into one that not only pleases you, but ultimately pleases the potter. Even if your life is not in a total shambles, but there are parts of it that are, will you turn over those parts, along with the rest of your life, to a Lord Jesus who can show you how to be human and to still honor God?  Today you can change your life; God waits for moments like these, not with a judge’s gavel, but with the open arms of a perfect parent. Come back to God through Jesus Christ, won’t you? You can do it now, by acknowledging what God’s heart longs to hear:  “I Need Thee Every Hour, Most Precious Lord.” Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                  September 9, 2007

09-02-07 JEREMIAH

DEALING WITH UNFAITHFULNESS

Jeremiah 2: 4-13

 

There are dates in the minds of individuals and in the minds of communities that are etched in stone, perhaps never to be forgotten. Some are historic, like the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the date that will live in infamy. Others remember November 23, 1963 when America lost a president to an assassin’s bullet. Last Friday was (can you believe it) the 10th anniversary of the death of Diana, the Princess of Wales. Dates become part of our human lexicon, our mental calendar. You might remember the death of someone close to you or your anniversary or the birthday of others. But some also remember times of personal disaster, such as a time when someone you love broke promises or vows made to you, or an employer went back on its promise to give you pension and medical coverage after your retirement. For some here, life changed 3 years ago when three hurricanes in a row destroyed parts of their lives, not to the degree, but in the same manner that hurricane Katrina devastated the gulf states 2 years ago.  “You are in the nation’s thoughts and prayers; we will assist you.” said voices from Washington. And clearly millions of dollars did come, but some never did receive the help they needed. Bungled local and state government distribution plans along with inadequate insurance coverage made some people say that their neighbors, the government, and perhaps even their God had forgotten them.  Pictures from devastated areas today show FEMA trailers inches apart from one another and the government saying they were not meant to be permanent homes. And then what happens? Blame, finger-pointing, hurt, and anger: it happens with catastrophic losses dealing with insurance companies, it happens in divorces, it happens when your pension or medical coverage is yanked, it happens anytime  one person believes another has not acted in good faith.  These are human, normal reactions.

 

That takes us to another important date: January 588 B.C.  Assyrians had been the ruthless power in the region for many years, but Babylon was gaining power and the Kingdom of Judah was being led by Zedekiah, a well intentioned but weak king who began at age 21. He was unable to control the ultra-nationalists already in place, and worked on foreign policy with his neighboring leaders to no avail.  The finger pointing was rampant: the people accused their King of forgetting them; King Zedekiah said that Jehoiachin, his chief advisor, was at fault for giving him faulty intelligence, (we’ve heard that charge before!). God finally said to Jeremiah that he had better warn the people that their unfaithful living would bring consequences.  Jeremiah pointed to all who gathered and cried out: “See what you are bringing on yourselves and me!”  Even though the idea of Karma is popular today in casual conversations, there in no doctrine of bad things happening mainly to bad people in Christianity. In Judaism, however, it was thought that unheeded warnings from prophets from God could certainly bring dire consequences, and it was illustrated time and again in the Old Testament.  But this time, it was God who was crying “unfaithful!” about his chosen people. What were some of the things God pointed to as unfaithful, and which of them, if any, speak to our situations today?  Certainly Jeremiah could have gone down the 10 Commandments, the Decalogue, and found plenty of reasons for guilt, even as they are a plumb line for right living in our country today. “Thou shalt not spend more time, give more attention to, or show more devotion to something else more than to me.”  That’s what the first commandment means.  What is your “obsession” besides God? About what are you a “fanatic?” In Jeremiah’s day prophets said problems usually involved sports figures, lust, and greed; is there anything new under the sun?  Here is how God pleads with his children to change: “Thus says the Lord” Jeremiah preached, “I remember how devoted you were as youth, and how you earnestly listened to and followed me.  I didn’t lead you wrong, so why have you decided to try a different path? I gave you a place to live, and food, and values, but you have defiled them by breaking your promises to me and to others.”  The people remembered that a law book had been found in the Temple and that they had read from it a short time before: “do not use my name for swearing;” “do not work on the Sabbath,” “do not take what you did not pay for;” do not be unfaithful to your spouse.”  These rules are so old and this prophesy so time-locked that who could possibly think we could learn anything from them?  Who indeed ….

 

And so the rest is history: Jerusalem—Jeremiah’s city—warned of the coming consequences and was as ravaged by Babylonians as our gulf cities were by Katrina. Almost everything was destroyed.  Sometimes our personal lives feel that ravaged, brought on by unfaithfulness, don’t they?  We know that responding like angry or undisciplined individuals just moves us from civilization to anarchy, so what does our faithful God do with our unfaithfulness?  The first thing God says, and Jesus repeated, is no eye-for-an-eye:  unfaithfulness is not rebuffed by unfaithfulness in return. The Lord our God, like the father we learned about in the prodigal son story, and like God in the Jonah story, never stops being faithful. Some have accused God of being too patient as a judge, until they themselves are on trial! When you have been wronged, energy to “get even” can better be spent to make others admire you and for your God to say, in so many words: “well done; all that I have is yours. I will not abandon you.” Those who have done acts of unfaithfulness have, for a time, abandoned God.  By contrast, you haven’t when you channel your anger into purposeful, new living.  If you are slighted by a broken corporate promise, by infidelity, or by the lies of a friend, bring all the godly qualities of truthfulness, trust, and loyalty to bear on a solution, but to say “I’ll get even with him or her if it’s the last thing I do” belongs on film or TV; there is no place for that if we expect to lift our personal lives out of the ditch where they’ve been pushed. There are better ways. Today, consider the times you have been hurt by unfaithfulness; you have been hurt and hurt badly. Our God, and even our Savior, had to deal with unfaithfulness and betrayal as well; you are not alone.  Pray for, go into counseling for, and work for control over your actions and emotions.  Then, like a mighty army for change, or like church groups that have rebuilt home after home in Louisiana and Mississippi, we can show government leaders, neighbors, and people stuck in a state of feeling victimized what a band of believers can do in the name of God. There is a world that has been stung by unfaithfulness, and it probably resides in your heart as well. What a difference if you choose to respond like your Savior, instead of like a savage. Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           September 2, 2007

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