Acts: The End or “An On-Going Conclusion”

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Acts 28:17-31
November 11, 2018

 

 

Me, MK, Punab, Cody Watson at Franklin Creek

This past Wednesday at the mission dinner, many of you took advantage to hear M K tell the story of his conversion to the Christian faith and how he and his brother are now doing incredible work planting churches in North India. M K was a Hindu, from the class that used to be known as “the untouchables.” When his older brother became ill in 2000, they thought he was going to die. They’d taken him to the best doctors they could afford in Delhi, who sent him home instructing his mother to care for him in his final days. But then they met two Christian missionaries who began to pray. He became better and eventually was fully healed. The family embraced Christianity and the two brothers have a vision of planting tens of 1000s of home churches across North India.

I tell you this snippet of his story, especially for those of you who didn’t have a chance to hear his testimony, because I want you see how the Book of Acts purposely doesn’t end. God’s Spirit continues to be active in our world, calling new people into a faith with Jesus Christ.

I began preaching on Acts in the winter of 2015. We’re at the end. After this morning, during the three periods I’ve focused on Acts, I will have delivered 52 sermons from this book. Let me review a few things that I hope you have gleamed from this series.

  1. While this book is often titled, “Acts of the Apostles,” it really should be “The Acts of God through the Apostles”
  2. The challenges of the 1st Century aren’t that much different from the challenges of today as we, like them, are proclaiming a message to a mostly indifferent world.
  3. The church is never promised an easy existence.
  4. It’s God’s Spirit who motivates and directs the church.
  5. The gospel flourishes despite persecution and challenges.

 

My desire by our going through this book is to demonstrate the hope we have in Jesus Christ. God has entrusted his church with the message and calls us to participate with the Holy Spirit in telling the good news and bringing the kingdom of God closer to a reality. The book of Acts comes to an end, but the work of the church empowered by the Spirit continues. Read Acts 28:17-31.

         Acts ends with Paul living in Rome under house arrest. Why doesn’t Luke, the author, tell us what happened to Paul? After all, we know what happens, don’t we? Paul was martyred in Rome. It’s generally accepted that he was beheaded. It was the more preferable method of execution, generally reserved for citizens of the Empire. While still bad, at least it didn’t create the horrific suffering that came from the Roman’s other methods: crucifixion or burning in tar. Tradition has it that Paul’s execution came during the persecution of Christians following the burning of much of Rome in the year 64.

It was thought by many that Nero had part of the city burned so he could rebuild it to his liking. Kind of like those wildfires out west, it got out of hand. The emperor didn’t appreciate the scuttlebutt. He felt people were pointing their fingers at him. As a way to deflect their criticism, Nero used Christians as a scapegoat. As politicians are apt to do when they come under scrutiny, Nero blamed the fire on “them.” In this case, the “them” were Christians. While we can’t be sure that Paul died under these circumstances, it seems plausible. Furthermore, the date and approximate timing fits other reports from the first century that speak of Paul’s death.[1]

     All this is interesting, but why doesn’t Luke tell us what happened? Even if he finished this book before Paul’s death, by the time of the second edition came out, he could have easily added another chapter. What does Luke’s failure to speak of Paul’s death say to us? And what should we take from this passage to apply to our lives and to the church today? I’ll come back to these questions, but first let’s dig into the text.

One of the first things Paul does when he gets to Rome, this he does on his third day there (after cleaning up and catching his breath) is to call the Jewish leaders together. We have seen this throughout Acts. If there are Jews in the city he’s visiting. It’s the first thing he always does. Paul reaches out to the leadership of the synagogue.

 

Paul goes into this meeting somewhat on the defensive. “I’ve not done anything wrong,” he says. “I’ve not done anything against our people.” Either Paul feared that the Jews in Rome had heard about his problems in Jerusalem, or maybe since he’s still a prisoner he felt he needed to be defensive. After all, he’s standing before them in shackles saying, “I’m innocent.” It appears the Jewish leadership in Rome are not familiar with Paul’s issues. Afterwards, Paul who is confined to his home, begins to preach as people visit. Furthermore, we’re told, Paul provides his own expenses. We don’t know what he did. He could have continued making tents or had gone into some other business, as he had plenty of time while awaiting trial. A few of those who came and listened became believers, but many just argued. In verses 26 and 27, Paul quotes from the Prophet Isaiah and interprets this to apply to his preaching. The Jews don’t listen, but the Gentiles do. Paul continues to boldly preach, without hindrance and while welcoming everyone, we’re told, for two years. And with that, the gospel firmly grounded within the gentile community and having been proclaimed in the greatest city of the world at that time, the Book of Acts comes to an end.

        Back to that question I asked earlier, “why does Luke end the story here and not with Paul’s death?” I think Luke did it purposely. The story concludes while on-going. Luke knows the story won’t come to an end with the death of Paul or Peter or any of the other Apostles. After all, we’ve already survived the death of Stephen and James.[2] But this isn’t really a story of the Apostles. Acts takes up where the Gospel of Luke ends. This is the story of the resurrected Christ whose Spirit empowers the church to continue to proclaim his message to the world.

And in this manner, we fit into the story when we participate in spreading the good news. Whenever we do something good for another because of our faith in Jesus, we add chapters to this book. M. K. and his brother are continuing this story in India as are countless others across the globe. Luke ends the story, calling others to join the effort.

          Today is the day we honor veterans, and it’s also the 100th anniversary of the armistice taking effect at the end of World War I. Let me draw a parallel here to those in who have led the church in the past and us in the present by considering military cemeteries. One of the things I appreciate about our National Cemeteries is that rank holds no privileges, at least not in death. The graves are all the same. Generals and admirals are buried beside soldiers, marines, airmen and sailors. They are all marked with the same type of tombstone. We don’t honor just the top brass; but everyone who served.  In the end, it’s not individual bravery that’s important but the experience of the freedom obtained by their collective sacrifices. Something similar is true in the church. What’s important isn’t individual actions, but what God’s Spirit has done and is doing through the church in the world.

        Luke ends his story, not by focusing on Paul and directing our attention to his death, not by singling him out as a hero, but by inviting us into the story as we continue to lift up Jesus Christ as the hope for the world.[3] We’re all a part of this story and in the end the faithful will all be there in white robes before the throne.[4] It doesn’t matter if we are a Paul, or one of those preparing to join the church this morning, or some unknown soul sitting on the back pew, we’re all called to do God’s work. That’s why, I believe, Luke ends the book in this manner. Instead of neatly ending with an exciting conclusion, Luke wants us to write our own endings. What are you going to do to continue the story? What are we going to do? Amen.

 

©2018

[1] See F. F. Bruce, “The Last Days of Paul: History and Tradition”, in Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977), Chapter 37: The Last Days of Paul: History and Tradition, 441ff.

[2] Acts 7:54-60 and 12:12.

[3] See William H. Willimon, Acts (1988, Louisville: WJKP, 2010), 190-193.

[4] Revelations 7:9.

The Brothers (an essay and a review)

Stephen Kinzer, The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013), 402 pages including notes, bibliography and index plus 8 plates of black and white photographs.

 

Two of the most powerful men in America during the 1950s were brothers. John Foster Dulles served as Secretary of State under Dwight Eisenhower until Foster’s his death in 1959. His brother, Allen, was the CIA director through Eisenhower’s and the first half of Kennedy’s Presidency. The two had remarkably similar paths to power. Both were Princeton graduates. Both were Presbyterian. Both had spent their civilian careers working for Sullivan and Cromwell, a New York law firm that represented major American interest overseas. Together, seeing the world through a lens of good and evil (good being capitalism and evil communism), their influence was felt around the world and has effected world politics to the present. The two worked together to overthrow a democratically elected government in Guatemala and Iran. They forced out a popular African leader in the Congo, attempted to push out the elected president of Indonesia, and moved America into Vietnam as the French were withdrawing. After Foster’s death, Allen playing this role in foreign governments as the CIA attempted to overthrow Castro in Cuba, leading to the Bay of Pigs fiasco.  In addition the brothers also had a talented sister, Eleanor, who played her own role in international affairs, especially in Europe.

Kinzer does a commendable job as he draws sources from across the globe to create a portrait of the Brothers at work. The two brothers were raised within the Presbyterian manse. The father was a pastor, who would later become a professor at Auburn Theological Seminary. On their mother’s side of the family, they were descended from two former Secretaries of State. Ironically, their beloved “Grandfather Foster” had been the American Secretary of State who helped overthrow another government, the Hawaiian monarchy. This allowed the American annexation of the islands. Of the two brothers, Foster settled down quickly (marrying a woman his younger brother had rejected). He lived his life devoted to her. Allen, on the other hand, was always having affairs (his wife even became friends with two of his mistresses) and his many liaisons probably ncluded the Queen of Greece.

Both brothers began their international interest in the aftermath of the Great War (World War I).  In the 1930s, Foster was supportive of Germany (Sullivan and Cromwell had many German clients as well as representing American business with German interests). This led to the one time the two brothers had an open disagreement with Allen asking Foster how he could consider himself a Christian and support what the Germans were doing to the Jews. But soon, this became a moot issue as America was drawn into the war. During the war, Allen, who was always interested in covert work, headed the American spy network in Switzerland. After the war, when the OSS was disbanded, Allen was without a job. In less than a year later, the CIA was organized and he was brought on as second in charge. In the early 50s, he became its director. At the same time, his brother served as the Secretary of State.

The idea of two brothers in such key roles, not to mention their legal ties to many leading international businesses, is easily seen today as clearly a conflict of interest. However, such a breach of protocol wasn’t much of an issue in the 1950s when the country felt it was in a battle between good and evil. Whatever it took to win was seen as necessary. While the Soviet Union certainly presented challenges to the Western World, new research indicates the challenge wasn’t nearly as great as it was thought to have been.  Kinzer points out the blunders of both sides in Africa, where neither side understood the continent. The Soviets even sent snowplows to a country that had never experienced snow and wheat to the Congo, a country without a flour mill. Kinzer’s view is that the Brothers (and in some way, all of America) were so colored by the Cold War that they were unable to see beyond their own assumptions and thereby missed opportunities to build a more peaceful world.

As divided as the Brother’s saw the world, Kinzer points out how they clearly avoided direct conflict within the Soviet and Chinese spheres. When the Romanians revolted in 1956, they watched as Soviet tanks moved in to crush the rebellion.  While there was espionage behind the “Iron Curtain,” such as U-2 flights over Russia, the real battle was waged in smaller counties, many of whom attempted to remain neutral during the Cold War. The Brothers didn’t believe neutrality was possible.

The strength of Kinzer’s thesis is in his research and in his accessible writing style. However, there are weaknesses within his logic and the application of his research. Several times he refers to Foster and Allen’s “missionary Calvinistic background.” Granted, Kinzer isn’t a theologian (he even confuses Princeton Seminary with Princeton University). But a bigger problem is his use of “missionary Calvinism” in a negative (almost ad hominem) manner. First of all, I am not sure what he means by this description (nor am I sure what that he knows what he means). While many Calvinists have been missionaries, some would point out that Calvinism hasn’t displayed the missionary zeal of other theologies. But more importantly, Calvinism, with its view of human depravity, may be more applicable to the situation with the Dulles brothers. The emphasis on depravity is a belief there is a stain on the soul, in the heart of all people, that’s so deep that only God can remove. Such a doctrine stands in opposition to the dual world view of good and evil. Calvinists understand that we (the human race) have fallen. There are not those who are good and those who are bad. The only one good is Jesus, the rest of us are only righteous by his actions. Because of this strong view of how we, as people, seek out own on interest instead of what God desires, Calvinists encouraged from the beginning a system of checks and balances to keep individuals from claiming too much power. Certainly, the Dulles brothers lacked a desire to have such constraints of their power. If anything, it wasn’t Calvinism that cause their blinders that kept them from seeing a more nuanced world. It was either their ignorance of Calvinistic theology or their ignoring of the teachings of their church. The complexity of the human spirit and its complicity in sin can be seen clearly in Allen. He could be noble as in challenging his brother’s support of Germany in the late 1930s while practicing serial adultery and later, approving of covert campaigns in countries striving to be neutral during the Cold War.

The author also places Reinhold Niebuhr, one of America’s leading theologian during the 50s, in conflict with the Brothers. In his concluding chapter, he quotes Reinhold Niebuhr’s critique of the Brothers’ “self-righteousness” and lack of nuance in understanding right and wrong. However, I am not sure the conflict was as divided as Kinzer makes it out to be. Niebuhr is a complex man who wrote prolifically. While Niebuhr understood sin and the dangers of pride, from my understanding, he also supported America in opposition to the Soviet Union throughout the 50s. So while Niebuhr critiqued their self-assured swagger and unchecked power, he may have been supportive of their long-term goals.

Despite the author’s lack of understanding theological nuances, I still recommend this book. It shows the impact American business had on foreign policy. Was the overthrow of the Guatemalan government necessary in the fight of communism or was it convenient ploy that allowed the brothers to help a former client, United Fruit? The danger of ignoring such obvious conflicts of interest is revealed throughout this book. The book demonstrates just how powerful these two men, who are mostly forgotten today, were in the 1950s. They were even able to “force” Hollywood to change movies (George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Graham Greene’s The Quiet American). In both movies, the script departed from the book in a manner that made the story fit the Cold War mentality of the 1950s. Both authors were incensed at Hollywood’s interpretation of their books.

This book provides a portrait of the man for whom Washington’s International Airport is named. Having read this, I would like to read more about Foster’s children. His son, Avery, converted to the Catholic Church and became a Jesuit priest. He would go on to become an American Cardinal. His sister, Lillias, attended seminary and was one of the first women to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church in 1957. He had one other son who was a mining engineer.  The family dynamics must have been fascinating. .

This book speaks to our current age and our tendency to demonize our opponents. There are always dangers of seeing the world clearly divided into good and evil, especially when we see ourselves on the side of good and our enemies as always evil. While the Christian faith teaches of a cosmic battle between good and evil (God and Satan), that battle is also taking place within each of our souls, which blurs the battle lines. Furthermore, the victory within the cosmic struggle has already been won at the cross. We pervert Jesus’ teachings when we see ourselves as only good and others as only evil. The human race is much more complicated that this simplistic understanding that leads to a division between “us” and “them.” When we quickly demonize others, we risk denying the image of God instilled in us all.

Paul Arrives in Rome

 Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Acts 28:1-16
November 4, 2018

 

 

 

       As we have seen over the last couple of months, Paul knows he’s supposed to be in Rome. He wants to preach the gospel on Caesar’s doorsteps. But it has not been smooth sailing. We saw that last week as Paul along with the crew and passengers on the ship he was sailing are washed up along the shores of Malta. For a while, it didn’t look like they were going to make it. After being pulled ashore, cold and wet, things started looking up. We now expect Paul to have no further complications in his travels; after all, he’s suffered enough. Of course, that’s not what happens. At times, things we really want to do or feel we are called to do, are difficult. But just because we have setbacks doesn’t mean we should give up.

Today Paul finally makes it to Rome. But there’s still one more challenge in his path. For those of you keeping count, I have just one more sermon on the book of Acts! Our text today is from the 28th chapter, the first 16 verses.

 

In the “Man Who Would Be King,” a movie made from one of Kipling’s short stories, Sean Connery plays Daniel Dravot, a retired British soldier who is out to seek his fortune. Let’s watch a clip…[1]

        Daniel is mistaken as a god because he survived an arrow to his chest. Of course, the arrow stuck in his gear and didn’t penetrate his heart. The people in this remote land, the story is set in 19th Century Afghanistan, flock to him as a god that was sent by Alexander the Great (whom they also saw as a god). Unlike Paul, who was probably horrified by people thinking he’s a god, Connery’s character uses this confusion to his benefit. And, of course, when discovered that he’s not a god, that he bleeds red like the rest of us, things don’t work out well for him. But it does make a great plot for a story, doesn’t it?

We don’t generally have a problem equating humans with gods these days, or do we? It’s easy to overestimate people’s abilities. There is a human desire for saviors and those who can fix things which is why we blindly trust doctors, politicians, managers, and even sports heroes, who show promise. That is, until we realize they, too, have problems and are human. Their blood is red, just like ours. None of us are perfect and even the best of us have flaws, which should humble us all. This is your first application from this text: “we don’t need any saviors for we already have one.”

Let’s dig into our text. Once Paul and his shipmates wash ashore and finally begin to dry out, it begins to rain. It’s cold. They can’t get a break. But the residents of the island display a wonderful talent for hospitality. They build a fire and encourage everyone to gather around and warm themselves.

          I remember hiking the Appalachian Trail on a wet and rainy day. It had started to rain the night before. We’d packed up in the rain; we hiked in the rain. Our goal was a shelter about a fifteen miles away. The last few miles involved a long climb up a very muddy Bly Gap. Muskrat Creek Shelter was just after we got to the top. It was a three-sided lean-to with a fire pit in front. Another hiker was there before us. He’d skipped hiking in the rain that day, deciding to stay in the shelter where he started reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, a book someone had left behind. And he had a blazing fire. He invited us to join him around the fire as he whipped up some Martha White Cornbread mix and fried for us some hoecakes over the fire. We nicknamed him “Cornbread.” Like the residents of Malta, he was an example of hospitality.

If you’re ever caught in a storm, I hope you come across such angels! They’ll make your day better. Better yet, and this is your second application of the text for the day, if you find someone in a storm, why don’t you become their angel and show them hospitality. Such behavior will help make the world a better place.

After we warmed up that afternoon at Muskrat Creek Shelter, several of us went out to gather more wood to add to Cornbread’s fire. It was the neighborly thing to do. Likewise, Paul also pitches in to help, going out to collect some wood. Only he manages not just to come back with twigs and sticks. He picks up a snake which may have been somewhat lethargic due to the cold. Snakes are cold blooded, you know. When chilled, they can’t move and have to depend on the sun (or in this case a fire) to warm up their bodies so that they can move. This may explain why the snake was confused with a stick. But when Paul brings the wood over by the fire, the snake warms up and isn’t too happy at its relocation.

         This snake, we’re told it’s a viper, latches on to Paul’s hand. Paul dislodges it by shaking it off into the fire. Those observing this immediately think Paul must be a really bad dude. After all, why would he survive a shipwreck only to be bitten by a viper? You know the comic idea of the Greek gods up on Olympus, sending out lightning bolts to zap someone they’re displeased with. Think of them aiming at Paul, lightning bolt after lightning bolt, till they finally zap him. That’s what’s going through their minds. But when Paul doesn’t show any ill effects from the bite, the people change their thoughts. Now they think Paul must be a god. Why else would he have survived?

          Why was Paul saved from the snake bite? Certainly, Paul has a larger mission before him, of going to Rome, but more immediately, he’s also able to bring healing to those on the island. He heals the father of one of the leading citizens of Malta. Others come to him and Paul continues his healing ministry.

 

The people are so grateful that they provide all the provisions Paul and his friends need when they head to Rome three months later, after the winter storms have passed.

 

 

         The rest of Paul’s journey is easy. Again, Luke provides us with great detail, including a description of the ship’s figurehead, the twin brothers whom we know as Gemini, a constellation that’s easily identified in the night sky and important to navigation. They sail north from Malta to Syracuse on the coast of Sicily, then pass through the gap between Italy’s boot and football, and on up to Puteoili, near present day Naples. There, Paul would have seen Mt. Vesuvius, which would blow its top in a little less than 20 years, as it buries Pompeii. A group of Christians put Paul and his friends up for a week. From there, they make their way overland, north to Rome. The word is out that Paul is coming and Christians from Rome travel down to meet Paul and his companions half way.

         Luke tells this journey in a manner that almost allows us to forget that Paul is a prisoner. He’s being sent to Rome so that Caesar can hear his case and make a ruling. It appears Paul, who has befriended the Centurion in charge of his transport, has enjoyed much freedom during this journey. Even when they arrive in Rome, instead of locking Paul in a jail, he’s allowed to live on his own with a Roman guard watching over him. This arrangement would be like those today who get out of prison but have to wear an ankle tracking bracelet.

God is faithful and that angel who spoke to Paul during the storm that battered the ship was truthful. Paul has arrived safely in Rome. His adventures on this journey show us that while, if God has something for us to do, God will protect us, but it won’t necessarily be easy. The Christian life will have bumps along the way. Paul endured chains, a terrible storm, an attempted munity and murder, a shipwreck, and a snake bite. But God continued to use him, despite the challenges, to bring healing to those in Malta and to offer hope the Christians in Rome.

          Does God have plans for you, for us? And if so, what perilous journey are we willing to embark upon? And here’s our last application from the text: as followers of Jesus, we’re not promised an easy path, but we are promised that a faithful God will watch over us and give us strength when needed. And that, should be enough for us to willingly follow our Lord.  Amen.

 

©2018

[1]The clip was from the first minute of this section of the movie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3dJf5rO0-BM

 

Shipwrecked but Saved

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Acts 27:27-44
October 28, 2018

 

 

 

Today we’re reminded of God’s presence, even in the midst of the storms of our lives. But before we get to that, let’s again call on our own Gilligan and MaryAnn (Gene Pinion and Mary McKee) to set the stage as they present the slightly revised parody of the “Ballard of Gilligan’s Island.”


Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale,
A tale of a fateful trip,
That started from this tropical port
Aboard this tiny ship.
The mate was a mighty sailin’ man,
The skipper brave and sure..

A group of passengers set sail that day
On a long and fateful tour.
On a long and fateful tour.

 The wind began to howl one day,
the sailing ship was tossed.
If not for the prayers of Paul to the Lord
all members could be lost.

So join us here next week, my friends.
Be sure to hear the facts,
as Pastor Jeff completes the tale of the marvelous book of Acts.
The Acts of The Apostles….
and nothing rhymes with apostles!

          Last week, we left Paul and his companions on a boat as they were sailing from Fair Haven, on the west end of Crete. Those in charge of the boat (actually a ship for we’ll learn there are 276 people on board), decided they’d like to move to the east side of their boat during winter. This was when shipping on the Mediterranean became too dangerous. But as they make their way along the south of Crete, “the gales of November came early.”[1] Their ship is blown off course. They are unable to turn it around and make headway against the wind. The storm was so bad, they can’t see the sun or the stars. They have no way of navigating and are unsure where the wind is taking them.

        The 46th Psalm, which was read earlier, describes how chaos often fills our lives. There are natural disasters such as earthquakes and storms on the sea, along with human disasters such as war. Despite all that, we are told that we should not fear, because God is present in the center of it all. The Psalm ends, calling us to take a break from the whirlwind that surrounds us, to sit still in silence and to know that God is with us, that God is our refuge and strength. Paul may have quoted the 46th Psalm to assure his shipmates.

Paul encourages everyone to keep up their courage, telling them an angel visited him during the night. This angel, Paul said, “belongs to the God I worship.” At other places, Paul might have said the angel belongs to “The God of Abraham,” but here Paul is addressing a crowd that is mostly pagan. He refers to God in a way they can understand. The angel, this messenger from God, told Paul not to be afraid. Paul is assured that he will safely arrive in Rome, and that everyone on the ship will survive, even though the ship itself will be lost.

This is where our reading begins this morning. Open your Bibles and read along with me from Acts 27, beginning with verse 27 through the end of the chapter.

        Have you ever been in a position like that of Paul’s shipmates, where you lost hope? Where, in the words of Gordon Lightfoot, “the wind and the waves turn the minutes into hours.”[2] I hope not. But if you have, I hope there was someone like Paul beside you. When itis dark and hope fades, we need encouragement. We need someone to challenge the despair and remind us of God’s abiding love? By the way, this is what the church is to be about. We’re to offer hope when all appears lost. We’re to be the voice crying out in the storm, encouraging everyone to trust, to have faith. We can do this because we worship a Lord who was, as we say in the Apostles’ Creed, “crucified, dead and buried.” But that’s not the end of the story. The creed doesn’t end there, it continues, “On the third day, he rose from the dead…”

        We have hope because we worship a God who raises the dead! We have hope because our God created this good world, and although the devil and his minions may challenge God’s reign, God is still in control. God is all powerful, but more than that, God is good and just, loving and graceful. As part of God’s family, we have no reason to fear. We have hope, eternal hope.  Yes, bad things may happen (and they do), but in the end God holds us in his loving hands. This goes for us as individuals as well as congregations and denominations. Not everything that happens is good. And that’s okay. After all, if the church was that perfect, where only good things happen, they wouldn’t have any of us as members.

         Recently, I’ve been reading Joseph Small’s wonderful book on Reformed Ecclesiology, Flawed Church, Faithful God.[3] Ecclesiology comes from the Greek which blends together “word” and “assembly” to create the Greek word for church. Add to that the –ology ending, meaning study, and we have ecclesiology is the study of “church.” Small’s title—Flawed Church, Faithful God—says it all. He captures an essential truth about the church. We’re flawed, we’re not perfect, but we have been brought together by our faithful Savior Jesus Christ and while we struggle to get it right, we follow one who gets it right. So today, as we recall the past, and all the good times we’ve enjoyed, don’t make the mistake to confuse the past with the kingdom of God. For we, the church, is being called forward into a new kingdom where the redeemed in Christ will live eternally. But, like Paul in our story today, we’re still on a journey. There’ll be good days and not so good ones.

         Let’s explore our text. Paul and his fellow shipmates have been at sea for 14 days. It’s been stormy and the winds have pushed them far off course. They’re no longer envisioning a nice winter in Phoenix. By reducing their load, they’re just hoping not to capsize. Seasickness is rampart. People aren’t eating. Everyone, it seems, have given up. Everyone except for Paul. Paul’s the cheerleader.

   Finally there is some hope. In an era without depth finders, they drop a weight on a string overboard to take a sounding. They realize the water is now only 20 fathoms, or roughly 120 feet. They drop it again, and it’s only 15 fathoms. Although it’s night, they sense land must be near. The sailors dropped anchor. Interestingly, instead of dropping anchors off the bow, as is generally done so the vessel can swing into the wind, they drop four anchors off the stern. Perhaps this caught Paul’s attention, and alerted him that something wasn’t right. For when sailors lower a boat into the sea for the said purpose of setting an anchor off the bow, Paul’s alarmed.  In the middle of the ocean, this doesn’t make sense, for you want the ship to be able to move and stay into the wind, lest you risk swamping the vessel with a rogue wave. Paul goes to his friend, the centurion, whom we met last week. Remember, he’s a good guy. Paul tells him that he thinks the sailors are going to abandon ship to save their own necks, so the soldier cuts away the lines holding the boat. Now everyone is stuck on the ship.

           Then, in the early dawn, just before daybreak, Paul encourages everyone to eat. We have essentially a communion service here, except that there is no mention of wine. But the language is similar. Paul gives thanks for the bread and then gives it to everyone, all 276 of them, and they eat.  And as they are eating, Paul reminds them that they’ll not lose a hair from their head—quite a promise for a group that has been floundering at sea for two weeks.

          When the sun rises, they find themselves off an unfamiliar land. They cut the anchors, hoist a foresail, and are blown toward a bay. All seems to go well. It looks like they’ll be saved. THEN, they strike a reef. The ship begins to break up. Salvation was so close, now it seems it’s so far. Once again they are in peril. And there is another problem, one even more ominous.

         The soldiers, we’re told, plan to kill the prisoners. They fear that if they the prisoners swim ashore, they’ll escape. If that happens, they’re in trouble. They, themselves, might face death. Remember the jailer in Philippi, who had Paul and Silas locked up. When that earthquake opened the doors of the prison, he was going to commit suicide, for he was afraid that his prisoners had escaped.[4] Letting prisoners escape was a serious thing in these days.

Thankfully, again Paul’s friend, the centurion, intervenes. So those who can swim, jump in and head for the beach while others float on wooden pieces of the boat. As Paul predicted, the ship is lost but all souls are saved.

        Last week, I told how this story stands in in the tradition of that ancient genre of seafaring stories. But here, the ending is in contrast to some of the other stories of the day. In the Odyssey, only Odysseus survives. His crew perishes. By saving not just Paul, but everyone, Luke tells the story in a way that reminds his readers of the power of God, a power that extends not only over the sea, but far surpasses the power of the gods that others worship. We also learn of God’s desire to save.[5]

This story teaches us that while God desires to save us, there are going to be bumps and storms along the way. Yes, Paul is supposed to go to Rome to preach before Caesar, but getting there is not easy. There are things God wants us to do, as individuals and as a community, but that doesn’t mean those things will be easy. As the church, as Jesus’ body in the world, we are called to endure and to be a beacon of hope.

After a week like this past one, with attempted bombings of political figures and a mass killing in a Jewish synagogue, one of the things we’re called to stand up to the hate. As people of God, we’re to show the world a better way, a new way of relating to one another. But it’s not easy. It takes faith. It takes courage.

          Our final hymn, which we’ll sing in a few minutes, reminds us that the church exists “‘Mid toil and tribulation…” Things are never easy. But the hymn continues, reminding us the church waits for the fulfillment of the kingdom, for “peace forever more.”[6] The Christian life is not a life free of storms. It’s a life where we endure the storm because we know God is with us and because we know the future. God is going to be victorious over death and evil. In the meantime, we take hope in Jesus’ words that he’ll be with us until the end of the age.[7] We remind ourselves, as we heard from Psalm 46, that God is present even in the middle of a storm. These promises should instill confidence for us to live boldly into our next forty years. So be it. Amen.

 

©2018

[1] From Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” 1976.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Joseph D. Small, Flawed Church, Faithful God: A Reformed Ecclesiology for the Real World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018).

[4] Acts 16:25ff.

[5] William Willimon, Acts, (1988, Louisville, KY, WJKP: 2010), 185.

[6] Samuel J. Stone, “The Church’s One Foundation” verse 3. (1863)

[7] Matthew 28:20.

A Better Looking Corpse

Larry Larance, A Better Looking Corpse: and other Southern Short Stories (Savannah, GA: Windchimes Press, 2007) 203 pages

 

I haven’t meet Larance, but we live on the same island (Skidaway).  I was lent a copy of his book by one of his friends. They’re both part of the same writing group. These are thirteen enjoyable short stories set across the rural South. Many are from Arkansas, but there are some from Georgia and from Louisiana. Laramie provides an interesting header for each story that includes the town’s name and population. I would have suggested he also provide a year, as the stories are set over a 50 year or so period. However, it doesn’t take long in a reading one of these stories to know what decade they’re set. The author acknowledges his desire to capture the southern speech patterns. Not only does he do this, he does a good job with it so that you have a sense you’re sitting inside the story.

 

Larance’s stories generally leave the reader feeling good, through there are a few exceptions. In one, someone trying to take an easy way out by running drugs and stashing them in an old couch. He receives his “just reward” when his grandmother surprises him with a new couch and sends the old one to the dump. But most of these stories are about those who struggle and find hope. There’s the man who was going to kill himself who befriends a hobo who saves him. I couldn’t help but to think of George Bailey meeting Clarence in the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. There’s a story about a bunch of old-aged good-ole-boys ready to set a younger man straight over his drinking and the way they perceive him treating his wife, only to discover there’s more to the story than they knew and they end up offering their help as he tries to get his life back on track. These stories take place in all kinds of settings: a barber shop, the Plantation Club of the Landings on Skidaway Island, a church recreation room, a “boarding house, a class reunion, and upon the waters of Wassaw Sound.

 

While most of the stories end with the reader feeling good about what’s happened, there are a few that leaves the reader pondering the future. In “No Forwarding Address,” a successful businessman who, on a rebound after his wife’s death, marries a woman who is cleaning him out financially. He plans and executes an escape as he disappears in South Florida. While it seems his new wife might receive her due, we are left to wonder about him. But, as in all the stories, hope is possible. And sometimes that’s what we need, a little hope. These stories may be simple and straight forth, but the reading is good.

Paul Sails for Rome

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Acts 27:1-12
October 21, 2018

 

Last Sunday we focused on Paul’s speech before Agrippa and Festus. Some scholars suggest that speech is the climax for the Book of Acts. Paul lays out his history, theology and a summary of his actions. Paul is convinced of the resurrection and has placed all his trust in Jesus, his Lord. The remaining two chapters in Acts are almost anti-climactic, as Paul lives out his confidence in Jesus, fulfilling the prophecy that he will take the gospel to Rome.[1]

In today’s reading, Paul finally sets sail for Rome. We’ve been waiting for this journey for a long time. There are only two more chapters in this book… After today, we have three more Sundays and we’ll have completely covered this book.

At this point in the story, the church has been established throughout the Roman Empire and Paul isn’t organizing any additional churches. Nor does Luke, the author of this book, provide any additional theological insights. Instead, what we have is a story of a journey. Like another journey that started from a tropical port that we’re all familiar with, they begin in optimism, but that soon wanes. As an introduction to the 27th Chapter of Acts, let me call on Gilligan and MaryAnn. (That’s Gene Pinion singing and Mary McKee accompanying as they present the “revised Ballard of Gilligan’s Island.”).

 

 

Paul is a seasoned traveler and has taken enough Mediterranean Cruises and racked up enough sea miles in his missionary journeys that he could have easily been a member of the Captain’s Club. Interestingly, in none of these earlier journeys has Luke given this kind of detailed information. We’re provided with the names of several of the travelers, the home base of the ship, all the ports of call, and the route the ship takes as it responds to the weather. What is Luke, the author, trying to accomplish with all this detail?

In a way, Luke has slowed the action down. Way back in Chapter 19, Paul has been focused on going to Rome.[2] But he first had to go to Jerusalem. This appeared to be just a quick trip to the Holy City, but obstacles were continually placed in Paul’s path. It’s finally a relief that Paul is able to begin moving toward this goal of his, to be in Rome, the city that dominated the ancient world.

      What do we learn as Luke slows down his telling of the story? First of all, from the beginning, we learn that Luke and Paul are back together. Notice in verse 1, “When it was decided that WE were to sail to Italy.”  We (those of us who are reading this today) don’t know what happened to Luke, but he last included himself in the narrative back in Chapter 21, just before Paul went into the temple in Jerusalem.[3] Now it appears, Luke has rejoined Paul, as have at least one other believer, Aristarchus. Some scholars have suggested that these two may have traveled as Paul’s slaves, not only to help take care of Paul’s needs, but to elevate Paul’s status, which may be why he seems to receive special treatment by his guard.[4]

          The journey begins with Julius, the centurion who is there to guard Paul, arranging a ship for the journey. This ship is from northwest coast of Asia Minor and was probably just a coastal vessel that sailed from port to port, never far from land. As it is late in the year for shipping, this ship is probably heading to its homeport for winter. The first stop is at Sidon, and there Paul is granted freedom to go find friends who are able to help provide provisions for him. Undoubtedly, those aboard were responsible for their own food. This was a kind gesture by a Roman soldier who could have told Paul to tighten his belt instead of giving him freedom to seek out grub. Because of the wind, we’re told, the ship sails on the leeward side of Cyrus. Luke is building suspense here. The weather is changing. After several ports, they come to Lycia, where Julius finds another ship bound for Rome.

          This second ship, which has sailed north, across the Mediterranean from Egypt, probably hauled grain.[5] It’s well known that at this point in history, Rome’s breadbasket was Egypt. So ships would ply the waters from Alexandria to Rome. With this ship heading to Rome, it appears Paul has a straight shot to make it. But not so quick.

 

We’re now told it is after the Fast, meaning it’s after the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur, which falls in late September to early October. This is a problem because we are now in a marginal season for sailing. By November, all shipping would come to a close[6].  Now is the time for ships to find a safe harbor and wait out the winter winds. Paul understands this and argues that they remain at Fair Havens, which sounds like a wonderful place if you’re facing a winter storm.

But Paul is not in charge of this ship. The ship’s owner and the sailors all prefer to winter in Phoenix, a harbor a little further down on the south side of Crete. Who knows why? Fair Havens appears to have been just an inlet, maybe Phoenix not only had a better harbor and a more exciting waterfront that could provide better entertainment for the sailors. So, with Paul’s warning ignored, they set sail and we’ll pick up the story from here next week.

         In a manner, this story is told differently than other stories of Paul’s travels. Instead of focusing on Paul’s work, Luke is now focusing more on Paul and the journey. While this is different from the rest of Acts, his writing in this chapter may have been included to please his readers. The human race, at least since Homer first wrote the Odyssey, has had a fascination with sea travel.[7] The sea is a great mystery and still is in some ways. We know way more about the ocean today than then, but what goes on in the depths still baffles science. Perhaps, as one scholar suggested, including this sea journey was the same as a modern author including a chase scene in an adventure movie.[8] It wakes us up and gets our heart racing.

Even if Luke’s intention is to provide levity with this story, are there some other things else we learn from this story?  What can we take from this that we can apply to our lives? I think there’s still truth here to grasp. And to understand this, we should go back to Jesus calling the disciples. Interestingly, he first called those who worked the seas on their fishing vessels. What did Jesus say to Peter and the others? You know the answer. Jesus said, “Come, follow me.”[9]

The call to faith is not a call to remain where we are at. It’s a call to follow, it’s a call to a movement. As I’ve often reminded you as we’ve gone through this book, the early church didn’t have names like “The First Presbyterian Church of Antioch.” The church was first known as “The Way.” The journey is important whether or not we actually leave the place we live. At least metaphorically, we are all called to leave behind the past and to move forward into a new life with priorities that are based on Kingdom values.

        “Follow me,” Jesus says. For Paul, that means he had to leave behind being a Pharisee, his Jewish heritage, the Holy City of Jerusalem, and head to Rome which was, in the first century, the center of the world. Paul was called as an Apostle to the Gentiles and that requires him to be willing to go where they were living. It also means, as we see in this text, that even though Paul was reluctant to go forward at times, wanting to take the safe way, sometimes we are dragged along and have to go on faith.

You know, it used to be said of churches that “if you build it, they will come.” But that day has long past. Today, most people advising churches on how to engage the culture is saying that we can’t expect people to come to us; we have to go to them.[10] As I have tried to inform you through this series, there are many great similarities between the church of today and the church of the 1st Century. We both are called to do what we can to reach people where they’re at and in most cases that means we need to leave the pews and go be the church into the world.

        Where is God calling you? What need in the world is God calling you to help address? Is there someone that could use a friend that you could reach out and share the love of Jesus? Are there people who need to hear the message of hope that has been entrusted to the church? Are there ways you can become involved in the movement to building Jesus’ kingdom? Do you need to talk to someone to help you figure out your journey? If so, come talk to me or seek out a faithful friend.  Being on a journey means we must get out of the pews and go and love and serve the world. Amen.

 

©2018

[1] Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Acts (Nashville: Abingdom, 2003), 349.

[2] Acts 19:21.

[3] See Acts 21:17.

[4] F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 501.

[5] Gaventa, 351.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Gaventa, 349. William Willimon Acts (Louisville, KY: WJKP, 2010), 182-183.

[8] Gaventa, 349.

[9] Matthew 4:19, Mark 1:19, and John 1:36, 45.

[10] In Lasting Impact, a book the Session of SIPC is studying, the author discusses these trends and how the church should respond.  See Carey Niewhof, Lasting Impact (Cummings, GA: The rethink Group, 2015).

Return of the Osprey

David Gessner, Return of the Osprey: A Season of Flight and Wonder (Ballantine Books, 2001), 289 pages, 1 rough map.

 

I purchased this book (along with an alumni sweatshirt) ten years ago at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington’s bookstore. It’s the school where I did my undergraduate work and where Gessner now teaches. I started reading and just didn’t get into it at the time. I put it down after 20 or so pages. Since then, I have read a couple more of Gessner’s books (My Green Manifesto and All the Wild that Remains). Late last month, as I was looking for something to read while I was spending a few days kayaking and camping on Cumberland Island, I decided the try the book again. This time I fell in love with it. There, I spent part of an afternoon on the banks of Brickhill River, alternating between reading this book and watching an osprey fish. Gessner’s prose is wonderful. There is a relaxed tone to the book as he draws us into a season he spends on Cape Cod observing these magnificent birds. This book is part memoir, as we learn about the author’s recent bout of cancer, which he uses to draw us into the story of how chemicals (especially DDT) almost wiped out the osprey population. But they have made a comeback. Personally, I encounter osprey almost every time I paddle out of Delegal Creek, heading to Wassaw or Ossabaw Island. Perhaps these experiences helped draw me into Gessner’s story.

As he watches the osprey return from South America to their nesting grounds on Cape Cod, Gessner informs us of the birds’ habits. He draws on experts, such as John Hay and Alan Poole. He also carries on a discussion in his narrative with broader ecological writers including Henry David Thoreau, Rachael Carson, John and Mildred Teal, Wendell Berry and Scott Russell Sanders.  He explores the dynamics of his own family. He regularly visits his father’s grave while his mother spends the summer with Gessner and his wife. Also, for shorter periods of time, his troubled brother visits, followed by a more delightful visit of his sister and her son, Gessner’s nephew. Reflecting on his own family allows him to also ponder the family dynamics of osprey.  As the book goes from late winter to early fall, the reader joins Gessner in cheering on each stage of development during the osprey’s nesting season. First they select and build a nest, then lay the eggs, then the hungry newborns to feed. As the season begins to wane, the young fledglings’ take to the sky and then, before it is time for them to migrate, begin to master fishing.

Ospreys are often called sea eagles and they obtain almost all their food from fish. I was glad, however, to learn that occasional on Cape Cod they will eat an occasional muskrat. I once saw an osprey near my home here come back to the nest with what appeared to be a marsh rat.

I recommend this book. It’s great nature writing. It reminded me of Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire and Annie Dillard’s A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, even though both of these authors wrote their stories as if they were living alone (both had a spouse or significant other with them at the time, something I think I learned from a lecture given by Scott Russell Sanders).  Gessner, by including his family into his anrrative, is able to take us out of the “lone nature lover” situation to one who, like the Osprey, live lives with others.  A good read.

Paul before Agrippa

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Acts 26 (19-32)
October 14, 2018

One of my goals over the past three years have been to preach through the book of Acts. Part of the reason is my belief the church in the first century isn’t that different than the church of the 21st century. We’re both living in an era where the world is somewhat indifferent to the church. Sadly, there are those willing to use the church as a political pawn, but the message of Jesus, the grace, love and forgiveness of God the Father, is easily sidelined when the church serves such purposes. The great question to the church today is how we are to live our faith in an indifferent world. That was also the question of the church in Paul’s day.

        We know this book as “Acts of the Apostles,” but as I have often suggested, it really should be called “The Acts of God through the Apostles.” For each of the miraculous deeds, while done through the Apostles, happen because of God’s power and presence as the early church grows throughout the Roman Empire. This is counter-intuitive, but Paul and the early Christians understood it. The church is always its strongest when the world is against it and the only thing the church can do is depend on Jesus Christ. As Paul reminds the Corinthians, “The weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”[1] With apologies to Allstate, when we trust ourselves to God’s hands, we are in good hands.

Now let’s catch up with our story from Acts. After the end of Paul’s third missionary journey, he returned to Jerusalem, where he found himself attacked by the Jewish leaders. Roman soldier’s saved his life and he’s whisked off to Caesarea, where Paul spends two years waiting in jail. As we’ve seen, God’s hand is still there with Paul, working out the Kingdom’s larger purposes, despite the Apostle’s imprisonment.

The Romans, as I’ve pointed out over and over again, didn’t know what to do with Paul. They don’t think he’s guilty of anything. And Paul, being a Roman citizen creates a problem for them. If they punished an innocent Roman citizen, they’ll be in trouble. But if they let Paul go, they’re going to make the Jewish leaders mad. Looking back on this event from the present, we can see we are just a few years before the Jewish revolt. Things are unsettled in that part of the world. The Roman leaders are doing all they can to maintain the peace.

Instead of facing another trial before the Jews, Paul has appealed to Caesar. But before he goes to Caesar, there is one more hearing, before Herod Agrippa. While we don’t learn anything new about the charges against Paul, we are able to watch how Paul gives his witness before the Roman’s authorities. As we reflect on the 26th chapter of Acts, we can ask how we might give our testimony if called upon. Paul has been falsely accused. If someone was bringing false allegations against us, how would we act? Would our response be like Paul’s?  Think about this as we listen to the end of Paul’s last great speech recorded in the Book of Acts.  Read Acts 26:19-32.  (note, verses 1-18 were read earlier in the service)

          Paul has been locked up unjustly. The Romans can’t find anything that he’s done to deserve such treatment, yet they don’t want to upset the Jewish leadership, so Paul remains a prisoner. Now he has a chance to speak before a king. If you were in this situation, what would you do? I’m sure most of us would complain by how we’ve been treated unfairly. We might say nasty things about our accusers, or go on and on about who’s out to get us. We’d grumble about the prison food. We’d whine about the rusty shackles. We’d let ‘em have it.

         But that’s not what Paul does. Paul is brought before a king and he is respectful and courteous. And instead of focusing on himself, Paul proclaims the truth he has come to know in Jesus Christ. Paul doesn’t give a defense; he proclaims Jesus Christ. It has been said that the only real defense the church has against allegations by those on the outside is proclamation. Paul might have found relief by focusing on his mistreatment, but would he have been faithful?[2] When our backs are up against the wall, are we willing to proclaim Jesus Christ as the risen Lord? When we are challenged and treated unjustly, do we act like we trust in Jesus? Does our response demonstrate that Jesus is the only thing that matters?

        In his first letter, Peter encourages his readers to consider themselves blessed if they suffer for doing what is right. He goes on to say that they should be ready to proclaim, in gentleness and reverence, the hope they have in Jesus Christ.[3] Contrary to what some people seem to think, righteousness indignation is not a Christian virtue! Arguing and blaming others doesn’t further the faith. Humility and respect is what’s expected from followers of Christ. I know it’s hard. I know I don’t always live up to this standard, but there it is. Even when facing false allegations, we are to be calm, trusting in the strength that comes from our Savior’s presence. Even when we are persecuted, we are to see it as an opportunity not to escape but to witness to the power of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The speech we’ve heard this morning can be divided into three parts. Paul first tells about his early life—his education and his zealous desire to defend the Jewish faith from those who are followers of Jesus. Paul insists that he did what the Jewish leaders are now doing to him. Then, in verse 12, Paul tells of his conversion. Jesus called him personally to help open the eyes of others, so that people might turn from darkness to light.[4] Then Paul tells of his efforts at proclaiming the truth of Jesus Christ, whose death and resurrection was foretold by the prophets. Paul goes to great lengths to ground the Christian experience in the ongoing tradition that goes back through what we know as the Old Testament.

          At this point in his speech, Fetus, the Roman governor who’d invited Agrippa to hear this case, interrupts Paul. “You’re crazy,” he essentially says. “You’ve been hitting the books so much your brain is fried.” Remember, Fetus is an outsider. He’s not Jewish and doesn’t really understand this new territory to which he’s been assigned. Listening to Paul with his Roman worldview, it’s not surprising that Festus responds in this manner. Paul claims his sanity before Fetus, then turns to Agrippa. You must also remember that Agrippa is a part of the Herod line. While Roman, he’s also Jewish. Whereas Fetus wouldn’t know one prophet from the next, Agrippa has a good understanding of the Jewish Scriptures.

        Paul attempts to put words in the king’s mouth. “Agrippa, you know this stuff… you believe the prophets.” Agrippa is in a difficult place. If he disagrees with Paul about the prophets, he will have problems not just with Paul but also with his fellow Jews. You’re not to say bad things about the prophets. But if he agrees, then he feels he’ll look silly to the Fetus and the Romans, who have no idea what Paul is talking about. So the king doesn’t answer Paul directly, but asks, almost sarcastically, “Paul, are you trying in this short period of time to make me a Christian?”

         Paul’s response to Agrippa is classic. Yes, that’s his intention, to lead Agrippa to Christ. Paul is praying that God will open up Agrippa’s and everyone’s eyes. He wants Agrippa to become, like Paul, a believer. At this point, the meeting breaks up as Agrippa leaves the proceedings. Perhaps his conscience is pricked, and he wants to get out of the room before he has to make a decision concerning Jesus. As Agrippa departs, he acknowledges Paul’s innocence. In his eyes, Paul has done nothing to deserve death. He also indicates that if Paul had not appealed his case to Rome, he could have been set free. It appears this appeal now works against Paul, for he is to be taken to Roman as a prisoner. The stage is set for Paul to make his last great journey.

What is it that we should learn from this passage? How should we apply what happen to Paul to our lives? Like Paul, as followers of Jesus, we’re to desire the best for everyone, including our enemies, including those who judge us, and including those who accuse us. In the face of troubles, we are to place our hope, not in our abilities to argue or to attack, but in Savior Jesus Christ.

          As I’ve suggested, our society has become more apathetic about the faith. In other societies, there is even opposition. We just seen the release of Andrew Brunson, a long held Christian pastor in Turkey.[5] Even more troubling is the Death Penalty sentence for blasphemy against the Koran handed out to a Christian woman in Pakistan. It’s been appealed to that’s country Supreme Court, but one shouldn’t have to suffer in such a manner as has this woman.[6] There are Christian farmers in Nigeria whose villages are being wiped out.[7] There are churches being closed in China.[8] We need to keep our brothers and sisters around the world in our prayers and hope that when they are persecuted that can, like Paul, display their trust in Jesus Christ.

Hopefully, none of us will face such persecution, but how we live and respond to the world demonstrates our allegiance. Paul put his Savior before everything else, including himself. While there were no converts made on this day, Paul wasn’t being judged by worldly standards. His respectful approach to Agrippa displayed his confidence in his Savior. Paul was being judged by Kingdom values. He remained faithful to Jesus Christ? Will we?  Will we place our trust in Jesus even on those bad days when nothing seems to go our way? Amen.

 

©2018

[1]1 Corinthians 1:25.

[2] Beverly Roberts Gaventa,  Acts  (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 348.

[3] 1 Peter 3:14-16.

[4] Acts 26:18.

[5] https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-to-meet-evangelical-pastor-brunson-after-he-was-freed-from-turkish-jail/2018/10/13/352faf66-cef9-11e8-920f-dd52e1ae4570_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.f89809b81850

[6] https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-6260057/Daughter-Christian-woman-Pakistan-sentenced-death-blasphemy-speak-struggle.html

[7] https://www.premier.org.uk/News/World/Something-needs-to-be-done-or-the-church-will-be-destroyed-says-Nigerian-Christian

[8] https://www.premier.org.uk/News/World/6-churches-closed-down-in-China-in-a-week

 

New Media at SIPC

Installing new flat screens monitors at SIPC

This summer Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church made a major investment in our sanctuary to both enhance our worship with four large screens and to broadcast our worship with three remote controlled cameras. Out thanks to everyone who played a role in this transition, especially Lars Ljungdahl, Jim Brown, Sam Eskew, and the late Bob Harris.

We have been slowly working into our use of this technology which allows us to show high quality images and video during worship, to stream our services live, and to record our services for future play. Over the past two months, we have had “Beta Testers” watch the service from computers in their homes and apartments, on tablets in the hospital, and on a beach in Nova Scotia. I even was able to catch most of Deanie’s sermon recently while camping on the north end of Cumberland Island. Unfortunately, my signal strength wasn’t the best, but I was able to catch most of her excellent message.

While we would love to have you worship in person with us each and every Sunday, we know that we are often busy or traveling or, heaven forbid, sick or in the hospital and unable to be present at 10 AM on Sunday morning. For those Sundays you are not able to be here, we encourage you to worship with us via streaming over the internet. This you can do on any computer or tablet. Just go to www.sipres.org/watchlive. or click on the link below. Of course, if you are traveling in a different time zone, you’ll need to make sure that you go to this site at the time we are worshiping (currently it’s 10 AM Eastern Daylight Time on Sunday morning). This time would be 3 PM in London, 7 AM in Los Angeles, or 5 AM on Monday in Malaysia).  To check out the correct time, go to https://timeis and search for Savannah, Georgia USA.

I invite you to join us here on the island, or remotely, wherever you might find yourself this Sunday morning.

World Communion Sunday

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Mark 9:38-50
October 7, 2018

 

It’s World Communion Sunday and Christians around the globe gather around this table to celebrate. But why? What are we to be about?

A definition of a Christian I like is that we’re to make flowers grow in a dark world. Are we doing that? Have you planted or shared any flowers lately? Have you done something else to make someone smile? To brighten up the world?

Philip Gulley, a Quaker Pastor in Indiana, is the author of some delightful and humorous books about life and ministry. In Front Porch Tales, he introduces us to Doc Foster, a man in the town in which he was raised. Doc wasn’t a physician. He was a trash collector and the only African-American in Gulley’s hometown.

For a dollar a week, he pulled up at our curb in his pickup truck, climbed out, threw our trash in the back, and drove away. If we forgot to set our trash out, he’d drive back to our barn and get it himself. When he had a truck full, he’d drive out to the town dump on Twin Bridges Road, unload, wet his finger, and put it in the air; if the wind wasn’t blowing toward town, he’d commence to burning…

Gulley goes on to tell of other “good deeds” done by Doc Foster such as helping college kids out with their tuition so that there could be more teachers in the community. He sums up Doc’s work this way:

When out-of-town visitors would complement us on our town’s cleanliness, we would swell with pride as if we ourselves had swept up the trash the dogs had scattered. Doc did what all good people do—made the rest of us look better than we really were.[1]

Did you catch that definition of a good person? A good person is one who makes everyone else look better. As followers of Jesus, that’s what we’re to be about. When we come to this table, we come as servants, serving the Lord and one another. We come as people whose purpose is to make others look better. But we don’t like to think ourselves that way, do we? We’re not alone, neither did the disciples.

Today we’re going to look at some of Jesus’ more difficult sayings. Let me put this passage in context. Jesus has just intervened in one of the disciples’ disputes over who was going to be the greatest. Jesus broke the news. If you want to be great, you have to first be a servant. Then he called forth a child and says, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name, I will welcome.”[2] It’s a message the disciples have a hard time grasping, which we’ll see as we pick up the reading from there. Read Mark 9:38-50.

         It’s been about a dozen years since we were all shocked at a story that came out Canyonlands National Park in Utah. A young solo climber, Aron Ralston, was descending into a canyon when an 800 pound boulder slipped and trapped his arm. He did everything he could to get free, but nothing worked. After three days, he ran out of water. On the fifth day, he made the drastic decision that saved his life. He rigged up his climbing gear so he could repel one-armed down the canyon as soon as he was free, tied a tourniquet to his pinned arm, and then, using his knife, amputated it.[3]

Aron was not the first person to perform such drastic measures in other to survive. In 1993, a fisherman in Colorado cut off his leg at the knee after being trapped by two large boulders while fishing in a remote canyon stream. Yelling for hours, no one heard his cries and the weather was deteriorating. Using hemostats from his fishing kit, he closed the severed arteries and crawled half-a-mile back to his truck.[4]

Such incidents cause many of us to wonder if we could do the same thing if caught in a similar situation.  I don’t know, but I know that being in such a position requires drastic action. If you want to live, there may be no other choice. And maybe that is what Jesus is saying in this harsh passage.

      Sin, which leads to death, requires drastic action. Now I don’t think he means that we’re to actually cut off our hands or pluck out our eyes. After all, if you use such logic, that would mean if your sin begins in thought in your head, you should chop it off or at least sign up for a lobotomy. Obviously, Jesus’ intention isn’t to create a bunch of handicapped, self-mutilated Christians. That would go against Scripture’s teaching that our body is a temple in which we invite God to dwell.[5] So instead of taking this passage literally, we have to figure out what Jesus’ intention was here, what he’s trying to say.

          I believe Jesus uses outrageous examples as a way to get his disciples (and our) attention. Jesus is forcing us to deal with our own sin. If we look at this passage as a whole, from verse 38 through verse 50, we’ll see that Jesus extends charity to those who might have been considered “outsides” while putting a heavier burden on those who are “insiders.”  Another way of getting at this is Jesus’ saying that we’re to take the log out of our own eyes before we try to retrieve a speck out of someone else’s eye.[6] Let me explain.

Our passage starts with the disciples trying to look good. That should indicate something… Pride has this way of messing with us.[7] “Jesus,” John says, “we stopped this guy from using your name to expel demons. He wasn’t one of us so we set him straight.”

John’s expecting a pat on the back. “Way to go, John,” he expects to hear. “You’ve helped maintain my good name.” But that’s not what he hears! “Don’t stop someone from doing good,” Jesus says.

         He then gives two examples. “If someone gives you a cup of water in my name, they’re on our side and God will notice their good deeds.” In the second example, he speaks of us giving a hard time to someone on the outside, or as it has been traditionally translated, “if you put a stumbling block in front of a little one who believes in me, you’d be better off to have a millstone tied to your neck and be tossed into the sea.” Such dreadful experiences might have been on the disciples minds for it is known that he Romans recycling worn millstones by tying them around the necks of their enemies.[8] The resulting consequences of these two actions may seem out of portion. A cup of water gets a nod from God, while tripping someone (we’re not even told that they fell), is serious enough that we’d be better off dead. Consider, however, what Jesus is doing here. He extends charity to those on the outside while setting up tougher standards for those who are on the inside.

          Jesus next gives a series of hyperbolic demands, commands that seem so outrageous. These are not given as an absolute requirement, but as a way to drive home a point. We need to take seriously our sin. “If your hand or foot causes you trouble, cut it off. If your eye distracts you, pluck it out.” Sin requires serious attention! “Don’t worry about who’s in and who’s out,” Jesus is saying. “Don’t spend your time worrying about the sin of others. Worry about yourself and what you can do to avoid sin.” Good advice, for we can only change ourselves. We can’t change someone else, a lesson all of us who are married should have learned a long time ago. But it’s a lesson that just doesn’t sink in very deep.

        Then Jesus closes this section with a reminder that we all need to be “refined by fire.” Take actions to preserve yourself, we’re told and then preserve the peace with one another. Kind of an interesting way to end this set of troubling teachings, don’t you think?

Let me suggest a way for us to apply this passage. Jesus is saying that we need to go easy on others (those on the outside). If we should hard on anyone, we should be hard on ourselves. This will keep us humble. We need to avoid comparisons and thinking “my sin ain’t as bad as their sin.” That’s the logic of three-year-olds and politicians! If we go easier on others than ourselves, we avoid being hypocritical, a problem that seems to especially infect religious people.  If we harder on ourselves than others, we will be more gracious and humble and the church can become a place where people care for one another. We’ll be like old Doc Foster, making others look good!

         Karl Barth, the great Swiss theologian, had a favorite story about a horseman who became lost in a snow storm. Spurring his horse on, he galloped across a frozen lake. Later, in the comfort, warmth and safety of home, he learned of his fool-hearted action and how he galloped across thin ice. The man then broke down in horror and fright. In a way we’re to be like that. For you see, it’s only after the horseman was saved that he realized his peril.[9] That is also true for us. We realize the danger once we have experienced the grace.

I hope you know that sin leads to death, but that you also know that we are to let our sins die on the cross as we accept God’s grace, love, and forgiveness that’s offer through Jesus Christ.[10]

       Yes, we should take our own sin seriously. But we should also go easy on others and their sin. By living this way, we’ll be making the world a better place for all. Amen.

 

 

©2018  (this sermon was adapted from a sermon I preached at First Presbyterian Church, Hastings, MI on 10-1-2006)

[1] Philip Gulley, Front Porch Tales (HarpersSanFrancisco, 2001), 31-33.

[2] See Mark 9:33-37.

[3] http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/thedailymirror/2010/11/aron-ralston-the-real-story.html

[4] https://www.mountainzone.com/2003/news/html/030502_amputate-arm.html

[5] 1 Corinthians 6:19.

[6] Matthew 7:3-5 and Luke 6:41-42.

[7] See Proverbs 11:2, 16:18, and 29:23.

[8] William L. Lane, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 346.

[9] Story told by Ralph Wood in Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-haunted South (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 152.

[10] See Romans 6.

Crossing Java by train

I will be away for the next two weeks, so I thought I’d leave you with a blog post that I wrote in June 2011, when I was on Sabbatical and traveling mostly by train across Indonesia and then from Singapore to Europe. In this post, I am cross the island of Java.

Crossing Java by train

The heat and humidity is stifling here. I sweat, even in an air conditioned train, the Taksaka 1 from Jakarta Gambir Station to Yogyakarta. The sun pours through the glass. I could close the curtains, but then I’d not see the countryside, so I sit with sweat beading up on my forehead. The back of my shirt has been soaked for some time and clings to the seat.

The train races past vast rice fields, in different stages of production. Although large, each field is divided into manageable plots, separated by dikes allowing for flooding of the paddies. Here, six degrees below the equator, it is endless summer and the fields produce two crops a year. In some paddies, the green rice is tail and I occasionally see a farmer wandering through with a backpacking, spraying what I assume is insecticide. Other fields are muddy, in the process of being cultivated for a new crop. In the paddies that are currently being planted, bundles of rice plants have been placed and workers in six inches of so of water are busy transplanting the young grass into neat rows. In other paddies, they’re harvesting rice, cutting stalks and feeding them into a thresher or, in some cases, beating the stalks on the ground, separating the seed from the grass. And there are paddies in which the harvest has occurred. The stalks in these fields are burnt as they prepare the ground for another crop. The smoke from the burning paddies occasionally waffles through the train.

Slums on the outskirt of Jakarta

The train was nearly an hour late leaving the capital city.  For the longest time, we rolled through the sprawling city, its poverty evident and on display.  Trash was everywhere and the canals, which had gagged me when I’d walked across them on bridges, are filthy.  In my reserve seat, I watch the crowded trains come into town, the only air conditioning that many enjoy come from climbing up on the top of the cars and riding out in the open. It’s dangerous. If the train hits a bump they might fall off, but they are also in close proximity to the overhead electrical wires. This is a country of great contrast with a few who are very wealthy and many who live in unspeakable conditions.

 

Slowly, we leave the city behind us and moved into the tranquil countryside, with farms and elaborate irrigation systems lining both sides of the tracks.  We pass small stations, each with their station master standing out front in his railroad uniform and red and yellow conductor hat, observing us as we speed by.

 

Our first stop is Cirebon.  As the train approaches the station, a host of merchants jump onboard the slow moving cars to sell food and drinks and other goods. There are women with a thermos of hot water and cups along with instant packets of coffee and chocolate. Others sell baked and fried goods, fruits, and packaged snacks and chips. These merchants don’t enter the coaches themselves, probably due to regulations as the railroad itself has plenty of their workers already doing that, but they stand at the end of the cars, in the doorways, crying out for their products.  Others run down the track, tapping on windows, offering up their wares.

On the advice of the older Indonesian gentleman sitting next to me, I order a steak for lunch.  It arrives as we leave Cirebon, a plate consisting of ground steak, some egg, boiled potatoes, carrots and green beans.  It all cost 30000 IRD, a little over $3. It’s nothing fancy, but it is filling. I ask my traveling friend where the beef came from (I’d only seen one cow so far and it didn’t look like anything you’d want to eat). He laughed and said it probably came from Australia.

As I finish lunch, the train turns southward and snakes up the ridge of mountains that form the backbone of Java.  Rice is still grown and higher up, we see more fields in harvest. But there are many other vegetables grown.  Also, there are a few cows along with sheep and goats. I’m impressed by many of the fields, in which the dikes that cut up the rice paddies have a row of string beans staked on top.  There are also plots of corn, sugar cane and melons. I am enchanted with the scenery and the neatness of the countryside. The irrigation works are even more elaborate here, the water running through masonry channels. The neat houses, all roofed with red tile, stand in contrast to the green fields and are shaded by tall palm trees, many loaded with coconuts.

I walk up to the front of the car and stand by the door, between coaches and try to get a better angle for a shot of the back of the train as we move through the turns.  An attendant sees what I’m attempting and opens the door for me, allowing me to stick my camera out and photograph the back end of the train.  Although careful, I know that it is dangerous and you’d never be allowed to pull such a stunt in the United States.  I remember once standing in such a place where another traveler with a camera opened a window. The car attendant was furious with him! I stay in the doorway for a long time, enjoying the breeze and the ability to photograph without having to shoot through dirty glass. Although the car, with many cracked windows, doesn’t look like what we might expect from “executive class,” I am impressed with the tracks.  Here in the steep section of the line, line is mostly double tracked with welded ribbon rail and there appears to be new ballast under the concrete ties.

After passing the town of Bumiayu, nestled in the shade of the forest are scores of small factories devoted to the manufacture of tiles for roofing. By each kiln are stacks of wood for the fires and the open air buildings have two levels of roofs, allowing for smoke to rise and clear the work area. The train begins to pick up speed. Soon, we’re out of the mountains.  We stop in Purwokerto, the second stop of the trip (except for where we had to stop to allow trains to pass). Afterwards, we’re back in large fields of rice, racing on toward Yogyakarta. It is still rural, when my traveling friend tells me we’re entering town and only a few minutes from the station. We arrive at 5:20 PM, about 50 minutes late. I look for the Kiko restaurant, where I’m to meet a driver from the Green Gardens Bread and Breakfast.  He’s not there, but as I turn around, a man is running up to me with my name written on a piece of cardboard. At least I won’t have to worry about finding a place to stay for the evening…

Don’t Pass the Buck

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Acts 25:13-27
September 16, 2018

What a week! There’s been a lot of anxious anticipation. For a few days I wondered if we would even be here today. Perhaps, I thought, we’d be living out of suitcases somewhere higher and dryer. We have been spared from Florence. We must pray for those in the path of the storm and remember our obligations to help out as they rebuild.

        Waiting in anticipation is what Paul has been doing as we work our way through the closing chapters in Book of Acts. Last week, we saw that Paul appealed his case to the Emperor, to Caesar. He knew the dangers of returning to Jerusalem and decided to stick it out with the Roman leadership. We’d think that Paul would be placed on a ship for Rome right away, but that doesn’t happen. Luke, the author of Acts, lingers. There’s a problem. Festus needs to indict Paul. Think of it this way, someone who’s not been convicted of a crime can’t go before the Supreme Court. Likewise, if Festus packs Paul off to Rome without some kind of charge, Caesar and the Romans are not going to be amused. They might take it out on Festus. As Festus ponders this, he’s visited by a neighboring king, another Herod. We’ve heard that name before, haven’t we? Luke seems intrigued by this family.[1]

          There’s a parallel in Luke’s writings between Paul’s court appearances and those of our Lord. In his gospel, Luke tells about the attempts of Roman officials to avoid passing sentence on Jesus, a man they didn’t think deserved to die. As we heard earlier, Pilate tries to pass the buck by having Herod judge Jesus, but the King sends Jesus back to Pilate.[2] They can’t find anything serious enough to charge Jesus. But they are interested in keeping the peace. If that means Jesus has to die, so be it.

Sadly, such “collateral damage” doesn’t bother us as long as we can make it “one of them.” Human nature hasn’t changed. Look at our wars. We don’t fight other humans. We fight terrorist, Gooks, Japs, Krauts… When we can name someone as the other, we depersonalize them and are less bothered when there is a miscarriage of justice. So Jesus, to the Romans, was just another Jew, therefore expendable.

But with Paul, things are different. Yes, he’s another Jew, but he’s also a Roman citizen. With his citizenship comes certain rights. They can’t unjustly accuse and execute him as a way to appease the crowds. So Festus has to figure out what to do, and he calls on Herod Agrippa II.[3] Read Acts 25:13-27.

 

We’ve all heard the phrase, “pass the buck.” We all, at one time or another, have probably used this phrase. It means to pass our responsibility off to someone else.

       The term, I’ve learned, comes from playing poker in the American West. When you had the same person dealing cards, it was easier for them to cheat, so each hand the dealer would change. To indicate who the dealer was at the table, a buck knife would often be stuck in front of them. Originally called a buck-horn knife, later it was shortened to a buck knife, so named because the handle was made from an antler. So when someone didn’t want to deal, he could “pass the buck” and move the knife and cards over to the next player, who would become the dealer.[4]        A little warning for those of you who play poker at the clubs. Do not stick a knife in the table. That may be frowned upon. This ain’t the Old West.

Of course, this phrase that started in a card game changed over time. Language is fluid. Passing the buck began to be applied to someone who passes his or her responsibilities on to someone else.

        Passing the buck, that’s what we see happening with Paul.[5] No one wants to take responsibility. Lysias, the Roman tribune in Jerusalem, could have let Paul go. So could have Felix. Both could have seen to it that justice was served, but they passed the responsibility on. Now we see Festus attempting the same thing.

Our passage today begins with a royal visit. King Agrippa and Bernice arrive. As neighbors, they probably came to pay their respects to the new ruler over Caesarea and Judea. Let me say a little bit about these two, for the Roman soap opera continues. Several weeks ago, we heard about Felix and his rather loose wife, Drussilla.[6] Well, let’s now see if you can keep this straight. King Agrippa, whose father was Herod Agrippa whom we met earlier in Acts, along with his queen Bernice and Drussilla, are siblings. Did you catch it? Agrippa, Bernice and Drussilla, all have the same dad. We only think our world is scandalous. Luke doesn’t go into the scandals, but Roman historians did.[7] A brother and sister together like that… Later Bernice would move up the food chain as she shack up with Titus, who led the Roman armies when they reconquered Jerusalem. She became his wife, but when he became emperor in the year 79, she was dismissed because the Roman people were horrified about her past. At this time, she’s with her brother and we don’t know what to make of their relationship. Perhaps Luke, who seems to be interested in placing all that happens within the church into historical context,[8] assumed folks reading this account in the first century would understand the scandal just by mentioning their names.[9]

So King Agrippa and Bernice stop by for a royal visit. For Festus, this is a chance for him to learn what he can do about Paul. Notice that at the beginning of the reading, Festus attempts to place blame on his predecessor. “Herod,” he said, “Felix left this dude named Paul in prison. And now he has appealed to Caesar. I’m not even sure what to do. In my opinion, he’s not guilty.” Herod, it appears, obviously had heard of Paul and is intrigued. He wants to learn more. With experience in governing, Herod is willing to hear Paul and offer Festus advice.

          Starting with verse 23, we’re given the details of this royal gathering before whom Paul is to be dragged. This could be a movie set. Everyone that anyone is there, dressed in their finest. There’s the military brass standing at attention, there are the leading citizens, and the king and queen of a neighboring province sit in the middle. We can imagine palm branches and peacock feathers waving as slaves attempt to cool the crowd. This is a big deal. Again, Festus makes his case. If he’s sending Paul to Rome, he has to indicate what charges have been made against him. Festus throws this big party for this purpose.

          In a couple of weeks, we’ll hear Paul’s speech before Agrippa, which is the last of his great speeches recorded in the Book of Acts.[10] For now, consider what we might learn from this passage? When those who have been vested with power refuse to use such power to bring about justice, then by their inaction, injustice flourishes. Sin isn’t just what we do. It’s also what we refuse to do.

I encourage you sometime to pick up the Westminster Larger Catechism. For each of the Ten Commandments, there are enlightening lists. For the fifth commandment, “thou shall honor thy father and mother,” the list contains not just how we treat our earthly parents, but also our superiors. It also contains sections about how our parents as well as our superiors are responsible to us.[11]  Among the sins of the superior toward the inferior is neglecting their duty to those below while seeking our own ease, profit, or pleasure. These are things we’re forbidden to do, but there is equally as large list of things required of us.

It has often been said that leadership is a lonely job. But that doesn’t excuse us. Unlike the examples we have of Felix and Festus, we should avoid passing the buck. We must take responsibility. It may cause us to lose friends or influence, as these two feared. But the lives and well-being of others depend on our faithfulness and honesty.

        Asma Jahangir was a Pakistani lawyer who died early this year. She was also Muslin. Back in the mid-90s, there was a high profile case in Pakistan, where two Christian men, a father and his 14 year old son, had been convicted in a local court of blasphemy for defacing the Qur’an. They claimed they were not guilty and it appears the whole thing was an attempt by neighbors to claim their land. They were sentenced to die. The cased was appealed to the Pakistani Supreme Court. This was a hot button issue and no one wanted to touch it, until Jahangir stepped forward. Her decision resulted in Islamic clerics condemning her. In their eyes, nothing could be worse than a Muslim woman defending infidels. This resulted in threats and two attempts on her life. Yet, she remained focused and won the case. As soon as the two were released, they were whisked out of the country and safely to asylum in an unnamed European state.[12]

         What Ms. Jahangir did was to be a responsible and courageous leaders. It’s not the easy way out, but it’s the right way. Too often we look to do what is easy, what won’t cost us or what will help us receive the praise of the crowd. But being a responsible leader is more than seeking the approval of the masses. Being a responsible leader is more than building up one’s base. Being a responsible leader is doing the right thing because it is right.

         Unfortunately, in these last couple of chapters in Acts, we’ve seen Roman leader after Roman leader avoiding doing what is right. They attempt to take the easy way out. Don’t be like them. When you feel led by God’s Spirit to speak out against injustice, to stand up against corruption, to support the weak, to confront a bully, or to speak the truth, don’t follow Festus’ example. Don’t pass the buck. Stand for what is right. Amen.

 

©2018

[1] While Luke doesn’t mention Herod the Great’s massacre of the innocents as Matthew does (Matthew 2), he does mention Herod the Great (Luke 1:5) as well as many who were second and third generation Herods.  See Luke 3:1, 19-20; 8:3; 9:7ff; 13:31; 22:66; 22:7ff; and Acts 4:27, 12:1ff, 23:25.

[2] Luke 23:1-12.

[3] F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986),481.

[4] This meaning of the phrase can be found many places on the internet: See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buck_passing or https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/pass-the-buck.html or https://www.infoplease.com/askeds/origin-passing-buck

[5] I found the idea of relating “passing the buck” to his passage from a sermon by the Rev. Dr. Peter A. Butler, Jr, “Providential Passing the Buck” delivered at 2nd Reformed Church, Irvington NJ on May 22, 2011.

[6] Acts 24:24-27.  See my sermon on September 2, 2018

[7] See Bruce, 482, n.15.

[8] Luke is the one who sets the birth of Jesus during the reign of Augustus, when Quirinius was governor of Syria.  See Luke 2:1-2.

[9] Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Acts (Nashville TN: Abingdon, 2003), 335-336.

[10] See Acts 26.

[11] Presbyterian Church USA, The Book of Confession, “Westminster Confession of Faith: The Larger Catechism,” Questions 127-130.

[12] Carnegie Samuel Calian, The Spirit-Driven Leader: Seven Keys to Succeeding Under Pressure (Louisville, WJK Press,2010), 82-83.

Ebenezer Creek (A photo essay)

Last week, I spent three days at New Ebenezer Retreat Center, which is located near Rincon, about an hour west of her. I spent the time planning sermons for the coming year, some writing, and some reading. But since the center is located at the confluence of Ebenezer Creek and the Savannah River, I took a kayak with me and spent some time on Ebenezer Creek. While I paddled part of the creek before, this was the first time I was able to be there by myself and I wasalso able to paddle some new areas.

I set my standard to do 8 hours of work, then I could paddle, before coming back and doing some more reading in the evening. On Monday, I put in at Tommy Long Landing and paddled to the Savannah River and back. It was fairly late in the day when I launched (around 4 PM). I paddled down with a nice breeze and keep hearing thunder from pop-up storms that were all around, but never came close. I saw several small alligators but no snakes.  I could tell I was getting close to the river as this area is still tidal and the weak current was moving upstream, and the last half-mile or so before the confluence, the water changed from black to brown, as silt in the river water was being pushed up stream by the tide.

On Tuesday, I set again around 4 PM and launched at Long Bridge Road. I tried paddling upstream, but was only able to go a couple hundred yards before I came to a log jam and wasn’t able to go further. I turned and headed south, under the bridge and was able to paddle maybe a mile before I could go no further. If I had a small handsaw, I could have cut a path and paddle a lot further, but I didn’t have a saw and didn’t want to get out in the muck and haul my kayak over the logs (that’s a lot easier in a canoe).  So I paddled back and then did the loop again. Again, no snakes, but also no alligators. But I did see quite a few turtles and one curious kingfisher.

Just north of Long Bridge Rd

Long Bridge Road

This is a historic area.  The New Ebenezer Community was the site of the Salzberger’s settlement that dates back to the 1730s. The Salzbergers were Lutherans from Southern Germany and in the early 18th Century given a choice to convert back to Catholicism, to die or to flee. They chose the latter and signed up with Oglethorpe who was trying desperately to populate his new colony of Georgia. Seeing an opportunity at hand, Oglethorpe decided to place the Germans as a buffer between Savannah and the Creek Indians. There is still an active church in the community, which is the oldest church building in use in Georgia. There is also a neat old cemetery and when I got back Tuesday evening, I spent some time walking around it.

 

On Wednesday evening, I came home.

Paul Appeals to Caesar

Jeff Garrison 
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Acts 25:1-12
September 9, 2018

In the quote on the flyleaf of the bulletin, we’re reminded that Luke, the author of both the gospel and the Book of Acts, is writing to a person. And that individual, no doubt, is a member of a congregation. And just what does this congregation need to hear when they receive this correspondence? The world hasn’t always a friendly place for Christians, and this was especially true in the first couple centuries of the Christian era. They need to know what it means to be faithful and that they can carry out their mission within the harsh world of the Roman Empire.[1]

        Thankfully, we live in a better time, but there are always challenges. This morning, think about a time when you have been falsely accused of something? It’s happens a lot to me. Often, it seemed, in school, someone would do something behind the teacher’s back and when she turned around, I’d snicker, and she assumed I was guilty. There are times people try to make us into a scapegoat and take the blame for something we didn’t do. Or they accuse us as a way to cover their own shortcomings. Sometimes people are accused of serious things they did not do. Consider those who have been on death row, some for years, who have been exonerated thanks to DNA technology. Imagine how they must have felt when they walked through the prison doors.

As we saw last week, Paul has been locked up for two years. He’s innocent of the charges against him, but because of the political situation, he stays in prison. The Jewish authorities are unable to make a convincing case against Paul and the Romans don’t know what to do with him. They seem to think he’s innocent or at least he doesn’t deserve the death penalty, but they are not so willing to let him go. To do so, would create a problem with the Jews, and by this point in history, the Romans have enough problems with the Jews. So Paul remains in jail and there’s now a new governor. Read Acts 25:1-12.      

 

       When I was sixteen years old, about six months after receiving my driver’s license, I was in a wreck. The best thing about this experience was that my mother was in the front seat. Seeing with her own eyes, she knew I wasn’t at fault. I had my seatbelt on but this was before shoulder harnesses and when the two cars hit, the seatbelt held my waist as I was thrown forward into the steering wheel. I hit it on the bridge of my nose and was knocked for a while. When I came too, I wasn’t exactly sure what had happened. I had been driving on a road with three lanes in one direction and a car had suddenly cut in front of me as it attempted to make a right-hand turn out of the left-hand lane.

I hit the car in the front quarter panel of the passenger side. Both vehicles were totaled. The police and an ambulance arrived and I was put on a stretcher and sent to the hospital. I later learned a neighbor came by. He happened to be a state trooper although he was not on duty. He took my mother and siblings home. My mother called my father and he met at the hospital.

        Shortly after my father arrived, as I was being released, the police officer showed up. He handed me a ticket saying I’d been following to close behind the car I had hit. “You’re crazy I yelled.”  It wasn’t one of my finest hours. Thankfully my father was there. He told me to calm down and then asked the officer the position the cars and where the damage was at. The officer said my car had struck the woman in the front quarter panel. My dad kept his cool and said, “There was no physical way he could have been following behind and hit her where he did.” The officer dismissed what my father said, saying that was his findings and if didn’t agree, we could go to court. We did, and won. It didn’t hurt our case that our neighbor, the highway patrolman, drew several diagrams of the accident to prove our case.

Calling a police officer crazy wasn’t the brightest thing I’d ever done, but I can assure you that being handed a ticket for something I was not guilty was one of the worst feelings of my short life. I was angry. I was mad. I wanted revenge. In the world of things, such a response may seem way out of proportion, but in my teenage worldview, this was devastating. However, I would have been much better served if I had not been such a hothead. My response basically put the officer in the position of an adversary and left him no way out without looking weak.

I am sure some of you saw yesterday’s women’s U. S. Open finals and how Serena Williams lost her temper with the chair of the match. By not being able to let go of what she considered an unfair penalty (and many agreed with her that it wasn’t the right call) she ended up losing a game and that match.

        Let’s now consider how Paul responded to the injustice he faced. He’s been imprisoned in Caesarea for two years. For two years, he’s locked up. Perhaps his cell was close enough to the shore that he can hear the surf. Day and day, Paul might have wanted nothing more than to take a walk along the beach at sunset… Instead, he remains behind bars in a stinky cell. For those two years, as we saw last week, he could have greased the hands of Felix, the governor, and he would be freed.[2] But that would not be right. In such a case, Paul would be adding to the corruption which had become prevalent in the Roman Empire. Two years of waiting, but he maintains control. He remains respectful… When Paul writes to Timothy, recalling his patience and encouraging Timothy to be patience, we know Paul is talking out of experience.[3]

       But then there’s a new governor. Felix is reassigned and along comes Festus, who reminds me of Matt Dillion’s sidekick in the old Gunsmoke shows. Festus served as governor of from approximately 60 to 62 A.D.[4] We don’t know much about him as compared to what we know about Felix, but from what we read in our text, it appears he wasn’t as corrupt as Felix. The first thing he does after arriving in the providence is to go to Jerusalem to meet with the Jewish leaders. He knows they are the source of his troubles, but he wants to make sure that he knows them and they know him. Perhaps, he thinks, he can do something for them to bring them around to his side. We are not even sure when he makes the trip to Jerusalem that he knows why Paul is rotting in jail. The leaders in Jerusalem enlighten him. Two years later, they’re still interested in killing Paul.

        Festus doesn’t grant the Jewish leaders request to transfer Paul to Jerusalem, but he wasted no time in attending to the situation, inviting them to come to Caesarea and make their case against Paul. So Paul is once again hauled before the tribune. It appears at this point the case brought against Paul is so ridiculous that he can defend himself by just denying it. But Festus, wanting to do something for the Jews, asks if Paul would be willing to go with him to have the trial in Jerusalem. He probably knew nothing of the plots to kill Paul. Those assassins who had pledged not to eat until Paul is dead would have been beyond famished by this point.[5] Knowing this, Paul decides to claim a right that appears to have been the privilege of citizens. He asks that he be tried, not in Jerusalem but it Rome, before Caesar. [6]

Interestingly, at this time in history, around the year 60, Nero would have been Caesar. The name Nero strikes terror in us, 2,000 years later, but his first few years of office was actually pretty normal. It wasn’t until later that Nero became mad.[7]

Festus grants Paul his request. At least, he probably thought to himself, “I’ll soon be done with Paul.”

         Paul shows us how to behave when we are accused unjustly. Unlike me with that police officer or Serena at the U. S. Open, Paul keeps his cool. He’s patient. He trusts the system, not because he has confidence in the system or the judge, but because he is confidence in the Lord. Paul shows us that following Jesus isn’t easy. It doesn’t mean bad things won’t happen. They will. They do. What’s important is how we act when they bad things happen. Do you trust in God’s providence and blessings? Or do we complain and act like we have lost all control and are doomed?  Paul remains cool. He shows a willingness to accept the punishment if someone can prove that he’s guilty. Otherwise, he willing to remain in the Roman system of justice as his appeal is taken to Rome. And while this appeal is on-going, Paul can use his time to further the gospel. We’ll see more of this over the next few sermons. Paul doesn’t see this as a defeat but an opportunity to live out his calling for Jesus Christ. And maybe that’s our best lesson from this passage. Don’t let false accusations get you down, see how they might open up new possibilities.

         You know, Martin Luther King found those times he was locked up in jail to be freeing. During the heat of the Civil Rights movement, things were so busy that he didn’t have time to even think. But when he was locked away for a few days, he was able to think and to write. It was during one of these periods that King was able to write what’s perhaps his best known piece, “The Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” Picking on his friend Ralph Abernethy after the Birmingham incident, King did say that the next time he planned to be arrested, he was going to make sure he did it with people who didn’t snore.[8]

         Paul, too, used his time in chains to write.[9] Changing our perspective from seeing obstacles to seeing to seeing opportunity will help us find strength to get through such times. Furthermore, by being steadfast and faithful during such challenges, we demonstrate to the world our faith and hope. There are many people out there needing to see that Christians aren’t just all talk, that we really do have confidence in our Lord Jesus Christ. So we should take the high road, while trusting in the Lord and letting him receive the glory. Amen.

 

©2018

[1] William H. Willimon, Acts (1988, Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010), 174.

[2] Acts 24:26.

[3] 2 Timothy 3:10, 4:2.

[4] Beverly Roberts Gaventa Acts (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 332.

[5] Acts 23:12-15.

[6] There is debate among scholars if the right to appeal to Caesar was granted to all citizens.  See Bruce, 478 and Gaventa, 334-335.

[7] F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts (Grand Rapids, Eerdman, 1986), 479

[8] I am not sure where I read about King using the time in jail to think. His comment on snoring was quoted by Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988), 706.

[9] It is generally considered that Paul’s letters to the Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians were written in prison.  See Ephesians 4:1, Philippians 1:14, and Colossians 4:10.

Uncharted Journey

 Beth Lindsay Templeton, Uncharted Journey: On the Challenges of Getting Older and Other Transitions (Greenville SC: FPS Press, 2018), 169 pages.

 

This book consists of 42 letters written by a secret admirer to the reader. The letters vary in size, from one to six pages. Each begins with a quote that comes from a variety of sources. A number of the quotes are from the Psalms. Other quotes are from those familiar to me such as Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Henri Nouwen, Scott Peck, Reynolds Price, Richard Rohr and Barbara Brown Taylor. But there are many other tidbits of wisdom quoted by those I did not know. Following the quote, Templeton encourages readers as they deal with issues such as retirement, moving, children being distant, broken relationships, downsizing, divorce, and death.  Her voice is gentle. Instead of giving definite answers, she opens up a number of new possibilities for the reader. Throughout these letters, the reader is encouraged to go easy on his or herself, to embrace limitations while maintaining a curiosity about the future. The past is to be cherished as a preparation for the future. Although I won’t spoil it, at the end of the book, readers learns the identity of their own secret admirer.

I met Templeton recently at a conference held by the Presbyterian Church USA Board of Pensions. In introducing this recent book of hers, she told about how the final proofs came just days after her own husband had died unexpectedly from pneumonia. Reading the proofs, she said she appreciated the advice that she didn’t remember writing. The book is published in memory of her husband who helped with editing and the cover photography.

While I am still six or eight years away from retirement, this book has given me a lot to consider. I can also think of many people who might find her words encouraging, especially  retired persons who are moving into continuing care facilities or who have to make difficult decisions about loved ones or unhealthy relationships. While much of the book is tied to aging, there are lessons for everyone in transition. I recommend you check it out.

Digging through the earth to the other side…

Bubba and Squirt’s Big Dig to China by Sherry Ellis

My friend, Sherry Ellis, has just published a new children’s book about two kids digging their way to China. In kicking off its publication, she asked her blogging friends to write about where they’d want to end up if they could dig through the earth to the other side. Of course, this isn’t possible. I think the Russians dug the deepest in the ground and it was only 40,000 feet, not even deep enough to break through the earth’s thin crust. This was done in Siberia, where they had a lot of available labor for digging (and drilling). They must have knocked off early in the afternoon and hit into the vodka, as they only had a mere 20,858,240 feet more to go to break through the other side. Why didn’t finish the task at hand?

If I could dig straight through the earth starting here in Savannah, according to a really neat website (www.antipodesmap.com), I just might find the missing Malaysian airplane (Flight 370). Of course, I better hold my breath when I pop up on the other side of the earth because I’d be about 1000 kilometers west of Perth Australia (where they think the plane went down) and under 1000s of feet of water. But wouldn’t that be something?  Of course, there would be many issues to overcome such as the heat of the earth’s core. And then there’s the problem with breaking through the bottom of the Indian Ocean. And think of the dire consequences for our planet as water rushes into the core and cools it off. Imagine a giant geyser in the center of the Indian Ocean. I’m sure we’d see climate change like we never imagined. But enough nonsense. I don’t feel like digging this afternoon. I’ll put it off for a week or two. And when I do, I’ll have to angle my tunnel a bit and I can end up someplace fun (and dry), like Mongolia.

Of course, if you have kids or grand-kids who are curious enough to wonder what they’d find as they dig through the earth, check out Sherry’s book!  It sounds like it’s a lot of fun.  Here’s where you can find the book and a little more about the it:

BUY LINKS:

Amazon
Barnes and Noble
iTunes
Kobo
Books-a-Million
Amazon UK/ Amazon CA

BLURB: Squirt doesn’t believe Bubba can dig a hole to China. But when the hole swallows them, the kids find themselves in Xi’an, China, surrounded by Terracotta Warriors.

It gets worse when the ghost of the first emperor of China appears. He tells them they can’t go home until they find his missing pi. The kids don’t know where to begin until they meet a girl and her grandmother who promise to help find the pendant.

Soon they realize they are being followed. And they are no closer to finding the missing pi. Will Bubba and Squirt ever make it back home?

About the Author: Sherry Ellis is an award-winning author and professional musician who plays and teaches the violin, viola, and piano. When she is not writing or engaged in musical activities, she can be found doing household chores, hiking, or exploring the world. Ellis, her husband, and their two children live in Atlanta, Georgia.

 

Author Links:
Website / Blog / Goodreads 
Facebook / Twitter / Amazon

 

Speaking Truth to Power

Jeff Garrison 
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Acts 24:24-27
September 2, 2018

 

What do we say when we are called or have an opportunity to speak to those in power? How do we behave? How do we act? Speaking to power is always dangerous but as Christians, we’re to speak the Truth, as we’ll see in today’s scripture.

A few weeks ago, before taking a break from our journey through the book of Acts, we saw that Paul was whisked out of Jerusalem by the Roman army. In Jerusalem, he was being hunted down by a group of over 40 assassins. Now Paul is safe in Caesarea, a Roman city along the coast. It’s here that the governor has moved his headquarters. During Jesus’ time, Pontius Pilate maintained his presence in Jerusalem. Roughly 20 years later, things are in turmoil. It’s just seven or eight years before Judaea erupts into war as the Jews throw off the Roman yoke. But that’s in the future. Now, to be safe, the capital is in Caesarea and the Romans are just trying to keep everything under control.

The Romans, wanting to get to the bottom of this conflict between Paul and the Jewish authorities, call them both in before Felix, the governor. Both sides makes their case. We heard in the previous scripture reading Paul’s side of the argument. Paul begins by acknowledging the Roman governor as the rightful judge and he’s willing to have his case heard before him. He tells how he is still worshipping the God of his ancestors and how those in the sect known as “The Way” (that being the church) are being persecuted because of their belief in the resurrection.

Felix, we’re told, was well informed about “The Way.” We know his wife, who’ll play a role in our message today, was a Jew. She was probably Felix’s source of knowledge about the faith. After having heard from both the Jewish authorities and Paul, Felix declines to make a judgment until he hears from Lysias, the head of the Roman forces in Jerusalem. He’s the man who kept Paul from being killed by the mob. So Paul remains in prison, although he is given some freedom. His friends can visit him and see to his needs. This is where our reading begins this morning.

How do we speak Truth to power?  How do we stand up before those who have the power to stomp us and address issues that are not popular? This might be something we think doesn’t apply to us, but it does. We start out early, when we address our parents. Later on, it’s our teachers, the principal, and a police officer. We address power when we speak to our boss and later maybe to the Chairman of the Board. If we’ve ever been in court addressing a judge or talked with a politician, we’ve spoken to those in power.

There is an often-told story, and I’ve told it before, about Hugh Latimer. Latimer, one of the leaders of the English Reformation, was about to give a sermon.  He knew that Henry the 8th was in the audience. As he waited to enter the pulpit he heard a voice say to him, “Latimer, remember you are preaching before King Henry, who has the power to take your life away.” But then he heard another voice, “Latimer, remember, you are preaching before the King of Kings.” It’s all about perspective, isn’t it?

Thankfully, I don’t find myself preaching before Kings and those with absolute power very often… Except, of course, every Sunday I’m standing before the King of Kings.

Our reading today may seem rather benign. On the surface, it appears as if it is just the factual accounts of what happened. But this is one of those passages in which a little understanding of its context opens it up wide for us to see the truth found within. When you read it on a surface level, you miss the Roman soap opera that’s going on behind the scenes.

Felix is an interesting man. He came from humble origin. His family appears to have originally been slaves. His brother, who was a freedman, worked for Claudius, who’d later become the Roman emperor. Felix became governor of Judaea and served in that capacity from 52 to 59 A.D. This was a time when the Jewish population was becoming restless and Felix was ruthless. He stomped out any threat to the Roman authority. He was so brutal that many moderate Jews who had been okay with Roman rule became (as we’d say today) radicalized. Brute strength has a way of doing that. In addition to his ruthless rule, Felix was also a charmer among women. He had three wives, all who were princesses. He took the cream of the crop. His first wife was the granddaughter of Anthony and Cleopatra. Of Felix, one historian noted, “He exercised the power of a king with the mind of a slave.”[1]

The artist must not have read Josephus’ as Drusilla isn’t exactly a beauty and appears to be much older than 19.

Sitting next to Felix in our passage this morning is his third wife, Drusilla. She’s Jewish and has obviously informed her husband about “The Way,” as the early church was known. Drusilla also has a backstory. She is the daughter of Herod Agrippa I, who if you remember back to Acts 12, had James, the brother of John, killed.[2] “She did exceed all other women in beauty,” according to the Jewish historian Josephus. She is still quite young, probably 19 at the time she and Felix sent for Paul. When she was even younger, she was married to the king of a small Syrian state. But when Felix set his eyes upon her, he did what he could to woo her away. Her first marriage was dissolved and she married Felix. They had a son, Agrippa, named after her father. And an interesting side note that helps put this in context of the time, her son would die in 79 AD at the eruption of Mount Vesuvius which destroy Pompeii.[3]

Now you have the backstory to our passage today. Paul is being called before two people who are guilty of adultery. One of them is guilty of serial adultery. Furthermore, Felix isn’t the most honest of governors. As Luke indicates in the text, he is hoping to get a bribe from Paul in order for Paul to obtain his release. While there were laws against bribery, by this era, the Roman government was becoming corrupt and those in power often expected their backs to be scratched before they granted a favor.

So Paul is summoned by a corrupt governor and his wife, both of whom are guilty of adultery. And they are asking him about his faith in Jesus Christ? What would you say in such a situation? If you are Paul, what do you say? If Paul plays his cards right, maybe they’ll let him go free. Paul could have talked about love and forgiveness and being nice… But that’s not what Paul does. As one commentator wrote, “Paul is God’s faithful prophet, who like the prophets of Israel boldly proclaims the truth of God, despite the possible cost.”[4]

Paul speaks to this corrupt governor about justice. Do you think that went over well to a man accustomed to bribes? Paul then moves on to self-control. How does that sound to a couple known for their adultery, especially Felix who has multiple experiences with the sin? And then Paul talks about the coming judgment. The couple who were curious about the Way, the Christian faith, are now squirming in their seats. I can envision Felix, his face red, the veins in his neck protruding as his blood pressure rises. Felix is usually the judge; now Paul warns him of an impending judgment in which he will stand before the throne. Felix calls the guards and orders them to take Paul away.

Felix could have confessed and repented and been forgiven. But that would mean he would have to humble himself. That would mean he’d have to give up extracting bribes (and procuring brides). That would mean he’d have to live only on his salary. He’d have to give up the goose that lays the golden egg, and that was just too much. So Paul remains in jail, as Felix attempts to put this encounter out of his mind while hoping to receive a bribe that never comes.

So how does Paul speak truth to power?  If you go back to verse 10, you’ll see that Paul honors Felix. He’s been in power six or seven years at this point. But even while honoring Felix and his position, Paul speaks to his sin. Paul speaks truth to Felix and Drusilla. From what we know, Paul didn’t go around gossiping about the two. He didn’t belittle them behind their back, nor to their face. But when we was called before them, he told the truth. He told the truth even though it didn’t do him any good.

By the way, always beware when someone says they’re just telling the truth when you know it’s done to further their own goals. Most likely that a selective truth and that’s not what happens here. Telling the truth as a way to obtain something isn’t courage. Courage is telling the truth knowing the risks. Courage is telling the truth to King Henry, knowing he can have your head removed. Courage is telling the truth to Felix, knowing he can let you languish in prison.

Furthermore, in addition to telling the truth, Paul refuses to pay a bribe. He’s not going to become involved in the corruption that’s rampart within the Roman world. He wants to keep his conscience clear before God and all people.[5]

As Christians, we have an obligation to honor those in positions of authority. But we also have a higher obligation to God. When called upon, we’re to keep our conscience clean, to avoid corruption, and to tell the truth. Amen.

 

©2018

[1] Tacitus, Histories, volume 9.  The quote (along with much of this information on Felix) is reprinted in F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts (Grand Rapids: Eerdman, 1986), 472-473. Other sources of information on Felix include Johannes Munck, The Acts of the Apostles (New York: Doubleday, 1967), 229-231.

[2] Acts 12:1-3.

[3] Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews Book 20, Chapter 7 (137-144).

[4] William H. Willimon, Acts (1988, Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010), 175.

[5] Acts 24:16.

Does This Offend You?

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
August 26, 2018
John 6:60-69

 

I’m stepping away from our journey through Acts today and want us to take a look at a passage in John’s gospel. This passage comes at the end of the chapter that begins with Jesus feeding the 5,000. Think about it. Put ourselves back into time. Five loaves and a couple of fish feeding over ½ of the residents of Skidaway Island! It must have been a pretty decent meal. After cleaning up, with plenty of left-overs, there are some ready to crown Jesus king. But Jesus wasn’t interested in being this kind of king, so he slipped away.[1]

The next day, the crowd catches up with Jesus. And guess what, they want more bread. If Jesus isn’t going to be the king, at least he can be the head baker. Jesus, in turn, offers himself, as the bread of life. The crowd has a hard time hearing and understanding what Jesus is talking about. They want Wonder Bread, or maybe some pumpernickel, not some metaphorical loaf that refers to Jesus’ body.[2] That sounds gross.

Today I’ll read the end of John 6, verses 60 through 69, in which we see the fallout from the problem the crowd and the disciples have with Jesus’ teachings. It’s the day after the big picnic. In these passages, we witness Jesus’ rejection by the crowd and learn that although the disciples stick with him, even they have questions. This passage leads us to ask ourselves what we want from Jesus. Why do we stick with him? READ JOHN 6:60-69.

 

What a difference a day makes. A day earlier, the crowd was ready to forcefully take Jesus and plant him on the throne. A day earlier, the crowd had high expectations. A day earlier, everyone was on Cloud Nine. Now, the crowd thins out. They’re not liking what they’re hearing.  Not only is there no more free bread, Jesus’ words challenge their sacred ideas about life and religion.

Imagine the scene. Jesus and the crowd are probably still on the beach. Jesus sits in the traditional rabbinical way of teaching, as the crowd gathered around him. They listen to Jesus talk about his body as bread for their souls and shake their heads. Slowly at first, a few begin to walk away, heading back to their boats, to their fields, or into the village. As Jesus continues, talking about the need for his body, more of the crowd depart. Pretty soon, all that are left are the twelve, the disciples who have been with Jesus for a while. And they’re not very happy. They’re mumbling among themselves. Small groups form as they conspire for a way to force Jesus’ hand. Is this guy really the Messiah? Hearing their rumbles, Jesus stands and walks over to where they are gathering and asks them point blank, “Does this offend you?”

“Does this offend you?  Does the gospel offend you?” What a question!  How would you answer? Interestingly, John doesn’t give us the disciples answer. Considering the situation, I think it’s safe to assume that even if they didn’t say anything, their thinking isn’t much different than those who have departed. Standing there, they shake their heads and kick the dirt, wondering just what kind of mess they’ve gotten themselves into.

What is so offensive here? Essentially, Jesus is saying that we have to depend on him for life. Jesus is not just some great teacher or a magic worker who can conjure up loaves of bread. He’s the very source of abundant life and unless we are willing to stand with him when everyone else backs away, we’ll miss out.

Jesus continues his teaching, asking the disciples what they’d think if they saw him ascend to where he was before. This really isn’t anything new. John, the author of the gospel, has been telling us all along of Jesus teaching that he’s come down from heaven. He’s come to do the work of the Father, to bring God’s message to people who are lost in the darkness. He’s come to bring life. Yet, not all believe him; not all accept his teachings. Quite a few, most in fact, don’t believe. Jesus even reveals that one of the twelve will betray him.

Finally in verse 65, Jesus reaffirms that nobody can come to him unless God, the Father, grants it. This idea has already come up several times in John’s gospel.[3] It affirms the doctrine of predestination, a teaching that’s not any more popular today than it was in Jesus’ day.  We don’t like the idea of God being totally in control; it goes against our cherish belief of self-dependence, but we have to deal with it. The doctrine emphasizes what Jesus has been saying all along, that salvation isn’t something we do. God is the actor; we’re the audience.[4] Yes, like an audience, we respond, but if it weren’t for God’s action, we’d still be up the creek without a paddle.

Flashback to John 3: “Do you want to find new life,” Jesus asks?  “If you do, you’ve got to be born again.” “What,” Nicodemus asks, “we can’t be born again.” “You’re right,” Jesus said, “You can’t do it; God has to do it.”[5] Throughout the Gospel of John, the emphasis is on what God does for us in Jesus Christ.

But do we accept it? Ultimately this is a question we each have to ask ourselves. Do we receive Jesus’ teachings and his gift? Or do we reject it?  Maybe, because Jesus is now spiritually and not physically present, we try to get around the question by making it palatable to our tastes? We interpret his words so that they don’t offend us quite as much?  We’re probably all a bit guilty here. It’s the same as rejecting Jesus.  But those present in first century didn’t have such an option. The Master was right in front of them; their only recourse was to leave. But the 12 stayed. The 12 stayed because they knew there was something special about Jesus. Simon Peter sums it up when he says, “Lord, to whom can we go?  You have the words of eternal life.” But I bet he was thinking, “Yeah, Jesus, your teachings are offensive, but we know they’re true. And since there’s no other place we can go, we’ll stick beside you. We don’t really want to but where else can we go?”

You know, the disciples’ decision to stick with Jesus was both bold and dangerous. It was bold because it wasn’t the popular thing to do.  Everyone was deserting him. People were thinking this ship is sinking and it’s time to get off. The disciples, too, could have easily jumped ship, and one eventually did. In fact, that’s the easy thing to do, give up when things don’t look good. After all, it’s becoming dangerous because people are taking offense at Jesus’ teachings. Who knows where this is leading, the disciples must have wondered.

Jesus points out the hypocrisy of the crowds, of those who think of themselves as religious. Jesus is right. As he says in the next chapter; the world hates him because he exposes the sin and corruption that is so prevalent.[6] Whistle blowers are seldom popular. Jesus exposes the corruption of those who are supposed to be good, the religious folks, and they really don’t like being told they’re not toeing the line. It’s dangerous for the disciples to stay beside someone who is so hated, someone who is going to end up on the cross, but they stayed.

As I was looking over my sermon this morning, I couldn’t help but to think of John McCain who died yesterday and how he stayed as POW in North Vietnam even when he had the chance to come home early. By staying, he showed character, as did the disciples.

The church has come a long ways in the past two millenniums, but we haven’t been able to fully escape the tragedy of human existence that Jesus exposed. We want to think of ourselves as good and noble, and to be able to do it all by ourselves, but deep down sin lurks and we can never escape it by ourselves. We need help. We need to be united with Jesus.

We want to be able to save ourselves. We want to be good enough! But we can’t. Paul Scherer, a great Lutheran preacher of ages past, once said that the joy of religion is not being good. People get bored with being good. The joy of religion is trusting God in the presence of some great darkness and waiting for the light to break.”[7] Or, to put it in the context of our story today, the joy of religion is sticking with Jesus when the crowds disperse because you know in your hearts that there is nowhere else we can go to find life.  Yes, we want to save ourselves, but we realize it’s a futile hope. We have to stick with the source of life; we have to depend upon God.

The crowds came to Jesus hoping to have their bellies filled. But being filled doesn’t last; hunger soon gnaws again. Instead of bread for the gut, Jesus offers bread for the soul. But even this bread isn’t an instant solution that solves all our problems. Nor should that be our goal. After all, Jesus said if you’re satisfied with yourself, you’re already received your award.[8] Instead, Jesus wants the crowd to thirst and hunger for a total transformation that could only come from God.[9] The crowd wasn’t interested. Many people today are not interested, as more and more people are dropping out of church and no longer seeing the importance of Jesus. But the question before is, “Are we?” Are we willing to stake everything—our reputation, even our lives—on Jesus?

We live in a fallen world and wrestle day in and day out with sin and evil. We all need to examine ourselves. Do we think we can take the burdens of life on by ourselves? Do we think we can be good enough?  Or do we acknowledge our need for a Savior and cling to Jesus because only he has the words to eternal life? I opt to cling to Jesus. Even if everyone abandons him, where else can I go to find the words of life? What about you? What choice do you make? Amen.

 

©2018

[1] John 6:5-15.

[2] John 6:22-59.

[3] See John 3:18; 5:19-30; 6:27; and 6:39.

[4] In addition to the references above, see John 1:10, 3:16-18, and 5:17.  See also John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.6.2.

[5] John 3:1-15.

[6] John 7:6-7.

[7] Quoted by John H. Leith, The Reformed Imperative: What the Church has to Say that No One Else Can Say (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1988), 94.

[8] Matthew 6:2.

[9] Luke 16:15; 18:9-14. See Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1988), 79.

Didn’t See It Coming

Carey Nieuwhof, Didn’t See It Coming: Overcoming the 7 Greatest Challenges That No One Expects and Everyone Experiences (New York: WaterBrook, 2018), 211 pages.

 

In this book Nieuwhof draws on personal events within his own life as he outlines seven challenges we all face. For each challenge, there is a chapter describing the problem followed by a chapter on strategies for pushing through the challenge and into a new and more vibrant way of living. All the chapters open with stories that describe in a personal way how the challenge arose or how it can be handled. The blend of stories, insights, and suggestions made the eading enjoyable.

 

The seven challenges and the antidotes for each are:

  1. Cynicism.   (Be curious)
  2. Compromise (Develop character)
  3. Disconnection (Slow down)
  4. Irrelevance (Love the Mission, not the Method)
  5. Pride (Gratitude)
  6. Burn Out (Live today so you can thrive tomorrow)
  7. Emptiness (God’s Kingdom)

My own personal experiences did not always mirror Nieuwhof’s. He saw cynicism as a problem for those in their 30s, when he face this problem. As I read about it, I saw myself as a cynic in my late teen and early 20s. Have grown up when issues of race, integrations, Vietnam and Watergate were in the forefront, I was filled with cynicism. By the time I entered my 30s, I was becoming more hopeful. I agree with Nieuwhof that Christians should be the most hopeful people around, but we know that is often not the case. I also agree that curiosity can lead us beyond cynicism to a more hopeful future.

In his chapters on disconnection, he notes how technology makes an age old problem of being disconnected with others worse, but it is not the only reason we are disconnected. We have a need to slow down and to learn how to have conversations with others.

As he discusses irrelevance, he shows how we are wired to resist change and how the older and more successful we become the more conservative we are, which may lead to our own irrelevance. Addressing the church, he argues that we focus on the mission, not the methods. The mission never changes, but the methods are always changing. While the world around the church is always changing faster than the church, the church will need to change to have influence on the world.

With pride, Nieuwhof begins with a humorous story of spilling someone on a pair of pants and how he was so worried with how the person he was going to meet with was going to judge him. This allows him to make the helpful distinction between narcissism and pride. We all suffer from pride. Narcissism might seem to be pride on steroids, but it is actually a clinical condition that requires professional help. When we can foster humility and not be comparing ourselves to others, we can avoid the pitfalls of pride.

The chapters on burnout were very personal, as Nieuwhof describes going from a high (a once-in-a-lifetime experience) to the depths of depression. He admitted his thoughts on suicide and how normal things that used to bring him joy were hollow. While he encouraged spiritual connections, he also noted the need for trained counseling to help overcome depression.

Nieuwhof shows how one who has been very successful in his field (he is an attorneys and the founding pastor of one of Canada’s largest and fastest growing churches) will when at the top of their game feel empty. Too often that comes from us putting the focus on what we’re doing, not on what we are working for. We need to become excited about God’s mission, not our individual tasks within it. He correctly notes how people don’t become involved in a church to fulfill the pastor’s dream, but to become a part of God’s work in the world. This is a helpful distinction.

In his closing chapter (Calvin meets Hobbes) and to my pleasant surprise, he draws on the great theologian (John Calvin) who insisted at the beginning of his Institutes of the Christian Religion that without self-knowledge, we can have no knowledge of God. He suggests (as others have done before him) that Calvin is the alternative to the philosopher Thomas Hobbes belief that “life is nasty, brutish, and short.” Then he links Calvin’s internal exploration to Daniel Goleman’s idea of emotional intelligence (I highly recommend Goleman’s, Emotional Intelligence).  We have to know not only ourselves, but how we affect those around us, if we want to be successful. Our self-awareness will draw us back into the arms of our loving Creator God.

My favorite quote and something to ponder:  “‘The gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it.’ If you read this text purely as a commentary on becoming a Christian, it’s inconsistency with the rest of the New Testament message, which says our salvation doesn’t depend on our goodness; our salvation instead depends on our trusting our lives to Jesus…” (51)

I was provided an advanced copy of this book for an unbiased review. The book is scheduled to be published in early September 2018.

To Bless the Space Between Us

John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 223 pages

 

In the winter of 2000, I bumped into a Buddhist monk at a temple outside of Sunch’on, South Korea.  He immediately stepped back, put his hands together in a prayerful fashion, and bowed in the most reverent way. Even though he didn’t speak English nor did I speak Korean, and that we were of two different religious traditions, I felt blessed. Our world needs more blessings and I am glad to have been lent a copy of this book to read.

 

John O’Donohue was an Irish priest who devoted much of his life to understanding Celtic history and spirituality. In this book, he draws upon Celtic thought as he offers up numerous blessings as well as brief insights into various types of blessings. “It would be infinitely lonely to live in a world without blessing,” O’Donohue writes in his introduction. “The word blessing evokes a sense of warmth and protection.”  Blessings are an invocation, he suggests, that call us to image the “fulfillment of our desires.”

 

The chapters in this book follow a cycle, from “Beginnings” to “Beyond Endings.” Each chapter begins with an explanation, followed by a number of blessings. Chapter 1, “Beginnings,” imagines the start of something new—a new day, a new year, a new home or position. Between the beginning and ending, chapters focus on “desires,” “Thresholds,” Homecomings, “States of the Heart” and “Callings.”  I especially enjoyed the chapter on “Thresholds.” Each stage in life, we cross a threshold and have an opportunity to pause and receive a blessing for what we’ve experienced and what lies ahead.

 

This book would be a wonderful companion for those wanting to come alongside of others during significant times in their lives. Three are blessings for those going through hardships such as illness, imprisonment, and parenting children through difficult circumstances. At such times, when we don’t know what to say, a blessing can be encouraging.

 

The final chapter of the book encourages us to reclaim the “lost art of blessings.” As the Celtic world was steeped in the oral tradition, blessings were learned and handed down from one generation to the next. Each blessing marked occurence of an event or a time in life that was significant. Reading this book, I would hope that the reader would be encouraged to create his or her own blessings to offer to others.

 

Although the book is not overly religious, it does end with a lovely poem titled, “The Eyes of Jesus.”  The late O’Donohue, a former priest, acknowledges that for him, the presentation of a blessing was a part of his ministry with followers of Christ. Anyone who is a follower of Christ would benefit from this book, but the book is not so overly religious so that that those from other traditions wouldn’t benefit. There is a gentle earthliness in this book which calls us all to be kind and to hold out for the best for others.

 

Below are parts of three blessings from the book that provides an insight into his style:

 

In Praise of Water

Let us bless the grace of water:

The imagination of the primeval ocean
Where the first forms of life stirred
And emerged to dress the vacant earth
With warm quilts of color.

The well whose liquid root worked
Through the long night of clay,
Trusting ahead of itself openings
That would yet yield to its hearing
Until at last it arises in the desire of light
To discover the pure quiver of itself
Flowing crystal clear and free
Through delighted emptiness.

The courage of a river to continue believe
In the slow fall of ground,
Always falling farther
Toward the unseen ocean….

Blessed be water,
Our first mother…

 

For the Prisoner

Caged in a cold, functional cell,
Far from the comfort of home
With none of your own things,
In a place that is gray and grim,
Where sounds are seldom gentle,
Amidst the shuffle of dumbed feet,
The crossword of lost voices,
The one constant note
Is the dead, trap-shut sound
Of unrelenting doors that
Make walls absolute.

Though you. Have lost the outside world,
May you discover the untold journey
That awaits you in the inner world. …

May your eyes look up and find
The bright line of an inner horizon
That will ground and encourage you
For that distant day when your new feet
Will step out onto the pastures of freedom.

 

For Loneliness

When the light lessens,
Causing colors to lose their courage,
And your eyes fix on the empty distance
That can open on either side
Of the surest line
To make all that is
Familiar and near
Seem suddenly foreign,

When the music of talk
Breaks apart into noise
And you hear your heart louden
While the voices around you
Slow down to leaden echoes…
Turning the silence
Into something stony and cold,

When the old ghost come back
To feed on everywhere you felt sure….

…Cradle yourself like a child
Learning to trust what emerges,
So that gradually
You may come to know
that deep in that black hole
You will find that blue flower
That holds the mystical light
Which will illuminate in you
The glimmer of springtime.

God’s Providence

Jeff Garrison 
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church 
Acts 23:13-24
August 12, 2018

We often pray to God for help and protection. At least, I know I do. Hopefully you also trust the Lord enough to bring your troubles to him in prayer. But just how does God help and protect us? How are we saved? Not just from our sin which is through faith in the grace of Jesus Christ, but how are we saved from the danger we face daily? We’ll see an answer to this question in today’s text and sermon. God’s intervention into our lives is not always a supernatural event.

Last week, Paul was taken by the Romans to the Sanhedrin, the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. The Roman commander is curious as to what they have against Paul. He doesn’t find out anything except that the crowd is about ready to tear Paul apart. The Commander orders Paul to be brought back safely to the barracks. That night the Lord came to Paul and assures him that he has done well and will now be allowed to take the gospel message to Rome. This is where we will pick up our reading.  Read Acts 23:13-24.

         In Alice Hoffman’s wonderful novel, The Dovekeepers, we meet four women whose lives intersect in Judean desert, at Masada, after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. One of the women is Yael. Her mother died when she was born. The lost broke her father’s heart and he often took it out on her. Her father, who was also devotedly religious despite his treatment of his daughter, was an assassin. Toward the time of the Jewish revolt against Rome in 66 AD, there were so many assassins that they could have formed a guild. These assassins did what they could to revenge deaths, to take out enemies, and to eliminate those who were too friendly with the Romans. They did their work in the dark, quietly and stealthy. They were feared for they could do their deed and slip away before anyone had an idea that a knife had been stuck into the back of their prey.

         With this background, it doesn’t seem so surprisingly that there were 40-some assassins willing to sign up to do-in Paul. They felt Paul was a threat to their faith and they set out to have him killed. They even took an oath not to eat or drink before Paul’s dies. These guys are serious. With Paul being guarded by the Romans, they are willing to risk their own death and the death of many of their comrades. Getting to Paul, when he was surrounded by Romans, wasn’t going to be easy or something they could stealthy do. It was an assignment that could be fatal.

         With so many people out to get Paul, we now turn to how God protected the gospel’s best known missionary to the Roman world. The Bible is full of stories of God aiding his people. God gave Moses the skill to confront Pharaoh, the ability to drown his army, stopped the sun at Gibeon so Israel’s armies could finish the battle, and fire from heaven consumed not just Elijah’s sacrifice but also the prophets of Baal.[1] But those are extraordinary events. Most often, God answers our prayers in a non-supernatural matter.

          There was a man and family who climbed up on the roof of his house during a flood. When they were all safe, they joined hands and prayed for God to deliver them. Pretty soon, a neighbor came by with a row boat offering to take the family to safety. “Nah,” the man said, “God will take care of us.” Later, a sheriff deputy in a rescue boat came by and the man waved him off saying, “God will take care of us.” The water kept rising, but he waved off the Coast Guard’s helicopter that hovered overhead. When the man arrived at the Pearly Gates later that night, soaking wet, he asked God why prayers were not answered. And God said, “What more did you want? I sent a neighbor, a sheriff deputy, and a helicopter…”

While God can perform miraculous deeds, most of the time God stays behind the scene as he did when he saved Paul from the assassins. The heathen Romans might seem an unlikely source of salvation, but God used them to provide safety for Paul.

         You know, we don’t know a lot about Paul’s family. But here, in this text, we have just a glimpse as we learn that Paul has a nephew in Jerusalem. Perhaps he is studying there, as Paul did. Anyway, this young man get wind of the conspiracy against Paul and shares this information with Paul. The fact that Paul can freely receive visitors shows how the Romans are not treating him like a common criminal. Paul has his nephew share his information with the Roman commander. The commander knows it is not safe for Paul to be in Jerusalem. Furthermore, he knows that if Paul, a Roman citizen, dies while in his custody, there would be trouble for him. The commander makes plans to move Paul to Caesarea, a Roman city on the coast. There, Paul would be much safer.[2]

          As I tried to emphasis earlier, things in Israel at this time are unsettled. Because there’s a large group of hidden assassins operating undercover, the Romans are not taking any chances. Had it been anyone else, they would have problem sent them to Caesarea with just a few guards, but because there is the possibility of a real battle, the commander orders 270 soldiers into action. 70 are on horseback, and Paul is riding in the midst of them. Surrounding them are 200 soldiers with spears. The assassins will have a hard time attacking this group and perhaps that was the commander’s idea. Or perhaps, because Paul is riding in the middle of the group, the assassins might not think anything of this detachment, not even knowing that Paul is among them. It was just the army conducting military exercises, something they’d all seen before.[3]

         This contingent of solders travel throughout the night. This is not the first time Paul has to slip out of a city at night. Early in his ministry, after his conversion on the way to Damascus, he had to slip out of that city, being lowered from a window in the wall under the cover of darkness, in order to avoid death.[4] This time Paul isn’t alone. He is surrounded by soldiers. The foot soldiers march through the night and when they are safely away from Jerusalem, they return to the city while Paul and the mounted soldiers continue on. They deliver Paul to Felix, who is the head of the Roman government for this region.

        As you look back over your life, do you see ways in which God has been there working to save you from disaster? I bet if you spent some time thinking about it, you’d come up with something. Last week I told a story about not taking a call that, in hindsight, I knew would be a disaster. I remember once hitch-hiking to get back to my car after a four day backpack in the mountains of Idaho. I thought for sure this open air jeep would pick me up, but he speed past me and, after I did get a ride, we came upon the overturned jeep burning beside the road. I was saved and didn’t even know it to later.

Perhaps God saved you from entering a toxic relationship or accepting a troubling job or saw that you were out of the way before tragedy struck. Think of the blessings those workers in the Twin Towers who were running late on 911 must have felt. Hopefully they have pondered what God wants them to do for the rest of their lives? Often times, we don’t see God’s hand moving in our lives, but it is there. Certainly, we are not saved from everything, but if God has something for us to do, we will be protected.

       The theological term for all this is providence. Of course, this word derives from the word “to provide.” As a good shepherd keeps his flock safe, God’s providence provides for his people. Now this doesn’t mean that things will always go the way we would like, but it does mean that God is there watching over us just as God was there to watch over Paul. Paul still has a mission, he is to preach in Rome! And God was to make sure this would happen.

         You know, shortly after hiking the Appalachian Trail someone asked me if I had met God along the trail. My response was that I had not seen any burning bushes, but that I had experienced some incredible sunrises and sunsets, seen some incredible place, met many wonderful people, and had found the strength necessary to complete the walk. Yes, God was there, and God is here. We often fail to see God’s hand guiding and protecting us, but his hand is there. Instead of lightning bolts and miraculous deeds, God often works quietly and behind the scenes, using natural events and things at hand, such as the Roman Empire, to carry out his work.

          This week, think of how God has been active in your life. What do such stories tell you? Hopefully they increase your willingness to praise and give thanks to God. In addition, such stories should strengthen your testimony. It’s important for us to recall them so that we can tell others of how God has been active in our lives. I promise, we don’t always see it, but God is working behind the scenes. Amen.

©2018

[1] Exodus 4-14; Joshua 10:12-13., 1 Kings 18:20ff

[2]F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986), 457-458.

[3]Johannes Munk, The Acts of the Apostles (New York: Doubleday, 1967), 226.

[4] Acts 9:23-25.

God will be with us

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Acts 22:30-23:11
August 5, 2018

 

How do we sustain ourselves when we feel compiled to stand up for the truth when others around disagree? Our passage today answers this question.

Paul is about to end his time in Jerusalem, as we see today in our walk through the ending of the Book of Acts. The last two Sundays, we have seen how Paul has been attacked and abused by the crowd. The Romans saved him, but the commander of the Roman presence in Jerusalem wonders just what Paul has done to make so many people mad. Last week, he thought he could “beat it out of Paul,” but changed his mind when he realized Paul is a Roman citizen. Having not been convicted of a crime, such torture against a citizen would have gotten the Roman officer in deep trouble. So today, he tries something else.  Let’s see as we read.  Read Acts 22:30-23:11. 

         Three strikes and you’re out. Ever since Paul left Ephesus in Acts 19, there has been tension about his upcoming trip to Jerusalem. Against the advice of friends, Paul made his way to the Holy City, knowing things would probably not go well. Paul’s trip to Jerusalem was kind of like it was for the Macon Bacons coming to Savannah this past Tuesday, in which 40 some of us were in attendance to cheer on the home team.

How can we endure troubles and unpleasantness when we find ourselves unpopular in the world? As we’ve seen over the last two weeks, there’s been rioting and an attempt to kill Paul. It’s going to get worse. Knowing the circumstances, we might ask, why did he go there? There’s something wise about avoiding trouble. Even the Book of Proverbs encourages us to avoid the snares of death.[1] But Paul was convicted by God. Paul knew he had to go to Jerusalem. And even though Paul faced troubles, he knew God was with him.

        And what did Paul accomplish by going to Jerusalem? Paul’s batting average in Jerusalem wasn’t good. We’re not told of any converts made. No one seems to be persuaded by his preaching. Instead, he swings and misses. In a way, Paul was kind of like the slugger for Macon this Tuesday who struck out in the first inning, winning a free banana donut for everyone in the crowd. Although, as far as I know, no one received any such treats in Jerusalem.

Paul’s first strike was when he was attacked by the mob at the temple. (Actually, he received more than one strike, as they were beating him). His second strike was when he addressed the crowd after he was saved by Roman soldiers. They listened for a while, then they rose up against him and the soldiers had to pull to safety. And today, for strike three, he addresses the Jewish Council. Why did Paul endure this? What’s God up to?

         As the book of Job reminds us, we don’t know what’s going on behind the scene, within the heavenly council.[2] We are mortals. We are to be faithful to our calling and to do that which we feel called the best we can. Paul may have even wondered why he was in are natural.

Four months before accepting the call to come to Skidaway, I had been offered another call. I agreed to come and preach before the congregation, but as the weekend approached, I realized all was not well in this land of new possibilities. There was a very vocal minority within the congregation who let it be know they had a problem with my more orthodox theology.

While I knew there were unsettled things before me, I went to that church for a weekend visit. Those who felt my position was too conservative came out in force and it made it a difficult few days. My words were twisted. I felt verbally abused. But strangely, I never doubted that I wasn’t supposed to be there. I got up that Sunday morning and preached, like Paul, with a clear conscience. I felt God’s presence. Members of the Pastor Nominating Committee were blown away. They had watched a dozen or so of my sermons, and liked what they had seen. Several of them told me this was by far the best and most forceful sermon they’d heard from me. But when it was over, I knew that if I had accepted that call, I would split the church. God let me know that I had done what I was supposed to do. So I turned down the call. It was hard. It was as if I was a dog leaving with my tail between my legs. I felt as if I was pawn in some cosmic chess match.

This week, when pondering this text, my experience in the winter of 2014 came back to haunt me. I expect that Paul, too, felt as if he was a pawn in some cosmic chess match. It happens. Ever have to stand up for what is right? Ever have to stand up for the truth when there is a hostile crowd in your face? Have you had to stand up to a bully. We might get a bit bloody, but we must remain firm because we know it is the right thing to do. Sometimes, like Job, we just don’t know what God is up to. We have to trust the Almighty and be assured that God is with us.

         Our text begins with the Roman commander arranging for Paul to meet before the Jewish Council, also known as the Sanhedrin. The commander is charged with keeping peace in Jerusalem and Paul appears to be a lightning rod for trouble. Everywhere he goes, a riot nearly breaks out. Wanting to understand what’s causing this, he goes with Paul to meet with the Sanhedrin. The meeting doesn’t start well. Paul proclaims his innocence and his clear conscience, which doesn’t mean that Paul sees himself as sinless. Instead, Paul knows he has been cleansed through Christ.[3] He also knows that as a Jew, he was kept the law. That’s why he can have a clear conscience. But the Council doesn’t see it that way. Ananias, the high priest orders Paul to be struck in the mouth.

        As a high priest, it should be noted that Ananias wasn’t well thought of, even by many of the Jewish leadership of the day. Josephus, a Jewish historian writing a few years later, spoke of Ananias habit of having priests beaten for not giving him all the tithes they’d collected. They were only required to give a portion and to use the rest to live on. The result of Ananias’ behavior, according to Josephus, is that a few of the older priests starved to death.[4] This dude was evil. He was corrupt.

         Paul responds to the slap with a strange sounding Jewish curse, calling the priest a whitewashed wall. Paul suggests that the High Priest is like a dirty wall that’s been painted white to cover up the filth. Jesus says something similar in the list of woes against the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew’s gospel. “You are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of bones of the dead and all kinds of filth.[5] Paul’s response surprises the members of the council. Asking why he speaks in such a manner to the High Priest, Paul pleads ignorance. He didn’t know the man was the high priest, saying that if he had, he would not have spoken in such a manner. There is some debate as to whether Paul really didn’t know his identity, or if he was just implying that he High Priest wasn’t acting like one.[6]

          Paul then tries another tack. The council is made up of two groups. The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection. They saw this life as being it. But the Pharisees, of which Paul was one, did believe in the resurrection. So Paul claims he is being put on trial because of his beliefs in the resurrection. Paul has now created a classic relationship triangle, as he pulls the Pharisees on his side, over against the Sadducees. Pretty soon, another riot is about to erupt, and the Romans pull Paul from the room and take him back to the safety of their barracks.

From what Luke tells us in the Book of Acts, Paul struck out in Jerusalem. This is his last speech in the Holy City and we’re not told of any converts made. Paul must have wondered what he was doing there, but that night the Lord reassured him of his presence and of how that he has now bore witness in Jerusalem, he’s going to be sent to Rome, the center of the world in the first century. Jesus tells us that those who are faithful with a little, will be a ruler over much more.[7] Paul, who was faithful in this backwater town on the fringe of the Roman Empire, will now have an opportunity to testify before the people of the most powerful city in the ancient world.

          You know, many of God’s witnesses have been abused. Paul wasn’t the first one, nor the last. Remember Stephen? He was stoned. Think about Jeremiah. He was thrown into a cistern. Many of the disciples died horrible deaths. The gospel is clear. Following Christ does not necessarily mean that we’ll have life without trouble. But it does mean that we will have a life in which we are never alone. We are to do what we know is right and be assured the Lord will be there beside us. Jesus will see to it that we are comforted and guided. We’ll be eternally protected and when this life is over, he will welcome us home.

Imagine what the world would be like if Christians were embolden to speak the truth. What if God’s people trusted God’s presence enough to help fulfil Jesus’ vision of a world of love and kindness and peace? As people of faith, we should be able to endure anything because we are never alone. If we all believed that, imagine the possibilities.

         “Keep up your courage,” the Lord told Paul.  Keep up your courage. Hold tight to the faith. If you’re doing God’s work, God will be with you. Amen.

[1] Proverbs 13:14, 14:27

[2] Job 1:6-12.

[3] Romans 8:1.

[4] Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, Book 20, chapter 9, paragraph 2.  

[5] Matthew 23:27.  Johannes Munck, The Anchor Bible: The Acts of the Apostles (New York: Doubleday, 1967), 222.

[6] Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Acts (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 313-314.

[7] Luke 16:10.

Pastoralia (A Book Review)

George Saunders, Pastoralia: Stories and a Novella (New York: Riverhead Books, 2000), 189 pages.

 

As I read the novella, Pastoralia, I was reminded of the trapped souls in Kafka’s writings. Here, two characters are a part of a primitive cave man display where they must prepare food over an open fire (when they receive a goat or a hare). They pick bugs and in the cave as they act as if they are real caveman. But behind the walls in their private quarters, where they can go when off-duty, there is a fax machine that is their link to the outside. There, they also have soft drinks and other luxuries that they are unable to enjoy while playing the part of a cave dweller. The people who run the theme park go to great lengths to save money (charging them for disposing their human waste) and making crazy arguments as why they have no other option. But the two employees are so dependent on the organization, so they keep playing the game, hoping each day to have a goat to roast.

In “Winky,” we’re taken to a “get-rich-quick” convention where those in attendance wear hats colored for how far they have come in the process of becoming wealthy. Like many such schemes, the message is partly religious, but instead of failure due to one’s lack of effort, it’s because of others are holding you back. “God doesn’t make junk,” they’re told. “If you’re losing, somebody’s doing it to you.” The scheme sets people up to focus on their needs and to challenge or remove those from their lives that hold them back. Getting ahead is the only thing that matters.

The short story, “Sea Oak” is about people trapped in lives from which they are unable to escape. It’s a world turned upside down. To make a living (in the hope of escaping to a better neighborhood), the protagonists works at “Joysticks,” where men partly strip and serve women (but they can’t completely strip) and earn titles. The best men become “pilots” although they are still stripping and serving as they parade around with their private parts slightly clad. The customers rate the men and when your rating falls to “stinker,” you’re out the door.  Saunders has turned the world upside down as I couldn’t help but to think of a time when flight attendants were “sexualized” but instead of men looking at women, it’s reversed.

“Sea Oak” is the dumpy community where the protagonist lives.  He’d like to escape, but there is no way out. To escape, there’s the television with reality TV-like shows such as “The Worst that Could Happen.” The aunt dies and the family struggles over how to bury her. They would be in debt for seven years to give her something nice, but the funeral home as other options such as painted cardboard boxes.  But she comes back to life, only to fall apart, one body part at a time.  Even the hope of resurrection is hollow in this story.

There are several additional stories in this collection. Saunders stories are funny, but sad.  As they describe people trapped, I found them to be very Kafkaesque. Both writers describe hopeless situations. In Saunder’s stories, people place their hopes on bizarre schemes to escape, but no one (especially not the reader) believes they have a change. These stories, I found, are very political in a subtle way as if by telling them, those who are trapped with realize how the system is rigged against them and no longer play the game using rules that keep them from improving their lives.

Paul’s Citizenship (Acts 22:17-29)

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Acts 22:17-29
July 29, 2018

         Last week, in our walk through the final chapters of the Book of Acts, we left Paul on the steps of the Roman barracks, adjacent to the Court of the Gentiles and next to the temple in Jerusalem. Paul had been saved from the mob by Roman soldiers, but they assumed he must have been guilty of something since the crowd was beating him. The Romans, we learned, thought he might have been an infamous Egyptian Jewish assassin that had started a revolt, but when Paul speaks to the Roman in Greek, the commander realizes Paul is someone else. Then Paul asks for a chance to speak to the crowd. Again, as with the Roman’s Paul’s speech takes the crowd by surprise. He addresses them in their native language; they calm down and listen.

I’m not going to read all that Paul has to say this morning. I’ll skip over 16 verses, where Paul mostly recalls his background and conversion.  From what we are told, the crowd remains silent and listens. But as Paul comes to the end of his speech, that changes, as we’ll see this morning. In this passage, we’ll learn the value of Paul’s citizenship and where his allegiance ultimately lies. Read Acts 22:17-29

       What does it mean to be a citizen? It’s a privilege those of us who were born in America enjoy. When you are a citizen, you have rights the government can’t take away without due process. When you are a citizen, you are a part of something larger that yourself. When you are a citizen, you have something to be proud of. But there is also a burden. After all, we have to pay taxes and in a democratic republic like ours, we need to be involved in politics, at least to the point of being informed and making an effort to vote. And lastly, being a citizen means that when your country does things for which you’re not proud, you have to own it.

When traveling overseas, I’ve been curious and a bit envious of those with multiple passports. They are able to choose which one to use in order to avoid paying for a visa or entry fee when entering a new country. Furthermore, if there is some kind of international incident, they can use the more favorable passport. Most of us don’t have that luxury.

J. Maarten Troost, who carries both a Dutch and Canadian passport, tells about the burden of citizenship in his humorous book about traveling in China. If you remember, during the Bosnian War in the 1990s, we mistakenly bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Anti-American protests erupted and Troost observed American youth in China quickly sewing Canadian flags on their backpacks. Shortly thereafter, there was an incident with Japan. The Japanese government denied wrong doing in Nanking during World War 2. This time the outrage was against the Japan and Japanese students began to sew on Canadian flags.[1] As I said, citizenship comes with benefits and baggage. We can see this with Paul in today’s reading.

          When Paul addresses the mob, he appeals to his Jewish heritage. He begins, if you read back earlier in the chapter, “I am a Jew.”[2] It’s in the present tense. Paul does not say, “I was a Jew, but now I’m a Christian.”  Even though he is a follower of Jesus, he sees himself as continuing in the Jewish tradition.

Paul continues to reinforce his heritage. Although born in what’s today known as Turkey, Paul was sent to Jerusalem to study under Gamaliel. He had been a zealot for the law, just as those who are in the mob that tried to kill him. Paul goes on to recall how he’d once been a part of the mob that killed Stephen. But then Paul was changed when he encountered Jesus. The crowd continues to listen to him as he explains his conversion, and how instead of being a persecutor of the church, he becomes a member of the Way, a follower of Jesus.

The crowd is patient right up to the point that Paul talks about how the Lord sent him to the Gentiles. That was just too much for them to bear. For you see, those of the Jewish heritage saw themselves as better than the Gentiles. Paul’s focus on the Gentiles was seen by them as a denial of his Jewish citizenship. To their eyes, Paul admits being a traitor. They again demand his blood.

        Like last week, we have another riot, although this time Paul is protected by Roman soldiers. They pull Paul back into the safety of their barracks. Here, we have another scene. The commander doesn’t understand why this guy is causing such a ruckus. He still thinks that Paul has to be guilty of something. So, as was the fashion in those olden days, he decides he’ll beat the answer out of Paul. As Paul is being strung up to be flogged, which was one of the worst punishments as if often killed or maimed the victim, he drops a bombshell. Luke tells us that Paul, facing the severity of Roman power, causally asks the soldier if it was lawful to flog a Roman citizen. It’s a rhetorical question. Paul knows the answer. There’s humor here. By keeping his cool, Paul claims his citizenship, takes on the Empire, and the flogging doesn’t happen.[3]

        There are benefits of being a citizen and as such, Paul could not be flogged unless he had been found guilty of a deserving crime. So the commander has him released and they have an interesting conversation. The commander had purchased his citizenship while Paul was born a citizen, which meant that his ranking as a citizen was higher than the commander.[4]

Paul uses his citizenship as a way to avoid a potentially life-threatening torture, but his ultimate loyalty isn’t to the Jewish faith nor to Rome. First and foremost, Paul belongs to his Lord.  We see this early in this reading, where Paul, having just returns from Damascus, thinks he’s the ideal candidate to bring the Jewish people into faith with Christ.  But that’s over-ruled by God in a vision he had in the temple. Paul’s sent out to the Gentiles.[5] Paul’s ultimate allegiance, as we see, isn’t to himself (as he wanted to stay in Jerusalem). Nor is it to the Jewish tradition, or even to Rome. His ultimate allegiance is to God.

Paul may have thought he was a good candidate to stay in Jerusalem and convert the Jews, but his background as a Greek, a Roman citizen, and a Jew makes him an idea candidate to travel the Empire and share Jesus’ message.

          Paul demonstrates how we can be both proud of our heritage (as he was of his Jewish background) and also use the privilege of citizenship (as he did to avoid torture), yet place God first in his life. The importance of it all is balance. It’s all about putting God and God’s mission first. It’s about using that which God has given us. God gave Paul a heart for the Gentiles, which didn’t please his fellow Jews because they didn’t want to share God’s flavor with others. But Paul’s purpose wasn’t to please his fellow Jews (or even Romans). It was to carry out the mission of his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Furthermore, God saw to it that Paul was equipped for the mission he was assigned, as he was a Greek-speaking, Jewish, Roman Citizen.

What can we learn from this passage and apply to our lives?  William Willimon, in his commentary on Acts, discusses here the difference between tradition and traditionalism. Paul plants his feet firmly in the Jewish tradition in which God often acts in a surprising way. Think about Noah and the Flood, Abraham and his wanderings, Moses and the Exodus, Jeremiah and the Exile…  With all these individuals and events, God was doing something new. Paul is “willing to be surprised, to be led into strange areas of God’s grace. This is the tradition is worth defending… as opposed to the dry and often dead traditionalism which merely appeals to blind obedience to what we have always done.”[6] Where might God be calling us? What new thing might God be doing today?

         Sometime we get caught up in the same game, defending traditionalism, and not the tradition. The Christian tradition isn’t about doing things the same way as we’ve always done it. It’s about bringing people into a relationship with a living Lord, it’s about working with God to redeem the world and fulfill God’s eternal purpose. We must be willing to separate the essentials from that which have served us well in the past.  Worship style and music is something that has continually changed throughout history. We shouldn’t fight it.  Instead, it should be evaluated by how it helps us connect to God and by how it furthers God’s mission in the world.

Christian education is another thing that changing. What’s important isn’t that we do something like it has been done for 200 years. By the way, Sunday School as we know it is only a little over 200 years.[7] What’s important isn’t how Christian education is done, but that it’s done! We must have a way to learn and to grow in our faith.

         As it was in Paul’s day, the world at times seems to be in flux these days. Church attendance is dropping across North America. More people are claiming not to have a religious preference. It’s a frightening time, but these statistics don’t say anything about God. God is still in control. God is doing something new, we just don’t know what it is yet. But for those of us born into Christian families and in America, we have been blessed, just as Paul was blessed having been born a Jew and a Roman citizen. Such blessings provide us with abilities many others don’t have. When we understand, as Jesus said, “To those who have been given much, much is required,”[8] we should, like Paul, do what we can to further God’s work in the world and to be an example of what it means to follow Christ.

While we enjoy citizenship on earth, our ultimate allegiance belongs to God. And God is in control and for that we give thanks. Amen.

[1] J. Maarten Troost, Lost on Planet Chain (New York: Broadway Books, 2008), 117-121.

[2] Acts 22:3.

[3] William H. Willimon, Acts, (1986, Louisville KY: WJK, 2010), 170-171.

[4] Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Acts (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 310.

[5] Acts 22:19-21.

[6] Willimon, 169.

[7] See Anne M. Boylan, Sunday School: The Formation of an American Institution, 1790-1880 (New Haven, CT: Yale, 1988) or Robert W. Lynn & Elliott Wright, The Big Little School: 200 Years of the Sunday School (Nashville: Abingdon, 1980).

[8] Luke 12:48.

Wanderlust (A Book Review)

Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking (New York: Penguin Books, 2000), 326 pages, notes and some photographs. 13 hours and 58 minutes on Audible. 

 

The title drew my attention. I’m a wanderlust and walker so this book was a delight. I don’t really know how to categorize it. The book is a kaleidoscope of many parts: anthropology, science, history, adventure, exploration, philosophy and poetry. There is a little of something for everyone, which may make the book overwhelming for some. But I found it a delight.  

 

Solnit begins by taking us on a walk near her home in the San Francisco Bay area. Soon, she is exploring philosophers who think while walking and then she’s off discussing how we began to walk and how it helps us see the world. She discusses the idea of the garden and the British walking tradition, especially as it was experienced by poets like Wadsworth and Keats. There are pages devoted to private property and the battles, especially in the UK, over the battle of the right to walk across private property. As she expands walking, she focuses on the French Revolution and the role mass “walking” has played in protests. From France, she explores walking in the Civil Rights movement to the Tiananmen Square revolts in China in the late 1980s.

 

I was surprised at the beginning of chapter 10 (on Walking Clubs and Land Wars). She was at the breakfast table of Valarie and Michael Cohen’s cabin in June Lake, California. I’ve been there! I knew Michael from when he taught at Southern Utah University and one summer, when I was completing the John Muir Trail, Michael joined me for the Yosemite section. Michael wrote a biography of John Muir, which allows her to discuss Muir role in American walking. Before going west and establishing the Sierra Club (of which one of their missions was to take people walking in the mountains), Muir took a 1,000 mile walk from the Midwest to the Gulf of Mexico (he even travelled through Savannah and camped out in Bonaventure Cemetery.

 

In later chapters she discusses how the city began to destroy the need for walking, but then has provided a haven for walkers in places like Central Park. She also discovers the “underside” of walking such as women “walking the streets” to find clients as prostitution and how, in centuries past, women alone on the streets were assumed to be of that profession. She even discusses walking on a treadmill, which doesn’t allow you to see much of the world but does allow for needed exercise.  I must confess to having listened too much of this book while in the gym.

 

While I listened to this book instead of reading it, I was so enamored with the quotes and insights that I picked up a hard copy for my library. When listening to the book, the reader starts out with quote after quote, which goes on for several minutes. It seemed weird to have so many quotes. At the beginning of each major section of the book, the reader goes on for some time with more quotes. This didn’t make sense until I purchased the book and realized that running along the bottom of the pages of the book are the quotes followed by the name of the author of the quote. The person reading the book would read these quotes for each section, then return and read the text. It was the only way to do this to make any sense. Otherwise, the reader would have only hit part of a quote that appeared on each page. While the quotes at the bottom of the page gave an artistic flavor to the book, I am not sure they added to the story. 

 

If you’re a wanderlust, you might find the book enjoyable. But I am afraid that many readers may be overwhelmed in the variety of worlds that Solnit explores. That is both a strength and weakness of her book.

Mob Danger (Acts 21:27-22:1)

Jeff Garrison 
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Acts 21:27-22:1
July 22, 2018

 

 

Last week we learned that Paul finally arrived in Jerusalem. There’s a warm welcome by the leaders of the church. They praise God for the work that has been done through Paul as he reached out into the Gentile world. But not everyone in Jerusalem was excited at seeing Paul and hearing about the work he’d been doing around the Roman Empire. Quickly, things go downhill as we see in this week’s text.

          Today, we observe a problem that occurs when people gather and tempers flare. Often, when there is a mob, judgment and justice gets tossed aside. A crowd is easily riled up. Reinhold Niebuhr understood this flaw in human character as outlined in his classic work, Moral Man and Immoral Society. The book was first published in 1932, just a year before the rise of Nazism. It proved to be prophetic. How can someone who strives to live morally in his or her personal life get caught up in a movement that can be so corrupt and evil?[1]

The mob that beat Paul isn’t anything new. It was a mob that forced Pilate’s hand which resulted in Jesus’ crucifixion.[2] It was a mob that stoned Stephen.[3] And now, as we’ll see in the Scriptures, another mob is brewing.

As we read about how the mob attack Paul, we should ponder where we’d be in such a situation. It’s easy to think we’d be on Paul’s side, but would we? Or would we play it safe and go along with the crowd?  Read Acts 21:27-22:1.

 

        I’ve talked to you before about how my ninth year of school was a pivotal and difficult for me. It was the first year of cross-town busing and a year of transition. Instead of continuing on at Roland Grice Junior High as we’d planned, those of us who were entering the 9th Grade were packed off to Williston, a “9th Grade Center” located near downtown Wilmington. The school had formerly served as an African-American High School, and then for a few years was the inner-city Junior High. It was a tense year, as students who had formerly attended Williston, along with Sunset Park and Roland Grice Junior Highs were all tossed in together. Many of us from Roland Grice formed a gang and claimed the walkway on the second floor that ran from Williston to Gregory, which this year was a 5th and 6th Grade Center next door (originally, Gregory had served as the African-American Junior High). This walkway provided us with views of both sides of the school yard. From there, we got into all kinds of mischief.

It was late in the school year, a week or two before we were out of school for the summer. We’d already been through the riots for the year, and now things were settling down. On this particular morning, buses were dropping off kids, both 9th graders along with those in the 5th and 6th grade. People were waiting for the bell to ring before classes began. I don’t remember who came up with the idea, but dozen or so of us who had gathered that morning starting shouting “Fight, Fight, Fight” and pointing to the back side of the school. We ran to the other side of the walkway. It had the desired effect as soon the front yard of the two schools were cleared of students rushing across to the backside of the schools to see the fight. Of course, there was no fight. Seeing none, the crowd looked up and saw us laughing.

         These days, I don’t recommend such behavior. But it shows a tendency (or weakness) of human nature. We tend to follow the crowd. Had I been in Jerusalem that spring afternoon in middle of the first century, would I have gone against the crowd?  I’d like to think so, but I’m not so sure. How about you?

 

       To understand this passage, it would be helpful to know a bit about the temple. To the Jews of the First Century, the temple was sacred. Inside the temple in the Inner Court was the Holy of Holies, a place where only the High Priest could go to offer sacrifices on behalf of the people. Around that was a court for the priest with the altar. Then, there was the courts for Jewish men and women. These were all sacred places—not everyone were allow inside.

         Surrounding these courts was the Court of Gentiles. Gentiles were prohibited from entering into the temple proper and there were signs in several languages that warned of death to those who violated the boundaries. The Romans allowed the Jews to maintain the purity of the temple and even helped them keep the inner courts free of non-Jews.[4] Along the wall of the city by the Court of the Gentiles was a Roman garrison. There, soldiers were stationed in case there was any disturbance around the temple. This is why the soldiers were so quick to respond to the riot that occurred this day.

According to the text, in verse 29, we learn that the unrest began when word gets around that Paul had been in the city with Trophimus, a Gentile from Ephesus. Now, who would have known that this dude was a gentile? We’re told there were those in the city who were from Asia (that province where Ephesus is located) who are in Jerusalem for the festival. They assume Paul took this gentile into the temple. Remember, there are clear warning signs declaring death to any gentile that crosses the threshold. Had Paul done this, and we are not told that he had, this would have been a major breach in protocol. But, let me reiterate, we’re not told that Paul did this. Unfortunately, no one in the crowd stopped to investigate. Based on the uproar, they assumed Paul’s guilt and immediately join the mob. Nobody wanted to be seen as easing the Jewish standards of the day. They wanted to be seen as “tough on crime” and a gentile in the temple proper was a serious crime.

 

Note that in verse 30, when Paul is seized, the temple doors are closed. He can’t seek sanctuary there. Luke tells us how the veil in the temple rips when Jesus was crucified, indicating the opening up of the temple.[5] Now, with this verse, Luke indicates that the temple is being closed to Christians, to Jewish believers. The split between Christians and Jews continues to widen.

 

          A mob and a misunderstanding led to Paul being beaten without mercy. We are left to assume that had the soldiers not intervened, Paul would have been killed. But the soldiers came in and they quickly broke the fight up. Then, they arrest the victim! How often does that happen? How often, even today, is the victim assumed to be guilty? Paul must have really done something bad to stir up this crowd, the commanding officer concluded. We often jump to conclusions don’t we? That unarmed man must have done something to cause the officer to shoot him… That victim within the #me too movement must have worn suggestive clothing or said something salacious to cause the man to take advantage of her… Or, he or she was guilty because of who they are with or where they were at… When a mob takes over, everyone jumps to conclusions, logic goes out the window, and irrational behavior ensues.

       As we read on in our text, it is interesting that the Romans had also assumed the worst about Paul. They thought he was an Egyptian Jew who had led a revolt. Had he been, he would had been condemned and executed, but at least the Romans would have done it orderly and not by mob action. However, when Paul begins to speak, the soldiers are surprised to realize he’s actually a citizen from Tarsus. They are surprised to learn that he speaks Greek in addition to Hebrew and Aramaic. So, surrounded by soldiers, they allow Paul to address the crowds.

This passage shows us the danger of mob action and of making rash judgments about people. Of course, in the end God saw that things worked out for the best. The Romans save Paul from death and then, after having been arrested, Paul is able to appeal to Caesar. This allows him to take the gospel message all the way to Rome. But just because things worked out for the best, we can’t dismiss the behavior of the crowd. They are accountable for their irrational behavior.

        As Christians, we must stand for what is right. Sometimes this means we must go against the crowd. We must defend the weak and those unable to support themselves. Throughout the Old Testament, God over and over again demands justice for the widow, orphan and alien.[6] And then Jesus comes along and tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves and to pray even for our enemies.[7] In the Old Testament, the three groups of people raised up (orphans, widows and aliens) had no one to advocate for their rights. God expected his people to stand in the gap. The same would go for Paul, who was alone and vulnerable before the crowd. With Jesus, we’re to think of others first! When the vulnerable are attacked, as followers of Jesus we are called to stand up. We are called to stand in the gap and remind the world that God is a God of justice.

          Will we stand in the gap and insist that all people have dignity because they have been created in God’s image?[8] Will we stand in gap, against the mob, and remind the world that might does not make right? Just because we have the ability to do something doesn’t mean that we should do it. Will we stand in the gap and risk the crowd’s anger, knowing that we must answer to a higher authority?

While grace will cover the sins of the humble and contrite, we must still strive to do what is right in God’s eyes and not just follow the crowd. Stand in the gap! Amen.

 

©2018

[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960).

[2] Luke 23:18-24.

[3] Acts 7:54-60.

[4] F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 433-434 and Beverly Roberts Gaventa Acts (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 301-302.

[5] Luke 23:45.

[6] Deuteronomy 14:29, 24:17-21, 26:12-13, 27:19; Jeremiah 7:6, 22:3; Ezekiel 22:7; Zechariah 7:10, Malachi 3:5.

[7] Jesus quotes from Leviticus 19:18 when he says to love one another as we love ourselves. See Matthew 19:19 and 22:39, Mark 12:31, and Luke 10:27. This teaching is also taught in the early church. See Romans 13:9, Galatians 5:14 and James 2:8. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells us to pray for our enemies. Matthew 5:44.

[8] Genesis 1:27.

Granite Mountain (A Book Review)

Brendan McDonough with Stephan Talty, Granite Mountain: The Firsthand Account of a Tragic Wildfire, Its Lone Survivor, and the Firefighters Who Made the Ultimate Sacrifice (New York: Hachette Books, 2016), 178 pages plus an insert of 8 pages of prints.

 

Nineteen firefighters were killed in the 2013 Yarnell, Arizona fire, making it America’s most tragic wildfire in the terms of death of firefighters.  Yarnell surpasses the King Mountain, Colorado fire in 1994 and the Mann Gulch, Montana fire in 1948.  Everyone who lives in the American West, especially in non-urban areas, know the danger of wildfires and this fire hit a little too close to home for our family. One of the firefighters killed that June afternoon had, in the mid-1990s, been a member of a youth group at the church I served in Cedar City, Utah. He left behind a wife and two children.  I read this book with Joe in mind.

 

This book is more about the author, Brendan McDonough, than it is about the fire or even firefighting. While he does covers what happens that afternoon, the whole story is seen through Brendan’s eyes. It is a story of redemption as Brendan goes from being a drug dealer and user to a member of an elite fire-fighting team. He is to be commended for having turned his life around and one can easily understand how he was so distraught after losing his “family” in the fire.

 

On the afternoon of the fire, Brendan was station as the team’s lookout. When the fire blew up, his escape route was different than that of the crew who were working below him in an area filled with bushy vegetation. For some reason, the Granite Hotspots didn’t take the escape route they’d planned. It was a fatal mistake. They were caught in a canyon filled with shrub. With the fire pushing in on them, they attempted to clear away shrubs and to crawl into their safety blankets in the hope the fire would burn pass them. They all died.

 

I was disappointed that I didn’t learn anything about the kid I once knew. Brendan only discusses a handful of the fellow firefighters who were a part of the Granite Hot Shot team. I would have also learned more about what investigators have discovered about the fire, but this is a personal story. The book does not cover the investigation that followed the incident. However, the story from Brendan’s eyes is well told and the book is easy to read.

Remembering Mr. Rogers

With a new PBS documentary coming on our Mister Rogers, along with a movie starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers in the works, it’s a good time to look back on this gentle man and what he taught. For a couple of years I had a newspaper column that appeared every four weeks in the Daily Spectrum, a newspaper covering St. George and Cedar City, Utah. This column was written in April 2003,shortly after Mister Roger’s death. The photo on the right is of me and my daughter in San Francisco in 2002. 

 

“Daddy, are you sad Mister Rogers died?”  My five-year-old daughter, with a reassuring voice, played the role of a good neighbor as she expressed concern for my emotional well being.

Daddies don’t need to earn the admiration of their daughters.  That aside, I discovered it was worth a few extra points to let my daughter know Mister Rogers, like me, was a Presbyterian minister and that we had both graduated from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.  In her eyes, that made Mister Rogers a personal friend of mine even though we attended the institution decades apart.  We may not have been friends, but we were residents of the same neighborhood.

To many, Mister Rogers seemed old fashion.  His trademark cardigan sweaters and slippers were often targets of ridicule.  But if image ever bothered Mister Rogers, he didn’t let it show.  He reached his audience with his simple caring ways.  His show offered children, including my daughter, relief.  Their worlds are often chaotic.  In contrast, Mister Rogers would walk slowly onto the set, replacing his jacket with a sweater.  He always hung his jacket in the closet.  His entrance provided a welcome change of pace for kids use to parents coming in, throwing their jacket on the back of a chair and collapsing in the recliner.  Rogers’ meticulous ways demonstrated a safe and orderly world where adults have time for children and treat them as if they are important.

In times like this, when we are bombarded with images of death and destruction, when terrorists long to destroy much of what we value, and when a virus has people afraid of traveling, our children need to be reassured that we are there for them.  Even though we cannot control the future, they need to know that we have their best interest at heart.

In the carefully choreographed world of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, children learn there is an alternative to the madness they see around them.  His messages were simple, clear and honest.  Because of this, children trusted this man with his zip-up sweaters to safely explore with them, who they are and how they relate to one another.  From him they learned that honesty and friendship are important and came to understand that their neighborhood is far and wide.  Rogers taught that, in order to “feel the fullness of life,” we must have “a sense that we belong to our planet” and “that we belong in other people’s lives.”  We all need to know “that we are loved, lovable, and capable of loving.”

When Jesus was asked, “who is my neighbor?” he surprised his audience by telling the story of the Good Samaritan.  A neighbor is someone who cares.  A neighbor is someone who takes our best interest to heart.  In this world filled with fear and conflict, we need a few more Mister Rogers asking us, “won’t you be, won’t you please, please won’t you be my neighbor?”  “Yes,” I told my daughter, “I’m sad about Mister Rogers’ death.”  We’re going to miss him.

###

The Christian Journey

 

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Acts 21:1-17
July 15, 2018

 

We continue our journey through the Book of Acts this week as we explore the third and final leg of Paul’s journey to Jerusalem. You can see the journey he takes on the map on the screens. As he has done so far on this particular excursion, Luke provides unique details (even down to unloading the cargo of the ship). When Paul last traveled to Jerusalem, his journey from Ephesus to Jerusalem took just two sentences.[1] Why does Luke go into such detail here? Is he slowing us down with details to highlight the importance of this trip? It’s something you might ponder as we read these verses. As Paul travels, he stays with believers along the way which provide us with an insight into first century hospitality and what it means to be on a Christian journey. I’m going to leave the map up while I read the text so you can have a sense of where these things are happening. Read Acts 21:1-17…

 

          A few weeks ago I was driving back to St. Louis. I’d been in St. Louis for the General Assembly. I’d then travelled to Iowa City, where I had attended the Iowa Summer Writing Program. I was flying back home from St. Louis, and I built an extra day in my schedule to visit with some friends and see a few places along the Mississippi. This provided me the luxury of taking backroads. My plan was to cross over the Mississippi, from Iowa to Illinois, at Fort Madison. It’s a major rail town and I realized I had been through that town at least three times on Amtrak. It’s where the Santa Fe line from Chicago to Los Angeles crosses the Mississippi River. Knowing I would see plenty of trains along with barges on the Mississippi, I was drawn to the old Santa Fe depot, which is also a local museum. There, I talked to an old man passing time watching trains. He had worked for the Santa Fe, not on a train, but as a bridge tender over the Mississippi.  He knew something about the railroad.

        I arrived about the same time as Amtrak, as it was heading to Chicago. It came to a stop, but no one got off. I was told the Amtrak station these days was a couple of miles back, but that the train had to also stop here because the bridge was open. I couldn’t see that the bridge was open, but sure enough, a large set of barges were soon visible as they were pushed down the river. When the bridge closed, the train left.

         A few minutes after that, a large container train made its way slowly by us. Then, as this was a double track line, a second container train raced around the first on the other line. It was booking. When I commented on its speed, the retired railroad guy said he thought it a land-bridge express, which hauls containers from Los Angeles to ports on the east coast, where they are reloaded onto a ship for Europe. These containers don’t go through customs and are sealed for the entire journey. Who knew!

One of my metaphors for the Christian journey that I have used before is of a train on a transcontinental journey. Every ten hours or so, the train stops and one crew gets off while another takes over. Each crew has their own particular run and responsibility. The guy at the throttle while they were crossing the Mississippi never sees the train being formed by the Pacific or its containers loaded onto a ship on the Atlantic. His or her job is to move the train safely from point A to point B. The engineer trusts that other engineers and conductors will see the train to its final journey.

         When it comes to the church, our task is to faithfully move the church a little further down the line. The church, as well as us as individuals, are on a journey. We know, or we should know, that there will be bumps along the way. Journey has always been a popular theme within Christianity. From the early days, there were those who went on pilgrimages. These were journeys designed to draw people into a closer relationship with God.

While pilgrimages fell out of favor with the early Protestant movement, the Puritan John Bunyan brought it back in the terms of our whole life being a pilgrimage. Pilgrim’s Progress is his allegorical tale. His protagonist, Christian (what a convenient name), dreams of a journey from this world to the next. Christian lived in the City of Destruction, but his journey takes him to the Celestial City on Mount Zion. Bunyan reminds us that our ultimate citizenship isn’t to this world, but to God’s kingdom.  In this fashion, we’re all pilgrims during our lives.

       Paul, in our passage this morning, has the same sort of feelings. He’s making the journey because the Spirit compelled him to, even though others warn him of the danger. As he makes his way from the province of Asia to Jerusalem, Paul’s encounters echo many things Luke has already told us in his gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles.[2]

        In Caesarea, Paul stays with Philip, the evangelists, one of the seven deacons. If you remember, as a deacon, Philip was assigned the task of seeing to it that the needs of all the members of the Way were well fed and cared for. One of the other deacons, with Philip, was Stephen.[3] It was at Stephen’s stoning that we first hear of Saul, later known to us as Paul.[4] So Philip and the former persecutor of the church, who watched with approval as one of his co-workers was killed, are now friendly.

Philip has four daughters who are prophetess, which remind us of Peter’s sermon on Pentecost when he quote Joel about sons and daughters prophesying.[5] When Paul first set out for Damascus, his mission was to bind up the Christians in Syria and lead them back to Jerusalem for trial.[6] Now Agabus, another prophet, shows Paul how this will be reversed as Paul is bound and taken away. Furthermore, the warnings Paul receives are akin to the warnings Jesus gives the disciples about going to Jerusalem.[7] For Paul, like Jesus, Jerusalem is a dangerous place.

Despite all the warnings, Paul feels compelled by God’s Spirit to go to Jerusalem, just as Jesus felt compelled to go there. It doesn’t seem as if Paul fully knows fully what’s ahead. He doesn’t die in Jerusalem, but he was prepared to die. However, Paul’s ministry takes a significant twist in Jerusalem, as he is taken from there, as a prisoner, to Rome.

I recently heard it said that when Christians are willing to die for the gospel, the gospel can’t be stopped. Paul knows that what he’s involved with is much larger than himself. Even though others want him to be safe, Paul knows his first loyalty is to Jesus Christ and to go to where Jesus wants him to go.

          There are three highlights from this passage I’d like to offer. First of all, Paul enjoys the fellowship of believers wherever he goes. The first thing he does when he enters a town is to seek out Christians and he delights in their company. Secondly, they pray together. Whenever Paul is departing, they get on their knees. In the sharing of hospitality and prayer, both parties are blessed through what they give and receive. The Christian life is of both giving and receiving, of blessings and being a blessing.

The third offering for you to take is that Paul knows that imprisonment and perhaps death is ahead, but he does not fear it.  Paul no longer sees himself as a free man. Paul accepts his role as a prisoner of God’s Spirit. Even though there are storm clouds ahead, Paul continues on because he feels he’s doing God’s will. It’s one thing to have trouble. Everyone has troubles. (At least I do. Don’t you?) But when we feel we are doing God’s will, we can more easily endure the pain because we know we are not alone and our purpose is larger than ourselves.  It is no longer about what Paul is doing (if was about what Paul was to do). It’s about what God will do.

        These three highlights from Paul’s journey (fellowship, prayer, and the focus on something larger than ourselves) correspond to three things within the Christian life. It’s my hope you will all strive to enjoy these. First of all, there is the joy that comes from fellowship with other believers. Secondly, when we pray together, we are connect with our Heavenly Father. And finally, we should realize that our efforts is just a small part of what’s God’s Spirit is doing in the world. We must be faithful and trust God’s Spirit to call on others to also be faithful.

        Remember that train rushing from one coast to another. We have our own section for which we’re responsible. As the old gospel song goes, “We must keep our hand upon the throttle and our eyes upon the rail.”[8]  It’s not about us, it’s about a larger mission. Let us pray:

 

Holy God, help us to be like Paul. When others strive to redirect us from your purposes, give us the courage to remain focused on your mission. Help us to enjoy the fellowship of believers and to be strengthened in the prayers of the faithful. This we ask in the name among all names, Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

 

©2018

[1] Acts 18:21-22, Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Acts (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 291.

[2] Gaventa, 292.

[3] Acts 6:1-6.

[4] Acts 7:58.

[5] Acts 2:17, Joel 2:28.

[6] Acts 9:2.

[7] Luke 9:22, 44

[8] Charles Tillman, “Life is Like a Mountain Railway.”

A Tribute to a Friend

This article appeared in the October 22, 2007 issue of the Presbyterian Outlook. The photo is from the early 1990s and shows Brent and a younger me (I still had some hair) after a day of skiing in Ellicottville, NY.    

 

 

I stayed at the home of friends the night before Brent’s funeral, in the hills on the north side of Pittsburgh, above the Ohio River. Unable to sleep, I listened to the lonely wail of trains on the tracks down below. Trains heading east slow down in this section, before heading over the trestle and into the city, their cars bumping into one another as the brakes are applied. Trains heading west pick up speed and their engines strain as they cut through the night, whistling at each crossing.

In the middle of the night in a strange bed, I recalled sitting in Brent’s living room late one evening. He had invited three of us over for dinner. Afterwards, we sat around the fireplace and talked late into the evening, catching up on each other’s lives. Hours later, the conversation paused. Then a train came by, quieter than the others. “That’s the Capitol Limited,” Brent noted, “Chicago bound. You can tell by the sound, you don’t have the clanging of the cars.” Every time a train came through that night, I thought of Brent.

Brent and I met in my last year of seminary. His church was looking for an associate pastor and I’d been recommended to fill the gap while the search was conducted. We quickly bonded. Working with Brent, I witnessed firsthand his gracefulness in dealing with people. He exhibited hospitality. He cared for people, showing compassion to the elderly and the poor and the young. He loved his congregation and the community to which he’d been called. His preaching was solid, biblical, theological, and filled with grace. He strove for excellence and loved life. Whether it was sailing, fishing, attending the symphony, or catching a Pirates or Steelers game, Brent was fun to be around.

Right before Christmas that year, Brent and I took communion to shut-ins. It was a grace-filled afternoon. I would read the Nativity story from Luke’s gospel, stopping with the words “Mary pondered all these things in her heart.” At one home, with a woman in her nineties, Brent repeated the last verse then talked about the woman’s own children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, noting how she must ponder many memories in her heart.  Then he talked about how we, like Mary, ponder our memories of Jesus, which remind us of the good and gracious nature of God.

We visited a number of folks that afternoon. Our last visit was a woman suffering from dementia. Although she didn’t know who we were, when Brent took her hand and began to recite the 23rd Psalm from the King James Version, she lit up. Her voice joined ours. Then we said together the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. Later, as we were driving back to the church, Brent told me how those whose memories fail them frequently recall familiar passages from their youth. Throughout the afternoon I had witnessed Brent freely giving of himself, setting an example of incarnational ministry.

On September 30, 1990, Brent preached my ordination sermon. While I served a church in Western New York, we saw each other frequently. He’d come up to ski and later brought a sailboat to Lake Chautauqua and we’d meet there in the summer. He was still my mentor, but like a good mentor had also become a friend. We often discussed what was going on in my ministry. He’d listen carefully and offer gentle advice. A few years later, Brent officiated at my marriage, advising my wife and me to create a family that would be the salt of the earth, spicing up the church and offering a Christ-like presence to the community. In time, mostly because of distance, we saw each other less frequently. But we kept up, occasionally talking on the phone. When I was in Utah, he came out to ski and when I went back Pittsburgh, we got together. Later on, we met a couple of times at Continuing Education events and had planned to meet again at the National Pastor’s Sabbath last summer. Our relationship had become collegial. He still offered me advice, but also sought advice from me. A few weeks before his death, he and I discussed a new opportunity he had for a call to a church on the West Coast.

It was a Friday evening early in November when a friend from Pennsylvania called. She was upset and asked if I’d talked to Brent lately. “A few weeks ago,” I said, not wanting to say too much for I didn’t know who knew about his potential move. “Brent killed himself,” she blurted out after a pause. I was speechless. Over the next few days more details came light. A Pittsburgh television station had shown a teaser for an upcoming investigative report that was to air later in the week. Brent was shown coming out of a local adult bookstore. According to the teasers, the reporter had “uncovered illicit, possibly illegal, activity by a local minister, activities which, at the very least, violated the rules of his denomination.”      Later on, details about a man that he’d had an affair with came to light. It appears this man set Brent up to be exposed by an investigative reporter. Before the report was to be broadcast, Brent disappeared. Undoubtedly because he did not want to face public humiliation, he took his life in an obscure motel room. The station never aired the report.

In notes left behind, Brent confessed of not being worthy of a funeral, a suggestion ignored as the church’s sanctuary and fellowship hall overflowed with those of us mourning. A long line of robed clergy, led by a bagpiper, processed into the service. Tears flowed freely as his friend, the Rev. Jean Henderson, read a letter she’d written to Brent. Presbytery executive Jim Mead also spoke of how he appreciated Brent’s ministry and told of the grief all in the presbytery were experiencing. Portions of Brent’s letters to the church and his colleagues in presbytery were read. He confessed how he’d struggled with his sexuality and how he’d been lonely. He encouraged the congregation to step up for the fall stewardship campaign and encouraged his colleagues in ministry to lead holy lives. After the service, I wanted to be alone for a bit and walked some of the streets I’d walked with Brent years earlier. They now seemed so empty and lonely.  I realized I didn’t know the depths of Brent’s loneliness.

I’ve spent many hours over the past months wondering about Brent and the issues surrounding his death. We’re all a part of a broken humanity; we all have issues with which we struggle. Why did he not reach out to someone? Did his desire for excellence keep him from displaying his struggles and brokenness? Did Brent forget that God, the one whose love he often proclaimed to others, also loved him? Did he succumb to the Evil One’s great lie, that because of his actions God had abandoned him?

I’ve also wondered if there is any meaning to Brent’s death. From the side of Brent I knew, he would be disappointed if his death became a rallying cry for a political agenda within the church. Brent loved the church and he loved his Savior and he was content to serve both and tried to stay out of the political battles. The good news was too important to be overshadowed by political agendas. Grace is important; yet when things were crashing in on him, Brent seemed unable to find the grace he needed.

There were scores of us hurt in that Brent, who had helped so many, wasn’t able to talk to one of us about his struggles. Not knowing about his secret life, I wonder if I missed important clues that might have opened him up to the healing and wholeness that he spoke of for others. Ultimately, I had to admit there was a part of him that I didn’t know. But that doesn’t diminish the pain. He’s no longer available to be that trusted friend with gentle counsel.  He’s no longer there to share a joke, to celebrate an accomplishment, or to grieve a loss. Yet I am grateful for having known Brent and for all that he taught me and for the way he modeled grace and unselfish service for the kingdom.

The world is a sadder place in his absence. Without him, I must depend even more on God’s grace, which I suspect would have also been Brent’s counsel.  I wish he could have received such advice.

Paul’s Farewell Address to the Ephesian Elders

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Acts 20:17-38
July 8, 2018

 

We’re back to Acts this week, the book in the Bible that informs us of the amazing feats of God. God took a measly group of disciples and built a world-wide church. Three weeks ago, in my last sermon from Acts, we were in Troas. There, Paul preached so long that poor Eutychus nodded off. The boy then fell out the window and had to be revived. It’s a colorful story with a deeper meaning that has to do with the church bringing people back into the fellowship, back into the light.

         Paul’s on his way to Jerusalem. Since the last passage Paul’s sailed across the western side of modern day Turkey. Someone recently asked me to describe the places I am talking about better, so you now have a map that shows the places we’re discussing. Paul started this journey in Troas (which is highlighted in red). He then sails past Ephesus, where he had preach for three years. The boat stops at the port town of Miletus (also highlighted in red). Paul spends a considerable amount of time here, enough time to invite the Ephesian elders to meet him. It would have taken several days to send the invitation to Ephesus and then to have the elders travel down to meet Paul.

Some have raised questions about why Paul and his boat sailed passed Ephesus. Is it that after the silversmiths riot that he no longer felt safe there? Or maybe he thought his presence would be too disturbing to all the believers and wants to just meet with the leaders who have the responsibility for the flock?  Or maybe it was a faster route.[1] We don’t know the real reason. But what we’re given at the end of chapter 20 is a farewell address from Paul to the Ephesians.

Luke, the author of Acts, is fond of sermons and speeches even though this one is unique. It’s the only sermon we have of Paul addressing a Christian audience. Generally Paul is the evangelists, speaking to non-believers. It’s also the last recorded sermon that Paul preaches as a free man, the next recorded speech he is a prisoner.[2] In this particular address, Paul prepares the elders for life without him. Some scholars have noted the similarity of Paul’s message to Jesus’ farewell discourse with his disciples as found in the Gospel of John.[3] Let’s listen and learn from God’s word to us.  Read Acts 20:17-38.

 

         Today, we’re also remembering our national Independence Day, which occurred this past Wednesday. Independence Day is a time to look back at what was done by the Colonists who fought for freedom, as well as a time to look forward to where we as a nation might be heading. Perhaps the best known “Farewell Discourse” of those involved with the Revolution was given by George Washington’s.” It was presented shortly before the 1798 election. Washington wasn’t going to run again for the Presidency, but before he returned to his beloved Mount Vernon and resumed the life of a private citizen, he had some advice to depart.

Washington was concerned and raised alarm on the dangers he saw in the future. He highlighted the dangers of sectionalism, as parts of the nation focus on themselves. 62 years, our nation would endure a Civil War. He was concerned over partisan politics, seeing political parties as distractions to the overall good of the Republic. Today such hopes seem to have fallen on death ears. And he was concerned with the United States become involved in the wars of other nations.[4] In some ways, his warnings seem prophetic. If you look at these three areas, it appears that we, as a nation, have struck out. Thankfully, God has watched over us.

George Washington was addressing our country at a time of transition. Many people may have been asking, “What are we going to do without George?” The same is true for the early church during our reading. They, too, were probably asking, “What are we going to do without Paul?” It’s a common question. We worry about changes in leadership. What’s going to happen when so-and-so is no longer with us?  Are we going to be lost without him? Without her, who’s going to take us forward? Transitions are difficult and troubling.

         Paul knows he has come to the end of his ministry, or at least this phase of his ministry. Up to this point, Paul has been free to decide, with the Spirit’s guidance, where to go and what to do.  But God’s Spirit has impressed upon him that the future will be gloomy. He’s going to be arrested. He’s going to be in chains. But Paul isn’t regretful for what has passed or what is to come ahead. Paul has grounded his hope in the Lord Jesus Christ. He just wants to finish the work to which he was called, telling people of the good news of Jesus Christ. And even though he is in chains, Paul will continue to do this until his death. He will be arrested in Jerusalem, but he will take the gospel into the halls of power in Rome.

 

Paul begins this farewell address by recalling how he lived and worked among those in Ephesus. He had worked hard. He was faithful to his message even though he encountered opposition. There was those who didn’t like his message, who saw him as a challenge and sought to undermine his ministry. For Paul (and this applies to us, too), what’s important isn’t success but faithfulness. Am I doing what God has called me to do? Is my primarily allegiance not to personal satisfaction or the approval of others, but to God? To we live lives that, as the Doxology goes, “Praise God from whom all things flow.” When we focus first on God, we are able to endure the challenges and even persecution that might arise.  When our focus is on God, we are aligned with a movement much larger than ourselves or any human effort.

In verse 22, Paul shifts to talking about what’s ahead, acknowledging that he has a bad feeling that things aren’t going to go well. Imprisonment and persecutions are to come. Yet, because Paul’s life is centered on God in Jesus Christ, he’s not worried. In verse 25, Paul informs the elders that he won’t be seeing them again, but looking back he feels good about his work. Despite opposition, he has continued to be faithful to the proclamation of the gospel.

Paul continues in verse 28, as he shifts to the topic of what they need to do without Paul to guide them. They are responsible for their own actions and for watching over the Christians in Ephesus. The elect are precious people, brought with the blood of Jesus Christ. Therefore, these elders need to be diligent. But it won’t be easy; it’s going to be hard. There will be those who’ll try their best to disturb the peace and unity of the church. There will be those who’ll spread a false gospel, who say to draw people away from the true message of hope. Some of this, as Paul notes in verse 30, will come from those within the church. So the elders must be careful and focused on the larger picture of building God’s kingdom.         Paul then turns back to his own example and on the work he did with those in Ephesus, concluding with a quote he attributes to the Lord Jesus, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”[5] Paul is driving home a leadership style Jesus made popular. A leader is a servant, the one who does the work of the Kingdom.

       There was a wonderful column in the New York Times this week about Mister Rogers. It’s by David Brooks. I hope you know that Fred Rogers was one of us. He was a Presbyterian minister who sought to teach children through television. Brooks was commenting on Rogers’ teachings, as a new documentary is being released about Rogers’ life. In his column, he reminded his readers how Rogers’ lifted up the vulnerable as those who are closest to God, which ties into Jesus’ teaching about the last being first and those who want to rule over others must first become a servant.[6] Paul’s saying the same thing.

Once Paul’s farewell address ends, he humbly kneels and the elders gathered around in prayer. They grieved. Everyone understands they’ll not see other again, but life must go on. They then walk Paul down to his ship and we can image them watching as it sails over the horizon.

        What are we to do when our mentor, when our teacher, when our parents, or when someone we’ve depended on, departs? This is the time we need to step up to the plate, Paul suggests. We can’t sit back and feel sorry for ourselves and what we’ve lost or what might have been. We can’t make it about us. We must continue forward, with our hope placed firmly in Jesus Christ.

If we focus on God and God’s work, and are faithful, we can have the clean conscience. Notice that Paul didn’t worry about those he was leaving behind. He was concerned for them, but as he wrote in verse 26, I’ve done my best, I’ve given my all,[7] I didn’t hold back. It may sound harsh when Paul says, “Your blood is not on my hands, but what he essentially saying is that you’re now on your own. I can no longer be responsible, you must take responsibility, but remember, God is with you.

      For those of us who are leaders in the church, our responsibility is to prepare others to continue the work after we’re done. That’s the only way the church has continued throughout 20 Centuries. Paul saw himself as a servant of God and realized that the future is not in his hands, but in God’s. Let’s face it, if the future is in our hands, things are scary. But when the future is in God’s hands, we can relax. Paul gave his best and turned it over to God. We should do the same. Anything worthwhile, such as Paul’s work at furthering God’s kingdom or even George Washington’s parting words as our first president, acknowledge that we only play a small role in human history.  For us to be successful in an eternal way, the focus can’t be on ourselves, but on something larger—on God!

So what do we do when Paul leaves? What do we do when our teacher, mentor, or parent dies? Yes, we cherish them. We learn from their example. And we continue on, doing what they taught and trusting in God. Amen.

 

©2018

[1]F. F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986) 410.

[2] Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Acts (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 287.

[3] William H. Willimon, Acts (1988, Louisville, KY, John Knox Press, 2010), 156-157.

[4] For a copy of the address see: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/washing.asp

[5] This quote from Jesus does not appear in any of the gospels, so Paul must have had another source. A similar quote is found in the Apocryphal. See Sirach 4:31

[6] David Brooks, “Fred Rogers and the Loveliness of the Little Good,” New York Times (July 5, 2018).  See https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/05/opinion/mister-fred-rogers-wont-you-be-my-neighbor.html

[7] Words from The Message translation.  Acts 20:25-27.

In the Days of Awe

 Eric Goodman, In the Days of Awe (New York: Washington Square Press, 1991), 288 pages.

It appears that Jewish Joe Singer has hit rock bottom. A talented pitcher is, at the end of one season, divorced and banned from baseball. He’s like Shoeless Joe, the famous ballplayer who was banned from baseball in the early years of the 20th Century. In this novel, a kid came up to Joe in a restaurant, saying “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” just as it supposedly happened to Shoeless Joe (as shown in the movie, 8 Men Out). There are several references to Shoeless Joe in the novel.

Joe lives in Hermosa Beach, California, where he continues to care for his body by running and exercising daily. He still believes one truth taught to him by his con-artist father: “Take care of your body and it will take care of you.” His primary social contacts are meals at the same restaurant, a couple of married women with whom he’s having affairs, and an occasional beach volleyball game. But Joe isn’t yet at the bottom. One of the married women is shot by her husband and dies in Joe’s arms. And now the killer has Joe in his sights. All this sets up a series of events that causes his life to spiral downward.

But at the bottom, in his first summer without baseball, Joe is ridden with Jewish guilt and begins to atone for his sins with acts of kindness. He volunteers at a runaway center and becomes a spokesperson for California ballot initiative that would require a wait period before buying guns, and he falls in love with Fannie. There are many twists and turns in this novel. Joe is shot by the other husband of the former married lover. He is reunited to his flim-flam father who seems to be turning his life around as he marries a rich widow. The future looks better. But will he and Fannie also marry? Will he be reinstated to baseball and, if so, can he recover from his wounds and play again?  Goodman’s writings keeps the reader engaged.

Much of this book takes places in the Jewish “Days of Awe,” the seven days between Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). On Rosh Hashanah, names of those who have gravely sinned are recorded and a week later, on Yom Kippur, the book is sealed. During this period, Joe seeks forgiveness from those he has wrong and strives to atone for his sin.

There are a lot of things I related to in this book. One of Joe’s good memories of his father was his gift of a baseball glove with Don Drysdale signature. His father said he would have purchased one with Sandy Koufax’s signature since he was “one of the tribe (i.e., Jewish), but that Koufax was left handed. As a kid, I would pitch sidearm, like Drysdale.  Also, one of the characters in the book, Des, is a minister. He wears a collar so that Joe thinks he’s Catholic, but is corrected and told he’s a “high church Episcopalian.”

The Days of Awe reminds me of the structure of Michael Malone’s Handling Sin, which take place during the Christian season of Lent. In that book, the protagonist also has issues with his father that need to be worked out.  In both stories, things fall apart and then turn around for the beleaguered protagonists.

Eric Goodman, the author of this book, teaches at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio and was my instructor this summer at the Iowa Summer Writing Conference.

I enjoyed this book and feels it has much to offer about what it means to do the right thing and how we all have baggage from our childhood with which we must deal. This is not just true for Joe, for several of the other characters such as Des and Fannie are also dealing with issues from their past. However, it is a book for a mature audience. With all of Joe’s sexual partners, there is a fair amount of description of sex within these pages. I wouldn’t’ recommend this book for your fifth grader who’s interested in baseball.

The Power of Jesus

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Mark 5:1-20 
July 1, 2018

Having been away for nine days and knowing I was going to be in a time crunch, I’m taking a break from our tour through the Book of Acts this week. Instead, I’m borrowing from a sermon I preached years ago, as I we explore the passage that follows last week’s scripture reading of Jesus calming the seas. In that text, Jesus and the disciples crossed the sea to a distant land. Jesus slept while a storm blew up. Thinking they were about to be swallowed up by the sea, the disciples woke Jesus. On his command the seas calmed. It was amazing. The disciples looked at each other and asked, “Who’s this guy?”

         We know the answer to their question. But this was early in Jesus’ ministry and the disciples have not fully grasped the divinity of Jesus. After all, he appears normal. He tells good stories, does good deeds, teaches with authority, and there is an air of humility about him. The disciples enjoy his company, but they haven’t yet seen him as the Messiah, as the Son of God.[1]

Jesus and the disciples, in today’s reading, are on the other side of the sea, in Gentile territory. Here we have the second of four back-to-back miracles that Jesus performs in Mark: the stilling of a storm, the casting out of demons, the healing of a woman, and restoring life to a girl who’d died. Mark uses this section to emphasize Jesus’ power, the power of God, the power to save. When our lives are a mess, we’re to turn to Jesus. Read Mark 5:1-20.

 

          As you know, I’m from North Carolina. It’s the land of smoked ham and pork barbecue, where pig pickings are a major social function and eating “high on the hog” isn’t just an empty phrase. With that in mind, I was shocked last week while in Iowa. I learned they produce about three times the number of pigs as my home state.[2] I couldn’t believe it. While in Iowa, there was only one restaurant I visited that didn’t highlight loin on the menu. That restaurant was vegetarian.

I’m sure if Jesus had visited Iowa and caused a herd of hogs to run off one of the high cliffs along the Mississippi, he’d also been asked to leave. 2,000 hogs. That’s 4,000 hams and another 4000 shoulders and enough spare ribs to feed all of Skidaway Island. All that good meat washed out to sea. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it, what Jesus had against pigs?

        Of course, the answer is pretty obvious. He’s Jewish and the law prohibited consuming pork. Thankfully, as Christians, we have Peter’s vision at Joppa, where he learned that what God has made clean should not be considered profane.[3] Thanks to that vision, our menu expanded greatly as we added pork and shellfish and other goodies. Of course, as good as it can be, pork isn’t what our text is about.

 

        Let’s get back into the text. Prior to crossing the sea, Jesus had spent a lot of time teaching the crowds. We can image how exhausting that was, which may have been the reason he decides to head across the lake. He is going to where he’s not yet known. As this is gentile territory, he can rest and take it easy. But that doesn’t happen. Like us, sometimes our best intentions are foiled. There was the rough weather as they crossed over the water, and then when they got to the other side, they were immediately confronted by a wild man. So much for a bit of peace and quiet.

      Jesus and the disciples may have thought they were getting away, but there’s an ongoing cosmic battle between good and evil, between God and the minions of Satan. While the people might not have heard of Jesus, the evil powers have. Jesus is immediately confronted. There’s a man who couldn’t even be contained with chains. He lived among the tombs, probably because the city, out of concern for the safety of its residents, had banished him. At least the dead buried in the tombs, as far as we know, didn’t complain about a lunatic residing there.

          The dialogue that occurs in our text seems, at the beginning, appears to be between Jesus and the man. However, it soon becomes apparent that it’s not the man but the evil spirits residing within him who’s doing the talking. Jesus is able to immediately identify the problem. We witness a jockeying of position of power. During Biblical times, names were thought to have special powers and the right to name implied domination. If you go back to Genesis, you’ll see that God allowed Adam the right to name plants and animals, implying humanity’s power over the earth.[4] With such an understanding of the power a name holds, consider how the demon addressed Jesus as the “Son of the Most High God.” It’s as if the demon hoped that by exposing Jesus’ divine identity, it could exercise some control over him. This jockeying for position continues on in verse 9, when Jesus asks for the demon’s name. The response is, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” We now learn something new. The name Legion is the same as a large unit within the Roman military. By using, “Legion,” the demon may have attempted to conceal his name while implying the man is filled with evil.[5]

Of course, as God, the power of Jesus is greater than all other powers. Jesus easily orders the demons to leave the man. Granting their request, Jesus sends them into that herd of swine that run off the cliff and into the sea. We witness a theological truth here. Jesus’ power is divine. Jesus has power over evil. And Jesus has the power to reclaim the man and set him back on the right track.

This great truth of Jesus’ power reminds us that when we have troubles we can call upon Jesus, who came as God in the flesh. This is the type of power we need to make our way through a world filled with evil. When we are overwhelmed, we should let our troubles rest with Jesus. Notice that the demonic man was freed of his afflictions and allowed to leave the tombs of the dead and return to the community of the living. Our God is a redeeming God and can cure the most troubled soul. That’s good news! That’s a God we can trust and in whom we should place our faith.

       But there is a challenge to God’s goodness and power. Evil hates God and God’s creation. Evil longs to bring about death and destruction. Evil was going to destroy this man as it did the pigs. Evil destroys by consuming all that is good in life. We have plenty of examples of evil in the last century: Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Ida Admen, Bin Laden, and scores of serial killers. But understand this. While scripture encourages us to take seriously the evil lurking in the world, it also shows us that it is not something we have to fear. When we are on God’s side, although we may appear weak, we have a power greater than any evil spirit. We’re not to fear those who can only kill the body, Jesus reminds us, for there is nothing more that they can do to us.[6] They can never take away the salvation we find in Christ.

          The poor man in this passage is a victim. He should be pitied, not condemned. Being in need doesn’t necessarily imply guilt. Too often we want to place blame on the victims, but Jesus saw something the townsfolk who’d banished this man didn’t see. Jesus saw him as a man in need, as a man whose body has been filled with vile hate that comes from hell. And he was able to rid the man of such evil and cleanse him so that he could be restored to the community.

This week I read an article on the epidemic of loneliness we face. As we see in this passage, God through Jesus Christ brings us together. The forces of evil isolates us, as happened to the man in our story.[7]

If we believe in the power of Jesus, it should lead us to be careful about how we judge others. There are those in this world who have difficult burdens. We can banish them from our presence, send them to the tombs or some other desolate place, where we don’t have to deal with them. Or, we can be Christ-like and show some grace while relying on God to cleanse and renew them.

          Jesus did not institute the church to be a place where believers gather Sunday after Sunday to be comforted in our own biases. The church is not a place where Scripture is to be contorted to soothe our soul. Such misuse of God’s word is eternally dangerous. Instead, the church was created to play a role in the reconciliation of the world.[8] We’re here to do our part to help restore those who have lost their way and to bring them back, through the power of Jesus Christ, into a relationship with the divine. We’re here to offer hope, the hope that can only come from Jesus Christ, who is our Savior. There is power in his name. Amen.

 

©2018

[1] It’s not until the 8th chapter that Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah.  See Mark 8:27-30.

[2] Iowa produces $4.2 billion in pork sales compared to North Carolina’s $1.46 billion. See https://www.agweb.com/article/bringing-home-the-bacon-top-10-pork-producing-states-naa-ben-potter/

[3] Acts 10:9-16.

[4] Genesis 2:19.

[5] William Lane, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdman, 1974), 182-184.

[6] Matthew 10:28, Luke 12:4.

[7] Michael Lee Stallard, “America’s Loneliness Epidemic: How Should We Respond.”  See: https://www.crosswalk.com/faith/spiritual-life/america-s-loneliness-epidemic-how-should-we-respond.html

[8] Presbyterian Church USA, “The Confession of 1967,Book of Confessions ” 9.06.

Thoughts from an Observer at General Assembly

by Jeff Garrison

The 223rd General Assembly that met in St. Louis this June provided an opportunity for me to reflect back on ministry and the denomination. My first General Assembly, the 200th, was held in St. Louis in 1988. I had just completed my second year of seminary and was preparing for an internship year as a student pastor in Virginia City, Nevada. This was a time when commissioners were given reams of paper and the Assembly provided canvas bags in which you could tote supersized three ring binders needed to organize everything. Today, everything is done electronically and the commissioners no longer have to lug around reams of paper. When the Assembly was in session in 1988, seminary students acted as runners, taking slip of paper containing motions to the front. Today, even that is done electronically as motions are sent digitally to the podium and appear on large screens almost instantly as the person makes the motion.

 

It seemed to me that there was a lot more political maneuvering at the 1988 Assembly. Crossing the street from the hotel to the Convention Center, advocates for various positions would force papers on you. There were those wanting the church to take a stronger position against abortion and others wanting us to take a more liberal position. Abortion and homosexuality were the biggest issues of the day, (with abortion being highlighted as Mother Theresa spoke at a breakfast sponsored by one of the advocacy groups). Out in front of the hall, protesting the denomination he’d left in the 1930s, was Carl McIntire. Carl left to organize the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and then split with them to form the Bible Presbyterian Church. He was a relentless sight back then, protesting at every General Assembly and meetings of the National Council of Churches. And the maneuvering wasn’t limited to outside the halls, as a battle raged inside as to who would be the next stated clerk.

 

1988 was still the era when many of those who stood for moderator were white male pastors of large churches. Today, such voices are almost absent. It seems that instead of electing a well-known moderator who would then nominate a vice moderator, today people run together with another candidate as co-moderators. This Assembly, two of the three sets of candidates consisted of two women, a white woman and the other a woman of color. Elder Vilmair Cintron-Olivieri and the Rev. Cindy Kohmann were elected as co-moderators. The Rev. Kohmann was a classmate at Austin Theological Seminary of our Parish Associate, the Rev. Deanie Strength.

 

In 1988, the denomination had 3 million members, a large number of missionaries around the world, and skilled scholars producing Sunday School, evangelism and stewardship materials. Today, our membership is a little over 1.4 million and we have many fewer missionaries and scholars working on denominational resources. However, the percentage loss of membership over the past two years dropped significantly as fewer churches are exiting the denomination.  Someone said (I haven’t been able to find the validity of the statistic) that since 2012, eight of our ten largest churches have left the denomination.  I wish our denomination would take this decline seriously and spend time in prayer and discussion about how we can reach others with the gospel message that Christ is Lord.

 

The three most contentious issues at the General Assembly this year were a reorganization of the denomination’s structure as presented by “The Way Forward Committee,” a call for the divestment of fossil fuel investments, and a significant increase of per capita (the amount presbyteries must pay, based on membership, for the operation of the Office of the General Assembly).  However, the battles seemed minor compared to previous Assemblies that I have attended. There is a sense that as a denomination, we are tired of fighting.

 

The “Way Forward” adopted reshapes the denomination structure and the relationship between the Office of the General Assembly and the Presbyterian Mission Agency. It also strengthens the Stated Clerk’s role of speaking pastorally for the denomination between Assemblies.

 

The call for divestment, while debated heavily, failed. Those fighting against divestment made the case that staying as a stock holder of such industries allows the church a voice at the table. Divestment was also discouraged by the Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) committee. Such a move would have been more symbolic as the denomination holds a minor stake compared to the volume of available shares. Moreover, the two largest investments funds within the denomination (the Presbyterian Foundation and the Board of Pensions) are both independent. While they are advised by the MRTI, the money they manage is held in trust for the shareholders (congregations and those invested in pensions).

 

During the winter, the Office of the General Assembly voted to encourage the 223rd General Assembly to significantly raise per capita by 40%. The per capita for 2018 is $7.73 per member. Eventually the Assembly voted to approve a more modest increase of 10%, setting the per capita for 2019 and 2020 at $8.50 per member.

 

Worship and Bible studies were two of the highlights during the week in St. Louis. The Assembly always includes creative worship leadership with a blend of new and old music. The Rev. Najla Kassab, president of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, called the denomination to continue its work toward transformation, reconciliation and peace. The offering from this service was given to the Deirminas Presbyterian Dispensary, which is operated by a church on the Lebanon/Syria border to provide medical supplies refugees fleeing Syria.

 

As this General Assembly was held in St. Louis, where police shootings of a young African-American in nearby Ferguson caused a national movement, there was much emphasis on what the church could do to bring about racial reconciliation. One thing enacted at the Assembly was a collection to be used for bail money for some being held on minor crimes (under $5,000) and who were unable to pay bail. Many of those held in jail with minor crimes lose their job or housing when they are unable to provide the required cash bail that often only a few hundred dollars. On Tuesday, after committee meetings, a large group of commissioners marched down to the courthouse to present this offering, an event that received much publicity in the local press.

 

As an observer to the Assembly, in addition to seeing the commissioners in action, I was blessed to be able to catch up with many friends and former colleagues and make new friends.  On Thursday night, after the Assembly broke, I had to chance to meet and have dinner with the Rev. Nancy Pearson, the pastor of the church in Cedar City, Utah, where I used to be the pastor. It was fun to catch up about the exiting things happening in Utah.

 

While there are many things troubling our denomination, there’s still plenty of life.  The leadership of the Board of Pensions and the Presbyterian Foundation is strong and hopeful. The Board of Pensions is looking to create ways to help small churches with limited resources to fund a called pastor. The Foundation continues to provide money for mission work around the world. We will continue to seek modern ways to be the Presbyterian Church (USA), but we will also place our hope—not to these organizations or the General Assembly—but to Jesus Christ, the Lord of the Church.

 

 

 

The Summer of Beer and Whiskey

The title of this post might raise a few eyebrows. Let me assure you, such a summer has nothing to do with me as my Great-Grandparents were in diapers during the summer of 1884. That summer was a pivotal year for baseball. I thought about this book last week while at the General Assembly in St. Louis, where my hotel looked over the Cardinals ball park. In this book, you’ll learn about the team before they were named for the red bird. It’s a good way to work yourself up for SIPC’s summer evening trip to historic Grayson Stadium where we’ll watch the Savannah Bananas take on the Macon Bacons. (We’ve have a block of tickets reserved for July 31-call the office for details). 

Edward Achorn, The Summer of Beer and Whiskey: How Brewers, Barkeeps, Rowdies, Immigrants and a Wild Pennant Fight Made Baseball America’s Great Game (New York: PublicAffairs, 2014), 259 pages of text and another 59 pages with statistics, notes and index.  A few photos and drawings scattered throughout the book.

This was a delightful read!  Baseball in 1883 wasn’t quite the game we know today.  Although pitchers were no longer pitching strictly underhand, as in the early days of the game, they were required to release the ball below the shoulder.  Pitchers usually stayed on the mound (which wasn’t yet a mound) the entire nine innings,  Will White, who played for the Cincinnati Reds during the ’83 season, pitched in 401 major league games during his career and finished all but seven of them. (249)  A batter had to take seven balls to be walked and they used the same ball throughout the game.  By the end, it was often soft and harder to hit hard.  Outside of the catcher, few wore gloves.  Rules were often made up at the day of the game, such as times when the number of fans crowded into the outfield, the teams agreeing to count a hit into the fans as a ground-rule double.  At this time, there was only one umpire, which made it easier for players to cheat.  Even then players were known by nicknames such as Jumping Jack Jones (a pitcher who jumped with his release), Chicken Wolf (the only meat he’d eat was chicken of which he had 4 servings a day), Long John Reilly, and Old Hoss Radbourn.   Achorn brings these characters to life as he tells the story of an exciting season.

In the early 1880s, baseball appear to be fading away.  In the 1870s, a series of gambling scandals had rocked the game.  The National League (the main league of the day) reacted by cracking down on gambling, but also beer sales at ballparks.  With the hopes of attracting a more affluent crowd, they raised ticket prices to fifty cents (a lot for a working man).  No games were played on Sunday.  Then, in 1883, a new league was formed (American Association, not to be confused with the American League), which set ticket prices at twenty-five cents, allowed games on Sunday, and sold beer at the ball parks.  Achorn makes the case that this league (known as the Beer and Whiskey League) helped save baseball.   The tight pennant race of 1883, between Philadelphia Athletics and the St. Louis Browns, caught the public’s attention.  At the end of the season, fans were gathering at empty ballparks to watch the scores being posted on the scoreboard as the results were telegraphed in.  Achorn tells the story of the race in a way that brings it to life, capturing the excitement of the fans along with the personality of the players and coaches.  Philadelphia won the pennant by one game, but they were floundering at the end of the season with worn-out pitchers.  They were so beaten that they declined to play a series against the Boston Red Stockings, the winner of the National League pennant, which would have been the first “World Series.”  They were welcomed home with a parade that rivaled the welcome given to veterans returning from the Civil War.

One of the key personalities in the story was the owner of the St. Louis Browns, Chris Von der Ahe.  He was a German immigrant who owned a grocery store, then a beer garden. He risked it all on establishing a team, and made a fortune but later lost it.  He is portrayed as impulsive, overbearing, but extremely generous.  Interestingly, one of the players he recruited was Charlie Comiskey, who later founded the Chicago White Sox and who was remembered on their ball field (Comiskey Park) until 2003 when they changed the name to a corporate sponsor.  Von der Ahe died in 1913.  At his funeral, the “Reverend Frederick H. Craft wove baseball imagery into his homily:

“’First base is enlightenment; second base is repentance; third base is faith, and the home plate is the heavenly goal!’ He declared.  ‘Don’t fail to touch second base, for it leads you onward toward third.  All of us finally reach home plate, though some may be called out when they slide Home.'” (259)

Weaving into the larger story is the account of race relations at this stage of the game.  There are two other African American ball players who played in the majors long before Jackie Robinson was born.  Fleet Walker played for Toledo, a team that joined the American Association in 1884, and even before then William Edward White played for the National League’s Providence Grays.  However, segregationist ideals were to win out and it wouldn’t be until 1947 when Jackie Robinson was called up to the Brooklyn Dodgers that the racial barrier was broken.

The American Association lasted only a decade.  In 1892, the league’s top four teams joined the National League.  These include the St. Louis Cardinals (formerly the Browns), the Cincinnati Reds, the Pittsburgh Pirates (formerly the Alleghenys) and the Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers (who joined the league in 1884 and are now the Los Angeles Dodgers).  Achorn tells the story of how the Pittsburgh Pirates earned their name (given to them by sportswriters) after the “Alleghenys” tried to “steal” two ball players who had committed to play for the Philadelphia Athletics. (245). The Athletics eventually folded, but when a new team was organized in the city (which by then already had the Phillies), they adopted the name Athletics (which left Philadelphia for Kansas City and now are in Oakland). Another American Association team that must have had a similar reincarnation is the Baltimore Orioles.

I enjoyed this book.  My only suggestion is that I would have liked to have seen the year put more into context of what was happening outside of baseball.  Achorn does this a little, such as referring to a joke about a player who, the year before upon President Garfield’s assassination, was asked about the event.  The ballplayer responded by asking what position Garfield played.  He also mentions the shooting of Jesse James, in connection to the governor of Missouri attending a ball game.  The governor had made it a priority to wipe out the James Gang and had recruited members of the gang to shoot Jesse.  When Robert Ford was convicted of the murder of Jessie James, the governor pardoned him two hours after the trial and then sent him $10,000 in reward money.

 

If you love history and baseball, I recommend this book.

A Journey from Oppression to Redemption in the Wake of the Vietnam War

Michelle Layer Rahal, Straining Forward: Minh Phuong Towner’s Story (Maitland, FL: Xulon Press, 2018), 355 pages, 10 pages of photos.

 

I was introduced to Minh in 2011. I was preparing a sabbatical after leading First Presbyterian Church of Hastings (Michigan) through a building and relocation program. As I was going to be traveling overland from Asia to Europe, we attempted to find preachers from parts of the world in which I would be travelling. Through a connection I had at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, I was introduced by phone to Minh.  Although I have never met her in person, we talked several times by phone and became friends on Facebook. Of the international preachers the congregation heard that summer, Minh made an impression. Hers is a haunting story. She connected with several Vietnam veterans and touched everyone with what she had endured as a boat refugee who fled the country as a teenager after the fall of South Vietnam in 1975. This is her story, told through her friend and author, Michelle Layer Rahal.

This is a brutal and honest book which has come out at a time when refugees are again in the news. It is scary to be torn from family and to be alone and is especially dangerous for a young woman. Being a refugee is to be vulnerable. Minh’s story illustrates the dangers.

Minh’s world started coming apart long before she became a refugee. As a young child of a family that were well-off enough to employ servants, Minh was first sexually abused by the family gardener as a child. She attempted suicide. It would not be her first attempt and the thought of suicide would continue to run through her mind. Then, when she was ten, her father and two younger brothers were killed by Vietcong during the Tet Offensive. Minh’s family was thrown into chaos. She was sent to live with her grandfather, who was verbally abusive. Her mother and aunt kept trying to set her up with American soldiers. She was sexually abused again by other family members.

As the war was ending, her family tried to escape but was unable to get out of the country. The family split up with the idea that it would be safer. It was dangerous to attempt to escape Vietnam during this time and she and her brother were captured, imprisoned, and tortured by the North Vietnamese conquerors. She was selected to be the “mistress” of the prison’s captain who later helped her and her brother Thanh escape.

On their third try, she and her brother were able to make it out and were picked up by a Taiwanese fishing boat. They were taken to Taiwan. Although they had a chance to move to America, Minh had studied French at a Catholic School in Vietnam so decided they should take up an offer to move to France. She had an uncle who lived in France, but the living conditions were horrible. She eventually was able to relocate to Australia, where she became a nurse, married an American living there, and gave birth to two children. But it wasn’t an easy journey. She was raped both in Paris and in Australia. She struggled with English and then had to pass her exams. She was an exceptional worker, which allowed her to care for her family. But she suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disease (PTSD), which created many problems for her life.

Two threads that run through the book are her relationship with God and her struggle with depress, thoughts of suicide and abuse by others which exacerbated her PTSD. As a young child, she had grown up Catholic in Vietnam. It provided a spiritual foundation so that she would pray when things were bad. But from her experience, she saw God as angry and vengeful and wondered what she’d done to deserve such treatment. It took a lot of work for her to learn to handle her emotions and the way her past colored her world.

Minh and her first husband divorced. When he moved back to the United States, taking their youngest daughter, Minh decided to relocate, too. Living in Virginia, she remarried, became involved in Vienna Presbyterian Church in Virginia, and went to seminary. She was ordained in the Presbyterian Church this past year.

I would recommend this book. The ordeal Minh endured should remind us of how hard it can be for refugees and those without the protection of a country or a strong parent. Minh’s understanding of the role her past trauma played in her life and her coming to understand God as a gracious and loving Father should provide hope to those troubled in the world.

The Perils of Sleeping in Church

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Acts 20:7-14
June 17, 2018

 

Today’s topic is sleeping in church. Some might think this is an appropriate topic for Father’s Day.  I’ll let you be the judge of that one.

I assure you, I gave up sleeping in church when I moved to the pulpit. I’m not like my favorite preacher, the Rev. Will B. Dunn, who lived in the late Doug Marlette’s comic strip, Kudzu. One Sunday while preaching, he finds himself sleepy and finally nods off, dropping his head down on the pulpit. When he suddenly awakes, he thinks to himself, “It’s a terrible thing to fall asleep in the middle of one’s own sermon.” Then he looks out upon a snoozing congregation and thinks “What’s worse is when no one else notices.[1] I’ll try to stay awake this morning. I hope you do the same.

Last week we explored Paul’s final event in Ephesus, the riot of the silversmiths. Prior to that, we were given a glimpse into what lies ahead for Paul in Acts of the Apostles. Well spend the next couple of months in these passage as we follow Paul to Rome.

Paul makes a quick trip (about three months) across the Aegean Sea to Macedonia and Greece. Paul’s trip back to Europe is quickly covered in the opening verses of chapter 20. We’re given no detail and that may be because Luke, the author of Acts, was not with Paul at this time. Throughout the accounts in Ephesus and Paul’s travels in Greece, Luke uses terms like “he” and “they,” as if he’s recounting what he heard. Then, in chapter 20, verse 7, Luke returns to saying, “we.” This is generally thought to indicate that Luke has rejoined Paul. No longer is he reporting on what he’s heard, he now reports on what he experience.[2]

On the trip to Jerusalem, Paul’s first stop is Troas, a city that stands near the ruins of Troy. Today, this would be in northwestern Turkey, north of Ephesus. Paul has been here before. It’s a quick stop, but Paul makes the most of it as he worships with city’s Christian community.

We’ll learn about Paul’s time in Troas today. This is an important text. There are a lot of speeches recorded in Acts, but not here. Instead, this is one of the few places where we have insight into a first century worship practices. We will learn the importance of community worship, the breaking of the bread, preaching, and a concern for those who are on the margin. Read Acts 20: 7-12.  

         I have good news for you. According to a recent study, scientists have confirmed those who attend church and other religious services regularly sleep better than those who don’t.  I know some of you probably think you already knew this. Or maybe you’ve experienced it, especially when it comes to sleeping in church. But that’s not what this report is about. This is a serious study, conducted by Professor Christopher Ellison, at the University of Texas in San Antonio. It was published in the Journal of the National Sleep Foundation. In my younger years, one of the many answers I’d give when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up was to be a mattress tester. Wonder if the National Sleep Foundation hires mattress testers.

Kathy Spooner, the director of counseling and psychotherapy for the Association of Christian Counselors, affirmed the findings. “Just as a child will sleep peaceably in the arms of a good parent, that is—in essence—the kind of peace we can go to bed with,” she said. There you have it. The good news comes from trusting a loving God as your Father in heaven and such trust can help you sleep soundly.[3]

         Now back to our text for today. This passage is often seen as kind of a humorous interlude into a long passage that lists the places Paul visited at the end of his third missionary journey. And there is some humor here. Eutychus falling asleep and falling out of a window into the shrubs could make a great comic strip. But the humor stops after he falls not one floor onto a soft landing of shrubs, but down three floors.[4] What began as a humorous event is now a tragedy. Paul stops preaching. He rushes down, bends over Eutychus and gives him a hug. Eutychus takes a breath. He is alive. Did Eutychus just have the breath knocked out of him and Paul’s hug help him catch it. If so, he lives up to the meaning of his name, “Lucky” or “Well-fated”?[5]  Or, is this a resurrection passage similar to Peter raising Tabitha, or of Jesus and Elijah, both of whom raised from the dead the sons of widows?[6] The rejoicing of those in Troas indicate the later.

This passage is more than a humorous story of someone falling in sleep in church. As I suggested earlier, it provides an insight into worship in the first century. Look at verse 7. They meet on the first day of the week, not the Sabbath. Maybe they are still going to the synagogue on the Sabbath (our Saturday), but their day of worship is the day of resurrection, the first day of the week, which is Sunday.[7]

Meeting at night also shows us how the early church accommodated those who were on the margins of society. Slaves and laborers were expected to work when it’s light. It’s thought that the church in Troas may have had many members who would not have been able to make an 11 AM or 10 AM or 9 AM service.[8] Instead of meeting when it is convenient for the few, they meet when it was convenient for those who would normally not be able to be a part of the church. We should learn from this.  The church isn’t to do what is easy, but to do what it can to bring more people into relationship with Jesus Christ. It’s not about our wants, it’s about God’s work!

The church has to be concerned with those on the margin. It has been pointed out by others that Eutychus was on the margin. He was certainly at the edge of the gathering as he hung out in the window. After he “falls away,” everyone is concerned and they bring him back into the safety at middle of the fellowship.[9]

Of course, everyone within “the Way”, the name of the church at this time, would have wanted to hear Paul. Being that they were meeting at night, in an age without electricity, they had to make due to torches and oil lamps. Much has been made about how, with so many lamps burning, the air would have been stuffy which would have made it easy to fall asleep, but that doesn’t fit with the story. Eutychus is sleeping by the window. It’s one of the few places where fresh air is available.[10] Instead, he was tired and Paul talk went long beyond his bedtime.

        This story displays a contrast between light and darkness. The community meets under the light of lamps. Eutychus falls into the dark, but when Paul reaches out to him, he brings him back into the light.[11] And, Paul continues to preach throughout the darkness until the light of dawn arrives. There is a movement toward light within the story, just as we are to be drawn to the light, the source of our hope.

Then, after talking all night, Paul brings it to a close because he and his companions have a boat to catch.[12] This would be this community’s last chance to see with Paul. Both Paul and the Christians in Troas make the most of the time they have together.

        Another thing we see here is the importance of breaking of the bread, or what we call communion, to this community of believers. They’ve gathered for this purpose, even though it appears that they didn’t actually participate in the Lord’s feast until well after midnight, when they bring Eutychus back into the room and give him something to eat. At this time, I’m sure this meal that reminds us of Jesus’ death and resurrection was even more meaningful as they had experienced new life through Eutychus’s fall and restoration.

What does this passage mean to us? First, I promise that I, unlike Paul, have no plans in preaching an “all-nighter.” I am not even interested in preaching to midnight. Many of you are relieved. Right?

         I don’t want to be like Chaplain Staneglass in the Beetle Bailey comic strip. In one strip, the chaplain confronts America’s favorite soldier saying, “Beetle, I saw you asleep during my sermon.” The eternal private responds, “I’m sorry, sir, but it was a long sermon.”

“I didn’t think it was long at all,” the chaplain said.

“Guys that deal with eternity don’t think anything is long,” Beetle thinks to himself.[13]

         But this is not a passage to warn preachers to keep it short. Instead, it’s a passage to show us that the church is to be a place where those who are on the margins and fall away are to be brought back into the fellowship, welcomed at the table, as we rejoice in the knowledge of restored life. As Jesus says, the Good Shepherd seeks out the lost, and there is rejoicing of the angels whenever a sinner is restored to life.[14] As a family of believers, we need to be willing to welcome those on the outside and to invite them into our fellowship. And as such a family, the gathered church should be the place where life and new life happens. We need to restore this vision—the church as a place of wholeness and acceptance.

The church needs to be a place of welcome and love for those who have fallen away. We need to be a place, like the church in Troas, where we are willing to experience a little inconvenience in order to be available for those whose lives don’t run on our schedule. We need to be a place of light that shines into a dark world and beckons others to come and experience the love of God in Jesus Christ. We need to be a place where people are encouraged to ask questions and are nurtured in their faith. We need to be a place where people are restored to life.

         Hopefully you’ve understood that this passage isn’t about sleeping in church. That was just a teaser. This passage is about us being the church, a place of welcome, fellowship and life. This passage encourages us to catch God’s vision of us being something larger than ourselves. What are you going to do to make this vision a reality? Amen.

 

©2018

[1] Doug Marlette, “Kudzu.” This is from my memory. I don’t remember the date the strip was published.

[2] F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts (Grand Rapids: Eerdman, 1986), 407, 409 n27.

[3] https://www.premier.org.uk/News/World/Going-to-church-leads-to-a-better-night-s-sleep-study-finds?utm_source=Premier%20Christian%20Media&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=9573140_Daily%20News%2015th%20June%202018&utm_content=2&dm_i=16DQ,5P6OK,ND4HOH,M6PGX,1

[4] William H. Willimon, Acts: Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (1988, Louisville, KY: WJKP, 2010), 154.

[5] The New Interpretation Study Bible in the NRSV (Abingdon, 2003) note on this passage lists his name as “Lucky” This is confirmed in the Abingdon’s Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (1894, Abingdon, 1984), Greek Dictionary of the New Testament, 34. According to Strong’s the word derives from tugchano. There is no notion on the meaning of the name is found in Walter Bauer’s A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Early Christian Writings (1957, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 331.

[6] Acts 9:36-41, Luke 7:11-17 and 1 Kings 17:17-24.

[7] Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Acts (Nashville: Abingdom, 2003), 279.

[8] Bruce, 408.

[9] See Anna Carter Florence, “A Prodigal Preaching Story: Paul, Eutychus, and Bored-to-Death Youth,” Theology Today 64.2 (2007): 233-243.

[10] Bruce, 408. Gaventa, 279.

[11] Gaventa, 280.

[12] Verse 13 indicates that many of Paul’s group took the boat that morning, but Paul hiked over the land to Assos, where he met the boat.

[13] Mort Walker, “Beetle Bailey”, August 3, 1987, as quoted in   http://www.bpib.com/comicsproj/religion.html

[14] Luke 15:3-7, 10.

Two Books Reviews for Today’s Church

Thomas S. Rainer, Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2014), 102 pages.

Carey Nieuwhof, Lasting Impact: 7 Powerful Conversations that Will Help Your Church Grow (Rethink Group, 2015) 169 pages.

 

Both of these authors understand that churches today are struggling. Rainer is a former pastor and later served as the president of LifeWay Christian Resources. Nieuwhof is founding pastor of Connexus Church in Barrie, Ontario.  Both are active bloggers seeking answers to the struggles churches face.

 

In Autopsy of a Deceased Church, Rainer and team interviewed former members and leaders in churches that have closed in order to understand what happened so that they can offer strategies for churches in trouble. Rainer believes that 90% of the churches in America are showing symptoms of sickness (that’s right, he only believes 10% are actually healthy). Of those with symptoms, he divides these into three groups. 40% of the churches are showing symptoms of illness, 40% are very sick, and 10% are dying. He lists ten symptoms of sickness: 1. Slow Erosion (of vision and ministry), 2. The Past is the Hero, 3. The Church Refuses to Look like the Community, 4. The Budget Moved Inward, 5. The Great Commission Becomes the Great Omission, 6. The Preference-Driven Church, 7. Pastoral Tenure Decreases, 8. The Church Rarely Prays Together, 9. The Church has No Clear Purpose, and 10. The Church Obsessed Over the Facilities.  For each of these symptoms, Rainer provides a few examples, questions for reflection, and prayers to offer. This is a very easy book to read (I read it in one sitting) but it doesn’t go very deep. I also found it a little too pessimistic, but I think Rainer intends to fire a show across the bow of churches in order to get them to wake up to our changing world.

 

In Lasting Impact Nieuwhof focuses on seven conversation areas: 1. Why Are We Not Growing Faster? 2. How Do We Respond As People Attend Church Less Often? 3. Are Our Leaders Healthy…. Really? 4. What Keeps High-Capacity Leaders from Engaging our Mission? 5. Why are Young Adults Walking Away from Church? 6. What Cultural Trends Are We Missing? 7. What Are We Actually Willing to Change? In each of these chapters, Nieuwhof provides numerous examples as well as suggestions for turning a challenge into an opportunity. Like Rainer, he believes that the culture in which the church operates is no longer friendly toward churches. As a Canadian, he is living in a country in which the church’s relevance to daily life may be more like Europe than the United States (but we’re catching up on this trend, too).  Nieuwhof also strongly believes the church’s best days are in the future. We’re a part of God’s mission and Jesus is still Lord. Each chapter has a series of discussion questions and practical suggestions for improving a church’s ability to reach out in a changing world.

 

Both of these authors understand that the world is changing which is creating a challenge for the church.  The question is how can the church change in order to continue to fulfill God’s mission in the world.

Friday’s Paddle

Osprey and chick in their nest

heading out

I looked at Weather Bug or maybe it was Weather Underground Friday morning before setting off on a solo paddle to Wassaw Island. According to what I saw, there was a 30 percent chance of rain, which would diminish after 10 AM. There were a few storms coming inland from the sea, but nothing looked to ominous. The wind was to be out of the north at 4 mph and by 2 pm it would clock around to come out of the northeast at 7. Perfect conditions, as I wouldn’t have any headwinds paddling out and the wind would be behind my back when it was time to come home.

 

I put my kayak in the water at 9 AM, knowing I was not going to get much pull from the falling tide, but in time to make it to Wassaw before the tide turned at 10:30 AM. The tides was the only thing that appears to have lived up to its schedule.

 

Is that a funnel cloud or not?

When I launched, it was beautiful: calm and sunny.  Before I got out of Delegal Creek (passing two sets of Ospreys and their nests), it was raining. It wasn’t hard but enough to keep me cool.  I later figured out the 30% chance of rain meant it was raining about 30% of the time. But I didn’t mind. The cool drops of water were a relief. Because of the low tide, I had to paddle further out into Ossabaw Sound than normal and about half way to Wassaw I noticed what appeared to be a funnel cloud dropping from the black clouds ahead. It was moving south, away from me and extended down for a long period before disappearing. It sure looked like the beginnings of a waterspout. When I got to Wassaw, the first thing I did was pull out my marine radio which was stowed in my pack in my back compartment and listen to the weather. Sure enough, conditions were favorable for waterspouts. Furthermore, I learned there were going to be storms most of the day.

On Wassaw

I walked along the beach, watching bottle-nosed dolphins swim just a few feet off-shore. Ever since Hurricane Matthew, in which a lot of the pine trees were killed with salt water, the north end of the island has seemed to be under an assault. There were dead trees along the south side of the island.  Pine Island, to the west, was even worse looking, as if it has lost a significant amount of land.  .

Storm to the west, looking back across Pine Island

Chilling in a hammock

After walking, I hung my hammock, read a bit and caught up in my journal, and ate lunch. A storm was coming in from the north and I could hear the steady beat of thunder to the east. A few drops of rain fell. I napped and waited. It appeared that Skidaway Island was getting hammered (when I got home there was over an inch in the rain gauge).  I walked around some more and when the thunder began to fade, launched and paddled back west.  This time, the water was a little chopper and the wind still hadn’t clocked around to where it was coming out of the northeast, giving me an additional push.  Several times it rained but never really heavy.  I saw several rays jump up out of the water, creating a huge splash as they did a belly buster dive. As I came back into Delegal Creek, the ospreys in the two nest on the navigation markers greeted me with their squawking and flying away.  I was back at the marina at 3 pm.

South end of Pine Island

South end of Wassaw

With the storms, I probably shouldn’t have gone but then I with all the rain on Skidaway there would have been no way I could have moved the grass or trimmed the azaleas, the other tasks I needed to do. It’s always fun to paddle in different kinds of weather.

Paul in Ephesus, Part 2

 

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Acts 19:23-41
June 10, 2018

 

 

The Apostle Paul spent between two and three years in Ephesus. Luke, the author of the Acts of the Apostles, provides us with several pictures of what happened during this time. One scholar suggests his style here is like that of someone doing a travelogue slide show with each slide illustrating a different event.[1] Last week, we saw three of these “word pictures.” There was the encounter with disciples who hadn’t heard of the Holy Spirit. Next was an account of hostility within the synagogue. Finally, we had the story of magicians using Jesus’ name and ending up in over their heads. This last event led to many of the magicians in Ephesus burning their books of magic and becoming believers. In other words, they gave up their livelihoods for the truth of the gospel. That event sets the stage for Paul’s final encounter in Ephesus. Paul’s preaching is cutting into their bottom line of some, as we will see today.

        Jesus had a lot to say about money; nonetheless, sermons on the topic are not popular. Jesus was concerned that we not get too attached to material things. Such wealth won’t last beyond this world, which is why we are encouraged to store up treasures in heaven.[2] Most sermons you’ve heard about money centers on our need to give. Giving is a godly act. We emulate God by giving, for God has already given us everything we need. But our passage today isn’t about our need to give but about how we earn our wealth. This may even be a tougher message for us to hear. What kind of limits on earning is placed on Christians? We’ll have a chance to ponder this difficult question today.

         This passage comes at a turning point in the Book of Acts. Paul is preparing to leave Ephesus. I will skip over a couple of verses which indicated that Paul going to make a quick trip to Greece, then head back to Jerusalem. Then he plans to go to Rome. The last 1/3 of the book is summarized here. Paul does makes it to Rome, but not in the manner he’d planned. He travelled as a prisoner and was thought to have been executed in Rome around the year 65.[3]

Read Acts 19:23-41.

          Ephesus was a major city in the Roman World.  In a way, it’s like Savannah. Ephesus was a seaport. Much of the traffic destined for central Asia passed through its wharfs. The city was located at the mouth of a river which, even in ancient days, created a problem with silting of the harbor. Today, the ruins of the city are some seven miles inland from the ocean as land has built up by the silt. In the first century, Ephesus was a bustling waterfront city. There was an amazing theater that sat 25,000 people. But the real attraction was the temple of Artemis. The city took pride in being Artemis’ “temple warden.” It was believed that the many breasted statue of the goddess had fallen from the sky. The city had worshipped the goddess for over a 1000 years. 400 years before Paul, they built a magnificent temple with 127 columns. This structure that housed the goddess was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.[4]

       People flocked to see Artemis. Although the equivalent to the Roman goddess, Diana, she more than just a beautiful huntress. Artemis was the mother goddess of this part of the world. She was seen as a mother to both humans and gods. She was also the goddess of bankers, so we can understand how this passage mixes business and religion.[5] Every spring, there was a huge festival around the equinox that drew crowds of people to celebrate.[6] Although we don’t know for sure, it may have been during this celebration that our situation in Ephesus occurred.

       Let’s pause for a moment and think about the kind of trinkets we have as souvenirs of our travels? Maybe a mug with the name of the city? Or a replica of something like the Eiffel Tower or Mount Rushmore or those three monkeys that don’t hear, speak or see evil?  Or maybe you pick up a book, as we often do, or better yet a Christmas ornament. Or maybe you’re the type that goes for a tee-shirt? I wonder if anyone was selling tee-shirts in the first-century that read, “Grandma visited Ephesus and I only got this lousy tee-shirt?” Probably not, but my point is that folks in the first century, just like today, who visited wonders of the world wanted to take something home with them. In their case, it’s a little handmade idol.

       Paul, in his preaching, is monotheistic. Those who believe are no longer interested in idols sold around the temple. This cuts into their bottom line.  Remember, last week we learned of the magicians discarding their books of magic. In other words, because of the truth, they are willing to find another means of employment. But these silversmiths are not willing to give up?  Up until this point, most of the opposition to the Christian message has been from Jews. The Greco-Roman culture has tended to be more tolerant, but that ceases once Paul’s message threatens local civil religion.[7]

Let’s now bring this message into our lives. How would we act if our livelihood ran counter to the gospel? How would we feel if someone came to you and said, “Your idol workshop is unbecoming of a Christian?” Of course, none of us are silversmiths creating pagan idols. But we’re not off the hook. What if you’re a baker and the message someone wants on a cake goes against what you believe? That’s been in the news lately. But since none of us are bakers… What if you discover you’re investing in a business that’s making money off of slave labor in Southeast Asia? That’s not so far-fetched in our global economy.

        In our story today, Demetrius, who seems to be the union steward for the silversmith guild, speaks up for his industry. The text makes it clear where his concern lies. He and his fellow artisans are losing money. There may have to be a lay-off, a cut back. His first priority is their livelihood. But then, almost as if it is an afterthought, he reminds people that what Paul and his friends are saying isn’t just cutting into their pockets, they are also dissing the goddess that has placed Ephesus on the map.

        His first argument appeals to his union base, his fellow silversmiths, but his second argument appeals to the collective pride of the people of Ephesus. In a classic example of demagoguery, Demetrius knows how to motivate people. Raise up the flag! Point to the other as the enemy. Play the patriotism card. We’ve seen this throughout history.

One of the great missed opportunities of the past, which I remember learning in one of my first college classes, occurred at the beginning of what we now know as World War 1. As Europe headed toward war, socialist leaders around Europe met. They agreed to call a collective strike of all railroad workers if war was declared. This had the potential of someone calling a war and no one showing up because without the railroads, they couldn’t mobilize armies. But as July melted into August of 1914, nationalistic pride took over. No strike occurred and four years later, millions had died and after the war you had the rise of National Socialists, and we know where that got us.[8]

        “Artemis is what made this city great,” Demetrius cries. “We have to protect her.” It’s a rallying cry that’s followed by a riot. Some of Paul’s companions are mistreated. Some Jews who, with their monotheistic convictions, are also singled out by the pagans. Paul wants to go in. Perhaps he thinks he can talk some sense into the crowd, but cooler heads prevailed. Finally, the town keeper is able to address the crowd.

The town keeper reminds them of something I wish all Christians could understand. If Artemis is truly a god, she doesn’t need help. That’s even truer of our God! His message also shows that Paul and company haven’t been badmouthing the local gods. So he saw no reason for the people to be upset. We should be so wise! We should focus on the good news, and lay off any badmouthing of he religious practices (or lack thereof) in others. If we complain about a Muslin or Hindi or someone who’s just indifferent to religion, we lose the ability to have a dialogue. We have to be able to befriend others in order to share with them. Take the high road. Be noble, don’t bad mouth others, and focus on the good news. We can see this type of strategy with the town keeper who restores peace and sends everyone home.

         Now getting back to the primary message of this passage. What we do matters to God. Our lives are not easily separated into a religious section, a business section, a social section, and so forth as we might separate food on a cafeteria plate. Jesus demands to be Lord of all our lives, not just a section of it. This means the end doesn’t justify the means. How we make money is important. How we accomplish things is important. How we act at work (or on the golf course) is just as important as how we act in church. In this light, this passage gives us all something to ponder and to pray over. How do we reflect the face of Jesus when we are out in the streets?

        There is another tread to this passage that I’d like to follow. The silversmiths were interested in maintaining the status quo. But the Book of Acts is about God’s Spirit blowing in the world and causing all kinds of changes. Resisting such change might put us into the silversmith’s camp. This can happen even in church. When we hold on tightly to the past, to that which we know and are comfortable with, we have a hard time following the Spirit’s leading. We’re to follow Christ, and you know the path he chose. We must be not be too content with the status quo. What’s important isn’t what makes us comfortable, but what makes us faithful to God. God’s mission is to reach out into a hurting world and to embrace those who are open to the good news. And we’re to be the hands and feet of that mission.

Over the past two weeks, we’ve seen two different reactions to the gospel message. The magicians were willing to give up their books of magic. The silversmiths weren’t willing to give up their business. I said this passage is about money, but not about giving.  I may have been wrong for we’re left with the question, “What are we willing to give up for Jesus?” Ponder that, this week. Amen.

©2018

[1] F. F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977), 289.

[2] Matthew 6:19-20.

[3] Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, 441.

[4] Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, 287.

[5] William H. Willimon, Acts: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (1988,  Lousiville, WJK, 2010, 152 and Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Acts (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2003), 271.

[6] F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 397-398

[7]  Gaventa, 276.

[8] I’m not sure all the sources, but see Jack J. Roth, “Conclusion” in World War I: A Turning Point in Modern History, Jack J. Roth, editor (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967), 116-121.

Two Poems

For the last few years I have been a part of a writer’s group, the Peacock Guild, that meets in the childhood home of Flannery O’Conner.  Every year we hold a public reading on a Sunday afternoon. It’s the last of a series of lectures. Last year, I read section of memoir I’ve been working on. This year, I decided to read poetry. The first of these poems I wrote last fall. The second poem I wrote about a decade ago. I’ve added photos to help illustrate.

 

Resurrection, or a New Children’s Crusade

Hastings Cemetery

There is a section in the Hastings Michigan Cemetery where children who died during or before birth are buried. This area is at the back corner of the cemetery, on a ledge overlooking the Thornapple River. A few years ago during a spring flood, some of the graves were lost to river. This poem comes from thinking about those children and my own mortality.

 

 

Bury me with the children who died prematurely
and are planted in simple graves, at the back of the cemetery,
far from the gaze of the mourner, ‘cept broken-hearted parents.

Bury me under a huge sycamore,
whose broad leaves shade the ground in summer
and white bark appears ghostly on a foggy morn.

Bury me where the stream makes a sharp bend
its swift waters carving into the bank.
There, I can hear the river’s call as it rushes past.

The Thornapple River below the cemetery

Bury me close to the ledge where, in a few years or maybe a century,
a spring flood will free me and those kids
and I’ll lead them on a grand adventure.

In our box boats we’ll shoot through the gates of the Middleville and Irving dams,
forgetting the dangers for it no longer matters to the dead.
We’ll laugh as we catch an eddy below and float in circles.

At Alaska, the village-not the state, we’ll shoot the rapids
and when we meet the Grand we’ll chat with those fishing for salmon
and wave to the pedestrians on the bridges at Grand Rapids.

I hope it is night, with waves breaking over the piercing lighthouse,
when we leave the river at Holland, for the lake.  We’ll float slowly,
watching the lights on shore fade from sight as we navigate by the north star.

Time will slow as we slip from one lake to another
and over those falls at Niagara that terrify all but the dead,
before making our way into Canada and down that great waterway.

And years later, if our wooden boats hold up, we’ll slip out the St. Lawrence
and into the cold waters of the North Atlantic ,along with ice bergs,
riding the Gulf Stream as it heads north and then east and back south.

We’ll bed down with wintering puffins
and watch whales play as they ply the sea, while we pass
Iceland and the Faroes, Scotland and Ireland, and on beyond the Azores.

Bury me with the children, in the back of the cemetery,
And in time the river will call and we’ll float
to where peaceful waters gather.

Spring along the Thornapple

 

 

Ode to Lovers Lost and Unknown

I never danced upstairs at the Lumina,
the spacious ballroom, exposed to offshore evening breezes
cooling guests jitterbugging and dancing the Charleston,
under the bright lights that guided ship captains
following the coastline ‘til ‘42,
when darkness prevailed and German U-boats prowled.

And I never laid in the sand on the beach
watching silent movies projected on a screen
beyond the breakers that provided a constant rhythm,
for the antics of Mr. Fields and company
‘til a nor’easter flatted the screen,
by then obsolete with the new talking shows.

And I never rode the electric trolley
the ten miles from the beach to Wilmington,
late at night under live oaks haunted with Spanish moss,
passing the new bungalows on Wrightsville Avenue,
the summer air scented with honeysuckle
and the sky filled with lightning bugs and Perseids meteors

But I did get to shoot some pool, a quarter a game,
in the shell of a building once called the Lumina
and I showered underneath the rotting timbers
rinsing my salty body in brackish water,
unaware of the splendor long past,
soon to be wrecked and cleared for condos.

Time passed me by
and I’ll never have a chance to dance with you at the Lumina,
to watch the light reflect in your eyes
and the wind blow your dress and toss your hair.
But if I had the chance, I’d pull you tight,
my arm around your waist, my chin tucked on your shoulder,
savoring every salty moment.

Old Postcards of the Lumina

 

Historical note: The Lumina was built by in 1905 by the Consolidated Railways, Light and Power Company. It was at the end of their trolley line that ran to Wrightsville Beach. The trolley stopped running in the late 1930s. The building was torn down in the 1970s. There is a good article on the Lumina in Our State magazine.

 

The Power of Jesus’ Name

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Acts 19:1-20

June 3, 2018

 

 

Back in 2015, I began preaching through the Book of Acts. That year we looked at the story of the church up to the beginning of Paul’s ministry. Then, a year later, we explored Paul’s first two missionary journeys. We saw the gospel make headways into Europe. This summer, I’m going to try to complete our walk through Acts as we look at Paul’s third missionary journey and his trip, as a prisoner, to Rome. This part of Acts is often overlooked. Most lectionaries, a list of suggested text for preaching, completely skips over these chapters. But there are some interesting stories: book burnings, shipwrecks, riots, and sleeping in church.

We pick up our story as Paul has just made a short trip to Jerusalem. The purpose of this trip was probably to deliver funds he’d collected to help those in Jerusalem suffering from a drought. Paul then heads back across central Asia Minor. He comes to Ephesus, a large city which is now stands in ruins in western part of present-day Turkey. There, Paul settles down for a few years. Let’s see what happens next.  Read Acts 19:1-20.

 

Is that fourth plane Star Trek’s “Enterprise”?

Many of you have probably heard the news. Televangelist and prosperity gospel preacher Jesse Duplontis had a recent chat with God. I don’t generally make it a habit of talking about other ministries in the pulpit, but this one just iced the cake. In the interest of full transparency, Jesse recalled his conversation with the Almighty.

‘Jesse,” God asked, “you wanna come up where I’m at?'”

“What do you mean?'” the televangelist asked.

God then supposedly said, “I want you to believe in me for a Falcon 7-X.”

“OK, God, but “how am I going to pay for it?'” And then he recalled something God had told him in the past:Jesse, I didn’t ask you to pay for it, I asked you to believe for it.”

In the hope of the 54 million dollar jet being fully funded, Jesse shared this conversation with his followers. He told them how with this jet, which has a range of 6,000 miles, would allow him to fly anywhere in the world with just one stop. It would even save the ministry money on fuel. And to further his point, he said if Jesus was here today, he wouldn’t be trampling around on a donkey, he’d be flying the friendly skies in order to spread the gospel.[1]

There are so many things very wrong with this. To start with, God’s ministry is different from Jesse’s idea of ministry. God comes to us, we don’t fly up to God. That’s what the incarnation, Jesus coming to earth, is all about. Jesus came and walked around Galilee and Jerusalem in order to gather disciples. And, filled with the Spirit, they were sent out in different directions to spread the good news. Ministry is not about one person covering the globe, it’s about those of us who trust in Jesus being a part of his ministry. We all have a part in doing God’s ministry in the place to which God calls us.

Secondly, it’s absurd to think of Jesus flying a jet around the globe. Even in Jesus’ day, when he did rode a donkey, he didn’t own it. He borrowed one.[2] That aside, Jesse Duplontis already has three other planes sitting in hangers. Thinking about his “request,” I thought, “You know, I’d be overjoyed with a used Piper Cub.”

 

 

By the way, that’s a joke. I’m not a pilot. I have no real desire to become one. There is something about crawling into a plane with an inexperience pilot that makes me nervous. I like my pilots to have hundreds (if not thousands) of hours of flight experience. I could never solo by myself. Besides, I don’t need any more hobbies that could kill me.

 

 

Jesse also told his followers, “it’s not about the possessions, it’s about priorities.” Ironically, he’s right. I’m not so sure he really believes it, but that’s for God to decide. Our passage today shows us the importance of priorities and of the dangers of misusing God’s power. Luke, the author of Acts, provides us with three examples of the effect of Jesus’ power:

The first group we encounter in today’s reading couldn’t pass a basic theology exam, yet their priorities are right. They are open and eager to learn. They have been baptized by John’s disciples and they’ve heard about Jesus, but they don’t know about the Holy Spirit. In this way, they are handicapped.

If you remember, as I preached through the first 18 chapters of the Acts of the Apostles, I often said this book should have been called “The Acts of God through the Apostles.” This book of scripture isn’t about what the Apostles did to build the church. Instead, the book is about the Spirit filling the Apostles and giving them the power of Jesus to carry out God’s plan. Now that these disciples in Ephesus have learned the truth, they are baptized as Jesus’ disciples. Afterwards, when Paul lays his hands on them, they’re filled with the Spirit. They experience the power of Jesus’ name, the power that fills us with the Spirit and allows us to do incredible things for the Kingdom.

The second way we see the Spirit’s effect is with the opposition in the synagogue against Paul and those who accept Jesus’ message. The power of Jesus’ name creates division. Jesus pointed this out.[3] While our goal is to bring everyone into a relationship with Christ, it’s not going to be accomplished this side of eternity. There will always be opposition. I am not sure why we are surprised when it happens, but from my experience whenever a church is doing something good and positive, challenges arise.  Opposition grows!

Now look at how Paul handles this challenge. He doesn’t continue to beat a dead horse. After a while, he decides it is time to move on. He takes with him those who are interested in growing within this movement that was then known as “The Way.” They leave the synagogue and move into a lecture hall own by a guy named Tyrannus. There’s been a lot made over this name, which means tyrant. What kind of parent would name their child that?[4] Commentators have speculated that since he had this lecture hall, he must have been a teacher and perhaps this was a nickname given to him by students. I certainly had a few teachers in my life whom I considered a tyrant.

Back to the opposition to Paul’s teaching. It’s interesting that instead of fighting back, Paul simply moves. His priority is to build a congregation in Ephesus. To have put up a fight he would have missed out on his main purpose, teaching about Jesus. Those who stubbornly refused to believe isn’t worth his time and threatens to sabotage his ministry. Paul moves on. Jesus gave similar instructions to the 70 disciples whom he sent out two-by-two.[5] If they weren’t well received, they were to wipe the dust off their feet and move on. I wonder if today’s churches (both congregations and denominations) lose the vision of the mission when we spend time arguing over things that are not essential.

Finally, we learn about some fake magicians who, seeing there is power in Jesus’ name, decides to claim this power for themselves. Priorities are important, as Jesse said. And these dudes have their priorities mixed up. They aren’t interested in spreading the good news, they’re interested in what they can obtain for themselves. And they find themselves in over their heads. Luke may have included this story to remind his readers that being filled with God’s Spirit isn’t some kind of magic.[6] The power isn’t in what we do, but in the God who acts.

Our text tells us that these were Jewish magicians, but the text also raises some questions as to their true background. These seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva smells a little fishy. First of all, there is no history of a high priest by this name. Furthermore, it’s not a Hebrew name, it’s Roman. A high priest of the Jewish faith wouldn’t be known by a Roman name. Perhaps these dudes aren’t even Jewish. Certainly, those from the Jewish faith reading this account in the first century would have known they are not related to real high priest. [7]

I expect these magicians tacked on this title as a way to sell themselves. There seems to be a human tendency to look for magic in the exotic. People are intrigued by these dudes, until they try cast out demons. At that point, they get themselves in trouble as the demons, who knows Jesus and Paul, attack. When it’s over their clothes are stripped off and, bloody and bruised, they steak through the streets of Ephesus.

Observing this, more people became convinced of the power in Jesus’ name and believe for the right reason. As the Gospel spreads, books of magic are discarded. Magicians give up their livelihood for the truth. Their willingness to accept the gospel stands in contrast to another profession in Ephesus. We’ll see about that next week. Stay tuned!

Sunrise, Wrightsville Beach, NC, 2008

What can we take from this passage? Two things: there’s power in Jesus’ name, but for that power to be accessed, it can’t be about us. We must have our priorities right. We must be focused on God’s work! That’s our challenge as followers of Jesus. Amen.

[1] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2018/05/29/televangelist-wants-new-jet/653202002/

[2] Matthew 21:1-9, Mark 11:1-10, and Luke 17:28-31.

[3] Luke 12:49-53.

[4] F. F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986),388 n18.

[5] Matthew 9:14, Luke 10:10-11.

[6] William H. WIllimon, Acts: Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (1988, Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2010), 147.

[7] F. F. Bruce, 390.

Soup from the garden

Cabbage Soup and Beet Soup

Last Wednesday evening was the final Bible Study class until fall. During these classes, someone volunteers to make soup and provide bread for a simple meal. As I am teaching, I don’t often volunteer, but as we were coming toward the end of this season’s classes I volunteered to prepare soups. It was a good way to get winter vegetables out of the garden while making room for summer vegetables. The beets, cabbage, carrots, and onions all came from my garden. I found recipes I liked on the internet and then altered them to fit what I had and the amount I need.  I asked which soup they preferred and most everyone said the cabbage (a few people didn’t even try the beet soup, which was my favorite). Here are the recipes:

 

Beet Soup

Several onions, chopped

5 stalks of celery, chopped

3 carrots, chopped

6 cloves of garlic, chopped

3 cups of thin sliced beets

10 cups vegetable broth

Oil

Salt and pepper

Sour cream

 

Heat oil and then saute onion, celery, carrots and garlic till soft.  Add beets and cook a couple of minutes more. Then stir in the vegetable broth, bring to a boil, then cover and simmer.  Cook until the beets are tender. Using an immersion blender to mix soup together and serve with sour cream.   I also tried this soup cold the next day and found it delicious, too.

 

Cabbage Soup

3 onions, chopped

6 cloves of garlic, chopped

Head of cabbage, cored and chopped

3 quarts chicken broth

1 quart water

2 cans of stewed tomatoes

Basil, oregano, salt and pepper to taste

Oil

 

Heat oil and sauté onion and garlic till transparent. Stir in water and broth. Bring to boil, then stir in cabbage and spices.  Simmer till the cabbage is mostly done (10 minutes). Drain and add the stewed tomatoes and spices, bring to boil then simmer for 30 minutes

 

I prepared both soups on the stove, but then put the soups in a slow cooker to keep them warm while serving.

In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible…

Alister McGrath, In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changes a Nation, A Language, and a Culture (2001: New York: Anchor, 2002).  338 pages, a few illustrations, list of sources and an index.

While I do not think this book lives up to its subtitle, I thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend it. Dealing with how the King James Bible changed a nation, language and culture was briefly covered in the last two chapters. McGrath goes into much more detail in the events leading up to the publication of the King James Bible. First was the impact of the Renaissance and the development of the printing press. Then there was the influence of the Reformation and the need for Bibles in the vernacular (the language of the people).  Finally, there was the English Reformation and all its political turmoil. McGrath covers these broad topics masterfully as he sets the stage for the King James translation.

 

Prior to the publication of the King James Bible, there was the Geneva Bible.  This was an English translation produced by a group of English Protestant in exile during the reign of Mary Tudor. This was the Bible of Shakespeare and the Pilgrims and those who settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony. This Bible included textual notes reflective of Calvin’s Geneva, including the political views of a republic. The notes in the Geneva Bible were seen as problematic by both the Church of England and the monarchy, for they acknowledged the rights of subjects to revolt against ungodly kings and bishops. The established church attempted to overcome the Geneva Bible with the publication of the “Bishops’ Bible,” but the Geneva Bible took hold.  By the late 1560s, it was being printed in Scotland, and despite attempts to suppress the Bible, it remained the most popular Bible in England for a century.

 

Queen Elizabeth assumed the throne after Mary Tudor. As a Protestant, her long reign helped solidify the religious standing of England. However, during her reign, the Puritan movement challenged the established church. The Puritans were closely aligned to the Scottish Presbyterians. When James became king, having served as King of Scotland, it was felt he would be more open to the Puritan cause. But James feared the Puritans and hated the notes found within the Geneva Bible, viewing them as a threat to his divine rights as king. With a rise of religious tension, James called for a meeting of religious leaders at Hampton Court. There, the decision to authorize a new publication of the Bible was suggested by John Reynolds. Ironically, Reynolds was a Puritan leader.

 

Richard Bancroft, the bishop of London and an adherent opponent of both Puritanism and Catholicism, oversaw the translation. The Bible was divided up into six parts, with a team of people working on each section. There were two teams each from Cambridge, Oxford and Westminster. Bancroft provided a set of rules for the translation teams that encouraged the translators to give favor to the Bishops’ Bible over other translations.  However, they were allowed to consult other translations including the Geneva Bible if they felt the textual reading wasn’t correct.  By drawing on these older texts, some of the language within this new translation had already become obsolete within the English language.

 

Interestingly, when the King James Bible was first published in 1611, it wasn’t a big hit. For the next fifty years, the Geneva Bible continued to dominate the English speaking world. Even some of the translators of the King James Bible continued to use the Geneva Bible. With no money provided for production cost and only one printer with a monopoly for publishing the Bible, its price remained high. Cheaper Bibles were available and being published on the continent. The popularity of the Geneva Bible notes remained so great that there were even King James Bibles published which included the Geneva notes.

 

After James’ death, his son, Charles I, became king. Charles, along with Bishop Laud, began a battle against the Geneva Bible, which was a part of the political maneuvering leading up to the English Revolution. It wasn’t until after the Revolution and the restoration of the monarchy that the King James Bible was widely received. After the Revolution, all things Puritan, including the Geneva Bible, were shunned. McGrath notes that England quickly dropped all things Puritan in a way similar to how quickly Germany dropped Nazism at the end of the Second World War.

 

By the 19th Century, the King James Bible reigned supreme within the English world. Most homes in the English speaking world had a copy. It influenced literature and culture, as McGrath briefly demonstrates. Interestingly, the English language was in flux in the 17th Century, when the King James Bible was being created. As the Bible drew on older English translations, it helped keep alive some traditions that were falling out of use (such as the –eth endings). There are also a number of words that are found in the translation that would change their meaning, increasing the need seen for a new translation after World War I.

 

This is a fascinating book and I recommend it. McGrath does a good job explaining one of the mysteries separating Protestants and Catholics. Protestants add the “Doxology” at the end of the Lord’s Prayer (which is omitted by the Catholics). The line, “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever,” was in the Greek Matthew text used for the translators. Today, it is widely accepted that the older manuscripts didn’t contain this line and in most modern translations it is not included. But the line was included in the Prayer Books and have become the way Protestants say the Lord’s Prayer. Although the translators were working with manuscripts no older than the 10th Century, and though were not trying to create a poetic language, but a Bible to be read in worship, the translation is still considered very good and its language is beautiful. While much more could be written about the influence of the King James Bible, the history of it deserves to be told and McGrath does a fine job telling its story.

 

Nicodemus visits at night

Jeff Garrison  

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

May 27, 2018

John 3:1-17

 

            In the liturgical calendar, today is Trinity Sunday. The Trinity, like God, cannot be fully understood by those of us who are mere mortals. It’s a mystery. Yet, it’s a key concept of the Christian faith. The doctrine developed out of an attempt to understand, as much as possible, God and God’s love for the world. The Father creates and loves the world; the Son, in love, redeems the world; and the Spirit, in love, draws us back to the Father and Son. In John 3, our passage for today, all three persons of the Godhead are witnessed. Most people know John 3:16, but there is a lot more in this chapter as Nicodemus comes to Jesus at dark. Read John 3:1-17.

Word has gotten around about Jesus. If you’ve read the previous chapter, you’ll know about Jesus changing water into wine and creating a commotion in the temple. Some are intrigued; others angered. To some folks, Jesus is the hero, a modern day Jeremiah willing to stand against the powerful and expose corruption. To others, especially those within the ruling elite, Jesus is a dangerous demagogue. But the boundaries aren’t quite so clear-cut. For there are some with positions of prestige at the temple, where feelings are running high against Jesus, who wonder about this teacher from Galilee. Nicodemus is such a man. As a member of the Sanhedrin, he’s a leader within the Jewish faith. He’s one of seventy members of this governing body that’s presided over by the chief priest. He’s the type of individual who has a lot to lose with episodes like Jesus’ cleansing the temple, yet he’s drawn to the Savior. “Maybe Jesus is right,” Nicodemus thinks.

One night when Jesus is in town, after everyone else is in bed, Nicodemus calls. There are a variety of reasons Nicodemus may have visited Jesus at night. Did he not want anyone to know of his interest in the Galilean? Was that the reason why he slipped over to see Jesus after dark?  Or was it because nighttime, when the world is quiet, the preferred time for rabbis to study? In that’s the case, Nicodemus uses his study hall time to learn more about Jesus. Although I agree with the first interpretation (that Nicodemus didn’t want to be seen), John uses the night visit to reinforce his themes of darkness and light.[1] Nicodemus comes to Jesus during the dark, but he’s seeking the light.

Let’s look at this encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. As I retell the story, I’m borrowing heavily from Frederick Buechner. In Peculiar Treasures, he has a wonderful account of this meeting.[2]

Nicodemus waits until all the neighbors are asleep before knocking. Even though it’s after working hours for most people, Jesus welcomes him. Nicodemus finds the Galilean to be patient and kind. But then after some chitchatting, Jesus drops the bombshell. “Nicodemus, he says, “the whole thing boiled down to being born again. If you aren’t born again, you might as well give up.”

“That’s all very well,” Nicodemus continues sarcastically, “but just how are we to pull something like that off? How can a man of sixty-five be born again when it’s challenging enough to get out of bed in the morning.  Can a man enter his mother’s womb a second time, when it’s all he could do to enter a taxi without the driver coming around and giving him a shove?”

A gust of wind happens to whistle down the chimney at this point, making the dying embers burst into flame. “Being born again is just like that,” Jesus says. It’s not something you do. The wind does it. The Spirit does it. It’s something that happens.” Shaking his head, Nicodemus asks, “How can this be?” Jesus then really lets the old Pharisee have it.

“Maybe you got six honorary doctorates and a half a column in Who’s Who,” Jesus shouts, “but if you can’t see something as plain as the nose on your face, you’d better go back to kindergarten. I’m telling you like it is. I’m telling you what I’ve seen,” Jesus continues, “I’m telling you there are people on Medicare walking around with the love-light in their eyes. I’m telling you there are ex-cons teaching Sunday School. I’m telling you there are undertakers scared silly we’ll put them out of business.”

Nicodemus is speechless as Jesus proceeds. “I’m telling you God’s got such a thing for this loused-up planet that he’s sent me down so if you don’t believe your own eyes, then maybe you’ll believe mine, maybe you’ll believe me, maybe you won’t come sneaking around scared half to death in the dark but will come to, come clean, come to life.”

Nicodemus breath is quickening and his heart is pounding. He hasn’t felt this way since his first kiss, since the time his first child was born, or the time they told him he didn’t have heart attack, only a bout of ingestion.

Jesus continues on, talking about himself as he reminds Nicodemus of God’s love for the world, a love that God sends his only Son to redeem. God doesn’t want to condemn the world but to save it.

What can we learn from this discourse between Jesus and Nicodemus?

First of all, I wonder if most of us aren’t a little like Nicodemus. We hear about Jesus, perhaps we are somewhat interested, but don’t want to come out in the open to check him out. Most of us don’t want to do anything not considered “cool”—or whatever the word of the day may be. In a world where the self-sufficient survive, accepting the grace Jesus freely offers could be interpreted as a sign of weakness. So we either reject Jesus’ teachings, or we alter them in such a way that they are more palatable to our taste. An example of us making Jesus more palatable comes from an editorial a few years back that spoke of Jesus “bulking up.” According to the editorialist, Jesus now appears in popular culture looking more like a professional wrestler or an angry soldier. Such images “Speaks to a muscular evangelism tired of turning the other cheek.”[3]

Altering Jesus’ teachings in such a manner, just like rejecting him, keeps us in the dark, is wrong. If we want to accept him, we have to come out into the open. We have to “let our light shine,”[4] for it is only in the light that we are able to purge ourselves of all that has been corrupted and move toward holiness.

When we come to the light, when we come to Jesus, we are forced to see ourselves for who we are. Jesus confronts our innermost fears—the primary fear being death. I think this is one the reasons Jesus refers to Moses lifting up the snake and linking it to his own upcoming death. The Hebrew people during the Exodus were afraid of the snakes. What does God have Moses do?  He has the people look at a bronze snake that he lifts up on a pole.[5]  Only by looking at that which they fear are they able to be saved. Only by Jesus dying, experiencing our worst fear—death—is he able to save us. And for us to experience the salvation he offers, we too have to die, we have to let go of the past and move into his future.

But this isn’t something we can do on our own. The second thing we learn is that salvation is a mystery; it’s tied to God’s action. We don’t save ourselves. Nicodemus is right, there’s no way we can crawl into our mothers wombs and be born again. And that’s the point. There is no way we can do this! In the other gospels, Jesus makes says it is easier for a camel to go through an eye of a needle than it is for the rich to go to heaven.[6] Again, it can’t be done and that’s the point. This is God’s work, not ours.

It drives me nuts when someone talks about how we just have to accept Jesus and are born again as if it is just an easy intellectual decision. Such a person may lift themselves up as an example. But the truth is that by our own actions we can’t be born again. The only thing we can do is open ourselves up to that mysterious wind, to the Spirit which blows on God’s command. We can present ourselves as a sacrifice to God, we can say yes to God, but the hard work belongs to God.

Being born again, or being born anew, can also be translated as being born from above, as the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible renders it. And that’s what must happen. God has to act. God has to come down from heaven and enter our world. We can’t save ourselves: God must come into our lives through Jesus Christ and transform us. And when we’ve experienced this renewal, it’s not something we should brag about or think of ourselves as superior to others. Being born again is humbling!

Think about our encounter with Jesus Christ in this way. You fall into the Intracoastal Waterway and can’t swim. It’s not like you can quickly teach yourself to swim, and save yourself and be able to brag about your quick wits. Instead, you’ll be drowning and there’s nothing you can do but panic. Then, when someone pulls you out, and while you’re sitting, soaking wet, on dry ground, all you can do is to say humbly and respectfully, “thank you.”

Thank you Jesus for that wind that mysteriously blows into our lives at the right moment.

In addition to not bragging about our salvation, we shouldn’t look down on Nicodemus. It’s easy to think of him as being chicken, going to see Jesus at night. But the truth of the matter is that Nicodemus is a lot like us. He’s a seeker. Not only is he a seeker, he’s a scholar. He knows all about his Jewish heritage, what God has done for Israel, the-ins-and-the-outs of the Law given to Moses. His problem, at this point in his life, is that he can’t think outside the box. He’s trapped into his own little world and Jesus’ words just go over his head. This isn’t to say that Jesus is anti-intellectual. It’s just that knowledge alone isn’t enough for our salvation. If it was, all we’d need is to graduate from Sunday School. But we need so much more…

Nicodemus, if you follow his story, appears twice again in John’s gospel.[7] His interest in Jesus remains and maybe he did experience the movement of the Spirit. We can’t say for sure, but John’s purpose isn’t to give us Nicodemus’ story. John wants us to open ourselves up to the Spirit, so that we might accept and believe in Jesus Christ. Are we truly open to what God has, can, and will do through Jesus Christ? Or are we like Nicodemus, in our story today, confined by our own limited abilities and unwilling to accept the truth of the one who has the power to save?

Let us be open to that mysterious wind that blows freely. Accept God’s love and be humbled. Let us pray.

 

Almighty God, may we be open to the wind of your mighty spirit, blowing through our lives. May that wind blow us into a relationship with you and your Son, so that we experience the fullness of your love. May that wind fan a flame in our lives that expresses your love to the rest of your creation. This we pray in the name of the Triune God, Father, Son and Spirit. Amen.

©2018

[1] For a discussion of the various reasons the visit may have occurred at night, see Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII: The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1966), 130.  Although I, and Brown, disagree with the interpretation that Nicodemus came at night because it was his study time, a minority of interpreters follows this line of thinking.  See Patricia Farris, “Late-night Seminar,” Christian Century, January 30, 2002.

[2] Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979),119-121.

[3]  O. Benjamin Sparks, “What the New Year Holds,” The Presbyterian Outlook, January 3, 2005.  Sparks quotes from an editorial titled “What Did Jesus Look Like,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, December 9, 2004.

[4] Matthew 5:16.

[5] Numbers 21:4-9.

[6] Matthew 19:24, Mark 10:25, Luke 18:25

[7] John 7:50-51, 19:39.

Pentecost 2018

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Ezekiel 37:1-14

May 20, 2018

I pretty much thought I had the sermon all together Friday. Then, after the wonderful preschool graduation, I came home and learned about the latest school shooting. These have become all to frequent. As I had planned my sermon around Ezekiel’s experience in the Valley of Dry Bones, I realized I was not through with my sermon.

In our polarized world, there are all kinds of debates around how we are to “fix” the issue of mass shootings in our country. I am not going to offer a solution. But I want to tell you this: the message of Pentecost is that God can do incredible things through us. Get that, through us! We’re now God’s soldiers in the world. And we have to be willing to take risks and to trust in God’s divine spark, not our own wisdom or ideology. When we depend on ourselves, we quench the spirit and snuff out the flame. Come, Lord Jesus, Come and fill us with your Spirit. Set us on fire that we may call people to your kingdom of love.

We’ve already heard the passage about the disciples in the Upper Room waiting on the Spirit. Our Old Testament reading is from the 37th Chapter of Ezekiel…

         Fresh out of college, Richard Rubin headed to Alabama where he worked for a newspaper and had a jazz show on a local radio station. One night at the station, he was handed an emergency announcement. A tornado had been sighted. He was in the midst of telling everyone to take cover when the twister hit the station’s tower and was knocked off air. A week later a temporary tower had been set up and they were back on air. The first night he was back at the mic, a middle aged woman called the station and shouted, “Praise Jesus! I reckoned you were dead.” I like that, “I reckoned you were dead.”[1]

Today’s scripture readings are all about people who reckoned they were dead being brought back to life by the wind of God’s Spirit.

        Let’s take a trip to Babylon, that great city where the Prophet Ezekiel lives with a remnant of the Hebrew people. As a priest, Ezekiel has the unpleasant task of being the cheerleader for a beaten team. The Babylonians have not only conquered and destroyed Jerusalem, they are sending much of the population into exile. Homeless and without a temple, the people of God are lost. They feel if they are at the end of their existence. Life has left them. With the temple in Jerusalem destroyed, it feels as if they’re cut off from God. The temple had been their connection to the Almighty for centuries. As a people, they feel as if they are dry bones, slowly bleaching out in the hot desert sun.

         The situation with the disciples and those gathered in the Upper Room on Pentecost may not have been much different. The followers of Jesus, who seemed to be confused when Jesus was present, have now been without his guidance for some time. They are weary, waiting, and beat. They are afraid they too might end up like Jesus, nailed to a cross. Scared, and unable to think clearly, they hid. They seem about as likely as a bunch of dry bones to start the Jesus movement.

And look at us. Are we any better? Too many people these days reckon the Church is dead.

It’s always easier to be pessimistic than optimistic. But in both of these Biblical passages, pessimism seems logical. After all, what hope can a defeated nation or a collection of poor Palestinian Jews have?  Or what hope does the graying church in America have these days? We at SIPC are on the leading edge of that graying movement. Will people listen to us, to our message of love and hope, to our critique of a sinful world and our call to a new kingdom?

         Events like Friday’s shooting hangs over us. We realize with all our resources, with all our skill, with all our prayers, things appear helpless… Batten down the hatches, arm ourselves, seal off the borders, be safe. There is no doubt that we live in a dangerous world, but our help, as the Psalmist reminds us, “is in the name of the Lord, who created heaven and earth.”[2]

 

         Like Ezekiel’s audience, we’re in exile. We’re captives. We’re captive to our own abilities (of which we over-estimate). We’re captive to our own expectations (which are often low). And we’re captive to the expectations of others. We want to be liked and respected and more often are willing to do what it takes in an attempt to reach such objectives than to see where God is calling us. God calls is to the cross. God’s call is to the pain in the world, to comfort and to offer hope of a new and better world to come.

My question is will we ever faithfully fulfill the tremendous responsibility God has given us?

        God’s people have always had its critics and quite often we’ve deserved them. There is much for which God’s people can be criticized. We are often hypocritical, saying one thing and doing another. Or we think we know what we should be doing and dive head first into the pool without prayer or consulting God’s word. That’s like jumping in the pool without knowing how to swim. You know, it’s a wonder the church still exists.  After all, we didn’t even start off on the right foot. In that upper room there was Peter, who’d denied Jesus three times. There was Thomas, who’d doubted Jesus. There were others who’d ran when afraid. In Babylon, there was those who felt the faith tradition that had been handed down since Abraham and Moses was all done for… Yet, 4,000 years after Abraham, God’s people still exist in the world. Why? Because it’s not about us. God’s Spirit still moves in the world.[3]

         You know, both the Hebrew and Greek word translated as Spirit derive from a world that relates to the movement of air, or wind.[4]  To the ancient people, wind was mysterious. We know a bit more about wind today, everything from how ocean and land temperatures, jet streams, mountains and high rise buildings affect wind. But the ancients didn’t have a clue what caused wind. Like God, wind was a mystery, which may be why they used the word to as describe God’s Spirit. It’s why I often smile when I feel the wind on my face, I am reminded of God.

Between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, in my first year of college, my uncle and I decided to backpack a new trail that ran the length of the Uwharrie Mountains in central North Carolina. We picked one of the coldest weeks of a cold winter. The temperature at night dropped down below zero. But the stars were brilliant at night and the air still. When you exhaled into the cold, your breath seemed to hold together in front of your face for a few seconds. The last thing I wanted to do in that weather was to struggle to build a fire in the morning, so I carefully banked the fire and then put stones around and on top in the hope that in the morning, they’d still be some coals.  I woke around two in the morning, startled. The wind had picked up and flames were shooting through the rocks and reflecting off the tent walls. The fire needed tending before our camp became an inferno. While my uncle slept, I crawled out of my warm bag and took care of it.

 

Just as wind can give new life to smoldering coals, God’s Spirit is with us and can bring new life. That’s what happens in both of our Scripture readings this morning. Ezekiel is shown a vision of a valley of dry bones and asked if they can live again.[5] Notice his answer. He doesn’t say, “Yes, Lord, you can do anything.” Ezekiel hedges his bets, saying, “Oh Lord God, you know.” At least he got that part right, if those bones live again, it’s only because of God’s intervention.

         Then, Ezekiel is told to prophecy to the bones. We’re not told if he looked around to see if someone was watching. He prophesized and the bones began to come alive. In what would make a good zombie flick, muscles begin to attach to bone and skin grows on top. Pretty soon, there is a multitude of bodies… But there is no life in them, so he’s ordered to call out the breath of God, which upon his call comes forth the four winds.  Now you have standing at attention, a vast multitude, an army for God, waiting for orders.

In our New Testament reading, God’s Spirit appears as flames that come upon a scared collection of people in hiding. The Spirit gives them the boldness to go out into the street proclaiming what God has done in Jesus Christ. The Spirit is the unifier, bringing God’s people together. If you read on a little further, you’d see that over 3000 converts are made that day.  Although they had been depressed and pessimistic, when the Spirit came upon them, they no longer hid in the Upper Room, but go out and change the world.

       These two stories show the power God has to change the situation. Nothing is hopeless if God is present. And God’s Spirit is still with us! Do you believe that? Things which seem futile to the human mind can seem quite minor when we are with God. If we believe God is with us, we can do incredible things. It’s not always easy, but if it’s worthwhile, it’ll be worth it.  And let’s not forget, the reason the church survives is not because of our efforts, but because God is the one who gives us life. Things can become pretty bad, as they were in Babylon or after Jesus’ ascension, but God can always renew and restore. It takes but a breath upon dying coals to resurrection. It takes but a breath from God to set us on fire, to renew us for his work in the world.

Pessimism is a symptom, I believe, of trusting only in ourselves. As believers, we’re not to be pessimistic because our trust is not in us, it’s in a God who has the power to create and to restore. We can’t control what happens tomorrow, or even this afternoon. Realization and acceptance of this should humbly drive us to our knees. But when we realize the power of our God, we should then stand tall and be willing to step out in faith and work, with other believers, in building a better world.

        I know the world often looks dark and it is easy to be pessimistic. But remember the saying we had on our sign a few weeks ago, “Courage is fear that said its prayers.”  Friends, don’t be weary. Trust in God and step out in faith. The Spirit is with us. To the new elders, whom we’ll be ordaining and installing in a few minutes, remember that God’s Spirit is with you. Amen.

 

©2018

[1] Story was told by the Rev. Joanna Adams on the Protestant Hour, May 31, 1998.  I added the jazz part after reading about Rubin’s stint down south.

[2] Psalm 134:8

[3] See Craig Barnes, “The Post-Anxiety Church,” The Christian Century (January 29, 2016). https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2016-01/post-anxiety-church

[4] The Greek pneuma comes from the verb pnewo meaning air movement: wind, breeze or breath. Likewise, the Hebrew “ruah” means wind, moving air, or breath.

[5] Ezekiel’s experience is often interpreted as a vision, but others suggest it might have been a trance or seizure.  See Margaret S. Odell, Ezekiel, (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2005), 454.

A Prayer (and its origin)

Where there is despair, give hope.
Where there is darkness, bring light.
Where there is ignorance, grant wisdom,
And for those of us who have grasped the truth, give humility.
-Rev. Dr. Raymond Nott

 

One of the benefits and highlights of serving the Presbyterian Church in the Plains, Rocky Mountains and Great Basin of the American West was the opportunity to attend the Omaha Seminary Summer School of Religion in Hastings, Nebraska for a week during the summer. The Omaha Seminary closed in the depression, but the monies of the seminary were invested in the Omaha Seminary Foundation and used to further the education of those within the area formerly served by the seminary. These week long events featured great food, fellowship, lectures, entertainment, and preaching. It was at one of these events that I got to know the late Frank Harrington, pastor of Peachtree Presbyterian Church.  I also privileged to study under people like Paul and Elizabeth Achtemeier and James Sanders. Paul taught New Testament and Elizabeth taught Old Testament at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond. James Sanders was known for his work on the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The seminars also tapped their sessions, which allowed me to re-listen to some of the more enlightening lectures and sermons. I was also blessed to find in my first office in Cedar City (before we built the new church) the tapes from previous summer seminars that my predecessor, John McCandless, had attended. During this period of my ministry, I often found my way running up and down Interstate 15 for meetings in Salt Lake City. Lot’s of long drives. I listened to all of these old tapes, too, and was especially intrigued by the sermons of Ray Nott. He was a long-term pastor from Wyoming, who upon retirement spent two years as a missionary in Bangkok. His sermons, which drew upon his experiences in the American West and Thailand, were funny and meaningful. I would have enjoyed meeting him, but never had the opportunity and he died about the time I moved from Utah.  Before each sermon, Nott gave the above prayer. I no longer have those cassette tapes (and would struggle to find a player, if I had the tapes), but I remember the prayer.

Two Roads

Front of the house in Michigan. Interpret as you will, two paths, one four our four legged friend and the other to the driveway…

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

May 13, 2018

Psalm 1

 

We’re exploring the very first Psalm today. Before we get to the Scripture, I want talk a bit about Psalms.

Whenever I’ve preached from the Psalms, I’ve tried to impress upon you that the book was a hymnal and worship resource for the Hebrew people. When you read the Psalms, you may have notice many of them have Hebrews words like Selah written in the margins. It’s thought that this was an instruction for the musicians, maybe the point when a cymbal would clap or the tempo increased. We don’t know exactly what it means, but that’s the best guess of scholars. Many of the Psalms indicate worship, calling us to come into God’s presence, to sing God’s praise.[1]

          I’ve been teaching a class on reading and understanding scripture for the past month. For those of you in the class, you’ll recall how we have to consider the historical setting for a text, along with its form and structure. We see the importance of this when looking at the Psalms and especially this particular one.

Those who study the Hebrew Scriptures generally date the coming together of this Psalms, and much of the Old Testament, to the Babylonian period. It was a time when the Hebrew people were in exile. During that era, away from the Promised Land, the now ruined temple and the holy city of Jerusalem, the Jewish people collected their writings as a way to preserve their religious heritage. Text that had been passed on orally were written down. Other texts, like the Psalms, which existed as fragments, were collected and put together into books. Individually, many of the Psalms themselves are much older, some attributed to David and to earlier era of Israel’s history. We can image that the collection of the Psalms was much like the publishing of a hymnal today. A group of people gathers and decides on the hymns used and their placement in the hymnal, and then sends a rough draft off to the printer. Same thing happened then, only they didn’t have a printer and had to send a copy to scribes who copied it by hand.

Let’s consider a few hymnals. I grew up with the Red Hymnal—it was published by the Presbyterian Church a few years before my birth and was the main hymnal in use for over 35 years.[2] The first hymn in this hymnal is “Praise Ye the Lord, the Almighty.” Do you think this hymn was chosen randomly? I don’t think so. It’s a fitting hymn for Presbyterians, the focus being on God Almighty and not on ourselves. Our own hymnal, the first selection is “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.” Again, is was it picked randomly? I don’t think so, for it calls us into worship with a joyful heart. In the same way, when the collection of Psalms were compiled, there was an intentional decision, as they were led by God’s Spirit, to place what we know as Psalm 1 at the beginning of the collection.[3]

This Psalm was picked to remind the Hebrew people, and us, that if our prayers and songs are to mean anything, our lives must reflect God’s will. Ponder what it says as we listen to God’s word.  READ PSALM 1.

V & T Railroad, south of Gold Hill, NV

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,” the poet Robert Frost wrote in his famous poem first published in 1916.[4]  Likewise, according to the Psalmist, there are two options for those of us who believe in the God of Abraham, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. We can be on God’s side, rewarded by the one who gives life. Or we can take the road of the scoffers, the path that allows us to think we or something else is god, the path that will lead us away from the Almighty, the path to destruction. Two ways: God’s way which leads to life and the other road to death.  Two ways, the choice is ours. Which one will it be?

You know, today is Mother’s Day and this psalm could have been written by my mother (and, I’m sure, by many of your mothers). Mothers worry about their children following the right path, and there is probably nothing more tragic than a mother dealing with the disappointment of a wayward child.[5]

Our psalm opens with a beatitude, promising us that if we’re good and on God’s side, we’ll be blessed and have a happy life. But the opening line also reminds us of competing claims within the world. Happiness comes from not accepting the advice of the wicked. Their guidance run counter to God’s word. The first verse makes it abundantly clear to the reader that we should we should avoid such people…  Accept their advice? Strike one. Follow their paths? Strike two. And sit in their assemblies? Three strikes; you’re out. Instead, after making three negative suggestions, the Psalm reminds us that we’re to delight and mediate on God’s law.

The idea of delighting in laws is foreign for most of us. I mean, we’re running late and the speed limit is only 35 miles per hour, as it is on Landings Way South. We curse the car in front of us that’s maintaining the legal speed. We see laws as being burdensome; they hold us back, or so it seems. Of course, if we live on that street and have a child who plays in the front yard, we understand and don’t want anyone to drive by at 60 miles an hour. If we put ourselves in such a place, we see the rational of the law. We have to admit that most laws are for our benefit or for the benefit of society. Of course, I still can’t see the reason some states outlaw barefoot driving.

God’s law, like most laws of the state, provides a boundary within which we can live life abundantly. Within these guidelines, life flourishes. Outside them, life diminishes. If we understand the law this way, we should take delight in it. We should learn and take to heart God’s instructions on how to live abundantly and to relate to one another and to Almighty faithfully.

Psalm 1 is just one of several Psalms that extol the virtues of following God’s laws. Perhaps the best known, of such Psalms, is the 119, which is also the longest Psalm in scripture, going on for 176 verses. If I ever decide to preach on the whole 119 Psalm, I’ll give you advance warning so you can pack a picnic… Of course, that week, nobody will show up. Both Psalms, the 1st, which is rather short, and the 119, a marathon, encourage us to pay attention to the ways of the Almighty. Near the opening of the longer Psalm we’re encouraged to “delight in God’s decrees as much as we do in riches, to meditate on God’s precepts, to fix our eyes on God’s ways, to delight in God’s statutes, and not to forget God’s word.”[6] These positive verbs direct us toward God and an understanding of God’s laws.

Now let me clarify a point. We can get a bit carried away with our emphasis on the law. After all, the law does not have the power to save us. The law points to our need for Jesus’ salvation and by obeying them, we’re allowed to enjoy life here and now. Obeying the law isn’t going to save us, but it will make our lives better and that’s its purpose.[7]

I like this idea of mediating on the law that’s found in both the 1st and 119th Psalm. It doesn’t mean memorizing the 10 commandments (although that’s not a bad idea) or the 600 and some other laws found in the Hebrew Scriptures. Instead, to meditate means to internalize the laws so they become, by second nature, our guiding rule. Such meditation will allow God’s will to shape our will, and ultimately, that’s what it’s all about, us following God’s will.

If we are following God’s will, we’ll be like that tree by a stream. Such trees grow fast, drawing upon available water. Likewise, if we live in a way that allows ourselves to be nourished by God, our lives will indeed be blessed. We may not have the riches or the power that we once desired, but we will be content and at peace with ourselves and with God.

Spring along the Thornapple River, MI

Of course, this psalm presents parallel images. The righteous is like a well-watered tree. The wicked, however, have no roots. They’re like the chaff that comes off the wheat during the milling process. The chaff blows away, it easily burns and no longer sustains life. The choice we make, whether to follow or run from God, determines which image applies. Do we want to be a tree, or husk blown in the wind? These two images lead the Psalmists to conclude with a warning of judgment. The wicked, the chaff, will be judged. But the righteous, the one watered by the Lord, will stand tall.

The choice is ours. Whose side are we own? Those who compiled the Psalms placed this particular Psalm first, so that when someone began to read this book, he or she would be encouraged to make a decision to follow God and seek out God’s ways in all they do. In a way, Psalm 1 prepares us for the rest of the Psalms, which quite interestingly consist of five books, as in the Law, or the Torah.[8] The Torah called the Hebrew people to align themselves with God.  Likewise, the Psalmist calls us to align ourselves with God, drawing upon the rest of the Psalms as that tree draws upon water.[9]

“Two roads diverge in a yellow wood…”  Which one will you take? Psalmist calls you to take the way outlined in this book, to mediate and internalize God’s word.  Amen.

 

©2018

[1] See especially Psalms 95-100 and 145-150.

[2] The “Red Hymnal” was titled The Hymnbook was published in 1955.  There was a hymnal titled The Worship Book that was published in 1970, but it wasn’t received very well and many churches continued to use the “Red Hymnal” until the 1990 publication of The Presbyterian Hymnal.

[3] Eugene Peterson, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989), 25-28.

[4] Robert Frost, The Poetry of Robert Frost, Edward Connery Lathem, editor (NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969), 105.

[5] See comments about mothers watching their sons die in a BBC article on the woman who served as communication director for the Texas Prison in Huntsville and who has observed more than 300 executions. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-43995866

[6] Psalm 119:14-16.

[7] John Calvin and other reformers taught that the law had three purposes: to show our need for repentance, to help us live in God’s will, and to help keep the reprobate in check.

[8] The Torah consists of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.  The five books of the Psalms, which each close with a benediction, are Psalms 1-41, 42-72, 73-89, 90-106, and 107-150.

[9] James L. Mays, Psalms: Interpretation, a Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994), 40-44.

The House by the Side of the Road

Helen McKenzie Garrison Wright 2016-2016

My grandmother was moved from her home of 70 years in 2008, to an assisted living facility near my Uncle’s near Hickory NC.  In 2009, I was back visiting in NC and my Uncle brought my grandmother back to her home for a week. My daughter and I came down to visit her. It was a wonderful time and I could tell my grandma was excited being back in her own home. My grandmother’s house has also been a welcome retreat for me and for many others, for she has always been a gracious host. This was a post from a former blog written at that time. The poem, I realized, goes well with the passage for the sermon I’m working on based on Psalm 1 (where the Psalmist encourages his readers not to sit in the seat of scoffers). To read more about my grandmother, click here.

My grandmother came back home looking for a book of poetry. Finding the book, she was upset that it didn’t have the poem for which she was looking. She told me about making a booklet of poems when she was in the seventh grade. The assignment was to copy poems they liked and to draw pictures to illustrate them. The two poems she remembered are Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees” and one titled “The House Beside the Road.” She illustrated the first with a tree, the second with a house. Grandma asked if I knew the poem, but I didn’t. Then I got an idea. Pulling out my Blackberry, I googled the poem. I came up with a poem by Scarlett Treat and read it to my Grandmother. She didn’t think that was the one because it was sad and about a house falling down. The poem she remembered talked about how to live a life. With some further checking, I learned that Ms. Treat was born while my father was in elementary school, making it highly unlikely my grandmother was reading her poetry in the seventh grade. So I did some more googling and came up with the poem, “The House by the Side of the Road” by Sam Walter Foss (1858-1911). As I read aloud, my grandmother smiled and said, “Yes, that’s it.” She was also excited but couldn’t understand how I was able to find it on my cell phone…

In many ways, this poem describes my grandmother, who has sought to be a friend to all. Here is the poem:

The House by the Side of the Road

There are hermit souls that live withdrawn
In the place of their self-content;
There are souls like stars, that dwell apart,
In a fellowless firmament;
There are pioneer souls that blaze the paths
Where highways never ran-
But let me live by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.
Let me live in a house by the side of the road
Where the race of men go by-
The men who are good and the men who are bad,
As good and as bad as I.
I would not sit in the scorner’s seat
Nor hurl the cynic’s ban-
Let me live in a house by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.
I see from my house by the side of the road
By the side of the highway of life,
The men who press with the ardor of hope,
The men who are faint with the strife,
But I turn not away from
their smiles and tears,
Both parts of an infinite plan-
Let me live in a house by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.
I know there are brook-gladdened meadows ahead,
And mountains of wearisome height;
That the road passes on through the long afternoon
And stretches away to the night.
And still I rejoice when the travelers rejoice
And weep with the strangers that moan,
Nor live in my house by the side of the road
Like a man who dwells alone.
Let me live in my house by the side of the road,
Where the race of men go by-
They are good, they are bad, they are weak, they are strong,
Wise, foolish – so am I.
Then why should I sit in the scorner’s seat,
Or hurl the cynic’s ban?
Let me live in my house by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.
-Sam Walter Foss

A Day (and two nights) in the Dry Tortugas

Sun sinking in the west from a kayak.. In the far distance, Loggerhead Lighthouse can be seen. The pilings on the right are from an old Navy coaling station that was built on Garden Key

Most of us camping on Garden Key stand together on the beach watching the light fade from the western sky. The skies are mostly clear and the water surrounding the Key and Fort Jefferson ripples in from the southerly wind. There’s a group of four women from South Florida along with several group of bird watchers from around the country. Soon a star appears in the southwest, Sirius, the Dog Star as well as Venus just above the horizon in the West.  A few minutes later, the sky is darker. Rigel and Betelgeuse, the red star in Orion, are visible. “There’s Orion, setting early after having been up high all winter,” I say as I point out the stars. Soon we can make out the stars in Orion’s belt. In the spring, it appears as if the hunter is falling face-first out of the sky. A little later, all the stars of Orion and his faithful dog, Canis Major, are clearly visible. Other constellations pop out: Auriga, the charioteer; the V in Taurus the Bull; and Pleiades, the Seven Sisters. In mythology, the seven sisters looked out for travelers. We’re all travelers here, enjoying a few days 70 miles from civilization. There are no signals on our cell phones and no way to connect to the internet unless someone brought an antenna a for a satellite hookup. I look back behind me, to the northeast, and see the Big Dipper climbing higher in the sky. From it, I can easily find the North Star, low on the northern horizon, just above the ramparts of the fort. I point it out to the group.

 

“How you know so much about the stars,” one of the women from Miami asks.

 

“I don’t know,” I say, “I just like spending time outdoors, especially at night.”

Our campsite from the top of Fort Jefferson

Slowly people drift back to their tents. It’s been a tiring day as my sister, father and I had gotten up at 4:30 AM, in order to have our gear and kayaks at the ferry terminal at 6 AM for the run from Key West to the Tortugas.  Then we had to set up camp before a cooling snorkel around the outside of the fort’s moot. After dinner, we paddled out by Bush and Long Key. The islands are closed off due to nesting, but we are allowed to paddle by them as long as we stay 100 feet offshore.

 

Sooty Terns and Brown Noodles flying from Bush Key. My father is in the kayak.

While paddling by Bush Key, where tens of thousands of Snooty Terns nest, birds dotted the sky. I don’t know if any of these birds spend time on the nest. They mostly fly around the key and out over the water, constantly chirping with one another. On Long Key, frigates are nesting. These large birds are as graceful as any navy frigate and the males, who puff up a red pouch under their head to attract females are able to strut better than any sailor on shore leave.

At nine-thirty, I crawl into my bivy tent. The wind is blowing hard and the tarp, what we erected to protect us from the tropic sun, flaps constantly.  I am soon asleep.

Sunrise over Long Key from the docks at Garden Key

 

I arise at 6:30 am.  The eastern sky is bright red.  My sister has already started the charcoal in my stove and boiled water for her tea.  I put coffee and water in my camping percolator and in a few minutes can see the water turn into dark black coffee.  When Dad gets up, we have breakfast. I’ve brought oatmeal. My sister has boiled eggs and precooked bacon and grits. We cut up some fruit and split it between us.

 

Loggerhead Key Lighthouse

Our plan is to paddle to Loggerhead Key, which is located three miles to the west of Garden Key, the location of a long standing lighthouse (that went dark in 2014 and is no longer in use).  We pack lunches and snorkel gear.  I have a marine radio, but the rangers insist we take at least one more and loan my sister one.  Although the tide doesn’t vary much here (just a foot to eighteen inches) it does create a flow that runs the channel between the two keys, so we are warned to watch for currents. Unless a fog rolls in, which doesn’t seem likely in this weather, we’ll not have any problem as long as we stay focused on the Loggerhead lighthouse which rises 150 feet above the small strip of land.  The wind is still strong and coming out of the south, which requires us to paddle harder than normal.

About a quarter way to the island, my sister complains of her hands hurting and decides to go back to Garden Key. We were told that on a calm day it’d take an hour to paddle to the island and generally two hours to paddle back. My dad and I keep paddling. It takes us almost an hour to paddle the three miles to Loggerhead, but that’s with a strong wind coming in at an angle, creating some swell. There, we’re met with two guys who took the dingy from their sailboat to the island to snorkel, along with the volunteer lighthouse tender.  He has volunteered to stay on the island and watch over those who visit for a month. The park service provides him a home with electricity (they have huge panels of solar cells).  He checks in with visitors (he provided us with tips on where to snorkel), and operates a water desalination system that provides water to rangers in the Tortugas. He’s responsible for his own food.

We walk across the island and snorkel on the west side. He points out some places to check out and we are blessed with seeing huge growths of brain coral along with large aquatic plants. I love the huge purple sea fans that half my size. I see plenty of fish: angelfish, butterflyfish, a variety of snapper and grouper, the seemingly ubiquitous “Sergeant Majors”, and several large barracuda. Hiding inside hollow parts of the coral are long-spined sea urchin.  After an hour and a half of snorkeling (my dad gave it up much earlier), I join him on the beach for lunch (Vienna sausage, cheese and crackers, a pear, and plenty of water).  After lunch, I go back out and snorkel for another 40 minutes or so, before packing up and heading across the island to our kayaks.

Barracuda

We leave at 1 PM.  The wind has calmed and the paddle back is easy.  We don’t rush it and find it only takes us a little over an hour and fifteen minutes, well less than the two hours we were told to expect.  We make it back in time to buy some ice and ice cream on the ferry (it leaves at 2:45 PM).  After resting, I join my sister with snorkeling around the fort.  The wind begins to die and the sound of the flapping tarp is replaced by the squawk of the terns a few hundred yards to our east.  We enjoy steak for dinner (they were frozen when we left but has since thawed), and steamed cauliflower that I’d brought from my garden.  I am sure I’m the only person on this key eating homegrown cauliflower.

Inside Fort Jefferson

I spend some time in the late afternoon and evening inside the fort, finding a shady spot, where I read and journal.  It’s been a long day and shortly after sunset, I’m in bed.  There is no wind and it’s warm.  I lay on top of my sleeping bag and fall asleep.

 

Nature calls at 5 AM, and I crawl out of my tent to take care of business. The ground is soaked with a heavy dew. As I look up at the morning stars. The summer constellations are out. They are not generally this bright due to light pollution, but without any artificial light, the sky is brilliant. I easily spot Scorpius. It’s much higher above the southern horizon than I am accustomed to seeing it. At higher latitude, the constellation is often only partly seen above the southern horizon. This morning, its pinchers are reaching out as if to grab Jupiter. To the left of the scorpion is the winged-horse archer, Sagittarius. Its arrow is drawn and aimed at the deadly cosmic insect.  Mars and Saturn appear to be resting on its wings. I’m treated with three planets in close proximity within the morning sky. There is no wind, but there is no silence either. I don’t think any of the terns on Bush Key sleep as they’re still squawking. I crawl back into my tent and snooze for another hour.

Bush and Long Key from the ramparts of Fort Jefferson (they used to be three different islands, but they are now all connected)

My father, sister, and me, in front of the only entrance to Fort Jefferson

Don’t believe everything you hear

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

May 6, 2018

I John 4:1-6

 

A few weeks ago I preached on the first chapter of 1st John. I noted then that this a love letter written to a church of whom John cares deeply. Today we’re looking at Chapter 4, verses 1 through 6.  These verses speak about the need of testing spirits and not believing all we hear. Within the letter this part stands between the end of the third chapter, where John gives one of his frequent encouragement for us to love one another, and the middle of the fourth chapter where John picks up again the topic of loving others. Yes, we’re to love one another (we get that, John), but we must also be careful to discern the truth.

As I emphasized in my last sermon on 1 John, one gets the sense there are those within the community John addresses who are trying to pull people away by false teachings about Jesus Christ.  Hear this passage as I read 1 John 4:1-6 from The Message translation.

Some time in my first year in ministry, while serving a small church in Ellicottville, New York, I woke in a stupor between 3 and 4 o’clock in the morning. The room felt damp and cold, the type of cold that penetrates your bones. I laid flat on my back on the bed, and it seemed as if there were stalactites made of ice coming down from the ceiling and almost touching my skin. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t respond. I felt I was imprisoned in bed. It was dreadful. My heart raced and I panicked. It was as if I was in a cave, held by something terribly evil. Alone, I was single at the time, I felt trapped and in great danger. The only thing I could think of to do was to cry out, “Lord Jesus, help me.” As soon as I did, it all went away. I felt at peace and the room no longer felt damp and cold.

Was it a dream? Yeah, probably. But it was also very real. While experiencing this, I realized that the only way I could save myself was to call upon Jesus. That, in and of itself, is an important lesson. Calling on Jesus was all I could do. Otherwise those stalactites would impale me in bed. There’s evil in our world and it’s destructive as this dream illustrates.

One of the comforting truths about God is that the Almighty is both good and all powerful. If God wasn’t all powerful, calling upon Jesus would not have given me any relief. The good news is that even though evil exists, even though there are elements within the world that challenges God’s reign and strives to mislead us, God is more powerful. God’s in control. John clearly understood this which is why he doesn’t limit his discussion within the letter to the love of God and neighbor. The Beatles may have proclaimed that “all we need is love.” John would agree, partly. “Yes, we need love, but we also need a little discernment.”

In this passage, John seems most interested in countering false teachings about Jesus Christ. I read The Message version which deemphasizes the discernment of spirits and focuses on “God Talk.”[1]

As I said in my earlier sermon on this letter, it appears the church John addresses was being challenged by those advocating a heresy known as Docetism, which holds that Jesus only seemed to be human. In other words, Jesus wasn’t really a man; he was divine, but appeared to be a man and appeared to die on the cross. Now, I should say that those who have such beliefs about Jesus are often well intended. They think of themselves as having a “high Christology,” one that lifts Jesus up. And yes, we’re to lift Jesus up and worship him, but we understand that while Jesus is divine, he also became a man. Jesus became human, in order to both reach out to us, to share in our sorrows, as well as to atone for our sin.

So John tells his readers that they must not believe everything they hear. It’s good advice; my mother gave me the same advice when I was in kindergarten. I like the way Eugene Peterson, in The Message translates the first verse of this chapter: “Don’t believe everything you hear. Carefully weigh and examine what people tell you.  Not everyone who talks about God comes from God. There are a lot of lying preachers out there.”  Now, Eugene could have left out that last verse, but since he too is a preacher, we’ll let it slide. Besides, he and John are not just referring to clergy, but to anyone who talks or teaches or writes about God. We have to be careful how we discern what is right and noble and what is wrong and bad, lest we be misled. We live in world where we’re being bombarded with information at such a rapid level that we have a hard time discerning what is good and bad, right and wrong.

There’s a lot of questionable views out there that can problematic. The “Wealth or Prosperity Gospel”[2] which teaches that if you’re really good, have faith and, most importantly, tithe, God will materially bless you. (How’s that worked out over the centuries?)  Teachers who put the emphasis on our actions and not on God’s grace are another example of those whom we should question what they say. And then there are those who ignore or contradict God’s word as if the 10 Commandments are the 10 Suggestions.

With the internet, we live in a world where it’s easy for people to get their message out, regardless of its validity. We hear a lot about fake news and while sometimes that charge is used as a red herring to discredit another’s position, we have to acknowledge there is a lot of bull out there that we come across. And, at least politically, it comes from all sides. We must understand that not every idea is good. Not everyone’s intentions are noble. There are those who will mislead us. Sometimes they may be misinformed, but often they are trying to get us to vote in a particular way, or get us to support a particular position, product or organization, or perhaps to drive up or down the price of a stock.

Buyer beware! This is a lesson the human race should have learned back in the garden when Eve had that little chat with the serpent. But the lesson hadn’t taken hold by John’s day, nor has it taken hold in ours.

There are two main points that John brings out here. First of all, to put this in the style of an English teacher instructing students on writing essays, “we must understand that misinformation abounds and we check our sources.” John’s concern is primarily in what people are saying about Jesus, so he tells his readers not to trust those who do not confess that Jesus has come in the flesh and is from God. Secondly, John reminds his readers that God has already won the victory for us and that God’s Spirit is stronger than any of the lesser spirits in the world—those from the antichrist—who are spreading misinformation about Christ.

John is mainly interested in Christology, what people believe about Jesus Christ. Do they believe that Jesus is both human and divine? In John’s day, it seems that some were erring on the side of divinity? Today, it seems as if the pendulum has swung and many folks instead of placing too much emphasis on Jesus’ humanity, deny his divinity. Both are wrong. Now, John is right in that we need to love others, including them, we just don’t need to follow them.

John’s advice here, not to believe everything we hear, is as useful today, if not more so than it was 2000 years ago. For not everything we hear is noble. Not everything is true. Not everything is good. We have to test the spirits, we have to test what we hear and discern if it is true and also good. Unfortunately, John doesn’t give us a lot of advice here on discernment.[3] His focus more narrow. He gives us a test as to whether or not a teaching about Jesus Christ is true. If such a teaching is true, it’ll assert that Jesus is God incarnate, which is a tension that we hold together, this notion that yes, Jesus is divine, but also yes, Jesus is human.

There are other places in Scripture where we can go to learn more about discernment. Jesus tells us to that we’ll know people by their fruits,[4] a teaching that presupposes the goal of evil to be death. If what one says and does brings life in the eternal sense, it’s true. If what one says and does brings destruction and death, it’s not true. In Galatians, Paul talks about the work of the flesh as opposed to the work of the Spirit in one’s life. God’s Spirit brings about love and joy, peace and patience and kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.[5] Is the teaching true; is it life-affirming; does it result in better people? We need to ask such questions about that which we hear as well as our own beliefs. Remember that folk song that lifts up a simple truth, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

Friends, we live in a tough world.  It’s a world that wants to deny the Creator, the source of life. Hold fast to the truth that God so loves the world that in the life of Jesus Christ, he came to us as a man! That’s the truth; that’s the gospel; that’s what we’re to be about and what we proclaim at this table. Amen.

 

©2018

[1] The NRSV begins this passage, “Don’t believe every spirit.  The King James and New International versions tend to follow the same path while paraphrases like The Living Bible and The Message emphasis what we  hear from others.

[2] See https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/5-errors-of-the-prosperity-gospel/.

[3] Two books dealing with discernment:  Thomas H. Green, S.J., Weeds Among the Wheat: Discernment: Where Prayer & Action Meet (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1984) and Danny E. Morris & Charles M. Olsen, Discerning God’s Will Together: A Spiritual Practice for the Church (Bethesada, MD: Alban Institute, 1997.

[4] See Matthew 7:15-20 and John 15:1-6.

[5] Galatians 5:16-26.  Quote from verses 22-23.

Abiding in Christ: The Church

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

April 29, 2018

John 15:1-17

 

 

Have you ever asked yourself why we profess in the Apostles’ Creed to believe in the holy catholic church? “Didn’t we break away from the Catholics back in the Reformation?” Yes, in an institutional sense, we did. We are not part of the Roman Catholic (with a big C) Church. Furthermore, Presbyterians don’t believe that our particular institution has a corner on the religious market—we’re not the only “true church.” The “true church,” as John Calvin taught, is found “wherever the gospel is rightly preached and the sacraments administered.”[1] The word catholic (in the little “c”) does not refer to an institutional church, but to the church that is throughout the world, the church that is anywhere people come together in Jesus’ name.

        Interestingly, while some people don’t like using the word catholic, thinking it makes us too much like the Romans, no one questions the use of the word “holy.” For me, that’s the troubling word. I’m sure all of us could give an example of the church acting in an unholy way. The church is made up of fallen, sinful folk. It’s far from being holy by most anyone’s standards. The word “holy” should need more explanation than “catholic.” Yes, we are holy, but not by what we do. We’re holy through our relationship to Jesus. It’s only through him that we can claim holiness!  And we are!

Let’s now look at John 15. Here Jesus, on that night of his betrayal, discusses about the role of the church. Read John 15:1-17.

 

          I’m sure many of you have read Shel Silverstein’s book, The Giving Tree. Considered a children’s story, it’s a parable for all ages. The story is about a tree’s relationship to a young boy who grows up. As a child, the boy plays under the tree and on her branches. As he grows up and needs money, the tree provides fruit that he can sell. As he grows older, she gives her branches for his house. And as he gets even older, she gives her trunk so that he builds a boat and sail far away. When he finally returns, he needs a place to sit, and the tree allows the boy, who is now an old man, to sit on her stump.[2] The story shows the graciousness of the tree and touts the benefits of sacrifice, for the tree is only happy when she is able to meet the needs of the boy. But there is a deeper meaning in the story, for the tree finds herself reduced to only a stump, having given all she could to satisfy a boy whose appetite could never be satisfied.

Jesus Christ is like that tree. He gave his all to us; as we’re reminded in this passage, Jesus as our friend was willing to lay down his life for us. But Jesus doesn’t tell us to be a tree.  Instead, he describes the Christian life as being lived out on the vine. This is an interesting comparison, the differences between a tree and a vine. A tree, as in Silverstein’s story, stands alone.  But as Christians, we’re not called to stand alone; we’re connected to one another which is why the vine is a more appropriate metaphor. Each branch of the vine must depend upon the vine itself for its life as it shoots out across the ground.  We’re all connected to each other.

        Jesus was probably thinking of grapes when he spoke about us being branches of a vine, but I wonder if Kudzu should be our metaphor. You know, the railroads brought kudzu over from Asia, a century or so ago, to help them maintain the banks alongside the tracks. It grows so fast you plant it by throwing the seeds as far as you can then running for your life. That’s the way the gospel should spread! Of course, unless you’re a goat, kudzu has no real useful fruit, so maybe we’re not to be like kudzu, gobbling up acres of land in a season. Instead, we’re to be like a grape vine that is tenderly cared for by the gardener as it matures.

         Consider the grape. Its vine is gnarly and twisted, yet it is through the vine that the branches and leaves and fruit receive nourishment. One thing about the trunk of a vine is that it’s almost indestructible. You can cut it back, cut it down, but as long as there are some roots, it grows back even stronger (kind of like our Wax Myrtle). This should remind you and me of the eternal nature of God’s promises. The church has faced many difficulties in its history. There have been times the church has been pruned way back, and that may be what’s happening to the Western Church today. But the church always grows back stronger.

         This morning I want to highlights three characteristics of our Christian life and faith that are apparent as we consider our life on the vine: openness, fellowship, and equality. Jesus tells us that we are not servants but friends because he has made known to us the Father. Our Christian faith is not to be shrouded in secrecy. Sure, we don’t know everything about God, but Jesus made known enough of God’s ways that we can find our way home, back to him. The knowledge of God which Jesus has shared with us is found in Scripture and is open for all people… As Jesus is open to us, we are to be open with God and one another about our struggles and pain. Only then do we make room for God’s help in our lives.

The second characteristic of the Christian life given in this passage is one of fellowship. The vine image shows our interconnectedness with each other through Jesus Christ. We are told to abide in his love and twice Jesus tells us in this passage to love one another. The church is about love! We are to love and respect and be in fellowship with each other. Yet, our love doesn’t stop with others who are on the vine; for our Savior tells us we must love and pray for our enemies[3] in the hope that they too will want to be grafted onto the vine. Love is essential for us to be a Christian. As individuals, we must constantly check our hearts to root out bitterness in order to be more loving.

The third characteristic of the Christian life is equality, which comes from the fact that we did not choose each other to make up a church, rather God chose us and put us together.  God grafted us onto the vine for a reason. God chose us to bear fruit. In other words, God choses us to carry out the mission of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, our equality is grounded in the fact that Jesus doesn’t call us servants but friends. Since there is an equality in our relationship to Christ there should be an equality with our relationship with sisters and brothers of the faith. We must not look down on another, for our value isn’t in who we are, but in to whom we belong.

       One of my favorite professors when I was in seminary was Dr. Douglas Hare.  Doug died a few years ago, but before retirement to the woods of Maine, he was considered a leading scholar on the gospel of Matthew as well as the persecution of the church during the first two centuries of the Common Era. He wrote numerous books and articles on these topics. But there was something strange about him. Unlike most of his colleagues, he refused to allow students call him Dr. Hare or Professor Hare. He insisted on being called Doug and this was one of the passages he used to support his claim that we are all equal in the faith. “We may be at different places in our journey,” Doug said, “but in Christ we are all equal.”  Unfortunately, Doug’s equality seemed to end on exam day…

Our equality in Christ is why I prefer to be called Jeff and often wonder who people are talking to when I hear Reverend Garrison or Doctor Garrison.

We may have different functions in the church, but we are all equal in the eyes of God and should be equal to one another.  As I’ve pointed out many times, one of the great contributions of the Protestant Reformation is the “priesthood of all believers.” Everyone—man, woman and child—has access to God through Jesus Christ. For this reason the Protestant Church has no priestly office. Your prayers are just as good and effective as mine.

The “priesthood of all believers” impacts not only religious life, but also our political structures. The concept made democracy feasible. One historian described the beginning of the Protestant Reformation “as a protest against arbitrary, self-aggrandizing, hierarchical authority.”[4] The Reformers, especially the Swiss and Scots, wanted more local control.

The church is filled with folks like you and me who make up the “priesthood of believers.” The belief in the equality of all human beings in the eyes of God has the power to drive changes in both church and society. Jesus emptied himself making himself equal to us and calls us to accept others who believe in him as brothers and sisters. If we go back to that image of the vine, maybe we can now see how we are all connected together.  And because of Jesus’ command to love one another, then we as the Christian family have responsibilities to each other.

        I can’t faithfully discuss this passage without making some reference to judgment. Pruning plays an important role here, for those branches that are unproductive are cut away so that other more productive branches can grow and bear even more fruit.  Judgment, we see, isn’t all bad from the perspective of new growth. It may hurt, but we have to be judged and to discard those things that keep us from Christ. Of course, judgment isn’t the main message here, the main message has to do with us living life on the vine, being nourished by Jesus Christ.

         What does life on the vine look like? It’s a life filled with graciousness toward others. It’s a life of forgiveness. We acknowledge our own imperfections which are in need of purring, and because we know we’re not perfect, we don’t we expect others to be that way. Instead, we have a mellow heart, being willing to forgive. Secondly, we encourage one another to strive to do their best.  We’re like members of an Olympic team who rejoice at a teammates achievements. Just as we’re cheered on by others who have gone before us, we’re to cheer on others running beside us. Finally, our lives are lived as we focus ourselves on the goal, on Christ.

I believe in the holy catholic church… The church is holy not because of us, but because of Christ. Friends, that’s good news! The church is catholic because it is universal, found throughout the world. And that, too, is good news and should give us hope. You are the church. We are the church and it’s only when we are together that we can abide with Christ on the vine. Amen.

 

©2018

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV.1.9.

[2] Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree (New York: Harper and Row, 1964).  For an interesting study of this story, see Susan Nelson Dunfee: Beyond Servanthood: Christian and the Liberation of Women (Latham: University Press of America 1989), 85-87.

[3] Matthew 5:44.

[4] Steven Ozment, Protestants: The Birth of a Revolution (New York, Doubleday, 1991), 19.

 

Safe at Home

Marc A. Jolley, Safe at Home: A Memoir of God, Baseball, and Family (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2005), 139 pages, a few photos.

 

This is a delightful book in which Jolley recalls childhood memories with his father on up to the time he became a father himself. Jolley links these life transitions together with his love of baseball and his growing faith. Like baseball with more strikeouts than home runs, Jolley’s story contains sadness along with joy. There’s the time he failed to make his high school team. Then there are the casualties experienced by those, like Jolley, on the sideline during a political battles between fundamentalists and more moderate members of his denomination (Southern Baptist). These were tough times to be in seminary as Jolley completes his MDiv and PhD.  Jolley also deals with depression. Through it all, Jolley is supported by parents and wife. In the end, Jolley discovers that family is the medicine needed to help keep his depression under control.

 

As a white Southerner, I have never understood fellow Southerners who root for the Yankees. As a child, it was always St. Louis and then Atlanta, when the Braves moved there. The Yankees were despised.  I recently learned this was also true of many African-Americans in the South (at least in the 50s).  I would have thought they would have seen the Yankees as liberators (a good thing), but the New York Yankees was one of the last teams to integrate.  Instead, African-Americans were drawn to the Dodgers, who brought up Jackie Robinson to break the color barrier in baseball.[1] That said, Jolley and his father were Yankee fans.  He describes entering Yankee Stadium with his son to watch their first game with the details of an architect entering a cathedral. Reading about this trip, I was excited for him.  I was almost as excited as I was three years ago when I saw my first game at Yankee Stadium.  Like his son, a Diamondback fan who rooted against the Yankees, I attended a Yankee-Detroit cheering on the Tiger’s.  Baseball has a way of bringing people together and providing a good time even though in my game it rained and the Tiger’s lost by 12 runs.

 

Jolley’s father’s love for the Yankees’ was tested when they pick up Reggie Jackson as a free agent. His father couldn’t stand Jackson saying he had no respect for one who bragged about himself and talked bad about others. But Jackson, Mr. October, backed up his loud mouth with homeruns. Sadly, Jolley was never able to attend a game at Yankee Stadium with his father.  When he was able to take his own son, his father was in a nursing home. But his smiled and enjoyed the stories when he heard about the trip Jolley took with his son.

 

I also appreciated how Jolley wove in many of my favorite authors into his narrative. Will Campbell’s Glad River makes an appearance as he reflects on his father’s faith (even though he was never baptized). He quotes William Styron and credits him with getting through depression.  Dante’s Divine Comedy makes an appearance as does W. P. Kinsella.’s classic, Shoeless Joe” upon which the movie “Field of Dreams was based.”

 

This is an enjoyable read and I highly recommend it. As Jolley points out in the quote below, there things baseball does better than the church in the disciple-making business:

 

I never learned to respect enemies at church. I learned a lot about hate and divisiveness at church. I learned nothing about a common goal, or a purpose. Not until much later did I ever figure church out.  Playing baseball that year, I got a head start on what church was supposed to be.  (Page 60)

 

[1] On race and team loyalty in at least one corner of the south, see Melton A. McLaurin, Separate Pasts: Growing Up White in the Segregated South (1987, Athens: UGA Press, 1998), 142-145,

My First Canoe

Paddling Town Creek with my brother (late 70s)

Buck and Nancy were the youth group advisors at church during my Senior High years. They were both teachers.  Buck, who’d done a stint with the Marine Corps as an officer in Vietnam, taught high school biology and Nancy taught in an elementary school. They were young and full of energy.  We had a small youth program, a dozen or so students, but it was a tight knit group. We spent a weekend painting the youth room.  The walls were blocked and we painted each block by hand: green, blue or yellow, in diagonal strips that ran up the walls.  Then we went back and outline each block, painting the mortar black.  When we were done, it was very psychedelic and very 70s!  We met in that room every Sunday evening and once a year we’d take a weekend trip to Camp Kirkwood, which was always highlighted by a day-long canoe trip on the Black River.

The water was high and fast that early spring day in 1973. Or maybe it was late winter as the trees were still bare. Whenever we reached a bend in the river, water continue to flow straight, cutting through the swampy side of the river, making it difficult to navigate our canoes as the water pushed you out of the main channel.  We struggled and paddled hard, especially at the bends and in the shoots through blow downs, where the force of water threatened to push us into trees that had fallen into the river.  Buck and Nancy paddled up and down the line of canoes, offering suggestions and encouragement, trying to keep everyone together and dry.  Most of the canoes had two paddlers, but there was one boat with three people.  Billy, who always marched to his own drum and never worried about what others said about him, sat in the middle as Marge and Rosa paddled from the bow and stern.  At one point, Buck was yelling for everyone to stop and Billy, thinking he would be helpful, reached up and grabbed a branch of a tree to hold the boat. His choice of branches wasn’t the best as it was rotted and a fell across the canoe. Luckily, they didn’t capsize. Seeing this large branch straddle the canoe, like out-riggers, gave us all a laugh. At lunch, on a high bluff overlooking a bend in the river, clouds began to come in and the temperature cooled.  Buck hurried us on, saying we might be getting some rain.  But it never did rain that day and by mid-afternoon, we were pulling our canoes out and loading them on the trailer for the trip back to Camp Kirkwood.

This was my first river canoe trip.  I’d paddled a canoe on a lake at scout camp, but there was something about the river where every bend held new possibilities of seeing wildlife.  The Black River gets its name from the dark water that’s stained by the tannin acid from the cypress and juniper that grow in the swamps around the river.  Although I didn’t know it at the time, we’d canoed through swamps that contained some of the oldest trees in the Eastern United States. One tree there is over 1700 years old.  But that didn’t matter, I was hooked. Not long after this trip, I began working at Wilson’s Supermarket and immediately started looking at canoes and saving some money.   My dad suggested that before buying a new canoe I put an ad in the classified section of the Star News. It was a simple advertisement, “Wanted: A Canoe” and included our phone number.  A few days later, while I was at school, a man from Southport called and left me a message.  I called him back and in a day or two, my father drove me over to look at his Grumman Canoe.  The man was moving and needed to sell it and offered it to me for $60.  At this time, a new would have cost me nearly $400.  I brought it and we tied it to the top of my father’s car and drove home, stopping along the way to buy paddles and life jackets.  Over the next ten years, I got more than my money’s worth out of the canoe.  That $60 investment was the best I’ve ever made as it provided me over a decade of explorations all over North Carolina, and into Tennessee and Virginia. But mostly I used it to paddle the black water swamps of Eastern North Carolina.

I was heartbroken in 1985, when I came home from the National Jamboree of the Boy Scouts of America to discover that during my absence, someone had stolen my canoe.  However, the “replacement cost rider” on my insurance (partly due to a decade of high inflation) paid me significantly more than what I’d originally paid for the canoe and I upgraded to a Mad River ABS boat (which I still have).

Overnight fishing trip on the Black River, 1975 Photo by Donald McKenzie

 

Kirkin 2018


Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Psalm 85

April 15, 2018

 

On this Sunday in which we celebrate our Scottish heritage, let me speak a bit about the Reformation in Scotland. Unlike the Swiss, German and English Reformations that were almost exclusively led by clergy, the leadership of the Scottish Reformation was mostly led by lay leaders within the church. Some of this filters down into the way the Presbyterians are governed to this day, with our emphasis on a church ran by elected elders.

        While lay leaders carried out the Reformation, there were those like John Knox, who served as a mouthpiece for the reforms. He was a chaplain at St. Andrews and later a preacher in some of the more influential pulpits of Scotland. Knox may not have been a theologian in the ranks of Luther, Zwingli and Calvin for he only wrote a few minor tracts. Bur he was known his preaching. He was a firebrand who didn’t mind pointing the finger at those in need of correction.

Now, my beard is rather modest compared to the one Knox’s wore.  Don’t worry, I don’t want one like his, for I’d be afraid I’d get it caught in an escalator or fan belt. That said, today I believe I can hold my own with Knox when it comes to pointing the finger.  You’ve been warned.  Watch out, especially those to my left. (In case you haven’t heard, I cut my left pointing finger on Friday and have 5 stitches in it, along with a huge bandage)

Our passage this morning is Psalm 85, a plea for the restoration of God’s favor.  Read Psalm 85.

        Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel, Kidnapped, is set a few years after the Scottish Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. In the story, the protagonist, David Balfour, has been “kidnapped.”  This was arranged by his uncle who didn’t want him to cut into his inheritance.  Balfour is locked up on the Covenant, a brig in Edinburgh harbor, bound for the American colonies. There, he’ll be sold as an indentured servant.

Aboard ship, Balfour befriends another passenger, Alan Breck Stewart, who was loyal to the Jacobite cause. Stewart is wanted by the English authorities who now control Scotland. Stewart is able to obtain Balfour released from his bondage. The ship upon which they travel is to make one more stop in Scotland before beginning the crossing of the Atlantic. Having sailed around the north of the country, they make their way through the Inner Hebrides, sailing around Iona and then head inland on the south side of the Isle of Mull. There, the ship strikes a reef and breaks up. Balfour and Stewart team up as they make their way across Mull and then across Scotland. It’s a dangerous time, with English Redcoats on the lookout.

As Balfour leaves the Isle of Mull on a ferry for the mainland, they spot a ship at anchor. At first Balfour fears it’s an English ship on the lookout for the French, who had supported the Scots in the revolt. But as they come closer, they hear the sound of moaning and melancholy songs as people are ferried to the ship. The ship is bound for the colonies, full of emigrants. “Those on board and those on shore were crying and lamenting one to another so as to pierce the heart,” writes Stevenson. They were leaving behind family and friends and their beloved homeland.[1]

        Scotland’s history is filled of such accounts of people leaving and heading to other lands to seek their fortune. Scotland, in the early 18th Century, was one of the poorer areas of Europe and especially after the failure of the Jacobite rebellion, people fled. Then came the clearances, which in some ways can be compared to the Cherokee removal in our own country. Those who had lived for generations upon the land were forced off, many of whom headed to the Americas. Today, across the Highlands, you can see the ruins of cottages which once housed those driven off the land. Scotland is such a lovely country. It had to hurt to leave that beautiful land, not to mention their friends and family.

         You might be wondering what this has to do with Psalm 85.  There’s a parallel.  Although the dating of this Psalm isn’t completely clear, the situation described fits the situation during or right after Israel’s exile in Babylon.[2] Here you had a nation proud its land of milk and honey, which had been given to them by their God. We see this pride in the first verse where they speak of God showing favor to the land. God restored the fortunes of Jacob who, if you remember had to flee to Egypt due to a famine. There, his descendants eventually became slaves. The Psalm looks back to a time when the people experienced God’s mercy. Likewise, those leaving Scotland could have called back happier days, before the loss at Culloden or before the clearances, when they were free to live on the land.

The Psalmist, who begins praising God, changes his tone in verse four. We quickly realize, as we read further, that things are not all pleasant for the Psalmist and his people. Something has happened. The situation is interpreted as the fallout from an angry God. The Psalmist and his people are in trouble. While he sees it as coming from a broken relationship with God, he knows only God can change things. God is the source of his salvation. In verse 6, he cries out for God to revive them if just for the purpose that they might rejoice and praise God. He knows that God is love and begs to experience, once again, that steadfast love.

          There are things we might take to heart and learn in these opening two sections of the Psalm. The Psalmist knows he can call upon God because God has been faithful in the past.  Having tasted God’s goodness reminds him that there is hope. The same is true for us. If we find ourselves struggling, remember back to a time when God was merciful and, in prayer, bring up how you felt then and ask God to intervene in the situation. Pray that the Almighty might once again let you enjoy the sweet taste of his mercy.

        We know life is not always sunny. There are gray days, when we have to move on. There are stormy days in which we trudge. The people of Jerusalem had to move as they were sent into exile. And for those of us of Scottish ancestry, our forefathers and mothers had to leave behind the heather-covered crags and brave ocean storms as they sought a new life. When we find ourselves in turbulent waters it is good to remember what God did for us in the past.  Recalling such grace reminds us that God will remain with us into the future.

         If you look at this Psalm, you’ll see the divisions to which I refer. Verses 1-3 recall what God has done in the past. Verses 4-7 reminds us of the presence troubles for which we need God’s help. In verse 8, the Psalm takes another turn.

For a moment put yourself back in time, back before the coming of Christ. The Book of Psalms was the worship book of the Hebrew people. Imagine in worship, one group of the gathered (let’s say those to my right) reciting what God has done for them in the past. Then, those on the other side (to my left) cry out in response for deliverance from their current troubles. The liturgical breaks are easy to see in this Psalm. Now, the Psalm could have ended at verse 8, but we’d been left wondering what will happen. So it continues. An individual steps out from the gathered congregation in verse 8 and shouts: “Let me hear what God has to say.” In the next two verses, he expresses confidence that God will speak, that God will act.

This individual then, beginning with verse 10, provides a beautiful eschatological description of the world to come.[3] It’s a time when love and faith meet, when righteous and peace kiss, where faithfulness springs up from the ground like a fountain while righteousness looks down like the sun.

      We need visions of hope like this today, with our complex problems. We long for peace in places like Syria, but we also realize that there is a justice issue. Peace can’t be brought by a tyrant gassing and killing his opposition with little regard to the death of children and innocent. That’s peace through elimination and it never works! Slalom, this Old Testament word translated as peace, is more than the absence of conflict. It’s a marriage of peace and justice, it requires harmony and righteousness. And we have such a vision in the closing verses of this Psalm.

The hope of salvation in this Psalm and within our faith is not in our abilities to wage war or to achieve great things. Our salvation can only come from God who chose us. If we depend on our own deeds of righteousness, we will be sadly disappointed. But if we place our hope in God, as revealed in Jesus Christ, we shall prevail and be given the strength to endure any hardship.

The Israelites endured hardships yet provided the setting for the birth of the Messiah. Our Scottish ancestors endured hardship yet many thrived in the New World.[4] We, too, will endure hardship, but God is faithful.  One day all of us, all the elect, will enjoy the promise offered in this Psalm. Until then, we continue to trust.  Amen.

 

©2018

[1] Robert Louis Stevenson, Kidnapped (1886: Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2014), 97-98.

[2] While acknowledging the appeal of the Psalm as post-exile, Weiser makes the case that it could have been pre-exile.  I suggest it could have also been during the exile. See Artur Weiser, The Psalms: Old Testament Library (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), 571-572 and http://seachurchesmedia.org/seachurches/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Day-126-PSALMS-OF-THE-EXILE-Psalm-44-Psalm-74-Psalm-79-Psalm-80-Psalm-85-Psalm-89-Psalm-102-Psalm-106-Psalm-123-Psalm-137-September-19.pdf

 

[3] James L. Mays, Psalms: Interpretation, A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1994), 277.

[4] See Arthur Herman, How the Scots Invented the Modern World, (New York: Random House, 2001).

John’s Love Letter

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

April 8, 2018

1 John 1:1-2:2

 

Today we’ll explore the opening of the 1st Letter of John. The letters of John have numerous similarities with the Gospel of John. Both begin talking about Jesus Christ as the eternal Word. As the Word, Jesus reveals God to us. Both use similar metaphors, such as connecting Jesus with light. He’s the light coming into the world, showing us the truth. This light shows us the right path but also exposes our flaws.

John did not write this letter just to give his reader a theological lesson. There’s something going on in the background that we don’t fully understand looking back from our perspective. You get a sense from reading this letter that people are leaving the fellowship. They are upset with what’s being taught and the way things are being done. As you’ll see in this letter, John thinks they’re wrong.

Some scholars believe those falling away from the fellowship may have been involved in an early church heretical movement known as Docetism, which comes from a Greek word meaning “to seem.”[1] Docetists believed Jesus Christ did not come in a real body, but only in a spirit form. Before the crucifixion, his spirit left his body. The doctrine refers to a belief that the humanity of Jesus was not real. Docetists saw Jesus as divine only; he only appeared human. According to them, Jesus was a divine being dressed up in human clothes, kind of like the Greek gods would sometimes do.[2] And if you remember those stories, when that happened, chaos erupted.

As people of faith, we believe that Jesus lived just like us. God became a human being in the life of Jesus, as a way to bridge the gap that exists between us and our Father in Heaven. Jesus came to show us how to live and how to get back on the wagon of eternal life.  Let’s listen to this passage.  1st John 1:1-2:2

You know, being a teenager is tough.  And one of the toughest parts about being a teenager is being in love. Perhaps it’s because life seemed fairly innocent then. Your feelings and the intensity of your relationships seem so strong at the time. There this strong desire to connect, but you don’t know what to do with all these feelings. And such love, as we know since most of us have been through it, seldom lasts. Sure, there are a few people who fall in love when they are in their early teen years, and live happily ever after. But for most of us, these early relationships fail after a matter of weeks or months.

          My first real love was Cathy, a dark haired Italian girl, who sat in front of me in my sixth grade class at Bradley Creek Elementary School. She had gone to Catholic school through fifth grade. In the sixth, she made the jump over to public school. Her desk was in front of mine. I spent days gazing into her long straight hair that sometimes laid over the top of my desk. As we wrapped up the sixth grade and entered Roland Grice Jr. High, home of the Black Knights, the two of us were an “item.” We were inseparable for the next year, except of course for when her brothers were around. They were a couple years older and loved tormenting me.

One day, trying to act big and bad, I did something incredibly stupid. Cathy took offense and broke up with me. I was so devastated I drew upon all the literary skill I possessed as a 13 year old and wrote a letter to her to woo her back. I admitted mistakes and promised her the moon. We talked, but we never got back together. Soon, we went our separate ways. Summer break was just a few weeks away. The next year, due to the district’s realignment, she was in another school and we lost track of each other.

I’m sure some of you have had similar experiences in your own relationships, especially as a teenager. You may have even written letters from a broken heart.

John’s letter may have been written from a broken heart.[3] There seems to be grief in the opening paragraph. In the fifth verse John says, “We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.” This expresses his sentiments. He’s concerned because there are those within the community of faith who have fallen away. They’re not holding close to the teachings of the Apostles. It breaks John’s heart. One of the strongest desires for us as human beings is a desire to be with others. When those we love and care about—whether a boyfriend, girlfriend, good friend, or someone we sit in the pews with—are no longer there, there’s a gaping hole in our hearts. How could John and his congregation feel joy without those they loved?

          John writes out of concern. His letter is filled with examples of this love.  He encourages the believers to have such love for one another. Jesus Christ showed us how to love and we’re to emulate it. When we are bound together in that love, we have joy. We don’t always have happiness, we may not always have all that we want or desire. But we can have joy when we know we are living as God would have us live.

“Restore to me the joy of thy salvation,” David prays in the 51st Psalm.[4] This is what John hopes will happen. Salvation is not just having a room reserved in heaven; salvation is about the restoration of relationships. John wants those who have fallen away to come back, and he wants those who are still part of the fellowship to stick together.

          From the text we read this morning, the first four verses deal with John reminding his readers that they are witnesses to what God has done for them in Jesus Christ. Then, in verse 5, he shifts a little bit, and talks about the message of Christ, comparing it as in the Gospel of John to the coming of light. When we’re drawn into that light, our sins are exposed and we are therefore able to be cleansed and live in the light. But he warns, that if we long for the shadows, we deceive ourselves and others.

       Three times in this passage, John begins, “If we say”, and goes on to expand upon a particular heresy or sin, which he refutes while continually offering the possibility of redemption. First, if we say we have fellowship, and we continue to walk in the darkness, we’re not doing what is true. But, if we walk in the light, we can be cleansed by the blood of Christ. Second, he says if we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and we have no truth within us, but if we confess our sins, he who is faithful (Jesus Christ) will forgive and cleanse us. Thirdly, when we say we have not sinned, we’re making Christ into a liar, and his words are not in to us, but if anyone sins, we have an advocate.

John does not desire for people to sin, but he realizes sin is a reality in our world, and he wants to assure us of the redemption available through Jesus Christ. The possibility available from Jesus Christ through the confession of our sins and acceptance of his grace and love is that we’ll be forgiven. Christ has atoned for our sinfulness. Not only for our personal sins but for the sins of the world.

Expanding this thought about the reality of sin, John highlights the problem of hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is where our actions don’t jibe with our words. And sadly, at one time or another, all of us here, myself included, have been guilty. But it is a serious problem because it makes us, the church, look bad.

Thankfully, there’s Jesus who came to show us the way.  John lifts up the purpose of Jesus Christ, who came as a human being, who was sinless, and who offered up his body on the cross to atone for all of our sins. Three things: the reality of sin, the danger of hypocrisy, both of which drag us down, and the redemption of Jesus Christ that lifts us up and offers us hope to get out of the hole we’ve dug for ourselves.

John reminds us that being good enough is not the goal. We can never be good enough. Instead of worrying ourselves to death about being good, John reminds us that Jesus has made us a good offer. Confess, step out into the light, and accept his grace, his forgiveness. If we do this, we don’t have to worry if we’re good enough. We can rejoice that in Jesus Christ, we’re righteous and are free to do God’s work in a way that will make the world a better place.

          With the idea of us being freed to do God’s work, let me talk for a moment about Faith in Practice. I like the name of this group our congregation partners with for mission work: “Faith in Practice.” We don’t do mission work so that we can be good enough or to earn more brownie points to help us overcome all the demerits we have in God’s eyes. Instead, having been freed in Jesus Christ, we can support and participate such work out of gratitude for what God has done for us. Our mission efforts is a way we practice living out our faith.

When I was with Faith in Practice in February, I was with a team going out into the countryside. While the team did all kinds of medical check-ups including some procedures, much of the work they were doing was seeing patients who might need surgery, often provided by the surgery teams in Antigua.

On the second day in the village of Monjas, a small town in Southeastern Guatemala, a young woman of 17 came into the clinic. She looked as if she was going to give birth at any moment, but insisted she was not pregnant. Just looking at her, Dr. Aileen wasn’t so sure. She had her tested. To the physician’s surprise, she wasn’t pregnant. Then, because we had ultrasound equipment with us, the doctor was able to identify a huge fibroid growth in her uterus. This was a critical situation, for it was so large that if it ruptured, she would likely die before she could get treatment. As the doctor explained, in America it would have never got that far, that critical, without someone taking care of her. The staff of Faith in Practice made arrangements for her to be immediately taken to where she could have life-giving surgery. That’s the kind of things that can happen when people live out their faith. We’re not all gynecologists, but we all have gifts that we can use to make the world a better place. Your contributions and prayers helped save that young woman’s life.

         John encourages us to act nobly. We’re to show our beliefs by what we do and how we act. Do we love one another, do we show the love of Jesus Christ? Of course, we’ll mess up now and then. But we don’t have to fret over it. God, through Jesus Christ, is a forgiving God. God desires us to live for Christ, and when we are united with Christ, we are cleansed to be a part of his community and to do his work in the world. Amen.

©2018

[1] As an example see Raymond E. Brown, The Epistles of John (New York: Doubleday, 1982, 57-58.

[2] Information on Docetism from Frances Young’s article “Docetism” in the Westminster Theological Dictionary, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983), 160.

[3] The idea that the letter is written from a broken heart comes from a sermon by Jana Childers on this passage, “That Our Joy May Be Complete.”

[4] Psalm 51:12.  This Psalm is attributed to David after his affair with Bathsheba.  In Psalm 51, the desire is for ones relationship to God be restored.

Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King’s Death

This week marks the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination in Memphis, Tennessee.  He was shot early in the evening of April 4th, 1968.  In honor of the memory, I attended a Learning Center lecture held at First Presbyterian Church.  The speaker was Dr. Robert Pratt.  An African-American, he’s been a professor of history at the University of Georgia for the past thirty years and is about my age.  He grew up in Virginia, raised by his grandparents in rural Essex County.

Dr. Pratt was ten years old when Dr. King died. He told the story about how, after dinner, his grandmother would go into her bedroom and watch TV while his grandfather retreated to the living room. Dr. Pratt normally sat on the edge of his grandmother’s bed and watched TV with her. On this night, the program they were watching was interrupted with the news that Dr. King had been shot.  His grandmother cried. He went into the living room and asked if his grandfather had heard.  He had and he was angry. The next day, he went to his segregated school. Instead of regular classes, everything was about Dr. King and what he’d been doing for his people.  On their way home, his bus passed the white school and he wondered what those kids had spent their day doing.

This hit home. For the first three years of my schooling, we were in Virginia and I attended an all-white school. We lived in Petersburg. To this day I am amazed that when we left in the summer of 1966, to move to the North Carolina coast, I had no idea the city was 80% African American. It was that segregated. Not that North Carolina was all that much better, but there were a few African American students in the elementary school I attended there.

I don’t remember hearing about Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination on the night of April 4, 1968, but I must have. It just didn’t seem to have any effect on my life. I do remember the next morning, as we rode Bus #6 along Masonboro and Greenville Sound Loop Roads to Bradley Creek Elementary School.  Some of my classmates joked about his death. It seemed insensitive, but my mind was on a Boy Scout camping trip.  As soon as I got home from school that day, my mother drove me up to the church to meet up with other scouts in Troop 206.  We were going to Holly Shelter Swamp for the weekend.  My clothes and sleeping bag were packed up in a duffel bag which was thrown in the back of the scout trailer. We left town, and as the evening light waned, set up camp on bluff overlooking the Northeast Cape Fear River.

Our scoutmaster was a detective in the Sheriff’s Department.  When we woke up the next morning, we learned he had been called back to duty that night.  Somehow, in the days before cell phones, word had gotten to him that Wilmington was aflame. Another father took his place and we ran around in the woods and enjoyed our weekend, not really worrying about what was happening at home.

We came back into town on Sunday afternoon and the streets were empty.  There was a county-wide curfew, even though the rioting was mostly in the inner-city areas. We were taken to our homes, where we stayed for the next week as schools shut down. That afternoon, there was a cookout at our house with neighbors.  The man next door was espousing his racial views on what they should do to calm the city.  He talked about an event unfamiliar to me and how, in 1898, the whites in the city rose up and put the blacks in their place and that the river ran red from blood. No one else spoke.  My father quickly changed topics.

I would later learn more about the Wilmington Massacre. Around the 100th anniversary, in 1998, there were a number of books published about it. The atrocity reminds us of how inhumane we can be to one another. Thinking back on this as an adult, I realized how this event, which had been whitewashed from the city’s history, was still fresh in the minds of the African-American community.  It had only been seventy years. As big of a deal as white Southerners were still making about the Civil War, this was much more recent. There must have been old men and women still alive in the black community who had experienced the terror of this event in their childhood.  While I can’t condone the violence that broke out after Dr. King’s death, I can understand the rage.

In the questions following Dr. Pratt’s lecture, he was asked if racial issues of our nation will ever go away. His answer was that there would be no complete reconciliation until we all see by the same lens.  Humbly following in faith the teachings of Jesus of how we love one another, and of Paul about how we are all the same in Jesus Christ, is a good starting part.

 

 

For books about the 1898 atrocity, click here.

“We Have Taken a City”: The Wilmington Racial Massacre and the Coup of 1898

Leon Prather, Sr., “We Have Taken a City”: The Wilmington Racial Massacre and the Coup of 1898 (1984, Southport, NC: Dram Tree Books, 2006), 214 pages, black and white photos.

“Politics, the old cliche goes, “makes strange bedfellows.” This can be seen in North Carolina politics of the late 1890s, when Republicans (mostly African-American and carpetbaggers in the party of Lincoln) joined with white yeomen farmers and workers to vote out the conservative politicians (who were Democrats) to elect “fusion” candidates. This threatened the status quo. Fearing threatened, the conservatives played the race card in order to split the fragile alliances and bring poor whites back into the fold of the Democratic Party and under the control of the conservative establishment. Within the rhetoric of the era, Wilmington, North Carolina’s largest city at the time, erupted in racial violence. When it was over, the African-American community was in shambles. At the same time, the conservatives who were working behind the scenes and used the events to bring about the only armed-coup in United States history, removing from office those who had been elected and replacing them with their own people.

In the late 19th Century, Wilmington, North Carolina had an African-American middle class. The community had their own newspaper, edited by Alex Manly, a mixed race man whose father had been the governor of the state right before the Civil War. Responding to a public speech by a Rebecca Felton, a Georgian who’d spoken out about the threat of rape that white women faced by black men and called for a campaign of lynching, Manly not only condemned such crimes by blacks, but extended it to white men abusing black women. He mentioned his own history, as he was mixed race descendant of a slave of a former governor. Excerpts of Manly’s editorial began to circulate and reappear in newspapers across the country. The fallout from it led to the events of November 10th. On this day, a group of white “redshirts” marched on Manly’s newspaper and burned the building down. Then, tension rose as a white man was shot, which provided an excuse for armed white men began to more into the black community where they faced minor resistance. A number of men were killed and most of the black leaders were rounded up and exiled from the city. Also exiled were a number of white leaders who’d participated in the fusion government that controlled the city’s politics.

When the events were over, those who had means within the African-American community left town and the white conservative establishment was firmly entrenched. Prather suggests the number of deaths, while significant, were probably been exaggerated. No official count was made, but there would not have been enough deaths to have turned the mighty Cape Fear River red with blood, as some have claimed. His work suggests that the conservatives used the lower class whites to do their bidding in the riot, providing them with the excuse to step in and remove the mayor, city council and police from power. The haunting part of this story is the number of names still present within the community. One of the ironic twist is that the grandson of John Bellamy, one of the conspirators, was the Superintendent of Schools who desegregation of the schools in the city in the 1960s. Hugh McRae, another, had his name on the park where I played ball as a child.

Prather sets the riot in historical context, comparing it with other race riots in American history. This riot came on the heels of “America’s Splendid Little War,” The Spanish American War. However, Prather doesn’t see that playing a role even though he points out parallels to other wars and race riots.

One area that I would have liked to have seen more study is in the role religion and faith played. Prather notes the doctrine of white supremacy was being proclaimed in the same pulpits that told Christ’s story (102). But outside of mentioning four local clergy (the pastors of the Presbyterian, Baptist and Black Baptist Churches and the Catholic priest), Prather doesn’t explore this thread further. However, two sources he draws upon were the Baptist and Presbyterian state newspapers, both of which supported the white revolt. The title, “We Have Taken a City” comes from the sermon by Peyton Hoge (Presbyterian) on the following Sunday, but nothing is said about the sermon and his source for the title came from a newspaper article. Interestingly, Manly was also a Presbyterian, attending Chestnut Street Presbyterian, an African-American congregation.

The events in Wilmington have been portrayed in a couple of novels. Charles Chestnut, a black author from early in the 20th Century, wrote The Marrow of Tradition based on the Wilmington story. A more modern retelling of the story is Philip Gerard’s Cape Fear Rising. I recommend Gerard’s story. He’d planned to write the book within the Creative Non-fiction genre, but because he wasn’t sure of some of the events, changed it into a historical novel. Another great source of information that came out around the 100th anniversary of the event is Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and Its Legacy. This book is a collection of essays edited by David Cecelski and Timothy Tyson.

April Fool: The Lion is a Lamb

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Revelation 5

April 1, 2018

 

 

         I can’t stand before you this morning without at least acknowledging the day. Yes, it’s Easter. But it’s also April Fool’s Day. This day doesn’t fall on Easter often. The last time was the year before I was born. The next time, I’ll be retired. Don’t worry. I don’t have any jokes or tricks to play on you, but it does seem to me that God played the perfect joke on the Jesus’ executioners. I’m reminded of a short collections of lectures by Frederick Buechner titled, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy & Fairy Tale. Some might take offense at the title, but it makes sense. As tragedy, the gospel begins with the crucifixion. As comedy, the reversal from death to life fits the classic understanding. And as fairy tale, we have the extraordinary things that happen to Jesus and his followers down to this day.[1] Happy April Fool’s and may we continue to be surprised by God.

When I was a pastor in Southern Utah, there were two families I knew I would not see in church on Easter. Both were involved in the sheep business and when you have 1500 pregnant ewes, all delivering during a three or four week period in early spring, they were busy. They lived during these weeks at the birthing sheds. They needed to be there in order to help the animals. It was quite an operation to see so much new life as these lambs tried out their legs and nursed at their mom’s bellies.

          Lambs and Easter seem to go together. You can find chocolate lambs. Some people roast lamb for Easter dinner. During this past season of Lent, we’ve been exploring throughout Scripture the theme of “the Lamb of God.” It’s interesting how, in scripture, God’s people are equated with lambs such as in the 23rd Psalm and in Jesus’ and Peter’s conversation at the end of John’s gospel. Jesus tells Peter to feed his lambs and sheep.[2] But it’s not only us who are seen metaphorically as lambs. As we’ve seen over the past six weeks, Jesus is also seen as taking on the role of a lamb, the sacrificial Passover lamb, providing life for God’s chosen people.

Today, this series on the Lamb of God will close with the vision that we have of the victorious lamb in the book of Revelation. The fourth and fifth chapters of Revelation are a vision into heavenly worship. The worship is focused on the throne and there are hymns sung in praise of the Almighty. This is an appropriate Easter theme for we see Jesus in his full glory. Having offered his life for the salvation of the world, he now rules as a lamb! Interestingly, the phrase “Lamb of God,” occurs 28 times in the Book of Revelation![3] Read Revelation 5:

 

       The scroll is the focus of the fifth chapter. Sealed with seven seals, it contains God’s plan for the future. John discovers in his vision, which fills the sky, that there’s no one worthy enough to open it. John cries. Without opening the scroll (without moving into God’s future) the powers of evil that have thrown themselves against the godly and have persecuted the church will prevail.

 

         John has this vision at a time the continued existence of the church is in question. Persecution threatens. John, himself, is exiled to a deserted rocky island because of his faith in Jesus Christ.[4] He’s lucky. He could have been killed. But there on those rocky shores with the sound of lapping waves, John has a vison that fills the sky. It’s a vision that reminds him and us that God will be victorious. It might not have looked that way when John was dumped out on this island. It didn’t look that way at daybreak on the first Easter when the women make their way to the tomb to prepare Jesus’ body for the grave. It may not look that way for some of us who are troubled. But God has a way of surprising us!

One of the elders standing near to God’s throne points out that there is, after all, one who can open the scroll. Time in Revelation is not neat and chronological as we like. At the point there was no one worthy probably refers to the time before Jesus’ death. Seeing the condition of humanity, God decides to rescue the world by entering the human sphere in the life of Jesus Christ. Now, moving back to after the resurrection, there is one person worthy.

        Now notice the difference between the fifth and sixth verses. Do you catch the humor? In the fifth verse, John is told to look at the lion, but in the sixth he sees a lamb. He expects to see a raging lion who has conquered evil by brute force. Instead, we see a lamb that has been sacrificed. April Fools! God didn’t choose to conquered evil by physical strength; rather, God chose to submit to evil through Jesus’ death on the cross. This sacrificial act shows the limitation of evil’s power. Jesus’ resurrection conquers death and demonstrates evil impotence. “Victory through sacrifice” is the central theme of the New Testament revelation.[5]

It’s important for us to remember that when John witnesses this vision, the church is in mortal danger. John’s vision isn’t to go and tell his fellow Christians that everything is alright. They knew good and well that things are grim and if something doesn’t happen they will all be exterminated. What John’s vision does for his readers is to assure them that God is in control. In the end God, through Jesus Christ, will reign triumphantly over evil and death and destruction. There may be suffering and persecution here on earth, but in heaven, they’re already celebrating victory won over evil when Jesus rose from the grave.

The lamb envisioned in Revelation 5 is a little weird.  Seven horns, seven eyes (and seven seals). This isn’t to be taken a literally as to how the resurrected Jesus looked. Seven in the Biblical world represents perfection and holiness, attributes assigned to Jesus.

        So Jesus Christ, the lamb that has been sacrificed, takes the scroll. You can one artist rendition of this on the cover of our bulletin, where the lamb sits on a book with seven seals (in this photo, he’s lost the seven horns and eyes and the scroll has updated to a book). God’s plan is moving forward. Having defeated death on the cross, he sets out to free the universe of all evil. This causes song upon songs to rise throughout heaven.  Christ, the Lamb of God, is praised. He inaugurates a new era.

Think about this for a minute… Christ has in his possession the scroll containing the future. But we are only in the fifth chapter of the book of Revelation. There are 17 more chapters. There are stories of galactic battles and martyrs to come; at this point Christ who has mortally defeated evil has not yet fully conquered it.

          Evil is still present in the world. We know that. We’ve seen it in Parkland and in dozens of other shootings. We’ve seen it in Syria. We see it in our community, though thankfully the number of shootings are not as high as they were a few years ago.        We also see evil in many places in the world where the church is still under threat. This past week a Christian man was beaten to death in Pakistan. Two weeks ago, Boko Haram, the horrible terrorist group in Nigeria returned all the girls kidnapped except the one who refused to deny her Christian faith.

        We don’t understand why God allows such evil to happen in the world. The question of why, if God is all-powerful, God allows such evil, has been around for thousands of years. The rabbis debated this question in Jesus’ day. The book of Job was written in an attempt to help us wrestle with this problem, but we’re left with what many consider an unsatisfactory answer. In Job’s search, he encounters God, and comes away only with a sense that God is greater.[6] It’s impossible to fully understand the Creator. But we are to sing, for we know the future. We know what is happening and will happen. So we join the multitude singing praises and trusting in the goodness of a God who raised Jesus from the dead.

Think about the building of the choir in Revelation 5. The singing begins with the four living creatures who guard the throne and the twenty-four harp strumming elders who represent the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles of the New Testament. Their music inspires a multitude of angels to sing. And the angels inspire all creation to join in the song of praise. Doxology! “Praise God from whom all blessings flow!”

        Now, was all of creation singing praises to God during John’s day?  Of course not. As I said earlier, time in this chapter is somewhat transitory—moving quickly from before Christ’s victory over death to the complete fulfillment of God’s plan for creation. A fulfillment for which we are long. But we know the ending. We know who’s in charge.

Friends, like those in this vision, be filled with the songs of Easter. May they give us hope. Death is not the last word. Evil will not have the last word. Jesus rose from the grave; there’s a new world coming. Rejoice! Amen.

 

©2018

[1] Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy & Fairy Tale (San Francisco: HarpersCollins, 1977), 7.

[2] John 21:15-19.

[3] Robert L. Reymond, The Lamb of God: The Bible’s Unfolding Revelation of Sacrifice (Mentor, 2006), 103.

[4] John 1:9.

[5] Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, revised, (Grand Rapids: MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 132.

[6] Job 38-41.

The Blood of Christ

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

1 Peter 1:13-25

March 25, 2018

 

We’ve done a survey of passages related to the Lamb of God within Scripture during this season of Lent. Starting in the Old Testaments, we saw how God called for and then provided sacrifices. Last week we moved into the New Testament, listening to John the Baptist pointing to Jesus as the sacrifice as he cried out “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” In the book of Hebrews, the author claims Jesus as the ultimate sacrifice. There is no longer a need for another sacrifice.[1] Our text for today, is from First Peter.  Peter reminds his readers that we’ve been ransomed from our prison of sin by the precious blood of Christ, who offered himself up as a lamb without defect or blemish.[2]

While our passage today shows, like all the other passages, that God provides the sacrifice, it’s also calls us to respond. As with the Hebrew people who were enslaved in Egypt, we are purchased for a price. Redemption isn’t cheap. It should cause us to be thankful and to live in a way that pleases God. Israel, once redeemed from slavery, was called to live as God’s chosen people. What’s our calling? Listen, as I read 1 Peter 1:13-25 in the Message translation. You can look at the text on the screen, but I also suggest you turn your Bible or the one in the pews to this passage so you can refer to it during the sermon.  Text below:  .

 

      

From that which I just read, what is our calling?  Or maybe I should ask this. In verse 16, what does this passage tell us about God? (I am holy). And what does it say about our calling? (We be holy). Of course, when it comes to being holy due to our own efforts, we’re a little behind the curve and we’re not going to catch up. Thankfully we have Jesus.

        You know, there is always a bit of irony about this day we observe as Palm Sunday. Those who were there when Jesus entered Jerusalem certainly had different ideas about who Jesus was and what he meant. They were ready to crown him king, but when he didn’t behave as they liked, they were all too willing to have him crucified. I’m not sure we’d be any different. We like people who support our own ideas about how things should be. When someone deviates from our preset ideas, we react with anger or walk away with indifference. We should remember that we can’t control God and if we walk away, we’re the ones who lose.

We should remember that there are differences between those of Peter’s world and our world. Peter’s audience were folks marginalized by the pressures of a pagan world.[4] In describing the precarious existence of Peter’s audience, one scholar suggests they understood that “Christians don’t have to fear their temporary masters [those here on earth] because they fear God.[5] Jesus says something very similar: “Do not fear those who can kill the body…, rather fear him that can destroy both the body and soul.”[6] But we’re not to have a nightmare-like fear of the Almighty. God loves us like a father.

        I like how Peter describes our life as a journey, but he reminds us that it must be traveled with a consciousness of God. In other words, we need to keep an eye on Christ. And this day in which we focus on the passion of Jesus, we’re remind that Christ might not take us where we want to go. The human Jesus didn’t want to go to the cross, as he prays, “Father if it is your will, please take this cup from me.”[7] At the end of John’s gospel, Peter learns first-hand that if he wants to be faithful, there’ll be a point he’ll be taken to where he does not wish to go.[8] With God, we can’t control the future, instead we trust God to be with us through thick and thin.

Have you ever started out on a trip, only to experience a flat tire or a busted water pump? Or maybe you started a new job with great expectations only to be fired or to experience a medical challenge that kept you for fulfilling your duties. Or you start out with an idea of a long life with a loving spouse only to have him or her prematurely die. We’ve all experienced such setbacks and disappointments, some more bothersome than others. But they are not reasons for us to give up on the faith. After all, Jesus headed into Jerusalem and, to the disappointment of the crowd, allowed himself to be sacrificed like a lamb. With the crucifixion, many people’s dreams died.

        But that’s where our faith really begins—with the death of the old dreams. We shouldn’t despair for with the resurrection, God shows his power over the forces of evil and death. With the resurrection, we have hope not only in this life but in the life to come. Let’s look at this passage.

          “Roll up your sleeves,” our translation begins. We’re being issued a call to action. Get ready. Jesus is coming back. Get ready, but I don’t think the emphasis should be on Jesus’ return as much as it is living the life we’re called to live. Get ready, don’t be lazy, and pull yourselves out of those evil groves that you were caught in during the past. A more direct translation is “Do not be conformed to the desires you formerly had.” We have been called, as I emphasized earlier, by a holy God for the purpose of being holy.

          Verse 17 reminds us that we can call upon God and God, as any good father, will help. But like a father, God also sets standards and will be upset when we live in a way that is unbecoming to being a follower of Jesus.

In the next paragraph, we’re reminded that God paid the price. There’s a consequence to sin, to disobeying our Creator. Back in the garden we’re told that disobedience leads to death![9] But we’ve been redeemed. Christ serves as the sacrificial lamb, his blood paying for our sin. According to Peter, this was a part of God’s plan all along. From the beginning, God planned a way for us to escape our bondage to sin and evil. Through the Son, we have a way open to life eternal. Because of what Jesus has done, we have a hopeful future.

         After making the case as to why we have hope, Peter returns to how we should respond. We’re to love one another. We should remember that we are no longer living by the old ways, the ways of the world. We have been born again through God’s living word. Our new life is conceived by God himself. We’re now caught up in God’s word which is eternal. Everything else will pass away, as Peter quotes Isaiah, but the Word of God endures forever.

       Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt was a German pastor and theologian in the early decades of the twentieth century. He isn’t well known, but had a great influence on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth (who are better known). In one of his sermons, which has been collected in a book titled Action in Waiting, he says:

We do not gain much by just accepting that Christ died and rose again. Many people believe this, but nevertheless go to hell. This belief is of no help unless you and I experience Jesus as Lord. It is not the worst if some people are unable to believe that Christ rose from the dead – at least they still regard it as something tremendous, too tremendous to glibly confess. The sad thing is that so many people today claim to believe it, and yet it means so little to them. It has no effect in their lives.[10]

         I think Peter would agree with Pastor Blumhardt. What purpose is there in Christ’s sacrificial death if we live as if nothing has happened? God loves us as shown in giving of his only Son. This Friday, we should recall such love as we contemplate what our Savior did for us on the cross. It’s a wonderful gift that should cause us to respond with gratitude, love, and a new focus in our lives. No longer should we live for ourselves. We now live for our Lord. To him be the glory.

Next Sunday, I hope you join us at dawn and against at 10 AM, to praise the one to whom all glory belongs. Amen.

 

©2018

[1] Hebrews 10:1-18.

[2] 1 Peter 1:19, New Revised Standard Version.

[3] 1 Peter 1:13-25, The Message.  (note, The Message doesn’t number verses).

[4] David L. Tiede, “An Easter Catechesis: The Lesson of 1 Peter,” Word & World (St. Paul, MN: Luther Northwest Seminary, 1984), 194.

[5] Tided, 197. Tiede quotes Gerald Krodel, “The First Letter of Peter,” Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, Jude, Revelation by Fuller, Sloyan, Krodel, Danker, & Fiorenza (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1974), 74.

[6] Matthew 10:28.

[7] Luke 22:42.

[8] John 21:18.

[9] Genesis 2:17.

[10] See https://www.plough.com/en/subscriptions/daily-dig/even/march/daily-dig-for-march-23.

The Lamb of God Identified

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

John 1:29-37

March 18, 2018

 

 

We’ve been looking at Old Testament passages which provide a background for our understanding of “The Lamb of God” over the past month. We saw in Genesis how, at the near sacrifice of Isaac, God provided a sacrifice. It was a ram caught in a thicket. We also witnessed how God provided a way out of bondage in Egypt through the Passover, a meal in which a lamb was on the menu. Although I didn’t cover all the texts, I alluded to other passages, especially from Leviticus, where God speaks of the need for a sacrifice to remove the stain of sin.[1] The Bible is a gradual revelation leading up to a complete revelation with God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ. Last week, in Isaiah 53, we saw for the first time in Scripture, the link between a vicarious sacrifice and a person who offers himself up. Today, we’ll see that person is identified as Jesus. This is where the rubber meets the road.  John the Baptist prepares to hand over his ministry to the one coming. And just how does John identify Jesus?  We’ll see in a few minutes.

        In the verses before this passage, a group of religious leaders from Jerusalem meet John the Baptist in Bethany for the purpose of checking him out. They wonder if he’s the Messiah. This he denies. “Are you Elijah?” Again, he denies it. “Who are you, then?” they press on. “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness,” he replies, drawing on the words of Isaiah. “Well then, why are you baptizing?” At this point, John confesses that there’s one coming to whom he’s not even worthy to tie his shoes.[2] This one is Jesus Christ, whom in our reading this morning is identified as “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  Let’s look at the passage.  Read John 1:29-37.

###

        I think we all need to be more like John.  Now that doesn’t mean we need to dress like a wild man, hanging out in a waist deep muddy river, and eating a disgusting diet of bugs slathered in honey.[3] But there are two things John does that we should also do. First of all, we should admit that on our own, there is a limit to what we can do to help someone. John’s fierce preaching encouraged people to examine themselves and to confess their sins. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates supposedly said and John would agree. We should examine our lives and, according to John, we won’t like what we see. Because of sin, we fall short of the glory God intention for us.[4] If we want to get better, we have to understand the problem.  John’s kind of like the “dental monitor” in the Lifelock® commercial, he points out the problem, but he can’t fix it. (Not even Lifelock® can do that).[5]

          John is a prophet, not a savior. He could symbolically wash away the problem in baptism, but he wasn’t able to wipe the slate clean. The same is true for us. We can’t wipe away our own sin. And if we can’t do that for ourselves, we certainly can’t wipe away the sin of another. So like John, we have to be humble and admit our limitations. Dealing with sin is God’s work.

But there is something we can do. While we can’t wipe the slate clean, Jesus can. John, in our opening verse, points to Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Here is the answer for whom we and others desire. Like John, we can also point others to Jesus.

         In our passage, we see that John has some unique insights into Jesus. Although Jesus comes after John, he was there before. As we learn in the beginning of John’s gospel, Jesus is equated with the word of God and was present with God from the very beginning of creation.[6] Throughout this entire chapter, John the author (we’re dealing with two different John’s here) wants us to understand that John the Baptizer is not the main character.  That’s Jesus. John is just the guy who might run across the stage in a high school play, holding a cue card so the audience will know what’s next. The guy or gal, dressed in black and holding the prop isn’t the star, just one to point out what’s getting ready to happen. Likewise, John lets us know what coming.

          John goes on to explain that he knew Jesus was the one when he saw the Spirit of God descend like a dove and land upon him. Although John’s gospel doesn’t mention Jesus’ baptism, this statement parallels what all the other gospels say about Jesus at his baptism, that the “Spirit descended like a dove.”[7] John is here to testify that Jesus is God’s son.

 

        Referring to Jesus as the Lamb of God, John informs us as to the identity of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53, the one who was afflicted with our sin and willing to offer his life as a way to pay for our sin.[8] It’s important to notice that the word sin is singular, not plural.  Jesus is coming to take away not just the effects of our disobedience (our sins) but to cut away the root of the problem, (sin). It’s not just our bad deeds, but the gulf that our rebellion against God has cause to separate us from the Almighty. Our sin has been purged—the chasm between the creature and creator that has existed since the Garden of Eden, has been removed.[9]  Jesus Christ is the bridge that reconnects us to God the Father.

         Another interesting choice of words here is how John implies that Jesus is and will continue to take away the sin of the world. This ongoing action is not just limited to the cross (which is three years away from the time John proclaimed Jesus as the Lamb of God). Anytime someone comes into an experience with Jesus and feel their guilt and sin removed, they experience this ongoing work of our Savior and Lord.[10]

Twice in our reading John points out to those around him that Jesus is the Lamb of God. In verse 35, John again makes this claim. While pointing out Jesus as the Lamb of God, we’re told that two of John’s disciples leave to follow Jesus.  Like John, we’re not on the earth to make disciples for ourselves.  We’re here to do God’s work which involves making disciples for Jesus.

John’s message is simple. He points to Jesus, the Lamb of God. The Apostle Paul will later take a similar tack when he says that he preaches that he knows nothing but Christ and him crucified.[11] That’s my message, that’s our message, the church’s message. For answers, we can only point to Christ as God’s hope for the world. He is the one who can lead us from bondage and offer us life, eternal life.

         There are two things we should learn and emulate from John. Like him, we are to be humble. We are not here to be Saviors. We’re to be willing to point others to the Savior of the world, to Jesus Christ, and give him all the credit. But you know, that’s hard to do. We want to be given credit for that which we do. We want to be paid our fair share.[12] But that’s not what being a follower of Jesus is about. We’re to point to the one who is willing to offer his life for ours. He is to be given credit for all our blessings; for he, the one who was there at the very beginning,[13] is the source of our blessings.

So let’s be willing to go out into the world and do good.  When someone praises us, let’s not let it go to our head.  Instead, point to Jesus and give him the credit. And when someone asks why our values are different that the world, why we insist on being honest, being fair, or standing up for those oppressed. Point to Jesus and give him the credit. We do it for him. And when someone questions our commitment to gather week after week for worship. There’s no need for excuses. Instead, we tell them what Jesus means for us. There’s no need to brag. As a theologian once said, “Evangelism is just one beggar telling another where to find bread. Like John, we’re point to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  Amen.

©2018

[1] See especially Leviticus 16.

[2] John 1:19-28.

[3] While the Gospel of John doesn’t provide this insight, two of the synoptic gospels make a big deal out of John’s dress (animal skins with a leather belt) and his food (locust and wild honey). Matthew 3:4 and Mark 1:6

[4] Romans 3:23.

[5] https://www.ispot.tv/ad/wgXM/lifelock-dentist

[6] John 1:3.

[7] Matthew 3:16, Mark 1:10 and Luke 3:22.

[8] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2012), 83-84.

[9] Bruner, 81.

[10] See Bruner, 82.

[11] 1 Corinthians 2:2.  See also Bruner, 100-101.

[12] See Matthew 20:1-16.

[13] John 1:2-4.

The Suffering Servant

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Isaiah 53

March 11, 2018

 

    In Genesis, we learn that the consequence of sin and disobedience of God is death.[1] In the last two weeks, we’ve look at the scripture passages dealing with the Passover and the near-sacrifice of Isaac. In both situations, we see God providing a way out of the situation. While in bondage in Egypt, God tells the Hebrew people how to avoid the angel of death by putting the blood of a lamb over their doorways.  With Abraham, God ultimately does not demand the sacrifice of Isaac, but provides a ram as a sacrifice.  In passages we’ve not looked at, such as those in Leviticus, we learn God even provided a way in which sinful humanity could atone for their sins through the sacrifice of animals and the use of a “scapegoat.”[2] You know that term comes from scripture, don’t you? Originally, the scapegoat was to take away the sins of the people, not just cover up our own misdeeds as the term is often used today.

In the continuing revelation of God in Scripture, we move from the need of a sacrifice to ultimately understanding that Jesus has, once and for all, made the necessary sacrifice on our behalf.[3]  Today, we’re looking at Isaiah 53, in which find for the first time in Scripture, a person serving as the sacrifice for others.[4]

         Our reading is from what’s known as the Fourth Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah.  The passage actually begins back at Isaiah 52:12.These suffering servant passages have been debated over the centuries. Jewish interpreters see the passage as applying to the suffering of Israel. Christian interpreters understand this passage as applying to Jesus. This interpretation goes back to Philip, in the book of Acts, who encounters the Ethiopian eunuch reading this passage and asking for help in understanding it. Philip leads him to see that this passage is about Jesus, who died for our sin.[5] Today, I’m going to read this passage in its entirety, from Isaiah 52:13 through chapter 53.

What are your thoughts about vicarious suffering? Should someone else suffer for our sins and misdeeds? Should we be willing to be punished for the misdeeds of others? What do you think?

         Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Franciscan priest provides an example of such suffering. Early in 1941, he was arrested by the Nazi’s for publishing unapproved literature and sentenced to hard labor. He was sent to a concentration camp, Auschwitz.  That August, a prisoner escaped. As was the German policy, they took ten men out of the barrack from which the escaped prisoner was housed to be punished. The ten were to be placed in a starvation chamber where they would be left till they died. One of the men who was selected cried out about his family and not seeing his children again.  Kolbe volunteer to take his place.  For two weeks, he suffered with the other nine.  At this point, only four of the men were still alive and the Germans, needing the chamber again, finished off the four with an injection of acid into their veins.  Kolbe was one of those alive and he held out his arm to his executioner to receive the injection.[6]

What causes someone to willingly give up their life for someone else? We know it happens. Many of us, if provided the opportunity, would be willing to risk our lives for other.  In the excitement of a moment, we might run into a burning building or dive into cold swift water to save someone. When situations arise, there are people willing to risk it all for a stranger. Parents are known to go to great lengths to save their children, and in times of famine there are stories of parents forgoing nourishment so their children survive. In most wars, there are examples of those who jump on grenades to save their friends, or who volunteer for suicide missions in order to give their unit a chance to survive. 

In the movie, “Saving Private Ryan,” the main character is sent on a mission to find a paratrooper whose three brothers had been killed in the previous days’ battles on D-Day and in the Pacific.  Captain John Miller, played by Tom Hanks, is sent to find and keep Ryan safe so that his mother won’t lose all her sons.  Miller, as well as many of his men, die in their efforts, which leads Ryan to ask his wife fifty years later if he had earned their sacrifice. That’s an awful burden to carry, the feeling that we must earn the sacrifice of another.

        Our passage this morning speaks of one who carries our burdens, our sins.  As I noted before reading this passage, up until this point in Scripture, God allows a way out of sin through the offering of sacrifices. But now, through the prophet Isaiah, we learn of another way.  It is easy to see why those after Jesus’ death and resurrection were drawn to this passage. This is a popular passage to read on Good Fridays.

The suffering servant is filled with God’s saving power, but with human characteristics, he’s so meek we might overlook him. He’s innocent, yet willingly and obediently suffers. Jesus is God who has come in the flesh. He comes, not as a king born in a palace but as a child to parents who have no other place to place him but in a manger.[7] Although Jesus trembles before his Father on the night before his death and asks if this cup might be removed, he’s obedient and affirms his Heavenly father’s will.[8] There are so many parallels between this passage and Jesus’ life and death.

         The suffering described by Isaiah also parallel’s Jesus’ suffering. He doesn’t complain to his executioners.  His suffering is great because he is innocent and it’s our sins that he bears. Like Jesus, the sufferer described by Isaiah dies with the wicked and then is buried in a tomb of the rich.[9] He becomes an offering for sin, and will make many righteous (or as we might, many will be washed in his blood). As we’ll see in the next three weeks, as I continue this exploration of the “Lamb of God’ theme, through Jesus Christ, God has provided us a way out of our bondage, God has given us a sacrifice that is above all others.

Now, there are many passages in Scripture where I can say, this means we should do this. But this is not a passage about what we do, it’s a passage about what God does for us.  The one who suffers on our behalf is done, not because of something we’ve do, but through the grace of God. God loves us so much that he has constantly, since our first sin, tried to draw us back to himself. That’s love; that’s grace.

Back to the question I asked earlier… What do you think about someone suffering vicariously for another? Do you think it is right or just? Regardless, if we accept Jesus, we are accepting his offer of suffering for our sin. Can we handle that?  Can we admit that we can’t save ourselves need a Savior?  Can we accept that what’s important isn’t what we do, it’s what God does for us? Can we humble ourselves that much?

         The question is not what we must do to obtain such grace, but how we respond to such grace. God has been so good to us, not only in creation, but also in our redemption.  Can we receive what God has done for us through Christ in humble gratitude and then, with gracious hearts, seek to follow Jesus.  And knowing that our eternal security is in what Christ, we can live fearlessly in this life, willing to offer ourselves for the life of another.[10]

Our eternal security is grounded, not in what we do, but in the grace of our Savior. Those of us who follow Jesus should be fearless in the face of suffering and death. We know we’re in Gods’ hands.  No one can take that away from us.[11] Amen.

 

©2018

[1] Genesis 2:15-17.  See also Genesis 3.  Paul drives this point home in Romans 6:23.

[2] See Leviticus 16.

[3] 1 Peter 1:19, Hebrews 9:11-14, 28.

[4] Robert L. Reymond, The Lamb of God: The Bible’s Unfolding Revelation of Sacrifice (Scotland: Mentor, 2006), 69.

[5] Acts 8:26-25.

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maximilian_Kolbe

[7] Luke 2:7.

[8] Luke 22:39ff.

[9] Jesus is crucified between two criminals and is given the tomb of a wealthy man.  Luke 23:32, 50-53

[10] John 15:13.

[11] See Luke 12:5.

The Lamb of God Passages: God Provides

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Genesis 22:1-14

March 4, 2018

 

 

Last week, I began a series of Lenten Sermons focusing on the theme, “Lamb of God.” This series will continue through Easter, when we meet the resurrected and victorious lamb as described in Revelation.  Having not been in the pulpit the first Sunday of Lent (as I was with Faith in Practice in Guatemala), I skipped over Genesis and began the series looking at the Passover.  But as I was writing the sermon at the end of last week, there was something gnawing at me about having skipped over an important passage in Genesis, known as the sacrifice of Isaac.  As you know, in the end Isaac wasn’t sacrificed, but what happened there sets the stage for all that comes afterwards. God provides.  That’s the message of the Lamb of God visions found throughout Scripture.

In a way, this is a horrific passage. I’m sure we all have a problem picturing ourselves as Abraham in this story. But the point of the passage, I believe, is not just Abraham’s faithfulness, perhaps reluctant but willing to carry out God’s commands. What’s important is that God provides.  Let’s pray before listening to this passage.

Almighty God, we know the world and all that is in it is yours. And we know that you’re a loving God. Which is why we struggle with passages of scripture such as this one. Open our hearts, our minds, and our ears, that you might speak to us this morning.  Amen.

 

 

        In Frederick Buechner’s novel, Son of Laughter, which is about Jacob’s life, there is a part of the book where Jacob recalls his father Isaac, whose name means laughter, tell him about this event. In telling of it, he relives it. There is no laughter in the old man voice as he recalls how his father has haul him and a load of wood, along with a knife and a cup of coals from the morning fire, up to the mountain. Just telling the story is a torment to Isaac, who remembers how he allows his father to tie him up and place him on the make-shift altar and how the old man’s hands trembles as he raised the knife.[1]

There is always a danger of trying to force our understandings into that of the Biblical world. Things have changed. Abraham didn’t even have the Torah, the Books of Moses, to guide him. Even those who came after Moses still didn’t have the benefit of Jesus, who helps us see more clearly who God is and what God is up to. And even with the New Testament, our situation in the world is different. No longer is the church a persecuted minority within the indifferent and sometimes hostile world of the Romans. That being said, one of the goals of Bible Study and Biblical scholarship is to take us back into the world in which the text was conceived. To look at what the text meant to those who first heard it, and only when we understand that should we attempt to apply it to our world.

Perhaps no text demands such treatment as the one we’ve just heard. From our point-of-view, this is a horrific text.  Would God really want Abraham, an old man, to sacrifice his only son, the son he loves (notice how the narrator underscores Abraham’s devotion to his son). Would God, who promised Abraham a great nation descending from Isaac, really want to knock off the heir? It goes without saying that the world in which Abraham roamed was different from ours. But let’s consider this story.

This is a story that had been told and retold in oral traditions for centuries before he was written down. The story is highly polished and very simple.[2] We’re not given Abraham’s thoughts while he was trudging up the mountain, or what Isaac thought when his dad tied him down and lifted him upon the wood. “All we want are the facts, Ma’am,” as Sgt. Friday would say.  And that’s all we get here.

      But Abraham’s mind must have been spinning.[3]  Decades earlier, God called him. He gave up his past and an opportunity for a nice comfortable retirement in Ur for the life of wandering.[4] He’d given his past up for God, now God asks for his future.  This child, who unknowingly hauls wood on his back up the mountain, is all Abraham has. In him, the old man has placed his hope that his descendants will be a great nation.  And now God asks even that from him. Think about Jesus’ commands.[5] God demands our ultimate allegiance.  Now this doesn’t mean God is might want us to do something as cruel as the story we have here, and I’ll come back to that.  But ultimately, our allegiance doesn’t belong to ourselves, to our families, to our political party, to our country, or to our favorite baseball team. God comes first!  God comes before all our petty loyalties of this world.

In the world in which Abraham lived, it wasn’t uncommon for people to believe that they should give god their best. We speak that language today, but in the ancient world, where children and the best animals were sacrificed, giving your best meant something more

          As a kid, I remember being told that we were to give our best to God which meant being nice, placing the first-fruit of my puny allowance in the offering plate and wearing my “Sunday best” to church—which included a clip-on tie.  I hated those ties. You had to button the top button of your shirt for it to hold.  I quickly learned how to tie a tie so I wouldn’t have to wear the clip-on and could leave my top button open. But being nice, plopping a quarter in the offering plate, and sporting a clip-on tie doesn’t compare to what these folks were willing to give up to gain the favor of a pagan god.

        This story, going back to when it was first told around a campfire on a desert night, explains several things. We learn the importance of the site of Moriah, which is later identified as the temple mount in Jerusalem.[6] This event makes that holy ground. They also discovered why their God doesn’t make the same demands as the gods of their neighbors were making. The Almighty, the God of Israel, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, doesn’t expect that we offer the life of another to satisfy his demands. Finally, they learn of the ultimate freedom of their God. This is a God we cannot control or contain, yet a God that demands obedience.  And this God is loving and provides us with the means to fulfill his commands.[7]

God tests Abraham, and he’s willing to do what God asked,.  God becomes not only the one who asks for the sacrifice, God provides for the sacrifice in the ram caught in the bushes. A god (with a little g) who can command your first-born may seem to be powerful, but such a god is not nearly as powerful as the God who supplies the sacrifice.

We’re back to this Lamb of God image in scripture, where we see over and over again, God provides. Do we trust God to provide for our needs? Do we accept that God is over our lives and our world? Do we trust God even when all seems to be lost, as Abraham did when he climbed the mountain with Isaac?

Let me make one thing clear. While Abraham is commended for being willing to obey God, the text isn’t just about listening and obeying God. I want to make this point clear.  There are many people who think they hear God tell them to do some weird stuff. Such people often end up on the front page of the newspaper. Or their portraits hang in the Post Office.

You have to consider that this story came from a long-gone era. We know more about God and about God’s intent for us than Abraham did.  Two thousand years of revelation has given us new insights as has an additional two thousand years of interpretation. You can’t use this story as proof that God demands you to sacrifice someone.

Abraham’s world was different world from ours. He didn’t know what we know. He didn’t have the scriptures. He didn’t have the laws that were given through Moses that are pretty explicit, “thou shall not kill.”[8] He didn’t have the Old Testament where child sacrifice was considered an abomination.[9] He didn’t know of Jesus who would call the children to come to him.[10] He didn’t have the insight from the Book of Hebrews in the New Testament that reminds us that Christ is the perfect sacrifice and the only one required.[11] If we think God is talking to us, we need to be careful. If what we hear doesn’t stand up to what God says in Scripture in the entirety of scripture, we need to reconsider if it is God’s Spirit. In the first letter of John, we’re warned that not all spirits are from God and we must be careful to discern for something demonic may be speaking to us.[12] If you think God is calling you to do something that goes against what is in the Bible, think again! Or come talk to me!

          So I hope you look at this text a little differently. Instead of it being a horrific text about a sadistic God demanding the sacrifice of an innocent boy, think of it as part of God’s ongoing revelation. Yes, we learn the hard truth that God is free. Following God faithfully can lead to anguish struggles. But we also learn why Israel didn’t participate in the sacrifices of her neighbors and that their God loved them enough to provide them what they needed. And that’s good news!

 

 

©2018

[1] Frederick Buechner, Son of Laughter, (New York: HarpersCollins, 1993), 9-20.

[2] Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis: Revised Edition, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1972), 238.  See also Hermann Gunkel, The Legends of Genesis: The Biblical Saga & History, (1901, New York: Stocken Books, 1964), 106.

[3] There are some scholars who said that Abraham believed that God would either spare or resurrect Isaac.  I think this destroys the tension in the text and also, how could Abraham had conceived of the idea of a resurrection?  See Robert L. Reymond, The Lamb of God: The Bible’s Unfolding Revelation of Sacrifice (Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2006).

[4] See Genesis 12.

[5] As an example: Matthew 8:18-22 and 10:37.

[6] See 2 Samuel 24:18-25, 2 Chronicles 3:1.

[7] See Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 185ff.

[8] See Exodus 20:13, Deuteronomy 5:17.

[9] For example see Leviticus 18:21, 20:2-5; Deuteronomy 12:31, 2 Chronicles 28:3.

[10] Matthew 19:13, 15, Mark 10:13-16, Luke 18:15-17.

[11] See Hebrews 10:1-14.

[12] See 1 John 4:1-4.

The Magic Kings

Brennen Arkins, The Magic Kings (2015), 259 pages.

The transition from elementary to middle school is a tough time for all students.  For Alan and his classmates, it is made more uncertain by the 911 terrorist attacks that occurs at the beginning of their last year of elementary school. Alan’s life is filled with challenges.  He’s being raised by a single mother. His father died when he was much younger. He’s now slowly coming to a realization of what it means to have a mother that is an alcoholic.  Arkins tells this story through the eyes of Alan. As a pre-teen kid, there are a lot of things he does not clearly understand. Like Alan, the reader is slowly provided clues.  Alan understands his mother is having problem with her former boyfriend, Art, who seems to be a good male role model for Alan. It appears Art and Alan’s mother both have issues with alcohol and even though they break up, Art helps her become involved with Alcoholics Anonymous.

 

As an escape from the confusing world of adults, Alan and his best friend Zak play in a fantasy world. Yet, they sense things are coming to an end (this will be their last year to “trick-or-treat” so they decide to make the best of it). But while they sense things are ending, they are excited about the fantasy world in which they create. They find a special spot on the other side of town (and across a dangerous bridge that they must ride across on their bicycles) in which they can live out their fantasies. There, Zak looks for his magic wand. But on their second visit, they are challenged by boys from the local neighborhood who have claim on the property. At this point, Zak decides they need a third king, and Joel joins them on their adventures.

 

As Zak and Alan play in their fantasy world, Alan’s mother begins to take him to church. Before, they had only occasionally attended church. Now they start going to Art’s church. His mother is concerned about Alan’s interest in fantasy and magic and suggests that it goes against the Bible. Their pastor isn’t as concerned as Alan’s mother, but she takes away his Harry Potter books as punishment for him riding over the bridge to their magic kingdom.

 

The book ends as Alan, Zak, Joel along with others including several girls, move into Middle School.  Alan notices the changes as he is more interested in the girls and less in the fantasy worlds that he and Zak had created. Alan is also more interested in sports and in reading the Bible, which seems to have become his new “magic book.” And construction has begun on the land upon which they’d envisioned their magic kingdom.

 

I found myself curious about Alan as he navigates his changing world. His challenges kept me engaged. At first I found myself not liking the pastor (who told Alan the only book he read when he was a kid was the Bible). I didn’t find that believable.  But I later liked him when he refused to tell Alan’s misdeeds to his mother, allowing Alan to take responsibility and to work it out himself.

 

This book could benefit a young boy troubled about his changing world (we’ve all been there, especially in those pre-teen years). The book could also help a boy with parents (or a friend’s parents) with drinking problems.  The story shows the benefits of a religious community and organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous to help address such problems. However, I found myself concerned with seeing the Bible as a substitute for “magic books.” In this way, I agreed more with the pastor, who didn’t appear overly concerned about the magic books. I found myself wondering more why Alan’s mother was so concern. Adding to the confusion was Zak trying to be a good friend to Alan and giving him a copy of C. S. Lewis’ “magic books,” The Lion, Witch and Wardrobe.  Lewis’ use of the fantasy genre as an allegorical way to understand Christianity is well known, and the gift shows that although Zak doesn’t get Alan’s interest in Christianity, he is supportive of his friend’s interests.

 

As for the Bible being some kind of magic book, I would hope that Alan would come to understand the purpose of Scripture is revelation. By showing us who God is and who we’re to be, the Bible helps bring us into a relationship with God. Maybe Alan’s new found interest in the Bible will help him appreciate it not just as a book with better magic or fantasy, but as a guide to a relationship with (to draw from AA language) a higher power.

 

I am curious as to how middle school boys might relate to this book.  While those of us who lived through the terrorist attacks of 2001 understand the fear and uncertainty expressed by Alan and Zak, I wonder if this would be the same for those who were born a decade later (Alan and Zak would be in their late-20s today). If Arkins was to do a second publication, I suggest he consider how that event might be perceived differently by younger populations.  The other issues that Alan face (a single parent with alcohol issues, fidelity to old friends while making new ones, and relationships with the opposite sex) are more universal than the 911 experiences.

 

The Magic Kings is easy to read.  Arkins is an excellent storyteller and his style maintains the interests of the reader.  I look forward to reading more books from him.

 

Disclaimer:  I am in a writing group with Brennen Arkins and was given a copy of the book for review.

The Passover Lamb: God Picks up the Tab

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Exodus 12:21-32

February 25, 2018

I’m sure many of you have seen the movie Fiddler on the Roof. It’s about a poor Russian Jewish milkman named Tevye, who has an incredible voice. His family consists of a worried wife and five daughters.  If I remember correctly, the movie opens with a comical fiddler, straddling the ridge of a roof, playing in the Sabbath at sunset. Tevye looks up to the roof and asks the audience, “And how do we keep our balance on the roof?  One word – tradition.” From this, he launches into a song about tradition, after which Tevye provides the audience a confidential piece of wisdom. “Because of tradition, every one of us knows who He is (pointing to God), and of what God expects of us.”

Our faith is steeped in tradition. At times, tradition has taken a bum rap, some of it justified for we don’t worship tradition. But there are critical points to our faith that we must understand and accept or we’re not Christian. One of these non-negotiable items that tradition reminds us is that God provides a way out of our troubles and back into his family.

As you know, we’re in the season of Lent. This is a season of reflection on our mortality, our sinfulness, and our need for a savior. Or think of it this way… The season of Lent is a time for us to realize that we all have a bar tab we can’t pay.  And God picks up the tab!

       This Season of Lent, I am focusing on a traditional image found throughout the Scriptures, the sacrificial lamb. We can find the roots for this concept in the Old Testament, back even into the early chapters of Genesis.[1] John the Baptist identified Jesus as the “lamb of God” and in the book of Revelation, Jesus is revealed as the victorious lamb.[2] Living where we do, lambs aren’t often observed outside the meat counters in the grocery store, but they were quite common in Bible times and in many more rural places still today.[3]

Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and King David were all shepherds. Jesus refers to us as sheep when he tells Peter to feed his lambs and he presents himself as the Good Shepherd who goes after the lost sheep, building upon the idea in Psalm 23, of God as the Good Shepherd.[4] And during Holy Week, which comes at the end of Lent, we see that Jesus offers his life willingly, as a lamb, for our sins. But what does all this mean for us? We’ll examine this over the next six weeks.

Today, let’s go back into the Old Testament story of the 10th Plague and the Passover, as we begin our journey through the Biblical pastures where lambs graze and contemplate their sacrifice upon the altar. Tradition, as Teyve said, holds us up. The Passover, a central event for our Jewish friends, ties in with Jesus’ suffering and death. These traditions remind us that we have a loving God that will go great distances to redeem us from bondage. Read Exodus 12:21-32.

 

          The tenth plague does it.  Of the first nine, many of the plagues were like jokes: gnats everywhere (something we experience here on every nice day), frogs jumping around, and flies abounding.[5] These are all a nuisance, but what harm do they really cause? But here, in the 10th Plague, we see God not only as the Gentle Shepherd as described in Psalm 23, but a divine destroyer—a God of judgment and vengeance.[6] In our understanding of God, it’s important to remember that the Almighty is beyond our control. As Hannah, the mother of Samuel, proclaimed, “There is no Holy One like the Lord.” She goes on to point out that God breaks the bows of the mighty and grids the feeble with strength, and that the Lord kills and brings to life.[7] We can’t control God, for he already has things under his control. It’s a frightful thing to consider God’s judgment. Before it, we can only pray for mercy. But if God didn’t have such power, what good would God be to us?

At midnight it struck. The first-born in Egypt die. This includes the oldest child of Pharaoh, the man who rules over the Nile and was viewed as a god by his people. Pharaoh’s predecessor played god when he tried to kill all the Hebrew baby boys. Now the tables turn. Pharaoh awakes to death within his palace and the cries across his kingdom. All Egyptians experience sorry and pain. Not even the prisoner in the dungeon is spared. Those from all walks of life—from all occupations and social economic levels—suffer. To our mind, this doesn’t seem fair! Couldn’t the Hebrew freedom been accomplished with less death? Perhaps just the death of the brutal taskmasters, sparing their offspring? Why does someone locked up in the dungeon, someone who had nothing to do with Hebrew slavery, suffer?

        We’re not given any answers here to the suffering question. Just as the Scriptures doesn’t tell us why Israel had to toil for 430 years as slaves in Egypt, we’re given no answer as to why the plague strikes those not guilty including livestock. We don’t comprehend why the first-born of the least of the Egyptians die, or even why in the third plague, the clueless frogs came up out of the Nile only to croak (in a figurative and literal sense). Instead of addressing the problem of suffering, the events of the plagues, especially the events on the night of the Passover remind us (as well as those in the story), that all life belongs to God. But even more deeply, this story reminds us of the cost of freedom.

For those of us who worship Christ, this should be of no surprise. The cross, like the events of the Passover, involves suffering. Whether we are enslaved by an Egyptian taskmaster or the burdens of our sin, our freedom from bondage is costly and to be cherished.

The Passover event, for the Hebrew people, could be compared to our Independence Day. We celebrate what happened on July 4th, 1776, but if we remember our history, it took another seven years of war for our nation to be free from Britain, and it would be another eight decades before there would be a movement to live into the document’s bold claim that “all men are created equal.” For the Hebrew people, there will be 40 years of forging a nation in the desert with many challenges ahead. But this is where their freedom begins. On the night of Passover, a vengeful God remembered his people and gave them a way to escape the angel of death that had descended upon Egypt.

As followers of Christ, we acknowledge the cost of freedom. Our freedom from sin and death did not come easily, as the Hebrews experienced and as we understand in the death of Jesus Christ. We must acknowledge the cries along the Nile this particular night as well as the cries from 1000s of other battles and gives thanks for the freedom we have enjoyed.  Furthermore, as we see in the Hebrew Scriptures, that while such freedom is costly, God is the one who picks up the tab!  God provides the Hebrew people in Egypt a way out.

       I wonder what went through Israel’s collective mind that evening as they participated in this bizarre ritual—putting the blood of sheep on their doorpost, hurriedly eating roasted lamb as they huddled indoors listening to the cries of the Egyptians piercing the air. While they longed for freedom, I am sure many were emotionally moved by the suffering around them. Before the night was over, Pharaoh calls on Moses and Aaron and tells them to take the people of Israel out of Egypt.  Pharaoh even acknowledges the supremacy of Israel’s God, asking for a blessing for himself.  And so the Hebrew people are free to go, to escape the bondage of slavery. But they must remember that God is the one who provided them their freedom, and that is why they reenact the Passover, year after year, something they’ve been doing for over 3500 years. That’s a long time to thank God for picking up the tab, but grace should make us eternally grateful.

       As you know, last week I was in Antigua, Guatemala.  One of the traditions they have there is that on each Sunday during Lent, there is a procession from a church outside of the city to the site of the old cathedral by the city’s main square. These processions involve 100s of purple-clad men taking turn shouldering massive floats that weigh up to 2,000 pounds (it takes about 40 men just to hold up one of the floats).  They come into town on streets decorated with painted sawdust and flowers, followed by a band playing mournful tunes.  When it is over, all is cleaned up.  By doing this tradition over and over, just as the Jews observe the Passover and we observed Holy Communion, we are reminded of how much God has done for us. We’re reminded that in Jesus Christ, God has picked up the tab.

         God desires to free his people from their bondage to sin and death and to allow us a new life in Jesus Christ. God redeemed the Hebrew families from their bondage in Egypt. Through the salvific work of Jesus Christ, God frees us from our bondage to sin. Our God is a God of grace. Our God is a God who picks up the tab. Rejoice and be thankful. As a God of grace, we not called to earn our freedom, but to respond with a grace-filled life. We hold to the traditions, not because they have magic powers, but because they point to a greater truth found in the Almighty. They remind us who God is and to whom we belong.  When we understand to whom we belong, we will live gracious and generous lives. Amen.

 

©2018

[1] Genesis 4:4, 22:13-14.

[2] John 1:29, Revelation 5:12.

[3] For a more detailed examination, see Robert L. Reymond, The Lamb of God: The Bible’s Unfolding Revelation of Sacrifice (Fearn, Roos-shire, Scotland, “Mentor Imprint, 2006).

[4] John 21:15-16, 10:1-18.

[5] Exodus 8.

[6] For a discussion of God as “Divine Destroyer” in Exodus, see Donald E. Gowan, Theology in Exodus (Louisville: Westminster, 1994), Chapter 6.

[7] 1 Samuel 2:2, 4 & 6.

Joyful Living in the Lord


Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church 

February 4, 2018

Philippians 4:4-20

 

 

As a Boy Scout, I loved a good game of Capture the Flag. We often camped in Holly Shelter Swamp on the banks of the Northeast Cape Fear River. There would be two teams, the battle of the snakes. Cobra Patrol verses the Rattlesnake Patrol was a Cobra. We’d start the game as the light was fading from the sky and it’d continue till well after it was dark. The objective was to capture the other team’s flag and bring it back across the center line without getting caught.  If you were caught (or tagged) on the enemy side, you were sent to a “prison” where you were held until the end of the game or until you were freed by being tagged by one of your teammates.

         We played out this battle in a large parking lot for a wildlife ramp on the river.  As we generally camped there in winter, there’d be few or no vehicles parked there, especially not at night, so the lot made an ideal set-up for the game.  On one side was the river, two sides were swamp, and behind us was the bluff where we camped. During my first campout, as one of the young kids who didn’t know what was going on, I and several others were quickly caught and placed in prison. It wasn’t fun sitting there. There was nothing to do but wait and complain. I know a bit of how Paul felt in prison, although I can’t imagine how it must feel to be there day after day, week after week… In prison, you’re at the mercy of others. You can’t participate in what’s going on. There is a restlessness that grows inside of you.

We’re finishing our look in Philippians today. Here, Paul offers some good advice for how we’re to live as Christians.  A lot of it is about our attitude, how we approach life.  Are we optimistic?  Are we gracious?  Do we trust God?  Our attitude goes a long way toward how we live our lives.

 

At the beginning of this letter, we learned that Paul’s circumstances are not ideal.  He’s writing from prison.[1] There is a guard checking on him regularly, making sure the cuffs are snug, the chains secured, and the door bolted. Guard duty for a soldier was the pits. Boring. Some of the guards would take out their displeasure of having pull this duty on the prisoners.

If you were to write a letter under these circumstances, what would you say?  How would you end your letter? I’m not so sure I could end my letter as Paul did, rejoicing in the Lord. Instead, I’d be begging for you to call a lawyer, to get me out, to raise my bail, or to slip a hacksaw blade in a cake and bring it to me…

Paul is attempting to calm the Philippians who seem to be stressed out. There is some bickering within the church in Philippi as you’d see if you read the beginning of this chapter. Over all, this is normal stuff.  Someone is not happy about something, someone else is stressing out over something else…  It still happens in churches, today. Paul wants the Philippians and would advise us to take a deep breath and then to joyfully continue the work they and we are supposed to be doing…

I recently read a story in the New York Times about how the most popular class at Yale this past year is about happiness. Almost a quarter of the freshman class signed up for the course. The professor suggested the class’ appeal is because the students are under so much stress.[2]

When my daughter was in Middle School, about the same age as many of these Boy Scouts here, she had a class that focused on stress. Consequentially, this stressed her out. She even had homework, to write a paper about what stressed her out. I suggested she write about homework (it sure was stressor during my childhood). In this class the teacher called for a “stress-free day” in which they did nothing.  Not only did they not do anything, they were not allowed to do any other work such as homework for another class. Leaving the class at the end of the period, Caroline told the teacher that the “stress-free class” was the most stressful she’d ever experienced. That was the point. We don’t avoid stress by doing nothing and I think that’s one of the things we see from Paul in this letter. Keep doing the good work, keep rejoicing, and don’t let the circumstances get you down.  Even though things may be bad in Philippi, at least they’re better off than Paul, whose chains rattle as he writes to the congregations he loves so much.

Paul begins this chapter, before our reading, mentioning several people who had been helpful in his ministry in Philippi. It seems they’re in a bit of a snit.  They’re fighting, their arguing, struggling to get alone and Paul tells the good folks of Philippi to step in and help out. They ought to be “of the same mind in the Lord.”  In other words, their focus needs not be on their internal struggles with one another, but on what God is doing in their community. When we focus on ourselves, we take things personally, but when we focus on the larger picture of what’s God’s doing in the world, there’s a lot all of us can get excited over.  We should want to be a part of it!

Paul provides the Philippians with a number of suggestions as to how they’re to live the Christian life.  First of all, they’re to rejoice in the Lord and as they do this, they’re to let their gentleness be known. You know, it’s hard to be praising God as you abuse others. Instead, if we lift up our hearts to God, we should also be led to deal gently with those around us, for we know from where our blessings come and to whom our future belongs. So take delight in God. Stand in awe of God’s wonderful creation, look to see God’s image in those around you, praise God in song and in prayer, with others and when you are alone.

Next, they’re told not to worry. Good advice, but how?  The Philippians probably asked the same question, and then they thought about Paul and his tribulations. “If Paul ain’t worrying, why are we?”  Instead of worrying, Paul encourages his readers to take their needs to God, the one who holds the world in his hands. Of all people, those of us of faith should not worry, but we all do. As followers of Jesus, we should be bringing a calming approach to our society, but I don’t often see that. We should do better.

Paul goes on to say that the Philippians need to focus on that which is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent and worthy. Verse eight is a beautiful verse. Paul knows that if those who are bickering focus on what’s important, things will work out. Problems arise. However, when we get sidetracked, what should be minor irritants grows and if left unchecked can become a full-fledge war. Too much of what we fight and argue over is trivial—whether it is in our relationships and family, in the church or in our community, in our nation or between nations. If we only could focus on that which is good and pure and honorable instead of trying to always be seen as right, we’d be better off.

Finally, Paul lifts himself as an example. “Keep on doing those things you’ve learned from me, that which you’ve seen me doing,” he says. Again, Paul is writing this in chains and, by his demeanor, sets an example for the Philippians and for us. We can learn from Paul, just as we can be a model for others by the way that we handle our sufferings. Out Scouts know the importance of doing a good turn daily, and when they do such, they set the example for all.

Let me take you back to my prison experience while playing “Capture the Flag” along the Northeast Cape Fear River. Our patrol leader, a guy name Gerald, served as an example to me for what unselfish leadership is all about. In one of our early camping trips, he gave up his own dry tent to two of us who were wet when water rushed under our tent during a storm. That made an impression on me.

On this particular night Gerald decided to free us and make a dash for the flag.  I told you the dirt parking lot in which played was surrounded by swamp on two sizes and the river on the third. Gerald slipped the river and quietly made his way unseen down the river till he was behind the enemy’s lines, then he slipped into the swamp until he was right behind where we were in languishing prison. With the enemy guard looking to the front, thinking his back was secured by the swamp, Gerald slipped out of the swamp, tagged us, and told us to run. As the guard and others started chasing us as we headed to safety, Gerald grabbed our enemy’s flag and, headed toward our lines. He was caught right before he was able to make it over. Then it was our turn to free him from prison. I don’t remember who won that game. It seemed to go on for hours, but at some point it was over and there was a campfire and a night sleeping along the banks of the river.

From Paul, remember to rejoice, to be gentle with one another, to be a good example, and to trust in a God whose love for us has been shown in Jesus Christ. If God loves us that much, we’re in good hands. Despite the chains, Paul knows he’s been freed by Jesus Christ, which allows him to rejoice even while locked in a Roman jail.  If we can rejoice in his circumstances, so too can we.  Amen.

 

 

©2018

[1] Philippians 1:13

[2] David Shiner, Yale’s Most Popular Class Ever: Happiness, New York Times (January 26, 2018).

Brendan Mungwena’s Testimony

Brendan Mungwena

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

January 28, 2018

 

I am aged 22, I have 5 siblings whom I love unconditionally which my mother did a great job on teaching us how to love, as well as tolerate each other. My family is supportive Christian Family and I consider myself one of the luckiest people to have such a great family. I believe in the one and only Messiah our Lord Jesus Christ of Nazareth. In Zimbabwe the majority of the people are Christian. On the other hand, there is a significant sum of people who still believe in our old ways of Ancestry Communication and Spirit mediums.

            Zimbabwe is known to have been the breadbasket of Africa as it has rich and fertile grounds which gives a good produce of a wide variety of crops which include Maize (Corn), cotton and tobacco. Not only is the land good for farming it is also known for its rich mineral resources.

Growing up we were unsure of what it meant to be Christian as people claiming to be prophets were using supposedly miraculous acts to lure crowds. This caused us to move from church to church in search of the Lord’s presence. Opening the Bible was one of the best things that ever happened to my family and me. Gifted with the opportunity to see what the Bible had in store for us, it was comforting to go through verses such as John 16 verse 33, which states, “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me you might have peace. In the world you shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” Through Scripture, am comforted by knowing that God is faithful, and is always looking over us. He truly cares and is our protector and comforter in times of need.

          I believe in God because I know not any other God or anyone better than the Father of the holy Jesus Christ, I believe in God because I choose wisdom over worldly positions as the Lord says in the book of Proverbs 8:19,“ My gifts are better than gold, even the purest gold, my wages better than sterling silver.” I believe in God because I grew to trust him wholeheartedly without question or doubting his glory and might. Perseverance was not much of a choice because failure was not an option for me and my family, stated in Galatians 6 vs 9 “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” It always rang in our ears that everything shall come to pass and I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

          There was a day we barely had anything to eat and I asked my mom what we will do for tomorrow and she responded by saying God will provide. At a young age I did not understand her faith and it did not seem logical that we could rely on forces we could not see to provide food for us. She is a woman of unquestionable faith who led us in believing in God no matter the case. Even when we had no clue about what to expect as a single mother she carried our weight with trust and fierce faith in the Lord. I admire her for her belief and I am happy to say God has never let her down.  She is a woman of faith. We went on with our daily activities and that afternoon we got food.   And we were very happy.

           After having experienced a fruitless night, I woke up one morning hungry. She looked at us and told us, “God renews your energy every morning with or without food.” She built a fighting and mental spirit in our lives that lives within us up until today.  We never give up easily on anything we attempt. God’s grace and mercy have been prevailing in my life in ways I cannot describe. There is no other way than God’s way, which is why I live everyday according to his will.

“Jesus wept, was a short verse that meant a lot to me.  Another one was from Psalms 23: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” I did not memorize the whole Psalm but I best related to those verses. They had me marching from one open door to another. It had me understand that I am the one who fights my battles, with a God who guides and protects us.

However, there are still believers in the old ways of spirit mediums and ancestral practices commonly criticize Christianity.  Such practices continue throughout the country.  It is different with each tribe, but they believe there is communication between the deceased who can connect us to God.  These practices have gone on for many centuries. It again became prominent during the struggle for independence among the guerrilla warriors who fought for The Republic of Zimbabwe. Their memories are honored by home brewed alcohol, which is shared amongst the elderly men and women.

           To me being a Christian was the easiest choice because I understood that God had chosen me before I was born. With this in mind, I felt like it was everyone’s responsibility to help other Christians with their spiritual lives and share ideas on understanding of the Lord our God and his text. My friends and I then started Scripture Union, which is a Bible study group. We kicked off with 5 students and grew to an attendance of 40 people, consisting of students as well as teachers. I am proud of establishing this organization because it still runs. This organization was successful in completing several tasks such as redistributing old clothes to orphanages and teaching kids educational games.

With the Eskews, Brendan’s American Host Family

The day when my little sister learnt there was someone greater than all existence who had created the world, she asked how we could repay someone who owns everything we know and touch. I had to answer a question I did not fully understand the answer. I explained to her that our good deeds and pureness of the heart is what will make him happy. We have nothing to offer Him as he is the Great God who creates everything. We can only praise and worship Him in the best ways we can. She still reminds me of this teaching as one of the moments she had clarity on what was going on in her life and how she perceived the world.

           I have come to accept and greatly appreciate God’s love.  I also consider the gift of life to be one of God’s great gifts. I have lived and learnt that God’s knowledge is beyond anything anyone can comprehend but he loves us all unconditionally and he takes care of his own. If that is not enough for one to love, trust and believe in him I do not know what is. He has equipped us for every battle that we can fight and he even provided everyone with a conscience that helps in decision making showing how good our God is.  Amen.

To learn more about Brendan, check out this article in The Skinnie

 

Burn’s Night Talk

Address to the Haggis

Jeff Garrison

Burns’ Night Talk

St. Andrew’s Society of the City of Savannah

January 26, 2018

 

Wow!  In our program I am identified as a Rector. I’m not sure how to take this. Should I be honored? After all, the word comes from an old English meaning “to rule.” Or perhaps, because I’m in a crowd of Scots, I should be afraid. As you know, Scots are independently minded. I can assure you that you will not find a minister within the Church of Scotland, the mother church of all Presbyterians, referred to as Rector. You may find the headmaster of a school referred to in that way, but as for the Kirk, that’s way too English, way too Anglican.

Let me take this moment to share with you a bit of history. In the 17th Century, following the Scottish Reformation, the people of Scotland signed the National Covenant, which adopted a Calvinist theology and a Presbyterian form of government. This placed Scotland not only in opposition to the Roman Church, but also to the Episcopal form of government as advanced by the Anglicans.

There were a number of battles over these issues. The Scots don’t like being told what to do. They didn’t like being told that had to pray in a particular manner so they resisted the Anglican prayer book. The clergy didn’t like being told they had to dress all fancy when leading worship which led to the adoption of the Geneva robe. And the Scots had a problem Bishops and clergy vested with lots of power, so they adopted a system of government that shares between the clergy and lay elders. This didn’t go over well with the crown. They liked the idea of having loyal bishops who could help it control the Kirk. The church fought back and eventually a compromise was achieved. The Crown would be Anglican when they were in England, and when in Scotland, they’d be Presbyterian. In Scotland, the Queen has no Bishops to do her bidding and there are no rectors within the Kirk.

Now on to matters at hand—our remembrance of Mr. Burns. Sadly, I never studied him while in school. In college, the only poets of interest to me were musicians. Steely Dan was a favorite. They had some immortal lines back in the seventies and eighties, one of which comes to mind this evening. It’s from their hit song, “Deacon Blue,” and you may know it. “Drink Scotch Whisky all night long and die behind the wheel.” It’s a great line, but please, don’t try to live it out. The same could be said for many of Burn’s ideas and examples.

I was in Scotland this summer. As you’ve heard, I scheduled a couple days around Edinburgh with a friend of mine, Ewan. He’d taken time off to be with me, but as it happens in our calling, people are not always considerate as to when they die. On our second day together, I could go to a funeral for a woman I didn’t know or spend the day tramping around Edinburgh on my own. After that hospital visit, I chose the latter.[1]

I started out my morning being dropped off up by the castle. I’d toured it before, so I was interested in something else. In the shadow of the castle, I’d learned of a Writer’s Museum and, fancying myself as a wannabe writer, decided to visit. Besides, the admission is free which warmed my Scottish blood. But the museum is hard to find. I had to humble myself and ask for directions. Not only did I have to do this once, but several times as it appears not many people know of the museum. Finally, someone pointed me to a small alley and said I’d find it up there. There were no signs, but the alley opened up into a square and there was the museum. It’s housed in a very old but unique home with wonderful wooden spiral stairways. There are large exhibits on Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott and the man of the night, Robbie Burns.  As a kid, I’d read Treasure Island, so I spent most of the time in the Stevenson’s section, while quickly running through the other parts. Had I known that I was going to be expected to talk about Burns, I would have lingered a little longer…

Leaving the museum, I worked my way across the city.  One stop you’ll have to make is the Scott Monument, for the author not the people.  If you’re not claustrophobic or afraid of heights, I recommend you climb it. From the top you are treated to one of the most incredible views of Edinburgh. I think it’s even more striking than the views from Arthur’s Throne. So the next time you’re in Edinburgh, if you are in reasonably good shape, have five pounds to spare and a few more to lose to exertion, and enjoy the snugness that comes from being confined in a straightjacket (as the stairwells are smug), check it out.

Don’t worry, I’m getting closer to Burns…  By mid-afternoon I’d made my way to Canonsgate Church. It’s the burial site for Adam Smith and I wanted to pay my respect and do a Facebook selfie to dispel any rumors that I have socialist leanings. While there, chatting with a guide, I asked if there were others buried in the church yard that I might be interested in. “Oh yes,” she said, “On the other side of the church is the grave of Robert Burn’s lover, Clarinda.”

I’ve told you that I’m not a Burn’s scholar, right?  But I knew enough about the man to know that he had more than a few lovers across Scotland. “I’m sure you’re not the only church in Scotland claiming a grave of a Burn’s lover,” I said. She took offense at my sarcasm and reminded me that Clarinda was special.  What does that make his other lovers?

In Garrison Keillor’s novel, Wobegon Boy, the protagonist writes a poem for his wife as a wedding gift. Reading it she embraces him and it suddenly dawns on him why men have been writing poems all these centuries: “to impress a woman with the hopes she will sleep with you.”

Our friend Robbie wrote many such poems for Clarinda. The two of them lured each other with their poetry and correspondence even though they likely never consummated, in a physical manner, their relationship. But their letters and poems are to be cherish. Clarinda is the reason we have “Ae Fond Kiss” and “Clarinda, Mistress of My Soul.”

Of course, Clarinda wasn’t her real name.  That was Agnes, but everybody called her Nancy. That is everyone but Burns, who gave her this beautiful nickname that is much softer sounding than Agnes and less common than Nancy.  And, with this secret name, it was a safer way for Burns to correspond with a married woman.

We can speculate as to why Clarinda maintained her purity while Burn’s promised to conquer her “by storm and not siege.” Their relationship got off to a slow start because after first meeting, Burns had to cancel their next due to an accident that put him on crutches and in bed.  But there were other reasons. Clarinda was pious and religious and even though her husband had run out on her, she wasn’t going to do the same. She would later travel to Jamaica in an attempt to win him back. And then there were a few other details. At the time they were flirting with each other, Robbie had already planted his seed with Jean Armour. When Clarinda resisted Burn’s advances, the poet set his eyes on her servant, Jenny Clow. Ms. Clow would also give birth to the poet’s child. Only a fool would be lured into his bed with the thought she’d have a long-lasting relationship with the man whose seed was germinating all over Scotland. Clarinda was no fool.

Clarinda and Burns were attracted to the others use of language. Both were gifted, and Clarinda was nearly Burn’s equal with the pen as these few lines illustrate:

Go on, sweet bird, and soothe my care
Thy cheerful notes will hush despair;
Thy tuneful warbling, void of art,
Thrill sweetly through my aching heart.
Now choose thy mate, and fondly love…

Although Clarinda probably never allowed Robert to take her to bed, the words the two of them exchanged were certainly intimate and salacious. As an old woman, she looked back fondly on their relationship and said she hoped to meet him in heaven. Of course, that’s assuming Burns made it… The Rev. John Kemp, Clarinda’s pastor, certainly had his doubt as to Burns eternal destination. Maybe he and Burns are sharing eternity together for it was later discovered that the Good Reverend had three wives at the same time! Had Burns’ lived, he would have enjoyed the satirical wit that situation offered. (I want to know how he managed to pulled off having three wives like that).

Clarinda, Jenny, Jean (not to mention Mary and a few others)… What would be Burns’ fate if he lived in today’s “Me Too” climate?  I mentioned Garrison Keillor and we know what happened to him, along with a long line of other popular folk whose sexual indiscretions have come back to haunt them. I don’t know how this would affect Burns. It may not have had any impact. In his day, more than one minister chided Burns for his behavior. He didn’t seem to let their scolding’s worry him.

Poets are often great lovers. Their command of language is such that they can take words and draw our minds into new places and possibilities.  Think of King David, a poet from the Bible. Many of the Psalms are attributed to him and, we’re told, he was a man after the heart of God.  And like Burns, he wasn’t always honorable. This is speculation, but can you image the love note he sent down to Bathsheba?  Of course, we know the pain that little affair caused. Poor Uriah. But we remember David, with his frailties, because we all have had our own shortcomings. David gives us hope and shows us the wideness of God’s mercy.

I am not sure Burns had the same desires for God as David, but we can still appreciate him. In his day, he brought humor to a serious society and pointed out social inequalities and hypocrisy. And today, he us still reminding us to look for beauty. Furthermore, Burn’s collection of poems and songs in the Scottish dialect gives identity to those of us whose ancestors left those rocky shores, yet whose hearts are still warmed by the beauty of heather blooming in the crags. And, furthermore, his poems are easily plagiarized when we court our sweethearts.

I did visit Clarinda’s grave that afternoon. It was covered with flowers—fresh flowers. She’s buried next to her cousin, Lord Craig, whose grave looks like it was last attended to during the Boer War. It’s been nearly two centuries years since her death and there are people who not only remember her, yet think highly enough of her to regularly place flowers on her grave. That’s quite an honor.  Here’s to you, Clarinda.

Thank you.

 

Sources Consulted:

_________, Robert Burns in Your Pocket (Glasgow: Waverley Books,      2009).

Brauer, Jerald C., editor, The Westminster Dictionary of Church History    (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1971).

Dawson, Jane, John Knox (New Haven: Yale, 2015).

Douglas, Hugh, Robert Burns: The Tinder Heart (Gloucestershire, UK: Alan  Sutton Publishing, 1996).

Herman, Arthur, How the Scots Invented the Modern World (New York:   Random House, 2001).

MacCulloch, Diarmaid, The Reformation: A History (New York: VikingPenguin,  2005).

[1] A story used in my introduction (story came from the Chic Murray Facebook site and “adapted” for this occasion:
This past summer, our speaker was visiting the Rev. Ewan Aitken, a friend of his in Scotland.  Ewan asked if it was okay for him to run in and see someone at Edinburgh General Hospital. 
 “No problem,” Jeff said, and asked if it was okay if he went in, too.” 
“Come on.” Ewan said.  While Ewan was making his pastoral visit, Jeff decided to see what he could do to cheer up some of the patients. He stepped into a ward and went up to a bed and said hello.
The man looked up and said, “Far far yer honest sonsie face great chieftens o the puddin race a boon them aw you tak..
Oh for goodness sake, Jeff said and moved on to the next bed
“WEE courin timid beastie wad caused this panic in tha breastie…..” the patient mumbled.
Shaking his head, Jeff moved to the next bed.
“Some hae meat and canna eat and some hae nane and want it…”
At this time, Ewan was ready to leave and came over to Jeff who asked if this was the insane ward. 
“Oh no,” Ewan, said, “this is the SERIOUS BURNS UNIT.”

 

Joyful Living: Affirming Priorities

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church 

January 21, 2018

Philippians 3:2-17

 

What’s our number one priority? What’s the most important thing for us to accomplish? What should we all be striving for? As followers of Jesus Christ, we’re to be thankful, generous, gracious, and focused on him. Our priority, as we’re going to hear from Paul in just a moment, is to be “in Christ.”

This morning I’m continuing to work through Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi. Read Philippians 3:2-17

It’s never too late to do what is right.  That’s good news, although at times it may not seem like it.

        I’m sure some of you have read Anne Tyler. She’s published twenty novels, several which has been considered for a Pulitzer and one which was awarded the prize.[1] I’m curious if any of you have read her novel, Saint Maybe?[2] It wasn’t considered for the Pulitzer, but a good book, nonetheless.

Saint Maybe is the story of Ian Bedloe. At the beginning of the book, he’s a high school student living in the shadows of Danny, his talented older brother. Ian looks up to his Danny and doesn’t know what to make of things when his brother quickly marries a woman with two children. She’s quickly pregnant with a third child, maybe too quickly. In time, Ian begins to have questions about Danny’s wife and one day, when he’s angry and feels he’s been taken advantage of by his sister-in-law, he shares his concerns with his brother. Danny becomes upset, flies out of the house in rage and is killed in an automobile accident. Or was it an accident?

Ian lives with a terrible secret.  He graduates from high school and goes off to college. Along the way, his sister-in-law, who struggles with three kids, dies from an overdose. Again, was it an accident? Or intentional? The guilt builds, as his parents who are now aging and have health issues of their own, must take care of three small children. Ian is unsure as what to do and one night while walking around with his hands in his pocket, stumbles upon a storefront: “The Church of the Second Chance.”

He becomes friends with Reverend Emmett, to whom he confesses what he has done. Emmett assures him that he can be forgiven, but that he needs to take care of his brother’s kids. He drops out of school and for the next two decades raises the kids, putting his own life on hold.

Tyler’s story is about forgiveness and shows a tension that exists between forgiveness and consequences, penance and doing what is right. Certainly, there is much in the story that smacks of works-righteousness and later in the book, his sister-in-law’s oldest child, a bright but troubled teenager, labels Ian “Saint Maybe.” He certainly saw himself, not working out of gratitude but striving to earn forgiveness… Was he paying the price or accepting the consequences of his sin?

Paul, I believe, would disagree with Ian’s feelings that he’s got to carry this burden to the end to be forgiven. Our forgiveness comes through the atoning death of Jesus Christ. But, the grace God has shown us frees us to live in a new way; it frees us to finally do what is right and good and noble, not because we want to earn our salvation but because our relationship with Christ is all that matters.

          Although I felt the “Church of the Second Chance” should have helped reassure Ian that he’s loved unconditionally by God, I credit them with helping him, just a kid in his late-teens, care for the three orphaned children. The church stands by Ian, babysitting and helping him bear the burden. And in the book, after years of struggling to raise these children who are not his, you see the fruit of the love they have for each other and their adopted father. Grace, along with love, does abide.

In our Scripture passage for today we get a sense Paul is in a battle with the Jewish Christians who wanted to burden Gentile converts with the Law handed down from Moses. Why else would he begin this section of his letter, in verse 2, with a warning for his readers to beware of dogs, evil workers and those who mutilate the flesh? This is nothing new for Paul. Unfortunately, if you read Paul, he always seems to be commenting on circumcision.[1] It was the big issue of the day for Christians in the Mediterranean region in the first century.

       Paul has every reason to be proud of who he is and of his background. In our text, we hear Paul cite his resume. It’s impressive, the guy has credentials. But then he turns it around and in verse 7 says he regards it all as loss because of Christ. It wasn’t enough. It could never be enough. Paul affirms that our priority is to be in Christ. That’s all that matters. He’s running a race focused on Christ. His goal at the end is to be reunited to his Savior.

        There are three points that I want to make today concerning this passage. First, consider what Paul uses, from his own life, as an example for others. Secondly, what is it that we value?  What’s important for our lives? And finally, there’s the good news in this passage. It’s never too late to do what is right.

 

  The Apostle Paul had a miraculous conversion on the Damascus road. Paul literally does a one-eighty; he starts out as a persecutor of the church and becomes the church’s greatest missionary. Such a change has set the pattern for what we, as Christians, see as the ideal conversion.[2] But interestingly, Paul doesn’t hold up his conversion as the ideal or even as the norm. It happened only because of the grace of his (and our) Lord Jesus Christ. Instead of talking about his conversion as a model for others, Paul lifts up his struggle to be faithful as the example.  In numerous places, he uses the metaphor of a runner or an athlete to describe the Christian life.[3]

Too often, I think, we see one’s acceptance of Jesus as the goal. If someone can just accept Christ, all is well. I’m not so sure that Paul would agree with this modern way in which we’ve cheapened the faith.  Paul saw himself in a long distance race, and the goal line wasn’t going to be reached in this life. Paul experienced grace, but that’s not the goal. Grace isn’t the end, it’s the beginning. Grace helps us prioritize what’s important and redirects our lives. Like Paul, we must continue to run, to hold tight to the faith as a runner in a relay might hold tight to the baton. The goal is to be with Christ, eternally. Paul tells people not to judge him by his past, for his life-long goal is to be faithful to his Savior. Nothing else matters. He’s looking ahead and encourages us to do the same.

       This leads into my second point, “what is it that we value?”  What’s important to you? How do you want to be remembered?  Paul makes a definite point here. What’s important isn’t the past.  His resume is impeccable, and he throws it out the window.  “Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ,” he writes in the 7th verse. Our accomplishments pale in comparison to what Christ has done for us. Even if we live a good life, we still have no room to brag and it’s all so trite when we think about the love shown to us.

Or maybe there are things in our past that overshadow our accomplishments. Some of us (perhaps many or all of us) are burdened with at least part of our past. We’ve done things and left things undone that we’ve regretted, things may still haunt us. That doesn’t seem to be Paul’s problem. With the exception of his stint as a persecutor of the church, his past is pretty remarkable. I expect for most of us, and I’m including myself, our past is a mixed-bag: some good and some bad and some indifferent. But Paul reminds us we can’t dwell on our past.  We’re to start where we are and make our way forward.

         This leads into my third point. The past is water under the bridge. We’re now on a new journey with Christ and we need to focus on him. The good news, as I said at the beginning, is that it’s never too late to do what is right, to change our direction, to find the peace that comes from knowing and accepting God’s grace and love.

Paul wasn’t ashamed of his past; there was much in his past of which he could be proud. Instead, he knew it didn’t matter. What was important is what Jesus had done for him and how he responds. The same is true for us—as individuals, as a congregation, as a community, as a nation and even as the collective citizens of the globe. If we spend too much time dwelling on the past—on the good we’ve done, the bad we’ve done or that which we left undone—we’ll miss out on what we can be doing now. How do we respond to God’s love in Jesus Christ? How do we live “In Christ?” That is what’s important.

We can’t let the past hold us back. Paul knows he has to move forward. He’s ready to run till Jesus calls him home. What about us?  Do we trust enough to turn all the joys and accomplishments, the broken dreams and missed opportunities, over to Jesus, and to dedicate this day and every day forward to serving him and him alone? It’s never too late to start. Let us pray:

 

Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we bow before you giving thanks for your grace and asking for you to help us run this race with Christ as our goal. May we live in Christ and in your good time die in Christ that we might be in Christ in your presence eternally. Amen.

 

©2018

[1] See Romans 2:25-29, 3:1, 4:11; 1 Corinthians 7:18-19; Galatians 2:12, 5:6, 5:11, 6:15; Ephesians 2:11; Colossians 2:11, 4:11; Titus 1:10.

[2] See Fred B. Craddock, Philippians: Interpretations: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox, 1984), 55.

[3] See 1 Corinthians 9:24 & 9:26, and Galatians 2:2 and 5:7.  The writer of Hebrews also uses the runner as a metaphor: Hebrews 12:1.

[1] Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, The Accidental Tourist and Breathing Lessons have all be nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. Breathing Lessons was awarded the prize.

[2] Published by Knopf in 1991.

I have used “Dwelling with PhilippiansReformed Worship #100 as a starting point for these sermons on Philippi.

 

 

Joyful Living: Imitating Christ

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

January 14, 2018

Philippians 1:27-2:10

 

We’re continuing our journey through Philippians. Paul has a special place in his heart for this church. It’s in Philippi, on the Sabbath, that Paul, Timothy and Silas meets a group of women down by a river who’ve gathered to worship. Paul shares the gospel message and one woman, Lydia, is especially moved. She invites Paul and his friends to stay in her home. Paul accepts her invitation and organizes his first church on European soil.[1]

As I’ve mentioned, Philippi was also where Paul first experienced prison. In the middle of the night, there was an earthquake that broke open the jail. The jailer thought Paul and Silas had escaped and was ready to end his life, but Paul cries out to him and assures him that everyone is all present and counted for even though the bars are opened and the chains broken. This leads to the conversion of the jailer and his family.

Paul is pleased with how his work was blessed in Philippi and, as we saw last week, he keeps them in his prayers. Likewise, the Philippians are also fond of Paul, even sending a gift to relieve his suffering while he’s in prison.      As I attempted to stress last week, joy is a theme that appears throughout this letter. This seems odd with Paul being, once again, in prison. In today’s reading, we learn that there are some difficulties facing the Philippians. Paul wants to encourage them as he draws upon Christ’s example. I am going to begin today’s reading at the end of the first chapter, beginning with verse 27.  Read Philippians 1:27-2:13.

 

          We know how to do this. We might forget sometimes, but we know that when we want to connect with a child, we get down on their level. Or we raise them up to our level. And the same goes with our pets. We get down on the floor and play, or if the pet is small enough, we pick them up and hold them close or place them on our shoulder. And if we’re trying to teach someone something, we don’t act superior and tell them to come to where we’re at, but we began on their level. It’s empathy. It’s walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. Such behavior is foundational if we want to build a good relationship. We might not always do it, but we know we should.

God shows us how this works. It’s why Christ came to us as he did, in a way that we can understand and in a manner in which we can related.

         Our reading this morning begins with a plea for those reading the letter to live in manner worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is a goal we should all strive to meet.  Paul has just given an update on his condition, and so he turns to the situation in Philippi.  He wants the Philippians to stand together, to be of one mind and spirit so they will not be intimidated by their opponents. He even has the audacity to suggest that it is a privilege to suffer with Christ!

        Our speaker at the January Series on Friday was Caroline Webb. She spoke on how to use behavioral science to improve our daily lives. One of the things she suggests is that by looking for the good in everything, our brains will catch on and focus on good. She seems to be echoing a bit of what Paul is saying here to the Philippians.  “Sure, you’re suffering, but stand firm and focus on the good for you know God is bringing about your salvation.” Focus on the good!

Early in the second chapter, Paul gives some wonderful advice which stands in the tradition of the Golden Rule. If we could only live by this:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each look not to your own interests, but to the interest of others.  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.

 

As Christians, we should ponder Paul’s counsel and consider what it means for us. The kingdom of God has no place for ambition or conceit. We’re called, as disciples, to work for the greater good of God’s kingdom, not to build our own little fiefdom. We should regard others better than ourselves which checks our tendency to be overly zealous and to look down on those who do not agree with us.

         I am often asked about the Christian belief that the only way to God the father is through Jesus Christ. Lots of people have a problem with this exclusive claim, seeing it as not accepting the pluralism that exist within our society. Yes, our belief in Jesus Christ as the way, the truth, and the life, is exclusive.[2] The problem, however, arises when Christians begin to think ourselves, or of churches, as superior to others. Such thoughts cannot be attributed to Jesus or to Paul. Paul, who certainly believed in the exclusive claim of Jesus Christ, tells those in the Philippian church that being a disciple means they must be humble, they must be of the mind Jesus.

Think about what this means. Jesus Christ, if we recall, got along better with the sinners of the day than he did with the faithful. He accepted them. Furthermore, he didn’t try to control them. He gave them a choice to follow him or not and didn’t beat up those who didn’t choose him. The only time he got really angry was when he saw people being an obstacle to worship as when he attacked the money changers at the temple.

         Another of our January Series speakers this week was John Inazu. For those of you who were not here, I hope that by mentioning these two speakers, you get a sense of what you’ve been missing…  Inazu is a professor of law and religion at Washington University in St. Louis and a fellow in the Institute for Advance Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He didn’t tell us how about his travel schedule back and forth between Virginia and Missouri, but he did encouraged us to have confidence with our faith. For you see, it’s only when we are confident about what we believe that we can take the risk to befriend those who are different. Otherwise, we’ll see them as a threat and have a tendency to demonize them. But if we are grounded in our faith in Christ, we should be willing to accept others who are different for we know that they, too, are created in God’s image.

It is a heresy, I believe, for the Christian faith to focus on how we might dominate and subdue others. Our focus is to be on Jesus Christ. Christ, as Paul tells us in the beautiful poem that follows this section, emptied himself, humbled himself, and took on the form of the slave so he could reach a broken humanity.

The example I used at the beginning—of us being willing to getting down in the floor with a child—is what God does in Christ. God comes down to our level, which is what the Christmas story is all about.

We should apply Paul’s principles to our lives. Are we standing firm in one spirit, in one mind, in the same love?  Paul certainly knows there is a need for diversity of thought and he’s not after a uniformity of opinion. Instead, he’s hoping, as one commentator on this passage wrote, the Philippians will “strive for an inner sentiment for one another that is full of love.”[3] That’s also my prayer for us. We’re not to flaunt or to brag about ourselves, but are to be called into the heart of Jesus Christ and into his service.

The Reformed understanding of call (and all of us here have been called by Christ) is twofold. We’re called for salvation and for service. We can’t laud over those outside the kingdom, for we’re not called to dominate, but to serve them with love so that, through God Spirit, they might come to know the truth.

Being a Christian isn’t anything special. Being a Christian means we’ve accepted a position of servanthood.  It means that we don’t trust ourselves; we trust Christ and allow him to rule our lives. Are we living our lives, as Paul asks at the beginning of this passage, in a way that’s worthy of the gospel. Or, as we say here at SIPC, are we reflecting Jesus’ face to the world? If not, what might we do differently? How might we gain the confidence needed in our faith to be bold in befriending the world? Amen.

 

©2018

[1] Acts 16.

[2] John 14:6.

[3] Gerald F. Hawthorne, Philippians: Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1983), 71.

Joyful Living: Divine Purposes


Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Philippians 1:1-21

January 7, 2018

 

 

For the next month, I’m going to focus on Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi. Unlike many of his other letters, where there were serious issues within the church that Paul addresses, this is a friendly letter. Yes, there are some issues in Philippi, but Paul’s primary concern is to strengthen their friendship and to remind them that he’s doing well in spite of being locked up in jail.  At the end of the letter, he thanks the Philippians for a gift they’d sent him through Epaphrodi, a member of their congregation. We can envision Paul, accompanied by his co-worker Timothy, penning a quick letter to give to Epaphrodi before he trekked back to Philippi. Without a postal service, he would have provided a means to promptly return thanks for the gift they’d sent.

        A few things about this letter. We’re not sure where or when it was written. We know from the letter, Paul was being held in a Roman city in which the Imperial Guard had an outpost.[1] It has often been assumed this was Rome, but could have been in other cities like Caesarea or Ephesus. As for the date, it could have been written most anytime within the 50s and early 60s of the Common Era.[2]

In addition to this letter being about friendship, it’s also about joy. Think about this: despite his situation, Paul is joyful. Are we joyful when facing troubles? Should we be? Listen as I read from the first chapter, Philippians 1:1-21

 

         Most of us, I’m sure, want to avoid prison and if we were locked up, we’d not very joyful. But prisons have been places where powerful statements have been made.  Think of Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Martin Luther King in Birmingham, Alabama, and Detrick Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany.  In the civil rights struggle, some leaders even saw jail as a welcomed escape from the busyness of the struggle. Behind bars, they had a chance to rest, catch their breath and collect their thoughts. From there, by letters, they could encourage their followers. Perhaps this was also true for Paul.

         This book within the New Testament has become known as “The Letter of Paul to the Philippians.” But take a look at the opening verse.  It’s not just Paul, but Paul and Timothy.  Paul, with his usual humility, puts himself and Timothy at the same level. They’re both servants and slaves of Jesus Christ. While this is a letter of friendship, it’s a friendship that’s sealed in Jesus Christ. However, the personal nature of the letter and the continual use of the first person pronoun makes it clear Paul is the primary author of the letter.[3]

Philippians follows a traditional ancient form for letters.  The opening lines tells us who’s being addressed within the letter, from whom the letter has come, and a greeting. In many of Paul’s other letters, he cites his credentials here. But with this letter, that’s not necessary. We wouldn’t write a letter to a spouse saying “I’m your husband or wife,” or to a child saying, “I’m your father,” or to a friend citing that I’m your friend, unless we were being very sarcastic or trying to make a cruel point. This letter is addressed to people Paul and Timothy know well. Although known to the Philippians, Paul doesn’t want the letter to focus only on himself so he greets his readers in the name of Jesus Christ. At its primary level, this is a letter about Jesus.

      After the opening salutation, Paul follows with a section of the letter that is a tradition for him. In every Pauline letter, with the exception of Galatians, Paul has an opening section where he offers Thanksgiving for those he’s addressing.[4] Paul is fond of the people in Philippi, noting that every time he thinks about them, he offers a prayer of thanksgiving.  In this section of the letter, we learn more of Paul’s gratitude and affection for the Philippians. Again, as in his salutation, the focus is ultimately not on the author or recipient of the letter, but on the work of God in Jesus Christ in which they’re involved. Yes, Paul is thankful they have stuck with him, even while he’s imprisoned. After all, he spent his first night in jail in Philippi![5] So Paul being locked up isn’t anything new for them. Paul finishes this section of Thanksgiving, as he often does, with a prayer for those to whom the letter is addressed.

The body of the letter begins with verse 12. Paul now addresses his situation. Instead of complaining about prison food or how the iron shackles are rubbing blisters on his ankles, Paul continues giving thanks. In fact, Paul now understands that his incarceration is having the opposite effect from what his enemies wanted. If they thought that locking Paul up was going to end his ministry, they were wrong. Instead, Paul now has an opportunity to preach and teach the Roman soldiers guarding him.  And those believers who are near Paul witness the strength of his faith and therefore their faith is strengthened. Paul’s attitude, while in chains, is giving voice to others who are continuing the work of proclaiming Jesus Christ.

          We learn that there are two kind of preachers who are filling the gap following Paul’s arrest. There are some who desire the spotlight and may even be secretly glad that the Apostle is locked up.  To them, it’s a competition. They’re not really doing ministry for the right reasons. They’re more like the Pharisee Jesus pointed to, who prayed loud and publicly.[6] But there are others, coming behind Paul, who are motivated for the right reasons, out of love. Paul decides he’s not going to worry about the first group, and just be glad that those spotlight-grabbers are talking about Jesus.  Of course, those in the second group, who love Jesus and want others to have what they have, warms Paul’s heart.  But because both are preaching Jesus Christ, God can use them both to further his work.  Sometimes, especially in my profession, people think that everything is on their shoulders and forget that God can take even our failures and use them for his glory and edification.

Paul is also at peace because he knows how things are going to turn out.  God’s got this under control. Even while he is imprisoned because of his faith in Jesus Christ, Paul knows that the spread of the gospel isn’t up to him. It’s in God’s hands. God is going to make sure Jesus’s message is heard.  Paul is so confident of his message that he is not worried if he lives or dies.  If he lives, great, he can keep doing the work to which he’s been called. If he dies, great, he can be with Christ.

        As followers of Jesus, we have a divine purpose.  We are to be about seeking out and doing God’s will in the world. When we are jealous of others, it’s often because we are focused on ourselves and our own ego and not on what God wants us to be doing. God has given us each talents which are to be used in building up the kingdom. If we use them in purposeful way, we should be satisfied with and joyful in our work. We should also trust that God has called others to do the work of the kingdom.  It takes all types.

There’s an attitude that Paul expresses in this letter that I wish we could all embrace. Think about it. We get uptight. We often see ourselves in competition.  We want to be better and to be seen as better, which can be a good motivator as long as we want to do the best for Jesus Christ. When we want to be the best for selfish reasons, so that we look good, so that we look better than them (whoever “they” are), we miss the point. God still might use us to do important work, but in our hearts, are we really concerned for others? We are to do what we can, as did Paul, but we must trust the future to God?

        A second thing we should learn from this passage is that God can even take our misfortunes and use them for a great glory. Bad can come from good. Hopefully none of us will ever experience prison for Jesus, and certainly not martyrdom, but in the course of human history those who have suffered so for their faith have been an inspiration.  John Knox, the leader of the Protestant Reformation in Scotland, was fortified with zeal when his mentor, George Wishart, the man who led him to see the truth of Jesus Christ, was burned at the stake in St. Andrews. When others see that we hold true to our beliefs in Jesus, even when it means we suffer, we become a powerful testimony. As Paul states in this passage, even his guards are curious about this faith. They want to know why Paul is willing to suffer so for his beliefs. They listen to him with willing ears. God has a way of turning earthly misfortune into eternal treasure.

      Think about this in the context in which we live. We don’t have to worry about persecution or imprisonment, at least not yet in America.  But when others who are not believers see that we are true to our faith and watch as we seek to live as Jesus’ disciples, we make a positive witness. When they see us being honest and truthful, willing for forgo short-term gains because it would force us to act in way contrary to our faith, we reflect Jesus’ face to the world. Consider your actions? Do your deeds provide a good witness to Jesus?  Think about your joy. Are you content with what God is doing through you to bring about a positive change in the world? Can you be happy, even when suffering, ‘cause you trust that God’s got this?

We must live noble lives, be thankful for what Jesus Christ has done for us, and trust that God has called us to a divine purpose.  If we do, believe, and trust, we can experience joy despite our situation. Amen.

©2018

[1] Philippians 1:13.

[2] Gerald F. Hawthorne, Philippians: Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word, 1983), xxxvi-xliv.

[3] Hawthorne, 3-4.

[4] Fred Craddock, Philippians: Interpretation, A Biblical Commentary for Preaching and Teaching (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985), 3.

[5] Acts 16:16ff.

[6] Luke 18:10-12.

I am basing this series on an article in Reformed Worship.

 

 

Christmas Eve Homily 2017

JEFF GARRISON

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Christmas Eve Homily 2017

Luke 2:1-15

 

         In this past Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, there was an article I hope you saw, titled “The Salvation of ‘Napalm Girl’”.  When I saw “Napalm Girl,” I knew who this was although I didn’t know her name. Those of us old enough to remember anything from the early 70s remember that tragic photo of a young Vietnamese girl running and screaming, her clothes having been burn off by napalm. That girl, Ms. Kim, is now in her mid-50s. In the article, she tells about her bitterness. She still receives treatment for the burns. But she also tells about how, a decade after the event, when she would have been nineteen, she attended a small church in Vietnam on Christmas Eve. And she heard the pastor deliver a Christmas message that would be very familiar to us all. Christmas is not about the gifts that are carefully wrapped at placed under a tree. Christmas is about the gift of Jesus Christ, wrapped in human flesh… A change was coming over her life as she experienced peace for the first time.[1]

The story we are about to hear for the umpteenth time has that kind of power, the power to change lives. Listen as I read Luke 2:1-15.

###

 

It all seems so long ago…. The humble birth in a stable and the horrible death upon a cross… Even the glorious resurrection, as the stone of the grave was pushed aside, seems distant. Yet, something brings us back year after year. Tonight, all across our land and throughout the world, people are gathering to recall that wonderful night of so many years ago.

The year after I graduated from college, I was the night shift production supervisor in a bakery. There was something strange about going to work late in the evening, driving by houses as lights are being turned off. I would think about those people settling in for the night and would feel strange. I was the odd one, laboring throughout the night. From that experience, I know how the shepherds must have felt, as they sat on a hillside overlooking the city and watched the lights in the houses below slowly extinguish.

The night was lonely. Furthermore, being a shepherd wasn’t exactly a romantic job in first century Palestine. People looked down on them. If there was ever a group of people needing a Savior, it was the shepherds early in the morning, when the air was the coldest and they felt as isolated as ever.

Over and over again we hear the words of the angels to the shepherds: “Do not be afraid; for see—I’m bringing you good news of great joy for all the people, to you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Perhaps the message was given to the shepherds because they were the only ones awake that night around Bethlehem. But more likely, since our God is merciful and all-knowing, the shepherds witnessed the angel’s song because they needed to hear it. They needed to experience something wonderful in their drab lives. Even though the shepherds continued to watch over sheep in the days and years afterwards, their lives were changed. After a storm, when the clouds were breaking and the moon shined brightly, they recalled another night when the heavens glowed brightly and would be warmed inside for they knew that God loved them.

But the herald of the angels was not just for the shepherds.  The good was and is for “all the people,” for you and for me, for God has come in the flesh. Sometimes we are tempted to forget this wonderful news and need to be reminded. Such is the purpose of Christmas. It is a time to be remind of not only Christ’s wonderful birth, but also his death which atoned for our sins and his glorious resurrection in which we have our hope.

In a poem titled “The Cross in the Manger, Ann Weems, a Christian poet, writes:

If there is no cross in the manger,

there is no Christmas.

If the Babe doesn’t become the Adult,

there is no Bethlehem star.

If there is no commitment in us,

there are no Wise Men Searching…

 

Her poem continues on and ends:

 

For if there is no reconciliation,

we cannot call Christ “Prince of Peace.”

If there is no goodwill toward others,

it can all be packed away in boxes for another year.

If there is no forgiveness in us,

there is no cause for celebration.

If we cannot go now even unto Golgotha,

there is no Christmas in us.

If Christmas is not now,

if Christ is not born into the everyday present,

then what is all the noise about?

 

Let me tell you a story and give you something to think about as you go home this evening. Once upon a time a country ruled by a king was invaded by a foreign army. The king was killed, but his loyal servants rescued his children and placed them with peasant families in the countryside where they would be safe. The youngest daughter was just an infant and never knew she was the daughter of a king. She grew up with a family in poverty, digging potatoes for a living.

One day an old woman approached the now young woman as she was digging potatoes. The old woman asked, “Do you know who you are?” The young woman said, “Yes, I’m the farmer’s daughter and a potato digger.”

“No, no,” the old woman said, “you are the daughter of a king.” Then the old woman then disappeared into the forest.

“Am I the daughter of a king?” the woman asked herself.  The next day, she still dug potatoes, but she dug them differently. She held her shoulders up high and there a light in her eye because she knew who she was. She was the daughter of a king.

Friends, because of Jesus Christ, we, like the shepherds, have been adopted as children of the Most High King. Being daughters and sons of the king is a high and holy calling which should be evident in our words and deeds. The way we carry ourselves and the way we celebrate should be a sign of God’s grace. Live as a child of the King. Take in this story and like Ms. Kim, let it change your life. Glory to God in the highest. Amen.

©2017

[1] Kim Phuc Phan Thi, “The Salvation of ‘Napalm Girl’”, The Wall Street Journal, (Friday, December 22, 2017), A15.

Fourth Sunday of Advent: Repent

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Fourth Sunday of Advent: Mark 1:1-8

December 24, 2017

This is a weird day thanks to the way Christmas falls this year. As with most churches, we celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve at night. But this morning, we’re not quite there.  Don’t jump the gun on your celebrations just yet. It’s not Christmas, but the fourth Sunday of Advent. We’re still waiting and as we’ve done through this season of Advent, we’re looking at passages from Mark’s gospel to give us a better view of this world in to which Jesus came. This morning we’re looking at John the Baptist. He plays an important role and if I’d followed the traditional readings of Advent, he’d take top billing for two Sundays.

One of the Spiritual practices I enjoyed this year was listening daily to the Advent readings and prayers developed by the Church of Scotland, our mother church. I highly recommend these short videos as they are well done. Before reading the gospel text, let’s watch this video about John.

Video Link:

Read Mark 1:1-8

I’m sure many of you know that Mark skips over the infant narratives of Jesus as found in Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels. In Mark, as in John, there are no stories of humble mangers, gawking shepherds, or gift-bearing Magi. But all four Gospels have stories of the wild man in the desert. Before we can get to that cuddly red-cheeked baby, we encounter John.
John’s not the kind of dude you’d invite to a Christmas cocktail party. Could you image him in such a setting?  Not exactly dressed to impressed, his camel-haired clothing isn’t a fancy sports coat. And heaven help you if he brought a dish to pass. Expect it to be an appetizer consisting of dead bugs soaked in honey (and I bet there’s not nearly enough honey for my taste). And the small polite talk in the parlor will soon be interrupted as John starts pointing out people’s sins. He’s known to call folks a brood of vipers,[1] which wouldn’t exactly endear him to other guests. When he starts preaching and waving his arms, he’ll knock over drinks and offend guests. I’m pretty sure you won’t make the mistake and invite John back the next year. That’s probably be okay with him. He has problems with polite society.

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” Mark’s gospel begins.  From the very first sentence, we are told this is a story of Jesus, but as I said, gospel writer doesn’t take us there right away, we have to first encounter John. But before dealing with him, let’s look at this opening sentence which sets the stage. It’s important for us to understand this sentence in the context it was written. First of all, “the beginning” takes us back to “In the beginning,” at the opening of Genesis. We’re reminded that the beginning starts with God’s action leading to creation, just as the coming of Jesus is a God-act. God is doing something new.

God’s action is reason for the good news, or the gospel as it can also be translated. However, the Greek word here (evangel from which we get the word evangelical) doesn’t come from scripture. Before it was a Biblical word, it was a political word. We associate it with “joyful tidings,” but so did the Romans of the first century who would celebrate when Caesar approached. In year 9, decades before the Gospels were penned, a calendar found in Asia Minor noted Caesar Augustus’ birthday with the inscription, “the beginning of joyful tidings.” In the Roman world, this term marked a new political situation in the world. Drawing upon this, Mark makes it clear that Jesus’ coming is a new situation for the world to celebrate. Just as the church took the Roman cross, a symbol of torture and shame, and reinterpreted it as a symbol of freedom, the good news no longer applies to Rome but to Jesus.

It’s Jesus, not Caesar. Jesus is the good news. Drawing on the prophetic tradition, the gospel writer proclaims that Jesus is the promised one. But before Jesus comes, the world must be prepared and this is where John the Baptizer enters.[2]

 

 

The gospel of Jesus Christ begins, not in a manager, but out in the desert with this wild man.[3] Like a coyote, he’s a voice crying in the wilderness. He’s an Elijah, the prophet who was nurtured by ravens, the prophet who found solace in the desert. [4] He has come to prepare the way. He’s the prophet that calls us to leave all that is comfortable behind and to travel into the wilderness. And we’re not going to a spa. When we arrive at those muddy banks along the Jordan, we’ll have to confront our sin so that we might repent and be baptized. He’s also the prophet who knew his place. He wasn’t the one coming, just the one who opens the door for the Messiah.

John was a prophet who came into a silent world. Israel hadn’t had any prophets in centuries. Were their prayers being heard? Being answered? I am sure many of the Jews were wondering if they’d been abandoned as they felt they had for four hundred years in Egypt. But then John is heard bellowing in the wilderness, telling people to prepare for and to expect the coming of the Lord. His message was heard as people flocked out to the Jordan, where they were called to repent and, as they came up from the waters of baptism, to start a new life.

John was a humble man. He didn’t exploit his popularity. He stayed focused to his mission, noting that the one coming was so great that he wouldn’t be worthy to untie his shoes. John didn’t even think himself worthy of serving as Jesus slave. Yet, we know that like John, Jesus, too, was humble. Although born a king, he didn’t exploit his position but assumed the position of a servant, washing the feet of his disciples.[5] There’s a lot we can learn from these two men and how they handled the power bestowed upon them.

Advent is a season of knowing we’re in trouble and we need a Savior. But as the Savior came that first time, on his own terms, not in a way expected by the powers-that-be in Jerusalem, so too he will come to us on his terms. We must prepare ourselves. We must make room in our hearts in and our lives in order to receive the child born in Bethlehem. But we can’t stop there for we must remember that that child grew up and walked the dusty roads of Galilee, calling people to follow him. And that man taught the disciples and the multitudes to love God and neighbor, to show mercy, and to be at peace. Tonight we celebrate his birth, his coming, but for the rest of our live we’re called to follow him and to live as he taught.

John was sent with a mission. He was to point to Jesus. Jesus calls us for a mission, too. We are to point to him and to continue to do the work he started there is Galilee. This season, as we enjoy the lights and the joy around the tree and at the table, let us not forget that we are celebrating the birth of a King and a Savior. Let us not forget that we live for him. Like John, we’re not worthy of untying his sandals, but Jesus loves us enough that he’s willing to wash out feet, to wash our sins away. Jesus loves us enough he’s willing for us to be his adopted brothers and sisters. And Jesus is the hope we, as Christians, have for the world. Let us prepare a place for him in our hearts so that we can show his love, reflect his face to the world. Amen.

 

©2017

[1] Matthew 3:7 and Luke 3:7.

[2] William L. Lane, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 42-43.

[3] Scott Hoezee, Elizabeth Steele and Carrie Steenwyk, “Living in Advent: Worship Ideas for the Gospel of Mark,” Reformed Worship #89 (September 2011), 10-11.

[4] See Mark 9:11-13.  See also Malachi 4:5-6 and 1Kings 17:5-6.

[5] Philippians 2:6-7, John 13:3-11.

Watch (Third Sunday of Advent)

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Mark 13:24-37

December 17, 2017

 

 

Sarah and her thirteen-year-old sister have been fighting a lot this year. This happens when you combine a headstrong two-year-old, who is sure she’s always right, with a young adolescent, who knows she’s right. Sarah’s parents, trying to take advantage of her newfound interest in Santa Claus, reminded the two-year-old that Santa’s watching and doesn’t like it when children fight. It has had little impact.
“I’ll just have to tell Santa about your misbehavior,” her mother said one evening as she picked up the phone and dialed. Sarah’s eyes grew big as her mother asked “Mrs. Claus” (really Sarah’s aunt) “could put Santa on the line.” Sarah’s mouth dropped as her Mom described to Santa (really Sarah’s uncle) how the two-year-old was acting. When Mom said that Santa wanted to talk to her, the toddler reluctantly took the phone.
Santa, in a deepened voice, explained to her how there would be no presents Christmas morning to children who fought with their sisters. He would be watching, and he expected things to be better from now on. Sarah, her eyes even wider, solemnly nodded and then silently hung the phone up. After a long moment, Mom (holding back laughter at being so clever) asked, “What did Santa say to you, dear?”
In almost a whisper, Sarah sadly but matter-of-factly stated, “Santa said he won’t be bringing toys to my sister this year.”[1]

I think we’re a lot like Sarah. We like to read into situations that we are in the right and they (a sister, someone else, or some other group of people) are wrong. But Scripture reminds us that there is a problem in the world (called sin) and we (as sinners) are a part of the problem which is why we need a Savior. We must be careful at making ourselves out as righteous and others as being in the wrong.

Today, we are looking at the ending of the 13th Chapter of Mark’s gospel. This chapter has an apocalyptic flavor. Last week, we looked at the opening where Jesus warned about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. He continued on discussing the tribulations that his followers would face during this time of the temple’s destruction. Then he moves to discussing the Son of Man’s return. This has generally be interpreted as Jesus’ return at the end of history, but if so, he doesn’t give us any clear understanding as to when it will happen, only that we are called to be ready.[2]

When you leave today, know two things. As sinners, we’re all in this together. As Christians, we long for Christ’s return. And we are to be ready for that event at the end of history. Read Mark 13:24-37.

 

          Keep awake…  As a child, that used to be so hard. Sermons were the worse. My eyes would be heavy.  School was also another difficult time to stay awake, especially in a warm classroom.  Keeping awake was hard, except for on Christmas Eve, when you were told to go to sleep. It was harder to fall asleep on Christmas Eve than it was when you had planted a tooth under the pillow! You knew something magical was happening. The anticipation was high; too much was happening while we were asleep. I’d roll and roll and when my parents looked in on us, pretend to be asleep, while the clocked ticked away.

         Keep awake, you don’t know when this is all going to happen and when the Son of Man might appear. It’s been almost 2000 years since Christ left—that must be the reason there is a lot of insomnia going around. But we’re weary of waiting. It’s not something we’re good at doing. We fret when we are in the doctor’s office for too long. We stew when we get behind a slow driver along the Diamond Causeway. We brood if a waitress or waiter in a restaurant is inefficient. Waiting makes us feel out of control, unimportant, unwanted and helpless. Yet, we have to wait all the time. Children wait for Christmas morning. Parents wait on children to go to sleep. And the more we wait, the more our blood pressure rises. When is it going to all happen?

And then, Advent rolls around in the church calendar.  A period of waiting, which is counter-cultural in itself, for we are a society of people who want instant gratification. However, most people probably don’t mind waiting for Christ’s return. After all, we can put off the important things in life for another time. But that’s risky, Jesus says. That’s a gamble we shouldn’t take.

       Mark provides us with a pretty gloom picture in this chapter. Certainly most of the chapter is referring to the destruction of the temple which occurred in 70 AD. It was a period of false Messiahs and great upheaval. But in verse 24, Jesus moves to discussing his return. One way of looking at this passage is how, with the temple gone, the focus is now on the Messiah, the risen Christ. The Jesus who lives in our heart and is present in the church is how God is represented in our world today. So yes, Jesus is here with us now in Spirit, but he’s also coming back in person…

In a commentary on this passage, Scott Hoezee, a friend of mine writes:

“If the first advent of Christ has any meaning whatsoever, it is only because he is coming back to judge the living and the dead. If he is not coming back, then there is nothing to celebrate at Christmas….  If ditties along the lines of ‘Have a holly jolly Christmas’ could cure what ails us in this life, then there never would have been any need for God’s Son to go through the bloody trouble of coming here in person.”[3]

As I said earlier, there is a problem in the world. As sinners, we’re a part of that problem and Christ is the solution.

       Our passage begins with a description of terrible days.  The sun and moon will darken and stars will be falling out of the sky…  Anyone see any of the Geminids meteors the other night?  I only saw one meteor streak across the sky, while taking the dog out, but it was supposedly a pretty good meteor shower. Of course, we know meteors are not stars, but they look like stars and we can see why such showers were frightening to those in the ancient world. Mark envisions not just a darkening of the sky, but a collapse of things we take for granted.

Perhaps we need to look at this passage in a less literal way.  What’s happening is that the lights need to be lowered as a way that all the light can be focused on the one coming—Jesus Christ. The distractions need to be removed so that everyone pays attention to what’s happening.  The scene is scary and wonderful at the same time. It’s God’s great and final drama in history.

         Think about being in a theater. At the beginning of a play or concert, the house lights are dimmed so the audience can only see the performance. The lights are dimmed so that everyone will be focused on Christ.

This return involves the gathering of the elect, the faithful, those chosen by God through Christ. Those who have been faithful are brought into Christ’s presence.

         Jesus then returns to the question that started this discourse, about when these things (such as the destruction of the temple) will occur. He uses a fig tree as a lesson. Just a day or two beforehand, Jesus had cursed a fig tree that was not providing fruit, and the tree shriveled up and died.[4] The fig tree was often used by the Prophets as a symbol of Israel.[5] Now, instead of a fig tree withering, he speaks of when it blooms, which is later that most trees, in early summer. The budding of the fig tree is a sign of when this is happening, probably refers to Jesus the Messiah rising into prominence as the temple, which will soon be no more, fades from history. In the future, God will not be seen in relationship to the temple (for with the temple gone, where would that leave God?). Instead, God is seen through his Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. The fig tree which appears dead in winter, puts forth new sprouts and is alive. Christ, who was dead, is resurrected.

Jesus doesn’t give an exact time for this to happen, instead he points to what will happen.

          Our passage moves on to the final section where Jesus insists that what’s important isn’t that we know when all this will take place (much of which took place before the end of the first century). Yet, we are still waiting for his return. What’s important is that we are ready. “Keep awake,” this chapter ends, or as The Message translates the ending verse, “Stay at your post. Keep watch.”  As one commentator on this passage writes, “vigilance, not calculation, is required.”[6]

The use of the story about the slaves or servants waiting on the master implies that they have assignments and must be willing to fulfill their calling while the Master is away. Interestingly, with this section in Mark’s gospel, relating to the Master’s return, there are no signs given. The slaves don’t know, so they must continue with their tasks… Likewise, each member of the church has work to do (by the way, we’re all called) and by doing that for which we’ve been called, we fulfill our obligation to “watch.”[7]

         Christ has come, Christ will come again. But until he does, we are to be his hands and feet in the world, taking care of one another while telling his story so that others will catch a glimpse of the hope the world has in Jesus Christ and be ready. As The Message translation reminds us, “Stay at our post” so we might be ready when Christ comes. Come, Lord Jesus, Come. Amen.

 

©2017

[1] http://www.humormatters.com/holidays/Christmas/xmasjokes.htm

[2] Some scholars suggest that this passage is primarily focused on Jesus’ resurrected glory.  See N. T. Wright, Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues (New York: HarperCollins, 2014), 97.

[3] Scott Hoezee, Elizabeth Steele Halstead, Carrie Steenwyk, “Living in Advent: Worship Ideas from the Gospel of Mark” Reformed Worship 89 (September 2008), 9.

[4] Mark 11:12-14, 20-21.  Morna D. Hooker, Black’s New Testament Commentaries: The Gospel According to Saint Mark (London: A. C. Black Limited, 1991), 320.

[5] See Jeremiah 8:13, Hosea 9:10, Joel 1:7, Micah 7:1.  See footnotes for Mark 11:12-14 in The New Interpreters Study Bible (Abingdon Press, 2003).

[6] William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark: The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 482.

[7] Hooker 322. See also Lane, 484.

A little child shall lead them…

This morning I was one of three wise guys to present a short seasonal talk at the Skidaway Island Kiwanis Club.  I was honored to share the podium with Pastor Jason Talness of Messiah Lutheran (he’s from Minnesota and a Viking fan) and Rabbi Robert Haas of Mickve Israel (who is also a stand-up comedian).

Kiwanis Club Talk on Inspiration

Jeff Garrison

December 14, 2017

 

One of the occupational hazards of being a Presbyterian minister is that I cannot stand before a group of people to talk without focusing on a Bible passage. It’s what we do. If I was Baptist, I’d have a supply of water and probably be making an altar call. If I was a Lutheran from Minnesota, I’d probably be touting some made-up virtue of godless-Vikings and suggesting that the significance of the purple color of Advent is deeper than its liturgical meaning. And if I was Jewish, I’d be thanking God for one of those hats, a yamaka, like Rabbi Haas wears. I don’t understand our God. Robert has nearly a full head of hair and has to hide it. Me, well, I’m just trying to figure out how to make such a head covering a part of my religious tradition.

My Bible verse for the morning comes from the Hebrew portion of our Bible…  See, Robert, I’m trying hard to earn one of those caps.  Isaiah 11:6-9:

 The wolf shall live with the lamb,
    the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
    and a little child shall lead them.
 The cow and the bear shall graze,
    their young shall lie down together;
    and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
    and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
  They will not hurt or destroy
    on all my holy mountain…

 

The painting I displayed as a backdrop was based on this verse in Scripture. It was one of over a hundred variations of “The Peaceful Kingdom” painted by the 19th Century Pennsylvanian artist Edward Hicks. With so many paintings of the same subject, you’d think he fell into a rut. But he was a Quaker, and in addition to oatmeal, peace is something they do a better job striving for than most of us. Hicks was captivated by this passage. Highlighted in each piece is a child (or in some cases, children) along with the animals depicted in the poetry of the prophet.

  And a little child shall lead them…

Often, I think, we hear this passage and think we’re to follow that child. But that’s not the point. The child in Hicks’ painting as well as the one referred to in Isaiah is leading wild and dangerous animals. In our world, the parents of such a child would be charged with neglect. Who let’s their children play with wild animals? Our world is too violent, too dangerous, as was Isaiah’s. The prophet’s vision, his longing, is for the peaceful kingdom to come about, and that’s something only God can instill. For Christians, we see this beginning with a child born in a manager. We are to follow that child when he’s no longer in swaddling clothes, but crowned in righteousness, as we work to protect children and strive for a peaceful world as envisioned by the prophet. We have our work cut out for us.

For Christians, Christmas remains a season for children.  My best memories of the season is as a child. I didn’t have to worry about sermons back then. And what few gifts I had to give were homemade and, I can assure you, a parent’s love is greater than a child’s skill. So for a moment, think about the holiday when you were a child.

How about that time you bravely climbed up into Santa’s lap and boldly told him you’d been a good boy or girl all year.  And remember how the old man in red could still be heard laughing as your mother dragged you out of the store?

Or how about your first candlelight service on Christmas Eve, the mystery of the evening and the joy of the music filling the hour. Think about how especially proud you were when you were first able to hold a lighted candle by yourself. I know I thought I’d made the big leagues. And then, because we live in a fallen world, think about how you realized you could tip the candle just right and wax would drop, missing the guard, and plop on your sister’s hand she unsuspectingly rest it on the rail of the pew in front. I don’t know about you. I was married and with kids before my mother trusted me with another candle. My current congregation heard of my sin and took care of this problem by issuing battery powered candles.

Think of how excited you were as a child to wake up on Christmas morning and discover the treasures left under a tree. In my family, there were three of us and we’d have to all be ready at the same moment to enter the living room where the loot had been stashed by St. Nick. We never could understand how he managed this since we didn’t have a chimney.

What we did have was a Super 8 motion picture camera and my dad wanted to capture all the action. We enter the room together, only to be hit by the flood lights with an illumination of a small nuclear explosion. The camera recorded us raising our hands over our bleached out faces in order to shield our eyes. It would be another thirty minutes before our eyes adjusted enough to make out what was under the tree. But it was a magical day and we completely overlooked our parents’ exhaustion. (I never could understand why they didn’t go to bed like the rest of us on Christmas Eve.)

And those carefree Christmas Days were special.  We’d play with friends and cousins, trying out everyone’s new toys. Early in the afternoon, we’d be called to a feast with an insane amount of food, which none of us were interested because we’d already been into the stuffing (that is the candy stuffed in the stockings Santa left).

That child born in Bethlehem serves as an inspiration for those of us who strive to follow him. And years later, when he was grown and wandering around the backroads of Galilee, calling the disciples and others to follow, Jesus reminded them (and us) of the importance of childhood. Jesus encourages us to hold on to the awe and innocence of a child, telling us that in order for us to enter the kingdom of Heaven, we must come as one.

As Kiwanians, thank you for helping children make and experience such memories. During this season, I encourage you to watch the children and capture some of their excitement. Then, hopefully, you’ll be inspired as Kiwanians to continue the kind of building Kiwanis is known to do with children around the world. Until God ushers in that Peaceful Kingdom, we have work to do.  Thank you.

Don’t be misled, God’s got this

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Mark 13:1-9

December 10, 2017

 

Advent is a time of waiting. Let’s face it; we’re not very good at it. Everything about our society wants to push us to go faster. We hear carols starting after Halloween. Why, cause some ad man or woman thinks it will lure us into buying presents. But the season of Advent tells us to hold on, to wait, don’t get all excited, not just yet. Remember, the Jews waited centuries for the Messiah. And we’re waiting for his return even as we wait to celebrate a birth that happened a long time ago.

Wait, be patient, things are happening that we don’t fully understand. Wait, be patient and trust for God has things under control. Wait, be patient, it’s a good spiritual discipline. Advent hymns express our waiting, our longing, our desires, our awe and our fear. “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus,” “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” “Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand.”  Yes, Christmas is a season of joy, but first, we have to prepare ourselves as we wait in awe of what God is doing.

This Advent I’m having us look at passages from Mark’s gospel that challenge us to be ready for the Messiah. You know, Jesus surprised people when he first came. That’ll probably be true for his return, too. In our reading this morning, we are reminded that following Jesus isn’t always going to be easy. We’re going to be tempted to turn away, to try to find a smoother road. But we are to endure, to remain faithful, to trust in our Savior.

         There is an old Peanuts cartoon where Lucy and Linus are looking out of the window into the rain, kind of like many of us have been doing much of the past week. Lucy expresses her concern that the whole world might flood. Linus assures her that that won’t happen because of God’s promise in the 9th Chapter of Genesis, when the rainbow was placed in the sky. Lucy, relieved, thanked Linus for taking a great load off her mind. Linus responds, “Sound theology will do that.”

Sounds theology reminds us that God is in control and we’re to trust the Lord in all things.  Read Mark 13:1-9.

          Having made their way from Galilee down to Jerusalem, the disciples are kind of like Private Gomer Pyle on leave in New York City.  Reading this passage, I can almost hear a wide-eyed Peter say Gawwww-leeeee, as he gawks and cranes his neck looking up at the skyscrapers. Stopping at every intersection, he uses one of those obnoxious sticks to take selfies with his cell phone. Or maybe he’d be like Jeffro Bodine, driving the Clampet family’s old jalopy from Tennessee to Hollywood in the Beverly Hillbillies. The “country bumpkin” who is amazed by urban Los Angeles. These old shows gave us plenty of laughs and sadly most of the actors are no longer with us. Jim Nabors, who played Gomer Pyle, died just a couple weeks ago.

     In our passage this morning, the disciples are awe-struck at the temple. Like Gormer and the Jeffro, they’re the country-bumpkins” who’d come down from Galilee and are amazed. They had reason to be. Herod’s temple was built with massive stones measuring up to 67 ½ feet in length, 7 ½ feet in height and 18 feet in width.[1] In the days without heavy equipment, to see such massive stones incorporated into the temple’s beautiful construction was awe-inspiring. That is, awe-inspiring to everyone but Jesus. The disciples walk in amazement while Jesus just kinds of shrugs his shoulders and says it’ll end up a pile of rubble. “You got to be kidding us, Jesus,” the disciples probably thought. His words put a damper on the disciples’ enthusiasm.[2]

We can image the disciples following Jesus out of Jerusalem in silence, shaking their heads. They head to the Mount of Olives, where they have a panoramic view of Old City and the temple. There, four of the disciples pull Jesus aside.  Still in shock, they ask about what he said and when is it going to happen. Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t directly answer their question and say this will happen in forty years. Or that in 70 AD the Romans, who’d been kicked out of Israel four years earlier, will come back with a vengeance. They’ll recapture the city, build hot fires under the stones so that they blow apart. And then, using captured Jews who had been enslaved, they’ll spread the rocks out so that nothing much remains of the temple.

You know, the Romans had a way of teaching their enemies a lesson, of getting rid of the icons of those nations who challenged them. Remember Carthage? They not only destroyed the city but sowed salt into the ground so that nothing would grow there. The destruction of the temple created a significant challenge for Jews and Christians.  No longer did they have a central place of worship and focus. Until this time, the church and along with Jewish believers looked to Jerusalem. The church had been spreading throughout the empire, but after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, the focus for the church moved away from Jerusalem, to Antioch and Alexander and eventually Constantinople and Rome.

          But Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples when this is going to happen. Instead he uses this moment to warn the disciples that the future will not be all rosy. There is going to be some serious trouble and he wants the disciples to be ready so that they’ll remain faithful and not be deceived by others who come along with a better proposal. When trouble happens isn’t important. How we face challenges, as Christians, is important. Do we remain faithful in times of trouble, or are we lured away from our Savior?

In a way, this is a passage about trust. Will the disciples place their trust in these seemingly indestructible walls crafted out of stone and laden with gold? Or will they place their trust in him, in Jesus? And where do we place our trust? In that which we build? In that which appears solid? Or in Jesus?

        One of our problems (a problem of humanity) is that we tend to have short attention spans. Despite the advertisements about investing for the long-term, we tend to take short-term views. We want to know what someone is going to do for us right now, in the moment. We don’t like to wait. If someone promises us that we don’t have wait, that we can have it now, that we can have our cake and eat it too, we’re gonna listen and be tempted to follow. It may sound too good to be true (and probably is), but that’s what we want, that’s what we feel we deserve, or so we think. But Jesus wants us to be loyal to him, to trust him, and not be misled by false prophets and messiahs.

       Interestingly, in our text this morning, Jesus tells us that there will be wars and rumors of wars, which has been pretty much true for all of human history. Yeah, we might get a decade or two without a major war, but that’s about it. But these wars, which happen all the time, don’t signal the end. Yes, nations will rise against nations, kingdoms against kingdoms, along with earthquakes and famines. We see it, don’t we? But when hasn’t the earth seen such troubles. Our only advantage today is that wars and the earthquakes (along with fires and volcanoes and other disasters) are brought into our living rooms on TV and through the internet. They’ve always been happening, it’s just that we’re able to know about them faster today than ever before. So we need to be careful about pointing to any set of events as being precursors to the end.

          But get this. Jesus doesn’t say that the end of time will come on the heels of such disasters, but that such signs will just be the beginning of the birth pangs. Birth pangs… now we are taken back to Mary and that long journey to Bethlehem. Think about this. Although birth pangs are not pleasant (of course, as you know, I’ve not experienced them firsthand), they are actually a hopeful sign. Because after all the pain comes that cry of a newborn, a child, a new life. And with that cry comes joy. So instead of us worrying about the troubles we face, we rejoice for we know that there is something glorious is happening. From the perspective of a birth, this isn’t necessarily a gloomy passage. Yes, there will be trouble, but God’s got this under control.

        Trust. Believe. Live in hope. But don’t be surprised if you find yourself persecuted and abused because of your belief. It’s just birth pangs. God’s got this! Jesus doesn’t want his disciples to be running around afraid, even though many of them were handed over to councils and beaten in the synagogues. Jesus wants them to trust in him and to realize that things are working out even when there appears to be no evidence of it.

What about you? Are you afraid of the signs of the times? Worried about the end? Or do you trust God in all things? It’s hard, but it is our calling.

Be strengthened by these words from Teresa of Avila, a Spanish mystic in the 16th Century:

          Let nothing disturb you.

Let nothing frighten you.

Though all things pass,

God does not change.

Patience wins all things.

But he lacks nothing who possesses God;

For God alone suffice.   Amen.

 

[1] Josephus gives two different dimensions in his writings.  45x5x6 cubits and 25x8x12 cubits.  A cubit is roughly 18 inches.  See Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (1991, London: Hendrickson Publishing 1997), 304.

[2] See Scott Hoezee, Elizabeth Steele Halstead, Carrie Steenwyk, “Living in Advent: Worship Ideas for the Gospel of Mark, Reformed Worship #89 (September 2008), 7.

Peace in the Heart (A Book Review)

Archibald Rutledge, Peace in the Heart (New York: Doubleday & Co, 1930), 316 pages, no illustrations

 
Margaret Reagan introduced me to Archibald Rutledge and lent me this book.  It’s the second of his books that I’ve read.

Rutledge was poet laureate of South Carolina for forty years. During his long life, he published nearly 50 books, mostly on outdoor life and poetry and wrote for a number of outdoor magazines including Field and Stream. Born in 1883 in McClellanville, SC, Rutledge grew up on Hampton Plantation. His ancestors include a long list of South Carolina royalty including a signer of the Declaration of Independence. As a child, his father, “the Colonel,” took him hunting and fishing. He attended high school in Charleston and later Union College in Schenectady, New York. Upon graduation, he taught English at Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania. While there, he made regular trips back to Hampton, especially during the Christmas break. In the 1930s, he moved back and devoted his life to the plantation and writing. He lived out his life at the plantation, except for the summer months when he headed to the beach or the North Carolina Mountains. Shortly before his death, he sold the plantation to the state of South Carolina. Today it is maintained as a park.

Peace in the Heart was first published in 1927. At the time, Rutledge was still teaching in Pennsylvania. There were a number of editions, the last published in 1947. Sadly it is out of print and hard to obtain. I was able to find copies of this book for sale (but with hefty price tags). There are a number of Rutledge’s other books that are still in print.

The book is a structured series of independent essays that follow the movement of the day and seasons. Rutledge starts at sunrise and spring and ends with night and winter. He finds God’s hand in the cycles of the day and the year.  “[W]e who love Nature sense that all seasons are divinely ordered,” he writes. “God takes our hands gently in spring” (28)

Drawing from his keen observations of nature, Rutledge explores life. An example of his observations is seen in the interest he took in a mud-dauber” (a type of wasp) who built his dirt home on one of the beams of Rutledge’s porch.  He kept knocking the dirt cave off his beams, but the wasp kept rebuilding it.  Each load of sand that the wasp mined near the creek took him four minutes to obtain and with each rebuilding, the sand home took on a redder hue as the wasp increased the portion of clay, hoping to build a stronger home that would last (279-80).

Hamilton Plantation

Rutledge professes his Christian faith, but at times I wondered if his faith is more influenced by the natural world than the Word or Bible.  “Face to face with Nature, we are face to face with God; and I for one believe Him to be the God of love as well as the God of law. That I cannot see Him troubles me not.  I find him in His works, in His constant abundant blessings, in the nature of the human soul” (76).  He thanks his Creator for supplying necessities and extras.  Sunlight, air, water, food and shelter are necessities.  Moonlight and starlight along with music, perfumes, flowers and the wind crooning through pines are extras to be enjoyed (15). He tells a friend who was dying, but miraculously recovered after hearing a bird sing. God “does not love us with words: He loves us by giving us everything we need in every way,” Rutledge notes. (16). While acknowledging his own sentimentalism and how nature writers are criticized for being sentimental, he wonders why it’s seen as a bad thing (68).  Toward the end of the book, he reports on how a German scientist came to the conclusion that wild things cannot reason. Rutledge then sarcastically quipped, “Well, they get along remarkably in a world in which reasoning men have a pretty hard struggle to succeed” (283).

He finds the natural world so intriguing and peaceful, suggesting that nature plans for life and not death (243). Obviously he overlooks the life and death struggle animals have in the wild. Although a hunter, he doesn’t glorify the killing of animals and in one story in which he went duck hunting but left his gun on a tree by the launch, he muses how he was glad for often a man who takes a gun “eaves his heart at home” (110). He finds that by observing natural laws we can keep out of trouble, drawing on how animals know on instinct how to act (51) and that the natural world knows to obey such universal laws and not to attempt to make a bargain with the Almighty (56).  While he has obviously learned much from scientists, he suggests that there are other types of questions that the scientists don’t ask. “What does this mean in terms of the spirit? What does all this beauty and intelligence suggest to the heart?  What can I learn from my own soul by surveying in thoughtful love the sounds of God’s wild children” (253-4).

Moving through the day, he explores storms and issues that arises with high water levels. He finds his heart rises during storms, which is why he sees them as a blessing (78), while also providing us an opportunity to shelter others. Caring for others during their storms helps us “develop our sympathies” (86). After the storm passes, he notices how we can rejoice that we have survived and find peace (90).  High water, especially where fresh water pushes into salt water, creates unique situations.  He tells about a beach in South Carolina in which bathers were horrified to see a large alligator, washed out to sea in high water, delighting in riding waves in the surf (107).  Interestingly, he does not include a chapter on drought and the unique ways low water levels open up new opportunities to explore.

A couple of chapters were devoted to two individuals who were influential in his life.  Prince was an African American boy with whom he grew up.  His family had live on the plantation as slaves. After emancipation, both of his parents worked at the plantation. His mother was the cook for 40 years and his father brought in the firewood and on the cool mornings would build fires in the hearths throughout the home. In Rutledge’s book, God’s Children, there are more stories about Prince.

The other individual to whom a chapter is devoted is Rutledge’s father. Colonel Rutledge fought in the Civil War and was the youngest Colonel in the Confederate army. He was wounded twice (at Malvern Hill and Antietam). While fighting, he had a slave with him, who saved him at Antietam, at risk of his own life and took him back to safety in Virginia. Rutledge tells of his father visiting him when he lived in Pennsylvania. They drove to the Antietam battlefield where a guide described the battle and mentioned, unknowingly, about the “gallant Colonel Henry Middleton Rutledge” of the 25th North Carolina Infantry.  Afterwards, his father introduced himself to the guide (217-218).  His father was a kind man and would often go to buy groceries and come back empty handed, after having given the groceries away to those in need. Living in admiration of his father, Rutledge wrote::

 

 “What a man’s worth is in this world depends on the kind of wake he leaves behind him as he passes.  If my Colonel came home empty-handed in a material way, it was because he had ‘bestowed all his goods to feed the poor.” His riches consisted not on what he brought with him but on what he left behind.” (208)

As for the slave who had saved his life, Rutledge tells his father’s story of a government agent visiting African-Americans that may have fought in the Civil War to determine their eligibility for a pension. This former slave told the agent (who was working on commission) that he was in the war all four years, omitting which side he had served during the war. To Rutledge’s father’s delight, he was granted a pension. After his wife died, he married a younger woman and at the time of the writing of this book, she was still receiving his pension (218-219).

Rutledge seems, however, to be most at home alone in the woods. He has a chapter on solitude and another on worship in the wild.  He talks joy and delight in the world and the animals within it.  He seems much more interested in the animal kingdom than plants, only mentioning flowers and trees in passing.  But with his intimate knowledge of wildlife, he believes that God delights in the world and it’s just another example of God’s love for us.  Although he doesn’t dwell on sin, Rutledge believes it’s only the human race that’s able to live “in opposition to his physical instincts” and to act as if he’s immortal (161). He does appears to have a concept of the incarnation, suggesting that the knowledge of God’s presence and love should be comforting as it means our foes are already defeated (177).

Like his book, God’s Children, there are paternalistic views that are considered politically incorrect in today’s world.  This comes out mostly when he talks about his father’s friendship with his former slaves.  Writing decades before the Civil Rights movement, Rutledge learned from his father that “while equality is often impossible, brotherhood never is” (210-211).  He appears to accept unquestionably that equality is impossible, but his views were probably more enlightened than most during the 1920s.

I recommend this book (if you can find a copy) for I found Rutledge to be a keen observer of nature. I especially like the analogy he made between water lilies and human beings.  Lilies appear to be floating on the surface, but what we don’t see is that they are tethered to the earth.  We, too, need to be so anchored.

Be Followers of Christ

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Mark 8:11-21, 27-31

December 3, 2017

 

 

This is a beautiful season as lights pop up around the neighborhood. I’m not much for over-top-decorations. We’re not the Griswolds.[1] But I do like to see lights. Especially simple decorations that seem to pierce the darkness of the season. On the southern end of the island, a number of people have small trees in their yards which back up to lagoons. These trees are lighted and then they reflect off the water. It’s something to behold. Looking at the reflections shimmering in the water, I pause to think of my own reflection of Jesus. I encourage you to do the same. Do our reflections pierce the darkness and offer hope?

Advent is a season for preparing for Christ’s coming. It’s comforting to think about Jesus’ first coming, the nights he spent in a manager as angels sang to shepherds and a mysterious star summoned the wise men. While Jesus started in a humble estate (and it’s important that God becomes a human), we can’t remain focused on that child sleeping on the hay. The Jesus we’re to follow doesn’t stay in the manger.

This Advent Season, we’re going to spend time with Mark’s gospel and struggle a bit with just who is this Jesus we’re called to follow. Mark doesn’t have a nativity narrative, like Matthew and Luke. Perhaps it’s because he wants to pull us away from the sleeping child to the man from Galilee. When Jesus first came, he surprised those he called and can still surprise us.

Today, we’ll begin this journey at the middle of Mark’s gospel, where we see people demanding Jesus for a sign. But will a sign make any difference? Let’s see… Read Mark 8:11-21, 27-31.

          “If I can only have a sign, I’d believe…”Are we any different that the Pharisees? We want to be assured. We want to know if we’re on the right trail.

The Pharisees demand for a sign came on the heels of Jesus’ second feeding miracle (4,000 bellies filled with just seven loaves). Is that not a sign? Why is it that those who have front row seats to the greatest story on earth have a hard time believing?[2] And how about us? We don’t have a front row seat.[3] What do we need to trust Jesus?

        And it’s not just the Pharisees. The disciples don’t get it either. When they leave in the boat, sailing across the lake, someone forgot to pack dinner. There is only one loaf.  (Interestingly, we’re left to wonder if Jesus is this loaf. After all, he’s the bread of life.[4]).

As they sail, Jesus warns the disciples about false teachings, and the disciples are only thinking about their growling stomachs. In the ancient world, yeast was used as an illustration of sin and evil, that starts small and grows and corrupts. It’s kind of like how we say, “One rotten apple ruins the barrel.” But when Jesus mentions yeast, instead of thinking about corruption, the disciples think about bread.

Now, the text doesn’t tell us this, but I can envision Jesus standing in the middle of the boat, he’s got his sea-legs on, shaking his head. Then, after a deep breath, he asks, “Why are you talking about having no bread? Don’t you understand? Are your hearts hardened? Are your eyes not working?  Are your ears clogged? Did you forget how we fed 5,000 with only five loaves and two fishes,[5] and how we fed 4,000 with just seven loaves?[6] They haven’t forgotten. They remember, but they still haven’t gotten it. They are still struggling to believe.

       After they reach their destination, we have a healing story, one of a blind man regaining sight. (I skipped that in our reading.) Then Jesus leads his disciples to a gentile city, Caesarea Philippi. This Roman town, built to glorifying Caesar and filled with pagan temples, is away from the distraction of the Pharisees and other religious leaders. Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t talk about the prevalent idolatry. Nor does he condemn those who really don’t get it, the pagans. Why not, we might wonder, it’d make him and his disciples look good. We should learn from this omission! We take care of our own house first. We pull the log out of our eyes before trying to clean a speck out of the eyes of another.[7]

Instead, Jesus asks the disciples who people are saying he is. Their answer is enlightening: John the Baptist, Elijah, or another prophet. People think that Jesus is someone important. Then Jesus turns the question to them, that most important question we all have to answer, “Who do you say that I am.” It’s Peter who answers, “You are the Messiah!”

Peter’s right, you know. Jesus is the Messiah. Of course, Peter doesn’t fully understand what this means. Peter is not going to live up to his bold statement, but that’s a topic for another time.

       You know, they’re lots of similarities between Christianity and the other great world religions. Our moral teachings are not much different than many of those teachings of Jews, Buddhists, Mormons, Hindus and even Islam. Most all faiths teach honesty and fairness, treating others well and taking care of the poor. As a follower of Jesus, we shouldn’t deny these similarities. Our Reformed tradition reminds us of God’s common grace given to all, believers and unbelievers.  Even those who do not know Jesus Christ may do good and wonderful things and for that we should celebrate. But there is one difference that separates us from other faiths. Ours is a Christocentric religion. That is, Christ is our center. Our faith is based on the person of Jesus Christ. Our hope is in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the one who was both human and God. God’s saving grace is Jesus Christ. God’s truth is Jesus Christ.[8]

Our hope is not based upon a philosophy. Our hope is not based on a book, but on the revelation of Jesus Christ within this book. Our hope is not even based upon the church, as important as the organization is for getting the message out. Our hope is based solely on Jesus. And Jesus isn’t just a cuddly baby napping among the animals in a manager. That may be a Jesus we can hold in our heart. It’s okay to start out there, at the manager. But to follow Jesus means we must leave the manager. We must get up and walk behind Jesus, realizing he may go places we don’t necessarily want to go. As soon as Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus shoots holes in Peter’s understanding of Messiahship. For Peter, the Messiah is a King, not someone executed like a criminal. The Messiah is a warrior, not the meek Jesus who gives up his life that we might live. As Christians, our hope is in Jesus Christ, it’s all the church has to offer. Can we accept that truth? Can we handle it?

        To become a Christian, we must admit our inability to save ourselves and place our trust in Jesus Christ, the Messiah. The second step is logical if we think about it. If we really believe Christ calls us, unworthy as we are, the only appropriate response can be obedience to his will. That is, we become a Christ-follower.

Henri Nouwen, a Catholic theologian, comments on these stages in his Latin American journals. “As soon as I say God exists, my existence no longer can remain in the center, because the essence of the knowledge of God reveals my own existence as deriving its total being from God’s.” [9]

What Christ asks us to do is to focus our lives on him and not on ourselves. He demands loyalty. He demands obedience.  He demands that we trust him enough that we’re willing to take a risk. We’re not to seek our needs and glory, nor are we to do only that which is safe. We have to be willing to follow Christ wherever he leads. We can’t stay at the manger.

       Think of following Christ from an economic perspective. If you really want to grow a business or to develop a market, you take risks. Our greatest returns, our most cherish rewards, involve risks. If we don’t take a chance, we find our competitors leaving us in the dust. If we don’t take a risk, we have little growth. It’s the same way with us personally as well as with our church. We got to have faith and be willing to step out trusting that Christ is with us. Churches always resist change, but it’s a part of taking a risk, of following where we sense Jesus is leading.

         The late Will Campbell, who often referred to himself as a “Bootleg Southern Baptist,” was critical of today’s church for proclaiming, “Pick up your cross and relax.”[10] He’s right. We want a safe Jesus, snoozing in the manger. We want to wear a fashionable cross, one that’s sanitized, and feel good about it. But Mark calls us to a different Jesus.

       Our faith is not easy. Yet, we’ve been given a sign. This communion table is the sign.  It’s here (pointing to the table), that the man we’re to follow, nourishes us for the journey. It’s a journey that starts in a manager, but moves on the hard sunbaked path of life to the cross. Are we up to following this Jesus? Are we willing to take that risk?  Amen.

 

©2017

[1] A reference to the National Lampoon Christmas Vacation movie, (1989) where Chevy Chase, playing Clark Griswold, wants the perfectly decorated house with enough lights it can be seen in space.

[2] The irony here is also found in John 6:30ff. Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to St. Mark, (London: A & C Black, 1991), 191.

[3] John 20:29.

[4] William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 283.

[5] Mark 6:37-44.

[6] Mark 8:1-9.

[7] Matthew 7:3-5.

[8] John 14:6.

[9] Henri J. M. Nouwen, i Gracias: A Latin American Journal (SF: Harper & Row, 1983), 48.

[10] Will D. Campbell, Souls Among Lions (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2002), 180.

The idea for this series based on an article by Scott Hoezee, Elizabeth Steele Halstead and Carrie Steenwyk, “Living in Advent: Worship Ideas for the Gospel of Mark,” Reformed Worship #89 (September 2008), 6-11.

Christ the King

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church 

November 26, 2017

Ezekiel 34:11-24[1]

 

Today is Christ the King Sunday. That may not mean much to those of us who grew up in non-liturgical churches. After all, Christ should be our king 365 days a year (366 days during leap years). You do believe that? Right?

As a day on the church calendar, Christ the King is relatively new. It didn’t come about until the mid-1920s when Pope Pius XI introduced it. Furthermore, the day was first shunned by Protestants for being too sectarian.[2] In time, however, many Protestant churches have adopted the day which falls on the last Sunday of the church’s year. Next week, with Advent, we’ll begin a new cycle in the church’s calendar.

When the Christ the King date was introduced, Pius XI was concerned over the rise of Mussolini in Italy and atheistic Communism in Russia. Both were demanding the worship of the state. A few years later, a handful of Protestants would take a turn at standing up to the state when a group of Reformed and Lutheran Church leaders in German published the Theological Declaration of Barmen in 1933. We’ll read from this Declaration as we profess our faith this morning after the sermon. For Christians, Christ is Lord and demands our ultimate allegiance.

Now, proclaiming Christ as King isn’t a new concept. Christ is proclaimed as king in scripture[3] and our Confessions lift up his kingly role as one of the three offices of Christ, the other two are the prophet and the priest.[4] To show the importance of putting Christ first, let me share a story from the past.

Hugh Latimer was the Bishop of Worcester in the 16th Century. As a Calvinist, he was a leader in the English Reformation. The King was Henry VIII, who (until he couldn’t obtain a divorce) was aligned with the Roman Catholic Church. One Sunday morning as Latimer was preparing to preach, he looked out and saw Henry sitting in the pews. “Latimer, be careful of what you say today. King Henry is here,” he heard whispered. But then, as he prepared to enter the pulpit, he whispered, “Latimer, be careful of what you say today; the King of Kings is here.”[5] Latimer would later suffer martyrdom at the hands of Mary 1, (also known as Bloody Mary). Today is a day to be reminded that we live out our lives in the presence of the true King, Jesus Christ.

My sermon this morning comes from a prophecy given to the Prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel is addressing the Israelites in exile in Babylon and lifts up a vision of a new order, in which God becomes the “shepherd” of his people. Of course, we who live on this side of the resurrection know who the “Good Shepherd” is. Read Ezekiel 34:11-24

 

Do you remember Calvin and Hobbes? There was one strip where Calvin was swinging on the playground at school. The bully Moe, who looks to be twice Calvin’s age and as one who may have repeated more grades than he’d passed, calls Calvin a “Twinkie” and tells him to get off his swing.  Brave Calvin responds, “Forget it, Moe, wait your turn.” Moe responds with a right punch that knocks Calvin out of the swing and onto the ground. Pulling himself together, Calvin thinks to himself, “It’s hard to be religious when certain people are never incinerated by bolts of lightning.”[6]

I expect the Israelites in exile felt the same. Where was their God when the Babylonians were storming the walls of Jerusalem? Some of the Israelites, I’m sure, lost their faith. But there were others listening and learning. Ezekiel lifts up a promise: no longer will those in power lead; no longer will those who bully and abuse continue. Instead, God will lead as a shepherd. As a true shepherd God will protect Israel. This passage contains both judgment and promise!

To fully understand this passage, we should look at the 34th chapter in its entirety. (Your homework assignment is to go home and read it this afternoon.) The whole chapter revolves around the “shepherd allegory.” Kings were often called shepherds in the ancient world. The shepherd image for a king implied one who cared and nurtured his subjects. Ezekiel uses this metaphor as a way to highlight the hypocrisy of Israel’s kings, shepherds who “enrich themselves at the expense of the flock.”[7]

A perfect example of Ezekiel’s “bad shepherd king” would be the Czars of Russia. Not only did they ruthlessly exile those who challenged their position, they became the richest monarchs in Europe while ruling over the poorest country. I know many of you have been to the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, Russia. The place is incredible. It’d take a week to really appreciate all the art work that was collected by the Czars. It’s one of the world’s great art collections, but as I thought (and have also heard others say the same thing after visiting the Hermitage), it’s no wonder the people revolted. A good king is not one who lives high on the hog while his subjects starve. Rather a good king is like a shepherd, one who helps protect his subjects from danger and leads in a way that they’re provided with fresh fields (or food) and running streams (or clean water). A shepherd is an appropriate name for such a leader.

Unfortunately, Israel didn’t have too many kings like this.  Surely, there were some who did a better job than others, but most looked out for themselves and for their friends, allowing the abuse of their citizens. This chapter begins with a condemnation of such wicked rulers, the “shepherds who have eaten of the fat and clothed themselves with the wool of their flocks, yet have not fed the sheep.

This is what God promises beginning in the 11th verse. “I, myself,” God proclaims, “will search for my sheep.” God will be the shepherd. God will bring the people, who had been scattered at Jerusalem’s fall, back together. There will be a reversal of their misfortune. God will provide good pasture; God will strengthen the weak; God will heal the sick; God will bind the injured; God will seek the lost. By the beginning of the 16th verse, there seemed to be a balance between judgment and promise, but then there was a shift and God again speaks of judgment.

“The fat and the strong I will destroy, says God. Notice the shift: no longer is God talking about the shepherds, or the rulers. God is now addressing “sheep and goats,” members of the flock. Obviously, it’s not just the leaders who are abusing their power, but there are some “sheep and goats” who are abusing others.

Have you ever watched animals eat and notice how the weak are pushed aside by the strong? Sheep do the same thing. Sheepherders spend a lot of time with the weaker animals trying to strengthen them. If a ewe gives birth to more lambs that she can nurse, the ewe will push away the weakest lamb and the shepherd will have to take that lamb and find another ewe, another mother, for its nurse. The sheepherder has to encourage an “adoptive bond.”[8] Otherwise, the lamb will die. Likewise, when the animals are being fed, the strong ones often push away the weaker ones. Without a shepherd, strong animals are able to take advantage of the weaker animals. And we see such behavior even among us humans. Without a good teacher, bullies in the classroom intimidate other students. Without good leaders, those with economic or political clout can take advantage and oppress those without.

Now that God has judged both the shepherds who have ignored the needs of their flocks and the sheep who, in the absence of the shepherds, abused the weaker ones, God returns to the future promise of a new shepherd. God and his servant David will rule and guide the flock. David, the former shepherd who became a king, will return to be God’s prince. This is a Messianic Promise spoken to Hebrews living in exile hundreds of miles from their home. God will gather the faithful together and lead them back home, and a king like David will return and rule justly.

Have these promises of God been fulfilled?  Yes, and they are continuing to be fulfilled! A new shepherd, the good shepherd, was born in the city of David—the one you and I proclaim as our Savior. We’ll celebrate his birth in five weeks! Yet, as we wait for Christmas, we’re reminded over and over that we’re still waiting and longing for the day proclaimed in scripture when Jesus Christ will rule, when all wars will cease, and every knee will bow and proclaim Christ as King.  Until then, we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus, Come.”

There are a couple of things I want you to take from this passage.  First, we’re reminded that there are bad shepherds and there are bad goats and sheep in the world. There are those who rule ruthlessly and those who use their power to exclude others.  As followers of Jesus, we shouldn’t do that, nor do we owe such people any allegiance. Secondly, there will be a new day coming that will bring justice and hope. The bad shepherds and the bullies within the flocks will be brought to justice, as we heard in our New Testament reading from Matthew 25. We have no need to fear those who abuse, for our hope doesn’t rest in their hands, but in the hands of our loving Savior. Finally, as Christians, we’re longing for that day when Christ will return and his kingship will be visible for all to see. We’re to be lifting up this vision, reflecting the face of Jesus to the world.

If our allegiance really belongs to Jesus, if Christ really is our king, then we should be like Bishop Latimer and not fear the King Henry XIIIs who sits in our midst.  Nor should we fear any other person who might be pushing us to ignore Christ and follow them. Nor should we fear the crowd who may mock our decision.  If our allegiance really belongs to Jesus Christ, what is important isn’t what people around us think. We shouldn’t worry much about them. Instead, what is important is what our Lord thinks. What does our King want us to do? That’s a question we should all ponder, every day. What does Jesus want me to do?  How can our lives reflect his? AMEN

 

©2017

[1] Parts of this sermon was taken from a sermon I preached on November 20, 2011.

[2] David I. Kertzer, The Pope and Mussolini (New York: Random House, 2014), 84.

[3] Matthew 27:11; John 1:49:1 Timothy 1:17, 6:15; Revelations 15:3, 1:9

[4] “The Westminster Larger Catechism” Questions 43-45.

[5] Robert F. Sims, “The Shepherd King,” in Under the Wings of the Almighty in “www.sermonsuite.com.

[6] Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes (November 8, 1990).

[7] Margaret S. Odell, Ezekiel (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2005), 432.

[8] When birthing lambs, a sheepherder will often smear the placenta from the lamb born of a ewe in order to entice her to accept a second lamb to nurse and feed.

Worship with Gladness

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

November 19, 2017

Psalm 100

 

It is deer season. In other churches I’ve served, we had to schedule things like Consecration Sunday around opening day just to make sure we had some men in worship. The hunting might not start till sunrise on Monday, but there was a lot to do to get the deer camp set up; men starting disappearing early in the weekend.

       One year, Bob and Tom, Bill and Fred headed out to deer camp. They camped at the base of a small mountain, at the confluence of two creeks that drained each side of the mountain.   They’d their figured out their plan for opening day. Bob and Tom were to take the creek along the south side of the mountain. Bill and Fred would head up the other creek. They set out before daylight, using flashlights, searching for the perfect spot to see a big buck as he came out for a morning drink in the creek.

It didn’t work out that way for Bob and Tom. They didn’t see a thing all day. As the sun began to drop in the western sky, they headed back to camp. As they approached the confluence, they heard trashing in the brush nearby. Checking it out, they saw Bill dragging the largest buck any of them had ever seen. He called over asking for help and they obliged, dragging the deer back into camp. As they were stringing it up in a tree to gut it, Bob asked Bill, “Where’s Fred? Why didn’t he help you get this deer out of the woods?”

“Oh yeah,” Bill said, “We gotta go back and get Fred.  Some other hunter mistook him for deer and shot him in the leg.  He fell back and hit his head on a rock.  He’s knocked out cold and lying next to the trail, about a mile back, near where I shot this fine buck.”

“Someone shot Fred?” Tom yelled. “And you just left him alone and unconscious while you dragged this deer carcass out?

Bill felt a little chastised. “Well, think about it,” he said. “Ain’t nobody gonna steal Fred.”

There are times we have our priorities mixed up. The 100th Psalm, which is my text for today’s sermon, reminds us what is important in life. It helps us to get our priorities right. When our priorities are right, things fall into place and we don’t forget the Fred’s of the world. Listen.  Read Psalm 100. 

###

 

         Joy is essential to the Christian life. It’s a gift from God and that makes it different from the pursuit of happiness we in American so cherish. What we consider as “happiness” is transitory and fragile, dependent often on external circumstances such as the Pirates winning the pennant. If that’s the case, I haven’t been happy in a long time. You see, human joy is often contradictory. Hope rises on the sound of a well hit ball. The crowd holds its collective breath as the ball sails deep. The centerfielder runs and leaps high with his glove extended as he crashes into the wall. He falls to the ground, and then stands up and grins as he pulls the ball from his glove. The home crowd moans and the batter kicks the dust as he heads toward the dugout. Some win, others lose. Some celebrate, others mope…

A friend of mine commenting on this Psalm wrote, “This Psalm tells us that the joy we find in God is unshaken and unchanging because it is based on something lasting and unchanging.”[1] Yes, there will be plenty of disappointments in life to weight us down, such as homeruns stolen by a talented centerfielder, but true joy has another foundation.  True joy, of the everlasting variety, is found in God. To quote the prophet Isaiah, “the flower withers, the grass fades, but the word of God will stand forever.”[2] In other words, all we cherish and love in this life will come to an end. Flowers are beautiful only for a few days or maybe a week or two, youth lasts but for a season, friends and loved ones die. If we are looking for eternal happiness in our lives here on earth, we’ll always be disappointed.

       Focus on God, on that which is eternal, and we’ll be ready to join the chorus marching into heaven making a joyful noise.  “Worship,” as Eugene Peterson tweeted this week, “is the strategy by which we interrupt our preoccupation with ourselves and attend to the presence of God.”[3] We should want to worship God, to offer prayers of thanksgiving, to shout praises.  Focus on God; true joy is knowing God and that we are loved by our Creator, claimed by our maker. Psalm 100 is about the joy in God which “is the motive power of faith” and which lifts up our hearts.[4]

This a Psalm of worship. It was probably originally sung by the Hebrew people as they gathered in the Jerusalem temple.  The first two verses serve as a call to worship. Imagine the chief priest standing at the temple’s gate. Suddenly trumpets blast, quieting the crowd. Then, in a loud voice, the priest dressed in his finest robe summons the crowd: “Make a joyful noise, worship the Lord with gladness, and come into his presence with singing.” The crowd responds, breaking into a round of “Holy, Holy, Holy” or “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee…”

        Verse three, “Know that the Lord is God, that he made us and we are his, we are the sheep of his pasture,” reminds those who have gathered that they are present for one purpose: to worship God. God is king, but also a caring shepherd. Those gathered in front of the temple, preparing to enter, recognize they are to put away thoughts of grandeur for themselves. Furthermore, they are to put away petty differences between one another. This is not the place or time for selfishness or bickering. All who have come are to be together, in unity, in worship. We are to leave our petty differences at the door of the sanctuary. This isn’t about us; it’s about our God.

         This may be a short psalm but it has a wonderful message for those of us who gather on a Sunday to worship. “Psalm 100 initiates worship and sets forth a theology of worship,” according to one commentator.[5] The focus of the Psalm, as we learn in the fourth verse is God. As the final verse indicates, we worship because God is good, loving and faithful.

The key to being a Christian is gratitude.  It comes from us having our priorities right. Gratitude is not only good for our souls, it’s good for bodies according to an article in the Wall Street Journal this week. Let me quote this passage:

 

“Gratitude is good for us in many ways. Studies have shown that it strengthens our immune systems, helps us sleep better, reduces stress and depression and opens the door to more relationships. But to reap those rewards, we need to do more than feel grateful.  ‘The word ‘thanksgiving’ means giving of thanks.’ says Dr. Emmons (a psychologist at University of California at Davis). ‘It is an action word.  Gratitude requires action.’”[6]

 

Today we’ll receive your estimate of giving cards and this week we will be celebrating Thanksgiving. They go together. Both are opportunities to display our gratitude. Gratitude should lead into generosity. It’s a personal issue, one that we each need to struggle with and decide for ourselves. Are we generous? Are our lives gracious? Do we love God, our Creator, and want to praise him in thought, word, and deed? The Psalm calls us to worship, but our worshipful attitude should be more than just what we do on Sunday morning. Likewise, we should be thankful more than just on a Thursday late in November. Our thankfulness, our worship, should flow forth from our lives, from our hearts. It’s what should be most evident when others see us. It’s what helps us reflect Jesus’ face to the world. Amen.

©2017

[1] Laura Smit, “Come, Let Us Worship and Bow Down,” Reformed Worship, #52 (June 1999), 14.

[2] Isaiah 40:7.

[3] Eugene Peterson (tweeted @PetersonDaily, November 12, 2017).

[4] Artur Weiser, The Psalms, Herbert Hartwell translator, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), 645.

[5] James L. Mays, Psalms (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994), 321

[6] Clare Ansberry, “Cultivating a Life of Gratitude, The Wall Street Journal (November 14, 2017), A15.

Offering Our First Fruits

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Leviticus 23:9-14

November 12, 2017

 

Confession, the picture is not China, it’s Indonesia

There was once a Chinese rice farmer whose paddies were high on a hill overlooking the ocean. One day during harvest, there was an earthquake. He looked around and noticed the ocean had drawn back and was lurching like an animal ready to pounce. He knew this meant one thing, a tidal wave, a tsunami. Down below, in the lower levels, other farmers were also gathering their harvest, unaware of the danger. With no time to run down to warn them, he set fire to his drying sheaves of rice, sending up a plume of smoke.  His neighbors, seeing the smoke, assumed his field had caught fire and rushed up the mountain to help him save his harvest. As they arrived, they look back down and saw the ocean sweep over their fields. He sacrificed his crop for their safety. They knew what it meant to be saved, and its cost.[1] Today, we’ll learn about the importance of sacrifice and sheaves of grain.

        The 23rd Chapter of Leviticus sets up the various festivals and feast observed in ancient Israel. The chapter begins with the Sabbath, a day of rest. Then it reminds them of the Passover.  In our reading this morning, we will hear about the Festival of the First Fruits. The chapter circles around the year with the Festival of Weeks, the Festival of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Festival of Booths.

For each of the festivals as well as for the Sabbath, they were to stop working. This was a gift, not only to the Hebrews, but to their slaves. By taking these days off, they demonstrated their trust in God. The Lord was in charge. The Lord watched over them and their crops on the Sabbaths, and during the festivals. You know, we make holidays about us. On Thanksgiving, we pig out with friends and family. At Christmas we give gifts. Even Easter is a time for new clothes and a ham dinner. And while the festivals in Scripture gave the people time to rest and to enjoy certain foods, the purpose of festivals was to point the individual to the God who provides. We will see this especially in the Festival of the First Fruits. We should do the same. Read Leviticus 23:9-14.

          Thanks to my wife’s intuitive and hard work, we have a plot in the community garden. Last spring, when we were setting it up and planting, I couldn’t wait to start harvesting tomatoes. A large vine-ripened tomato is about as close to heaven as we’ll come to in this life. Planting the tomatoes, I could tasted them. I took care to wrap a piece of paper around the stalks of the young plants when I transplanted them, to deter cutworms. I watered them and watched the plants grown, envisioning a hefty ripe beefsteak tomato. I’d carefully peel the tomato, then slice it at least an inch thick. Next, I’d take some soft bread, lathering it up with mayonnaise, adding a good bit of freshly ground black pepper and make a sandwich. I’m a simple man. A good tomato sandwich is hard to beat. To bite into such a sandwich and have a little tomato juice run from the corners of my mouth, which has to be wiped away with a napkin, is to experience true joy.

Attempting not to add any more heat into the house, I did the canning on the back deck!

We had a good harvest of tomatoes last summer. The best ones, especially early in the harvest, I saved for sandwiches.  Then I kept a bunch which I made into salsa and canned for winter. But the tomatoes kept coming and I was heading out of town. There wasn’t an opportunity for another canning session, so I brought a box of tomatoes to church and gave them away.  According to Leviticus, I did all this backwards. Those first tomatoes, the big juicy red ones should have gone to God…

The Israelites were to bring their first fruit to the Lord. Me, I gave away what was left!  Now, granted, the text doesn’t say anything about tomatoes (it mentions grain, lamb, olive oil and wine). I can only assume that tomatoes were unknown in the Promised Land during ancient times.

In a parallel passage in Exodus, we’re told to bring “our best first fruits” to the Lord.[2] There goes that juicy tomato. I might have to wait a day or two to enjoy that first tomato sandwich of the year.

       Bringing our first fruit to God seems like a heavy demand.  After all, why shouldn’t we tend to our own needs and desires first? You know, in our training as a firefighter, we’re always taught that our number one responsibility is to take care of our self… There is a reason behind this madness. If we are in trouble, then we are in no position to help anyone and furthermore we become part of the problem (and resources have to be focused on us, instead of the other victims or the fire). That makes sense, because we are not God! It’s when we get to the point to think we’re God that we have a problem.

      Let’s look at this from another angle. What about the future? Shouldn’t our first action be to harvest seed in order to make sure we’ll have a crop next year?  I mean, should we save some of that first seed before we give any away? That’s hedging our bets! But it’s not allowed, according to this passage.

 

    The tradition of giving to God first serves to remind us from where our blessings flow. It’s a discipline that helps us trust in God, not in ourselves. When we give to God first, we are training ourselves to trust. We are admitting our limitations; we can’t do everything ourselves.

In ancient Israel, when the harvest was ready, a sheaf, or an armful, of the first grain (probably barley as it ripen before wheat) was brought to the temple. That, along with a perfect lamb, some flour and olive oil, was offered to God. Then the farmer was allowed to enjoy the benefits of his harvest.

The man on the tractor is my Uncle Frank.

There are two thing we should understand about this practice today. First of all, thanks to the marvels of industrialization, there are fewer farmers today than back then.  Although a few of us may have gardens, whether vegetables or flowers, none of us to my knowledge are raising grain. So literally obeying the commands of Leviticus 23 is not applicable.  However, we can meet the spirit of the text by providing flowers for church or giving vegetables to a homeless shelter (as the community garden does, but then its backwards as what’s given is excess, not first fruits).

Furthermore, Jesus Christ has made the sacrifice for our sin, once and for all.[3] For this reason, we’re no longer bound by such commands such as bringing the first-fruit into the temple. Maybe I can still enjoy that first tomato, after all. Today, when we give, we do so out of gratitude. We should realize all God has done for us and we be thankful and gracious.

       We should ask ourselves why God has given us so much compared to others in the world. (At the same time, we should be praying daily, as I suggested last week, “God, How would you use me to further the kingdom of Jesus Christ?).  David Platt, author of Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream (of which I saw a few copies in the book exchange), asks, “Why not begin operating under the idea that God has given us excess, not so we could have more, but so that we could give more?”[4]

We’re not legally bound to the law we read in this passage and don’t need to worry about literally bringing an armful of grain to worship. However, we should learn from this text and use it as a guide. We give God first, out of thanksgiving, acknowledging that all we have comes from the Almighty.

      When I was a child, I was given an allowance on Saturday, with a reminder that before spending it, I should give to God first.[5] A dime from every dollar was to go into the offering plate. Giving to God first is a good habit for us to develop. In doing so, we grow in our faith and become an example for others.  It’s a habit we should also instill in our children and grandchildren. This year, as you consider what you are giving to God’s work through the church, ask yourself, “Am I giving to God first?  Or am I giving God the leftovers?”  Amen.

 

©2017

[1] Adapted from a story by Lafcadio Hearn in Thesaurus of Anecdotes (Edmund Fuller, editor, (New York: Crown Publishers, 1942) and included in God’s Treasury of Virtues (Tulsa OK: Honor Books, 1995), 285.

[2] Exodus 34:26.

[3] Hebrews 10:1-18.

[4] David Platt, Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream (Colorado Springs, CO: Mulnomah Books, 2010), 127.

[5] This was easy to do for there were no stores close to us and I wouldn’t have an opportunity to spend it all before Sunday.

Cast Your Bread Upon the Waters

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Ecclesiastes 11:1-6
November 5, 2017

We spent last month looking at the foundational themes of the Protestant Reformation. Can you remember them? (Grace Alone, Faith Alone, Christ Alone, Scripture Alone and To God be the Glory). It’s important to remember that grace comes first. God loves us before we can respond. God’s love is not something we buy or earn. It’s a gift. It’s up to us to accept it and respond. This month, we’ll look at how we respond as we lead up to our Consecration Sunday on November 19. That’s when we’ll make a faith promise, through an estimate of giving card, concerning our giving for the coming year. It takes money, helping hands and a willing heart to make a successful church. And you are very generous!
I am going to start this series in the wisdom literature found in the Old Testament, specifically the book of Ecclesiastes. Outside the third chapter, this is not an overly popular book. The third chapter is where we read about there being a time for this, that and the other, words that were arranged into a popular hit sung by the Byrds in the 1960s. But there’s more to this book than the third chapter, as we are going to see today.
Many see this book as sad and gloomy. After all, the book begins with “vanity of vanities.” Others translate this opening as “Smoke, nothing but smoke,” “it is useless, useless,” or “everything is meaningless, completely meaningless.” In our mind, the book doesn’t start off on the right foot! But there’s treasure here!


“Some scholars suggest Solomon wrote this late his in life and was depressed and looking back in regret. But no name is given for the author, except the Hebrew word Koheleth, which isn’t a name, but a title. It can be translated as “the Teacher.” I’ll use that term throughout this sermon. Solomon is also cited as the author because he was known to be wise and because “the Teacher” was a son of David. But David had a number of sons, it’s just that Solomon is the one known for his wisdom. However, the authorship doesn’t matter as much as the message.
The Teacher wants to instill a sense of urgency in the lives of the young so that when they are old, they will have made the most out of their time and not look back with regret. Our reading begins in the 11th Chapter. Read Ecclesiastes 11:1-6:

“Cast your bread upon the waters,” our reading begins, “and after many days you’ll get back a soggy mess.” In case you didn’t understand, the ending was my twist to this parable. What does it mean to cast bread upon the water? If it’s not eaten by the gulls or fish, what good would it be? Even burnt toast and hardtack, after a short time, would come back a soggy! Vanity of vanities describes tossing our bread on the waters. So what could this passage possibly mean?


There’s been much debate over its meaning. Imagine that! Some scholars think the Teacher is referring to trade, the sending of grain off to a foreign port where it can be sold for a profit. This goes with the second verse which suggests that the prudent farmer will diversify. Raise a variety of crops, send them to markets at different ports on different ships in order to hedge his bet against disaster. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, or as is known in the investment world, diversify! Make sure your portfolio has both stocks and bonds, domestic and international, and a variety of segments such as technology, medical, transportation and consumer discretionary. Certainly, there is some profound truth in such an interpretation, but there’s another way to look at this passage.


The Message translation paraphrases this verse. “Be generous: invest in acts of charity,” it advises. “Charity yields a high return.” This interpretation fits with the historical interpretation of the parable as well as with many ancient proverbs. There was an ancient Egyptian saying that went, “Do a good deed and throw it in the water, when it dries up it you will find it.” An old Arabic proverb went, “Do good, throw your bread on the waters, and one day you will find it.”


I’m in this latter camp, suggesting that charity (or good deeds) is the focus on this passage; however, even here there is a problem. If we do good only because we expect something in return, are we really charitable? If my only reason to do good is in the hopes that someday someone will do good to me, such as a father being generous to his kids knowing they’ll be picking out his nursing home, are we charitable?

You know, as a congregation, we were incredibly generous in our giving to the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance for hurricane relief, giving nearly $8,000. If we give just because we expect such a gift after we are hit by a storm, would we be generous? Or would we be buying insurance? The act of giving implies that we are no longer in control of whatever it was that we gave to someone else. It’s like casting bread upon the waters. Maybe it will and maybe it won’t come back, but we do it anyway because generosity is about as godly as we can be.
We’re to be generous when we’re able. There may come a time that we can’t volunteer to build houses for Habitat (although President Carter is still doing it at the age of 93).  We do what we can do knowing that sooner or later, thanks to aging and health issues, most of us will be in a position where we must depend on the generosity of others.


In the third verse, our text turns to a familiar theme in Ecclesiastes. We’re not in control. We can’t make it rain nor can we, as many sadly learned during Hurricane Matthew, cause a tree to fall in the right direction (away from our homes). But just because these things are out of our control, we are not to use them as excuses for a lack of activity. God is in control, and as we learn in verse 5, is working behind the scenes such as forming a life in a mother’s womb. The miracle of life. It’s a miracle because there is a lot we don’t know about it.  But od is there, working behind the scenes, and we must trust in him.

Our reading concludes with a call to action. Go ahead and sow your seed in the morning (don’t use the wind or the lack of rain as an excuse). Keep working, for we don’t know how things will turn out in the end. God has created us to work. You may remember I talked about this last winter in my sermons on the opening chapters of Genesis. Work is good. The Teacher understands this and encourages his students and us, his readers, to stay busy and not to look for excuses.


So what might we take from this passage? Let me suggest three things. Be generous. Be diligent. And make the most out of each day as we trust the future to God’s sovereignty. Be generous because we belong to a gracious and giving God. Be generous, remembering Jesus’ words that we are to store up our treasure in heaven. Be generous, for we know what Christ has done for us as we’ve been cleansed of our sin and called to a new life. Be generous, while we can, because we know that sooner or later, we too will depend on someone else for help. Be diligent means hedging our bets as a way to prepare for the future. It’s the advice of every good investment manager. We are diligent and hedge our bets, but we know that ultimately the future is not in our hands. Our futures are in God’s hands. Our comfort comes not from making a profit by sending our grain to foreign markets or even upon the sprouting of a bountiful crop in the field. Our comfort comes from knowing that we are in the hands of a loving God, a God whom we trust and whom, in thanksgiving, we share what we have for the building of his kingdom.
On November 19th, Consecration Sunday, we’ll ask you to make a faith commitment to the church for 2018. I encourage you to take time and to ask God in prayer, over the next two weeks, how he might use you to further the mission of Jesus Christ. Let us pray together.

Heavenly Father, you give us the breath of life and all that we have. How would you use us to further the mission of Jesus Christ? Amen.

©2017

Scripture Alone

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

October 22, 2017

2 Timothy 3:14-4:5

 

Over the past couple of decades there have been debates over the visible presence of the Ten Commandments in public places like courthouses. This has brought out the worse on all sides, those in favor of and those against such monuments. As Christians, we need to realize what’s most important. It’s not the monuments.[1] It’s obeying the law. It’s allowing God to write the law in our hearts as we heard in our Old Testament reading.[2] Yes, God’s law is important. It drives us to Scripture, where we can understand our need for grace in Jesus Christ, in whom we’re to place our faith.[3] Do you catch that? In that sentence I touched on the first four “Solas” or themes of the Reformation.

Deanie and I have been preaching about the “solas” since the first of October and now we’re on the fourth Sola: ”Scripture Alone.” It’s time for a test! I want to see what you’ve remembered from this series. What are the first three solas? (Grace Alone, Faith Alone, Christ Alone). Today, we’ll speak of Scripture Alone, and next week we’ll wrap it all up with the overarching theme, “To God be the Glory.”

I encourage you to be here next Sunday as a professor of mine, Dr. Charles Partee, will preach. Dr. Partee was the most popular preacher of the faculty of the seminary I attended.  Everyone made an effort to be in chapel on the days he was in the pulpit. You had no idea where his sermon might lead. But the message was always entertaining and grounded in Scripture.

 

            Our Scripture for today’s sermon comes from Second Timothy. There’s some debate as to if this letter was actually written by Paul to Timothy. Maybe it was written by a later disciple of Paul’s, some suggest.[4] But for the importance of our sermon today, let’s take the authorship of the letter at face value while seeking out the deeper truths of the letter. The letter opens with a reference to Timothy as “my beloved child.” This is one of the most personal sounding letters in Scripture, written by a teacher who knew his time on earth was limited, so he wants to impress his star student to continue his work of evangelism, of telling others about Jesus.
   We should understand that although Timothy is referred to as his child, he’s no longer a kid. He’s a grown man with responsibility over a number of churches. Let’s listen to God’s Word as I read from 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5.

###

 

The Westminster Confession of Faith, the key confessional document of Reformed Christians from the British Isles, which would be us Presbyterians, begins this way:

Although the light of nature and the works of creation and providence, do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men (and that includes women) inexcusable; yet they are not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary until salvation…

 

In other words, although we can know of God and God’s goodness in the natural world, there is a limit. Nature doesn’t teach us how to obtain salvation in Christ. The Confession continues:

therefore it pleased the Lord…to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his church… to commit the same whole unto writing; which maketh the Holy Scriptures to be most necessary…[5]

In other words, we need a revelation! We need to understand God’s will and so God saw to it that we have the Scriptures.

          The Bible is important and the Reformers knew it. It was through the Scriptures, especially Paul’s letters to the Romans and the Galatians, that Luther found hope in Jesus. All the Reformers held high regard for the Bible and strove to make the text available in the language of the people. Two centuries before the Reformation, John Wycliffe insisted that his English parishioners hear the Bible read in English and not Latin. Luther felt this, too, and translated the Bible into German. Once the printing press became readily available in the late 15th Century, Bibles were printed and people began reading. They no longer had to depend on the church to tell them what was in Scripture. This threatened the established church, especially as the Reformers insisted that authority belonged to God’s Word, not to the institutional church. Scripture Alone means that our trust is not in some human institution. It’s in God’s Word.

This passage can be divided into two parts. The end of the third chapter is concerned with the grounding of our faith.  That is, how we come to know and to trust in Jesus Christ. The beginning verses of the fourth chapter deal with its applications for our faith. What we should be doing because we trust in Christ Jesus as our Savior?

            Paul begins by reminding Timothy that his faith was built upon the teachings of those he trusted. Furthermore, Paul tells him that these teachings can be confirmed through Scripture. It’s important to notice here, according to what Paul says, good fuzzy feelings are not what confirms our faith. Such emotional feelings are transitory; our faith is to be grounded in something solid. To put what Paul says in theological terms, Timothy’s faith is grounded in tradition confirmed by the Word of God.

           What teachings had Timothy received? Paul says he was taught by those he trusted. Here, we assume Paul is speaking about Timothy’s mother and grandmother, Eunice and Lois. Timothy’s grew up learning the Jewish scriptures from his mother’s side of the family. At some point in his childhood, after an encounter with Paul, his mother and grandmother accepted Christ. Later, Timothy followed their example and became a companion of Paul’s.

It’s the teachings of those whom he trusted that gives Timothy confidence in the gospel of Jesus Christ. We should all learn from this. The church has a role in teaching scriptures, but so do parents and grandparents. We are to share our faith with children. We are to show them the importance of the Bible in our lives.

In the second part of this passage, Paul moves on to Timothy’s task at hand—the preaching of the gospel. In the presence of Jesus Christ, Timothy is to proclaim the good news, regardless of conditions.

Timothy is like the man who didn’t want to go to church one Sunday morning. Trying to get to the heart of the matter, his wife asked him why he didn’t want to go. He spoke about those who didn’t like him at church. He complained about the hypocrisy of members and how stuffy they are. And he complained that he was bored. Looking at his wife, he asked her to give him one good reason for him to go. She paused a moment and then said: “You’re the preacher!”

           Timothy has his marching orders and he’s to carry them out whether or not it’s what people want to hear, whether or not he suffers for his faithfulness.

“Convince, rebuke and encourage,” Paul encourages. Convince those who don’t believe, rebuke those who have wrong ideas and encourage those disciples who are building up the kingdom. Finally, he concludes his first list of instructions, reminding Timothy that patience is needed in teaching.

           Now Paul had a concern. He knows people listen to those who say what they want to hear. There’s a name for that today: “confirmation bias.” We tend to listen to those who confirm what we want to believe. It’s why Republicans listen to Fox News and Democrats to MSNBC. It’s why people “like” outlandish “news” on Facebook when it fits into what they want to believe. But there’s a danger when you only listen to what you want to hear—you confirm your biases. Paul has heard false teachers leading people away from Jesus Christ and so he shares his concern with Timothy. “Get to work, Boy,” he says, “Don’t miss an opportunity to proclaim the Gospel. We got to nip these false teachers in the bud.”

After expressing his concern for false teaching, Paul returns to giving instruction. “As for you, Timothy,” he says, “Be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, and carry out your ministry fully.”

           Be sober can also be translated as “Keep your head.” Paul is not telling Timothy not to drink;[6] instead, he’s telling him to keep his head clear so that he does not lose sight of his ultimate goal of being a loyal disciple of Jesus Christ.

As for endure suffering. Paul is a realist. He knows accepting Christ will not always bring joy and prosperity to one’s life… Paul knows this well, after all he’s spent time in jail and had been beaten for his testimony.[7] Furthermore, he knows suffering is often a lot for God’s people as seen in Scripture. Remember Job? Remember Jeremiah? A lot of times the world doesn’t want to hear what the church has to say…

We should gently share the message, and leave the decision for others and for the Holy Spirit. The greatest tool we have for evangelism, for sharing God’s love, is to strive to live a Christ-like life. That doesn’t go for just Sunday mornings. The measure of a great church is not how many people are there on Sunday morning, but what is happening to the congregation when the building is empty.” How are people living their faith in the workplace or on the golf course, when they are eating out or waiting in traffic? It’s up to all of us to live a Christian life seven days a week.

The reason Paul is so concerned that Timothy continue in his work is that Paul knows he’s at the end of his ministry.  Paul told Timothy that he’s being poured out as a sacrifice.[8]  But Paul was not bitter at his demise. Instead, he’s confident that he had done his best: “I have fought the good fight; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith,” he says later in the letter.[9] Paul’s not boasting here. He doesn’t say I won the battle, for he understood that the battle has already been won by Jesus Christ.

Paul’s message for Timothy is valid for us today as we strive to fulfill our calling here on Skidaway Island. “Stay with it, don’t get discouraged,” Paul would tell us. Trust in the Scriptures and take God’s word to heart.

           There’s a little girl of three who had the flu. Her mother takes her to a pediatrician for an examination. The doctor tries to make the sniffling young child comfortable so when he looks into her ears, he asks, “Is Donald Duck in here?” “No,” she says. Checking her throat, he asks, “Is Mickey Mouse down there?” “No, silly,” she chuckles. Then he put his stethoscope on her chest and asked if Barney is in her heart? “No,” the little girl says firmly, “Jesus is in my heart! Barney’s on my underpants.”

Hold fast to Scripture but be like that little girl and let people know that Jesus is in our hearts. (But remember, we’re adults so let’s keep our underwear to ourselves.) Amen.

 

 

©2017

[1] For more about my thoughts on the commandments see this editorial I wrote for the Presbyterian Outlook in 2003: http://skidawaypres.org/pastor/?p=1123

[2] Jeremiah 31:33.

[3] See “The Second Helvetic Confession”, Chapter XII, in the “Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church USA (5.083).

[4] See Werner Georg Kummel, Introduction into the New Testament (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1975), 370ff.

[5] Presbyterian Church USA, Book of Confessions, The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1 (6:001).

[6] In his first letter, Paul even encourages Timothy to “take a little for his stomach.”  See 1 Timothy 5:23

[7] See Acts 16:19-24.

[8] J.N.D. Kelly, A Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1960), 207f.

[9] 2 Timothy 4:7.

Editorial on the Ten Commandments

Jeff Garrison

Published in the Presbyterian Outlook, September 29, 2003

 

They’re marching in Alabama again.  This time the destination is Montgomery and those marching are supporting Judge Roy Moore’s fight to keep a granite monument of the Ten Commandments at his courthouse.  On August 27, the statue was removed.  It appears Moore and his supporters have lost, but they promise to continue fighting.  Sooner or later, the United States Supreme Court will have to step in and rule, but so far they’ve refused to handle this hot potato.

I’d sleep better if the Supreme Court decided such statues acknowledge a foundation of Western law and are thereby an appropriate symbol that doesn’t violate the separation of church and state.  Of course, there are a variety of interpretations of what the founders of the Republic meant by such a separation.  As one who swore off the study of jurisprudence for theology, like the Supreme Court. I’ll pass that potato on.

Instead, let’s consider what the Commandments are all about.  The Big Ten provide a boundary by which we live as God intends.  “The Decalogue prohibits what is contrary to God and neighbor and prescribes what is essential about it,” according to Roman Catholic Church teachings. Theologians distinguished between two tables of the law, the first table dealing with how we relate to God and the second addressing our relationships to others.  Put together, the two tables set the context for a society that honors God and other members of the human family.  The Ten Commandments are understood theologically as life-giving.   In ancient times, Jewish Rabbis put a drop of honey on the tongues of those studying the law to remind them that God’s law is sweet, not bitter.

A few generations ago, Christians spent more time studying catechisms.  These documents went into great detail behind the meaning of each Commandment.  If you read the Heidelberg Catechism of the Reformed Churches, you’ll discover “Thou shalt not steal” includes no deceptive advertising.  And in the new Catholic catechism, acts leading to the enslavement of another human being are treated as violations of the commandment.  In other words, we should be careful misrepresenting a used car or purchasing goods produced in a sweatshop.  “Thou shalt not kill” also means more than not murdering someone.  Martin Luther equated failure to feed the hungry, when you had the ability, to murder.  Likewise, “bearing false witness” is more than telling the truth.  The Westminster Catechism used in Presbyterian Churches extended the commandment to include backbiting and vainglory boasting, sins prevalent throughout society.

I could go on with examples of how we ignore each of the Ten Commandments, but I won’t.  Instead, we should understand those even if we have monuments by all courthouses or on every street corner, we won’t necessarily become better citizens.  It’s odd that about the time many churches de-emphasized the study of the catechism, granite and bronze memorials started popping up around the country.   In the 1950s, thousands of monuments were dedicated in the aftermath of Cecil B. DeMilles’s blockbuster flick, “The Ten Commandments.”  Today, we’ve lost the fuller understanding of the law while trivializing it into something chiseled on a rock.  With the law publicly displayed, we pat ourselves on the back and brag about our piety while forgetting what the law is all about.  Perhaps we should thank the ACLU.  Maybe the publicity generated by these lawsuits will force us to understand that the commandments are not an image to be viewed but a law to be studied and, as both Moses and the prophets insist, written on our hearts.

Before marching off to Montgomery, take time to study the Commandments.  In the larger scheme of things, having a granite slab out in front of the courthouse won’t make a bit of difference.  What will matter is how we apply the commandments.  If we write them on our hearts, as the Hebrew Scriptures encourage, rest assured they’ll be safe from an ACLU lawsuit.

###

Christ Alone (Homecoming Sunday 2017)

 

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Hebrews 4:14-5:10

February 15, 2017

 

Today is homecoming Sunday and our kickoff for our 40th year. So let me begin with a cautionary note. Scripture warns us not to look back. It’s what turned Lot’s wife into a clump of salt and Jesus warns that one who puts his hands to the plow and then looks back is not fit to enter the kingdom.[1] When we look back, as the Jews do with the Passover, not to long for what is no longer presence, but to remember God’s faithfulness.

A second cautionary note: while it’s a pleasant thing to come home to church, we need to remember this isn’t our home. Our home is with our Heavenly Father.  We come here to worship and to point to Christ as the one who will ultimately take us to our true home. You know, when the Prodigal Son returned home, he wasn’t looking back on this sinful living in a distant land. Image the love he felt when his father embraced him.[2] We, too, can feel such an embrace when we arrive at our final homecoming. So this homecoming and this kick-off for our 40th year, we should not be drawn back into the past, but into God’s future. Ask yourself, “Where is God leading us?”

The same goes with the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Believe me, we don’t want to go back to the 16th Century.  It was an awful time with disease, religious wars and political turmoil.  But God was faithful and we should learn from that era as we push forward into the future. What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus? What wisdom might we glean from the 16th Century as well as from those who founded this congregation?

      One of the questions that bothered Martin Luther and got the Reformation rolling was “How can I be saved?”  It sounds pretty self-centered (how can I?), but the focus didn’t stay internal. Martin Luther’s study of the New Testament lead him to have faith in a gracious God. The focus quickly moved from Marty’s concern with his soul to God as revealed in Jesus Christ. And this is the Reformation’s third solas or theme” “Christ Alone.”  It is in Jesus Christ that we have hope; it is in him that we find salvation. And one day, before him, all will bow.[3]

One of the historical ways of looking at the role Christ plays in our lives and world is through his three fold offices: Prophet, Priest and King.[4]  As a prophet, Christ brings God’s word to us.  As a Priest, Christ stands between us and God Almighty. And as King, which is his eternal position, Jesus Christ rules over all creation, of which as prophet and priest he is redeeming. Today, as we consider Christ Alone, we’re going to look at the second office, that of the Priest.  Of course, these three are co-mingled, so we can’t really consider one without the others.  Read Hebrews 4:14-5:10.

###

The Hunger Games is set in a post-apocalyptic North America, in a dark future. (How many of you have seen the movie? Read the book?) The majority of people in this world live in fear and without hope. But those who reside in the capitol, live in luxury.  All who live in the twelve districts suffer and toil, making a rich life possible for those in those in power. Each year, there is a gladiator-like contest where twelve teenagers, two for each district, get to fight to the death in a televised reality TV program.  Only one will survive and this one will live in luxury. The cruelty of this event is entertainment for those living in the capitol and a reminder to those in the districts of the capitol’s power and of their need to toe the line.

The movie begins with the selection of the participants for the 74th annual Hunger Games. Everyone is listening as the names are called. There are sighs and tears in District 12 when Primrose Everdeen, a sweet young child barely old enough to participate in the lottery, is chosen. But then there’s a cry from the crowd and her older sister, Katniss, who’s 16, steps forward and volunteers in her place. Katniss stands between the officials and her sister. She is a mediator, offering her own life in order to save her sister.[5]

    In ancient Israel, at the temple, the high priest was the mediator.  Just as Katniss stood between her sister and the soldiers of the capitol, the high priest stood between the people and God.  It was too dangerous for an ordinary individual to go before God.  It was risky enough for the high priest, who only stepped into the Holy of Holies once a year to bring forth the sin offerings of the people. But the priest took that risk on benefit of the people.

       We have a great high priest, the author of Hebrews proclaims, Jesus Christ! Jesus has benefits as high priest that others did not have. He came from heaven and is the Son of God.  However, he is also able to relate to us. Not only is he from heaven, he has lived as we live. He has experienced temptation.  He knows the trials and tribulations (as well as the joy) of life on earth. When we bring our concerns to him, he understands. He’s not aloof.  He’s not like a leader who lives locked behind walls and gates with protection all around to keep people away. He’s not the most wonderful Wizard of Oz hiding behind a façade. He’s not an out-of-touch Maria Antoinette suggesting that those hungry in the streets should eat cake if there is no bread. Jesus is like Katniss, who had grown up in District 12 and knows the hardships of the people. The author of Hebrews wants us to understand two things: Jesus not only mediates our sins, he can relate to us and to our need.

The Book of Hebrews is perhaps best described as a sermon (or a series of sermons) from an unknown preacher who addresses a tired and wore-out congregation. Many of those who listened or read this sermon were wondering if following Jesus was really worth it. Some of you may wonder the same thing. Perhaps, they think, they should go back to their former ways, as Jews or Pagans. The preacher encourages the congregation to remain faithful and in doing so provides the most complex understanding of the nature of Christ. Who is this man and what does he have to do with us? Well, when we read Hebrews, we understand and are called to keep the faith and to trust in Jesus Christ, who came to bring us life.