05-12-19 REVELATION: LAMB

Revelation 7: 9-17

Today we will continue to unpack the book of Revelation, one that some find fearful, while those with the code can find hopeful. As I said last week, in the last part of the first century, John, the author, wrote letters of hope and encouragement to 7 churches in Asia Minor, now modern-day Turkey. The 7 churches were in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. By extension, John’s advice can help modern day churches too. You might be saying in your head: “What modern day lesson can I possibly learn from this book?” I’ll tell you: more books have been written and wrongly interpreted about the tribulation, Armageddon, 666, the beast, and the Last Days to the point that it has kept Christian publishing afloat with all of its conspiracy theories, prophecy-filled warnings, and fear mongering. One wrong interpreter in the 1970s warned that the tribulation would come before the end of that decade, and that Christ would return then to judge all people. It didn’t happen, even as his words scarred a generation into looking into every headline as a sign that the devil was appearing from the sea of politics. In the 1980s, another man sent a self-published book to pastors all over the country warning them that Revelation has predicted that we are in the end days, and according to his biblical calculations, the world would end in 1988. The world didn’t end. What did both authors do? Both authors then published revised editions of their books with new predictions, saying that God told them a new date for the end of the world, which of course, was not true either. They continued to make more money off of naïve and fearful Christians. Don’t fall for those high-intensity authors who try to stir up the lives and souls of readers! Today I will keep trying to keep you well-grounded in this controversial book.

Last week we dealt with chapters 1 through 5. Now we are on to chapters six and seven. In chapter 6 the seven seals are opened by the Lamb (the honorific title for Jesus Christ,) and readers are invited to “Come!” (7 is the perfect biblical number) We then encounter the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” referenced mysteriously in literature and film through the ages. The reference, as with 75% of Revelation, is from the Old Testament, not some time in the 20th or the 21st century! The imagery is from the book of Zechariah (1:8-17 and 6: 1-8.) John magnifies the meaning of the colors of the horses, indicating that the white one symbolized conquest, the red horse bloodshed, the black horse scarcity or famine, and the pale horse, pestilence and death. That colorful description is part of the first four seals. The fifth seal revealed the prayers of the martyrs in heaven, and the sixth seal a warning of what it will be like when the great Day of the Lord arrives. Then like, with any good production, John adds a dramatic pause—an interlude—before the seventh seal is opened. That interlude is a source of one religious group’s belief that heaven has only 144,000 souls in it, based on the description of 12,000 sealed from the tribe of Judah, 12,000 sealed from the tribe of Reuben, and 12,000 from all the others tribes representing the 12 sons of Israel. But remember: Revelation is not intended to be interpreted literally any more than a Salvador Dali painting is intended to be. It needs our “right” brain; our disciplined imagination, not our flat-footed literal brain, to interpret it properly. The twelve thousand members of each of the 12 tribes of Israel are not meant to create a literal number; they are intended to symbolize completeness and inclusion, saying “Heaven has room for all the people of God!” In chapter 7, we see the believers in Jesus, who is the Lamb, come together in a time of heavenly worship, with white robes and palm branches, crying out “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!” (7:10)
There are two things to point out here: on Passover each year up to 70 A.D., a high priest would select the most perfect lamb, an unblemished lamb, to be sacrificed in the temple for the sins of the Jewish people. It was a yearly spring ritual, coupled with the fall holy day of Yom Kippur, on which the sins of Jews were forgiven. It was at that time of Passover, in the spring, at 3:00 p.m. when the high priest killed the selected lamb, the very time when the lamb of God who took away the sin of the world, died on the cross of Calvary. It was providential timing. Calling Jesus “Lamb” reminds us of his sacrifice; but it also makes him the focal point of Christian worship. That leads to the second point: if you have read our congregation’s Mission Statement for Worship, you might remember that it states: “The Westminster Catechism reminds us that our chief end is to ‘glorify God and enjoy Him forever.’ Worship takes its place as the central activity of the church, the ‘hub’ of the wheel from which other aspects of Christian life flow.” In other words, what we do every week on Sunday is a kind of preparation for our lives in heaven, when we will sing praise to God and the Lamb eternally!

Naively, in chapter 7, in that heavenly throne room, one of the elders asked Jesus “Who are these clothed in white robes? And Jesus said, “Sir, you know; these are the ones who have come out of the great tribulation.” (Remember, those seven churches were under great duress from Roman Emperor Domitian just as they had been under Emperor Nero.) This is another place you use your right brain and not your “left, or literal brain”: Jesus continued: “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” How could blood turn robes white? How could it not, if we think symbolically about the blood of Jesus?

The finale of our visit today keeps us in the throne room of heaven. Jesus continued to share his words of reassurance to the one who asked the question, and we get to listen in: Here is what John heard from Jesus about that scene:
Therefore, they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne (God) will shelter them. They will hunger no more, they will thirst no more. The sun will not strike them nor scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. (7:15-17)

Can you imagine the comfort John’s apocalypse brought to the listeners of those seven churches? Of course you can! You, like people through the centuries, have also suffered hardships, and tribulations, and anguish, and grief. It is in those times that we turn to our Bibles and open them. In how many funerals have you heard these comforting words from Revelation?
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no more sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven ….And I heard a loud voice from the throne say, ‘Behold the dwelling of God is with mortals. God will dwell with them, and they shall be his people …and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more….

Images and words from this magnificent and picturesque book comforted Christians in the First Century, and in every century for those who knew how to unlock the code correctly! Others have lived in terror and paranoia, waiting for the dreadful “Day of the Lord” to immanently arrive. But you know how to read this kaleidoscope of a book! You can see through all the colors and shapes and voices and beasts! Christians who’ve had the code have found these words comforting. You have the code now: Don’t read the words of John literally. Do not be thrown off track by popular and dramatic Christian authors. Stay close to the source, and listen to solid interpreters with care. Next week we’ll continue our journey.

Jeffrey A. Sumner May 12, 2019

05-05-19 REVELATION: WORTHY

Revelation 5: 11-14

There is a commercial on television about a younger generation starting to act like their parents. In one scene the narrator says: “We can’t keep you from becoming your parents,” and in the background a man comes up to a scenic overlook and, instead of looking at the beauty of what’s before him, says, “Look! A plaque!” And he begins to read it aloud for all to hear. My mother used to do that at most every place we stopped (Eye roll). Today I become my mother! Not with a plaque, but as a guide, I want to help you approach the overlook of the book of Revelation! Do not fear! I am well trained in this book. Dr. Bruce Metzger, New Testament professor at Princeton Seminary when I attended, taught this book to a whole class of us for an entire semester. He is the one who translated and complied the Bibles in front of you. He taught us well. I have taught this book to our Men’s group recently and will teach it to our Disciple class in 2020. So get ready as you peer over the edge; your guide will read the Revelation plaques for you momentarily!

So, yes, I have become a plaque reader because I’ve learned so much by reading them. When Mary Ann asked me to accompany her almost five years ago to the Salvador Dali Museum in St Petersburg, Florida, I went with reluctance since I found his painting strange and incomprehensible. I went with attitude, but I came out a fan, thanks to plaques and guides; they helped me understand the man behind the strange paintings! Today you may also be sitting with attitude regarding the Salvador Dali-like strange book of the Bible, but by the end of this month I hope to allay your fears and help you find the book meaningful, rather than strange and incomprehensible. Let’s begin.

Dr. Metzger was fond of saying, “Revelation doesn’t mean what it says; it means what it means.” Gibberish, right? No. My grandson Calvin once heard a woman say about another person: “She’s as big as a house.” Calvin said, “She’s not as big as a house!” which of course, she wasn’t. I explained to him it was an expression, and an exaggeration. You’ll need to think like that to unlock the codes of Revelation! And indeed, there is a code to this book. It was written by John, imprisoned on the isle of Patmos for being a Christian witness. I have been to that island and witnessed that prison cell. Roman Emperor Domitian was brutal toward Christians, much as his predecessor Emperor Nero was. He is said to have burned Christians alive to light the games at the Circus Maximus. John was writing to seven churches in Asia Minor, which are in present day Turkey. I have also been to those sites. He was seeking to encourage them in Christ, even amidst persecution. His bottom line: “God wins; Rome loses.” His letters were meant for those specific churches, but they are timeless in the sense that they speak to modern churches as well. In order to get his letters passed the guards, he had to write them in such a way that they would think he was a ranting lunatic, hoping that the Christians, steeped in the words of what we call the Old Testament, would understand his meaning. You see, 75% of the symbol, images, and allusions in Revelation came from those early scriptures! John counted on the Christians getting his meaning and for the Romans to let the letters get to their destination. He said in a vision that he saw seven lampstands, (seven the number of completeness, and lamps being the light of Christ in each church). Each church also had an angel, a messenger and protector of sorts, and he mentioned them too for encouragement. He clearly described the tribulations of those congregations. Then in chapter 4, “A door in heaven opened.” That was the first of his visions of that glorious place called heaven, but remember, it is symbolic, not literal, when “around the throne were twenty four thrones (12 for those who came from a Jewish background, 12 for those who came from a Gentile background.) They were clad in white garments which symbolized purity. And golden crowns were on their heads meaning they were honored for following Christ. They were praising the one on the throne singing “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come!”

Then comes chapter 5, our chapter for today. In the right hand of him seated on the throne (the right hand is always known as the hand of blessing) there was a scroll, closed up with seven seals. “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” asked an angel. No one was worthy on earth; no not one. But an elder said: “Weep not, for lo, the lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David, has conquered so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals!” So all the creatures and angels and others in heaven began praising and magnifying the name of the one seated on the throne—the glorified Christ! They were so grateful that they praised the only one who could share the blessings and open the seals! By his stripes, he was worthy!

Then we come to our text today: 5: 11-14. We are viewing what in music is called the “crescendo,” and in life it might be called a culmination. Imagine it being accompanied by timpani drums and herald trumpets, for it was a great announcement! Everything that had life and breath, as Psalm 150 describes, began praising the Lamb, who is the one who was slain and was granted all power by God! What a dramatic, majestic scene it must have been, unlike anything human special effects teams could create! Together they proclaimed what all of them knew; “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain!” Because he is so worthy, we are also are invited to transport ourselves to that heavenly throne room and bring his glory back here to earth: in our services of worship; with our witness; and through the majesty of rocks and trees and skies and seas, for all to hear and see! If this Lamb is worthy—this one we call Jesus Christ—of what is he worthy? The angels—myriads and myriads, thousands upon thousands, literally a heavenly host—tell us he is worthy to receive: Power! Wealth! (Things humans often clamor to get) Wisdom! (The Lamb’s wisdom is great; ours is wanting) Might! Honor! Glory! Blessing! Accolade upon accolade is poured out from the mouths of thousands! Why? So hopeless Christians will be reminded of how much power and wisdom has been given to their Savior; so that, as Paul put it in his letter to the Romans, we will never forget that nothing in all creation “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (8:39)

Don’t run from Revelation; we need the message of Revelation! And together, we will continue to unpack its message, including dazzling flashes of heaven and unfailing messages of hope. Now this joyous service of Holy Communion will get us in practice for the Heavenly praise and the banquet table that awaits us! The hymn we turn to now has as many superlatives in it as the book of Revelation does! Let us praise the Lamb of God!

Jeffrey A. Sumner May 5, 2019

04-28-19 Believing After Easter

Believing After Easter John 20:19-29 2nd Sunday of Easter, April 28, 2019
Radford Rader Westminster by the Sea Presbyterian

Thomas missed Easter. He wasn’t there with everyone else. He wasn’t there when the Risen Lord stood among them and said, “Peace to you”. He missed Jesus first showing of his hands and side, the signs of his suffering and the proof of his bodily resurrection. He missed the commissioning of the infant church and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Thomas wasn’t there for Easter.
We don’t know why…he was a twin so maybe went to visit his sibling

…maybe he had gone fishing that Sunday…maybe he decided to be alone to pray or was one of those people who preferred to grieve in private…maybe he just didn’t get the word that circulated among Jesus’ friends after Mary found the tomb empty. Everybody else was now sure of the resurrect
tion, everybody but Thomas.
The other disciples tried to tell him about it like those who have gone on a retreat together, come back all aglow and try to share with you their common experience. They were abuzz like those who were here last Sunday, overjoyed by the crowd, moved by the marvelous music, touched by the sermon and are still excited about the Easter you missed. Easter second hand was for Thomas like seeing 200 pictures of another cruise to Alaska.
Thomas needed more. The Sunday after Easter, the disciples were together again. This time, Thomas showed up. They were back in the same sanctuary. The door was again closed. Again, Jesus stands among them. He makes himself known. He extends his hand and says, to Thomas, put your finger here, examine my hands.” He pulls up his shirt and invites Thomas to put his hand and in his side. Thomas doesn’t move forward but instead drips to his knees, confessing “My Lord and My God”. It is the Sunday after when Easter comes to Thomas.
Every one of us is Thomas, because we all missed Easter. We couldn’t help it; it happened long before we were born. We didn’t have a chance to go and discover the empty tomb. We couldn’t enter with Peter and see the discarded grave cloths. We all missed the first Sunday night worship in the Upper Room. It all happened millennia ago. For that matter we missed Thomas’ Easter too. We’re not in the Easter picture; we’re the ones for whom the story is told. We’re the people about whom Jesus’ says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”
So how do post-Easter people come to believe in the Risen Christ.
Many like the biblical Timothy learned from their mother or grandmother. Some from Sunday school teachers. They came as trusting children, not concerned about doctrines or the impossible nature of the resurrection. They learned of Jesus and believed what they were told and have never wavered from that faith. They may have had trials along the way, but nothing has ever overcome the faith so early at work in them. Fred Craddock once wrote: “For some faith is born and grows as quietly as a child sleeping on a grandmother’s lap.” If you are one of these, Blessed are YOU!
But Craddock continues, “For others faith is a lifetime of wrestling with angels.” Maybe this image describes you. Some of us are from Missouri; you must show us. It is Good News that Jesus did not write Thomas out of the list of disciples. Instead, The Risen Christ comes to him. We are not told whether Thomas actually touched Jesus. If anything, the scripture seems to say that he didn’t need that much after all. Jesus came to him in a way that was convincing. He gave Thomas what he needed to believe.
Do you need to see? Jesus says, “Ask and it will be given unto you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be open unto you.” Our Lord has ways to show himself and make himself known: in events that makes us marvel, in the majesty of creation but also in what we call answered prayers or miracles…in people, so changed, so holy, so obviously filled with the Spirit that we cannot deny the Risen Christ living in them. We see his glory in their faces and his touch in their actions.
I came to Christ from infancy, as one who was told the stories and loved them. While in college the preacher’s son and I taught a class for our peers in my home church. We started at the beginning. The first Sunday was the Creation. That very day, Walter declared there were two stories of creation in Genesis. I denied it but he insisted and said his dad would come to our class the next week and show me. He did and it punctured my Sunday school faith balloon. I went to seminary to see if I could hold a biblically based faith after all. It worked though it was a radical re-orientation. While there I was helped by the 20th century theologian Paul Tillich who wrote, “Faith and doubt are not opposites. Apathy is faith’s opposite. True faith encompasses doubt.” Doubt is only a dead end if it expects a negative answer and thus becomes antagonistic and walks away with hands thrown up. But doubt has potential; it has a least the seed of faith in it. There was an NFL draft commercial that circulated last week. Dak Prescott, the Cowboys quarterback seems to be speaking to Kyler Murray, the #1 pick this year. Dak a 135th pick whom people said was to small, to slow, not gifted enough. In the commercial he says “Doubt is a gift. It pushes you to a higher level.” Thomas wills to believe. He is a doubter but still a seeker. He seeks conviction and Jesus removes his doubt. He knows the prayer, “I believe; help my unbelief.”
How can we see the Risen Christ? I can only speak out of my experience.
I saw him in the joy of faith in my dying aunt’s young face and I have seen faith in the faces of many believers, who face illness and death.
I met Rudy Timm, who turned to Christ as an adult, whose story I heard, whose strength of faith I felt and whose saintly ways were visible to all. When I asked one year’s confirmation class to write down the name of the person in the congregation that most displayed Christian faith, everyone one of the twelve wrote Rudy. There are many “Rudys” out there. They are the saints of the church, aglow with Christ.
When I was anxious and frightened, a confused and fearfully alone young man, I prayed out of desperation into the darkness of the night and felt the calm of Christ come over me.
At the point of my life when I was most guilty of sin and thought had no hope of a future, I was in a retreat and during a directed prayer, I experienced Christ coming to me and giving me again his love and then had words of forgiveness spoken to me by one who didn’t even know my sin.
I have been in worship when Christ was present, his Spirit filled the space and all present knew the Lord was there.
If seeing is believing, when we believe we also see. A mother was fixing dinner and observed her husband chasing their young daughter around the table, to her squeals of delight and joy. They mother confessed, “Truly the Lord is in this place.”
If you have some of Thomas in you, “DON’T DESPAIR”. Christ has ways to make himself known that will convince. If may not ever come on Easter, it may be on a later Sunday, It may come when you come to the table, when you are given something physical and tangible, material and corporeal, bread and juice and you hold them in your hands and put them in your mouth and the presence of Christ fills you. It might be in your most despairing moment when suddenly you know you are not alone or at the moment of your first child’s birth and, in that joy, you can believe again in miracles. Maybe Christ will come to you in a human form, a believer in whose face and life you see the reality of the resurrection life.
It is hard to believe after Easter, but not impossible. It takes faith—walking, living, worshipping, trusting faithfully, practicing faith until your eyes are opened and you recognize the Risen Lord who has been walking, talking and being faithful to you all along. Don’t quit. Declare your faith and ask help for your doubts. Keep knocking until the door is opened.

04-21-19 (Easter) – JESUS IS ALIVE AGAIN


Luke 24: 1-12

Amid times of intense sorrow due to tragic deaths, terrible destructions, or fierce storms, people continue to look for signs that tell them they can hope again. Some of the stories have made the news, some haven’t. This week, nearly everyone around the world stopped what they were doing to listen to the descriptions or watch the pictures of the magnificent Notre Dame cathedral in Paris burning out of control. It seemed unbelievable. The scenes pulled at the souls of many to see the mighty spire become a torch, and then become a tumbling pile of embers. It broke people’s hearts to see the ceiling burning like a bonfire. Yet readers of Ken Follett’s magnificent novel The Pillars of the Earth would have learned why is character Tom Builder crafted a mighty cathedral to the glory of God, also using wood timbers in the towering ceiling to pull one’s eyes upward as the person entered. Other would-be builders tried to make a cathedral roof of stone with devasting collapses. The wood ceiling would hold, but the size was limited to the number of trees that were tall enough- generally 32 feet. Ken Follett wrote: “The nave [of the cathedral] was high, impossibly high. But a cathedral had to be a dramatic building, awe inspiring in its size, pulling the eye heavenward with its loftiness.” [Signet Books: New York 1989, p. 292] There is an Achilles heel to wood structures, and that is fire. Notre Dame, a classic cathedral, a seat of a bishop, crafted with flying buttresses for support, inspired people to think of God, but its structure was vulnerable to age, nature, sabotage, or accident. A fire ruined the cathedral in Ken Follett’s story, and the builder’s son set the fire. Fires burned down three predominately African American churches in Louisiana last month, and it is alleged that a deputy’s son set all three fires. Horrible. What is the link between a mighty cathedral and three smaller congregations with tragedies? What is the link between a city in Antioch, listed in the book of Acts, where followers of Jesus were first called “Christians?” The linchpin of all these stories, and churches and Christians, is the empty tomb of Easter! And the key word is hope. Hope appears through words, prayers, and sometimes signs. As evening turned to darkness in Paris as the fire continued to smolder, people wondered if the building was a total loss. Then as if by answer from heaven, the light from embers shone on the golden cathedral cross, still standing in place. People saw it, and it gave them hope. Do you remember a tornado that ripped through southern Mississippi on January 25th, 2017? Part of what the tornado hit was William Carey University. As staffers combed through the wreckage, they came upon a stunning scene: the college chapel was badly damaged, but in its center was a pulpit with an open Bible, apparently not disturbed. The Bible was open to a page where this could be read: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in times of trouble.” [Psalm 46] Not every story of hope has a cross still standing or a Bible untouched. Some of you were here when this church structure was pounded by three hurricanes in 2004. The roofs leaked badly; ceiling tiles fell on pews near parishioners; Bibles and hymnals got ruined; repairs were made. But we had hope in part because of our Presbyterian connections: Disaster Assistance immediately sent us $10,000 toward repairs, and the Presbyterian Publishing House replaced our hymnals and our Bibles. And guess what we made our new ceiling out of? Yep not ceiling tiles; but wood! Wood like many other houses of worship great and small. Yes it calls for caution, but it also makes eyes rise upward to the glory of God: One organist who got two degrees from Notre Dame used to be the Associate Organist at First Presbyterian Church of Gainesville, Florida. He posted this on Tuesday, words from a Concordia Seminary professor:
Build beautiful churches, attend them, cherish them.
Build beautiful churches not because God needs such a house,
But because their beauty reminds us of God’s presence, and of his love.
Build beautiful churches, not boxes … not auditoriums with stages and
Coffee houses. Build beautiful churches to express the beauty of our Lord.
And if they should burn down, rebuild them, and fill them with your presence, With your prayers and songs, with God’s Word, with baptismal waters, …for these are the things that make a church truly beautiful. (Prof. Peter J. Scaer)

Today there is one event that ties this congregation, and a congregation in Paris, and congregations in Mississippi, and Louisiana, and Antioch and many other places together: it is the celebration of this day: the resurrection of Jesus from the dead! This was earth shattering news! People had not risen from the dead before. That news changed everything! People today all over the world are celebrating this one event that started Churches and Christianity; started Campus Crusade for Christ and Young Life; started Christian camps and conferences and mission trips. That resurrection was the catalyst for those! That event changed darkness into light; and hopeless into hope. The tomb, depicted here in our sanctuary, was near the cross of Golgotha where the body of Jesus was hurriedly placed since it was nearly the sabbath day when no burials could be conducted. His body was laid on a stone slab and women returned to anoint his body after the sabbath was over. A large stone had been moved over the entrance of the tomb after his body was placed there. One gospel even says that guards were posted outside for fear that disciples would steal his body. But his body was not stolen; it was raised bodily from the dead! The women found the stone rolled away and Luke says they saw two men there, and one of them asked them “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” Indeed. That day changed the course of history. Our whole dating system is based on the birth, life, and death of Jesus. If you allow yourself in the midst of sorrow, to look for signs of hope, you may indeed begin to be filled with hope again.

Don’t be ashamed if you doubt this story! Plenty of people have over the years! But a torrent of people has also tested the evidence, and have come to believe. Famously Lee Strobel, an atheist and an attorney educated at Yale Law School, set out to determine if there was enough evidence to believe the truth of Easter. He assembled scholars schooled at the major universities. They reached their conclusions and Strobel put them in his book, The Case for Christ, where he ended up making the case for Christ instead of against him! His conclusion: “The atheism I had embraced for so long buckled under the weight of historical truth. It was a stunning and radical outcome….” [Zondervan Publishing: Grand Rapids, 1998, p. 266]

Today I invite you to consider the findings of Lee Strobel and many others, and to acknowledge the uplifting power of hope and the withering weakness of hopelessness. Hope lifts our heads! Hope lifts our hearts! Hope says, “We can rebuild!” or “I can find a new job!” or “I can get through this.” In 2018 alone in Volusia and Flagler Counties, there were 112 fatal shooting. Of those 112 shootings, 89 were suicides! 89! People who saw no way out, who were despondent or hopeless. The gift of Easter was given so that we might have life, and have it abundantly! Let’s turn around the numbers of deaths, rebuild structures, and rebuild lives. We now serve a risen Savior! He lives! It is right to give our thanks and our praise.
Happy Easter! Now join me as we are transported to “the Holy City!”

Jeffrey A. Sumner April 21, 2019

04-14-19 JESUS IS GREETED WITH JOY!


Luke 19: 28-40

There are some condominiums I have been in along Atlantic Avenue that have windows that face east, and other windows that face west. Imagine having a camera set up in one of those condos, set with time lapse photography. Instead of a day taking 24 hours, now we will set it to just last an hour. At the beginning of this service, the sun will be coming up on a Jesus who is headed to Jerusalem, and the crowds around him sense excitement! “This is the one! This is the one who is coming in the name of the Lord! Save us!” they exclaim with their word “Hosanna.” So the sun rises on a group, growing in number, that begin making plans. Actually, it seems, plans have been made ahead of time according to what we read in Luke. One man put it this way:
Our Gospel reading for Palm Sunday begins like an espionage novel. Jesus draws two of his followers aside. He gives them this mission: “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, “The Lord needs it.” The two disciples go and find the colt. The question is asked, and the password is given. The Lord needs it. It’s an odd beginning to an odd story. [Ron Adams, in the Christian Century, March 27, 2019, p. 18]

This plan must have some symbolic meanings. What grown man really chooses to ride a colt that has never been ridden before down a hill, riding not on a saddle, but on slippery garments? And the crowds are throwing cloaks on the ground in front of the colt? It seems like a recipe for disaster. But from what we know about Jesus, anything is possible, and this ride comes off without a hitch. (Returning to the time-lapse camera illustration: now the sun is up; birds are singing, a new day has begun, and all is right with the world. How do we know that?) In Psalm 19, David declares:
The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours fourth speech, and night to night declares knowledge….Their voice goes out to through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.”

Did you hear it? Just as God created the world in Genesis, not with a magic wand; nor with bare hands, but with speech; and breath, and Spirit, God said: “Let there be light, and there was light.” Creation was made by a holy invitation, and it was so! David has been taught, and passes on to his worship leaders, those words to be declared in their holy services; not just to be read with one’s eyes, but to be declared with one’s mouth: All nature speaks in praise of God! The rustling trees speak in praise of God! The babbling brook speaks in praise of God! God endowed nature, it seems, with the ability to offer praise by simply being, and exuding sound. David knew that as he said (beautifully captured in Haydn’s masterpiece of music, called ‘The Creation”) “The heavens are telling the glory of God.” And so they are. Jesus’ words no longer seem as strange, about stones talking, even though the Pharisees scolded Jesus about it. As the noise from the crowd grew louder and louder, they said: “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” And Jesus, in his joy, said something that now makes perfect sense. At the beginning of that new day, with all its possibilities, Jesus said (and I’m reading it from the Phillips Modern Translation): “I tell you, if they keep quiet, the very stones in the road would burst out cheering!” [Luke 19:40] Stones talking! Who besides God has ever suggested such a notion? I’ll tell you one person who mused about it: author Annie Dillard, who, when she wrote her book Teaching a Stone to Talk in 1992, R. Buckminster Fuller, wrote that she transcended “all other writers of our day.” Her descriptive powers ooze from the writings in her books. In the one I just mentioned, she wrote:
The island where I live is peopled with cranks like myself. In a cedar-shake shack on a cliff … is a man in his thirties who lives alone with a stone he is trying to teach to talk. Wisecracks on this topic abound, as you might expect, but they are made as it were perfunctorily, and mostly by the young. For in fact, almost everyone here respects what Larry is doing, as do I …..It is, in fact, I assure you, a stone. It is—for I have seen it—a palm sized oval beach cobble whose gray is cut by a band of white….He keeps it on a shelf.
[HarperPerinnial, 1992, p.

I read this book years ago, but this week I was reminded of it again. Would we wisecrack about God teaching all nature to sing? Today, can we believe, perhaps in a new way and with a higher consciousness, that “Jesus is right! The stones could cry out!” All nature is ready to praise in this orchestrated, almost espionage story in Luke’s Gospel; a grown man actually sits on and rides a colt never ridden on by anyone else and urges the animal to precariously walk down a hillside. Disciples and curious onlookers join the cries. Perhaps they had hope in Jesus, or perhaps they just loved upsetting the Pharisees. On that Palm Sunday long ago, a man rode toward Jerusalem on a colt instead of a steed, and stones were ready to talk! Or perhaps on this day, our ears and hearts are uniquely open to hearing them! Would they say a word? Would they sing? Would the wind rustle by them causing people to hear something like “Blessed! Blessed! Blessed?”

This is a day of real possibilities as the sun starts to head toward noon. For after all of this unbridled celebration, Jesus comes near Jerusalem, and he stops, and he weeps, not for joy, but for sorrow. There is an historic marker on that hill even to this day. Jesus wished that the city, the name of which means “City of Peace,” would know the things that make for peace. I wonder if Jesus looks at Jerusalem today, or even at our nation today, and still weeps, saying, “If only today you knew the things that make for peace.”

The joy of that first Palm Sunday morning got blanketed with human darkness; of suspicion; of name calling. Jesus sealed his own fate when he then turned over the tables of the moneychangers just before the biggest annual weekend for the city. The handwriting was on the wall; and darkness began to fill the hearts of men who started plotting against Jesus. Today, I wonder if a Jesus who still wants peace for Israel, America, and other nations is still weeping, in part because he can no longer hear stones cry out, or nature singing. The still small voice of God, described in 1 Kings 19 is being drowned out by the cacophony of crowd noises, and mobs, and neighbors shouting at neighbors. God is still speaking, as is the creation. But some aren’t listening for God’s words. And some just can’t hear nature singing or speaking anymore. They have given up hope of hearing from God in our world of pain. But God and nature were there on Palm Sunday two thousand years ago; and God speaks still. The great mysteries of God are ours to consider, but to never fully explain or understand. Listen to what Billy Collins—the United States poet laureate from 2001 -2003—said about one of the classic mysteries of the divine:
Of all the questions you might want to ask about angels, the only one you ever hear is how many can dance on the head of a pin. No curiosity about how they pass the eternal time besides circling the Throne, chanting in Latin or delivering a crust of bread to a hermit on earth, …. Do they fly through God’s body and come out singing? …What are their sleeping habits, the fabric of their robes, their diet of unfiltered divine light? What goes on inside those luminous heads? [Sailing Around the Room, Random House, New York, 2001, p.

This week, this morning, there is joy! Even creation feels it! But like other situations in life, things are changing. The sun is setting on Jesus’ joy. What a drama! This week, as this day grows darker, will you join Jesus on his journey?

Let us pray: We move into this week Lord, from a procession to a cross. In a sense, we will go with you. A visit to the upper room, and to Calvary, has changed people’s lives for generations. Perhaps it will change people again this week. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner April 14, 2019

04-07-19 JESUS HAS HIS FEET ANOINTED


John 12: 1-8

It’s no secret that with my hobby of collecting ocean liner and cruise ship memorabilia, Mary Ann and I like to take cruises. I like to get away from the phone and stretch out on a deck chair and watch the sea. Perhaps you like that too. In terms of extravagance, we’ve been pretty ordinary. Our first cruise was in an ocean view cabin for our 10th wedding anniversary. We kept getting ocean view rooms until our 25th anniversary when I treated Mary Ann to a cruise from San Diego (Oceanside, CA is her home town) through the Panama Canal (the canal zone was her Junior High home) all the way to Florida. For that cruise, going through the canal, I paid for a balcony cabin. Of course after that, we never went back to an ocean view cabin again! We got used to the open air of a balcony. One time we asked our travel agent to book a cruise on the Carnival Dream for a summer vacation. The surprise for us was we were given an aqua spa cabin for the price of a regular one! The room had special shampoos and lotions and robes to walk out our door directly into the spa, where there were aromatherapy rooms, whirlpools, warm ceramic lounge chairs, spring waters flavored with either oranges or cucumbers, saunas, steam rooms, and more: all included! We even had a special dining room where we could eat our meals. Plus free room service for breakfast. We hardly saw the rest of the ship!

My point is that when I’ve been given the gift of some pampering—without high cost— I’ve have enjoyed it. Today in our passage I’ve tried to imagine what Jesus faced over the early weeks of his ministry. Listen to this: according to John, Jesus recruited and called his disciples, attended a wedding at Cana where he changed water into wine, cleansed the Temple where he met great resistance, talked to religious leader Nicodemus about being “born again,” traveled through the “no man’s land” of Samaria where he met a woman at a well and turned her into one of his many evangelists, healed an official’s son, healed an invalid at the pool of Bethsesda, fed 5000 people, walked on water, was regularly interrogated by scribes and Pharisees, decided what to do with a woman accused of adultery, foretold his own death, explained to people how he was the good shepherd, razed his friend Lazarus from the dead, and wept with Mary, Lazarus’ sister. Finally, Jesus also learned of a plot to kill him. I’m thinking Jesus could have used an aqua spa cabin about then, or at least a touch of pampering for his wounded psyche, tired feet, or aching body! “Six days before the Passover” John 12 tells us “Jesus returned to the home of his friends, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.” I’m imagining he needed some down time before the demands of Passover. So many times we hear about a person called “a sinful woman” coming into the home of a Pharisee and wiping Jesus feet with costly oil and with her hair. This is not that event. Today Jesus is in the home of friends, with his disciples. Although he would not have asked for it, to have a kind—and even extravagant—gesture done for him must have been welcomed. He clearly cared for this Mary and her siblings very much. It is not his mother, Mary nor Mary Magdalene- there are so many Marys in the New Testament! This one—his friend—compassionately and generously took a pound of very costly oil, a kind of perfume like spikenard or myrrh, and washed Jesus’ feet over and over with it, likely in a messaging, caring way. The fragrance filled the room. I can imagine our tired Lord perhaps sighing with joy and closing his eyes to such loving care. In this story, Mary’s kind pampering is only interrupted by the man who continually interrupted Jesus’ hopes for living out his last days. He was Judas Iscariot: a disciple who was thinking with his head and not his heart. John points out the Judas “was the one who was about to betray him.” Judas starts yammering about how much money Mary is wasting, even as Jesus was likely grateful for the lavish and extravagant gift of a special friend messaging his tired feet. Finally Jesus speaks, and I imagine he’d rather have just sat there for his foot message, but Judas cuts the loving atmosphere with accusations. Jesus musters up new energy and says: “Leave her alone.” That’s all I think he wanted to say. But to guide his listeners he added, “She bought that jar for my burial.” In a way, instead of using the myrrh—or nard—on his dead body, she chose to use it on his living body. What a wonderful idea. I think Jesus was most grateful for it. And perhaps we too might think about gifts we can give while friends or family members are alive, rather than spending money on flowers and memorials when they are dead. I know some of you have done that. Good job! Spend your money on special people in special ways; if you do it while you are alive, you can hopefully see the smiles it brings and the good it does. My parents gave yearly gifts to my brother and sisters once we were grown, and they got to hear how we enjoyed the money for some needed repairs or relaxation. They also gave money to help our children get through college. Wow. Extravagant gifts are remembered.

When my friend Radford met with me this last Wednesday, he said “one of my main purposes here is to see that you get a total day off on Mondays.” I teared up ia little nside. He gets it; he knows how pastors burn the candle at both ends. What a generous and extravagant gift I’m getting from one who knows how important one day off a week is. Give thanks for those who give to you in extravagant ways. I do.
Let us pray:
Extravagant God, who gave us your whole world as a gift, with running waters, tall mountains, and lush pastures: remind us how to cherish nature and those who appreciate us. Teach us the joy of giving to others generously. In Jesus’ name, who one day, in a friend’s house, had the extravagance of fragrant oil massaged into his tired feet. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner April 7, 2019

03-31-19 JESUS’ STORY ABOUT BEING LOST

JESUS’ STORY ABOUT BEING LOST

Luke 1-3a; 11b-32

For many years now I have urged people to have a will; a simple will is inexpensive and can save a family from many heartaches. If you die with no will—even if you think you are healthy and too young to die—the state has a set formula that describes how your assets will be used. If you go to a lawyer and say, “But she told me all the time who she wanted to have that money” you are wasting your breath. The state still decides. I posted the state rules on our Congregational Life Bulletin board; with one glance I hope you will run to your attorney to create a will, or we have an attorney in the church that can help you with that! Have a will! Back in the day when Jesus told his parable of the lost son, did you know that there was a system set by Jewish custom that prescribed which child got what part of the father’s estate? If the oldest son was an angel or a hooligan, he still got a double portion of his father’s estate when the father died; in the case of the Luke 15 story, the older son would have gotten 2/3 of the father’s possessions. The younger son got the other 1/3. That was how it was done, no matter if they were wonderful or horrid to their father.  And we know one other thing: in the Old Testament—particularly in the book of Genesis—there were some examples of terrible parenting. The father always seemed to love one son more—and the Bible even said so—and in some cases the mother loved a different son more! Check out the story in Genesis 25: Isaac loved Esau who was legitimately his first-born son; the twin son born right after him was Jacob.  By law, Esau received the birthright. It was irrefutable, except it could be sold or traded by that son. Everyone knew that: even his wife Rebekah. The birthright son got a double-portion of the estate, remember?  But younger brother Jacob caught his older brother in a moment of weakness and Esau agreed to see him birthright for a bowl of lentil stew!  What a foolish agreement.  And there was no buyer’s remorse rule; it was done! Jacob got 2/3s of his father’s estate by buying the birthright from his brother who was older by a minute.  Then Rebekah schemed with her son Jacob to trick her nearly blind husband into blessing Jacob instead and giving him Esau’s blessing. Such is one of the most sordid family stories in Genesis!

One more piece of background before addressing Jesus’ parable: the late Dr. Edwin Friedman was the master of what psychologists call “Family Systems.” He was in Daytona Beach in February of 1994 and I attended his lectures. He said clearly that if one child in a family develops certain traits and skills, a second child—even a twin—develops complimentary traits and skills, not identical ones. He also said if parents clearly made it apparent that one son, or one daughter was the apple of their eyes, the other children in the family would immediately sense it and react to it. One of the typical reactions would be rebellion; a tendency to do things to get into trouble; or they could latch onto peers instead of parents; or experiment with drinking and drugs.  Dr. Friedman was unequivocal in his assessment. You can ponder your own experiences with your children or grandchildren as I go on.

In the background of Jesus’ parable would have been two very safe assumptions: 1) The older son is very loved and appreciated. Even in our brief story we find the son declaring to his father: “These many years I have served you and never disobeyed you.”  He is the apple of his father’s eye. And our second assumption is: 2) That he will receive the birthright- the double-portion of his father’s estate; and it’s safe to assume he has already received his father’s blessing. So perhaps this son has not gone through many situations that drew his father’s attention away from him. Could he be spoiled? Does he act sanctimonious around his younger brother? Out in the field he’s filled with anger.  I hope this Jesus story gives food for thought about your own family of origin—to consider where you were in the birth order, and what might or might not have been expected of you. The story also may inform the way you—and your children if you have any—interact.

We don’t know the backstory of your family, any more than we know the backstory of Luke 15. All we know is what happens: 1) We know in verse 11 that this father had two sons, not three, not just one. 2) We know that in verse 12 the younger son said something considered utterly disrespectful to his father; we don’t know what provoked it, whether it was his brother, or his friends, or his attitude, but in Luke 15:12 the Younger son SAID, did not ask: “Father, give me the share of the property that falls to me.” Middle Eastern expert Kenneth Bailey said this about that confrontation: “The younger son requests his inheritance while his father is still alive and in good health! In traditional Middle Eastern culture, this means the prodigal cannot wait for his father to die….If the father is a traditional Middle Eastern parent, he will strike the boy across the face and drive him out of the house. [Jacob and the Prodigal, Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003, p.99.]  The father could have reacted with a huge ranting outburst: how many fathers today do that to outrageous requests from their children?  The father could have walked a way. The father could have said “Let me think about it; I’ll give you my answer in the morning.” But no; this father went through his financial reserves, and perhaps estimated how much that son would get as a third of his ranch and his home, and he gave it to him, in gold or shekels, as if the father were dead. It was an audacious request. I don’t know all the fathers here today, but this one in Luke 15 bends over backwards for his family. Is he a pushover or just generous, or just gracious?  Could he have thought that the son will learn a valuable life lesson about getting lots of money in a short time?  I have known a young man who had the finest computers, the finest Lexus, and the finest clothes that his mother gave him after his father died when he was a teenager. I knew him when he was in his 20s. He lived like a prince. Several years later I saw him again. He was driving a used Toyota and living in a modest apartment. “What happened to what you had?” I asked him. “I lost it all,” he admitted. “I didn’t make enough money to afford them.”  His gift from his dad had dried up. In our story, the father’s gift seems to dry up even quicker, like the way some people who have received lottery winnings. He not only ended up with no money, his dream of living the good life went up in smoke.  To rub salt in his wounds Jesus, says he was so hungry he took a job feeding swine; pigs; an animal considered unclean by Jews. This was rock bottom, right? No.  Rock bottom was when he considered eating pig food! I have known people who are so, so poor, but they refuse to give up their pets, even though they themselves need to eat. Some of them, in their desperation, actually eat the dog food or cat food they have bought for their pets. It is a foolish and sickening decision.  That’s where this young man was: desperate.

You should know that by Jewish rights, the father did not have to take a son that treated him like that back into the family.  Do you also know that the townspeople where that ranch or farm was located would back up the father when they learned of the son’s act of insolence? Most farms were part of a village of about 6 acres, and such an act would “spread all over town.” The boy seemed oblivious to what he had asked, but he left town in a hurry before townspeople could get to him. “What would they do?” you might ask. 

Dr. Bailey tells us:

In the Jerusalem Talmud and elsewhere in the writings of the sages, we are told that at the time of Jesus, the Jews had a method of punishing any Jewish boy who lost his family inheritance to Gentiles. Such a loss was considered particularly shameful….To discourage any thought of committing the heinous offense, the community developed what was called the kezazah ceremony….Fellow villagers would fill a large earthenware pot with burned nuts and burned corn and break it in front of the guilty individual.  While doing this, they would shout “So-and-so is cut off from his people!” From that point on, the village would have nothing to do with that hapless lad.  [p. 102]

Before the young man got a word out of his mouth as he is returning to his father, the father ran to his son—something no Middle Eastern man would ever do in robes. He did it to deflect attention from his ragged son coming home over the horizon. Then he kisses his son before the son has a chance to share his practiced speech about making him a hired servant. By doing that, the father indicated to the community that the two of them had reconciled, even though no such action had yet taken place. The father threw his reputation, his dignity, and his honor to the wind for his son. I know many parents who would do anything for their son or daughter. We have too. And yet, sometimes our child gets on our last nerve. Today I want you to imagine that you are the prodigal—or can you? Can you only imagine being the older son? I almost always identify with the older son: my place in the family line up. So the lesson I have always had to learn comes from the words of the father, offered to his fuming son: “Son,” he said, “you are always with me, and everything I have us yours! But it was fitting that we celebrated; for I thought your brother was dead, but he’s alive! He was lost, but now he’s found.” That’s always the message of grace and mercy I need. Who knows when I, and maybe you, need someone to welcome us home?

Let us pray:

Like a Father who welcomes a prodigal child home, remind us, O God, about the power of reconciliation and reunion, safe in your arms. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           March 31, 2019

03-24-19 JESUS TEACHES REPENTANCE

JESUS TEACHES REPENTANCE
Luke 13: 1-9

We seem to be in an era when people decide they will not back down, no matter what; they will not turn back, even if they think they are headed in a wrong direction, and they won’t apologize. At least in the public arena such stands are rampant. Then rhetoric becomes defiant. Rarely is there progress in the arenas of justice or peace with those self-serving attitudes. But there are some wonderful examples of remorse, of compassion, or of just good business in our world too. For example, in spite of having no responsibility for the massacre that happened in New Zealand, their Prime Minister still announced that “Families of the fallen won’t have to worry about the full cost of funeral expenses while mourning their loved ones, regardless of their immigration status….As I’ve said before, immigration status is not a factor. It is based on the event happening here in New Zealand.” So funeral costs, up to $10,000 per person, are being covered, largely for the peace-loving members of a small mosque who were gunned down. What a stand: not of stubborn defiance, but of caring for your neighbor. In Flint Michigan in 2014, the water source was shifted from a safe one to the Flint River to save money. The governor directed the change. To this day, Flint water still has toxic levels of lead in the drinking water, yet there has been no repentance, and no apology by the governor. There has been silence. Slowly old pipes are being replaced, which is very costly and tedious process. Then last April, the state stopped providing bottled water. Can you imagine asking your children to drink cloudy water with varying levels of lead? After hard work from Mayor Karen Weaver, Nestle Corporation stepped up to provide bottled water again-a wonderful move, perhaps for company business, but also for the health of the residents. In our own state last fall, perhaps because of budget shifts in the last administration, many say that red tide developed on Florida’s west coast, ruining beaches, killing fish, and stopping tourism. But now under the new administration, without apology but with action, state money has been shifted to help keep the same conditions from reoccurring. Thousands of Floridians hope red tide will remain a 2018 nightmare, but not one for 2019. As Presbyterian Minister Mr. Rogers put it: “We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say, “It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem. Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.”

Two things that mend fences and move groups from conflict to cooperation are remorse and repentance. Jesus spoke specifically about repentance. John the Baptist did too. Few words are paired together better than remorse and repentance. A simple illustration might make that clear. Some boys are on an empty lot playing baseball. It’s just a group from a neighborhood. One boy at the plate really hits a pitch on the sweet part of the bat and sends the ball through the window of a neighbor’s house. The boys could have faced the owner by being defiant, not giving him any names for restitution—that is, money to get the window fixed. Or they could have faced the owner, denying that any of them broke the window, even as a baseball was on the floor of his house. Instead they chose the Jesus way, instituted back in the days of the Old Testament, even before Jesus was born. They went to the man and the boy who hit the ball said, “I really caught the pitch perfectly and I heard it break your window. I am sorry about that.” (That’s remorse. Not that hard, is it?) Then he said, “I think the guys and I can adjust the bases so we can aim the field in a different direction so that this will not happen again. (That’s repentance; making a change so the same thing will not happen again.) “And sir, the boy said, “I’ll pay to get your window fixed.” (That’s restitution- the restoring of something that has been broken.) Look at those powerful words; Remorse; repentance; restitution; restoring of a relationship. In fact in the Lord’s prayer, Jesus actually said, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” because in spite of the price he would pay on the cross, he knew that the debt between two people was only squared when there was some payment for a wrong, whether it was a payment of money or payment of time served in some fashion. When the account is squared as much as possible, debts get forgiven. This is what is missing in today’s world; in national standoffs; in condo fights; in classroom fights: it is this formula of building bridges, not creating deeper and deeper rifts. Listen to Jesus’ terse comment when people in his day were worked up into real indignation about what some others had done: “I tell you, unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” [Luke 13:3] People who do nothing or say nothing, in the midst of a conflict, a defiant act, or a damaging event become complicit in the consequences. In those circumstances, how many people say to themselves or others, “Not me! I’m staying out of this!” And Jesus turns to them, to you, and to me, in our deafening silence or defiant inactivity and says: “Unless you repent, you will perish as they will perish.” There is no Monday morning quarterbacking. There is no claiming of ignorance. There is no washing our hands of guilt. How many neighborhoods—where there has been a shooting—have police ask a crowd, “Who saw what happened? Who can help us bring the shooter to justice?” Then, in spite of each person holding a cellphone that might have recorded some useful footage, they look at the ground and shuffle their feet. Jesus has little compassion for those who don’t work to raise the level of discourse, responsibility, and conscience in their neighborhood or world.
Apathy is the devil’s work. Jesus was about making a difference during the short time he walked this earth. After his death, he counted on his disciples then and now to spread the gospel and do his work. A fanciful story is told of Jesus ascending into Heaven and meeting up with an angel. The angel said: “You really were changing a lot of people’s lives while you were on the earth! What’s going to happen now?” And Jesus replied: “I’m counting on my disciples to carry out my work.” The angel then said: “What is your plan if they don’t do it?” To which Jesus clearly said: “I have no other plan.” Jesus has no other plan to save souls and change lives other than through the spread of his message by disciples then and now; and by human beings doing the right thing to help neighbors. If we, like some elected officials, are silent about wrongdoings, Jesus says: “Unless you repent, you too will perish.” We have to have our sleeves rolled up; our hearts and minds engaged, and mouths willing speak when needed. We need to call out wrong and commend righteousness.

As a teacher, I think Jesus pulled on the examples that were around him. Today as he was likely near a fig tree; he decided to make his point—as usual—with a parable. Listen to author and teacher Barbara E. Reid’s insights into this passage:
The parable in 13: 6-9 conjures up familiar biblical images. In several texts in the First Testament the combination of fruitful figs and productive vineyards symbolizes prosperity that comes from God’s blessing. Fig trees were frequently planted in vineyards. In Micah 7:1 the prophet speaks of his frustrated search for figs and grapes at summer harvest time as a way of depicting God’s disappointment over Israel’s faithfulness.” [Parables for Preachers, Year C, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 2000, p. 51]

The Bible is rich in imagery. The prophet Isaish, told Israel, and by extrapolation, us: “All we, like sheep, have gone astray, everyone to his own way” [Isaiah 53:6.] Today it is Jesus’ turn, comparing Israel, and by extrapolation, us, to fig trees. The world, the story goes, is the garden, and the trees (human beings) in God’s garden produce figs: that is their purpose. If they are not producing figs for up to three years, (which is a biblical number of completeness) the trees are given one more year to bear fruit, as a gift of grace and patience. Using the tree analogy, how do we know if we are bearing fruit or not? In part it is stepping up to the responsibility plate and doing the right thing. God needs evidence that we are bearing fruit. A card always sits on my desk and today I’m going to tell you what it says: “If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” God, the gardener, is giving some of us one more year; just one more year to carry out Jesus’ ministry and show evidence of being his disciple. The Gardener is also the grader. God grades on grace, but not forever. When, do you think, that our “one more year” begins? Perhaps, it has already begun.

Jeffrey A. Sumner March 24, 2019

03-17-19 JESUS INSTRUCTS


Luke 13: 31-35

This is where we will focus most of our attention today: on this commentary by Jesus: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How would I have gathered your children as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! Behold, your house is forsaken.” [Luke 13: 34-35] Jesus foresaw the upcoming destruction of Jerusalem—including the desecration of the Holy Temple; the ruin, the bloodshed, and the destruction. When Jesus started teaching that beloved Jerusalem would be ripped apart, those who heard him could not believe it. Jerusalem destroyed? It cannot be! Some of the most poignant commentaries and reflections over time have come after a human calamity, particularly one not manifested by a natural disaster. This week we grieve over the massacre in ChristChurch, New Zealand. Who knows what will be written about that?

So much gets forgotten and our laments can grow faint. My friend David Hughes was a Civil War buff. His books and photographs reminded me to look past the tales of bravery in the War Between the States to remember that it was America’s bloodiest war. The literature he had that he related to me filled me with horror, even though it happened before any one of us was alive. In the classic film “Gone With the Wind,” a fictitious story set during the Civil War, director Victor Fleming starts a scene having Scarlett make her way into the center of Atlanta. There she is met by medic after medic carrying wounded soldiers past her, and as she looks around—the camera pans out in stunning Technicolor, using no special effects—to reveal one of the most labor intensive scenes in movie history, as hundreds of dead or badly injured soldiers fill the screen with unbelievable carnage. That war should have brought on much more soul-searching and much less chest beating or flag waving.

Fast forward into the 20th century: the Holocaust. The commentaries I’ve read and the photos I’ve seen in the Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem took my breath away. Jewish author Elie Wiesel, for example, wrote The Night Trilogy centered on Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp. In his forward, he writes: “I speak of society’s attraction to violence on the one hand, and the temptation to suicide on the other. How can we explain the hate that burns in so many homes? How can we understand the despair that pushes so many?” [Hill and Wang, New York: 1985, p. 3] The photos I’ve seen and the stories I’ve read have been heart breaking. Surely God’s heart was breaking too as free will was used to commit heinous murder.

A third example is in the 21st century: 9/11, when planes intent on destroying buildings of capitalism crashed into New York’s Twin Towers of the Trade Center, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C, and into the ground outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The heroic story regarding that last flight is memorialized in a book by Lisa Beemer about her husband Todd ,and the passengers who kept the plane from reaching its target. Let’s Roll, is in our church library. The aftermath of that 9/11 day, unlike the earlier ones, was largely caught on full color film. One book that haunts me the most, and gives me pause, contains no words. Called Here is New York: A Democracy of Photographs, it includes candid photos of the smoke, blood, the ash, and horror of that day and afterward. I pull it out annually, usually in September, to never forget. Never forget what? I want to never forget how to lament calamities, like the bloodiest American War; like Nazi Concentration Camps, and like solid steel building parts cascading toward the ground while flames made the occupants panic and jump to their death from skyscraper windows. And now I want to never forget how misguided men, with twisted Nazi ideologies, still murder others. Jesus laments that; and God weeps over such destruction.

I don’t have any memories of Jerusalem being destroyed; it did not even happen in Jesus’ lifetime. Perhaps you, at times, wish you could see into the future? Would that be tempting, or would it be dreadful? What if you could discover which one in your family dies early? Or you could learn if your home burns down, or your business fails? Jesus was certainly haunted by what he learned from his Heavenly Father: that destruction was coming to Jerusalem, the “City of Peace.” Jerusalem was on a downhill slide toward destruction at a time when the Pax Romana—the peace of the Roman nation—was brutally enforced. As author Adam Hamilton taught our Wednesday night class in his DVD, “Remember” did not just mean, “never forget.” It meant, “Help me and deliver me.” In the midst of that knowledge, Jesus goes into a powerful lament over a city that was the center of the Jewish world. Jerusalem was to be the final stop on in his earthly life.

As people go through the valley of the shadow of death, they learn some things that didn’t occur to them before; things like how fragile life is; how precious memories are; and how much we can miss the touch of a loved one. Our Caring Friends group, that meets with bereaved people, just had its eighth anniversary on March 6th. Between eight and 16 people meet to support, to learn how to move on, and also lament. Lamenting is not just crying, although it can include crying. Lamenting is not just mourning, although it is mourning too. Lamenting expresses one’s deep grief about something or someone. One of the greatest lamenters in the Old Testament was prophet; a great prophet, often called, “the weeping prophet.” His name was Jeremiah, and for being as young he was, he sure cried a lot! In fact, an entire book was written with his laments: you know it as “Lamentations.” Columbia Seminary Professor Emeritus Kathleeen O’ Connor wrote a book about Jeremiah’s lamentations. Listen to some of her chapter titles: “ Poetry of loss,” “There is No One to Comfort You,” and “Your Suffering is Vast as the Sea.” [Lamentations & the Tears of the World. New York: Orbis Books, 2002.p. vii] Jesus was very familiar with the writings of that great prophet. It was a way of honor a nation of people by weeping for them and for the destruction that was coming to them. Doing that is not a faithlessness act; it is an honoring action. The Rev Keith Nickle, former President of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, wrote: “As Jesus anticipates the events that await in the city toward which he traveled, he laments in anguish over Jerusalem. Although Jesus wills salvation for Jerusalem, Jerusalem wills destruction for Jesus ….” [Preaching the Gospel of Luke, Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2000, p. 151-152.] So, “The pathos of the lament is caught up in God’s passion to save, which is pitted against human determination to resist, even when the results will be tragically destructive.” [David L Tiede, Luke, Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1988, p. 256.]

As people go through such tragedies, they learn how to sift through the “wheat and chaff” of life, as the Bible puts it. In common language, they learn what is important and what is less important. “Jesus says, in that hour of lament: “Your house is forsaken. You will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.!’” Really Lord? ‘Jesus knew that was what we call “Palm Sunday.” Others surely thought it was a cryptic message.

Even as there is increased tension in Israel, and there are increased armaments in the stockpiles of other nations like North Korea, and our own arsenals are poised, which conflicts could lead to our future destruction? Over the last hundred years of more, important chaplains and pastors of national stature have sought to have the ear of our presidents, to remind them of both God’s justice and God’s mercy; to warn them of the terrible consequences of mass bloodshed; and to ask them to remember: To remember the Civil War; to remember the Holocaust; to remember 9/11.
Deadly acts continue to be perpetrated. May our national leaders use their powers carefully; make their choices wisely; and turn their ear toward God. Jesus’ teachings can have an even greater impact today to guide the decisions for today. Will it take yet another calamity to drive Christians back to their knees and leaders to awaken? Let’s take the steps necessary so one day there might be real peace in the City of Peace called Jerusalem, and God’s grace and corrections might be lavished on all who are bloodied and broken by hate.
Let us pray:
Merciful God: help us tune our ears to what Jesus taught, regarding changes we can make to help avoid future destruction or calamity. Call us to use our resources today to try to avoid crises tomorrow for your beautiful world and your wonderful creatures. We lament terrible losses today. Remind us to learn or re-learn the teachings of Jesus, the teacher of our most powerful life lessons. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner March 17, 2019

03-10-19 JESUS ENCOUNTERS THE DEVIL

Luke 4: 1-14

For many people the devil is the doorkeeper of Hell, the picture of evil, and the darkest of beings. In the book of Job in the Old Testament, the one called Satan is invited by The Lord to try to break down a faithful man. In religious folklore, Satan would often lead fallen angels to do malevolent things to people on the earth.  And we know there was a serpent in Genesis that was the epitome of a tempter. Sometimes these titles and tasks of the Evil One get muddled in our minds, with roots coming from different traditions. Today Luke describes the devil talking to Jesus. Was this devil an actual being, as some have believed since they were young? Or was this devil a voice in the head of an emaciated Jesus coupled with a mirage in the desert? People may love to say “The devil made me do it,” but it could also be, as I pointed out in my children’s sermon, that a voice seems to speak to us in one ear to commend us for a decision with words like: “That’s the right thing to do; good choice!” while another voice entices us to make bad choices with words like:  “Go ahead! Have a little fun! No one will know! You deserve it!” Today’s lesson is almost like a play, a morality play about making choices, and having to bear the consequences of each choice. The devil challenged Jesus to do three different acts as tests. At the end of the day, you too may decide the devil is less of a living being and more of a weakness of conscience in one’s own mind. Let’s see.  God gave us free will to choose and said: “Choose you this day whom you will serve.” [Joshua 24: 15]

That struggle has been depicted in this story:

An old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two “wolves” inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, doubt, sorrow, regret, greed arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, forgiveness, truth, compassion, and faith.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins?”

And his grandfather replied, “The one you feed.”

That was Jesus’ choice in the desert, and our choice every day.

Years ago I read this story in the first issue of Events Magazine:

A journalist assigned to the Jerusalem Bureau had an apartment overlooking the Western Wall. Every day when she looked out, she saw an old bearded Jewish man praying vigorously.  Certain he would be a good subject to interview, the journalist went down to the Wall and introduced herself to the old man. She asked, “You come every day to the Wall? How long have you being doing that? What are you praying for?” The old man replied, “I have come here to pray from twenty-five years. In the morning, I pray for world peace and the brotherhood of man. I go home and have a cup of tea, then I come back and pray for the eradication of illness and disease from the earth. And very, very important, I pray for peace and understanding between Israelis and Palestinians.” The journalist was impressed and asked this follow-up question: “How does it make you feel to come here every day for twenty-five years and pray for all these wonderful things?” And the man lowered his head and said: “Like I am talking to a wall.”

Our goal as Christians, I believe, is to always, in every situation, make the devil feel like he is talking to a wall. Jesus gave just a passing reply to each of the temptations he heard. But often we can be more like Adam and Eve. They gave in to the temptation to eat from the tree in the middle of the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3. It’s as if Eve decided to make an apple pie from the fruit for dessert and Adam decided he couldn’t pass it up! But it was bitter fruit. It made their heads spin. As they ate that fruit, what came to my mind was the Disney scene when a wicked witch gave a poison apple to Snow White! “No! Don’t eat it!” The world spun and those first humans tripped into the irreversible world of sin. In their perfect world, the glass that was more than half full became half empty. Poor choices brought on consequences. For example: the tempter was now a slithering serpent; disagreements grew in the Garden like dandelions; and childbirth became so difficult it would be called  “labor.” History would call it the fall from grace; Christian doctrines often refer to it as the original sin; the event from which Jesus was born to save us. Jesus was both human and divine, which is important. He had to be connected with God so his actions could save our souls, not just lose his own life. Also his humanness really mattered, because he was tempted as you and I are tempted. A person in Alcoholics Anonymous once told me, “It takes a drunk to connect with another drunk.” In a similar fashion, prisoners often listen better to former prisoners, and people who want to get clean from drugs may listen best to someone who used before. Today we’ve been reminded: “Jesus was tempted as we are, yet he did not sin.” So what is the secret for doing that? Here are two thoughts:

Sister Molly Monahan, herself an alcoholic, said this in her book Seeds of Grace- A Nun’s Reflection on the Spirituality of Alcoholics Anonymous:

“I know from the sad stories I have heard from or about others who have had relapses even after years of sobriety, that I am always in recovery, never cured; that if I denied my alcoholism and began drinking, I would lose all the good things in my life. By analogy then with my disease, that is what I think sinfulness looks like, what we all look like in our sinful state; these are the lineaments of the visage we bear as children of Adam and Eve; the marks of what we call original sin. 1) Our sinfulness is always destructive … in some way to ourselves and others ….And 2) We cannot save ourselves. We are utterly dependent on the love, and power, and goodness of God who is willing to help us, and we need others to bring us to this knowledge and power.” [pp. 150-151] 

The Apostle Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, described our situation writing: “As in Adam, all die; but in Christ, shall all be made alive!” [1 Corinthians 15:22]  Without Jesus, we have no sure hope of being saved from the consequences of choosing our way instead of God’s way.

A second thought comes from the Scottish preacher, James S. Stewart in his book The Life and Teaching of Jesus Christ. In it he says:

“The Master’s fight with Satan happened out in a desert, far from the beaten track and the eyes of men  ….Yet the evangelists are able to give a vivid and detailed account. How has that come about? Clearly there is only one explanation: the story came from the lips of Christ himself. Why did Jesus tell it—why did he go back and bring it to light? For curiosity? For biography? No. To first help his disciples through their own temptation hours; and second, because the titanic struggle of the desert days and nights had marked his soul forever and he could not forget.” [Abingdon Press, 1978]

Don’t we at times, like Jesus, have great struggles against sin regarding, drink, or drugs, or sex, or stealing or suicidal thoughts that put us in the wilderness with the devil? Can you remember times when your thoughts were unholy or your actions were destructive; when you thought your salvation might be in jeopardy? Jesus’ preparation for ministry was marked by vivid, rigorous soul testing. In honor of the price he paid not just on the cross, but in his time of trial, we too know we can enter our own deserts, prepared for the tempters we will face. Today, remember the verse of the hymn “This is My Father’s World” that said: “Oh let me ne’er forget that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the Ruler yet.”  Stand firm with Jesus, so the devil, when trying to tempt you, will feel like he (or she!) is talking to a wall.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           March 10, 2019