04-15-20 – Hosanna! Save Us!

John 12:1, 12-16

In our world today when health care workers and chaplains and other first responders are on our front lines of care and protection, they might best understand the exhaustion with which Jesus greeted the crowds on the day known as Palm Sunday. I have chosen the story as told from John’s gospel today. If you were with me last week, you might remember the story of the raising of Lazarus; how his sisters Mary and Martha were friends of Jesus. How they counted on his friendship—and on his power—to keep their brother Lazarus well. I know from my daughter that the health care workers and chaplains have family members in hospitals plead with them—plead with them—to save their loved ones. For this virus, there are no sure things—no sure medicines, no sure protective supplies, no sure answers. And yet the pleading, and the wailing continues. It is exhausting. Health care workers and chaplains go from their possibly contaminated hospitals into their garage, or their utility room, and strip off contaminated clothes, putting them in the washer, and then scrubbing themselves in a hot shower. If they could, they would take their responsibility cloak off too—the one they have worn for an 18 hour, or a 24 hour, or a 48 hour shift. They are done. But yet, they are not done. They might have a spouse or a child who needs care and attention. They might need to eat since they’ve ignored their bodily needs. They might want to cry in private. This is the life of these health care workers now. Then there are the parents—moms, dads, grandparents. I have seen some posts on Facebook, with their child home, saying things like: “First day in home school—my student already needs the principal’s office!” Others tearfully write “I can’t do this—watch my kids and work from home.” One grandson said glumly that he wished he could go back to school; and those parents wished the same thing! Everyone in this day and age is being forced to adapt to something forced on them. Jesus, I suspect, is wrung out by this time too. He’s had his critics from the beginning—people who just said little things in stage whispers that he could hear. He wasn’t made of stone, you know! He was human … and he heard … and he hurt. His best friends—Mary And Martha—were disappointed in him. One of the most painful things my father did to me when I did something wrong was not to spank, or to ground me. He would say: “I’m disappointed in you.” And Jesus has just been wrung out by disappointment. In addition, this man’s man wept for the first time that was recorded. He wept with Martha, perhaps not because he was grieving, but because he was spent. Oh and just before he was with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in that exhausting exchange, the Jews in the area were preparing to stone him according to John 10:31.

Now, like an exhausted health care worker coming home to a child, or like a parent spending days with pent up children, it was time for Jesus to enter the lion’s den. Oh not a real lion’s den, but it might as well have been. There were people who were on high alert for rabble rousers, and trouble-makers, and false prophets.
Jesus started toward the city as he left Bethany on the other side of the hill and came down the east side on the Mount of Olives toward Jerusalem. But his journey down not only gave boys and girls someone to cheer, it gave hope to the Jews that this man
might be a king, or maybe a messiah, or at least a warrior. So, as John’s passage tells us, they waved palm branches for the occasion. Why palm branches? Not just because they were available; it was because the palm branch was the national symbol of a free Israel. A national hero named Judas Maccabeus (not Judas Iscariot) was celebrated for leading a revolt against the Seleucid Empire beginning in 167 B.C.E. In the Hasmonean period that followed, the Jews ruled themselves; they felt free! The palm meant “Save us!” Then the palms their coins meant “we are free!” The season of Hanukkah celebrates that brief time of freedom. But that freedom did not last. Rome conquered Still, there was lingering hope might return one day, and they hoped it was now! Maybe the man who made people rise from the dead would to lead them to freedom again! So they grabbed their national symbols, not from a vendor but from the ground or from a tree, and waved the branch of a palm tree high in their hand! Every good Jewish boy had learned the words of the prophet Zechariah, where in chapter 9, verse 9, declaring: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.” The glass slipper—so to speak—seemed to fit Jesus! And so they chose to cheer him on! Down the steep hillside they went, ceremonially draping their cloaks on the ground as Sir Walter Raleigh did for Queen Elizabeth. In addition, they waved palms and dropped them in the path in hopeful honor, making it more difficult for the little animal to carry a man down the steep path. I have walked that path on one of our holy land visits, and it is not easy. Some chose to get on our bus and meet us at the bottom. So this was a determined—and a joyous crowd—and might we say a desperate crowd? They were so hoping he was the one. The children in the crowd missed the dark or hopeful undercurrent. It was a parade! It was fun! But there were others in the crows who were wary. As Professor Harold Hill sang in “The Music Man,” some people just thought they had “trouble” with him coming to their city! So they watched, and then sent word to others ahead who were there for Passover. He entered through the east side wall through “The Golden Gate.” And it was there that the so called “triumphal entry” was accomplished. All the cheering stopped, and the tensions rose. Jesus, the healer, the man from Nowheresville—Nazareth—had arrived. Like some in our world now, our Lord arrived at the beginning of a week anxious and worn down.
Acting like Hospice nurses, we are asked to give him round the clock care for his last week on earth. Can we do it?

Jeffrey A. Sumner April 5, 2020

03-29-20 THE BROTHER WHO CAME BACK TO LIFE

John 11: 1-7, 17-29, 32-44

It was my honor to have author, professor, and spiritual mentor Henri Nouwen speak at the Commencement Ceremony as I graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary. In his book Turn My Mourning into Dancing published by the W. Publishing Group, on page 25 he writes these words. I thought of them when I heard an ad three weeks ago for Nick Wallenda, famous son of the Wallenda tightrope team, as Nick prepared to cross an active volcano on a tightrope with no net. Talk about daring! Anyway, here is what Nouwen wrote:
For years I have watched trapeze artists….I am constantly moved by the courage of my circus friends. At each performance they trust their flight will end with their hands sliding into the secure grip of a partner. They also know that only the release of the secure bar allows them to move on with arching grace to the next. Before they can be caught, they must let go. They must brave the emptiness of space. Living with this kind of willingness to let go is one of the greatest challenges we face. Whether it concerns a person, possessions, or a personal reputation, in so many areas we hold on at all costs….The great paradox is that it is in letting go, we receive. [Nouwen, 2001]
Even the wonderful Prayer of St. Francis embraces the benefit of letting go: “For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.”
This is one of the great lessons of life, and in a world-wide pandemic, people everywhere are being separated by illness or death. Hopeful migrants get separated at borders, and hopeful travelers remain separated from others as they fly into a new country. I imagine some people flying into another country might find themselves in a situation like Tom Hanks’ character encountered in “The Terminal,” where he couldn’t clearly make himself understood to others, his passport was seized by US Customs, and he was stuck in a virtually deserted airport terminal. People are being separated, even by six feet. It is a different world.
Jesus’ travels were in a small region. As he made his way back and forth from Galilee to Jerusalem, it is clear that he often stopped in Bethany at the home of his friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. It was away from the prying eyes of Pharisees, and it gave him the necessary respite before he plunged into the perils of Jerusalem or made his way back to his home region of Galilee. It was a wonderful connection of friendship between all of them. So these people not only knew Jesus as a friend, they had heard of his powers too.
In our passage, the friends decided to ask Jesus for help. Mary was the one who had “anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair.” [11:2] She clearly not only cares about Jesus, but may have known that act was a burial ritual that foreshadowed what was coming for Jesus. Certainly Mary, and likely Martha, had been involved in Jewish burial rituals, the kind of actions that the women intended to perform on Jesus’ dead body at his tomb when they found he was not there. The ritual always included costly oils, and perfume, and spices. Mary may have offered the sacred ritual to Jesus as a tribute to him. So Mary honored and cared about Jesus; as did Martha; as did Lazarus, but certainly Mary exhibited her honor the most. Now it was time for a request. Their brother Lazarus fell ill, and Mary hoped Jesus would come and heal him. Martha hoped he would come too, but was surprised when he stayed away for two more days! Did Mary and Martha feel hurt? Or slighted? Jesus arrived in Bethany so many days later that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Had they anointed their brother in his tomb? The text does not say. But rabbi’s for ages had declared that a person put in a tomb who did not move for 3 days could be declared dead. No one had clear scientific ways to prove death. So three days meant one was dead. I hope some bells are ringing in your head about our own Lord being in the tomb three days! But here, Jesus came in four days. Charles Dickens might have said Lazarus was “dead as a doornail!” Jesus wanted that. He didn’t need anyone saying “Lazarus was just sleeping, and Jesus woke him up!” Many Jews had come to console Mary and Martha on the death of their brother. Such attention to grief was an important practiced ritual. Did you hear that Mary, the one who clearly honored and loved Jesus, stayed in the house when she heard Jesus was coming? I wonder what was going through her heart? Instead, sister Martha chose to go meet Jesus. She confronted him, not calling him “Jesus,” but “Lord.” “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” [11:21] And Jesus said, “Your brother will rise again.” It’s clear from her reply that Martha had a belief in a life beyond death, even before Jesus died and rose again! Amazing! She said, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Wow! Jesus must have been not only a friend, not only a Rabbi to them, but truly their Lord by his teachings. Perhaps Martha believed she would see her brother in the resurrection, but she wanted a miracle, like most people want. Everyone reads this passage, and reads the passage in Luke chapter 8 when Jesus brings a girl back to life, and wants the same results for their loved one. “Lord, you did it before! Do it again!” How often people focus on one incident, hoping it will be repeated, and pray, “Do it again, Lord!” And that’s understandable. But as Nouwen described the work of circus workers, they have to let go of the bar in order to fly through the air into the secure grip of a partner. A tightrope walker has to go out on the wire to let go of any terrifying fear that would grip him, or her. And as St. Francis prayer reminded us: “It is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.” This time, however, Jesus had a different purpose for bringing Lazarus back to life. As Martha started to cry after confronting her Lord, her Lord himself started to cry. The shortest verse in the whole Bible, according to the King James Version, is here: “Jesus wept.” [John 11:35.] Here I would want to ask Jesus the question that the founder of our Presbyterian Counseling Center, the late Dr. Dan Taylor, used to ask in counseling sessions. “If your tears could speak, what would they say?” Did the tears indicate sorrow, frustration, or exhaustion? Jesus pulled himself together, but not entirely. As the text says, “Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It is clear that everyone believed Lazarus was dead. It was believed that his body was already on its way to decomposing. But Jesus instructed that the stone to be rolled away, and then they saw the miracle for which everyone else hopes. But Jesus’ actions were not just to comfort others. It was to let them hear his prayer to his Heavenly Father as a kind of announcement: “Father, I thank you for having heard me….I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” Jesus had a real and present purpose in raising Lazarus. It was not a forever purpose, described by Jesus to Martha when he said “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, though they die, shall live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” [11:25] That is our forever plan. Those are the timeless words and the timeless promise, even amidst the separations we encounter in life and in death. Certainly we are temporarily separated from others for now. But our forever promise, according to our Presbyterian Brief Statement of Faith, is “In life and in death, we belong to God.” And Paul, in his letter to the Romans, Chapter 8: affirms that “neither life nor death nor angels nor rulers nor things present nor things to come nor powers nor height nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God, in Christ Jesus our Lord.” This is our eternal comfort. For now we will lean on one another, and on the everlasting arms of God.
Jeffrey A. Sumner March 29, 2020

03-22-20 Rethinking Why Bad Things Happen

Rethinking Why Bad Things Happen
John 9: 1-9

When I was growing up, teachers of young children would put a question to children in a playful, rhyming way. The game is called “Who stole a cookie from the cookie jar?” Do you remember it?
Leader: “ (Name) stole a cookie from the cookie jar.”
Accused: “Who me?”
Group: “Yes, you!”
Accused: “Couldn’t be!”
Group: “Then who?”
And then the accused gets to name another person.

We have observed that such childish games do not stop when we get to be teenagers. “Who drove the car and didn’t put gas in it? (Silence.)
Or as young adults: “Where is your assignment?” (“My dog ate it.”)
As adults we hear this all the time; many have not matured enough to accept responsibility for their actions. It happens even at the highest levels of government. Politically Americans have blamed the Russians, the Chinese, the Mexicans and more, warranted or not, for a variety of circumstances. Republicans blame Democrats, and Democrats blame Republicans. Cheating husbands may blame their wives for lack of affection, and cheating wives may blame husbands for lack of attention. It is the story of relationships. And there is still blame going around when dealing with the Covid-19 virus. Where did all this blaming start? In the Garden, of course! When the human race began. “The Lord God said to the first man in Genesis 3:11 “Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” And the first man replied: “The woman, whom you gave to be with me, gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” So then the Lord God turned to the woman: “What is this that you have done?” And the woman replied, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate it.” Isn’t it interesting that the only one who doesn’t blame someone … is the Tempter! He took the responsibility and the consequences! Goodness! I hate to tell anyone to act like the tempter, but to invite people to own what they’ve done is just the right thing to do.

The one who is mostly blamed for bad things happening in the world is … God.
God gets blamed for storms. God gets blamed for taking a child to heaven too soon. God gets blamed when someone dies in a car accident because his friends say, “It was just his time.” Methodist Pastor Adam Hamilton addresses these issues in his book that he simple called Why?” Our church studied his book last Fall. Listen to his chapter titles: “Why do the innocent suffer?” “Why do my prayers go unanswered?” “Why can’t I see God’s will for my life?” and “Why God’s love prevails.” People have asked forever why bad things happen. But you may be comforted to hear that people have forever tried to assign reasons for someone being, hurt, disabled, or killed. Take, for example, the story of a blind man. “John actually says specifically, “As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man who was blind from birth.” [John 9:1] He wasn’t blinded by getting into a bar fight and losing. He wasn’t blinded after he broke into another man’s house. He was blind “from birth.” So, you know who got blamed: God. And here is what happened: it wasn’t a stranger, or a Pharisee who asked this question. It was Jesus’ own disciples! “Rabbi” they asked Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” For Jews in Jesus’ day and earlier, they believed that everything that happened was from God. Wars, deaths, having no money, having lots of money, being able to have children, not being able to have children- it was all from God. So rich people felt like God especially was pleased with them, whether God was or not. Poor people felt like they must have sinned against God and wondered what they had done. Women who wanted to become a mother and couldn’t conceive believed that was because of God too. They thought God let Israel get invaded by Assyria first, then Babylon second, because they were not faithfully honoring God. So, if a man was blind, the disciples believed it was because someone sinned. The only question was who. But Jesus set them—and us straight—with his answer. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” [9:3]

Sometimes children treated at Shriner’s Children’s Hospital, for example, are not there because someone sinned; most often they are there from what is sometimes called a birth defect or some genetic issue or accident. Yet in Jesus’ day, people were ready to assign fault, or blame someone for a person with disabilities. Jesus said no. “So that God’s works might be revealed” Jesus said. Some of the most inspirational stories in sports happen around Special Olympics. Perhaps this shows God’s works being revealed:
In 1976 at the Special Olympics in Seattle, “nine contestants lined up at the starting line for the 100-yard dash. At the sound of the starting gun, they all started off in their own way, making their best effort to run down the track toward the finish line. That is, except for the one young boy who stumbled soon after his start, tumbled to the ground, and started to cry. Two of the other racers, hearing the cries of the boy who fell, slowed down and looked back at him. Then without hesitation, they turned around and began running in the other direction toward the injusted boy. While the other contestants struggled to make it to the finish line, the two who had turned around to run in the other direction reached for the boy and helped him to his feet. All three of them linked arms and together walked to the finish line. By the time the trio reached the end, everyone in the stands was standing and cheering, some with tears running down their faces. Even though by turning back and helping the boy who fell they lost their own chance to win the race, they all had smiles on their faces because they knew they had done the right thing.” [From the Unitarian Universalist curriculum, “Love Connects Us” grades 4-5.]

Mr. Rogers taught children that whenever they were in trouble, look for the helpers. Little did one boy know that his helpers would be young and as disabled as he was. “Was that God’s work being revealed? Is helping others part of Jesus’ entire teaching, to “love your neighbor as yourself” and to follow the Golder Rule: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you?” When you hear others putting the blame on God for things, perhaps you can change the direction of the conversation with words like: “Never mind how it happened. Will you join me in lending a hand?” And perhaps even guiding a conversation away from blaming God for the death of a baby or horrible storm. May our Gentle God comfort you in your abilities and your disabilities, one day sending angels to carry you over life’s finish line.

Let us pray:
Help us, O God, not to give in to tired clichés about you that people repeat. Instead, help us to direct people’s eyes and minds to your great works and gentle mercies, manifested in our world around us. In Jesus’ name who seeks to open sometimes the eyes, and always the minds, of the blind.
Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner March 22, 2020

03-15-20 JESUS KNOWS YOU LIKE THE WOMAN AT THE WELL

John 4: 5-21; 39-42

Around 1986, after I was Pastor here for about a year, I learned tha two women in the church regularly made trips to Cassadaga. Have you heard of Cassadaga? There is such a cluster of psychics and mediums, using either tarot cards, or a crystal ball, or holding seances, that Wikipedia now calls it “The Psychic Capital of the World!” Some of you may be thinking, “Make a note to ask the Pastor where that is; I’d like to try that!” So these good Christian women in 1986, card-carrying Presbyterians, would head west from here about 20 miles to that little community and have their palms read, to ask psychics questions about their lives, or to talk with their dead mother. One, a widow, even go to ask if there was a new special fella in her future!. In my mind I wondered how people could possibly put all their trust in God while also making life choices by paying a psychic? What I suspect is that they went to God for some things and to psychics for other things. Unless it is just for recreation, such activities can cast serious doubt on the abilities of a Savior we have never seen in the flesh to be the answers to our prayers. It could make people doubt the ability of Jesus to truly be our life’s guide. But today in the book of John, that same Jesus had the most personal and sensitive insights into a woman of Samaria, so much so that it astounded her, and it astounds readers to this day. He knew all about her past marriages! Let’s explore this side of our wonderful Savior.

A little background. Jesus was quite a daredevil in his day. Not like a high wire act; it’s just that he questioned norms; he crossed boundaries, and he worked to help and love outsiders with a certain defiance toward established rule keepers. As I said last week, if anyone knew the inside stories of Jesus, it was his close friend John. Only in John’s Gospel did he tell us about this astounding encounter. Think of all the pejorative words you would say about some other group of people if that is possible; group that perhaps you detest for some reason? Whatever you are thinking, that could be what Jews thought of Samaritan: Dirty, unclean, untouchables, lower-class, wretches. What did Jesus do with that? Well you know one thing he did with that kind of unmitigated prejudice: he made a Samaritan a hero! There was NO such thing as a good Samaritan in Jesus’ day … that is, until Jesus told about a good Samaritan in Luke chapter 10! Jesus rattled the norms of his day. And he had a direct line to his Heavenly Father to find out who needed to be blessed, and who needed to be prodded. Could it be that his Heavenly Father, the God also the Samaritans, sent his son to cross the border for this encounter at Jacob’s well? What, you might ask, did Samaritans do to make themselves so loathed by Jews? 1) They worshipped God on the “wrong” mountain. They had a Temple on Mount Gerizim that had been a holy mountain for ages. But it was David, King of the Southern Kingdom of Judah, who claimed Jerusalem was the only mount where the true worship of God could occur. As with most decisions, his decision was both political and financial. He wanted there to be no other place where Jews would travel for the Holy season of Passover; and he wanted Jerusalem to get all the money that the people brought with them. 2) Samaritans married people who were not Jews, so that made them face condemnation too. Even today, there is as much Jewish disgust with people who live near Mount Gerizim as there was then. Here is why: Gerizim is Arabic, it is not Hebrew, and the mount is located in the West Bank just south of Nablus near Shechem. That is Palestinian territory today, where both Christians and Muslims live. But to Jews, that is no man’s land even today. It is poor, it is forgotten, it is desolate, and it receives no help from Israel. They hope to cut off all commerce so they will cease to exist. That’s the way things were when Jesus crossed the line and went to the well. Our Holy Land tour had leaders who were both Palestinian and Jew, and they were a team. That allowed us to tour Nablus and to visit Jacob’s well. Jesus is always seeking the hurting and the lost.

In our text today, Samaria was a place Jesus deliberately chose to go, and he happened on (or deliberately found?) a woman at a well at the noon hour. Who goes to a well at noon in heat of the Middle East? Women were the ones to draw water in that day, and most women did it early in the day, not only because it was cooler, but because they got to visit with one another as they collected their jars. A woman drawing water at noon: 1) either ran out of water; or 2) did it as a self-imposed penance; or 3) hoped she would not meet any other women. Likely all factors came into play. Imagine her surprise when she meets a man there; she can tell he’s a Jew; and, he knows so much about her! Did she wonder if he was from Cassadaga?:

Jesus seems to know the cardinal rule for attorneys: never ask a a question of a witness if you do not already know the answer. Jesus, in that “Samaritan courtroom” by a well, even “leads the witness,” saying “Go call your husband and come back.” He knows the answer to his request. But he wants her to say it: “I have no husband.” She doesn’t say, as we might hear someone say today, “He’s just my roommate” or “He’s the man who lives with me.” But Jesus has set her up, albeit for a loving purpose. He says: “You are right saying ‘I have no husband,’ for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.” Before we jump to the conclusion that this was a loose woman, 21st century America is not 1st Century Samaria. If a wife was unfaithful, a man had the right to divorce her by simply saying before a rabbi, “I divorce, you, I divorce you, I divorce you” and they were divorced; he could even ask for her life. But if the woman, who was often younger than her husband, had a first older husband die, and a second, and even a third die, well you can see she could have had five husbands. What is striking is that the fact that she had five husbands does not seem to disturb Jesus. His point is to show his power and God’s glory. Would relationship issues be why she did not want to meet other women at the well? Perhaps there were issues in her life. Don’t we all have issues that we might not want uncovered in public? But Jesus just drills down to the facts; the truth. There is not a drop of shame directed at her. He had another agenda it seems, perhaps like the man who was possessed by demons on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, the man called the Gerasene demoniac. The people from his town originally shunned him too. He acted insane. But when Jesus healed him, Jesus told him to go back to his town and show himself to them. They asked: “Who did this for you?” they asked, and he told them “Jesus.” Likewise, the woman at the well went back into her town, feeling something for the first time or at least for a very long time: accepted and valued. Here’s how John described it: “Many Samaritans from that city believed in Jesus because of that woman’s testimony.” This woman at the well became one of Jesus’ evangelists; like the women who visited Jesus tomb; like the man who was possessed by demons. Many unexpected people have told others about Jesus, perhaps even you. Jesus chooses unlikely to persons to tell others about him; he chooses you, and you, and you, and he chooses me. He must be thinking- some of you run into friends at the market; or friends at work or at school; or friends online. Some of you know others who are searching, and still others know people who are sick or broken. Jesus says to us: “YOU tell them what you have seen in me and learned from me!” You tell them to come and see what kind of power I have!” Did you notice that Jesus had no credibility in the land of Samaria, and the woman was forced to draw her water at noon because of the hostility of others; and that Jesus had no credibility in the Gentile land of the Gadarenes where the demonic was forced to leave in a graveyard because of the hostility of others? Jesus needed those two persons to carry out a task, and if they did it—as they both did—they would get a reclaimed status in their own community and bring credibility to Jesus who had power and personal knowledge about them. They became evangelists; that agreement that Jesus made with those two persons changed their lives.

You don’t need to go to a psychic, or even to a therapist, to deal with any shame, or brokenness, or issues you may have. You can ask Jesus to come to you—and he will—and you can look into his piercing eyes; you can hear his authoritative voice; and you can listen to his guidance. Jesus uses people to carry out special tasks; this is why the church is called “the Body of Christ.” Today we heard about a mission called the “Self Development of People.” Doing that work is exactly what Jesus was doing in Samaria: returning dignity to human beings and giving them new purpose. That’s what Jesus was doing for the woman drawing water in the sweltering sun. And that’s what Jesus can do for you.

Let us pray:
Dear Jesus, what do you see in us that you can use? What do you see in us that you can heal? Come alongside of us, even in this time of health crisis, and give us the comfort of your presence. Hear our prayer, O Lord. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner March 15, 2020

03-08-20 UNDERSTANDING JESUS IN JOHN

John 3: 1-8; 16-17

As I have told my Disciple Classes before, John’s gospel is so different from the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. If a best friend gave an interview about your life, and a professional writer gave another one, those two reports would likely be entirely different. Goodreads.com lists over 500 books pertaining to the great leader of the British Empire Winston Churchill. I own two of them, and they are very different from each other. In Jesus’ case, it is likely that Matthew who wrote the first gospel was the tax collector Jesus called to follow him. He was an apostle, but not apparently in Jesus’ inner circle. Mark, most scholars think was John Mark, a man who wrote like an historian and is listed in the book of Acts. And Luke was a later writer who filled in some stories that early accounts did not include. He was traditionally described as a physician. John, one the other hand, was one of the closest of the apostles to Jesus. He was almost certainly the one to whom Jesus gave the care of his mother at the cross. “Here is your mother” Jesus said to John. Not his actual mother, but a woman who should be treated as his mother. “Woman, behold your son,” he said to mother Mary; again, a symbolic gesture. She was not actually his mother. John speaks like that all the time; and John includes euphemisms and metaphors that Jesus said. Among those are the famous “I am” declarations. “I am the bread of life.” (He’s not actually bread.) “I am the gate.” (He’s not actually a gate.) “I am the true vine.” (Jesus is not really a vine.) As I said in my message for children, sometimes adults talk in figures of speech. My grandchildren have looked at me in disbelief when they heard someone say, “She’s as big as a house.!” “No she’s not!” they told me. Or “He’s a dead man.” “No! He’s alive!” they told me.. We as adults have learned not to take these expressions literally: “He’s a basket case” doesn’t mean what it says. And saying someone is “sweating like a pig” is a misnomer because pigs don’t sweat! This is the way Jesus talks in John. He doesn’t literally mean what he says; he means what he means. We have grown up learning what Jesus meant when he said he was the light of the world. And when he said he was the good shepherd, history says he was never an actual shepherd, he was a carpenter. But we adults know what he means. One amazing thing I’ve found out: there are still grown adults who read the Bible with flat footed literalism. They say, “God said, it, I believe it, that settles it.” Maybe Nicodemus is such a man. Could he have heard Jesus say to him, “You must be born again,” and literally have thought he needed to climb back into his mother’s womb? Come on, Nicodemus! Flat-footed literalism?
As we hear the question Nicodemus asks Jesus, I almost think that question would come from a child! Children think in concrete ways by seeing, touching, or even tasting. But Jesus says it this way: “I am telling you the truth: persons cannot see the Kingdom of God unless they are born again.” Born-again Christians. Our NRSV Bibles say “born from above” but I believe Jesus must have said “born again.” Why else would Nicodemus be led to ask such a child-like question? When you hear “born again,” do you say, “That’s me! I’m born again!” I once met a man who said, “I’ve met some ‘born againers’ before; they’re hard to be around!” Do such people make you uncomfortable? Let’s think what it means to be born again as adult thinkers.

Dr. Elton Trueblood puts it this way:
“Since the time of Nicodemus, [the experience of Christian rebirth] has been puzzling to those who have not shared it, and we are not surprised that many are puzzled today. It has to do with commitment. A Christian is one who is committed to Jesus Christ!” For a person to be a born-again Christian, a change of commitment, focus, or desire comes over that person. When Jesus was baptized, the Bible says the Spirit descended on him as a dove. He was blessed by that event. Born-again Christian generally describe their Christian journey not just as a progressive set of events, but as a distinct day when things changed. “Before I used to be this way” one might say, “but not I am focused on Christ in a new way.” But when you have known Jesus’ love from cradle to present day, you might not think of yourself as “born again.” Let’s keep examining those words Jesus said in John.
A pastor sat down on the front steps of a sanctuary to give his children’s message. He told them that people who loved God and followed Jesus went to heaven. With excitement building, he said in cheerleader fashion, “Do you love God?” “Yes!” they cried out together. “Do you want to follow Jesus?” he asked. “Yes!” that answered. “So where do you want to end up?” he asked. “Heaven!” they all said. And finally, speaking in a crescendo voice, he asked, “And what must you be to get into heaven?” Thinking they would say, “born again” instead a boy cried out, “Dead!” Yep. That’s the literal way kids think!

As we get back to what it means to be born again, it boils down to this: Persons who are born again have made a conscious decision for Christ, not just doing Christian things because their family wanted them to do so, but because they have chosen to do them on their own. The affirmation of faith asked of youth or adults as they join the church is: “Who is your Lord and Savior?” And they respond, “Jesus Christ.” Being born again is to not only say that, but also to mean that. It is that change in your heart that happens when, as the old hymn says, “I have decided to follow Jesus!” If Jesus is on the throne of your life, you are a born-again Christian. If you ask in a daily fashion, “What would Jesus do?” you are a born-again Christian. If Jesus is your co-pilot, change seats! Jesus needs be the one who carries you above the trees, and the ground, and the valleys.

So let’s recap: First, being born again is the time that you decide to follow Jesus when you were either following worldly ideals before, or you were only Christian because others asked you to be. In your bor again experience, there might have been a time when you heard God’s voice; or maybe a time when the direction of your life took on new clarity; or perhaps you hit bottom and cried out for someone to save you. Claiming Jesus as your personal Savior can be life changing.

Second, being born again makes some parts of your life less important than before, and others more important. Some people develop a hunger to be in touch with other Christians. Some people develop a deeper prayer life, and others have an increased desire to praise God. Some grow extra hungry to read the Word. All of a sudden, you are willing doing for Christ what others could not talk you into doing willingly before! Being born again is when it’s your idea to follow Jesus and spread his light.

Finally, being born again does not guarantee that life will be a rose garden; but followers honor the one who was plaited with a crown of thorns on the cross, the action that blazed a trail to eternal life for them. Nicodemus didn’t understand what Jesus meant. Now I hope you do!

Let us pray: Holy Spirit, keeping helping us to hear as Jesus needs his followers to hear him, and to follow where he leads, bringing others along with us.
Thank you! Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner March 8, 2020

03-01-20 WHAT WOULD YOU DO?


Matthew 4: 1-11

The great catcher for the New York Yankees, Yogi Berra, was known not only for his fielding and, but also for his sayings. One of them was: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!” How delightfully confusing. More philosophical words were written by poet Laurette Robert Frost in his poem “The Road Not Taken.” It ends with these words: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” But my title today was not inspired by either one of those sources. It came from Dr. Suess’ “The Cat in the Hat” when, at the end of a day of unhinged antics by a strange highly mischievous upright cat, the boy who tells the story reports to the readers: “Then our mother came in and she said to us two, ‘Did you have any fun? Tell me, what did you do?’ Then the boy asks the reader: “Should we tell her about it? Now, what should we do? Well … what would you do if your mother asked you?” [Random House: New York, 1957, p. 60-61]
Today, however, is not a time of child-like decisions, nor of philosophical musings, nor of silly sayings. It is a time when the devil asked Jesus to test or turn away from God and to honor him alone! It is a time when the very same devil could ask us the same questions. It is the time when we are asked to consider all the trappings and temptations of this world, the ones that offer us extravagant dining or the temptations of many foods we would best not eat; the time to test the boundaries of our powers, and the time to declare who we serve. Will we really, as the devil suggests to Jesus, try to test God; to see if the Almighty will jump through hoops we set out? Have we been tempted to blindly follow another human being—a lover, a celebrity, a politician, or a sports figure—and give them all the allegiance and devotion that is rightfully reserved for God? Today, there are forks in the road of our lives; there are choices we’ll want to make today. Remember: in the conversation the devil had with Jesus, two roads diverged into a desert. What would you do? If the devil came to you, as he did to Jesus, what would you do? More to the point, what have you done? Early choices you’ve made can set you on a trajectory toward life, or on a trajectory toward death. But today, anyone can pause, and reflect, and decide whether to follow hedonistic temptations—a path many people take; (most recently exhibited at Mardi Gras festivals from New Orleans to Orlando) or we can cut a new path today from the road most traveled to the road less traveled. The road less traveled is the one Jesus took. Last week we learned he could easily have stayed on a mountain with Peter, James, and John and reveled in his glory, but instead Jesus cast his eyes down in the valley and led them there to meet human needs. We could coast through life—not offering time or means to others to lift their level of human experience—or we could seek to make a difference. Assisting with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is just one way you could choose to help others. There are so many temptations that are thrown on our path, some have been called the “seven deadly sins:” envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth, and wrath. These are the temptations of the devil. Such temptations are not ugly; they are attractive and enticing. This calls for wisdom: deciding when to say “Yes” and when to say “No.” Deciding which choice leads toward the light, and which choice leads toward to darkness. Jesus, in his self-imposed 40 days in the desert before his ministry, was physically weakened, spiritually tested, and emotionally extended. In Matthew’s gospel that I read today, one wonders if the scene described was real, or an hallucination, or a dream. But what it did is cause our Lord to become clearly grounded in who he was, and whose he was. It was an experience that caused Jesus to never be knocked off balance by tempters or taunters. He gave an example for disciples to follow.

Although Jesus never set out to be a leader, a leader he was for how he made well-grounded choices for living, not short-term fixes. A wonderful book I have read more than once is called A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. The late Dr. Edwin Friedman wrote these qualities that can cause a person to start a renaissance in his or her age.

  1. A capacity to go outside the emotional climate of the day.
  2. A willingness to be exposed and vulnerable.
  3. Persistence in the face of resistance and downright rejection.
  4. Stamina in the face of sabotage along the way.
  5. Being headstrong—at least in the eyes of others.
    [New York: Seabury Books, 2007, p. 188-189]
    Choosing those qualities, and following our Savior, we can find our way out of the valleys to stand fast against life’s tempting persons and things. Read chapter 4 of the Gospel of Matthew again this week, listening to how Jesus said “No” to temptation and “Yes” to God. Then go and do likewise.

Jeffrey A. Sumner March 1, 2020

02-23-20 I CAN ONLY IMAGINE

Matthew 17: 1-9

Did your mind go to the beautiful Christian song by the same name when you read the title, “I Can Only Imagine?” Before 1999—when Bart Marshall Millard of the group MercyMe wrote it, that was just an expression. Now the words engage my imagination, and maybe yours. The song was addressed to Jesus:
I can only imagine what it will be like
When I walk, by your side
I can only imagine what my eyes will see
When your face is before me
I can only imagine
I can only imagine
Surrounded by Your glory
What will my heart feel
Will I dance for you Jesus
Or in awe of You be still
Will I stand in your presence
Or to my knees will I fall
Will I sing hallelujah
Will I be able to speak at all
I can only imagine
I can only imagine

That is an invitation to imagine something spectacular! Here is another one:
President Reagan quoted part of it as the Space Shuttle Challenger tragically exploded just south of where we sit now. I was in the back-parking lot and witnessed the horror. But in a desire to bring comfort to the nation, the President quoted these words from a poem called “High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee:
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, – and done a hundred things ….
Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew –
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

Our imaginations see what eyes often can’t; they form images that our hands can hardly handle; and they inform and comfort our souls. Today as we hear that Peter, James, and John went up a high mountain with Jesus, we can only imagine what it was like, but on that mountain, through the mist of clouds and the piercing rays of light, it sounds like a mystical experience. Mystics, we learned two years ago in the year-long class I taught, were persons who tried to connect with God or with Christ in ways that engaged their imaginations; and mystics are still around today. You may be a bit mystical regarding the way you think about or approach God. In our Bibles, images from Mt Sinai in Exodus and or Mount Tabor in Matthew or of heaven in Revelation encourage us not to take biblical images literally, but take them seriously, inviting our imaginations to feed our souls. This is what Bart Millard did, and John Gillespie Magee did; and there were plenty others before them. Let’s talk today about transfiguration as a mystical experience.

Wonderful historic author Thomas Cahill, in his book about Christianity called Desire of the Everlasting Hills, said this: “The Christian life is an alternation of two activities, prayer and kindness, feeding each other. The plight of those in need sends me to prayer; prayer strengthens me to help those in need.” [Doubleday, New York: 1999, p. 190] Today I suggest that in the transfigured daily life of Jesus, he modeled those things for us. Through the ages we have been aware of those who have been both Christian mystics and Christian missionaries. Some days we go to a mountain, or a lonely place, to connect with the Holy One of God; and other days we move into the valleys in mission, having been recharged by prayer. Listen to some mystical ways people have connected with God. Today we have just heard that “Jesus took with him Peter, James, and his brother John and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shown like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” (17:1-3) Soon afterward, the voice from the cloud announced the Heavenly Father’s pleasure over his son, words reminiscent of the words from the cloud Jesus heard at his baptism. Jesus had made a divine connection. Another man named John lived centuries later in 1564 and counted on a connection with God for his survival. His name was St. John of the Cross. I first studied him in 1999 and used his story for much of my doctoral project. John was tortured for more than eight months and went into hiding for two years after that. He was a mystic, a Carmelite Monk whose involvement with the reform of another monastic order led to his arrest and eventual banishment from the monastery. He was kept in a dark cell without any human contact, being fed only bread and water. During his captivity and exile, he had frequent visions of God and composed many mystical poems in his mind. Two of his greatest ones were “The Living Flame of Love,” and “The Dark Night of the Soul.” He described feeling a sense of happiness, joy, and love in his soul. He called it a love affair with God. In his commentary he wrote this. Picture Jesus on the mountain as you hear it:
If the soul shall obtain the highest degree of love, the love of God will then have wound it in its inmost depth or centre, and the soul will be transformed and enlightened in the highest degree in its substance, faculties, and strength until it shall become most like unto God The soul in this state may be compared to a crystal, lucid and pure; the greater the light thrown upon it, the more luminous it becomes ….”

Have you had an experience like that? Jesus did not bring Peter, James, and John to the mountain to dazzle them. Among other things, he brought them to say: “This is your strength. Stay connected with the Father in prayer.” But Peter, James, and John seem to miss the point. They were dazzled by the specialness of that day and of their leader. Perhaps we would say they are enamored with Jesus and were thinking about staying on the mountain, checking out of their work as the first missionaries.

As we begin the season of Lent this Wednesday, we are called back to the source; the one who created us and loves us. Mountaintop experiences were times when Moses, Elijah, and now Jesus heard a voice from heaven. They gained strengthen, then they came back down the mountain and into the valleys of life. Today we are on the mountain. But starting Wednesday, we will be called into the valleys of the shadows of death, anguish, or need. We’ll be called into desert times where the devil will have a crack at our fortitude as he did with Jesus that we’ll hear about next week. If you have dreams and seek to remember them; or you have visions and try to recall them, your soul may be open to a mystic sweet communion with Jesus. Nurture that connection; invite yourself to be open to it. There are people who wish they had such insights and yet none have yet appeared.

Remember too that whether you have mystical connection with Christ, or whether you just have a regular prayer life, there is a purpose to them both: strengthening your soul, and sending you out in mission; spreading the gospel of Jesus to others with words and actions. Again, the event described today was not just to dazzle. Jesus instead heard his baptismal words again, which blessed and commissioned him again. An accurate description of that day was captured effectively by Professor Thomas Troeger. In his Yale Divinity School journal, an essay by Ray Waddle was called: “Thomas H. Troeger: Between the Life of the Imagination and the Life of God.” Waddle says he called it that because “[Troeger] received a double theological blessing. His mother would read from the Bible to him, and he’d listen with his father to Bach, Handel, and Haydn.” Troeger wrote the words to the hymn, “Swiftly Pass the Clouds of Glory” which we will sing in a moment. Listen to verse one:
Swiftly pass the clouds of glory heaven’s voice, the dazzling light;
Moses and Elijah vanish, Christ alone commands the height!
Peter, James, and John fall silent turning from the summit’s rise
Downward toward the shadowed valley, where their Lord had fixed his eyes.

What magnificent writing coupled with an unforgettable tune! Jesus is giving his disciples his best guidance: he turned his face from the peak of the mountain to the valley, where he chose to meet human needs again, not just revel in a mystic sweet communion. There was work to be done. There still is. Even though people always think of Lent as a time of “giving up something sacrificially,” Dr Donald Macleod, has said beautifully that “Lent consists of doing something, not just doing without something.” [Presbyterian Worship: It’s Meaning and Method, Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982.] You have until Wednesday to decide not just what you might do without as a spiritual discipline, but also what you will do. Over the next month our Outreach Committee, and today our Youth Group, will give us concrete ways to bring Christ and his message to others. Pick one, or pick something else. But do it. Together Christians can cause a 2020 revival.
Let us pray:
Ah. Here we are dear Jesus. With you, in a sanctuary apart from the turmoil and needs of the world. We might want to stay here, near to the heart of God. But you say, “Go! Help! Make disciples!” And so we will go. Guide us in the ways we can bring your light and love to others. And regarding your wonderful face, one day we’ll see you face to face. Until then, we can only imagine. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner February 23, 2020

02-16-20 THE POWER OF RECONCILIATION


2 Corinthians 5: 16-21; Matthew 5: 21-26

Through the years, rabbis, priests, ministers, counselors, and even advice columnists have provided a vital place where people have gone with relationship issues. It is the classic triangle that we form: someone hurts you or betrays you, and you go to share your pain or ask for guidance from someone else. The triangle satisfies your need for a listening ear, or revenge planning, or sorrow sharing, or guidance for awhile. But at some point along the way, a good rabbi, or priest, or minister, or counselor, or columnist like Dear Abby will encourage you to go talk with the person you have hurt. If you are the one betrayed, then you hope that the other will show some signs of regret. Perhaps you’ll need a mediator, or some other third person there if you decide to talk to the one who has caused your stress, lack of sleep, tears, or anguish. Who really wants to do that? People would rather just hope that God will be on their side as they share their tears or sense of betrayal. Even Jesus had apparently seen conflicts in his lifetime too. He wisely gave this counsel: “When you are offering your gifts at the altar, and you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, then come and offer your gift.” [Matthew 5: 23-24] Conversely, if you are the one who has hurt or betrayed another, and your conscience draws you to God before trying to work things out with the other person, God will send you to that other person first.

My professor for Presbyterian Thought and Doctrine at Princeton Seminary was Dr. Edward Dowey. He said one of the key concepts not only with Jesus but also with Paul in 2 Corinthians 5, was reconciliation. In 1968 he wrote this:
[Reconciliation] is one of the rare terms in the Bible that can epitomize the whole gospel in one word: God’s reconciling work in Jesus Christ and the mission of reconciliation to which he has called his church are the heart of the gospel in any age. The word “reconciliation,” unlike “love,” implies a previous violation of harmony and peace, a barrier erected, a battle going on…. One of the most important passages in all of Scripture—which [John] Calvin called “the best passage of all” on justification by faith—is II Corinthians 5:19. [A Commentary on the Confession of 1967 and An Introduction to The Book of Confessions, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1968, p.41.]

So one of God’s top tasks on earth is reconciliation—reconnecting God with people, and people with people. Reconciling is the end of estrangement, or of separation because of disagreement. I once told the story that Pastor Dale Galloway wrote about: “Last winter our dryer went kaput, so we called the repairman and he came out to take a look at it. After he evaluated the damage, he said it would cost just about as much money to fix the dryer as to buy a new one, so we agreed we would get a new one. [Then the brakes started going out on my wife’s car,] so we took it in to a repair shop. This time it was a lot cheaper to make repairs than to buy a new car. Many things in our society can be purchased cheaper than they can be repaired, so we have turned into a throwaway society…. Don’t think this attitude hasn’t crept into our personal relationships too! If love breaks down between two people, we have a tendency to throw away the relationship and look for [another] one. We just aren’t willing to spend the time and effort necessary to repair the relationship, so we treat the other person like a [malfunctioning appliance, throwing it away and buying a new one.] But when people are treated like objects—things to be discarded—the value of human life goes down.” [Love Can Be Repaired, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1990, p. 35]

We are part of a fractured world. How many can honestly say they haven’t hurt someone by betrayal or a hurtful comment or action? Conversely, who hasn’t been hurt by someone who spoke or acted harshly or thoughtlessly? Sometimes the harshness another person shows is less about your relationship with them than it is about a broken or binding relationship they have with another family member: mother, father, spouse, or sibling. So like a wound on an arm that hurts on touch, a word or action we bring up with someone else can cause an over-reaction because their pain is already raw from someone else. Relationships suffer and sometimes the pain can put a hole in our soul. The Rev. Thomas Patrick Nolan put it like this: “Deep in the human heart is a restless longing—a tender, aching emptiness yearning to be filled. It has been described as a thirst, a hunger, a vacuum of the spirit, a God-shaped hole in the very center of our being that can be filled only by God. [Our desire to be reconciled to God has also been addressed by some of the great spiritual writers of the ages.] German theologian Karl Barth said it was a longing for the heart’s true home. Augustine said it was a deep-seated restlessness that touches every part of our lives…. Charles Wesley described it as being ‘touched by the lodestone of God’s love.’ Our culture is propelled by the quest for efficiency, control, and success. Yet there is much loneliness in the world. Feelings of emptiness, lack of friendships, depression, and a deep sense of uselessness fill the hearts of many in our society.” [Alive Now, Upper Room Publishing, Nov/Dec, 2005, p 28.] Do you see the fractures in society and the fences people put up to keep others at arm’s length? One person sighs, “My grown child doesn’t talk with me.” A college student shares, “My parents don’t understand me.” And another says, “My partner has betrayed me.” Like a windshield that shatters after an impact, one hurtful action can splinter the human race into a million little pieces. Some here today, either intentionally or unintentionally, have created such a breach; a divide between yourself and some other person. Some may get to the point of building a bridge so the relationship can continue. That’s what God wants the most! God want us to go to that other person to clear matters up as soon as you can do so. God is in the business of reconciliation, never retaliation that is practiced much too often. Jesus said, “Love … and pray for those who persecute you.” My heart gets heavy when I see relationships of people I care about sour. I wonder if God’s heart gets burdened like mine does, and perhaps like yours does?

Here is a biblical pathway to be able to bring your gift to the altar of God again; to have your sins forgiven in the manner that you hope God will forgive yours on the day you meet your Maker. Restored connections with other people bring delight to Heaven, they and restore your relationship with God. That is the power of reconciliation- reconnecting with those you have hurt; and reconnecting with the God who’s been waiting to see that happen. These key words all start with “R.”
You may want to jot them down:
First, show remorse or regret over what you have done.
Second, repent from your wrongdoing, and return to the path of life where lost trust can begin to be built again.
Third, establish a means of restitution to square either the financial account between you, or the emotional account, or both. Jesus shows willingness to go to the altar with us and square our account with God only after we seek to work things out with our family member, our neighbor, or whoever.
Fourth is reconciliation; being connected again, not by naïve trust anymore since trust was destroyed, but by verifiable arrangements.
Fifth and finally, we can gain renewal and reunion; renewal of relationships once severed, and renewal of relationships restored. God’s way is not the way of walls; it is the way of bridges. Consider well the roadmap just described that can move you from estrangement to engagement in an important relationship you once had.

Jeffrey A. Sumner February 16, 2020

02-09-20 A JESUS PEP-TALK


Matthew 5: 13-20

When I was in elementary school, my father and I had a coin collection; we shared the passion of looking for and categorizing coins. Many of them went in cardboard sleeves in a protective book. What I remember most was him saying to me either, “We need more light in here!” or “Will you see if you can read that date?” When I read the date to him, he’d say, “You have good eyes!” I’d beamed at him through my horn rimmed glasses I’d worn since 3rd grade. I didn’t have good eyes as much as I had young eyes. When we were on the church cruise last week, Mary Ann pulled out her phone light to read many menus, as did a number of other passengers. As we age, we especially appreciate good lighting. Just last week I went to the store and came home with my sunglasses on, having set down my regular glasses. “My glasses are in this house somewhere!” I declared. I began to look for them in the house, but with sunglasses on, everything was dark. When I took my sunglasses off for brightness, everything was very blurry. Getting older has its challenges!
Jesus said two interesting lines in his Sermon on the Mount on which I want to focus today. One is, “You are the salt of the earth.” The other is, “You are the light of the world.” Stephen Schwartz, in his musical “Godspell” based on Matthew 5-7, worded them this way: “You are the salt of the earth; but if that salt has lost its flavor it ain’t got much in its favor. You can’t have that fault and be the salt of the earth.” Rhymes are great ways to remember verses. Here is the other wording from “Godspell:” “You are the light of the world. But if that light’s under a bushel, it’s lost something kind of crucial. You gotta stay bright to be the light of the world!”
Let’s talk about light first. Jesus has entrusted his followers with sharing his light in the world. It was the late Rev. Peter Marshall, who I mentioned in our Kirkin’ O’ the Tartans service, who said he couldn’t stand the painters who depicted Christ as gentle, slender, and weak. As he said, the Christ of the gospels was rugged, a carpenter, a man’s man, one who could stand toe to toe with anyone. Jesus was a bright hot light against injustice, arrogance, and corruption. I believe Jesus deliberately said, in his early in his ministry, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12.) But here, in his pep-talk, he shifted his words to tell the crowd: “You are the light of the world.” You know that old style flashlights I showed our children today? And the new style? I can’t believe that Jesus wants us to be light in the world like old dim bulbs. What good are those? They add almost nothing to our ability to see. It’s like asking coal miners to go down into their mine with no light or asking submersibles to go deep underwater in darkness. I can now tell many cars that are older when I encounter them on the road at night; their headlights are cloudy and dim! Jesus, like us, has no use for people to take his light into the world without his original brightness! “You are the light of the world!” he said. Dim lights, darkened by not getting recharged in Bible Studies or sermons, can do little to change the world. And the messages from the world can put shades or filters on his “Light.” How do you take the pure light of Christ to others? First, know your Bible and what Jesus said, so others cannot make you doubt what you believe. I really don’t see how people can charge their light by just attending a Christmas or Easter service. Second, let the light be used not just to illumine, but also to transform. We ask others to follow Jesus, not just to know about him. Virtually everyone Christ encountered came away changed. Our lights grow dim if we equivocate the message of light by letting the world put a bushel of doubt over it. On the years we’ve had Confirmation Classes, we asked those young teenagers to stand before the congregation and answer this question: “Who is your Lord and Savior?” I their answer was “Jesus Christ,” we asked them to say it in a loud voice. Sometimes adults reaffirm their faith and they timidly respond with “Jesus?” No! As one man enthusiastically said when I asked him, “Do you believe Jesus is your Lord and Savior?” he responded “Sure! Don’t everybody?” Such wonderful innocence. No, everybody doesn’t. But others will not be persuaded to consider Christ as their Savior by people who shrug, whisper, or nod their answers. Be the light of Christ to others.

Here is the other line Jesus said: “You are the salt of the earth.” These days that message can lose its punch. We can go pick up a pound of salt for less than a dollar. But salt also was used not just as a seasoning, but also as a preservative. With no refrigeration, meats that were salted would last longer. So, if we are to preserve something, what might that be? I’m struck by the historical words presidential nominees have declared on their election day as they raised their right hand and said: “I do solemnly swear or affirm that I will faithfully execute the office of the President of the United States, and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” I hope you heard that in that oath those who crafted it believed in preserving the Constitution. It was Thomas Jefferson himself who amplified the use of that word when he wrote to John Adams on September 12, 1821 saying: “”Should the clouds of barbarism and despotism (despotism is when a country’s ruler holds absolute power) again obscure the science and libraries of Europe, this country remains to preserve and restore light and liberty to them.” We would do well to still be guided by the Founding Fathers words. There are others in our world who also seek to preserve things; think of the Amish, who seek to preserve their way of life. Think of conservationists, who seek to preserve the forests or the seas. I also think of the jars of preserves my grandmother used to keep in her cellar, allowing fruit canned “in season” to be preserved and eaten out of season. Could Jesus be asking his listeners to preserve his teachings so they could be told to others? You may know that salt becomes useless once it is polluted with dirt. Jesus might say: “Keep the words I gave you preserved and pure; then they will always have their original meaning and potency.” We need to preserve the message of Jesus so that it can always be offered to new generations with the same power and potency. Here’s an example of how to preserve the faith.

One of my ordination questions proposed the following situation: youth leaders were going on a weekend retreat were asked by the youth if they could have Pizza and Cokes and treat it like a communion meal. The question ended with these words: “Give your answer and defend it.” Here was my answer: to make pizza and coke into the Sacrament of Holy Communion would fail to preserve the faith. Jesus had specific words: Lifting bread he said, “take eat, this is my body, broken for you.” “And “this cup is the new covenant sealed in my blood.” Through the years people have used unleavened bread, leavened bread, and gluten free bread, but they have still used bread. During prohibition, most Protestant churches changed from using wine to grape juice; some have changed back and some haven’t. A preacher in a country church was explaining what I just explained to you and then he added, “In Jesus’ day, our Savior certainly used wine.” A woman in the congregation scowled at him. He saw it and asked: “What’s the matter Mrs. Jones? Didn’t you know that Jesus used wine at the Last Supper? “Yes,” she retorted, and then said in a loud voice, “And I’ve never forgiven him for it!!”
We seek to preserve the sacraments that Jesus told us to continue doing until he comes again, and to see that the message is not polluted by the world. Be light! Be salt! Jesus needs us—the body of Christ—to carry his message with conviction and purity of purpose. Then we can change this darkened world with his light and bring the original precious message of Jesus that was preached on the shores of the Sea of Galilee to the United States of America and beyond. Make it so!
Jeffrey A. Sumner February 9, 2020

02-02-20 MERCIFUL BLESSINGS

Matthew 5:7

February 2, 2020
Westminster by the Sea Presbyterian Church

Radford Rader, D.M.

Last week, it was blessed are the meek; this week it is “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.”

A king had a large orchard. He had a great variety of fruit trees planted there. He employed a skilled gardener to take care of the fruit trees. The gardener picked the ripe and juicy fruits each day. Every morning, when the royal court was in session, the gardener would take a basket of fruit to the king.
One day the gardener collected some cherries for the king. Already in a bad mood, the king picked a cherry and popped it into his mouth. It was sour, which caused the king to vent his pent-up anger upon the poor gardener. He threw a cherry at the gardener and hit him on the forehead.
The gardener responded with, “God is merciful.”
The king enquired, “You must be hurt but you say, “God is merciful.”
The gardener said, “Your majesty, I was going to bring pineapples today, but I changed my mind. If you had thrown a pineapple at me, I would have been badly hurt. God is merciful for having changed my mind.”

We can make light of mercy, but it is the very essence of God. In Exodus 34:6 we hear for the first time the refrain that runs throughout the scriptures: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” God need not care about us. God need not do us good. God need not seek us out and forgive us. We may wonder why “in God’s great mercy, we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” (I Peter 1:3). Yet that is the love of God. God’s grace gives us what we don’t deserve; God’s mercy does not give us what we do deserve. To be merciful is to imitate God, to act like God, to live as God wishes all people to live.

Mercy is not easy. It goes against our grain for we are not always gracious. We are quick to act in anger and vengeance, wanting what we think is justice and to see anyone who has done wrong squirm and suffer, particularly if that person has wronged us. The more normal behavior is that of the servant in Jesus’ parable who is forgiven much by his master and then turns around and nails another who owns him little. Mercy is hard because to be merciful we must deny ourselves and identify with the other person, want for them what is good, want to redeem them so that they have wholeness. To do such necessitates that we know that we are forgiven, not because we deserve it or even because we have sought it but because God in God’s mercy has already given it to us. The merciful are those who have allowed the mercy of God to penetrate the very core of their being. We are not to be merciful so we can be forgiven or out of fear that we won’t be forgiven but we are to be merciful because we are forgiven. Mercy is always something we pay forward.

Mercy in Matthew is more than forgiveness; it includes compassion. Two blind men ask Jesus for mercy (9:27). The Canaanite woman sought mercy for her daughter (15:22). The father of the boy with the demons begged for mercy (17:15). Jesus shows compassion and heals their diseases. When he saw the crowd, Jesus had compassion upon them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd (9:36). Mercy is shown in compassion to others in need. Compassion is an attitude of sympathy, where one feels sorry for another; mercy is when compassion becomes action. Mercy does something. The Greek word for mercy is “eleos”, the word for almsgiving is from the same root. Helping the poor, assisting those in need, giving food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, clothes to the naked, visiting the sick, these are acts of mercy. J.M.DeMattheis wrote, “Any time, any of us reaches out, any time we pour even a drop of love, compassion, simple human decency…into the sea of earthly existence—we are, each and every one of us, the being called mercy.” Mercy does not stand above with concern, sympathy and empathy, it gets down into the gutter where the man who has beaten beaten and robbed is lying, does first aid, puts him in one’s own car, takes him to a hospital, stays with him and pays for it all—At least that’s how Jesus described the one who had mercy to his neighbor.

We may not be merciful as we should be, but we know when we see it. We saw it displayed in a courtroom this year. Brandt Jean stepped into the dock to offer testimony in the sentencing phase of Amber Guyger’s trial for killing his brother while he stood innocently in his own apartment. He did not ask the judge to through the book at her although he believed she was guilty. He saw a broken woman and he chose mercy, even at the expense of his family’s gasping disapproval. He requested of the judge an unusual ruling, that he be given the opportunity to step down and hug the convicted Amber. It was granted and we saw them fall tearfully into each other’s arms and heard him whisper to her, “I forgive you.” If we are merciful, we give compassion and forgiveness whenever and to whomever it is needed.

Mercy is a blessing upon the one who receives mercy. It offers them a way to wholeness and life. It is also a blessing upon the one who is merciful for it removes from within a person the hardness of heart that will eat them up and lock them out of the kingdom. Portia speaking to the vengeful Shylock in The Merchant of Venice still speaks beautifully and accurately
The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath
It is twice blessed: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
As Jesus’ said, “Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful!”