James 1:1-15: Through difficulty, we grow in our faith

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

James 1:1-15

May 21, 2017

 

 

During Lent we worked through Galatians.  This week, we’ll begin a journey through the Book of James.  These two works are often contrasted with each other.  Galatians focuses on salvation by faith, while James reads more like a list of what to do and not to do. The author is James which was a common name during New Testament times.  In this letter, he’s only identified here as a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.

        Unlike many of our New Testament letters, it doesn’t appear James was writing to a particular congregation, or even group of congregations.  Instead, he addresses this to the twelve dispersed tribes.  We know, from the Old Testament, of the 12 tribes representing the sons and daughters of Jacob.  But the twelve tribes were longer in existence by New Testament times.  The destruction of the northern Kingdom of Israel led to the dispersion of the ten northern tribes, and the last two tribes of the southern kingdom were dispersed by Babylon nearly six centuries earlier.  The tribes were less identifiable and Jews, were living all over the known world by the time James came along. There is debate as to if James is addressing this letter to just Jewish Christians or to all Christians living in the known world.

In Galatians, Paul was concerned with how we experience salvation, which is through Christ.  James is more interested in how the believer, the person of faith, lives out his or her life.   We can experience joy in life even in times or peril if we have a purpose.  Today, we’re going to look at the first fifteen verses of James.   Read James 1:1-15…

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Two weeks ago when Presbyterian Women had their luncheon to close out their program year, Dr. Robert Pawlicki spoke. Even if you weren’t there, you may recognize him from his column in the Twatl, which focuses on happiness.  He began his talk about how wonderful of a place in which we live.   We don’t have to deal with snow, we don’t have to worry much about crime, and things are green all year.  Most everyone nodded in agreement.  Then he suggested that as nice as our island is, it’s not the reason we have happiness.  There’s plenty of unhappy people.  He went on to point out how survey after survey have found the happiness people in the world often live where the environment can be brutal. Yet, they’re happy.

         In his book, Dr. Pawlicki provides a number of examples of happy people.  One is the late Nelson Mandela.  I am not sure I’d be happy if I had been imprisoned unjustly for much of my life, but Mandela was able to maintain perspective.  He had a purpose in his life, to help create a better country for his people, and that allowed him to be happy.

Another example was Michael J. Fox.  After coming down with Parkinson at a relatively young age, Fox admitted that when he was rich and famous and healthy, he was quite unhappy.  He was addicted and lonely.  His diagnose of Parkinson’s redirected his life and gave him a gift that actually lifted him up out of depression.  Despite his illness, the last years of his life were his happiest years.[1]

   Nelson Mandela and Michael J. Fox are modern examples of what James refers to this letter.  Their lives demonstrate joy despite trials.  James, and the Bible in general, remind us that life is difficult, but it’s in embracing and enduring the difficulty that allows us to grow in our faith.  Archibald Rutledge, a former poet laureate of South Carolina wrote, “Life everywhere is made up of roses and razorbacks, arsenic and azaleas…”  “[L]ife is enliven by its uncertainty, it is made dearer by its insecurity and its brevity.”[2]   When we meet obstacles head on, trusting that God is with us, God can do some incredible things through us!  Furthermore, if life held no challenges, it wouldn’t be very memorable.

I don’t know how many river trips I’ve made in canoes and kayaks.  Yet, the ones I most remember best are those with challenges; the trips with inclement weather, with hordes of mosquitoes, with leaving an important piece of equipment at home, or some other obstacles.

        Ten years ago, a few friends and I decided to paddle the Fox River in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  It’s a prime brook trout river, one that Ernest Hemingway fished after he came back from the First World War.  Hemingway drew on these experiences to write his Nick Adams stories.  I had a guidebook that said we should be able to paddle this section in four hours.  We trusted the book and started early in the morning, thinking we’d take several more hours to fish.  We caught our limit.  But as the afternoon turned into evening, we realized that we hadn’t passed the first of two large streams that flowed into the river.  This was no four hour paddle.

Part of the problem was that the river had not been cleared of snags in years and we spent as much time pulling over logs as we did paddling.  As the sun dropped in the west, the deer flies came out, making life miserable.  Having thought we’d easily be off the river mid-afternoon, we didn’t have a lot of extra food with us.  We paddled like crazy as the sun set.  In the Northwood in the middle of the summer, it is light till around 10:30 PM, but it was 11 PM before we got off the river.  We were exhausted and tired and by then didn’t want to cook dinner (we saved the trout till the next day).  Exhausted, the four of us went to the only place open, the Seney Bar.  Their cook had left at 9:30, but the bartender took pity on us and fixed us some frozen pizzas (those 99 cent cardboard varieties, which he charged us $5 apiece). As tasteless as those pizzas were, we appreciated and devoured them. On that trip, we learned some things; we became better paddlers, but we also created memories that still bring a smile to our faces.

It can be the same with our faith.  We all go through periods of testing, times when we face obstacles and challenges.  James tells us that if we stick with it, we build endurance and will mature in a manner that will allow us to face other challenges we’ll have in our lives. And remember, as long as we have breath, we’ll have challenges.

James is often seen for his departure from the message we get from the writings of Paul and Peter.  However, in this opening section, James says things similar to what they both say.  In Romans, Paul speaks about rejoicing in our suffering because it produces endurance, which produces character, which produces hope.  Peter encourages us to rejoice despite grieving from trials, so that through our faithfulness we will bring praise to our Savior.[3]

James bookends our passage with the importance of enduring trials and temptations.  This message is clearly identified in verses 2-4 and 12-14.  In between these bookends, James speaks of two important truths.  First of all, he acknowledges that ability to endure isn’t something that is innate within us.  Such abilities are from God and if we are facing challenges that are overwhelming, we need to go to God in faith and ask for the wisdom we need.  And we need to trust God to give us what we need, and act accordingly, not just continue on with our doubts.

Secondly, drawing from a message that harkens back to the Psalms and Isaiah, we need to remember that our lives are fleeting.[4]  Riches wane just as flowers wither in the heat.  We’re in God’s hands and we should trust God alone.  Our abilities, wealth, health, strength and looks will wane. We’re to live out our lives in God’s providence.

Our passage closes with a reminder that we are not to blame God for trying to trip us up or tempt us into evil or into failure.  Sadly, James doesn’t give us an answer to the age old question on evil (if God is good, why do bad things happen).  Instead, he encourages us to keep our faith in a gracious God, to trust in the Lord who can provide us with the faith to endure even when things are not going our way.   Keep your eye on Jesus!

Joy in adversity?  Yes!  Often there is little we can do to change our environment.  Much of what happens to us is beyond our control.  But we can control how we think about our troubles and how we react to them.[5]  Challenges can be opportunities for us to build our faith.  James encourages us to endure, to have faith, and to seek God’s wisdom.  God is in control, not us, and that should be a great comfort to those of us who place our trust in the Lord.  Amen.

 

©2017

[1] Robert Pawlicki, Ph.D., Fifty Ways to Greater Well Being and Happiness: A Hand and Inspirational Guide (2012), 57-59.

[2] Archibald Ruthledge, God’s Children (1947), Kindle Edition, loc 283.

[3] See Romans 5:3-5, 1 Peter 1:6-7.

[4] Psalm 103:15-16, Isaiah 40:6-7

[5] Dan G. McCartney, James; Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 84.

The Good Shepherd



Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

May 7, 2017

John 10:1-18

 

The pastoral image of a shepherd is a frequent metaphor in Scripture.  Herders of animals were common in Palestine, especially in the Old Testament times.  Think about it, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and David were all shepherds.  In time, a shepherd became a figurative term for a ruler of God’s people.  The king was to be a shepherd.  God shepherded his people, most notably during the Exodus as they followed him through the wilderness.

We don’t see many sheep or shepherds around here.  When I was a pastor in Cedar City, Utah, they were visible.  You’d especially see them in the spring and fall when they drove the sheep up in the mountains or back down, often clogging roads and creating traffic issues.  With several sheepherders in the congregation, I had be careful preaching on these passages as they knew more than I did.

You know, the shepherds coming to the manager is a highlight of a Christmas programs and we become sentimental thinking about it. But we should realize that shepherds had a tough job and were not high in the social hierarchy. The idea that a shepherd like David could become king or that a group of shepherds could witness the incarnation of God into humanity was far-fetched.  But our God has a way to take what is rejected build upon it.[1]  And Jesus promises that the last shall be first and the slave the greatest of all.[2]  It doesn’t bother God, who becomes a man in Jesus Christ, to align himself with a shepherd, an image that we see over and over again in Scripture and especially in the tenth chapter of John’s gospel. READ JOHN 10:1-6, 11-15.

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I know many of you have travelled to Holy Lands, seeing it as a pilgrimage.  Some find their faith strengthen by trotting over the same ground upon which Jesus’ walked. If you go, it’s good to have a guide who can bring the Bible alive and make you envision what it was like in Jesus’ day.  One such group, who had a fantastic guide, started their journey in Jerusalem.  After seeing all the sites, they had dinner, after which the guide took time to prepare everyone for what they’d witness the next day as they left the city and travelled in the Judean hillside. Herding sheep is still an occupation in these areas. He waxed eloquently about the shepherds of Palestine and how they are so good that when they take the sheep into the hills to graze, they just walked along and the sheep follow close behind.

The group had hardly gotten into the countryside when they observed a spectacle that could have been a filming of a Monty Python skit.  An overwhelmed shepherd and his dogs tried desperately and without success to keep together a herd of sheep. The beasts ran in every which direction as the dogs barked and snapped at their legs. The shepherd was shouting and, despite the language barriers, the tourist knew it was obscenities. Somethings just transcend language. Pointing to this, one of the group members asked the guide to explain the sheep’s behavior in light of his comments the previous evening.  “Oh, that’s simple,” the guide responded, “they’re not going out to graze, they’re headed to the butcher.”

The prophets spoke of evil shepherds (those who drove the sheep to the butcher) and the prophet Ezekiel promised that there would be a day when God would become a shepherd and lead the entire world to good pastures.[3]  This set the stage for Jesus who came proclaiming himself as the “good shepherd.” Jesus provides two reasons.  First, he is the good shepherd because he will lay down his life for his sheep.  Secondly, he’s the good shepherd because he knows his sheep and his sheep know him.

The shepherd’s fate, if he owns the herd, is tied to the sheep. Therefore, he has a vested interest in their welfare.  As the owner, he makes sure his animals are well fed, watered, and protected.  If the bad wolf is too big or a lion too aggressive, a hired-hand will take off. There is no incentive for him to risk his neck. The good shepherd, however, is loyal to his flock.  The hired-hand looks out for his own interest. Jesus, as the good shepherd, is loyal to us and promises never to desert us, a promised sealed on the cross.  As Jesus said to the disciples, who were afraid of being left behind, “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I’ll be there.”[4]  We can take comfort in Jesus’ presence during times of trouble.

The second reason Jesus said that he’s the good shepherd is because he knows his sheep and his sheep know him.  Jesus links this knowledge between him and his sheep with the knowledge between him and his Father in heaven.  This intimate knowledge between Jesus and his followers is for a reason.  Jesus desires to bring all of his sheep, all of his followers, together into one flock.  By being gathered in Jesus’ flock, we too have connection to God, the Father.  After all, as Jesus says a few chapters later in John’s gospel, he is the way to the Father.[5]

There’s rich imagery in this passage.  To be a good shepherd, one needs patience, and must commit the time necessary to take care of the sheep.  The image of a good shepherd shows the gentleness and patience of God.  But a good sheepherder is not meek.  When wild animals attack, the shepherd becomes enraged as he fights to protect his sheep…  The two sheepherders in the church in Utah, when they were up on the mountain or out on the winter ranger, kept a loaded Winchester 30-30 in their trucks in case something threatened the herd.  They protected the sheep.

The image of a good shepherd also shows us the wrathful side of God, the God who gets angry at those who endanger his children.  Jesus reminds us of the wrathful side of the Shepherd God when he speaks harshly to those who misled and misguide children (and in these places he’s talking not only about those whose years are few, but also those who are young and vulnerable within the faith journey).[6]  The Shepherd is concerned for our being and cursed are those who try to steer us away from the truth.

The 23rd Psalm, where God is related to as a shepherd, is perhaps the most beloved of all the Psalms.  I think this is because we like knowing there is someone looking out for us, taking care of us when our lives travel through dark valleys.  Sooner or later in our lives, we will all experience times when we are unsure of the future and feel threatened.  Danger may seem to be lurking all around, but if we can recall that God is the good shepherd who leads us through the valley of the shadow of death, we can be consoled and have the hope that ultimately can only be found in God’s hands.

I would like to discuss for a minute the notion of the pastor of a church being a shepherd.  Some churches take this seriously and give shepherd crooks to pastors and/or bishops. With Jesus being the good shepherd, I find myself a little nervous about being seen as a shepherd and certainly feel inadequate. Let’s face it, it’s hard to live up to Jesus as our role model.  Yet, we’re all called to strive to be more godly in our lives, even as we know the only way we will truly be sanctified is through grace.  But until our sanctification in the next world, we do our best and depend on God.

Let me expand this a little further.  Within the Reformed Tradition, the role of the shepherd doesn’t rest just with the pastor, but with all elders.  So I’m not on the hook just by myself.  And, just so the rest of you don’t feel left out, there is the other concept of the priesthood of all believers.  Look around, we’re all priests.  And part of our priestly role is to look out for one another.

Yes, we have a Good Shepherd.  His name is Jesus.  We follow him.  But think about this: Jesus wants us to be his assistant shepherds.  We all now have a part to play in the incarnational ministry into which we’re called, the ministry of furthering God’s work on earth.  This includes looking out and praying for one another.  It’s part of what it means to be a Christian.  It’s an assignment we’ll accept if we truly love Jesus. Amen.

 

©2017

[1] See Matthew 21:14, Mark 10:12, Luke 20:17 and Acts 4:11.

[2] See Matthew 19:30, 20:16, 20:26, 23:11; Mark 9:25, 10:31, 10:43; Luke 13:30, 22:26.

[3] Ideas from Raymond E. Brown, The Anchor Bible: Gospel According to John I-XII, p. 397.  Passages from the prophets include Jeremiah 10:21, 23:1-2, and Ezekiel 34.

[4] Matthew 18:20.

[5] John 14:6.

[6] Matthew 18:6, Mark 9:42, and Luke 17:2.

Psalm 103

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church 

Psalm 103

April 30, 2017

 

          Johnny had always wanted to take a ride in a balloon.  He’d heard about how quiet they are and thought it was would be a delightful way to explore the countryside.  Finally, he had a chance when, at the local fair, a man was offering balloon rides.  No one else wanted to go up, so the gondolier told Johnny to climb into the basket.  They dropped the weights as he fired up the heater and soon the balloon was rising above the Ferris wheel.  It kept going higher and then the wind picked up and it began to quickly move beyond the fair.  Soon neither Johnny nor the gondolier knew where they were at. The gondolier takes the basket down to ten feet above ground where Johnny calls to a passer-by: ‘Excuse me, sir, can you tell me where I am?’

After looking Johnny up and down, the passer-by says: ‘You are in a red balloon, ten feet above ground.’

‘You must be a lawyer,’ Johnny mumbled.

‘How could you possible know that?’ asked the passer-by. ‘

Because your answer is technically correct but absolutely useless, and the fact is I am still lost’.

“Then you must be in management’, said the passer-by.

‘That’s right” Johnny said.  “How did you know?’

‘You have such a good view from where you are,” the lawyer said, “and yet you don’t know where you are and you don’t know where you are going. The fact is you are in the exact same position you were in before we met, but now your problem is somehow my fault![1]

One of the problems in life is that we often take credit for things when they are going well and then blame someone or something else when they are not.  But such an attitude is neither honest nor helpful.  A better attitude would be that of the author of the 103rd Psalm, which is attributed to King David.  Read Psalm 103.

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          One of the delights of having dinner with my friend and a theological mentor, Jack Stewart, is listening to him say grace.  At the table, once everyone is seated, he’ll reach out and grab his wife’s hand and whoever is sitting to the other side of him.  Then he’ll begin with a strong deep voice, “Bless the Lord, all my soul and all that is within in.  Bless his holy name. Bless the Lord, all my soul, and do not forget all his benefits.”  As soon as he begins, everyone becomes quiet and listens. The grace he says at meals is always the same, opening with the first two verses of this Psalm.  Sometimes he’ll add his own prayers after the opening, but not always. These two verses are sufficient. When he is in a restaurant, it’ll be the same prayer, only not quite as loud as at home.  At home, the dishes might rattle as if even they are praising God.

The opening verses of Psalm 103 is a fitting prayer. Like many of our prayers, it may be more for us than for God, for these words remind us of our duty to praise God and to remember what God has done for us.  God has cared for us. God has forgiven us.  The God who gave us the breath of life, saves us and heals us and offers us a second and third and forty-ninth opportunities to get it right.

          Part of what makes this Psalm so rich is that the Psalmist draws from his personal experiences and from the experiences of his people with God.  Even though, like all of us, he has succumb to sin, which cut him off from God, he is able to, as one commentator writes, “enjoy the full sunlight of the grace of his God.”[2]  Martin Luther called this Psalm the proper master and doctor of Scripture.”[3]  He’s right as these words encapsulates much of our theology, which when done right focuses only on the praise of God.

Notice how the Psalm builds.  In the opening verse, the Psalmist speaks to himself as he calls for his need to bless or praise the Lord.  But then in verse seven, he calls on all Israel to join him.  Adding to the Hebrew voices are all mortals, as he calls on them to join his song in verse 15.  By verse twenty, he’s calling on the angels in the court of heaven and then when comes to the end, he’s calling on all creation—from earth to the stars.  Think about listening to a piece of music that begins with a single instrument, then the conductor calls in more from this section of the symphony, then brings in instruments from over here, and over there.  Each time new instruments are added, the sound rises until finally when all have come in, the music reaches a crescendo.  That’s what’s happening in this Psalm.  But why?

The Psalmist tells us, why we should praise the Lord.  God has given us abundant matter for praising him,” John Calvin wrote about this Psalm.  If we could only remember them, “we would be sufficiently inclined to perform our duty.”[4]

In verses 3 through 6, using a series of verbs, the Psalmists points out what God has done: forgives, heals, redeems, crowns, satisfies, renews, and works.  There are two great themes of God’s work highlighted in this Psalm: one is forgiveness and the other is the combined traits of the Almighty: love and compassion.[5]

          From the vantage point of the present, looking back, the Psalmist has seen where God intervened on his behalf.  He knows the stories of how God has guided and protected Israel, going back to Moses and leading the people out of Egypt.  He quotes from Exodus the line that God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.[6] God isn’t a Santa Claus, checking if we’ve been naughty or nice.  He understands that God is enthroned in the heavens, with an overview of all the world, while at the same time can be intimately connected in our lives.  God is compassionate, like a father.  And as Creator, God knows our beginning.  Our lives, when measured against history, are short, but God’s love is everlasting.

Yes, we should praise God for all that God has done for us.  The Psalmist, in bringing in all the voices that have experienced God’s providence, calls on you and me to join in this song of praise.  Bless the Lord, O my soul.  Be thankful and grateful so that all might know that God is good.

        The message of this Psalm is one that we need to take to heart.  Too often, these days, people are looking askew at the Christian faith.  They see the church as judgmental, even hateful.[7]  We have to change that perspective!  Yesterday’s Shredding Event is one example of trying to set a new course.  We need to reflect a faith grounded in this Psalm instead of one that just condemns all that we see wrong in the world.  As one who has given up on church said: “The church should be a place where people are loved collectively rather than judged individually.”[8]  Certainly, there are a lot of things wrong with the world, but love (not condemnation) is what will redeem it.

    God loves the world, John 3:16 tells us, so that he sent his only Son.  As followers of Jesus, we are to strive to live Christ-like lives.  This Psalm shows us what God is about.   This Psalm reminds us of God’s loving care. We should also strive to live in such a manner. Let us also love the world and then, maybe, as we call on it to join us in giving thanks to God, it just might.  But regardless, as we worship and praise God, we are bringing God glory and that’s our calling.   Amen.

 

©2017

[1] Adapted from http://fuertenews.com/fun-stuff/jokes-mainmenu-135/2929-may-day-traditions-and-jokes.

[2]Artur Weiser, The Psalms, translated by Herbert Hartwell, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), 657.

[3][3] James L. Mays, Psalms: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press,1994), 405.

[4] John Calvin, Commentary on the Psalms, viewed at https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/cal/psalms-103.html

[5] Stan Mast, “Notes on Psalm 103:1-8 for Proper 16C (August 15, 2016) for the Center of Excellence in Preaching at Calvin College.  See http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-16c/?type=the_lectionary_psalms

[6] Exodus 34:6

[7] There are a lot of books and articles that are making this case.  See Dan Kimball, They Like Jesus But Not the Church: insights from emerging generations (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007).

[8] Josh Packard, Ph.D and Ashleigh Hope, Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith. (Loveland, CO: Group Publishing, 2015), 32.

A Sermon by Fenton Ludtke

This past week Bunny Ludtke gave me a copy of a sermon that Fenton had given in 1962 at his church in Michigan.  Fenton had been cleaning out papers for the upcoming shredding and had happened upon this sermon.  He had been asked by the Rev. McKay Taylor to preach.  Reading his sermon, I was impressed with how Fenton encouraged the congregation to embrace change.  The church had already done this with its modern architecture.  He even encouraged the use of Jazz Music.

After serving in the military during World War II, Fenton was a reporter then the city editor for the Pontac Daily News.  He later worked for the Associated Press office in Detroit before taking a job with Campbell Ewald, an advertising agency in Detroit.  In the small world of the church, I was shocked to discover when I moved here that Fenton had worked with Kensinger Jones, who was a member of my previous church in Michigan.  Sadly, Ken Jones had died a few weeks before I made the connection.  Fenton worked for others agencies and retired in 1989 from Chrysler.  I hope you enjoy his sermon.  -jeff

 

 

Fenton and Bunny Ludtke

THE CARE AND FEEDING OF CHRISTIANITY

A sermon by Fenton A. Ludtke
Northminster Presbyterian Church
Birmingham, Michigan

May 20, 1962

 

 

Scripture:                                                                                                    John 21:14-19
                                                                                                                  Matthew 28:16-20

We are, as you know, this morning within the period of the 40 days after the Resurrection during which Jesus appeared to His disciples.

The passage from John you have just heard was an account of His third appearance.

As you recall, it was preceded by the story of the disciples going fishing. After they had failed to catch any fish, Jesus appeared on the shore and bid them to cast their nets on the right side of their boat. The result was a catch of some 153 fish, and new evidence of the power and presence of their Lord.

This event as related in the New Testament had especial meaning for the disciples when it happened. For, as you can imagine, they were completely disorganized.

Jesus had been crucified. Their leader was gone. How could they poor men  be expected to rise to the void left by His death?

Where could they begin? Would people listen? How to make the start?

Well, hadn’t He told them?

Yes. He had told them to keep His Commandments. He had told them to teach His word.

Oh yes.

But you can almost imagine the disciples, saying, “Sure He told us what to do, but we never really thought we’d ever have to do it.”

As John related in the Scriptures, Jesus asked of Peter, “If you love me, then feed my sheep.”

What did He mean?

And what does this story of Jesus’ third appearance mean to us?

I would like to suggest some answers. And maybe these answers can be found in investigating whether we have been creative enough in our thinking about, and our love of, God.

Creative?

As undoubtedly you have observed, the word “creative,” or “creativity,” is enjoying new imminence today. We have creative advertising, creative salesmen, creative child care, creative research. Of course, we have had advertising, and salesmen, and child care, and research for many years, but, suddenly, with the flick of a word, they are “creative.” Sounds good, doesn’t it?

To be creative, though, is not to be isolated within a group of people especially able to express themselves with brush or lens . . . or words . . . or hammer hitting harp strings. To me there is more to this word. It asks of anyone embracing it in act or deed, that they change. That they do something, say something, believe something, in a new and more meaningful way.

Of course, all of us are changing . . . almost every day. We are either growing up . . . or, as we say, our bones are settling. But this kind of change is what you might call “developmental.” It is change that is expected. Inevitable.

There is, however, a different kind of change.

It is the kind of change that is the most difficult to make for it asks of you to be willing to make the effort to accept a new equation, a departure from terms or procedures you have been accustomed to It is not inevitable change.

Well now, if all of us accept the idea that change can be good for us, how can we do it in our relationship with God?

In other words, is there such a thing as creative Christianity?

Well, there would seem to be two categories of creative Christianity. One would be physical .and the other, spiritual.

We can look at evidence of physical change in our churches today. Look at the stone and steel and glass combined in what may be called the “contemporary look” of many of them.

Our own church, when it is completed, may well be one of the most significant contributions to church architecture in our nation,  or for that matter,  the world.

Perhaps such a glowing testimonial to the design of our church sounds a bit provincial,  or something a Sinclair Lewis type of town booster would say. I think not.

Northminster Presbyterian Church

For such a prediction of our church’s architectural merit is based on the fact that its architect… Minuro Yamasaki . . . is now one of America’s most highly respected architectural craftsmen. Already his fame is spreading around tile world. Perhaps you read that the Science building he designed for Seattle is considered, by a goodly number, to be the most gifted contemporary work in that city’s current world’s fair.

But, someone might say… “these so-called contemporary churches aren’t my idea of a physical church. They are cold. Give me the old Gothic with its spires reaching like fingers to the sky. that’s what a church ought to be like.”

While it is well that we respect such an attitude, it is interesting to reflect upon the history of Gothic design in the building of churches. Gothic architecture developed in Europe in the Middle Ages and was quickly identified as the “flamboyant style.”

It was the contemporary of its day. As the World Book reports:

 “Places of worship are associated with old architectural styles in the minds of many people. Yet the people who built the great Romanesque and Gothic churches were the modern builders of their day. It is often claimed that the vitality of their work lies in the close relationship between the building and the era that produced it. If this is true, the buildings of any religious body today should be as modern for their time as were the medieval buildings.”

It is interesting to note, too, that the physical change represented by the growth and acceptance of Gothic resulted, at least in part, because it represented a change in the spiritual feelings within the church.

In feudal times, religion had been mainly in the hands of the monks. During the Gothic period, however, religion became a thing of the people, and the lofty arches and towers best expressed how they felt.

Now another example of this physical change in churches today can be found in music.

We know, of course, that Christian hymns owe their beginnings to the old religious songs of the Hebrews. Many of the earliest hymns were written in Greek and Latin,  but with the coming of the Protestant Reformation, the language changed from Latin, to the language of the people  and the most famous hymn of this period we sang this morning.

It is Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” This powerful and stirring hymn became known as “The Battle Hymn of the Reformation.”

Now, a rather cursory investigation of the hymnal we use in Northminster seems to indicate, at least to me, that there are not as many people worshipping God in music and lyric today. Many of our hymns date back hundreds of years. Not too many are what you would call the work of contemporary man.

Very possibly, this is an area in which the creative Christian could investigate the suitability of physical change. For if the contemporary design of our church buildings reflects modern man and his love of God, would it be improper for the music he sings or listens to within his church also to reflect modern man and his love of God?

Wilson Wade, professor of religion at Dartmouth College, believes chance should be considered. In fact, his ideas may be too contemporary for many people.

He would introduce Jazz into churches.

Now, rest assured, Professor Wade is not talking about Elvis Presley’s “You’re Nothing But a Hound Dog,” and he most certainly does not commend to your ear something for twisting by Chubby Checkers.

He is talking about concert hall jazz. The kind that in its truest form has been called the only art form America has contributed to the world.

As he stated in “Christian Century”:

“If jazz offers any understanding of the conditions that inform the contemporary image of man, it is in an understanding we can experience only through becoming involved with the world of jazz — the world of 20th century man. The world of Palestrina or Bach or Brahms still main­tains a reality — the reality, namely of our heritage. But it is the reality of this present era that cries out for our understanding and participation.”

Professor Wade continues:

 “Jazz echoes the sorrows, the blues, the frustrations of modern man, but it also rejoices in the exhilarations of split-level living. And always, through the harshness and chaos of jazz, there is a continual swinging. If  jazz doesn’t swing, we say it just isn’t jazz. As the Jesuit Father Kennard, instructor in philosophy at Loyola University in Los Angeles, says, ‘to swing is to affirm.'”

When I read this story, you might be interested to know that I wrote Professor Wade and asked him what particular jazz he was thinking of. He wrote back, Dave Brubeck, the contemporary jazz pianist.

Jazz in our churches? Will it ever happen?

Well, of course, it has. Very recently it happened in a church in West Germany. As I recall it resulted in standing room only. And it has happened in other churches in our country, granted very few.

But if you are saying to yourself, “Well, I certainly would never want such music played in my church,” then perhaps you will find interest in the observations of Elwyn Wienandt in Christian Century last March. His article appeared several months after Professor Wade’s, and, in part, stated:

“If the idea of intruding a contemporary and popular musical style into Christian worship were truly new and without precedent there might be cause for alarm, but the fact is that the practice is strongly founded on historical patterns,”

Mr. Wienandt goes on to tell us that the earliest great assault upon sacred music came in the 13th century with the development of a musical form called the motet, a polyphonic piece usually performed at vespers in the Roman Catholic service . . . and he adds that throughout the centuries of sacred music, man has taken popular secular music and moulded it to the use of the church.

So, after all, maybe Professor Wade shouldn’t be considered too controversial.

I think the important point here is, that in the cases of Gothic versus Contemporary design, and most of our church music versus contemporary music, the older forms were the tradition-breakers of centuries ago. You may prefer Gothic dud hymns penned in the 19th century, but remember; a’ time they represented, change.

Should not the voice of today be heard?

Well, we have been considering one of two forms of creative Christianity. It is, as we termed it, physical change in the church. The second form, as we mentioned earlier, might be called spiritual change.

What do we mean by spiritual change?

Does this mean re-writing the Bible to suit modern man’s good or evil purposes? Most certainly not.

Does this mean some kind of down-grading of God in our personal lives? Definitely not.

On the contrary, it would ask of us a re-reading of the Bible . . . and it would ask of us an up-grading of God in our personal lives.

Spiritual change, you see, is something that must come over you, not something you overlook by self-satisfaction in your relationship with your fellow man and God.

Spiritual change asks that if you are to become a creative Christian you must create something within you that did not exist in the same form before.

In simple truth, spiritual change asks that you, not your physical church, change.

Of course, spiritual change asks self-examination, too. It asks that you examine what you do, how you do it, even why you do it, with the basis of evaluation your relationship with God.

What questions can you ask yourself in this self-examination?
Here are some suggestions.

Are you self-conscious about loving God?

If you are married, may I submit that undoubtedly one of the most moving moments in your life, came when you gave and received in return what I believe are the greatest three words ever put together in a phrase:

“I love you.”

Can you remember when you first said these words? Were you afraid to say them, for fear the person you loved would say something like, “Well, thank you, I’m awfully fond of you, too.”

Sure you remember. And chances are that you can remember the day, the hour, where you were (though the world may have been spinning crazily)…  maybe you even remember that you were wearing a floppy, wide-brimmed straw hat that kept falling off, or you had on your new searsucker jacket, and you discovered a hole in the pocket…

You can remember that once you had pledged your love once you had said the three words, you suddenly knew the beauty of loving someone more than yourself.

How could you forget?

But . . . have you ever really told God you love him?

Or are you too self-conscious? Or have you never thought of doing it?

Another question you can ask yourself is, do you bring your real self to church on Sunday?

Or do you put on a kind of “Sunday Best” behavior, only to upon leaving church and arriving home, take it off and hang it at the far end of your closet until same time, same station next Sunday morning?

Is it important to be seen in church, or to see in church?

Be hard on yourself when you ask this for if we do not bring our real selves into church, is there hope that we shall take the real message out of church?

I don’t know what kind of grade you’ll give yourself on this self-examination. Only you and God will know. I know I won’t tell my score.

But once you have taken this test, what can you do about the results?

If you will permit me, I should like to suggest some instructions for your care and feeding of Christianity . . . for, you see, to me that is what Jesus was doing in this third appearance to his disciples after the Resurrection.

“Peter, do you love me?” is like Jesus asking the very same question of you.

“Yea, you know I love you, Lord,” is like you answering Him,

“Then feed my sheep,” is like the Lord telling you do “Follow Him”… to be what you profess to be, to be a true Christian…

You could almost paraphrase President Kennedy’s stirring call to our nation upon the occasion of his inauguration:

“Ask not what God can do for you, but what you can do for God.

But where to begin? And when? And how?

You can begin here. You can begin in the next few minutes. And here are the instructions .

You can begin by being honest with yourself… you are neither as good  as you think… or as bad as you fear. Take not the counsel of fear… and fear not the counsel  of your heart.

You can begin by smiling at a stranger in church, by reaching out your hand to touch his by reaching out your heart to move his.

You can begin by saying hello to a stranger… don’t back away or try to avoid his glance…. by making others comfortable, you shall know comfort…

You can begin by resolving to cleanse yourself of prejudice it is a vial of acid that devours the fabric of fellowship in God. Be understanding of people and things and ideas other than your own.

You can begin by being compassionate, a word so seldom used, so seldom applied in our lives, be forgiving of those you believe to have hurt you, or merely ignored you.

You can begin by being self-sacrificing. If this one is hard. At least it is for me. But, would you miss one second for a smile… one minute for a kindness… one hour with your Bible?  “Peter, if you love me, feed my sheep . Do you really love God?   Then care and feed your Christianity.

Closing Prayer

Our Father .

So often it seems we come to you asking your help.  We ask with trembling phrases that often begin with such words as, “Lord, if you will only help us this time, we’ll never, never.

Indeed, we are truly your children . . . for so often we seem only to ask things of you… so seldom do we give in return.•

Now, at this moment, would you listen to each of us as we tell you . . . in our own words of how we feel about you?

(long pause)

Dear Father…  may we make ourselves more worthy of your love… and may we ever be aware of what we are saying when we pray, as we have been taught, by saying, “Our Father Who Art in Heaven…

Kirkin’ 2017: “The Call of God”

 

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church 

Ezekiel 2:1-7

April 23, 2017

 

John Knox, the reformer of the Church of Scotland which gave rise to the Presbyterian Church, was drawn to the book of Ezekiel as a model for his ministry.  He used an image from the prophet for his first book title, The First Blast of the Trumpet.[1]  Like Ezekiel, Knox had been given a message and knew he must deliver it regardless of the danger the message brought upon himself.  Today, in our sermon, on this Scottish Heritage Sunday, we’re going to look at Ezekiel’s call as a prophet and compare it to Knox’s call as a Reformer.

Before we delve into the text, let me tell you a bit about Ezekiel.  He was a young Hebrew priest exiled to Babylonian in 597 BC, that’s ten years before Jerusalem fell. The Babylonians had threatened Jerusalem in 597, but had not destroyed the city as they did in 587 BC.  Instead, they allowed the city to continue as long as the king promised to be loyal to Babylon.   The king in Jerusalem became a puppet.

As a way to assure that this would be a good working relationship, the Babylonians took with them some young Hebrew men, which included Ezekiel and Daniel, back to Babylon to be schooled in the ways of the empire.  While there in Babylon, Ezekiel is called to be a prophet.  At home, back in Jerusalem, Zedekiah, the king, decided he didn’t like this arrangement with Babylon and aligns himself with the Egyptians, enemies of Babylon.  This angers Babylon and in 587 BC, they return to Jerusalem and after a horrible siege, take the city and destroy it, sending even more of the Hebrew people into exile.

The book ofEzekiel begins with a vision of a divine chariot.  Seeing it, Ezekiel falls to his face and hears someone speaking to him.  In Chapter 2, we hear Ezekiel’s call.  Read Ezekiel 2:1-7

 

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            In the late 1550s, John Knox was settling in to a comfortable life in Geneva.  He was the pastor of an English-speaking congregation, which consisted mostly of religious exiles the British Isles. He’d made a dangerous trip back to Scotland, from which he had been banished from the previous decade.  Love has a way to lead us to take such risks, as we went back to marry Marjorie Bowes.  While in Scotland, he couldn’t help but do some preaching and meeting with Scottish leaders, many of whom were ready for a change of the church.  This was a time of great uncertainty and Knox knew that if he wasn’t careful, he could end up being roasted while tied to a stake.  But once back in Geneva, with his wife who soon became pregnant, things were looking up.  He was enjoying pastoring the church and studying under John Calvin, who was at his prime.  BUT THEN he received a letter.

The letter had been brought to Geneva by a Scottish merchant and had been signed by a number of Scottish nobles.  They encouraged Knox to come back to Scotland.  They were not able to promise him safety or a comfortable life, but they did promise a willingness to jeopardize it all—their lives, their estates, and their titles—for God’s glory.  Knox was troubled.  He shared this calling with his congregation, as well as with John Calvin and other pastors in Geneva.  Everyone agreed.  Knox had no choice.  He was being called back to Scotland and if he refused, he would be rebelling against God.[2]  So much for safety and raising his son by Lake Geneva.

When we are called by God, we’re called out of our comfort zones.  We’re called to take risks.  God’s call changes us.  No one who answers it will ever be the same.

Ezekiel was hanging out with other exiles by the river Chebar, in Babylon, when he sees this incredible vision of the heavens opening.  Out of the north comes a storm with weird creatures and a chariot.  It was kind of psychedelic; read the first chapter of Ezekiel to get the idea of what he experienced.  Overwhelmed, he falls on his face, which is a proper response if you ever find yourself face to face with the Almighty.  Bow down, duck, hide!  Don’t hesitate, or you may be french-fried!

With his face in the ground, Ezekiel hears the command, “Mortal, stand up.”  Many versions use the more literal translation, “Son of man.”  Either way, Ezekiel is identified for who he is: a man, a mere creature, one with limited powers.  He’s just like you and me. God never goes out and finds the strongest man to do his bidding.  Ezekiel is weak; he can’t get up even though he is being commanded to do so.  It’s only when God’s spirit enters him that he’s lifted up, placed on his feet, and is able to hear his calling.

Ezekiel is called to speak to his people.  He’s called to address those who have rebelled against God.  Ezekiel doesn’t even have the pleasure Jonah did, of going and pronouncing doom on Israel’s enemies.  His message, like Knox, is to his kinfolk, his family, and his neighbors.  He won’t be very popular.  He may even be considered a traitor.  But that is the calling God has for him.  That is what God needs him to do.  Notice, too, unlike Jonah who feared that Nineveh would hear his message and repent, there is nothing suggesting this is going to happen to Ezekiel.  The prophet is essentially told that he may not be listened to.  The way God will evaluate Ezekiel’s faithfulness isn’t by how many converts he gains or how big of a following he has.  Ultimately, what is important isn’t how much of a change Ezekiel’s words make in people’s lives, but how faithfully he proclaims them.  Ezekiel is warned that he may not be liked (after all, these are people who are in rebellion against God), but regardless, he’s to give the message.  It’s not his message, its God’s.

Although Ezekiel is given a tough assignment, God is going protect Ezekiel in order to make sure that the message gets through.  With Jeremiah, who was a prophet back in Jerusalem while Ezekiel was working in Babylon, God’s protection may appear dubious (after all, Jeremiah was thrown in a well[3]).  In Ezekiel’s call, his hearers will be mad, but the prophet is going to be protected.  One scholar points out that a better translation of this passage isn’t to see briars and thorns and scorpions as a part of the angry crowd.  Instead, they protect Ezekiel.  The Prophet will be like “Brer Rabbit,” happily running through thorns to escape those who would harm him.[4]  Or maybe he’d be like Paul, five centuries later, who survived his persecutors in Damascus by being let out of a window and lowered outside the walls in a basket.[5]  Or consider Stephen, the guy Paul watched being stoned.[6]  God never promises us an easy time!  After all, Jesus’ call is to take up our cross and follow.[7]  Although those who hear Ezekiel may not like what he has to say, God will see to it that they get the message so that they will know that a prophet has been among them.

          As one commentator on this passage points out, one of the common characteristics of a call in the Old Testament is some impediment of the one called.[8]  Moses stuttered, Gideon was considered a weakling, and Isaiah had unclean lips.[9]  But in all cases, God is the one who makes the difference.  Here, with Ezekiel, we see that this prophet-to-be can’t even stand up.  But as the quote that’s attributed to Knox goes, “a man with God is always in the majority.”  Ezekiel’s task is to take a message to a less than enthusiastic crowd.  It’s only with God’s help that he is able to deliver.

Another commentator, working with this passage, made this observation: “Certainty of call can be a wonderful thing, but certainty of call can also be a terrible thing.”[10]  When we feel God is calling us to a task, especially one like this, we have to be careful.  Is it God giving us the strength to carry it out?  Or is it our own ego?  The call of God should always humble us.

Ezekiel is called to take a message to the Hebrews who are in exile, to help them theologically deal with the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple.  It’s not an easy assignment.  No one likes hearing that they (and their disobedience) are the cause of their current troubles.  Think about us, as a nation.  How often do politicians and political pundits want to blame someone or something else for the nation’s woes.  “It’s the other side that’s the problem!” we hear over and over again. “We’re not to blame.”  Such rhetoric doesn’t help us solve the problem.  Ezekiel’s call was to help shape God’s people as they come to understand their responsibility for God’s judgment.

We should consider Ezekiel’s calling.  We need to remember that like him, we’re not out to win a popularity contest.  We’re to seek out what God’s will is for our lives.  For our Elders, many of whom marched in our morning procession, they’re also to seek out God’s will for our congregation’s life.  In the end, we’ll be judged not on how many people liked us or on how elegant our words have been or even how many converts were made under our leadership. We’ll be judged on how faithful we have been to God’s word and to his work.

I am sure when Knox set sail for Scotland in 1559, he had no idea the impact his ministry would have on the Church in Scotland.  And it continued on to Ireland, and in the Americas and Australia and New Zealand.  Knox work continues to influence the church in places like the Sudan and Malawi, Brazil and Korea…  As John heard in his vision on the Isle of Patmos, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord, says the Spirit.  They rest from their labors, and there works follow them.”[11]  The impact of Ezekiel’s words are still felt thousands of years later and Knox’s work is still bearing fruit nearly 500 years later.

According to the ways we think, Ezekiel was an unlikely candidate for a prophet.   He wasn’t even strong enough to stand before God.  He had to be given the energy to get up.  He was humble.  Likewise, Knox was an unlikely candidate for a Reformer.  He was a marked man and had a babe in arms.  But God called both Ezekiel and Knox. Don’t ever think that God can’t use you because you are weak, because you are not elegant with speech, because you are not religious enough, or because you have other obligations.  Those are the kind of people that God uses to make a difference in the world.

Are you open to God’s call?  Amen.

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Today, as we confess our faith, we are going to read selections from the Second Helvetic Confession of Faith.  Although Knox would later pen the Scots Confession of Faith, he personally found great comfort and satisfaction in the Helvetic Confessions.  Knox’s hero in the faith, the one who led him into the Protestant Fold, was George Wishart.  Wishart was the translator of the Helvetic Confession of 1536 into English.  Just a few weeks after Knox meet Wishart, the Protestant preacher was burned at the stake in St. Andrews, Scotland.  [12]

 

 

Excerpts from the Second Helvetic Confession

 

Pastor:  ALL THINGS ARE GOVERNED BY THE PROVIDENCE OF GOD.

People: We believe that all things in heaven and on earth, and in all creatures, are preserved and governed by the providence of this wise, eternal and almighty God. For David testifies and says: “The Lord is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens! Who is like the Lord our God, who is seated on high, who looks far down upon the heavens and the earth?” Again: “Thou searchest out all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, lo, O Lord, Thou knowest it altogether”

Pastor: WE ARE ELECTED OR PREDESTINATED IN CHRIST.

People: Therefore, although not on account of any merit of ours, God has elected us, not directly, but in Christ, and on account of Christ, in order that those who are now ingrafted into Christ by faith might also be elected. But those who were outside Christ were rejected, according to the word of the apostle, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are holding to your faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?”

Pastor: WE ARE ELECTED FOR A DEFINITE PURPOSE.

People:  Finally, the saints are chosen in Christ by God for a definite purpose, which the apostle himself explains when he says, “He chose us in him for adoption that we should be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption to be his sons through Jesus Christ that they should be to the praise of the glory of his grace”[13]

[1] See Ezekiel 33:3ff.

[2]Jane Dawson, John Knox (New Haven, CT: Yale, 2015), 129

[3] Jeremiah 38:6.

[4] Margaret S. Odell, Ezekiel (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2005), 40-43, 50.

[5] Acts 9:23-25.

[6] Acts 7:54ff.

[7] Luke 9:23

[8] Daniel C. Fredericks, “Diglossia, Revelation and Ezekiel’s Inaugural Right,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (June 1998).

[9] Exodus 4:10f; Judges 6:15f and Isaiah 6:5-7

[10] John C. Holbert, “Lectionary for July 5, 2009, Ezekiel 2:1-5” in “WorkingPreacher.org”

[11] Revelation 14:13

[12] Dawson, 31-33.

[13] This is taken from the Second Helvetic Confession, Chapter X.  See Presbyterian Church USA, Book of Confession, (Louisville, KY, 2004), 5.052-5.054.

The Kirkin’ is just around the corner!

This Sunday, April 23, 2017, Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church will celebrate Scottish heritage with a Kirkin’ o’ the Tartans service.  This blog post is a repeat of one done in 2016.

 

The Kirkin’ is a colorful and festive service that includes flying of dozens of tartans throughout the Sanctuary along with a procession of tartans that will be led by a Beadle (a lay assistant to the Pastor) carrying the Bible and a bagpipe.   The service will begin at 10 AM.  The sermon will be preached by the pastor, the Reverend Dr. C. Jeffrey Garrison, a descendant of the MacKenzies who settled in the upper Cape Fear region of North Carolina in the mid-18th Century.  The service will include Scottish prayers.  Everyone is welcomed.

In April 1941, the Reverend Peter Marshall, pastor of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, held the first Kirkin’ o’ the Tartans service.  Using bagpipes and colorful tartans, the service was designed to raise money to support Scottish Churches during the war as well as to buy a mobile kitchen for the British Army.  Britain had been at war with Germany two years before the United States entered the war late in 1941.  This service caught on and those of Scottish origins began to hold such services across the country.

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Sanctuary for 2015 Kirkin

The legend behind the service is that following the defeat of the Jacobite Revolt in 1745, which was mostly a Civil War in Scotland, the national government disarmed the clans and also forbade the wearing of tartans.  At this time, those who had close connections to the tartan would bring pieces of it under their clothes and have it blessed by the parish pastor.  It was also at this time many of those in Scotland moved to the New World seeking a better life.  Today, in the service, the tartans are proudly displayed.  However, legends are not always factual.  While it is true the wearing of the tartan was forbidden along with the disarmament of the clans, originally different clans did not have a specific tartan.  Most wove tartans the color of herbs and berries found in their region, their main identification being the pins and badges worn on their hats, such as the sprig of juniper for the Macleods and white heather for the MacIntyres.

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Piper at 2015 Kirkin’

The ban on not wearing the tartan was never fully implemented and it didn’t last long.  After all, the Black Watch regiment of the British army continued to wear their tartans.  In the late 18th Century, the novels of Sir Walter Scott brought back an interest in a highly romanced version of clan life.  During this time individual clans began to adopt specific tartans.  This caught on and by the time King George IV visited Scotland in 1822, all the clans had their own tartans and they were on display for the king. Not only was the ban no longer enforced, the wearing of the tartans was encouraged as a patriotic act as they welcomed their king.

You don’t have to be a Scot descendant to attend.  Everyone is invited and encouraged to “be a Scot for a day!”  For more information, call the church at 598-0151 or check out our website at www.sipres.org.

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Easter Sunday 2017

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

John 20:1-18

Easter Sunday 2017

 

 

When I was a kid, Easter wasn’t as exciting as Christmas.  On Christmas morning, we got lots of presents and could stay in our pajamas as we explored them.  For Easter, we had to put on our church clothes.  But there was always a basket waiting for us when we came out for breakfast.  There were eggs that we’d colored along with a variety of candies and goodies.  Unlike the Christmas stocking that always contained healthy things like nuts and fruit, the Easter basket contained chocolate!  Mom did a wonderful job playing Easter Bunny.

         In addition to those high-caloric gifts, about the time I was in the first grade, there would be another gift that I was pretty sure was chosen by my dad.  The first gift came the Easter after the Christmas I received my first rod and reel, one of those push button Zebco outfits.  In the basket that Easter was a box with a fishing lure, a yellow jitterbug.  This is the type of lure that drives bass nuts at sunset and just afterwards, when they are coming up to the surface to feed.  The lure wattles back and forth on the top of the water, moving a bit like a giant waterbug, and if there is a bass that’s hungry, watch out.
The next year and for as long as I received Easter baskets, it would contain some kind of fishing equipment.  One year, there was a collection of plastic worms and weed-less hooks, another year was a Repella or a Hopkins spoon or some other lure.

In recalling this tradition, the giving of fishing lures, I have come to the conclusion that such gifts are appropriate for Easter.  Not only did the spring weather bring out the fishermen side of our family, but the early disciples were fishermen.  And Jesus called them to begin a new life, of fishing for people.  They are to continue to cast out the good news, like we might cast a lure up against a log in the water, in the hopes that those who hear the message might be drawn in and experience the one who can give us new life.  We, too, are to make such casts.

Let’s hear the Easter story again, this morning we’ll be looking at John’s account.  Read John 20:1-18.

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When I was in high school, I sat in the balcony of the church with friends.  It was a place we could get away from our parents and, sometimes (or most of the time) joke around.  But there was one Easter Sunday I recall, in which I was moved and wrote the only Haiku poem that I have ever deemed worthy to remember.

Glorious morning,

The day our God created

The very first dawn

I could never get that last line to five syllables, as traditional haiku requires, but I have always liked the poem.  For you see, Easter signifies a new beginning, a new dawn, and glorious it is.  We are no longer trapped in the old ways of doing things.  God’s kingdom is at hand.  Although we often forget this, that first Easter set us free to focus on what really matters.  And every year, we should be once again reminded that Jesus died and lives and reigns eternally.  And so shall we, if we believe.

         Most of us have heard the story of the resurrection from John’s gospel many times.  But every time I read and study it, new things pop out.  This section begins with three references to time: it was early, it was the first day of the week, and it was still dark.  A new era is dawning.  The world is waking to a new reality.  Only those who are to become witnesses to this era are unaware.  They’re not like the birds that sing so early in the morning as they anticipate dawn.  Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.  John doesn’t tell us why.  It sounds like she’s alone although her use of the pronoun “we” in verse two might indicate there were others with her.  The other gospels give us the names of other women.  All four of the gospels speak of the women being the first witnesses to the empty tomb.  Women, who had no legal status, were the first to know.  And in John’s gospel, we see that Mary is the first one sent by Jesus to proclaim the good news.  What does that tell us?  Women have every right to proclaim the gospel!

        When Mary found the tomb open and empty, she runs to tell the disciples.  There’s a lot of running that happens this morning.  I can imagine her out-of-breath, crying out, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb.”  Who took him?  Religious authorities?  Roman soldiers? Grave robbers?  Mary doesn’t yet grasp what has happened.  Neither does Peter and the other disciple, but they are curious.  They race each other back to the tomb.  The other disciple wins but pauses when he gets to the tomb while Peter barges right on in.  Jesus is gone, but the linen wrappings that was used to cover his body are still present.  Why?  Some suggest that the wrappings were a clue that his body wasn’t stolen by some grave robber.  They wouldn’t have spent the time unwrapping the body.

The disciples check out the tomb and find it empty.  We’re told in verse eight that the other disciple, not Peter, believed.  But what did he believe?  Did he believe that Jesus had risen?  Or did he believe that Mary was right, Jesus isn’t here.  Then they head home?  What more can they do?  Jesus is gone.  I pretty sure they don’t fully understood what had happened at this point.

Mary, on the other hand, sticks around.  She’s troubled.  But she doesn’t know what happened.  When she gets her nerve up, she sticks her head inside and sees angels, one on each end of the bench upon which Jesus’ body had laid.  Obviously, the angels weren’t present or weren’t visible to Peter and the other disciple. The angels sit in a manner to resemble the Ark of the Covenant, with the angels serving at the cherubim who sat on each side of the mercy seat.[1]

But Mary still doesn’t get it.  She leaves the tomb and asks a man standing there, whom she assumes is a gardener, where they have taken the body.  It’s only when Jesus calls her name that she understands.  The same is true for us.

          She turns and cries out, Rabbi.  It’s an endearing term.  Jesus is her teacher (and ours).  Now she gets its, at least a part of it.  Jesus lives!  In our text, Jesus says do not hold on to me for I have not yet ascended to the father, but the original text here suggests that one should stop doing what one is doing. This implies that Mary is hold on to him, hugging him like we might hug someone we loved but thought we would never see again.   Mary is worshipping Jesus, in the flesh.  He is not some untouchable ghost.[2]

In the gospels, when one is called by Jesus, they are given a mission.[3]  Mary is the first of the “sent ones,” the first missionary, as she is sent to Jesus’ disciples, Jesus’ brothers, with the good news.  And that she does, proclaiming, probably shouting, “I have seen the Lord!”
Mary’s response to Jesus’ resurrection is similar to what happens in the third book of Dante’s Divine Comedy.  You’ve probably heard of Dante’s Inferno.  It’s the most famous of his Comedies.  This is a comedy in the classical sense (kind of like Shakespeare’s plays or the Book of Job) where tragedy turns out well in the end.  In the last book, Paradise, Dante makes it to heaven.  And there, he’s not given an explanation to his questions, or told why he had to take a torturous journey.  Instead, in the presence of God, he has no ability to ask questions.  He can only worship.[4]  Mary grabbing Jesus and calling him Rabbi is her worship.  Of course, worship isn’t just adoration, it is also work and Jesus has a task for her and sends her on her way.

If you haven’t encountered Jesus, listen to this story, to the messages of this book.  Is Jesus calling your name?  Pray and be prepared to be surprised.  This was not what Mary or the Disciples were expecting this morning.  They were pleasantly surprised.

        And when we encounter Jesus, we should feel like Mary, a desire to worship, but we should also realize that Jesus calls us to do his work in the world.  There is something he wants us to do, not to earn our salvation, but to build his kingdom.  Jesus died, but lives.  He ascended to the Father, but he also lives in us.  Are we doing our part to reflect his beautiful face of love to the world?  Amen.

 

©2017

[1] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 1151.

[2] Bruner, 1153.

[3] Bruner, 1153-1154.

[4] M. Craig Barnes, The Pastor as Minor Poet, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,2009), 110.

Galatians 6: Palm Sunday 2017

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Galatians 6:1-10

April 9, 2017

 

 

Palm Sunday is a difficult day to preach.  We hear about the glorious parade of Jesus entering Jerusalem.  It sounds like a time to celebrate, yet we know what’s going to happen.  The people who showed up with palm branches, all excited, are some of the same folks who show up on Friday and call for Jesus’ crucifixion.  Palm Sunday is a reminder, maybe even a warning, a situation can deteriorate quickly, people are mostly interested in themselves, and no one likes to go against a crowd.  It’s still a problem today, just as it was in the first century.  Are we willing to stand with our Savior in good times and bad?  Do we trust him that much?

Paul has a problem, as we’ve seen over the past six weeks as we’ve explored his Epistle to the Galatians.  Today, instead of focusing on Palm Sunday, I’m finishing up our journey through this letter.  Paul needs to help these folks get back on track.  He has refuted the teachings of the false preachers whose work within these churches have caused confusion.  Again and again, Paul emphasizes grace over the law.  But just because you are not saved by the law doesn’t mean you can do what you want.  Toward the end of the fifth chapter, he warns his readers of the dangerous work of the flesh.  Then, as he comes toward his conclusion of this letter, he realizes that some might take what he said and use it as an opportunity to deal with the sins of others.  So Paul offers a few suggestions about how Christians should correct someone caught in sin.  We should consider, from this passage, how we, as a body of believers, are to live graciously and in a way that encourages one another to strive for holiness.  And to bring this back to Palm Sunday.  How would Jesus want the early church to deal with those believers who waved Palm Branches and then shouted for crucifixion?  Would they have been welcomed into the Upper Room before Pentecost?  Should they be?   READ GALATIANS 6:1-10

###

 

There are two themes in this passage: restoring the sinner and humbly doing the work assigned.

In a way, the Roman world was an “anything goes” world as much as our own society seems to be that way.  But that’s not the world in which Paul lives. He’s not some post-modern, politically correct philosopher who thinks everything is relative and that there are no absolute standards.  That’s our world; it was, to some extent, the Roman World (or at least the Corinthian World as Paul was certainly upset at their “anything goes” attitude).  But in this letter, Paul seems to understand the church in Galatia will do its part and encourage their members to live righteously even though that’s not how they are made right with God.

Yet, even here, dangers lurk. Paul understand human nature.  He knows there are some who will enjoy pointing out the faults of others.  There are people who have the mistaken notion that it makes them look good when another person falls.  Such people relish in their own self-righteousness.  As Mark Twain often quipped, “nothing needs reforming as much as someone else’s bad habit.”  It’s this tendency, reforming another’s bad habits while ignoring their own, that Paul’s trying to nip in the bud.

Paul tells those who have the Spirit of God within them to restore those who have fallen away from the church.  You know, the church and society in general aren’t very good at restoring the fallen.  We’re real good at shooting the wounded, but we fail when it comes to reforming people.  Two examples: First, look at churches and consider what generally happens after a church fight?  Most often, one party and maybe even both parties leave.  The sin of American Protestantism is that we find it easier to go somewhere else than to stick it out and mend fences or lift up fallen brethren.  The church is to exhibit the Kingdom of God, but do we?

And if you think church is bad at reforming people, society is even worse.  Consider the recidivism rates in our prisons.  But Paul isn’t addressing society’s failures here; he’s focusing on the church.  The church is to be a community that takes seriously the reformation of individuals.  We’re to be a community that instead of shooting the wounded, we bind them up and restore them to wholeness.

If we who make up the church are to fulfill our calling to restore those who have fallen away, we’re going to have to be gentle and humble and gracious.  It’s a dangerous task as Lesslie Newbigin, a former missionary to India notes, when commenting on human efforts to bring about the kingdom of God. “The project of bringing heaven down to earth,” he writes, “always results in bringing hell up from below.”[1]  Being a legalist, pointing out the faults of others in a heavy-handed way, don’t cut it. Self-righteous attitudes drive wedges between people, making those in power look good while offending parties are set up for ridicule.

But more than that, such attitudes also contain the seeds for destruction of the righteous whom succumb to the sin of pride.  That’s why Paul tells us in the fourth verse to test our own work on its merits and not to rate ourselves by what our neighbor has and hasn’t done.   Jesus is our example and model, not our neighbors.  If we want to compare ourselves to another person, we should stand next to our Savior and see how far we fall short of the standard.  Standing next to him, we’ll get a crick in our necks looking up.  When compared to Jesus, we’re all humbled.  But the human preference is for us to pick out some ax murderer to judge ourselves against them and then be misled into thinking we’re doing a good job because we’ve refrained from bashing heads in.

Jesus’ comments, in the Sermon on the Mount, come to mind.  Before we go operating on our brother’s eyes, we should make sure our own eyes are free from obstruction.[2]  The only way for us to be clean and free is to accept the forgiveness of the one who washes us in his blood.  And we must realize that Jesus don’t clean us up so that we can become an agent for the moral Gestapo.   The gentle way God deals with us becomes our model for dealing with one another.

If we’re to seriously take to heart this passage, we should understand several things: We who are believers are called to help each other live better and godlier lives.  This is a part of our calling as disciples.  But in fulfilling this task, we have to be careful.  We’re to be gentle and humble, realizing that even when we’ve dedicated ourselves to righteousness living, the temptation to think more highly of ourselves than we should is present.  As Christians, we’ve been saved by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, not by our own hands.  As Christians, we’re to share and show such grace to one another.   Only then will the church be the community we’re called to be.

The second theme is pleasantly doing the work God has assigned us and not letting it go to our head or to spend all our time focused on and worried about what others are doing.

In the first sermon on Galatians, I told you a story about Jayber and Troy in Wendell Berry’s novel, Jayber Crow, set in Port Williams, Kentucky.  Berry uses his novels to give a glimpse into how a community can exist and function in a way that will be beneficial to the all its residents as well as for the land and the environment.  One of the problems with Troy, in his novel, is his impatience.  He’s one of the younger farmers in town and is impressed with power and machinery and isn’t worried about debt, which he considers a part of doing business, nor is he particularly concerned about the land.  He doesn’t even consider himself a farmer, he wants to be thought of as an agri-businessman.  Many of the older farmers around Port Williams think Troy is foolish, but he has such a high opinion of himself, that he doesn’t care.

Troy receives a great gift.  His wife, an only child, is heir to one of the larger farms in the township.  When her parents retire Troy takes over and immediately begins to do things that worries his wife and his in-laws.  He rips out the hedgerows between fields so he can grow more crops.  He leverages the land to buy more land and then, because he can’t do all the farming with his old equipment, he borrows for larger tractors and larger implements.  He’s always running, trying to keep up with a larger and larger operation.  Always behind, he no longer enjoys the cycle of the seasons, the periods of hard work and the times of rest.  The farm, which would have given him and his wife a good life, becomes a burden.  Its land is depleted and he loses it all to the bank.  By focusing on his own need to be important, by constantly wanting more, he squanders the gift.[3]

We’ve all been given gifts; we’ve all been given a packet of seeds.  Do we sow them only for ourselves?  If so, we’ll join Troy and countless others in squandering what we’ve been given.  But if we use our gifts in a way that will bring honor and glory to our Creator, to sow them in the Spirit, others will benefit and in the long run, we’ll find dividends stored up eternally for us.   Work is not a bad thing.  Work is good.  Our labor connects us to God and should connect us to others.  It’s through what we do in our world, our daily tasks that we live out our Christian faith.  Paul assumes we are working and therefore in danger of weariness.  I’m sure if the Galatians were not doing anything and therefore were in no danger of becoming weary, Paul’s letter would have reflected to different concerns than the ones he’s talking about here.  But here, he’s concerned about them wearing themselves out and how we might take measures to avoid allowing our work to lead us into weariness or for it to become drudgery, something that we despise.

This Epistle to the Galatians is about grace, and grace should lead to gratitude.  We’re not here to work in order to earn our salvation, we’re to receive it as a gift and then use it to live making this world a better place.  What Jesus did for us this week, which we call Holy, changed the world.  We are now living in a new world, one of forgiveness and love, grace and abundance.  Live in this new world, not the old! Accept what Jesus has done for us and then let him live in you so that your life might bear fruit.  Amen.

 

©2017

[1] From Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 117;  as quoted by Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing about Grace? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 234.

[2] Matthew 7:3-5.

[3] Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow (Washington DC: Counterpoint, 2000)

Galatians 4: Heirs to the Promise

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Galatians 4:1-16

March 26, 2017

 

A farming community was experiencing a severe drought.  Day after day, month after month, there were no clouds in the sky.  Pastures dried up, crops wilted.  Ranchers began to sell off their herds because there wasn’t enough feed and water.  Things were looking bad. A township meeting was called and people discussed what they could do about the situation.  After much thought, someone suggested there was nothing they could do but pray. A prayer meeting was called for the next evening on the town square and the preacher agreed to lead the service.  The next evening and everyone gathered.  The preacher climbed up on the bandstand.  “Do you know why you’re here?” he asked.  “To pray for rain,” they responded in unison.  “Then why do I not see any umbrellas?”[1]

We’re continuing our look at Paul’s letter to the Galatians, a book talks a lot about faith (faith in Jesus Christ, not necessarily in rain clouds).  As I noted earlier, this letter was written in response to a group of people who came behind Paul, teaching that Paul had it all wrong.  According to these “false-evangelists,” the people of Galatia need to observe Jewish law.  These are folks who had mostly come out of a pagan background.  In addition to accepting Jesus and being baptized, they are now told they must observe 600 and some regulations. Paul is furious.  Why put additional burdens on people?

   Much of the center portion of the letter focuses on our relationship to Abraham.  Paul, in writing about Abraham, goes to the heart of what makes one Jewish.  But according to Paul, it was Abraham’s faith that made him right with God, not his obedience to the law.  Remember, from last week’s sermon, where Paul noted that the law came over four centuries after Abraham’s death.[2]  Paul continues to reflect on this connection to Abraham in the fourth chapter.  Abraham was to obtain an inheritance, a large family, numbering more than the stars in the heavens or the grains of sand on the beach.[3]

The Jewish thought was that if you are an heir of Abraham, you were heirs of the promise.  Paul doesn’t deny that.  Instead, he suggests that the connection to Abraham is by faith, not by birth, and that those who have faith like Abraham, will inherit a wonderful promise.  Read Galatians 4:1-16.

###

 

         I’ve recently enjoyed reading Kidnapped by Robert Lewis Stevenson.  For some reason, I’d not read this as a child and didn’t realize how much Scottish history is told in the novel as it is set just a few years after the Jacobite rebellion in the 1740s.  I’m sure I’ll draw from the book at our Kirkin’ o’ the Tartans service next month.

Kidnapped is the story of David Balfour, a young man of seventeen, whose parents have died.  David is told to take a letter to his uncle, at the House of the Shaws.  He doesn’t know what’s in the letter as it’s sealed, except that it has to do with his inheritance and will secure his future. His uncle is not exactly excited about receiving it.  Under the guise of visiting an attorney to settle up the inheritance, the young David is knocked senseless and ends up in chains on a ship bound for America where he will be sold into indentured servanthood.  The uncle did this because, David’s father, as the first born, had rights to the family estate and those rights extended to David.

Aboard ship, it appears David’s future will be difficult.  He’ll be essentially a slave. But the ship strikes a reef off the Isle of Mull and David along with Alan Beck Stuart, a former leader in the Jacobite Rebellion, make their way back across Scotland, with many misadventures along the way in this rough period of Scottish history.

David placed his hope in an inheritance.  It was what kept him alive through his many trials.  If he could obtain his inheritance, it would secure his future.  In our world, as can be seen in the Kidnapped, inheritances can be a two-edged sword.  They became sources of conflict.  Someone feels they win and another feels they were slighted.  Jealously prevails.  “I should have gotten the house; I should have received the land; I should have been given the china…”  Families split up and siblings never talk to one another when people feel shorted.  Yet, on the positive side, an inheritance might provide a chance to do something different with our lives, or the ability to live secure and settled.

        Paul uses inheritance as a way describe the blessings bestowed on those who have been redeemed by Jesus Christ, through faith. We are like adoptive children.  When a child is adopted, they are as entitled to an inheritance as a naturally born child.  The good news about this inheritance is that there is plenty to go around.  No one will be shorted; everyone of faith will enjoy the blessings offered by God.  And there will be no jealously, for we will all be living in awe, in the presence of God.

Paul begins this chapter reminding us that a child who has an inheritance is, in a way, like a slave.  He or she is controlled by a trustee until the child is an adult.  When the trustee is evil, as was David Balfour’s uncle, then things go wrong.  But that’s not the case with us.  The trustee that Paul speaks of is the law.  This is just another metaphor Paul uses, such as the law being a disciplinarian or a teacher which he used in the third chapter.  The law was to keep us on track until the coming of Jesus.  Through Jesus, we are adopted by God; we become a part of God’s family.

As I pointed out, an adoptive child is entitled to an inheritance.  So God adopts us and places Jesus spirit into our hearts.  We are no longer slaves to the law.  We can now call God, Daddy, for we’re a part of God’s family in the world and destined for glory.

       In the eight verse, Paul refers to the previous condition of those in Galatia, their lives before they came to the good news of Jesus.  They were enslaved to other spirits, gods that held no power.  There is a debate as to what Paul is referring to here.[4]  It appears that some, listening to these false teachers, decided that instead of adding on the burden of the law, they’d go back to their pagan ways. Such ways may have had something to do with astrology.  Or, maybe Paul is still referring to the Jewish laws and the Jewish calendar with its prescribed fasts and feasts.  Neither of these—astrology or observing a religious calendar—had the power to free the people from their burden to sin and to offer them an inheritance of life everlasting.

Paul, at the end of our reading, makes a personal plea for the people of Galatia to reconsider.  He speaks how he’s afraid he’d wasted his time on them.  He begs them to become like him.  Paul often uses himself as an example of what it means to have faith in Jesus Christ.  Then Paul provides us a brief insight into his personal life.  We learn he was suffering from some kind of physical ailment when he was with the Galatians.  Was this the thorn-in-his-flesh?[5]  Whatever it was, he was thankful that despite his problems, the Galatians listened and responded faithfully to his message.  But now they are turning their backs on him, and he grieves.

Probably every preacher has felt this pain at some point or another in their lives, when someone who had believed and seemed so full of faith, have turned their backs on the gospel.  It grieves Paul, but he realizes that it’s beyond his abilities to get them to change course.  Grace is freely offered but it must be accepted on faith.  If they want to continue down the path to their old ways, there is nothing Paul can do to change their mind.  He, like those in Galatia and us who live two millenniums later, must live by faith, trusting in our inheritance.  Paul’s way, the way of faith, is the one that leads to life.

Dark as my path may seem to others,” Helen Keller wrote, “I carry a magic light in my heart.  Faith, the spiritual strong searchlight, illumines the way.  Although sinister doubts lurk in the shadows, I walk unafraid toward the Enchanted Wood where the foliage is always green; where joy abides; where nightingales nest and sing, and where life and death are one in the presence of the Lord.[6]  Amen.

 

 

©2017

[1] I adapted this story from The Christian Leader’s Golden Treasury (New York: Gross & Dunlap, 1955), 178.

[2] Galatians 3:17.

[3] Genesis 15:5, 22:17.

[4]Ronald Y. K. Fund,   The Epistle to the Galatians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 192-193.

[5] 2 Corinthians 12:7

[6] Helen Keller, Christian Leader’s Golden Treasury,  177,

What the Law Can’t Do

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Galatians 3:19-29

March 19, 2017

 

I shared this story this past Wednesday in the Bible Study that I’m teaching on Galatians.  It’s a story of grace. LaGuardia, a former mayor of New York City, was quite a character.  Today, we remember him whenever we fly to or through LaGuardia airport.  As you probably know, the airport is named after this man who served as mayor of the city during the depths of the Depression through the turmoil of the war years. A small man, only 5’ 2”, LaGuardia was a hands-on mayor.  He went with the police on raids of illegal nightclubs, took entire orphanages to ball game, and read the Sunday funnies to children on the radio during a newspaper strike.  And then there was this episode.

          It was a cold night in January 1935, when the mayor turned up in night court for the poorest ward in the city.  LaGuardia dismissed the judge, giving him the night off, and took the bench.  One of the defendants brought before him was an older woman charged with stealing a loaf of bread.  He asked her about her alleged crime and she told how her daughter’s husband had deserted, leaving her daughter sick and with starving children.  The woman had stolen bread for her grandchildren.  The shopkeeper refused to drop charges, saying that it was a bad neighborhood and she needed to be punished to teach others a lesson.  LaGuardia wondered what to do.

After some silence, he spoke to the woman, saying: “I’ve got to punish you.  The law makes no exception, ten dollars or ten days in jail.”  As he was pronouncing the sentence, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a ten dollar bill, and leaned over the bench to hand it to the woman.  “Here’s the ten-dollar fine which I now remit.  Furthermore,” he said, “I’m going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so her grandchildren can eat.  Bailiff, collect the fine and then give them to the woman.”

The next day, New York newspapers reported that $47.50 was collected and given to a bewildered old lady who had stolen bread to feed her grandchildren.  Fifty cent came from the red-faced grocer, the rest from petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and police officers.  And for the privilege of giving, they gave the mayor a standing ovation.[1]

Throughout Galatians, Paul pounds home the message of grace.  Although the law is important, as LaGuardia demonstrated, it is inferior to grace, to God’s promises in Jesus Christ.  As LaGuardia paid the woman’s debt, Jesus has paid ours.  Today I will reading our text from the Message translation.  Read Galatians 3:19-29.

###

 

At the beginning of the classic movie, the Sound of Music, the Von Trapp family consists of a hosts of children and a widower father who is a strict disciplinarian.  These kids are bright, energetic and devious.  They have driven away all governesses hired by the father. Upon the scene comes Sister Maria, played by Julie Andrews.  She’s to be the governess over these unruly kids. She has her work cut out for her. When she is introduced to the kids, the oldest, Liesel, a girl of 16, announces that she no longer needs a governess.  Maria accepts her statement and says, “Well, then, I guess we’ll just be good friends.”  Later in the movie, when she finds herself in a tight spot with her father, and is saved by Maria’s intervention, she admits that she could use a governess after all.  And, as the movie progresses, they also become good friends.  Eventually Maria and Captain Von Trapp marry.  Maria becomes step-mother to the children.  Liesel may not have needed a governess or a babysitter any more, but she does find Maria’s presence useful as she struggles with becoming a young woman in a world torn apart with the rise of Nazism.[2]  The same could be said with our use of the law.  It’s useful like a governess, although not what’s ultimately important.

      “So, what is the purpose of the law,” Paul asks in verse 19.  The law is a babysitter!  In this opening verse, Paul remarks how the law to help lead people until the coming of Christ.  The law helped check transgressions, keeping us from getting too far off track.  Paul later returns to this theme, in verse 24 and 25, using the analogy of the Greek tutors who were hired by wealthy families to assure their children were schooled.  The law was to keep us straight and focused, like Maria kept the kids in line, but it didn’t have the power to give us life, or salvation.  As God has promised all along, the day was coming when God, out of his gracefulness, was going to open up a way for us to mature into a relationship with himself.  The day was coming when the law would be written in our hearts.[3] Certainly, the law was “not a firsthand encounter with God.”  But, with Christ, we have been brought into a direct relationship with God.  When we have Christ in our hearts, the law is no longer primary.

An interesting thing we should realize about the law is that it was given to the Hebrew people at Sinai, after their deliverance from bondage in Egypt. Earlier in this chapter, in verse 17, Paul notes that the law came 430 years after the promise was made to Abraham.  Throughout Scripture, grace always precedes law!  God loves us before we even have a chance to love God!

According to the Second Helvetic Confession, which is in our Book of Confessions, the law was given to:

[T]each that this law was not given to men that they might be justified by keeping it, but that rather from what it teaches we may know (our) weakness, sin and condemnation, and, despairing of our strength, might be converted to Christ in faith. For the apostle openly declares: “The law brings wrath,” and, “Through the law comes knowledge of sin” and, “If a law had been given which could justify or make alive, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture (that is, the law) has concluded all under sin, that the promise which was of the faith of Jesus might be given to those who believe . . . Therefore, the law was our schoolmaster unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith”.[4]

 

The law as schoolmaster, or as babysitter or governess.  It has a purpose, to help us mature, but it does not bring us into salvation.  We are justified by faith in Jesus Christ.  Historically, Calvin outlined three uses of the law.  It brings us to where we can see our own sinfulness and our need of a Savior.  It help us to live more righteously as we strive to please our Savior.  And finally, for some outside of grace, the fear of the law serves to check their wickedness.[5]  The law can be useful, but it can never save us, as Paul drives home in these verses.

Now, if you remember, Paul’s purpose for writing this letter is that a group of Jewish Christians have come behind Paul and taught these Gentiles that to be Christians, there is more they need to do.[6]  Essentially, they need to become Jewish in order to be Christian.  In other words, they need to be bound to the law.  Paul is dead set against such teachings and he reminds the Gentiles the benefits we have in Christ.  This leads to Paul’s final point in this chapter, where he demonstrates our equality in Jesus Christ.  The old demarcations of society—gender, legal status, and nationality—are swept away.

         We now have unity and freedom in Christ.  No one is better than another or has a higher status.  Paul attacks this idea that Jewish Christians who keep the law are higher up in the pecking order.  That’s not the case.  Likewise, whether you are Greek or Roman or Jewish doesn’t matter.  In a patriarchal society, Paul destroys the distinctions based on one’s gender.  In a society where slavery is common, Paul destroys the distinctions between master and slave.  Because we don’t earn our salvation, but accept it as a gracious gift, Paul wants us to realize there is no hierarchy within the church.  None of us are any better than another.  We may have different jobs, but at our core, we are all sinners.  The difference between us and the world is that we’re sinners redeemed in Christ Jesus.  Others need to be redeemed, and our work is to share the message and to offer to the world a new vision of hope.  We are no longer to be shackled by a list of dos and don’ts.  Instead, we are to let Christ rule in our hearts as we strive to love as he loves us.

Never look down on another.  Let Christ shine from your hearts and you won’t have to worry about the burden of the law.  That’s the good news.  Amen.

 

©2017

[1] Story from the KERGYMA Program, Galatians and James: Faith and Work, which quoted it from William J. Bausch, A World of Stories, (Mystic, CT: Twenty-Third Publications, 1988), 233.

[2] This idea came from Scott Hoezee.  See http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-7c/?type=lectionary_epistle

[3] Jeremiah 31:33.  See also Romans 2:15.

[4] Presbyterian Church USA, Book of Confessions, 5.083.

[5] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion II, 7 & 8.  See also Francois Wendel, Calvin: Origins and Development of His Religious Thought translated by Philip Mairet, (1963, Durham, NC: The Labyrinth Press, 1987), 196-201.

[6] Galatians 1:6-7.