07-19-20 WEEDS AMONG OUR WHEAT

Matthew 13: 24-30; 36-43

Today we are faced with a with a firehose of information regarding the virus, the election, and news in Florida. Due to the internet and some televisions receiving hundreds of channels, plus talk radio being as prevalent as ever, we hear voices from the religious left and voices from the religious right; voices from the political left and voices from the political right. We have vaccers and anti-vaccers; we have maskers and anti-maskers. We have advocates for traditional worship and advocates for contemporary worship. The list is long, and if someone takes one side over another, it is almost like creating a sword fight in days of yore. So what do we do? Many people choose the lane in which they are most comfortable. In those lanes, is the truth slanted to be more palatable toward them and more critical toward what others think? Only baby boomers and older ones remember the news that seemed to be just reported, rarely with commentary, brought by Walter Cronkite, The Huntley-Brinkley Report, and other nightly news for 30-60 minutes a day, not all day long. We live in a different world now. News now is a-la-carte.

In our day, when it comes to sharing our message—the Christian message as we understand it from our Gospels—we learned last week that our audience might not be fully receptive to it. Some have heard personal witness stories before and don’t want to hear another one. Some have said “no” and don’t plan to say “yes.” Some, however, are ready to hear what you, or what I, have to say if we share a spiritual event that has changed our life. And last week we learned that the message could be polluted if the seeds we sow are not pure. We carry that thought over to today. Here we are, sitting as if we are on the banks of the Sea of Galilee with Jesus’ disciples. Jesus is still in the boat as he was last week, and we get the next chapter in the saga of parables. We are still on the subject of seeds. Some parables stand on their own, but last week’s and this week’s Jesus decided explanations were needed. This week, Jesus’ tells listeners that his second parable is an allegory. Do you recall what an allegory is? It’s a story where things stand for something—or someone—else. Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan is a spiritual allegory. Animal Farm by George Orwell is a political allegory. The Faerie Queens by Edmund Spenser is a moral allegory. Let’s set the allegorical interpretation aside for a moment as we hear Jesus’ second parable in Matthew 13. Someone sowed good seed (so that takes out the possibility that they chose inferior or polluted seeds to sow.) The assumption is that during the night after planting, someone came in the darkness and planted weeds in the field with the wheat. Just as some people in our day are quick to point fingers at others, trying to avoid any personal responsibility, in this story the servants came to the master of the field doing the same thing. They said to the Master, “Didn’t you sow good seed in the field?” (The story doesn’t tell us how they could tell there was bad seed planted after just one night, but the master answered,) “An enemy has done this.” Even the master puts blame on an unknown “enemy,” never asking how they could already tell how weeds were mixed with wheat. So the servants offer to go pull up the weeds, (how big can they be?) but the master says, “No, you might mistakenly pull up some of the good wheat while doing it.” When it is time to harvest the crop, then the reapers can collect the weeds first and gather them to be burned, but the wheat shall be gathered and put into the barn, or storehouse.” If that image takes you to a Thanksgiving theme, you are not alone. Truly the hymn “Come Ye Thankful People, Come” belongs more in a summer service with a Matthew 13 text, or in an Evangelistic revival than in our tradition time to use it in November. Remember since we are all moving to allegorical thinking, this hymn is not about farming; it’s about the Kingdom of God and people gathering persons in whom gospel seeds have grown in their soul. If you believe this passage is about that, then perhaps you’ll think about this hymn that we often sing at Thanksgiving differently: Listen:
“Come, ye thankful people come” (be thankful you’re being brought into God’s garner—the Kingdom—instead of being burned in flames.)
“All is safely gathered in …come to God’s own temple, come.”
Then these words: “All the world is God’s own field, fruit in thankful praise to yield,” (receptive people let the fruit of the Spirit grow in their souls.)
Now you’ll know this hymn belongs more with our text than with turkey dinners! “Wheat and tares together sown, unto joy or sorrow grown.” (Are you getting it?) “Lord of harvest grant that we wholesome grain and pure may be.” …“For the Lord our God shall come, and shall take the harvest home, from each field that in that day, all offenses purge away.” This is about people! Saints and sinners; not actually about grains. “Give the angels charge at last, in the fire the tares to cast, but the fruitful ears to store in God’s garner ever more!”

As we learned last week that the hymn “Bringing in the Sheaves” is not about farming, “Come, ye Thankful People, Come” is not about planting! It reminds us that our world is filled with good seed, and bad seed; that some have chosen to bear good fruit from the gospel seeds planted in their soul, while others have produced nothing redemptive.

Now we can turn to Jesus’s first century explanation of his parable. Jesus says he himself is the one who sows the good seed. He says the field is the world, the good seeds are the children of the kingdom, and the weeds are the seeds from the evil one. See, even here fingers are being pointed at others, blaming them for bad things. Those blaming actions go back as early as the Garden of Eden. Jesus said the one who sowed the bad seed was the devil, and the reapers were God’s angels.
What a strong message, encouraging people to choose Christ! The reward now is good, and the reward later is even better! That’s a reason to invite thankful people to “Come!” In our day, good pure information can become distorted by people, sometimes with less than honorable intent. When that happens, pure information can become propaganda. The evil one continues to use people to sow such weeds in our world. When propaganda or editorial opinion passes for truth, buyer beware. And early in the sowing of such information, it might be hard to tell if the wheat planted in our souls and minds is good information or evil. The master allowed both to grow together for a while. But at some point, the true colors of those bearing the fruit of Christ, and of those bearing the fruit of the devil, start to show. It is then that we take the highest ground by not putting our heads in the sand like an ostrich, or pretending we just don’t see. Folk singer Bob Dylan during all the governmental and societal issues of race and war in the 1960s wrote: “How many times can a man turn his head, and pretend that he just doesn’t see? The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind. The answer is blowin’ in the wind.” [Blowin’ in the Wind] And it was Sir Edmund Burke who famously once said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil, is for good men to do nothing.”

Let’s not do nothing! Let’s join the angels of God in spreading the good seed, calling out those who spread counterfeit seeds as good ones. Let us work to encourage virtue and vanquish vice, as John Calvin would put it! This was the job of the first disciples, and the beloved Reformers 1500 years later.
Now it is our job too.
Let us pray: Jesus our Savior: who rooted out corruption and treated forgotten and marginalized persons with grace and justice: help us to go into God’s fields in the world and be able to recognize and name the wicked weeds, taking the good seeds into God’s garner, evermore. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner July 19, 2020

07-12-20 WHAT SEEDS DO WE SOW?

Matthew 13: 3-9; 18-23

As we move to today’s gospel lesson, you might think it makes a good children’s message, but what can it say to adults in our day and age? Stay tuned. Up until this point in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has been narrating, teaching, and proclaiming messages about being part of God’s Kingdom. That, as we have learned before, is the primary way that Romans and Greeks taught: orderly, rational, and in your face. Other persuaders in the world, when they meet with resistance, may choose different strategies to get their message across. One of the most brilliantly persuasive campaigns was in the 1960s, when American car companies were all about bigger and faster cars. Their ads were not only in car magazines, but in Life magazine, Look magazine, and others. The ads were colorful and dazzling. But then came some curious black and white ads, that made people stop and read them: They were from Volkswagen of America. One ad was all white space framed with a black border. In the far back corner of the ad was a VW Beetle and the two-word sentence declaring: “Think small.” That was it, and people were drawn to that innovative way of advertising. Another one that caught people’s eye, also black and white with a sideview of a Beetle said: “Presenting America’s slowest Fastback.” If a student was pitching ideas like these to some “Mad Men” agency in the 60s, he would have been told to take his idea and leave! But Volkswagen made history with their car ads, including another famous one: “It floats” with the car seen floating in water while other cars were underwater. Brilliant. It worked for me: I bought one and had it from my college days, through my seminary days, to my first congregation days until our family grew too big for it to double as our second car.
Listen to what has been said about Jesus’ new way of teachings that starts in Matthew 13. It’s a campaign using parables:
Until now, Jesus’ presentation of God’s rule has been relatively straightforward. He has taught in synagogues, delivered a manifesto on a mountain, and offered diverse, compelling demonstrations of God’s power on earth. The responses have been disparate, from wondering crowds that follow him seeking healing, to the now murderous hostility of the Pharisees. In response to this growing division and rejection, Jesus begins speaking in parables, a form of teaching that at once reveals and conceals.
[Stanley P. Saunders, Preaching the Gospel of Matthew. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2010, p. 120.]

Like the Volkswagen ads, parables are a middle eastern tool to “sell an idea” by drawing listeners into a story, inviting them to respond. Jesus first parable is a deliberate choice, not a haphazard one. The first thing Jesus asked his disciples to do was to tell others about God’s Kingdom. Perhaps they were starting to get their first rejections to those invitations. Certainly Billy Graham and his team taught thousands of pastors and new converts not to give up when people turned away uninterested after sharing “the Word.”. No salesperson who has tried a straight-on approach if selling a product is successful by just giving up. Likewise using the same approach that did not work over and over in the past will likely not work in the future. So people change strategies. Jesus is teaching his disciples with parables as a change in strategies. He even changes scenes too: he leaves a house, and gets into a boat, forcing his listeners to sit on the shore. I suspect he looked around and saw a person sowing, or planting seeds. Then he tells what every sower of seeds knows, but it’s information that others may not know. A sower goes forth to sow, and because sowers do not carefully select where each seed goes, casting his hand back and forth in a general area, some of the seeds land on a path, likely placed there so crops could be picked without trampling other crops. But seeds on a path could easily be spotted by birds that are hungry, and they could come down and make a snack of those seeds, never letting them take root. In some plots of land there are also rocks under the slimmest layer of soil. When a seed lands on it, roots start but cannot grow beneath the rock, so the sun bakes those seeds so they cannot not grow. Not every garden is picturesque, and some seeds fall among weeds (or thorns) which grow much faster than the crops, and they choke out the growth from the seeds. But some seeds fall on good, deep soil, and if it does, it will grow, but not by the same amount every time. Sometimes a seed will grow a lot, some will grow, a little bit, and some will grow somewhere in between. Then Jesus give his audio clue to his listeners: “Those who have ears, let them hear.” Again, this is not literal. All his listeners have ears; he’s not talking about those who are literally deaf! He’s saying, as we say sometimes: “Do you get what I’m saying?” or “Do you understand?” or colloquially: “Do you feel me?” Then we put our thinking caps on to realize what he is teaching us is not just about how to farm. There is another meaning. So if you are selling a product, or if you are telling others about God, not everyone will respond in the same way! Some will jump at your invitation, some will decide to think about it, some will shut down and walk away, and some never even heard you since they were checking their phone the whole time! That is how life works! Astoundingly, even Jesus decided that he needed to explain what he meant for this, his first parable. Most people know that if you have to explain a joke, it probably wasn’t a good joke! But sometimes explanations can bring along some in the human race who learn differently from others. So from verses 18-23, we find an explanation from Jesus about what his parable meant. A little later when we sing “Bringing in the Sheaves,” it’s not really about farming, it’s about bringing people in who have been won for Christ! See, even I’ve gone to explaining this just as Jesus did! We have little control over our audiences when it comes to sharing the gospel with others; what we can do is use different methods to connect with them. Clearly American History has been taught from books for ages, but with the Broadway musical “Hamilton” that has been selling out wherever it has played, audiences have been wildly receptive to the acting and the music, and in the meantime it has ignited a hunger to learn more about American history! The way we present the gospel matters!
But there is one nuance of this parable that barely gets noticed: Gospel messages, historical messages, political messages, or advertising messages can affect us differently by the way they are delivered. If we say to others: in a monotone voice, “Do you know Jesus?” we might expect a quick, “yes,” or “no” or “what do you mean?” from the person we are asking. But if we say “I have a story to tell you!” and then relate how a prayer saved you from a scheduled surgery, or how another prayer brought a loved one back from the brink of death, people might be more than ready to listen! Or if a person approaches me to ask, “How can you really believe in that God of yours? Instead of a straight answer they may tune out, I could answer a question with a question: “What if I told you I believe I’ve heard God’s voice on two occasions?” We could have an interesting conversation, with less likelihood that I will be tuned out! These are the ways Jesus is trying to offer his gospel message; by extension, he is teaching us too. Recent ads about “Tractor Supply” company on television have reminded me of one time when I was in a feed store. There are different grades of seeds baskets or burlap sacks that can be planted. We can choose one kind or another kind to plant. But if we are planting “Gospel seeds,” which seeds will we choose? Will we sow “seeds of kindness,” as the old hymn describes? Will we sow seeds of judgment? Of fear? Of love? Of grace? We can choose the attitude with which we will sow the Gospel seeds. Presbyterian Christians have been teased about having an aversion to the “E” word. You know, “Evangelism.” Perhaps they experienced it as an in-your-face encounter on their doorstep. Jesus shows us the original way: by telling stories that draw people in. Practice telling others about your God events, or as we are calling them this summer, “God Sightings.” When you do, you’ll get much better at inviting others to buy what you are selling:
That Jesus loves; and that Jesus saves.
Jeffrey A. Sumner July 12, 2020

07-05-20 A YOKE THAT FITS

Proverbs 3: 1-6; Matthew 11: 28-30

Once again today, we encounter Jesus painting a picture of what he wants to convey with his words: he says” My yoke is easy, and my burden light.” This is an unusual claim. A yoke was most often a wooden farm piece placed over an ox or other animals for pulling a plow, not over a human being. But because of Jesus’ words, some ministers like Radford and I chose to wear stoles that represent the yoke of Christ to whom we have devoted our lives. A yoke in Jesus’ day was usually made of wood, a carved harness that fit over the animal. Oxen are particularly noted for their ability to pull heavy loads at a steady pace, so yokes were often made for them to pull plows. But for an ox to do the best work, the yoke had to be comfortable; it had to fit well. “My yoke is easy,” said Jesus. The Greek word for easy also translates as “well-fitting.” For the yoke to fit, a carpenter would have the ox brought in for measurements. After they were taken they would make the yoke in rough form. Then the ox was brought back, the yoke was tried on again, and adjustments were made so that it would fit well, not hurting or chafing the ox. “My burden is light” Jesus said. With an ox, the yoke was usually hitched to a plow—crude blades that tilled dirt baked hard by the sun. The weight and drag was such that pulling the plow was back-breaking, tedious work. You’ve heard the expression “strong as an ox?” It’s clear why oxen were chosen to pull plows. The burden was heavy. The great preacher Phillips Brooks once said: “I do not pray for a lighter load, but for a stronger back.”
Jesus tells us not only that his yoke fits well, but that the load is not heavy. The burden is light because it is tailored to us and given in love. A burden given in love can feel lighter. Jesus encouraged his disciples, as he encourages us, in the midst of the pressures of a day. We read earlier in Matthew 11 that Jesus had just joined his cousin John in calling for repentance. He addressed people he deemed unfaithful in towns of Chorazin and Bethsaida, calling them to repent. It feel to me like Jesus is—to use a modern expression—worked up. And in the midst of that, he radically shifts gears say: “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Does what he’s doing seem light to you? But something in Jesus—perhaps his constant prayer life; perhaps his certain trust in his Heavenly Father; perhaps the knowledge that his time living on earth is short—makes him be able to manage his issues. Those are clues for how we too can turn our burdens into a yoke that fits. Even the issues in our day—political, racial, financial, educational—can create burdens in our lives. So let’s look at Jesus’ suggested trade today: we give him our burdens while we take on his.

Have you noticed people who look burdened? Some I’ve seen physically stoop, that is, bend over as they are walking, as if the weight of the world is on their backs. They physically look burdened! Some just won’t let go of problems and give them to God. What they do, is say “Here Lord. You take this burden.” The Lord takes hold of it, but they won’t let go! They keep trying to steer the direction of the burden they say they gave to the Lord. Others have deep lines on their face that some call worry lines—here, let me point some out to you! (Points to lines between his eyes) Sometimes I carry burdens that do not give me the abundant life Jesus wants me to have. My issues may be unique—first born, pastor of a congregation, father, husband—but yours might be similar. So I have learned to delegate more, and Jesus trades my yoke for his. Boom-I feels lighter! What is the yoke over your neck that is your burden? For some it is anxiety over Covid-19. Jesus, later in the gospel of Matthew, speaks to the crowds saying: “Do not worry about your life….and do not worry about tomorrow.” Instead of worrying, we can decide to be smart: to social distance; to wear a mask; and to pray for this pandemic to pass. By doing that, you can trade your burden for Jesus’ words that I just quoted from Matthew chapter 6. Perhaps your burden is not enough money for living. There again Jesus says “consider the lilies of the field, how they grow, yet I tell you Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” [Matthew 6]. So yes, there are specialists in debt consolidation you can consult; you can ask a financial specialist; you can think outside of your box and consider ways to spend less or ways to bring more income in. And you can listen to the words of Jesus and put on a yoke that fits better than the heavy, chaffing one you have. If something else is a burden to you—manifesting itself as back problems, heart problems, or digestive problems, or emotional problems—step back and consider ways you drop or modify some burdens: can you share that load with others, delegating parts of your burden to someone else? Or you can as the Psalmist in Psalm 55 says, “Cast your burdens upon the Lord, and He will sustain you.”
Finally, even Jesus knew the wonderful words of Proverbs chapter three. As you change your yoke with the one that Jesus wants you to have, it might have these words burned into the wood. Listen:
“My child, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments; for length of days and years of life and abundant welfare they will give you.
Do not let loyalty and faithfulness forsake you; bind them around your neck (sounds like a yoke doesn’t it?) and write them on the tablet of your heart. So you will find favor and good repute in the sight of God and of others. Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not reply on your own insights. In all your ways, acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”
Consider a daily reading of those words, and the words of Jesus, as you seek to trade your yoke for His.

Jeffrey A. Sumner July 5, 2020

06-28-20 THE TEST


Genesis 22: 1-14

When it comes to faith, our English language handicaps us. There is no verb form of the word “faith.” The Greek word “pistuo” or the Latin “credo” (from which we get the word “creed,”) guided writers to say “I trust,” or “I commit myself;” or “I rest my heart upon;” and, of course, “I pledge allegiance.” All of these paraphrases show faith as a verb. James Fowler, in his book Stages of Faith, studies the faith systematically. When we turn to Scripture, we find these classic faith references: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1) Proof dispels faith. If we need proof to believe that Sarah, the 90 year old wife of Abraham, could bear a son, we don’t need faith to believe it. If we need proof to believe that Jesus arose from the dead and left an empty tomb, we don’t need faith to believe it. Remember: it’s “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says: “If you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move!’ and it will move.” And the Apostle Paul said this to the Corinthians in his second letter: “We walk by faith and not by sight.” (2 Cor. 5:7) Faith is a cornerstone of most systems of belief. As it turns out, the faith of one old man named Abraham is primarily why God chose to make an everlasting covenant with the covenant people. And it was that chosen man that God put to an ultimate test; a horrible test. We’ll examine that more in a minute.
In his book Growing in Faith: A Guide for the Reluctant Christian, David Yount wrote: “The older I get, the more often I encounter men and women who practice no religion but would like to believe. ‘I envy your faith,’ they tell me. ‘I wish I had it, but I guess I’m just not religious.’” “Nonsense,” says Yount. And he continues by saying “It is high time to destroy the myths that keep good people from discovering and believing in something more than themselves.” [Regnery Books, Washington, D.C. 1984, p. 3] It is a healthy activity to put faith in someone or something outside of oneself. Only trusting oneself can easily become a stumbling block when obstacles are faced. Today as we will learn about an amazing man of faith, there are three things I want to suggest about faith. First, faith is relative. Second, faith is relational. And Third, faith is reliance. Let’s begin.
First, faith is relative: God knows it; Jesus knew it; we know it. The faith one person has may not be the same level of faith that another person has. Nevertheless, it is faith. As we live and have our faith tested, it can grow stronger. A young faith may be called an eggshell faith; it is fragile and can break. It’s akin to the faith young children may have regarding their safety, believing that they won’t fall and hurt themselves or that they won’t be burned by hot water. But, of course, both a fall or hot water can hurt them. Their faith changes as it is tested and their confidence changes. Sometimes as children grow, they gain great faith in another person. My children learned to trust me. For one children’s sermon, when Jenny was a young girl, she would fall backward with her legs locked and trust that I would catch her stiff body before she hit the floor! Another girl in our church, Lauren, was able to have that same trust as she fell backwards into her own mother’s arms! One of the biggest tests of faith was recorded in Genesis 22. If you have read it in your Bible, you’ll never forget it. Abraham had such faith in God that he followed God’s instructions to the letter. He heard God say: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering.” What an instruction. I can imagine there are horrible situations when a soldier carries out an order, knowing it will kill many innocent civilians. It may seem almost unbearable. Or when conjoined twins are born and the doctor instructs the parents to decide which baby to save, because she cannot save both. What agonizing actions we sometimes have to take. But to plan to sacrifice your only son? You can read Genesis 22 as carefully as you care to read it, but Abraham seems to show no hesitation, not because he doesn’t love his son—he loves him deeply—but because he has complete trust in God! Remember Isaac was the child Abraham and Sarah thought they could not have. But Abraham was nothing if not faithful in his promises to God. And God had never let him down. So he and Isaac and a donkey took a pile of sticks to make a fire on the top of Mount Moriah. Isaac questioned where the lamb was for the sacrifice and Abraham said, “God will provide the lamb.” They got to the Mount, arranged the wood, and unbelievably Abraham bound his own son to the wood. Then he pulled out his knife and prepared to sacrifice his only son. Abraham was unflinching, but God pushed the request right to the edge. Then God called Abraham’s name. Abraham stopped, perhaps with blade raised. A voice said: “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear (revere) God.” (Genesis 22:12) Abraham had passed the most brutal of tests. Who knows what therapy Isaac would have needed in our day, or what social workers would report to officials about the father? This was a test not to be repeated. Because of Abraham’s total trust in God, Mount Moriah was the mount chosen by God for David to build God’s Holy Temple. To this day, the mount is in the City of Jerusalem. There are radical examples of faith, and there are radical examples of love. But even some faith is still faith. Once again listen to David Yount: “Christianity is not just a personal conviction to be cherished in private. It is a communal faith and is tested and supported by other men and women. The church provides such a community. People who believe find a congregation that supports and tests the faith that is within them.” [Yount, p.5] So first, faith is relative.
Second, faith is relational. There is always another where we place our faith, in whom we trust, or to whom we are loyal. Faith is most often placed in a person, less often placed in a system—such a capitalism or communism—and most often it is placed in God. Gradually, by God’s blessing, Abraham became a man of faith. But it didn’t happen overnight. You may recall that in Genesis 17 he was ninety-nine and his wife Sarah was ninety. They had never had a child of their own. Readers may speculate if Abraham and Sarah wondered what they had done to have the perceived curse of barrenness. Then when God told them they would have a son—at their ages—and they laughed. Abraham laughed, and Sarah laughed (even though she denied it!) But they both became grateful to God. Perhaps to commemorate their joy, they named their son “Isaac,” which means “He laughs.” Only through this renewed relationship with God would blessings be bestowed on later generations.
Finally, faith is reliance. Abraham demonstrated faith as reliance, trusting God with his most precious son. Reliance is when someone says: “Lean back; I’ve got you; I will not let you fall.” God says the same thing, even as we choose to lean into those everlasting arms. God says: “I will not let you go.” We fall backwards without putting out a hand, or a foot, or setting a net, or placing a pillow under us in case God drops us. God will not drop us; faith teaches us to still our souls and bodies, and faith tells us we won’t need nets or cushions.
In a small book I got as I began to study for the ministry called Faith is …, Pamela Reeve helps describe the way faith is reliance:
Faith is the handle by which I take God’s promises and apply them to my particular problem.
Faith is confidence in God when money is running out instead of rolling in.
Faith is remembering that in the Kingdom of God everything is based on promise, not on feeling.
Faith is recognizing that God is the Lord of Time when my idea of timing doesn’t agree with His.
Faith is the assurance that God is perfecting His design for me when my life’s course, once a swift-flowing current, now seems like a stagnant pool.

Even when we are tested, may we stand on the promises of God.

Jeffrey A. Sumner June 28, 2020

06-21-20 HIS EYE IS ON THE SPARROW

HIS EYE IS ON THE SPARROW
Matthew 10: 24-31

The 1991 film “The Doctor” starred William Hurt as a self-confident, arrogant surgeon. As he’s introduced to the viewers, he’s doing surgery in a joyful mood, listing to his requested playlist of Frankie Vallie and Jimmy Buffett songs. He’s on top of the world and the most important person in that world was numero uno. As he goes home one day he notices he’s coughing more and more. His wife notices it too. When he coughs blood, he finally goes to an Ear, Nose, and Throat specialist. The film was based on the true story written by Dr. Edward Rosenbaum called “A Taste of My Own Medicine.” When William Hurt’s character had to undergo an exploratory procedure on his throat and was delivered the news that a tumor was found, he made a joke about it. But his doctor was not joking. She said he would need six weeks of radiation. He said back, “just cut it out.” She said, “If I do that, there’s a chance you’ll never speak again. So radiation it was. The arrogant man became insignificant and unnoticed in the medical system. He had to check into the waiting room like everyone else. He had to fill out several pages of forms even though he was on staff as a surgeon. At the radiation center attached to the hospital, he had to fill out another set of forms like he’d already done. Many of you have been down that exasperating road. The exploratory procedure to look at his throat took place in the hospital where he was a surgeon. Still, to his indignance he was led to a room shared with another patient, the kind most hospitals used in 30 years ago. He protested his lack of privacy, and it got him nowhere. He was told to take all his clothes off and put on one of those infamous gowns that tie in the back. He protested. Every step of the way he felt insignificant and unnoticed. He was somebody in his mind! But now he was being treated as a nobody. As John Lennon once wrote: He’s a real nowhere man, sitting in his nowhere land, making all his nowhere plans for nobody. Or as Amos felt transparent to his wife, Roxie, in the Broadway show “Chicago,” he couldn’t find a way to get his wife to notice him; she ignores all of his attempts to please her time and time again. The audience gets it; Amos gets it; but it goes right over Roxie’s self-absorbed head. So Amos went into his famous and sad number singing to the audience, “Mr. Cellophane.” He felt invisible to everyone, especially his wife. She seemed to look right through him and walk right by him as if he wasn’t there.
Have ever felt insignificant, or like people were ignoring you or looking right past you? Maybe it has happened at a wedding reception or in a waiting room. Maybe it has happened in your marriage! The comic strip “Pickles” loves to describe an older couple who hardly notice each other. In my life it most strikingly happened in January of 1967. I had grown up in Richmond, Virginia and had most of the same friends in my Elementary School and in my neighborhoods there. I was somebody; certainly not a bigshot, but I had friends. They would call to play with me, or I would call to play with them. Then my father was transferred from Richmond to St. Louis, Missouri. Once I moved there, I called the state “Misery.” I was in 5th grade and had finished school in Virginia in December. Then the day after New Years’ day, I was driven by my mother to my new school. I hadn’t a friend in sight; in 5th grade; in the middle of a school year. I was “Mr. Cellophane” during recess and at lunch. Everyone played and ate with other friends. Feeling unnoticed can be lonely.
In the Gospels, therefore, I particularly am aware that Jesus notices those who others walk by: widows; beggars; children; foreigners; a little tax collector in a tree. Jesus notices them, and in his noticing them, they feel validate by him! It’s likely that they can’t believe they got his attention! But they did. What a blessing it is to truly feel seen, and noticed, and heard. In our day there have been people of color who for ages have felt unheard. Now they cry for change. There are men and women in uniform who have, at times, felt unappreciated. Or unheard. We are hearing from many of them now. The first step toward negotiation is noticing and listening and validating one’s existence. Then people can move toward reconciliation.

In today’s text Jesus helps us focus on a creature that may be among the least of the birds of the air: a sparrow. Not an eagle, that we can seek to find and admire. Not a hawk with his powerful talons. Not the bright red male cardinal or the bright bluebird, or bunting, or jay. A small, fliting, brown sparrow. Jesus engages his disciples and he has their attention. But he’s speaking to them in cryptic phrases, ones I doubt they understood on first hearing. He then says words that Martin Luther used in his hymn that we will sing later, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” The words: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” Then Jesus, and later Luther, referenced the fear of hell. As the disciples perhaps started to feel anxious, Jesus told them this, and we get to listen in: “Are not two sparrows sold for but a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s will.” He could have just let that just sink in, but he goes on saying: “Even the hairs on your head are numbered.” Of course that claim is amazing to me! I have had a woman named Vonda cut my since the 1990s. A colleague of hers also cuts hair at a different location. His daughter went through our Confirmation Class. “Hey” he asked me one day looking at my lack of hair, “Does Vonda still charge you the same amount to cut your hair now?” I replied without missing a beat: “Yep, but now she adds a finder’s fee.” Even the hairs on my head, and on your head is numbered! That’s the kind of detail that doesn’t escape the watchful eye of the Father. “So fear not,” Jesus adds. If the Father has his eye on even sparrows, we can breathe easier, known he is watching you and me too.
Civilla Durfee Martin wrote the hymn “His Eye is on the Sparrow” when she traveled with her husband to Elmira, New York. He was on a preaching mission in that area. Here’s the story as she told it:
Early in the spring of 1905 … we contracted a deep friendship with a couple by the name of Mr. and Mrs. Doolittle—true saints of God. Mr. Doolittle had been bedridden for nigh twenty years. Her husband was an incurable cripple who had to propel himself to and from his business in a wheelchair. Despite their afflictions, they lived happy Christian lives, bringing inspiration and comfort to all who knew them. One day while we were visiting with the Doolittles, my husband commented on their bright hopefulness and he asked them for the secret of it. Mrs. Doolittle’s response was simple: “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watched me.” [The hymn “The Eye is on the Sparrow” was the outcome of that experience.
The day after she wrote the words, she mailed them to a composer friend, who wrote the tune. Since that time, no other tune has been associated with that hymn. And because of evangelistic connections in Great Britain, the first performance of the hymn was in an Evangelistic Crusade held in London’s Royal Albert Hall.] [Glory to God: A Companion. Carl P. Daw, Jr. Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, 2016, p. 626.

What a story, and what a first performance. And to this day, the hymn quietly reassures those who feel forgotten or unnoticed that the Father absolutely sees you and cares for you. There are days, perhaps even today, when you need to hear that; even if you believed it in your head before, it is good to have it sung as an Affirmation of Faith. Even if you doubt the presence of, or the engagement of God in the world, it is good to hear the words proclaimed by a remarkable woman of faith. Perhaps those can be your words of faith too.
Let us pray: Dear Jesus: even though we cannot see you or your Heavenly Father, we can still know of your love and care. And perhaps we will have a “God sighting”—some special place where we see God at work in the world. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner June 21, 2020

06-14-20 JESUS FOCUSES ON LOST SHEEP

Matthew 9: 35-38

Dr. Kenneth Bailey, a Biblical Scholar and an American who lived in the Middle East for three decades, tells us something startling about Christianity in its first three hundred years. When Constantine became emperor in 306 AD and formally converted to Christianity in 312 A.D., he finally ended the Roman Empire practice of crucifixions as a means of torturous death. Before that time, no church would have had a cross in its house churches, which to them was a repulsive symbol. So what was the central image the early Christians used? It was the Good Shepherd. If a lost sheep was not picked up in the wilderness (we might say “saved” and carried home) it would die. So the early church was busy identifying and saving ones whom they deemed as lost, lifting up Jesus’ role as the Good Shepherd. Perhaps during these days when churches are focused on saving people who are lost, usually spiritually, but also physically—giving them safety, food, or a place to rest—we might reclaim that we seek people who have gotten lost as well. The Bible has a number of passages that say human beings are like sheep. And sheep can get lost. But once more Dr. Bailey puts these helpful details in a series of teaching videos: saving a sheep takes no repentance on the sheep’s part; it is the impetus of the good shepherd alone to search for and find the lost. The rabbis of Jesus’ day taught that repentance was a work that human beings do, and if people repented with sufficient quality, God would be pleased and would reward us with forgiveness and salvation on the basis of the quality of our repentance. That work, even today, usually includes confession our sins, making compensation for them, then demonstrating sincerity about our repentance; then we’re allowed back into the fold. But Jesus taught, according to Bailey, “No, we get lost whether we keep the Law or whether we don’t, and God in Christ comes after us looking for the ones who are lost, and he carries us home. It’s a work which he does, and we accept being found. The Prodigal, in the story of the Prodigal Son, accepts being found.” [Good Shepherd, Video Series, Study 1, 2012] Images of God in the Old Testament, says Bailey, are three: a good shepherd, a good woman, and a good father, exactly the order of the parables Jesus offered in Luke 15. And in none of those stories is there repentance: by a sheep, a coin, or the son; they are just lost, and are found. Think about that for a minute. Sometimes when we do something wrong, we are taught to make it right in some way, a teaching that has been taught by parents, pastors, priests, and Pharisees for ages. But Jesus taught that there is no declared repentance by a sheep that was lost, by a coin that was lost, or even by the son who was lost if you read that passage carefully; the son was met by his Father who was rejoicing before the son got to say a word. Jesus’ wording for that story was very specific; occasionally we add meaning to that parable that is not intended in the original text. We human beings who get lost in many and sundry ways need a finder, a seeker, one who will never stop looking for us, and who, when we get found, rejoices! That is the image that Jesus wanted to give us about God.

Sometimes we project our own definition of “lost boys, lost girls, lost youth, or lost men or women,” making a decision about their moral confusion. But once the shepherd finds the one lost sheep, the others, by definition, need to be found next. Sheep don’t just stay put. Shepherds have an idea of where to look for them, but they are not found yet. So the shepherd returns, carrying one on his back, looking for the others. Do you remember Robert Fulgham’s book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten?” In it he wrote this regarding the game of hide and seek:
Did you have a kid in your neighborhood who always hid so good, nobody could find him? We did. After a while we would give up on him and go off, leaving him to rot wherever he was. Sooner or later he would show up, all mad because we didn’t keep looking for him. And we would get mad back because he wasn’t playing the game the way it was supposed to be played. There’s hiding and there’s finding, we’d say. And he’d say it was hide-and-seek, not hide-and-give-UP. [Fulgham, New York: Villard Books, 1989, p. 56.]
Neither Jesus, nor God, plays the game of “hide-and-give-up.” They are always going to seek the one who is hiding or lost, until that one is found. How can Christians join them in finding lost people without putting repentance as a prerequisite? It’s a thought-provoking idea.

Jesus gave his disciples examples as he trained them. As I mentioned last week, there are some great examples of people today not just “telling the good news” but also being good news. Jesus did that. In Matthew 9:35 he started by going into cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues (telling about the good news) and then he started curing people of their diseases. From the earliest days, Christians in monasteries, convents, and churches have had people who fervently and regularly prayed for people to heal; and those same groups have also founded hospitals and clinics whose sole purpose is to save people from illness or injury. In our own community, people with lower incomes are blessed by a Christian ministry of doctors and nurses who treat them in a facility called The Jesus Clinic, helping people lost in illness and debt. Jesus healed others in Matthew chapter nine and elsewhere. In our day, medical experts at The Jesus Clinic offer to not only pray for healing, they offer their professional training to heal others who are struggling. So first, Jesus healed; we pray for, and offer healing as we are able. Even something as simple and powerful as the laying on of hands can bring healing- helping a person lost in pain or infection find peace. Next, as you might expect, crowds gathered around Jesus. In Jesus’ day they gathered, likely because the word got out that there was a man who was healing. Sometimes crowds gather because there is food. In several instances when I have been part of a feeding ministry, word got out that we had extra food on certain days, and the crowds swelled. Hungry people get motivated when they hear where they can find food. D. T. Niles even defined sharing the gospel as “One beggar telling another where to find bread.” So, crowds gather when they want to praise together, or pray together, or grieve together, or even to protest together as we have seen across our nation over the past two weeks. Here’s what Matthew said about Jesus when he saw crowds: “He had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” [9:36] Harassed and helpless. That describes some people I have seen on TV and on my computer lately. And I’ve been taught that the church is the body of Christ in our day; therefore, we are his eyes and ears, his hands and feet and heart. Who have you seen who might be lost? Have you heard the cries of those who might be lost? And if you have, what has been done to save the lost? Sometimes in the name of Jesus, but other times in the name of kindness or civility, people have given help. Our first lesson today from Genesis 18: 1-8 is of Abraham welcoming strangers into his home and feeding them. A week ago, I learned of a man whose townhouse is on Logan Circle by the White House. He opened his home to protestors who were being hit with pepper spray and flash bangs a number of days ago. “Quick!” he called out. “You can come inside!” And more than seventy people poured in. They were choking from the smoke, and their ears ringing. He ordered pizzas and most found a place on the floor to close their eyes during the curfew. They left at dawn’s early light grateful for the hospitality of a stranger, now a friend. Inviting people in for safety and sustenance sounds like a Jesus thing to do. Remember Jesus in Matthew 9:26, also noticed crowds that were harassed and helpless, were like sheep without a shepherd. He turned to his disciples and said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few, therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers.” Let’s pause at that last sentence. According to one scholar, in Matthew’s gospel the harvest is a frequent symbol of the last days, including the final judgment. One commentator put it this way: “The disciples’ mission …[involves] human workers rather than the angels as God’s agents. Thus, the disciples are instructed to pray for the Lord of the harvest (God) [and] to send out laborers into the harvest. The response to this prayer is the mission of the disciples/apostles, who in this context are represented as an expression of the divine compassion for the needy people of God. [ Dr. Eugene Boring, Matthew, The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Vol. VIII, Abingdon Press, 1995. P. 252.]
Today, in Jesus’ name, Christians will continue to seek those seeming to be like sheep without a shepherd. They may be alone, or in crowds; they may have their head down or their face in their cellphone; they may be angry or they may be weeping. Remember how Jesus saw crowds: people who were hurting or angry or lost, and he invited his disciples to go and gather them in, so they could be in the flock of a good shepherd when the harvest time comes. Jesus seeks lost people and gathers them in; and out of gratitude for being found, many people repent. Sometimes it is worth taking a new look at centuries of teachings. Listen finally to this theology being offered in the hymn we are about to sing, It is not called, “God the Great Judge, have We Truly Repented?” It is called “God of Compassion, in Mercy Befriend Us.” Here are the key words:
Though we are lost, you have sought us and found us, stilled our rude hearts with your word of consoling. Wrap now your peace, like a mantle, around us, guarding our thoughts and our passions controlling.

How shall we stray with your hand to direct us, you who the stars in their courses are guiding? What shall we fear, with your power to protect us, we who walk forth in your greatness confiding?

Let us pray: O Savior, like a shepherd not only lead us, but find us too, for we certainly have gotten lost and will do so again. Help us imagine you finding us with compassion more than impatience. And we will dwell in your flock forever.
Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner June 14, 2020

06-07-20 JESUS’S BOTTOM LINE MESSAGE

2 Corinthians 13: 5-11; Matthew 28: 16-20

When Jesus offered his famous words that we call “The Great Commission-”
All authority in heaven and earth have been given unto me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them all that I have commanded you. And lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age-
the world was not brought to a halt by a sweeping pandemic, nor was Jerusalem in any specific uproar like we have faced in our cities this past week. The Great Commission that I shared with the children today are words offered during a hopeful time, but, as we shall hear, the message also goes out in times of uncertainty. Today’s uncertainly started with a pandemic, but last week included the sight of a man’s head being forceable held against pavement with pressure on his neck for more than 8 minutes. And that was not done by one we normally name as a criminal. It was done by a man wearing a uniform usually reserved for those who “protect and serve:” men and women in blue. To see a man with that uniform, and to see three others with that uniform, stand idly by as a person’s life was snuffed out has enraged and saddened people of every color in our nation. Some have taken the destructive response too far. But others have stood in the giant footsteps of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who participated in and gave examples of how to offer passive resistance to such injustice as this. In a speech given on April 14, 1967, that still seems apropos today, he said: “I think that America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society, which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. In the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard.” We still need to remember the lessons of such resistance as history has shown us. Today we look at Jesus’ Great Commission with those words in the background. Usually when I offer Jesus’ great commission, it is at the end of an uplifting service of worship, or a joyful wedding. Sometimes it is offered by evangelists such as the late Billy Graham. Sometimes, as today, it is offered to boys and girls, and also to youth and adults, to always tell others about Jesus. There are, however, men and women in our world who don’t trust Jesus because of abuses done to them in the name of the church. I get that. We never know another person’s story—whether they are protesting with signs in city streets or on highways; whether they are masked and overcome with sorrow in hospital hallways; or whether they silently hide their brokenness by a reclusive lifestyle or by dulling their pain with drink or drugs. Some of them have walked away from churches because of the pain or rejection they have felt in them. So we temper our “good news” by honoring the place where others stand, or where they sit; we temper our “good news” where depression keeps others under the covers of their beds. We cannot bowl people over with gospel “Good News” when they have no food; gospel “Good News” then takes the form of bringing them food. We cannot bowl people over with gospel “Good News” when they believe they are unheard and have become a victim of injustice or racism or sexism; in those times the gospel “Good news” is walking with or sitting next to others, being willing to hear and share their pain, then working on a plan for change. Jesus at the time of his Transfiguration, did not decide to stay on the mountain, away from others, and talk with those struggling in villages and valleys from on high. He came down to be with them, and with him came his good news. Even in times of great turbulence and unrest as described in Mark 13, Jesus’s disciples were commenting about how proud they were of their buildings. Jesus warned them that buildings would be torn down, and false leaders (would we call them anarchists today?) would come, and there will be wars and rumors of wars, but the end is not yet, even as nations rise against nations. Rather haunting words, right? But verse 10 almost always goes by unnoticed. Here it is: “Jesus said: “The gospel must be preached to all nations.” In the midst of that chaos, Jesus said, in effect, people still need to hear the good news!

Many fairy tales include the ending words: “and they lived happily ever after.” People in America might see our country as a beaming city on a hill in our patriotic songs, but clearly there is another way to see our country when they watch television reports or read headlines and blogs. The same was true with Christianity. There were the stories of wonder and faith around Jesus, but after he left the earth, reality set in. Here’s an example: twenty years after Jesus ascended into heaven, his “Good News” was still being spread by evangelists like the Apostle Paul. And one place he brought the good news of Jesus was to Corinth, a very multi-cultural town where people worshipped many gods. In spite of that, Paul bravely brought the message of the Three-in-one God into that arena. He made a powerful case, and he established a church in Corinth. After departing to start new house churches in other locations, things began to unravel. So he wrote them letters of guidance that we call 1st Corinthians and 2nd Corinthians. In Second Corinthians, the church and society really fell off the rails. As it did, I think it is helpful today to see what Paul said then, and hear a new word for what we can do as Christians with our own societies coming off the rails too with pandemic, division, and upheaval.
I know people equate Corinthians with the 1 Corinthians 13, the “love” passage, but this passage in 2nd Corinthians 13 is as far away from love as it can be. One commentator, Professor J. Paul Sampley, writes: “A ground-shift of considerable proportions must be supposed as a context for 2 Corinthians 10-13. Paul and the Corinthians have never been in more contentious relations ….
[The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Volume XI, 2000, p. 10.]
First, Paul says “Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith.” [2 Cor. 13:5] What good advice for Christians anywhere in our country today: in cities, in offices, in homes. Paul might ask us to examine ourselves to see whether we are living in the faith. Where change is needed, ask trusted friends in Christ if you are on target, or if you are missing the mark. Listen carefully to their observations. Then decide if changes are needed. Such a message could help change the tone and the temperament of Christians around you as well. Second, Paul says “We pray to God that you may not do anything wrong.” [13:7] God, who gave human beings free will, must also hope that members of the Christian community—let alone the human race—will not do anything wrong. But of course, we do. Human and Godly insights can lead to understanding, confession, and repentance from thoughts or actions that separate us from one another. How our nation needs those insights now! Paul, if he were here, might call you and me and other Christians to seek to understand one another’s pain, to acknowledge any sin of omission or commission that has contributed to the problem, and to repent, seeking new pathways for reconciliation. That word was key in the fifth chapter of Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians: that Christ has put on us, the ones called Christians, the ministry of reconciliation.

Are we being called to take the lead in restoring frayed nerves and frayed relationships? Some people are answering the call. On television, I saw one man—a man of color—bring his children into downtown Atlanta in the light of morning. His children appeared to be Elementary School aged. They brought brooms, small shovels, plastic bags, and a dustpan. He told a news crew: “We didn’t do this destruction. But this is our city and I want my kids to see one thing we can do to try to right a wrong.” And together, they kept cleaning up broken glass and picking up broken objects. That. That is what telling the “Good News” might look like today.

And one more example: in Louisville, Kentucky, the Louisville Courier-Journal showed a group of white women, in a time when heated words were being shouted from protestors toward police, form a human chain, stepping between the protestors and facing the police. The newspaper captioned the photo with three words: “This is love.” Their action brought the exchange down from the boiling point. That. That is what telling the Good News might look like in our day. It doesn’t always have to be a grandiose gesture. It doesn’t have to look like it could change the world. But it could. What word or action might you offer to others? If Jesus sees it, he’ll know that you are getting, and are implementing, his bottom-line message for the world.
Here is my prayer for today: Come by here, Lord. Come by here. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner June 7, 2020`

05-31-20 THE GIFT OF PROPHESY


Isaiah 11: 1-5; Acts 2: 1-21

The term “prophesy” often gets misunderstood. Prophesy is not the ability to see the future in the way that God can. But prophets listen to God and share God’s guidance with others. And sometimes God shares the likely changes in human lives that poor choices can bring. Perhaps you remember when Jesus was being tormented before the Sanhedrin. The guards bound his eyes with a cloth and (from Mark 14:65) “Some began to spit on him, and to cover his face, and to strike him, saying to him, “Prophesy!” Since he claimed to be the Christ, they believed he, like God, could describe future events. Of course he was in anguish instead. Some through the ages have turned to apocalyptic literature as if it were prophesy: words from Daniel, or Ezekiel, or Revelation. But prophesy genuinely comes from the prophets. Here’s what they did: they listened intently to God, and they listen intently to the world, and they wrote about the intersection and likely outcome of staying on wrong courses. Old Testament prophets are great examples, people like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Micah, and Malachi. And others through the ages have taken that role in the past and into the 20th century. It is hard to name prophets in our own day, but 21st century prophets will be identified when people pause years from now and look back. One of the greatest prophets is Isaiah. He is the one who is quoted as prophesying about “Immanuel, God with us,” about “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;” ; and he also declared God’s words to “Comfort” his people after they had endured so much. But Isaiah chapter 11 is perhaps his masterpiece, his words that most clearly show God’s hope for what the world could be like; words that Jesus certainly knew when he wrote, and we pray: “Thy Kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Last week I described how heaven is nothing like earth. But God’s hope—God’s dream—God’s prophetic push is for people on the earth to not accept the status quo, but to push for actions and differences that revolve around peace, justice, feeding hungry people, and the like. Listen to what the great prophet Isaiah said about that.
First a Pentecost tie-in. Pentecost is always depicted with flames, with red colors, and with candles. Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, described the fruit of the Spirit: qualities any Christian would want to possess in his or her character. They are, in Galatians 5: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. During my life I have continually worked on gaining and keeping those qualities; I think doing that can bring any one of us closer to what Thomas a’ Kempis called The Imitation of Christ. We are trying to not just bring Jesus to others with our Bibles or our memorized words, but by our actions too, so others “know we are Christians” by what we do. Some may want to put that in their life resume—that they are Christian, but as James wrote in his New Testament letter, “faith without works is dead.” That is our reminder that being a Christian is not just because of what we say, but mostly by what we do.

Now to the idea of the Gifts of the Spirit. The church since the 9th century and earlier sang about and wrote about the “Seven-fold gifts of the Spirit.” The opening music today was from the 9th century: “Thou the anointing Spirit art, who dost Thy seven-fold gifts impart.” Where do we find those sevenfold gifts? In the great insights of Isaiah, we find them; but they are hidden to modern eyes. Let me help your eyes see them. Isaiah is describing what the world will be like when Messiah comes, what qualities Messiah will have. It is a striking contrast to what we see now, and what Isaiah saw then. Isaiah prophesied: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse.” I’ve had certain trees removed from my yards over the years, with the proper permits. A tree cutter takes down a tree, and in some cases the stump remains. To this day I can take you to three of those stumps and show you shoots growing out of them; the tree is still alive and it “bursts forth” from the tops and sides of the stump. There may have been regimes in Isaiah’s past that tried to stop God’s purpose from being carried out in Israel, but God continued to find a way, just as shoots of new growth grow from a stump. The same happens today. If you were to return to the areas where the great Florida fires from 1998 burned trees into cinder sticks, you would see now that new shoots of growth have now become saplings and even modest sized trees. Nature is always about renewal amidst change. In Isaiah’s case, the stump describes Jesse, one of the great, great, great grandfathers of Jesus! You’ll remember that Boaz the Jew, took Ruth a Moabite, as his wife. They had a son named Obed. And according to Ruth 4:17, “Obed was the father of Jesse, who was the father of David.” And according to Matthew chapter 1, he was descended of Joseph who was married to Mary, mother of Jesus. About Jesse, Isaiah wrote: “A branch shall grow out of his roots.” That’s a prophesy. It could have fit another person, but Jews believe it describes “messiah,” and Christians believe messiah is Jesus. That’s how the progression goes. Then Isaiah wrote that “The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him.” We might wonder what it is like to have the Spirit of the Lord resting on a person. Isaiah says such a person will have these qualities:

  1. The spirit of wisdom
  2. The spirit of understanding
  3. The spirit of counsel
  4. The spirit of might
  5. The spirit of knowledge
  6. The spirit of the fear of the Lord.
    Six gifts. But we know that Jews believed that seven was a Godly number, and Christians picked up on it too! There were seven days of the week, and the beast had the number 666 (incompleteness). So why six gifts of the spirit? There was an implied seventh gift; one the Jews understood and Christian even earlier than the 9th century saw in their early Greek Scripture called the Septuagint. The seventh gift was piety. That meant a person who diligently read God’s word, who prayed to God, and who exhibited a life that tried to conform to what they had read. Those are the sevenfold gifts of the spirit. Let me briefly unpack them:
    Wisdom includes an ability to think above the fray of the crowd; to consider all sides of an issue; to encourage collaboration and an ability to come to a conclusion that time will test and bless.

Understanding is an ability to empathize, something not everyone can do. An empathetic person can image what it’s like to walk in other person’s shoes, or feel the way another person reacts to hard news, or conflicts, or change.

Counsel includes the ability to listen to and respond to another in ways that, like a fiduciary in the financial world, has the other person’s best interests at heart.

Might can include physical strength, but mostly it is intestinal fortitude and an ability to stand firm when a decision is made that may be unpopular with a crowd.

Knowledge includes what we might learn academically, but also what we may learn from life. Jesus was certainly trained in rabbinic schools, but he likely learned about life working alongside of his tradesman father. When I was deciding about what major I should choose in college, a wise professor said ministers need knowledge in all areas of life, from business, mathematics, the arts, literature, history, and society. He said, “Don’t major in religion; you’ll get all of that you need in seminary. Get a liberal arts degree.” So I majored in English Literature with a minor in Business Administration. Knowledge takes many forms.

Fear of the Lord. Notice it is not just fear, it is fear of the Lord, which means a healthy respect for the Lord. To honor the authority of another. This too is a gift of the spirit—people who treat God as the power and wonder that God is.

That brings us back to piety. Karl Barth, a great 20th century theologian, used to say a good preacher needs to have “the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other.” That makes for good prophets too. How can God’s Word inform the way we respond to the world as it is? That is the well to which we all need to continually return. Otherwise the world will suck us into the great morass of society, leaning on the lowest common denominator instead of the highest ideal.

Jeffrey A. Sumner May 31, 2020

05-24-20 WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOUR LOVED ONE IS GONE?

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOUR LOVED ONE IS GONE?
Deuteronomy 34: 1-8; Acts 1: 6-14

It seems like the human race needs regular reminders for certain events that are special. We need a day like Christmas to remember the birth of Jesus, and a day like Easter to remember his rising from the dead. We need a day like Valentine’s Day to focus on romantic love, Mother’s Day to focus on our mothers, and Father’s Day to focus on our fathers. You get the idea. Few people, except those most affected, remember the day when another person died. But the ones closest to them remember it. Indeed. Years ago, a day was set aside to remember soldiers who were killed in that war, known by some as the Civil War; by others as the War Between the States; and by others as the War of Northern Aggression! Good grief. But, that was the origin of the day known as Memorial Day, also known as Decoration Day. Later it was designated to remember any people who were killed in one of our wars. It is the day when loved ones or other thoughtful Americans go to the graves of those who served in the United States Armed Forces and decorate them with flags or flowers. It is a way to honor the dead. Such a practice may seem honorable to you, or perhaps it seems morbid. I find it comforting. Whenever I visited my grandparents—the ones who lived in Pennsylvania, or the one who lived in Georgia—we would go to visit the graves of family members. We would water flowers, but more importantly, we would talk about the person who was buried under a headstone. It was comforting and we were taught about those earlier relatives. Like looking through photo albums (or your photos on your phone these days!) we should all share our photos and pictures with our children or nieces or nephews. Memorial Day is a reminder day. So let’s take the opportunity to remember some other people today.

Let’s start with the Bible leader who God chose to lead his people out of captivity in Egypt, wander for many years, and eventually get to the precipice of the Promised Land: Moses. To get to the land God was gifting them, they needed to cross over the Jordan River from Mount Nebo (in the country of Jordan,) to the land known as Caanan. Such a journey became the talk of legends for many oppressed people, especially for Jewish people, and later, for slaves in America in the 19th century. They wrote great spirituals like “Go Down, Moses.” And they sang about Moses’ shouting God’s words: “Let my people go!” Spirituals also lift up the Jordan River as the water that needs to be crossed to get to the Promised Land, except when the slaves sang it, and when others sing them to this day, they are describing the crossing from this land of hardship and sorrow to the land of promise called heaven. It is where Christians go after we die. It was a different story for Moses. As the book of Deuteronomy tells us in chapter 34, Moses led his people to Mount Nebo, just across the river from the Promised Land. But there is where he died. He never crossed over. He was buried there, and the Bible says: “To this day no one knows where he was buried.” Normally that would be unusual for an Israelite. But in this case, if Joshua led everyone across the Jordan to the promised land, who would care for Moses’ grave on Mount Nebo? I’ve been to Mount Nebo. The plaques there say Moses was buried there, but to this day, no one knows where. Jews officially don’t believe in a resurrection like Jesus experienced. The Jewish legacy is the swath of teachings and deeds from a person’s lifetime; they are remembered by family and friends who love them at the time of death and beyond. If you go to any Jewish cemeteries in Jerusalem, you will see the above ground burial boxes called ossuaries everywhere. A Jewish custom is that if you visit the ossuary of a prominent Jewish person, you are to leave a stone on the top of the burial place, saying, in effect, that you are pleased to remember them. Then when others come to visit the grave behind you, it is instantly clear who was especially loved by others, and by extension, was loved by God. On one of our Holy Land trips, I asked our bus driver as we toured Mount Zion to stop by the grave of Oscar Schindler—the man who saved so many Jews during the Nazi regime. It was his wish to be buried in Jerusalem in the Mount Zion Catholic Cemetery, but so many Jews are grateful to him that there are a lot of stones on his grave. Jews place a stone on top of the grave of Jews and others they admire and respect. That is the way one group of people remember and honor their dead.

The group of people with which we are most familiar are the Christians. Last Thursday was one of those reminder holidays—it’s called “Ascension Day,” hardly observed by Protestants, but it should be. It is the 40th day after Easter, the day traditionally when witnesses saw Jesus ascend into heaven. It is recorded in Luke chapter 24 and Acts chapter 1. In that scene, the newly alive Jesus, who had arisen from the dead, gathered with his disciples on the Mount of Olives, sometimes called Olivet. That is the place where Jews believed, and still do believe, that the Messiah will appear. That’s why its hillside is covered with a Jewish cemetery, with the bodies of Jews waiting for their Messiah to appear. But it was on that hill that Jesus took his disciples to show them something very special: to show them a new way of thinking: instead of death being the end of life, there would be death, but then, resurrected life! Jesus told his disciples they should keep telling people about him, which is wonderful advice for those thinking about a loved one who died even today; keep telling others about them! Our passage then tells us: Jesus “was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” [Acts 1:9] Two angelic messengers were left to interpret what had just happened. They said, according Acts 1:11: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Well, that’s helpful, isn’t it? Instead of thinking our life ends when we breathe our last, disciples had a message, not just for the present, but for the future too: Jesus will come back for them! John, in his gospel, was especially good at saying that his book was written “That you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” [John 20:30-31]

So has someone you loved died? Do you have a special place, or a special way, to remember them? Like our Jewish friends, it is so helpful to remember what they had done for you and for their neighbors. Doing that is what most faithful people want: to create good memories, and to do good works. But beyond that, the New Testament just lets us see through the floorboards of heaven. As we read these words, we might imagine looking up, and seeing a few things through the cracks of the floorboards of heaven, metaphorically speaking. Perhaps we can see Jesus, who still plans to meet his faithful followers in the air when it is time, according to 1 Thessalonians 4:17. We might also see parts of the Holy City, that John calls New Jerusalem. I once had some egg on my face in my first pastorate when I was reading the local Methodist Church newsletter in town. There I read: “Myrtle Jones, on May 7th, 1982, transferred her membership to the Church of New Jerusalem.” I scratched my head and said I had never heard of that congregation before! Then it dawned on me: It was Heaven! Yes, that’s where Myrtle had transferred her membership! What is heaven like? According to the vision Jesus gave John: It is a place where “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” [Revelation 21:4] Then we read that an angel came and said “’Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ And in the Spirit, [John says] he carried me away to a great high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God.” [Revelation 21: 9-11] In that vision, Jesus was bringing heaven down to show it to John! Looking more carefully, John saw that indeed it had 12 gates that were each 12 pearls, each of the gates made from a single pearl! And the streets were pure gold, but transparent as glass.” {Revelation 21:21] Here we must use a disciplined imagination to envision the holy city, because we are just getting glimpses of it in our mortal form. One day, an angel might come to you, one that perhaps has already come to your loved one who died, and one day he might come to me, to prepare us for our journey. “Look” the angel might say. “You are about to move to a new life! Do not be afraid! It is not like your old life; it is new in so many ways! Here’s a peek!” And then we might be given a glimpse of glory, where the Lamb of God-our Savior-now reigns: strong, loving, never to be hurt or sick again. That is the life beyond this life in which I choose to believe! And I invite you to see all the signs of that life in the New Testament too, and be comforted by them.

This Memorial Day weekend, in the midst of any activities you may plan, please take some time to remember those who died for our freedom; those family members or friends who died before you have; and finally to consider what people might remember about you after you die, and what God might say to you, when you meet- on that beautiful shore.

Let us pray:
Thank you, O God: for teaching people to honor those who have died in the faith, and for giving us traditions and rituals to cling to when our breath turns to crying or our legs go weak. This weekend, may we remember the rituals of honoring those who have died before us. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner May 24, 2020

05-17-20 THE CHURCH: BUILT ON THE ROCK

Matthew 16: 13-18

There is an anthem our choir has sung before with this first line: “Built on the rock the church doth stand.” Today as we celebrate the anniversary of this congregation, we first think back to the earliest reference found in the New Testament. It’s in Matthew 16. Jesus deliberately took his disciples away from the Galilee where he was always pummeled with requests or threats. He took them north and east to an area that is still there today: our 2021 Holy Land trip will include a visit here for the first time! It is called “Caesarea Philippi. Herod the Great had divided his kingdom into three parts, to be given to his three sons when he died. He died around 4 B.C. To one son, Herod Archelaus, he gave the region that included Jerusalem; to his son Herod Antipas he gave the region that included the Galilee. And to Herod Philip he gave the northeastern region that now bears his name. In that region, there was a unique natural wonder. It was a cave, and it is there today. It goes so deep into the ground that it constantly spews sulfur gasses. People who lived in that region, who believed in beings that lived in the underworld, called it the “Gates of Hell;” or “the Gates of Hades.” Biblical teacher Ray Vanderlaan believes that Jesus deliberately took his disciples to that spot for another one of his teachable moments. He asked them: “Who do people say that I am?” And they gave some fumbling answers. Then, I imagine Jesus pointed a finger at them and asked: “But who do YOU say that I am? And Simon, who Jesus called Peter from that day forward, said, “You are the Christ [or the Messiah,] the Son of the living God!” Jesus must have lowered his pointed finger and smiled, saying his famous words: “Blessed are you Simon, son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father in Heaven. And I tell you now, Peter (in Greek Petros) and upon this rock (petra) I will build my church.” And then Ray Vanderlaan believes Jesus pointed to that cave-like opening with sulphur gases spewing out, saying, “And the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” What a teachable moment, to be standing there and pointing to the cave spewing noxious gases! Jesus, I think, had made his point. Over the years, our Roman Catholic friends have decided that when Jesus said, “Upon this rock (petra) I will build my church,” that Jesus meant the man, Peter. Therefore the center of the Roman Catholic faith architecturally is the structure in Rome called St. Peter’s Basilica. Of course it is called “St. Peter’s!” The church is built on that “rock,” they say. But Protestants from the beginning have declared that the “rock” is what Peter said, not the person of Peter. So what is the “rock to Protestants? It’s the declaration Peter gave, that each of us say at some time or another when we become Christians: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” So Protestants have some differences when compared to our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. We have some differences compared to our Jewish friends, or from Muslims, neither of which believe that Jesus is the Messiah nor the “Son of God.” So we are “set apart” in a unique way. And that uniqueness has passed through the centuries. Later in the first century, the word about Jesus had traveled by evangelist who told other people about him; evangelists like Paul, Timothy, Silas, Barnabas, and Peter. According to Acts 11:26, it was in a town called Antioch that the disciples of Jesus were first called “Christians!” And through the years, the mantel has been passed to those who call him Lord: to house churches, to small churches, medium churches, large churches, and mega churches. The proclamation “You are the Messiah” continues, and the ministry Jesus first carried out is still being done in his name: praying, blessing, feeding, praising! The church of Jesus Christ has continued, “built on the rock!” And now, even God is turning evil to good, as churches have burst out of the walls of their buildings to be the church in the world, through technology and with neighbors helping neighbors! Built on the rock, “the gates of hell will not prevail against it!” We will continue to be “the church” wherever we carry his name and share his message.

Through the ages there have been churches started all over the world. Literally all over the world. Presbyterians and others told people in Korea that “Jesus is the Messiah,” and many there agreed and decided to take that message across the nation. Now the largest Presbyterian church in the world in in Korea! But there are many more stories than that one. Here’s a local one:
In October 1946, a small Sunday School was started in the unincorporated area of Wilbur By-The-Sea, south of Daytona Beach. This was the humble beginning of Westminster By-The-Sea Presbyterian Church and was the dream of The Rev. Paul M. Edris, Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Daytona Beach. Rev. Edris, with Miss Elizabeth McNeil, Director of Christian Education at First Church, conducted this outpost Sunday School for one year; then it was decided that more people could be reached though weekly prayer meetings. [The number of interested persons grew and the gathering continued weekly.]

In February, 1955, forty-two people gathered for the first Sunday service in what was called the “Wilbur by-the-sea Clubhouse.” In May of that year, with sixty-two charter members present, a committee from the Presbytery of St. Johns installed The Rev. Richard W. Sauerbrun as the first Pastor of Westminster By-The-Sea Presbyterian Church. [An elder suggested the name “Westminster” since the Westminster Confession of Faith upheld the high standards of the Presbyterian Church; it was also decided to keep “by-the-sea” in the name to honor the local roots in Wilbur by-the-sea.] Soon the congregation outgrew its temporary quarters in the Wilbur Clubhouse. Plans were made for a move. Mrs. Laura Fair Ferran donated land at the corner of South Peninsula Drive and El Portal Avenue (which is now called Westminster Drive) and construction began on the first building of the church complex. On Christmas Eve, 1956, the first Candlelight Service was held in the recently completed Fellowship Hall, which was to serve as the temporary sanctuary. An education wing was added in 1958. [and after an extensive fund-raising effort,] the beautiful colonial sanctuary was a reality in September, 1964.

Over these sixty-five years, Westminster has had just four installed pastors, and four secretaries! We also have been blessed with Associate Pastors and Parish Associates, with gifted Choir Directors, Organists, teachers, and Christian Education Directors. We have had welcoming greeters, congenial fellowship leaders filled with hospitality, plus talented tradesmen and professionals. Our first Pastor’s wife, Suanne, was scheduled to join us for this celebration until social distancing clipped the wings of those plans. But she, and others still in the area and around the world, rejoice with what God has done in this corner of Christianity! And it all started with a declaration: “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” It continued when people saw the gatherings and called them “Christians.” It was blessed by a visionary Pastor who saw a need to expand the Christian witness to the unincorporated are of the south peninsula; it grew with a generous gift of land to locate our facilities in such a prominent place. And we pray that God continues to bless us with the means and the people who join arms in carrying out Christ’s work in the twenty-first century with “energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.” Happy Anniversary to all who are a part of Westminster By-The-Sea!
May they know we are Christians by our love.

Let us pray: O God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come; we will need to count on you in the future as we have counted on you in the past. What will the future hold in this new era of social distancing? Even now, we are sure you are working your purposes out, and we want to be a part of them! Bless us with wisdom, patience, and direction. We pray for it in the name of Jesus, who is the Christ, the Son of the living God; the rock upon which the church is built. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner May 17, 2020