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

05-10-20 YOU ARE GOD’S OWN!

1 Peter 2: 2-10

Special; chosen, beloved. These are just some of the words that fill the hearts of many new mothers as they take their newborn in their arms for the first time. Beautiful, perfect, an angel. These are other words I have heard. And at some point, most mothers start by nursing their baby, giving them the colostrum to clear out the baby’s little digestive system, followed by the nourishing milk. Doctors and nurses have told me how perfectly formulated mother’s milk is for the baby. Nature wants our children to grow well, and nurture happens when early parents do their best to protect and comfort their child. Babies are helpless and need a good mother or father to attend to their needs. In time, they start to grow, and learn, and stand. But for now, they need everything a mother can give.

As I said to those who heard my devotional or my sermon last week, the Middle Eastern culture taught mainly with theological metaphors- God comparisons. Here in 1Peter, he starts with this instruction: “Like newborn infants.” There it is: a simile, comparing grown persons to babies because they have not fully learned what apostles like Peter needed them to know! “Long for the pure spiritual milk” he says. In other words, get your guidance from the source, not polluted by culture. Peter was writing to instruct them. Christians in Peter’s day had their own enemy: the Emperor Neron Caesar. Today we face our own enemies: sometimes they are natural or political, but these days our enemy is biological: the Coronavirus. It has killed more people than several wars have. It is tenacious and covert. Here’s one example: a fully functional and physically fit 36-year-old was living his life when, out of the blue, like an alien invader, his body was attacked by the Big C, but this time it was not Cancer, it was Covid-19, the Coronavirus. Air sacs in his lungs got glued together and breathing became labored as the spongy virus clogged his air passages. That Big C won. It overcame him, even at that age. Leaving behind a family, the enemy took him down. And yet, like young children who want their freedom while wise parents insist on some limits, human beings are turning away from wise counsel, stepping into the firing squad of Covid viruses as they go to shopping malls, hold close gatherings on beaches, or engage in other activities without social distancing. Children want to be free like that! The disease just looks for an opening, and then it floats, floats on a spray of air to an opening in our skin. Then its destructive work can begin. At the time this First Letter of Peter was written, there was that different enemy: the description that people love to talk about even today: “The Beast.” Listen to this description from Dr. E.M. Blaiklock, who was Chair of Classics at the University of Aukland, New Zealand. He was an expert on the history of the first century:
The first letter of Peter, written in the early sixties of the first century to a great circle of churches in the rugged peninsula which we call Asia Minor, is a document of immense historical and contemporary significance….In a little over a generation after the death of Christ, communities of Christians were everywhere…. They had broken with the Roman Empire and the empire was about to react to their challenge It was a moment of crisis, for Rome and for the world. [First Peter, Waco: Word Books, 1977, p. 9,10]

Even though we hear about the Beast today, and the number 666 is pinned on political or military entities, the Beast was always only one person, Neron Caesar, the unstable Roman Emperor who was in power when 1 Peter was written. When the city of Rome began burning, he blamed the Christians and, as a public example, started tying them to poles at the Circus Maximus and setting them on fire to illuminate their events. He was brutal and deranged. There have been other brutal or deranged leaders in history and even now, but the beast is not them; the beast was Neron Caesar, whose name in Hebrew spelled out 666, or the alternate version of Nero Caesar, 616, described in Revelation 13. John, when he was imprisoned on the isle of Patmos, used a code to comfort Christians in the late 90s of the first century, when Christians thought that the Roman emperor of their time, Domitian, was Nero incarnate. But, John reminded them: Nero’s own destructive behavior became self-destructive, so he was driven by a military rebellion to commit suicide in 68 A.D. God prevailed over that evil. In the midst of Nero’s persecution, Peter gave comforting and uplifting words to Christians in the Roman Empire! Yes, Christians were one of Nero’s primary deflections and scapegoats. That kind of practice still goes on, but the BEAST is not in the future, the BEAST was in the past! Peter’s comforting words sound like he was treating grown persons like shell-shocked children, telling them to long for the pure spiritual milk. Perhaps he was. Just this past week I’ve seen images of grown adults—like nurses and chaplains—sitting in hospital hallways crying. I’ve also seen the images of a family who lost their daughter, a skilled ER doctor, as the Covid enemy and its advancement into human bodies drove her to take her own life. People are fragile; people need to be spiritually nursed. And yet there are militant demonstrators demanding their “rights,” and people who are starting to pour into businesses and onto beaches. May the enemy not bring them to the ground in a puddle of tears like it has done to some on our medical front lines.

We live in a time when the Covid virus pulls people to their knees. We listen to scientists, and hope for a vaccine, but people are worn down. Peter, if he were here, might call us back to Jesus Christ who he calls the “living stone.” Jesus cared about human beings: body, mind, and soul. Although cornerstones today might be mostly symbolic, structurally a true cornerstone needs to be carefully laid, setting the direction and the angle of a building. A keystone, likewise, is the final piece and locks other stones in place. One stone starts the building process, the other ends it. Peter calls on the Christians in the First Century, who were facing the enemy of the Roman Empire, to anchor their spiritual angles and their foundation in Jesus Christ, not on personal whims or wishes or political leaders. That is good advice today as well, amidst the powerful influence of people who share information on wide-ranging media platforms. Ground yourself in the chief cornerstone, the one who the gospels say was rejected by men, but Peter says” was chosen and precious in God’s sight.” That’s who Jesus is! He is “chosen and precious in God’s sight!” Just as there are evil people today who can seem to own the title of the BEAST, John comforted Christians to move through that age, today I imagine Jesus calling us “chosen and precious in God’s sight” as we seek to comfort others. I was so moved by an illustration I saw on Facebook this week. It was an artist’s rendering of Jesus in his Galilean white tunic, kneeling down in the hallway of a hospital. Behind him was a gurney and beside him a drawer of medical supplies. He is next to a hospital worker, fully gowned with a face mask and a surgical cap who has knelt on the ground, head in hands. Jesus put one hand on the back of the worker for comfort, and the other hand on the head for a blessing. Goodness. What can we do as the Body of Christ today?

Here’s one final thing Peter does that we can do: he becomes an encourager, almost a one person cheering section! I can hear Peter saying words like these to us:
You! You are chosen! You are in the royal court of God! You are set apart for your special work! You are God’s own people! And God is offering mercy to you! Please receive it, as you comfort one another!

Instead of the angry protestors that are in some pockets of our country, there are many more teachers driving by neighborhoods cheering on students! There are ordinary people lining roads outside of hospitals cheering on first responders! And there were the magnificent jets of our Navy Blue Angels and our Air Force Thunderbirds coming together last week in fly-overs to honor our heath care workers! So beloved in Christ: if you feel shell-shocked and frightened, draw close to a comforter as a baby does with his or her mother. As the enemy keeps marching forward, know that the march will one day end. And finally, lift up one another with words, with prayers and with deeds! That was the work of Apostles. And now it is the work for us.

Let us pray: Empower and anoint us, Dear Jesus, to do the work you need us to do,
say the words we need to say, and to show the love you showed others. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner May 10, 2020

05-03-20 JESUS’ EXTRAORDINARY CARE


John 10: 1-10

It hardly seems necessary to go into great detail about Jesus’ extraordinary care in these pandemic times. So many, in this extraordinary time, are already exhibiting extraordinary care. In spite of critical shortages of protective care, nurses, doctors, and chaplains are diving into the deep end of the virus pool every day. They do so skillfully, caringly, and often sacrificially. They often actually, “lay down their life” for their patients. There is perhaps no better time to help Jesus’ description of himself come to life than in these extraordinary days. In ordinary time, people may pour out their life to protect our country, to serve in a mission field, or as a teacher charged with keeping children safe in a pre-school or day care center. These people, by their choices, are called on to put others first. And they do. Now there are new armies of people who are on the front lines with those who are medically ill, those emotionally in need, and those financially struggling. So factories that made cars are ramping up to make masks; distilleries of fine spirits have started making hand sanitizer, and individuals are pulling out their “Hear I Am Lord, Send Me!” responses to help their neighbors in need. All of us, in so many ways, are becoming shepherds to sheep. Of course, that is a metaphor. My English classes taught me that a simile was a comparison between things using like or as, such as “She is like a shepherd.” But Jesus uses full metaphors, taking out the word “like.” In John’s gospel, he’s well knows for these sayings, known as the “I am” sayings. He declares, in metaphorical fashion, “I am the bread;” “I am the door;” and “I am the good shepherd,” just to name a few. If he were saying that to children, they might argue with him saying, “You don’t look like bread!” or “You don’t look like a door!” And unlike King David, who was clearly a shepherd before he was a king, we don’t have any record of Jesus ever being a shepherd! Yet he claims he is one! What’s going on here? This is the way people made comparisons in Jesus’ day, and when you think about it, we still do! We say things like “I’m cold as ice!” or I’m hungry as a wolf!” We are always making comparisons. It’s not hard to see that our childcare workers, our hospital staff members, and many family members are now like shepherds. Let’s dig deeper into that image.

One thing is for certain: Jesus would have grown up knowing the Twenty-third Psalm. David wrote it as a statement of his faith. So even those who have never been a shepherd have gotten an idea of what shepherds had to do to protect sheep! Philip Keller wrote a book that I own and that is in our church library called A Shepherd Looks at Psalm Twenty-three. I have read it many times. As a shepherd, what insights Keller brings to help us understand David’s words! Sheep are some of the most helpless creatures on earth. Other animals can make it on their own but not sheep! They can only thrive with a good shepherd. So David refers to himself as a sheep, and God into a shepherd, says: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want!” A shepherd can only make sheep lay down in green pastures 1) if he finds a spot of grass in arid Israel; and 2) if he can make them feel secure. When they need water, it can’t be stagnant water that might contain bacteria; but neither can it be running water because it gets up their nose! So, a shepherd has to dam up running water long enough for them to drink. The shepherd has to guide them in right paths, that is, not ones filled with predators, but ones that lead to more food. Sometimes he had to lead sheep through valleys where predators could hide. When he did that, he carried a rod to whack the bodies of predators that get to close, and he knew how to use a slingshot. Good shepherds also carried a staff with the curved end used to gently pull sheep back from any cliffs where they might wander. Shepherds do not actually prepare tables; they prepare table lands; if the shepherd does not first pull out the poisonous weeds, the sheep will simple eat them along with the grass, getting sick or dying. What a job a shepherd has! And as the sheep eat and are distracted, the shepherd watches for their enemies. To help protect them from biting flies, the shepherd anoints their head with a salve, or ointment, with spices that repel the insects. And the sheep feel great relief being in the flock of a good shepherd, described as “their cup overflowing.” So Jesus can easily claim to be a good shepherd; David taught him and countless other readers, what that meant. And now, there are countless good shepherds working sacrificially with those who are young and helpless, those who are old and helpless, or those who are ill and helpless. The prophet Isaiah also used the sheep metaphor for people when he declared “All we, like sheep, have gone astray, each to our own way.” [53:6]

These days, many human beings are even more helpless than usual. These days, many of around us are fatigued, weak as a kitten, or fraught with fear. We are in need of some good shepherds; not just Jesus, but others of us who have the ability to do something! Think about it: you may not be able to get out, but you can telephone others and lift them up or you can pray with them. You can catch up on notes or emails you have been intending to send. These are things I am doing too!
We can journal what it’s like to live through this time, so people in the future will know! On a Zoom chat with other Presbyterians this week, one person asked how people during the 1918 handled the Sacraments of Baptism, and of Holy Communion! We are researching church records to see if a Clerk wrote down what they did! There are many things we can do, as we are busy just being away from others. But one thing to never forget is that we are like sheep, in the flock of a good shepherd.
Let us pray: Dear Jesus, like sheep, we need you. Like a good shepherd, you are there for us. How comforting that is to know! Thank you. Amen.
Jeffrey A. Sumner May 3, 2020

04-26-20 THE ROAD TO EMMAUS

THE ROAD TO EMMAUS
Luke 24: 13-35

Although Emmaus is the name of the village to which disciples were returning after the crucifixion of Jesus in Jerusalem, its location is almost mythical. There are at least two places that advertise themselves to be Emmaus. One is the most likely of all of them, but that doesn’t stop the others from claiming to be the place. It brings in notoriety, and with it, tourist dollars. Although we did not walk to the traditional Emmaus village last summer on our Holy Land trip, we did go there by bus. Some in our church have even experienced a special three-day retreat of discovery that is called a “Walk to Emmaus.” I can tell it is special. Today, however, I suggest that a walk with Jesus is not just an event recorded in Luke 24. It is a promise that Jesus hopes will comfort you. ust as Jesus walked along that road long ago, he walks along with you even today in your most distressing times too.

As I told the boys and girls about a stuffed animal that comforted me and kept me company when I was young, I know people in these times of stress who have something … or someone … to comfort them. Some people I know talk to their electronic device like Alexa or Siri; some talk on their phone with friends; one widow I know got a parakeet just so she could have daily chatter! Some have a dog as a companion, one that might sleep at the foot of the bed or even on the bed. Some have cats. Some have other animals. Most of us really don’t like to be alone. Some just turn on a TV to make it seem like someone is there. And some find Facebook or emailing very comforting. Coming home a month ago might have been a source of anticipation. Now of course many are home a lot. But for those health care workers, coming home after hours at a hospital must be a relief. Some grew up believing, “there’s no place like home.” Fictional accounts foster the comfort many feel as they are making a journey home. From the moment Dorothy’s Kansas house is hit by a cyclone in the beloved film, “The Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy keeps wanting to go home. But as she journeys to Oz, she has companions: a scarecrow that talked, a Tin Man without a heart, a cowardly Lion, and her dog, Toto.
In the musical Finian’s Rainbow, the masterful Fred Astaire’s last film, he plays an Irishman named Finian who travels with his daughter Sharon until he departs from her in the last scene. He strolls away telling her they’ll meet again in “Glocca Morra.” In Mark Schultz’ song called “Letters from War,” his faithful mother wrote every day to her son, never hearing back from him; some thought that he might have died, but she never lost hope. Two years later, he comes into their yard and into his mother’s arms, carrying all the letters she had written to him. Almost everyone, in times of journey or crisis, needs a companion. And returning home is comforting. On the road to Emmaus, two men were returning home from their journey to Jerusalem. Jesus was with them, though they did not know it. Today I want to suggest that Jesus is with you in your aloneness or your sadness, in crisis or on your journey too. Today I believe he is with nurses and chaplains; he is with doctors and scientists; he is with widows and widowers, parents and children. Parents need support; children need to Facetime friends or phone calls or to shout to friends across a street. We are most comforted when someone we can count on is with us. What is it like to move through your life now, with the days running together? To what do you cling besides the cross of Jesus? Do you cling to a blanket like Linus? Or to a special toy, or a doll, or a stuffed animal? Do you cling to your cellphone or computer, or to a photo of a special person? Do you talk to that photo, or talk to yourself? Think about the most difficult parts of your day. Can you picture your Lord Jesus, coming alongside of you, listening in to either your conversations or your thoughts? What if he is really there, though you cannot see him? I want to suggest that Jesus can be, and is, really there. Through the power of God, Jesus can be, and is, with us; not ruling in Heaven like an aloof king. Instead, he is with us. In today’s technology, many can now heavily stream shows for their television programs. It is not is like 20 years ago when there was a set time to start a TV show or record it. Now with streaming services, you and thousands, even millions of other can watch shows whenever you wish. You can start it, pause it, and end it at will. Even the church services that we stream from our website or YouTube you can watch anytime you want to; you can watch them again; and you can watch them at different times from others! It is amazing technology. By analogy, that is the way Jesus can walk with you, and walk with me, and walk with your neighbors, and walk with people all around the world at the same time! But Jesus does not do it through technology, but through the awesome power of God. Jesus walked with two disciples toward Emmaus and they didn’t recognize him. Jesus walks with you too, though you will not recognize him, that is, until something happens: like a familiar voice; or the hair on your neck or your arms stands up; a shudder goes down your back. Then you will know that he is with you.

This week, after finding no public domain hymn that described the walk to Emmaus, I walked over to my piano and I sat; I thought, and I prayed. I felt like I was not alone. I left the piano and went to my computer, and I wrote the words for today’s song; then I went back to the piano and imagined a tune to go with the words. I wrote down the notes to see how they would fit the worlds. Then I called musician Don Kruger to see if he could turn it into sheet music. And he did. And I never felt alone as I wrote it. These are the words I sang for you today:
“Some brokenhearted Christians, walked down a darkened path,
Wondering if the Savior would indeed appear at last.
Then in time of hopelessness, hope appeared again,
The risen Lord had come to join dejected friends.”

(And as if Jesus is singing these words to us, here is the refrain:)
I am here, said he, I am here.
When you cannot see me, I am here.
As you pray to God, your prayers will be heard,
When you cannot see me, I am here.

The other verses also were meant to show people that they were not alone either:
“As women trudged to see the tomb where Jesus had been laid,
They thought about the caring man whose sacrifice was paid,
as in ages long before, an angel said ‘fear not;’
and so the news spread far and wide, salvation had been bought.”

As men walked to Emmaus, we walk our roads today,
Asking if our sadness will turn to joy some day.
And then, as if at God’s command, Jesus did appear,
In a common thing—like life breaking bread—they knew that he was there.

I wrote a final refrain that did not get sung today. Perhaps another day it will be sung. But today, it is the crux of the Luke 24 message to you:

When your heart burns within you, he is here. 

When your heart burns within you, he is here.
If you pray to God, your prayers will be heard,
When your heart burns within you, he is here.
Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner April 26, 2020

04-19-20 THE PURPOSE OF JOHN’S GOSPEL

John 20: 19-31

Each year that passes by, my grandsons (between the ages of 7-4,) take longer to believe what I tell them. I think their playmates must trick them enough that they stop believing things the first time they hear them. Last week was my birthday, and my daughter asked her son, Marshall, (the five year old) how old he thought I was. “6?” he asked? “No” I said. “7?” He asked? “No” I said. So I said, “I’m sixty-four!” His eyes got big as saucers! I don’t think he could comprehend someone that old! A young Paul McCartney put his stereotypical lyrics into the Beatles song, “When I’m Sixty-Four.” At one point he sang, “Doing the garden, digging the weeds, who could ask for more?” And I thought, he nailed it! Those are some things I see plenty of people doing at 64; and now I expect I’ll be digging weeds too! It’s hard to wrap our heads around some things in our world. It was hard for me to wrap my head around the challenge President Kennedy gave to our nation in a speech he gave on May 25th, 1961, giving the challenge, before the decade was out, to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth. That was in the sixties, when calculations were made by over-sized clumsy computers and, we learned, by some sharp minded women of color described in the wonderful film “Hidden Figures.” Last week, 50 years ago, a later mission, Apollo 13, almost ended in disaster. And 108 years ago last week, the ship touted as “unsinkable” sank; the Titanic. People then doubted the safety of ocean travel even more. NASA stopped sending Apollo rockets into space in 1972. People doubted the safety and necessity of traveling to the moon. But in the late 1970s the cruise industry started growing and the Space Shuttle program became a great success for many years! Right now, in the midst of the coronavirus epidemic, people are doubting if they will ever feel safe taking cruises again; or flying in planes again or shaking hands again; or talking to people face to face again. Fears feed disbeliefs, but with time, courage, and new insights, we can move forward. We as a society learned that we could cross the ocean safely again; that we can fly rockets safely into space again; and I have learned that there is life after 63. It seems that we start as children in a tender and innocent fashion, but we grow wiser with uncles who tell us they can remove their thumb right before our eyes (As I showed the children today,) and we learn who we can trust, and who we can’t. We may have had playmates who taunted and teased us, and that likely brought on two things: tears, and callouses. Tears because the tender parts of our innocence got poked and challenged. We felt hurt or embarrassed or mad. We got callouses on our soul and our psyche, just like with our bodies. Adults taught me this axiom: “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me!” So we join with the rock group “The Who” in declaring, “We won’t get fooled again!”

We don’t know anything about Jesus’ disciple Thomas’ early life, but I’d imagine he was an ordinary boy, learning from his father and sometimes being teased by other children. So by the time he was tapped to be an apostle of Jesus, he joined the band of brothers already jaded; and he joined the rest of us in saying to himself, “I won’t get fooled again!” I get that, don’t you? I don’t want to be caught flat-footed in a group of peers who are in a taunting or teasing mood. I can feel my emotional shields going up in an involuntary fashion. But they do not engage when I am playing with those sweet grandsons! My son Matt told me I should see the new film “Onward.” What’s it about?” I asked. “About brothers who get to bring their father back from the dead for just one day, but only the bottom half of his body comes back.” “What?” I asked disbelieving, wondering if I heard him right. “Just watch it,” he said. “You’ll be glad you did.” Weird, right? “Is that believable?” I wondered.

When do you doubt what someone says? Today it is hard for us to erase the knowledge of Easter; I have been told Jesus arose from the dead since I was a young boy. But a man rising from the dead was unbelievable in 33 A.D. in Jerusalem. Finding Jesus’ body gone was a shock to Mary who went to the tomb with spices to anoint his body. It seemed to stun Peter, who, according to John, had to go back to the tomb after Mary reported what she found. He ran to the tomb for the same reason that we would- to see for himself! When a picture in the newspaper showed a small plane that had crashed into the side of a house, dozens of people got in their cars to go drive by and see it for themselves. When someone says, “It’s gotten cold outside,” how many of us either check the temperature ourselves on our phone, or on a thermometer, or by walking outside? When someone says, “A baby bird has fallen to the ground from a nest” how many of us instinctively want to see it and think about helping it? Me? The words of my parents fill my head: “Leave it alone; if you touch it, the mother will not take care of it; and if you stand by the baby bird, the mother will not return.” But like most of you, my instinct is to look! “Mary went and announced to the disciples ‘I have seen the Lord!’” Thomas wasn’t there when Mary made her announcement. Had the others made the trip to check out the tomb for themselves? Some did. They wanted to see for themselves, just as we so often want to see for ourselves. They had time to process what they had seen; they had time to think back on all the words that Jesus had said before his death and fit the pieces of his puzzle together. Then, wonder of wonders, Jesus himself appeared to them. That hadn’t happened to Thomas, yet.

Some women have told me that after their husband died, a number of days later they saw their husband appear in their bedroom. One woman said she saw him at the foot of the bed; another woman said she felt his warmth beside her and saw his side of the bed sink down as if he were lying beside her. Do you believe that? Do you doubt that? I believe what those women said they saw; but no one has ever told me they touched their loved one physically; it was, by most descriptions, an apparition. Jesus was different. A full week after he arose from the dead, he appeared to his disciples for a second time, to Thomas for the first time. Thomas might have thought he was seeing an apparition too. But Jesus knew human nature, just like Jesus knows you, and knows me. So he said, like I would say to one of my grandsons: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.” Jesus’ goal was not to trick people, or even to amaze people. John knew Jesus’ goal; he wrote about it at the end of this chapter; so that we “may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that through believing, you may have life in his name.” (vs.31) Jesus trusted John perhaps more than any of the other Twelve. He chose for John to watch over his mother after his crucifixion. And he chose for John to write these things down so that people like us, who cannot jump into a DeLorean and go back in time, might believe. Jesus so much wants us to believe in him, and in what he said. No doubt! Doubts can sometimes be voices of darkness, trying to pull us away from the one true voice. Don’t let that happen1 Trust Jesus! Trust John! And trust the message that our Lord Jesus truly has risen from the dead! That is “a foretaste of glory divine,” as hymnwriter Fanny Crosby put it. Fanny was blind from a young age due to the incompetence of a quack doctor. And yet she, in her blindness wrote so many hymns. “How many?” you may ask. Like Marshall guessing my age, would you guess a hundred songs? Two hundred? Her publisher forced her to use several pseudonyms, so she is said to have written 9000 songs! I can picture your eyes growing big as saucers; like Marshall’s did when he learned I was 64; and like Mary’s did when she saw the empty tomb! Try in your life to return to wonder and amazement, not giving in to discouraging, doubts, darkness, and cynicism! Find some things to be wide-eyed about! It could change your outlook on life!
Thanks be to God, for news that makes our eyes wide.

Jeffrey A. Sumner April 19, 2020

04-12-20 LIFE FROM A TOMB

Matthew 28: 1-8

This year we have faced first the Crucified Christ on Good Friday, and then the Risen Christ now on Easter, both with the backdrop of the Covid-19 virus. Starting in China, it has shut down or immobilized other countries like Italy, Spain, South Korea, and much of the United States. It has emptied out most commercial airplanes and it has parked cruise ships in any dock where they are allowed to stay; without passengers. This has become a time of war, but not against another country or an army; it is against a virus, marching unflinchingly throughout our globe. Hundreds of thousands of people have been affected. Most Easter services are not being held at all, or they are offered online. Social distancing matters. But even in times like these, there are children being lifted up by teachers driving through their neighborhoods and honking safely from their cars. There are people on Facebook telling others not where to find bread, but where to find toilet paper or sanitizer! We have neighbors offering to take lists of grocery items from other neighbors and to bring back the groceries, limiting the exposure others might have had. And so yes, a pinnacle Christian story about life from death is just what we need to hear at a time like this! Years ago, Carl Hopkins Elmore, after seeing the maltreatment of many people in the world, sent an appeal to all Christians on Easter Eve saying:
I challenge the Christian world to measure itself by the standards of its Christ. As long as any group is judged by its creed or color or country in place of its character, Christianity is a sacrilege rather than a sanctity. To this end, I summon Christians everywhere to make this Easter signify Christ realized, and not merely Christ risen.

My preaching professor, Dr. Donald Macleod, took apart the idea of Christ realized verses Christ risen. He said, “Many, even church members, will greet Easter morning with the triumphant strains of ‘Jesus Christ is Risen today,’ but will leave the world-shaking implications of this fact unacknowledged and unexplored. [Easter for them] means no more than history’s record of one Jesus of Nazareth who lived and died sometime between 4 B.C.E. and 33 C.E., and whose memory time has not been able to flout or destroy. At best, Easter is a delightful festival and provides a pious note as a harbinger of the coming of spring.” Dr. Macleod died years ago, likely picturing sanctuaries teaming with men in pastel colored ties and women in Easter bonnets. A friend of mine send me a meme this week with a group of six women standing next to each other in Easter Egg colored house coats! The caption: “Easter dresses for online church this year!” Likely true! But Christ realized is another matter from the yearly celebration of Christ risen. The empty tomb is a theological celebration, but empty tomb living means we change the world with the message and work of Christ! It means that Christ has to come out of the annals of history, out of the seasonal celebrations of Easter-wear and become a redeeming force for humanity. And the way Christ does that is through the church: the body of Christ; through you, and through me. Christ risen is an annual celebration, but Christ realized means that something has to be done! It implies that human hearts must be shaken by the presence of Christ, his amazing grace, and his inexhaustible love. As Paul said, and I reminded you last week: “Anyone who is in Christ becomes a new creation …and he has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” Bringing together members of the human race to find help and hope at a Christian table, at a Christian pantry, in a prison ministry, or through teaching the gospel is now on us, not on Jesus. For that challenge to have the most impact, Christians must risk rolling back the rug under which politicians have swept issues of immigration, of justice, and of affordable housing or available hospital care in this pandemic. If Christ were here in the flesh, he would likely be standing in the House or the Senate Chambers in Washington, like he took a whip to the Temple in Jerusalem, and saying “well done” to some, and “things need to change!” to others.

But some might pause here, asking “Why are you bringing up these unpleasant, politically divisive issues in an Easter message? Read Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, you’ll that find Jesus’ entire earthly ministry involved those issues; his rising from the dead meant he left us a Great Commission and God left us the powerful Holy Spirit to carry out the work that Jesus began. Ours would be a hollow and groundless religion were we not able to say that once, in the pattern of history, a man appeared who was indeed, as the Nicene Creed affirmed: “Very God of very God;” one who lived a human existence, reflecting someone never known or seen on earth before, who taught us a way of life more original than any philosopher had been able to before. He embraced the will of God so completely that he himself was truth alive, who shared our humanity to the extent that he took on death and overthrew the powers of Satan. After his death, he appeared to many, proving that he arose from the dead! Through the centuries, Christ risen became the impetus for some of the most inspiring parts of culture: paintings by Raphael, and DaVinci, and Michelangelo; music by Handel, Bach, and Haydn. Christ inspired the poetry of Gerald Manley Hopkins, W. H. Auden, and T.S. Eliot. The idea of the risen Christ has influenced many writers and artists through the ages. Yet Macleod also said: “[The risen Christ] can never become a vital and creative truth in us as long as we place our highest Easter offering upon the altars of the gods of commerce and refuse to meet the cost this day entails.”

Matthew 28 included some surprising facts: women were at the tomb as body anointers; a great earthquake shook the ground; an angel descended and rolled back the heavy stone from the entrance to Jesus’ tomb, and there the angel sat! What a scene! Guards were there in Matthew’s account, so no one could steal Jesus’ body; Roman guards were known to be fearless, yet seeing the angel, they become frozen “like dead men.” And then … then, the fear changed to hopeful joy; to the possibility that all Jesus had said was true; that under God’s command he could not only rise from the dead, but also ascend into heaven! This is the historical event that changed the dating system we use and established churches around the globe. Today many sanctuaries are empty, even as the tomb was empty. The power went forth from the tomb, and the power has gone forth from countless sanctuaries, becoming the church without walls! The empty tomb teaches how Jesus’ rising from the dead changed the world. The empty sanctuaries teach us that the people are not gone; they are deployed into the world where need is everywhere. You are the hands, and feet, and eyes, and heart of Christ! Use them, as you bring the world Jesus- on Easter, and in the days ahead.

Let us pray:
Oh Lord Jesus, fresh with wounded wrists, and ankles, and a wounded side and a wounded head: what a sight you are for sore eyes! Who would have guessed you would survive a brutal Roman cross! But survive you did, and now you thrive as the glorious King of Kings and Lord of lords! Now, we can sing “Hallelujah!” Now we can shout “Praise the Lord!” We seek to change the world, even in our own corners of it, so people will know we are Christians by our love. Thank you for loving us so much Lord! Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner April 12, 2020

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