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

03-03-19 THE FACE OF GOD


EXODUS 34: 29-35; LUKE 9: 28-36
The wonderful mystic Teresa of Avila, who lived in the 16th century in a Carmelite Order, wrote: “The best place to find God is within yourself.” She went on to say: “When we are seeking God within ourselves … it is a great help if God grants us this favour… This is a good habit and an excellent kind of meditation, for it is founded upon a truth—namely, that God is within us.” [Interior Castle, Dover, Mineola, 1946, p. 57.] On one mountain east of Egypt, Moses almost saw the face of God, but resisted, since “mortals cannot look upon the face of God and live.” [Exodus 33:20] And yet, Moses was allowed to grow close to God, and talk with God on that mountain called Sinai. Afterward, Moses came down the mountain but didn’t know the skin of his face shone because he’d been talking with God.” [Exodus 34:29] Moses, the leader who faced Pharaoh saying, “God says, ‘Let my people go!’” carried the renewed the covenant for the people of Israel. In the New Testament, another chosen leader—a Son—revealed his power and his relationship to trusted disciples, also on a mountain. Could it be that our Savior, on the day that he was on that mountain apart, was revealing the divinity that lived within him; that the light of God lived within him? Our opening song invited Jesus to “Shine, Jesus, shine.” If God’s Spirit lives in us at our own invitation, then imagine what it would be like if the divine presence were within us too rather that “up there.” Today we go to the mountain with Jesus.

Historian and author Thomas Cahill, in his book, Desire of the Everlasting Hills, wrote: “[The] Christian life [is] an alternation of two activities, prayer and kindness, each feeding the other. The plight of those in need sends me to prayer; prayer strengthens me to help those in need.” (1999. P. 190) Today I want to suggest that in this transfiguration and daily life of Jesus, he modeled these things for us: both prayer to be in touch with God, and mission to carry out the work of God. Christians are called to be both prayerfully mystic, and then mission-minded. The dichotomy between mystic and mission may alternately be described as reaching the Holy One in prayer, and reaching the human ones in need. The dichotomy includes going to the mountaintop in order to be strong enough for the valley. How does Jesus model that we need to recover “mystic sweet communion” with God and others? Mysticism is defined as “a spiritual discipline aiming at union with the divine through deep meditation or contemplation.” When Jesus went up on the mount of transfiguration, Luke wrote: “While he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” To Jews who knew Torah, some might have said to themselves “He is the new Moses!” But on that mount of Transfiguration, a voice from the cloud declared: “This is my Son; listen to him!” [Luke 9:35] Jesus was ready to share the power that was within him; he showed the balanced life of mystical prayer and missionary zeal.

Another mystic in the 16th century was a friend of Teresa of Avila named John of the Cross. He was tortured for more than eight months and went into hiding for two years after that. In addition to being a mystic, he was a Carmelite Monk whose involvement with the Carmelites led to his arrest and eventual banishment. In a monastery in Toledo, Spain, he was kept in a dark cell without any human contact and fed just bread and water for months. During his captivity, he had frequent visions of God and composed many mystical poems, committing them to memory. Two of his greatest were called, “The Dark Night of the Soul” and “The Living Flame of Love.” In “The Living Flame of Love,” St. John of the Cross describes the happiness and peace experienced by the soul devoted to God. In his commentary, he wrote these words. Picture Jesus on top of that mountain as you hear them:
If the soul shall have attained the highest degree of love, the love of God will then be wound into its inmost depth or center, and the soul will be transformed and enlightened in the highest degree in its substance, faculties, and strength, until it shall become most like unto God. The soul in this state may be compared to a crystal, lucid and pure; the greater the light thrown upon it, the more luminous it becomes by the concentration thereof, until at last it seems to be all light and indistinguishable from it; it being then so illumined, and to the utmost extent, that it seems to be one with the light itself.

Jesus does not bring Peter, James, John, or us to the mountain to be dazzling. Among other things, he brings us there to teach us. “This is your strength,” he seems to be saying. “Stay connected with the Father in prayer.” Peter, James, and John seem to miss the point. They just want to stay on the mountain. But Jesus had a journey ahead. As we begin the season of Lent on Wednesday, we are called back to the one who had union with God and reminded us how to be connected with God. We cannot expect to make it through the valley if we have not been to the mountaintop, asking for the light to brighten our darkness. If you are continually tired, or discouraged, or have a life that is out of focus, go to the mountain of prayer to get in touch with the Holy One. Jesus showed us how.

Jesus prepared for his 40 days by connecting with his Heavenly Father. He then went into the valley as we are about to do. It’s the forty days of Lent. Dr. Donald Macleod, in his book PRESBYTERIAN WORSHIP: ITS MEANING AND METHOD says: “Lent consists of doing something, not just doing without something.” Therefore today we are invited to look inward for our power and look outward for our purpose. We are the arms, legs, hands, voice… we are the body of Christ in the world. After the transfiguration, what did Jesus do? He went and reached others; healed others taught others; confronted some, and comforted others. Let this season be a time of new beginnings for you. Connect with God for strength, encouragement, and light. Then, decide ways you can bring light to darkness. Jesus cast his eyes on the valley as he left the mountaintop. Ready yourself, through prayer, study, and his Great Commission, to join Jesus in the wilderness ahead. Let us pray:

Oh God, as you prepared Jesus for the wilderness with powerful words of encouragement on that holy mountain, prepare us for the days ahead too, letting your light be shared with others. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner March 3, 2019

02-24-19 Messy Relationships

Genesis 45:3-11, 15

In his book The Price of the Ticket author and civil rights activist James Baldwin says, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.” As a man who faced discrimination for his race and sexual orientation during the civil rights era, James Baldwin knew pain. He knew the brokenness of human relationships that led to discrimination, and he knew what it meant to be treated as less than a person. He used his platform as a writer and a professor to fight for equality by digging openly and honestly into the messy, complicated issues that we as society face. While James Baldwin eventually left the Christian faith, he still kept to the message that we as the church know to be true: we are a broken people who have broken relationships with one another. We know we are a sinful people; our sinful choices that point us away from God’s will of goodness, peace, truth, and love causes rifts between us and the people we love. However, we also humble ourselves and confess these sins every Sunday together. We know that God forgives and restores us when we seek reconciliation with God and the people around us. Our messy relationships are a fact of life, but if we turn to God in humility, forgive others, and seek reconciliation then God’s peace can prevail.
As we see in this scripture passage, Joseph and his brothers have complicated feelings toward one another because of their messy, broken relationship. Joseph had been arrogant about his status as the favored brother and bragged about the dream he had that one day his brothers would bow down to him. The brothers had been so jealous that they had become murderous; their bloodlust was satisfied by selling Joseph into slavery, which was only marginally better than killing him. After years of being separated and Joseph suffering from imprisonment from false accusations, Joseph had risen to power over Egypt at the side of Pharaoh. A famine had overtaken the land, and Joseph’s brothers had travelled to Egypt to buy rations of grain. Joseph had the opportunity to use his power to accuse his brothers of their crimes and withhold grain from them; instead he hugged them and they wept together. Joseph had decades to sit with the pain and anger at the betrayal from his family. Instead of holding onto grudges he chose to see God at work in his life to help save people from the coming famine. Instead of adding to the brokenness, he chose to embrace the messiness of the relationship with his brothers by humbling himself, forgiving them, and reconciling with them together. Their family was able to be reunited and made whole again in Egypt; there might have still been tension and pain, but they were able to come together and move forward.
Humility is the starting point for peace. Humility doesn’t mean sacrificing self-worth for the sake of keeping the peace; when someone’s self-worth is unimportant in a relationship, then that is abuse. Abusive parents or spouses or friends are people who manipulate others into thinking that their self-worth is not important, and that they are only as valuable as the abuser says they are. This can be manifested physically, verbally, emotionally, and sexually. We cannot let abusers steal our value; all people are valuable, important, and worthy of love. And true humility recognizes this. Humility means taking responsibility for wrongs done and recognizing that the needs and wants of yourself, and those that you love, deserve to be honored and respected. In her book, Letter to My Daughter, Maya Angelou describes a time when she travelled to Senegal to visit a friend and learned a lesson in humility. Her friend was throwing a dinner party and her home was beautifully decorated with many guests visiting and enjoying each other’s company. In the middle of the room was a gorgeous, expensive rug that everyone was avoiding stepping on. Maya assumed that her friend had told her guests not to step on the rug, and she wanted to challenge this notion because she believed rugs were meant to be stepped on. So, she went around the room looking at paintings and socializing, while intentionally stepping on the rug several times. As she began conversing with someone at the party, she noticed two maids who came into the room, rolled up the rug and laid out a new one with silverware, dishes, and food. Then everyone was invited to sit down at it and eat. This had not been a rug at all, but a tablecloth. Maya realized her mistake and felt deeply embarrassed for her assumptions of another culture. She is quoted to say, “In an unfamiliar culture, it is wise to offer no innovations, no suggestions or lessons. The epitome of sophistication is utter simplicity.” Maya did not have to set aside her value and self-worth in learning humility, but she did have to take some time to open her eyes to the value of the traditions and culture of the people around her. Joseph went from being the favored son, to being enslaved and imprisoned. He learned a hard lesson in humility, but this allowed God to use him to save the people in the land from famine and allowed him to be able to reunite with his family.
Following a lesson in humility comes a lesson in forgiveness. It seems like we, as people and as the church, really struggle with forgiveness because when we are hurt or wronged, we want the person to receive justice. We want them to admit their wrongs and then pay for it. We want them to get on their knees and offering a sobbing apology. If none of that happens, and we all know that in reality it almost never happens, then we hold onto the anger towards them as if it punishes them. Again, this is not reality. We are punishing ourselves when we let our rage burn. Forgiveness does not mean we excuse a wrong done toward us, and it doesn’t mean what they’ve done is okay. It means that we are refusing to allow the bitterness to erode all the goodness that God has placed in our soul. It means we are trusting God with our pain and rage and allowing our souls to reflect the forgiveness that God has extended to all of us through Jesus Christ. When we forgive, we can heal.
Author Jen Hatmaker writes in her book Of Mess and Moxie of a time when her life erupted in pain and anger. Her friends and her church turned against her and her family, and they lost many of their friends. Months, even years later Jen found herself having pretend arguments out loud with the people that she held grudges against, practicing in the mirror so that if she ever encountered them again she would make them feel the wrath of the pain that they had caused her. She would go over old conversations in her head, re-read emails from people who’d hurt her, and just re-open the same old wounds over and over again. One day she decided that she couldn’t remain this bitter and this miserable anymore. So, Jen decided to pray for her enemies just like Jesus wanted us to do. After months of praying for these people, she found that her rage was gone and that she was healing. She had finally forgiven the people who hurt her. She hadn’t forgotten the pain, because there really is no such thing as forgiving and forgetting; but she had allowed her wounds to be healed so that she could finally move on in her life and find peace. Jen was making room for God’s peace in her heart, like Joseph. He was able to make room for peace by forgiving his brothers by telling them not to be angry over the past anymore.
Joseph was able to reconcile with his family. They were able to reunite in Egypt and live through the rest as their days together as a restored family. In Madeleine L’Engle’s novel, A Wind in the Door, a fourteen-year-old girl named Meg must save her brother, Charles Wallace, from an evil force that is making him deathly ill. She must shrink down and go inside his body to fight off the evil that is infecting him, but she doesn’t go on this journey alone. Meg must go with the school principal, Mr. Jenkins, who she detests. She doesn’t like Mr. Jenkins because he hasn’t stopped the bullies who beat up her little brother. However, the evil in her brother’s body feeds on the anger and the tension between the two. Meg must find empathy for Mr. Jenkins and see him as a valuable human being before they can work together to save Charles Wallace. Mr. Jenkins risks his life to save Meg’s brother, and this helps her to forgive him. Once the two reconcile their differences, Charles Wallace is saved. This type of reconciliation is the ideal: when we are able to heal from our hurts, repair our relationships, and be at peace with one another. This is a possibility in many circumstances when we humble ourselves and forgive each other; but in some circumstances this is impossible. People who are abused should never be required by anyone to go back and live with their abuser. Some people are rejected by their families for marrying someone they don’t approve of or refusing to go into the family business. In many of those cases, the family remains estranged. In our broken relationships, sometimes even when we do the very best that we can our relationships can’t, and maybe shouldn’t, go back to the way they were before. This is the harsh reality of our messy relationships. When this happens, we try to find reconciliation with ourselves and with God, trusting in the hope that God’s perfect justice and reconciliation will restore the relationships that we cannot heal in this lifetime. God can make us whole in and of ourselves.
Joseph’s story is a messy one: his parents choose favorites, he shoots off at the mouth, his brothers want to murder him, then they sell him into slavery instead, he’s falsely accused and imprisoned, and then he rises to power alongside of Pharaoh. In all of this God was working to save the people from starvation and to heal the broken relationships in Joseph’s family. Whatever situations we might be facing, whoever has hurt us, whatever fight we find ourselves in, this pain and anger doesn’t have to define us. We can learn right along with Joseph that humility, forgiveness, and reconciliation help us embrace and heal the messy relationships that we inevitably find ourselves engaged in. Also like Joseph, may we also trust that the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives, so that we might know that we do not face our hardships alone.

02-17-19 LOVE THE BLESSINGS; BUT THE WOES?

Luke 6:17-26

Even though we may love blessings, sometimes they can be hard to see, and sometimes we may be looking for them through the wrong lens. Christian songwriter and singer Laura Story has written a beautiful piece of music that you will hear later on. Called “Blessings,” listen to one of the questions she asks God in this prayer:
What if your blessings come through raindrops,
what if your healing comes through tears,
what if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to
know you’re near?
What if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise?

What if? What if my contracting Diabetes was God’s mercy in disguise? What if there are blessings in your life that at first seem like woes? What if your glass is really half full, but you see it as half empty? Years ago I took a group from our church on a Holy Land trip with an extension to Rome. On those trips, the hotel rooms sometimes were not uniformly sized. As we were checking into one particular hotel, Mary Ann and I found our room. We opened the door and found a room uniquely decorated, with accents of the region we were in. We thought it was lovely. About 15 minutes later my phone rang. It was one of my passengers. “Our room is completely unacceptable,” he declared. “It is cramped, dark, and I want another room.” “Oh my goodness,” I said. “I am so sorry. We love our room. We’d be willing to trade with you. It’s room 215. Want to come over and look at it?” “Yes,” he said, “I’ll be right there.” Soon there was a knock on the door. In walked the man. As he examined our room, a sheepish look came over his face. “This is exactly the same room as ours.” he said. “I guess we’ll stay put.” Perspective is everything. The lens through which you see the world is everything. Perhaps you remember the Randa Haines film “The Doctor” starring William Hurt. Hurt plays a man who is a brilliant surgeon but is oblivious to the complaints of his patients. He displayed professional arrogance. Then he got sick. He had to have an operation there in his own hospital. He complained about his gown, the food, the treatment, and the nurses. But his experience changed him. More accurately, it gave him an empathetic lens through which he began to view his patients. He became more grateful and more caring. It’s an inspiring film. Likewise, I recently read the true testimony of Dr. Paul Kalanithi in his worldwide bestseller, When Breath Becomes Air. He was a neurosurgeon who held degrees in English literature, human biology, history, philosophy of science, and medicine from Stanford and Cambridge universities before graduating from the Yale School of Medicine. “At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, the next he was a patient struggling to live.” [Back cover, Vintage 2016.] He ended up dying. But before he did, Dr. Kalanithi gained a new lens through which to look at life. He wrote: “God, I have read Job, and I don’t understand it, but if this is a test of faith, you now realize my faith if fairly weak, and probably leaving the spicy mustard off the pastrami sandwich would have also tested it? You didn’t have to go nuclear on me, you know.” [Kalanithi, p. 162] But this doctor turned his feelings of woe into a blessing. How? He wrote about them; he left a legacy for others to appreciate. Reading his story has enriched countless people.

I think Luke, the gospel writer, also had a lens through which he saw Jesus; and I believe Jesus had a lens too, and that Luke captured the way Jesus saw the downtrodden, the poor, and the outcast, perfectly. Go up to any of the displaced homeless men in our city and see how happy they are with their city government officials and with the police. See how suspicious they are of authority. Jesus is speaking to that crowd, I suspect, when Luke includes not only the blessings of physical wellness toward the poor, but also the warnings of woe toward those in power. Luke did not hear that Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit. No. Luke heard that Jesus said; “Blessed are you who are poor!” What a difference! He was speaking directly to the faces of poor people! And he was saying they will be blessed? Yep. God is going to turn this world on its ear through Jesus. Luke did not hear that Jesus said: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness.” Luke heard that Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are hungry now.” What a claim! Really hungry people may have scoffed, but again God has a plan for them If you are poor, you are a Kingdom person. If you are hungry, you are a Kingdom person! Luke told his readers in his first chapter that “since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the event that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you … so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed. [Luke 1: 1-4]
Luke fills in the gaps in the gospels. He tells the stories of shepherds around the announcement of a child to be born. Shepherds were almost the last and the least in the world. He tells the story of baby Jesus having a feeding trough for his baby bed. What a detail to include! He tells stories that include women—the members of the human race almost ignored in the Bible. He tells the story of a Samaritan (who he called good) and a prodigal son who actually felt more blessed than his wealthy brother! Only Luke decided that these particular stories were important to tell about Jesus. Only Luke! And so when Luke talks about blessing in regarding physical issues, (and not just spiritual issues as Matthew does) I listen. When Luke says he heard that Jesus also describing woes—likely to those who were rich—he was not condemning them; he was holding a mirror up to them saying “Examine who you are; you can still make changes! You can be part of my Father’s plan of feeling blessed and offering blessings to others.”

In the world today most people don’t feel blessed by being dirt poor. But on the other hand, there are people of means who do not deserve the declaration of woes. They give to their churches, to their community, and to worthy charities. So we learn that Jesus—like preachers that come after him—sometimes preaches with hyperbole (exaggerated metaphors) and with dynamic comparisons to keep the attention of his listeners. Jesus had the job of waking up complacent people, and prophetic preachers through the ages have continued his tradition.

Blessings can hide in plain sight; but through the half-empty lens, people miss seeing them; they can’t see them because they believe the grass is greener on the other side of a fence. Look for the grass in your own yard! Look for the blessings in your own life! Imagine God actually being delighted with blessing you! I think God often blesses us with small things, but our eyes are closed to them. People who go on mission trips, or build Habitat houses, or feed people locally or deliver Meals on Wheels, find out there are plenty of people who are struggling with life. And then they come home and take account of what they have, and who they are, and they sometimes change their grumpiness to gratitude. The late Robert Schuller founder of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove California, once said: “The good news is … the bad news can be turned into good news … when you change your attitude!”
[ The Be Happy Attitudes, Word Books, Waco, TX, 1985, p. 61]

I’ve decided to close with a funny story instead of start with one. The Founding Pastor of New Hope Community Church in Portland Oregon, Dale Galloway, wrote:
Some people today think the whole world stinks. Once a cranky grandpa laid down to take a nap. To have a little fun, his grandson put some limburger cheese on his moustache …. [He] awoke with a snort and shouted “This room stinks!” On through the house he went shouting louder, “This whole house stinks!” He charged out to the porch and shouted, “The whole world stinks!” Galloway said: “The truth is, it was grandpa who stunk.” [The Awesome Power of Your Attitude, Scott Publishing, 1992, p. 1.]

Looking at situations in life as blessings—rather than looking for people to blame—can change your life. Blessed are you, and those around you, if you look at others through the eyes of Jesus.
Let us pray: God Almighty: Jesus found blessings in the strangest places: with the poor, the hungry, with those who weep, and those who defame or defile us! Help us to see blessings even in the corners of our lives as well, and in the world.
Jesus did it; perhaps we can too. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner February 17, 2019

02-10-19 JUST DO IT


Luke 5: 1-11

There are some famous ball players, politicians, and military men who were exceptionally stubborn—some would call them bull-headed—sometimes to their detriment. Here are some examples:
When your commands come from a guy called the commander-in-chief, that pretty much says right there that they’re not up for debate. (No, I am not talking about President Trump. This is about President Truman and General Douglas MacArthur.) The stubborn general sought to bring the Korean War directly to the Chinese via a nuclear bombing campaign. Fearing World War III, President Harry Truman ordered MacArthur to keep his opinions to himself, but MacArthur wanted them in the public debate. So, he mailed a letter criticizing official U.S. policy to the House Republican Minority Leader. When it was leaked, Truman relieved him of command. It wasn’t the first time MacArthur disobeyed a president, either. In 1932, he disregarded Herbert Hoover’s orders by attacking and burning to the ground a shantytown erected in Washington by unarmed World War I veterans demanding an early bonus payment. MacArthur’s stubbornness usually served him well, helping him win several key brave and brilliant World War II and Korean War victories, and the hearts of most Americans. …However, that pales next to what some historians think he would have been able to achieve by dialing down the bullheadedness a peg or two–a presidency of his own. [History.com]
Stubbornness can be a good thing if you’re stubborn about the right things. But stubbornness in the White House, the Senate, and the House also has produced a recent shutdown. Is another looming?
Let’s turn to the Bible instead, for examples of when such attitudes both helped and hurt. In three of the four gospels, the story about a woman who was hemorrhaging blood for 12 years is included.
Now we don’t know anything more specific than what Scripture says, and none of the Gospels give us any clues as to what the ailment was exactly. We don’t even know if she had a rare blood disease that didn’t allow her blood to clot. So she may have had open wounds all over her body….My mind immediately goes to the worst-case scenario. For twelve years! Not only was she suffering physically, but this particular constant suffering automatically categorized her as unclean. This meant she was also cut off from all spiritual activities. For twelve years! This is compounded by the fact that anyone who made contact with her would also be unclean, she was also socially outcast….for twelve years! [Word of Life Bible]
And so, she was determined to touch the hem of Jesus’ cloak, not letting other’s repulsion of her keep her from reaching Jesus. What rejection she must have faced, but she was determined to “just do it!”
And then there was Simon, later called Peter. Ah Simon; the headstrong, stubborn fisherman that Jesus chose as one of his prime disciples. That fisherman who was told that he would fish for men … and women. “Simon?” we might ask Jesus. “That’s your choice Lord? You know how stubbornness and bull-headedness can break up the best-laid plans, Lord?” Do you know how much chaos can ensue when people choose their own path in a business, in government, or in a family? My son Matt and his wife Vicki have two boys: Shane and Simon. Shane does exactly what he is told to do most of the time. If we are walking down a sidewalk together and Shane asks me if he can run ahead to the corner, if I say yes, I can count on him waiting at the corner. Then there is their other son. With a smile that has mischief written all over it, and a twinkle in his eyes, he will push the boundaries every time. And … his name is Simon! His mind seems to be on his own choices rather than following directions! The Simon of the Bible certainly showed his stubbornness later in the Gospels when Jesus told him that, before morning, Simon would deny Jesus three times! “No!” said Simon Peter defiantly. And yet, he did it. This time Simon Peter showed his respect for authority even in the midst of an exhausting and discouraging night of fishing. Fishing with nets exhausts the whole body, as nets are cast and dragged back in. He was not yet an apostle, but a fisherman. The Twelve had not yet been chosen, But Jesus and Simon were not only acquainted, Jesus had just healed Simon’s mother-in-law from a high fever. Later Jesus went away to rest, and he finally ended up at the water’s edge. The Sea was called Gennesaret; (also called the Sea of Galilee and the Sea of Tiberius.) While Jesus was re-grouping, Simon had been fishing. Jesus, seeing Simon coming to shore with empty nets, got into his boat and asked Simon to take him out from shore. Simon must have wished he could call it a day. But this, time he did what Jesus asked. He owed Jesus a favor. “Go to deep water” Jesus said to Simon, words captured in our anthem today. “Let down your nets to catch fish” Jesus continued. The old Simon replied: “We have worked all night and caught nothing!” Then the new Simon took hold: “Yet since you ask it, I will let down the nets.” Because Simon did what Jesus asked, there was a benefit; a great benefit: his nets were full of so many fish, even two boats couldn’t hold them all! Simon couldn’t believe his eyes. He had a great catch that would bring a good price. More importantly: he had even more belief in the powers of Jesus: he knew he could heal, and now he learned that he could do things that other men could not.
Jesus “called” Simon and the other apostles. We talk about a “call” as if everyone knows what that is. But I learned differently when I was working on a Doctoral project through Columbia Seminary. Professor Barbara Brown Taylor had given us the assignment to interview the religious leader closest geographically to the place where we served, but it could not be a Christian. Just four miles north of Westminster on Peninsula Drive was Temple Israel with a Rabbi named Amy Mayer. I called and set up a time to meet with her. She toured our facility and I toured hers. I learned a lot from her, but one thing surprised me. “Tell me about your call” I asked her. “What?” She asked. What do you mean?” “You know,” I said, “your call to being the rabbi of this synagogue. Your call like Moses was called, or Isaiah was called.” She looked at me and said: “It was not a call. It was a job. I interviewed and I got it.” It was my turn to be surprised! When I was asked to explain my sense of call to Committee on Preparation for Ministry years ago, I knew how to answer that. But a Rabbi, who shared her story, did not.
The Bible talks a great deal about a call. Dr. Alan Culpepper, when he served as Dean of the School of Theology at Mercer University, wrote:
Peter’s call to leave everything to “catch people” is the counterpart [to Paul] in Acts, where the commission is actually communicated through Ananias. [Acts 9:15] Both Peter and Paul were called dramatically, through a miraculous event, while they were in the midst of their routine activities, and both were given a commission to devote themselves to bringing others to Jesus. [New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, Abingdon Press, 1995, p. 118]
When C. Frances Alexander wrote her hymn “Jesus Calls Us” that we sang today, she clearly suggested that Jesus did not just call the Twelve, and Paul, and a few others, but that Jesus calls all of us to invite people; not catch them in nets, but to engage them with an invitation. Many of the new members introduced at our luncheon two weeks ago said they came in part because they were drawn by the beauty of the facility, but stayed because people made them feel so welcome. Whose life might you change for the better, with just an invitation to follow Jesus at your church?
Jeffrey A. Sumner February 10, 2019

02-03-19 A Conversation Between Malachi and Paul

A Conversation Between Malachi and Paul
Malachi 3:1-4
1 Corinthians 12:1-3, 11-13
First and foremost, I want to stress that these two texts are unrelated to one another. They were written for different people in a different time. The Malachi text is a prophetic message to the Israelites after the exile when they were allowed to worship together in their homeland again. The letter to the Corinthians is addressing a diverse congregation established as a church of Jesus Christ with prominent members and members of a lower social class. Malachi’s text is before the Messiah, while Paul’s letter is after Christ has died, resurrected, and has been ascended into heaven for quite some time. But both passages are challenging the audience, pushing them to grow, and making them uncomfortable all so that all who hear might be transformed into a more just and loving community that glorifies God. This is why I have put them in conversation with one another, to examine the similarities and differences between Malachi’s and Paul’s calling for transformation. We are inviting a prophet and an apostle to sit down together and discuss what is required of their audience to honor God. Imagine if you will, these two meeting together to discuss the problems they are facing and how they might address their communities. They are crossing space and time to speak to each other face to face, as friends and colleagues.
In this conversation Malachi might take a seat across a table from Paul and stare down into his coffee deep in thought. Paul would wait patiently as Malachi gathered his thoughts, knowing how hard it is to speak difficult truths. After taking a deep breath, Malachi would begin by telling Paul about the mess that he and his people are in now that they are no longer exiled. They are dealing with the trauma of homelessness and displacement, while struggling to find their identity as God’s people. Just as they have suffered, their worship to God has suffered. Their grain offerings and burnt offerings are not the best that they have to offer, and now God is sending a messenger to set them straight. At this moment Malachi might pause and rub his temples. He’s frustrated and exhausted. He has compassion for his people, and he’s dealing with his own trauma! This is such a heavy load to bear. So, Paul might reach out and give Malachi an encouraging pat on the hand. Malachi would continue on, saying that the day of the Lord is coming! This is good news because that means God is coming to restore the people of Israel. But God’s presence is overwhelming. If God is coming to be among them who can truly stand before the awesome, terrible, encompassing presence of God? If God is going to transform God’s people, then that means they’re going to be judged and changed before being made good. Such a powerful transformation will not be comfortable. In fact, it will likely be painful.
Malachi would then sit back in his chair and shake his head. Paul would nod vigorously and agree. Paul knows what it’s like for God to speak from the heavens and transform him completely. He’s well aware of what God’s judgement, although it leads to goodness, really means. So, Paul might take a quick sip of his coffee, and begins telling of the letter he has to send to the church in Corinth. You see, Malachi, this city has so much promise and potential for spreading the good news of Jesus. Corinth was diverse in culture, ethnicity, and in economic trade. Most of the congregation were Gentiles, which meant the message of Jesus was truly reaching the hearts and minds of new people. This church could really reflect the diversity of God’s kingdom! But diversity meant that not everyone had the same social standing and economic income. There were prominent members of means and comfort, while there were also people who were just getting by. Paul had emphasized that all people were important to God and had gifts to offer, but the people who had fewer worldly possessions were being treated as less essential to the church. They were being excluded from all the meals and celebrations of the church because they couldn’t afford to bring food to share. Their spiritual gifts weren’t being used to bless the church. Paul might take a moment to pause to put his head in his hands. Malachi would stand up, squeeze Paul’s shoulder and pour him some fresh coffee. Paul would take a sip of his coffee and tell Malachi that if Christians act without love, then it’s all just noise. If the church has faith but doesn’t have love, then it’s all nothing.
At this point the two men might take a moment to sit in silence and share a knowing look. This look communicates their desire to honor God, their compassion for their communities, and their frustration with how hard it is to be a leader. Paul would then stand up to stretch his legs and lean against the window. Malachi would stare out the window too, reclining in his seat. He would then tell Paul that as exciting as it is that the day of the Lord is coming, it will be a day of refining fire and fuller’s soap. It will be a day of purification. Being cleansed means checking into habits, being self-reflective of flaws, admitting that there is room for growth and change, and really tearing away all the darkness that’s bound to one’s soul. Are the people of Israel really ready to sacrifice parts of themselves for the sake of the transformation that God brings? Malachi, himself a prophet, may even have doubts about the pain of transformation and the sacrifice that it takes. Malachi would take a break to stretch and take a sip of his coffee. He would then stand up and grab some cheese and crackers from the kitchen counter and set them on the table.
Paul might sit down and finish his cup of coffee. Then he and Malachi would grab some crackers and cheese and munch on them quietly for a while. Paul then would say that people can do mighty acts of faith, they can give away their possessions and even sacrifice their bodies for the sake of Jesus Christ, but if all of these great faith acts are done without any love then there is nothing to gain from it. The church falls apart without love and the church of Corinth is truly struggling to show love to one another! Honestly, the way that they treat people who are rich and have a high social standing as more important than anyone else is childish. Paul would then stand up suddenly, very frustrated, knocking over Malachi’s coffee. How could these people act like children, reason like children, and speak like children? It’s time for them to set aside their childish ways! The future of the church is at stake! Paul would then see the mess he made and grab some napkins to help clean up. Malachi wouldn’t be angry. Instead he would agree that all people are made in God’s image and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. God calls all to share what they have with one another, instead of making powerful people even more powerful and impoverished people even more oppressed.
And then as the two are mopping up the spilled coffee, it would click. They would look up each other and nod, coming to an understanding. Both had different people in different circumstances that they would be addressing, but there was an inescapable similarity that both of these messages contained. God’s judgement is never separate from God’s mercy. There is always a way to repent and turn back to God. Malachi was talking to all the Israelites so that their nation would be restored as a whole. Paul was emphasizing the need of unity within the congregation in Corinth so that people in all social classes would be treated with love, honor, and dignity. In both of these scenarios the people of Israel and the church of Corinth needed to be redeemed as a community. Their faith in God was inseparable from their responsibility to love and serve the people around them. Malachi says that this would make the offering of Jerusalem pleasing to God, just like in the days of old. Paul would agree and say that while it’s hard for the church to understand this because they see through a mirror dimly, they would soon fully know that the greatest out of faith, hope, and love is, in fact, love.
Then two men would be feeling a little more light-hearted, ready to speak to their communities about the hard truths, and the good news that come from God. After they cleaned up the kitchen, the two would share a hand shake and a pat on the back and go their separate ways to do God’s work. Malachi would go to prophesy to Israel, telling them that God’s judgment is coming, and it’s not going to feel good; but if they are willing to withstand transformation then God will restore them. Paul would go to write his letter to Corinth, telling them that they must love each other fully with their whole hearts or else it undercuts all the good and faithful work that they do as a church. And both are going to tell their communities that they have to work together, serving one another. It’s not just about a personal relationship between an individual and the Creator of the universe; a relationship with God is inseparable from relationships with others. Now as we come back to our time, out place, and our congregation we have been fortunate enough to overhear this conversation between a prophet and an apostle. Since we have had an inside look and picked the brains of our ancestors, let us learn from the mistakes of the faith communities past, and move forward into a loving, refined future.