Living in Exile

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
September 20, 2020
Jeremiah 29:4-14

To watch this service on YouTube go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pKiTvhFZ3Sk. If you just want to catch the sermon, go to 18:40, where I began with the scripture reading.

If you know Old Testament history, you’ll recall there was a period in which Jerusalem was a vassal state of Babylon. In 597 BC, the Babylonians took large numbers of leaders from Jerusalem, along with skilled craftsman, into exile to Babylon. It was an attempt by this world power to keep Jerusalem in line by making connections between the two nations. But the Hebrews kept revolting against Babylon and in 586 BC the city was destroyed, the temple burned and those who survived the slaughter were either led into exile in Babylon or fled to Egypt.

This passage takes the form of a letter Jeremiah writes to those already in exile in Babylon. It was written sometime between 597 and 586 BC, between the first great exile and the last.[1]  At this time, in Jerusalem, there is a lot of nationalist talk. The people are sure God will protect his temple and nothing serious would happen to them.[2] Unlike Jeremiah, I’m sure others wrote subversive letters to those in exile, encouraging them to do what they could to destroy Babylon’s ability to make war.[3] But that’s not Jeremiah’s message. Instead, he tells those in exile to make the best of the situation. That if Babylon prospers, so will they. That’s not what people want to hear. Many think Jeremiah is a traitor, that he’s aiding the enemy.

You know, like those in Babylon, we’re now living in a time of exile. Things that we took for granted back in February and early March have been snatched away. We want Good News, we want to know when this nightmare is going to end. But is that the right question to be asking? Maybe we should be listening to the advice of Jeremiah and make the best of the situation in which we find ourselves?

I was reading a blog post this week in which the author, the president of the Barna Group, a religious think tank that also does polling, wrote about ways the pandemic is negatively impacting people. Barna’s polling had shown that relationships in America were in trouble before the pandemic. After five months of living in lock-down, it’s worse and creating a mental health crisis. Loneliness is a problem, not just for older people who live alone. Surprisingly, its worse for those younger. Two out of three millennials say they are lonely at least once a week. Relationships are straining under the pressure we’re facing, and addictions are growing.[4]

At a time like this, we want to hear that the pandemic will soon be over, that things will be returning to normal, or that it’s really not as bad as we’re making it out to be.[5] And there are those who tout such messages, but are they any different than the prophets of Jeremiah’s day who suggested things are going to be okay? Time will tell, but the message of Jeremiah still applies. We are to make the best out of our present situation. Time goes on. We can’t stop making a life for ourselves which Jeremiah describes as building houses, planting gardens, marrying off children, starting families, and working for the wellbeing of the city in which they live. In other words, while we take care of their own needs, we’re also to help care for others, even those who believe differently than us.

This all leads up to the 11th verse, which is a favorite of many people. “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not harm, to give you a future with hope.” Many people will copy this verse in cards sent to grandchildren and I’ve even heard graduation speeches built around these words which assure us that God wants what is best for us. God promises his children a hopeful future.

As comforting as this verse sounds, we must place it in context. In verse 10, just words before these, those in exile are reminded that they are going to be there for some time… 70 years! That must have hit like a bombshell. Those in exile are sad and missing their families and their community and the temple, the symbol of their God. They want to go home. In this sadness, Jeremiah encourages them to seek the welfare of the city in which they will find themselves, a place that they hate. It’s good advice, but in some ways it’s tough love.

As I’ve said, the purpose behind this exile, for the Babylonians, was to take enough of the leadership, including many of the young promising leaders like Ezekiel and Daniel, to ensure that Judah wouldn’t revolt. In a way, although they did not know it at this point in time, those who were first taken away had it easier than those who stayed behind. Those still in Jerusalem experienced the hunger and the horror of the destruction of Jerusalem a decade later.

This was not a good time in Israel’s history and in a way it’s not a good time in our history. As a nation, Israel was being torn apart and the same can be said to be happening to us. Back then, people were afraid. Today, we’re afraid. Back then, famine, suffering, more death and more destruction were on the horizon. We don’t know what’s on the horizon, but the dying from COVID is not over and our society seems to be splintering into factions. But as people of faith, we are to have a positive outlook for we know that God is in control and while God’s timing often doesn’t correlate with our desires, God does work things out.

Faulkner, the southern writer from Mississippi, once said that while it’s hard to believe, “disaster seems to be good for people.” When entering a period of exile, like we’re in, much of what is superfluous is stripped away and we learn what really matters. What matters is that we seek God and trust in God’s promises.[6]

Consider this passage. Even as darkness was descending on Israel, God speaking through Jeremiah offers a word of hope. To know that even though things are bad, God has our back and in the long-run our best interest at heart can help us endure great challenges. The people of Israel had to learn over and over again to be patient. We need to remember that and trust God.

Yes, we are in trying times. But this is not the first time God’s people have faced challenges. The good news is that when we endure and remain faithful, our faith is strengthened. As Paul captures so elegantly in the fifth chapter of Romans:

We boast in our suffering, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.[7]

May our lives be filled with love and hope despite what we experience in life. Amen.

 

©2020

[1] J. A. Thompson makes the case that this letter was written around 594, after some of the exiles created disturbance in Babylon that lead to at least the execution of two exile members of the Hebrew community there.  See J. A. Thompson, The Book of Jeremiah (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), 544.

[2] The Prophet Ezekiel, who was a part of the early exiles, had a vision in Babylon of God leaving the temple which helped prepare those there for the temple’s destruction. See Ezekiel 10.

[3] A hint of this can be seen in the rest of this chapter which concerns a letter from Shemaiah in Babylon telling the high priest in Jerusalem to silence Jeremiah. Jeremiah’s prophecy is not what they want to hear. See Jeremiah 29:24-32.

[4] See https://careynieuwhof.com/new-trends-4-ways-the-pandemic-is-negatively-impacting-people/

[5] An example from the past: In the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, many kept saying “it’s only influenza” while more people died (in sheer numbers, not in percentage of population) from the illness at any other time in history.  See John M. Barry, The Great Influenza:  The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History (2004, Penguin Books, New York, 2018).

[6] Eugene Peterson, Run with the Horses: The Quest for Life at its Best (Dowers Grove, IL: IVP, 1983), 156.  Peterson’s Faulkner quote comes from Lion in the Garden, Interviews edited by James B. Merriweather and Michael Millgate (NY: Random House, 1968), 108.

[7] Romans 5:3-5.

Sailing: The Low Country Hook Ocean Race

Grand Cru approaching the mark just ahead of us

The finish was exciting. An offshore breeze was blowing steadily toward the land and many of the boats still in the race were all convening on the R2W buoy two miles off Wassaw Island at the same time. There was only one boat left in our class, Todd’s Grand Cru.  While we had opted to stay further offshore in the hope of finding wind, Todd and crew hugged the shore. So, the end of the race had us approaching the mark on a reach, while Todd, who had to tack back toward the mark, was close-hauled, a sail position that gave him more speed. However, he also had more distance to cover. We’d thought we were easily going to make the mark first, but as we both moved closer to the mark, we could tell that Todd was really moving. We checked the sail trim and did everything possible to increase speed, but they beat us, rounding the mark a couple boat lengths ahead. But it didn’t matter. We still won when they factored in the boat’s handicap. Grand Cru is a 33-foot boat and has a much higher handicap than our 24 foot boat. He’d have to finished 20 minutes before us to have won the race.

We crossed the mark at 6:02 PM. It had been a long day and we still had seven miles to go to reach the marina. That was where the final mark was supposed to be but since there had been so little wind and race rules stated that everyone had to finish by 7 PM, which would have meant that no one would have finished, the shortened the race late in the afternoon. The race committee had even headed end, leaving each boat with the instructions to cross the buoy to starboard, turn north and when you pass the buoy, to call in the time. Most of the spinnaker boats (we sailed in the non-spinnaker class) still in the race finished around the same time.  None of the cruising class boats finished the race, all having opted to abort earlier in the afternoon.

Steve setting a course with Doug P at the helm as we sail to Hilton Head

Our race weekend started on Friday, when Doug P., Steve and I took our boat, Bonnie Blue, out to sea and up to Hilton Head’s Harbour Town. We left Landings Harbor Marina at 9:45 AM. The forecast called for light wind and we were thinking we might have to motor most of the way up, but as we got the boat out of the marina, the winds picked up and we were able to sail on a reach (wind coming off the beam or 90 degrees to the boat’s direction), without ever changing tack, all the way out of the Wilmington River and Wassaw Sound. Once we were in the ocean, the winds continue from behind, allowing us to run wing-to-wing (the mainsail and the jib on opposite sides of the boat to catch the wind from behind) all the way north, pass Little Tybee and Tybee Island while sailing down waves that were moving favorably in our direction. Once we crossed the shipping channel to the Savannah Ports, we turned inland toward Daufuskie Island (the setting for Pat Conroy’s memoir, The Water is Wide), sailing across Calibouge Sound until we picked up the channel markers that led us behind Hilton Head Island. The wind died about the time we made it behind Hilton Head and, for the first time since motoring out of the harbor, we engaged the motor and found our slip at the Harbour Town marina.  On Hilton Head, the fourth member of our team, Doug B, who’d been spending a few days with his family on Hilton Head, met us and drove us back to Skidaway.

Leaving Harbour Town

Saturday morning began early as we all gathered before daybreak to drive back up to Hilton Head. The sun was rising as we crossed over the Savannah River bridge. By 8:30 AM, we had the boat ready and motored out to the start line between Daufaskie and Hilton Head. The first class, the cruisers, were to begin at 10 AM.  By then, all boats were in the area and they began the countdown sequence. The tide was running in, strong, and what winds there were came from behind, make it a downwind start (you generally start upwind, as you can make faster speeds).

Cruiser class approaching the mark

At four minutes before the starts, all the boat were required to kill their motors. They did, then then wind died, and the cruisers (there were only three) were pulled further and further from the starting line.  A minute before the start, they cancelled and waited a few minutes before going again into the six-minute sequence. The same thing happened.  The race chairperson then suggested that the boats motor to out beyond the starting line and let the tied pull them back inside it before the start. On the third attempt, they had a start.  As the cruising boats tend to be slower, they were given ten minutes or so headway before they began the second flight, those of us not racing with spinnakers.

Thankfully, our start went off without a hitch and by 10:45 AM, we were racing, but without a lot of speed. We tried everything, from going wing-on-wing to tacking and running on a reach. It was slow going, but within a few hundred yards of the start line we had passed the cruising class boats.  Soon, the spinnaker class boats started and we were all bobbing around in Calibogue Sound, waiting for a puff to move us a little closer to our destination. It seemed to take forever. We kept looking at the same houses on Daufuskie and the marks in the Savannah River were so far ahead. We watched several container ships make their way out of the harbor and then others make their way into the harbor. Thankfully, without wind, the sky remained gray, reducing the sun and the heat.

a distant ship leaving Savannah

Around noon, we had a short burst of air that allowed us to make our way out of the sound and point eastward, toward the G5 buoy at Tybee Roads. We weren’t making great time, but at least we were moving, which continued until we made the turn south, toward Wassaw Sound. Then the wind died again. It seemed to take forever for us to cross the shipping channel. We had seen many ships in the morning, but thankfully while we were bobbing around in the channel, there were none.  Finally, we reached the port side marks, putting us safely out of the channel and began to make our way south.  Doug B pulled out his fancy binoculars, which allowed us to see well ships that were coming into port, but not strong enough to make out those bathing on Tybee, some two miles to the east. For what seemed to be days, but was only four hours or so, we keep the Tybee Lighthouse directly off our beam. Occasionally, they’d be a puff and we’d make some forward progress (to where the slough that runs between Tybee Island and Little Tybee was parallel to beam), dropping the lighthouse toward our stern. Then the wind would die and we’d drift back. Pretty soon the lighthouse would be off our beam. We talked about all kinds of things, but the only thing I remember being said was by Steve when he announced: “It’s a flat as a millpond out here.”

Waiting on wind (Steve holds boom out to catch every bit of wind while I do the same on the pole on the genoa, Doug B looking at sail shapes while Doug P either is looking at his sail app on his phone or is praying…

The chatter on the radio was slim. Occasionally a boat would announce they were giving up the race. Then, around four, there was some discussion over moving the end of the race to the R2W buoy. Since not everyone was within radio contact, such instructions had to be relayed to those behind us. Then, as it got closer to five, the wind slowly began to build. Tybee lighthouse dropped off our stern and we began to pass Little Tybee. The wind picked up and slowly the miles to the buoy began to drop (which we could measure thanks to navigation apps). By five, the wind filled in and we were quickly making out way toward the mark, which could first be seen as just a dot in the distance and slowly became more visible as we saw Todd’s boat coming toward us off starboard. After a day of bobbing, we finally felt like we were racing.

 

 

Heading home (Wassaw to port)

After making the mark, the wind continued as we made our way toward Wassaw Sound. By now, the tide had turned and was coming in, giving us an extra boost. Once we cross the north end of Wassaw, the wind died again. No longer racing, we started our motor and began to putt in, supported by the tide. The inland waters were like a mirror and while we putted, we flaked the mainsail on the boom and secured it with the sail cover. Then we rolled and bagged the geona (foresail or jib) and stowed it away. We got the boat ready so that we when we arrived at the marina, we could tie it up and leave.  It was a bit after 8, when we came into the marina. We tied up and found that the party which had been planned in the grassy area by the marina, but had broken up, had left us some snacks and beers. I enjoyed a bag of chips and a beer. It was dark when I arrived at the marina that morning to carpool to Hilton Head and it was dark when I left the marina to head home.

Next Weekend with more wind (that’s me on the helm with Tito)

 

This was the first race since the St. Paddy’s Day race on March 14!  While I’ve been sailing, all the other races and regattas had been cancelled due to Covid. The next Saturday was the Wassaw Cup, in which our crew wasn’t able to sail, so I sailed on another boat, with high winds, we were blown away. There’s one more race, at the end of the month, before I move to the mountains.

 

 

Boats gathering at the start of the Wassaw Cup

Restoration of a Sinner

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
September 6, 2020
Matthew 18:15-20

Click this link to watch the service which begins at the 6 minutes into the table. The sermon starts at 18:20 minutes into the service. 

Also, it seems I wasn’t the only one to come down hard on gossip this week. Even the Pope joined the chorus in his Sunday address. Click here for the AP article.

At the Beginning of Worship:

             Technology has brought a lot of changes to our world, good and bad. On the positive side, it allows us to continue holding worship services during a pandemic, something that wasn’t available during the 1918 pandemic. But it also means everything is now more public, out in the open. Even things we might have hoped to do privately gets posted across social media for the world to see.

The downside of technology includes social media being filled with folks ready to attack anyone who might not agree with them. We’ve always had such people, but they used to easy to avoid. It’s amazing how people will attack others publicly, be it their food choices, their politics, or their use of grammar. Those who engaged in this manner think they’re doing something righteous when they blast an opponent. They think they look good and have power.

But is this how a Christian should act? Not according to the Scripture text we’re examining today. In fact, even when someone else is in the wrong, we need to go the extra mile to protect their identity, to show love, and to act with humility.

 

After the Scripture:

             I always admire those folks who can take bucket of rust and, with hard work, restore the car to where it looks like it just rolled off the assembly lane. It takes time, patience, expertise, and a willingness to get one’s hands dirty. But what beauty can come out of such efforts.

Today’s sermon is about restoration. Not of cars, but of people. As Christians, we are not only to be about making ourselves betters, but also others.

Our passage from the 18th Chapter of Matthew speaks of correcting the sins of our brothers and sisters in the faith. Let me warn you, this is an easy passage to abuse. If we’re to be correcting sin, we need to first remember we’re all sinners. Second, we are dishonest if we only correct those sins we find most grievous or only the sins committed by those we dislike, while ignoring the sins of those we like. Remember, Jesus said something about us getting the log out our eyes before removing a speck from someone else’s.[1]

            Pointing out the sins of others is something few of us want to do. That’s probably good. In the book The Peacemaker, which is mostly based on this passage, Ken Sande suggests those eager to go out and correct others are probably not the ones needing to perform such tasks.[2] The person who sets out to correct another needs to be humble and desiring both to restore the other person back into a relationship with Christ as well as to keep the publicity down. We’re not to try to make ourselves look better while making others look bad. That’s not Christ-like.

Like restoring an automobile, restoring relationships is hard work. It requires wisdom, love, gratitude, and humility. Without such gifts, one is liable to make a mess of things, just as having the wrong tools could ruin a car’s restoration. Without humility, we can make a mess of a relationship.

Now look at this passage. It starts with a difficult verse. Verse 15 is generally translated “if your brother sins against you…” The New Revised Standard Version translates it more to the intent of the original when it says if “another member of the church sins against you.” Matthew uses the word brother to imply all who are a part of the Christian fellowship, not just siblings or just men. The question that arises is whether we have the right to go correct others in sin.

If you take this passage as translated, the text implies that you go talk only to those who sin against you. Yet, almost all translations will have a footnote here, informing us that many of the older text omit the “against you.”[3] In such cases, it sounds as if we have a license to go correcting anyone who is in violation of God’s law. Since we’re all sinful at one point or another, the field is ripe for a harvest.

I’m going to do something maybe a little unorthodox and take both positions. If your brother or sister in the faith does something wrong against you, you are supposed to go to him or her. In other words, the harmed or the innocence party is supposed to make the effort to reconcile. Image that! My tendency, and this is probably true for most of us, is to avoid people who harm me, but that’s not what we’re being told here. And the object of the visit is not to beat up the offending party, but to restore them. We can also look at this verse from the angle of church discipline. Taking this verse to read: “If your brother does something wrong, go and have it out with him alone,” as the New Jerusalem Bible translates it, we’re told to confront those whose sins are so bad that they are harming the church of giving God a black eye.

Regardless of whether you think this passage applies only to sins committed personally against you as an individual or to sins in general, we’re not given a license to become intolerant moral police officers. Look at the context of this teaching. Right before here, in verses 10-14, Jesus gives the Parable of the Lost Sheep. The focus there, as in this passage, isn’t confrontation. It’s reconciliation, bringing the lost back into the fold. Then he follows this passage with the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. Remember that passage is about judgment upon those who act harshly and are judgmental toward others. Having these two passages as bookends reminds us that Jesus is primarily interested in restoration of the sinner and that if we’re involved in bringing about such restoration, we’re to be humble and gracious.

We need to ask ourselves if the offense is great enough to risk ruining a relationship. Sometimes, having a little thicker skin will do wonders and further the peace.

If, however, the situation requires action, we’re to go to the other person and confront them face to face; we’re not to be talking about it to others, starting up the gossip mill. Today, thanks to social media, starting a rumor is easier than ever. But before we announce to the world the wrong someone has done, we’re to go talk to them. We’re to listen to what they say, for they may have a different interpretation or understanding.

Listening is important. We might have missed understood. Furthermore, if Jesus were teaching today, I think he’d insist that we listen and gather the facts before we march off into a crusade. As for social media, he would probably suggest that before we share something online, we make sure what we say is supported by facts and are not just emotional responses that demonstrate our own confirmation bias.[4]

After having confronted the person face to face, if they are not willing to work things out or if they are going to continue sinful activities, we’re still not to start gossiping. We’re to maintain confidentiality as we attempt to come to an understanding with two or three others, who are trusted and will also keep confidentiality. In Sande’s book, he recommends that if we’re in a conflict with someone else, we tell them at the end of that first meeting that we’re going to seek the council of others—for if they know they’re in the wrong they may be willing to go ahead and work things out with us.

These two or three witnesses serve two functions.  First, they are observers. Judgment in Scripture always required two witnesses.[5] In this case, they are there to make sure that things are fair. They might listen and think we’re the one that is in the wrong and, in that case, we have to be willing to accept their advice.

After this second visit, if we still don’t resolve the problem, then we can take our complaint back to the church. In keeping with the process, this doesn’t mean that we stand up during joys and concerns and broadcast the complaint to everyone. Instead, we take it to the leadership, to those in charge, and let them be the judge. Only after this intervention fails, does the church have a right to exclude the offending party from the community of faith. Matthew says that then they’ll be like “pagans and tax collectors.”

What are our responsible toward correcting a member of the community who sins, remembering that we all sin? This was debated heatedly during the Reformation. John Calvin, one of the founders of our branch of Christendom, supported Church discipline for three reasons.[6] First, was to honor God. The church should act against those who are in open revolt against God. But Calvin did not suggest we start inquisitions. He never argued for a “pure church” because he believed that was impossible. Church discipline was taken only against those who openly refused to stop and repent of their blasphemous activities. The second aim was to keep the good within the church from being corrupted, and the third aim was to bring the guilty party into repentance.[7] Discipline was always carried out in hopes of restoring the contrite into the fellowship of the church. In other words, discipline was done pastorally out of concern for the accused soul.

When we take these verses out of their setting, they sound harsh. After all, Christ gives those of us in the community the power to banish someone from our midst.[8] He even tells us that decisions we make here have eternal ramifications. But our purpose isn’t to be the enforcer; instead our goal is to restore the sinner. And if we’re going to be convincing, we got to remember that we’re all sinners, which means we better be humble in any endeavor we undertake.[9] We don’t try to correct others as a way to prove our rightness, but out of love and concern. Like restoring a car, it’s hard work. Amen.

©2020

[1] Matthew 7:5.

[2] Ken Sande, The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004).

[3] There is debate over the inclusion of this phrase.  See Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (United Bible Society, 1985), 45 and Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew: Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1992), 213.  Robert Gundry argues for its inclusion in Matthew: A Commentary on his Literary and Theological Art (Grand Rapids: Eerdman, 1982), 367; while Frederick Dale Bruner omits the phrase.  See The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 225.

[4] Confirmation bias is agreeing with something because it “fits” our world view without verification. In other words, we decide something is right because it fits our existing beliefs.

[5] Deuteronomy 19:15.

[6] Although Calvin supported and participated in church discipline, unlike some Reformers such as John Knox, Calvin did not see discipline as one of the marks of a “true church.”  To him the marks of a true church was the proclamation of the gospel and the rightful administration of the sacraments.  For a discussion of Calvin and discipline, see Charles Partee, The Theology of John Calvin (Louisville: W/JKP, 2008), 270-271.

[7] The three purposes of discipline of John Calvin are in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV.12.5..

[8] While this is seen in this passage (Matthew 18:18), it also appears in Matthew 16:19.

[9] Heimlich Bullinger, another reformer and author of the Second Helvetic Confession tempers his talk on discipline with a reminder that Jesus said not to pull the weeds up because you risk pulling up the wheat.  See Presbyterian Church (USA), Book of Confession. 5:165.

Would You Wear a Yellow Tux?

Jesse Cole, Find Your Yellow Tux: How to be Successful by Standing Out (Lioncrest Publishing, 2018), 303 pages, some photos.

The Back Story:  One of the most amazing things I’ve seen while living in the Savannah area is the development of a summer league baseball team for college players, the Savannah Bananas. Before the Bananas arrived, there had been a Single-A minor league team, the Savannah Sand Gnats. I went to one of their games the first full summer I was here with my staff. We pretty much had a whole section of the stands to ourselves. It is hard to think that I cheered for any Sand Gnat. As is often said around here, that nasty bug and the humidity are what keeps house prices affordable along the Georgia Coast. The Sand Gnats tried to get the city to build them a new stadium (Grayson Stadium is old but classic—even Babe Ruth played there). Failing to blackmail the community into a new stadium, they moved to Columbia, South Carolina, but sadly left the gnats behind. It wasn’t looking good for baseball in Savannah until this young man from Gastonia, NC comes along with some crazy ideas. He creates a ball team of college players and tops it all off with entertainment and fifteen buck tickets that include all you can eat burgers and hotdogs. It’s a great deal and fun. The first summer, about forty people from our church attended a game. I took a photo of a dude wearing a yellow tux and posted it to Facebook, asking what would happen if I wore a yellow tux in the pulpit. One of my elders responded (jokingly, I think) that they might have to establish a new Pastor Nominating Committee. I still think it would have been a fun idea.

Jesse Cole at a ballgame in 2016

My review:  The dude I saw in at that baseball game back in 2016 was the author of this book in which he lays out his ideas about business and life. It’s all about having fun and doing what you can to stand out in the world. Cole’s idea is to do crazy things to draw attention and to build a fan following. It works. While the Sand Gnats never sold out, the Savannah Bananas sold out the stadium their first three years. This book is part business manual and part memoir. We learn about Cole’s life, which is almost like a novel (I know of several novels where someone hoped to play professional ball and throws their arm out in college). Cole finds a way to stay with the game, first in Gastonia, N.C. and now in Savannah. The book draws on many others who gave Cole inspiration: Walt Disney, P. T. Barnum, Mike Veeck, Richard Branson, the movie “Jerry Maguire” among others. Cole is not only an avid reader; he is able to put what he learns into action. He also encourages those who work with him to read and to produce ideas.  Some of his ideas are a new spin on an old idea. Cole uses an old fashion “idea box.” But what he does with those ideas are unique. “Brainstorming” is called Ideapaloozas. Cole points out the lack of excitement with “professionalism” and encourages everyone to be crazy, doing the opposite of normal. He insists that their only focus is on their fans. While Cole never mentions investments, his idea of doing the opposite of what everyone else is doing sounds like the contrarian investment strategy (See Dreman, Contrarian Investment Strategies). His goal is to be successful while having fun and putting his fans first (Fans First Entertainment is the name of Cole’s business).

When I started reading this book, I thought it should be read by everyone in leadership at Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church. By the time I was done with it, I thought it should be read by everyone. I recommend you read it and start having fun while you find success by helping others.

It’s All About the Cross

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
August 30, 2020
Matthew 16:21-26

Click here to watch the service. The sermon begins at 18 minutes if you want to fast-forward. 

Beginning of Worship:  I saw a meme the other day. A man at a bar ordered a Corona and two hurricanes. “That’d be 20.20,” the bartender said. It’s not been a good year so far. It seems like we’ve all been carrying a cross over the past eight months. But is this what Jesus means when he says we are to pick up our cross and follow him?

The cross is a symbol we see everywhere. We have several in our sanctuary. We wear it as jewelry. It populates cemeteries and are often placed beside the road where there has been a fatal accident. But what does it means when Jesus tells us to pick up the cross? That’s today’s topic.

This is our second Sunday in the 16th Chapter of Matthew. If you remember, last week, Peter nails it. He confesses Jesus to be the Messiah. Today, he doesn’t look so good. He can’t accept Jesus’ plan involving the cross. Last week, Peter was praised. This week, he’s called Satan. There’s good news here because our lives are similar. We can do good and great things and we can do rotten things. Aren’t you glad there’s grace?

Jesus does something radical and he invites us to follow him, but it’s a costly invitation. Jesus demands our very lives. For those of us who follow Jesus, the cross becomes our sign of God’s power as Paul eloquently states in First Corinthians, but to others it’s foolishness.[1] But as a sign, the cross is not easily understood.

###

 

After the Scripture Reading: What does it mean to pick up our cross and follow Jesus? Maybe a better way to ask this question is what does it mean to be a follower of Jesus Christ?  We have to be careful that we don’t cheapen the bearing of our cross in an attempt to explain our trials. Carrying the cross isn’t just enduring a bad time, like 2020. Picking up our cross and following Christ has life changing implications. We admit we’re not in control. It’s no longer about us and what we want and what we think we need. Instead, it’s all about the man up ahead, the one we are following.

Think about the theology of the cross in light of two seeming contradictions in scripture: Jesus’ call for us to pick up our cross and proclaims that he’s come to set us free.[2]

In Jesus’ day, no one thought of the cross as a sign of freedom.  In fact, a cross was viewed in just the opposite. It was a sign of torture, a reminder of the imperial power of Rome that subjected a huge portion of the population to slavery. In Rome, if a slave rebelled, the cross was the normal method of execution. The cross was a tool the Romans used to cement their control. When Jesus tells the disciples to pick up their cross and follow, they may have had second thoughts.

This particular passage is recounted in all three of the synoptic gospels—which tells us something about the impression it made on the disciples.[3] Yes, we know Peter doesn’t like the idea of Jesus dying, but that was all before Jesus issues this command. None of the gospels give us an idea of how the disciples and the crowd responded to Jesus’ call at this point. Such an omission is a part of the plan, I believe, for it allows us to respond to Jesus’ call in our own ways. This morning, we’re wrestling with what it means to pick up our cross. First, I am going to discuss some mistaken ways this call is interpreted: I’ll label these three as triumphant militarism, naive pacifism, and sentimentalism. Then I will offer ideas on how we are to be a servant of Jesus Christ and faithfully answer his call.

Peter’s idea of picking up the cross falls into my triumphant militaristic category. Remember, he’s the disciple who, at Jesus’ arrest, pulls out a sword and slashes the ear off of one of the men.[4] I imagine Peter, a fisherman whose muscles were well defined from working the nets, as a strong man. At this stage of his Christian walk, he’s a Rambo type character, ready to pull up the cross and use it as a club to pound his foes. Peter and the other disciples are ready for Jesus to set up a worldly kingdom. Peter wants Jesus to be King so he can be an advisor, right next to Jesus’ throne, the second in command.

When Jesus started talking about this suffering stuff, Peter gets nervous and decides he’d better try to steer his leader in a different direction. “Hey Jesus,” Peter remarks, “let’s rethink this part about dying.” But Jesus’ way wins out. The cross is not to be used by us as a weapon, nor does it give us any protection other than being a symbol of what Jesus has done for us.

If triumphant militarism is one extreme rejected by Jesus, so is the other extreme, which I label naive pacifism. I chose the term naive because pacifism for many Christians is an appropriate response. But when the path is naively chosen, we forget that we’re called to resist evil, to deny evil power in the world and instead we become a sacrificial pawn. Just as we should not use the cross as a weapon, it’s not to be used as a white flag of surrender, either. Jesus picked up his cross and carried it to Calvary in order to offer his life for sins you and I have committed.  Jesus died for our sins so that we don’t need to die for them, nor should we be expected to die for the sins of others. But this doesn’t mean there’s not work for us to do.

If we’re not to be militants or pacifists, we might be led to think the proper understanding—the middle way of understanding Jesus’ call—is sentimentalism.  Sadly, this is the way many people look at the cross. We clean up its horrific image and use it as jewelry and decor on our cars.  But such an understanding of the cross—if it goes no deeper—misses the point. It can even become a political statement or a superstition, which is idolatry. If the cross is only seen for its sentimental value—we’ve cheapened Jesus’ call.

I don’t know if I can give an understanding of what picking up one’s cross should mean to us all. Certainly, I think it means more than having a piece of jewelry. For a few people, it may mean martyrdom—as it did for many of the disciples. But Jesus certainly didn’t expect all his followers to be crucified. Secondly, martyrdom is not the highest virtue. Instead of martyr, the virtue we strive for is faithfulness. Yet, we learn from Jesus, if we love our life we will lose it.  Paul expands this thought when he speaks of our need to put to death the desires of the flesh and to live for Christ.[5]

By calling us to pick up our cross, Christ informs us that we’re not in charge of our Christian journey. We must be willing to follow him. Our calling isn’t about our needs or our desires, but about Jesus’ desire for us and for our lives. As Christians, we all have a calling that is linked to our vocations. Since we live our Christian life throughout the week, and we all have different occupations and trades, we each have to determine how we can best be true to our Savior. I can’t give a single definition of what picking up our cross will mean for everyone, just as Matthew didn’t tell us of the disciples response to this call.

As a seminary student, when I was a camp director in Idaho, we had each of the campers carry a live-size cross during a hike. Afterwards, around a campfire, we debriefed. Some told how difficult it was to physically carry the cross—toting the awkward beams and of the splinters. Others spoke about how they were uncomfortable to be out front of the rest of the campers, with everyone following and looking at them. Others had even more difficulty watching their fellow campers struggle. These wanted to show compassion by taking the burden of their friends.

These responses from the campers provide an insight into what the cross means and maybe an idea of how we pick up our crosses. When Jesus took up his cross, he was taking on the burdens of the world. He didn’t take the cross on his own behalf, but on our behalf. It wasn’t someone who lived a comfortable life that brought salvation to the world; it was someone who shared in the suffering of the whole world. We must understand that Jesus’ death on the cross is sufficient for our sins and the sins of the world.[6]

The penalty for sin—death—has been paid in full and none of us is being called to make another deposit—we’re not being called to save the world.[7]  By picking up the cross, Jesus shows his willingness to share in our pains and sorrows.  And he calls us, his disciples, to share in the pain of others. The campers who expressed compassion for the one carrying the cross understood, at least partly, what is means to be indebted to someone for taking on our burdens and for us to be ready to have compassion for others who are in pain. One meaning of picking up our cross is for us to be willing to stand beside others in need—whatever form that need might take. Jesus takes our burdens, he shoulders our cross, and the only way we can have a glimpse of what he feels is to feel the pain and burdens of others. So maybe our crosses have to do with how we show compassion.

I think our vicariously sharing in the pain of others also helps us to understand the proverb Jesus cites at the end of our passage. Jesus reminds us that whoever wants to save their lives will lose them and whoever loses their lives for his sake will find them. This is one of those great reversal statements of Jesus, but notice Jesus doesn’t call us to lose our lives in the lives of others. Rather, he calls us to place himself first in our lives—to put our total trust in him. Our call to discipleship is not to place some other than Jesus first (despite what politicians—many of whom have a messiah-complex, might hope for). Nor is our call to place ourselves first. It’s a call to follow Jesus and put our total trust in him. It means we must obey the first commandment: to have no god other than the one true God.  It means to take seriously the great commandment: to love God—the God revealed in Jesus Christ—with all our hearts and souls and minds and strength.

If we are grounded in our love for God as revealed in Jesus Christ, we will be able to fearlessly pick up our crosses, whatever form it may take, when Jesus calls. This means following Jesus even if it means losing our friends or being alienated from our families. This means following Jesus even though we will be despised. And it means we must be willing to follow Jesus even if lose our lives. We follow Jesus, and only him. Jesus is all that matters. Amen.

©2020

[1] 1 Corinthians 1:18

[2] See John 8:32-36.

[3] Matthew 16”24-28, Mark 8:34-9:1 and Luke 9:23-27. In each of these gospels, this scene is followed by the Transfiguration. Only Mark has the previous story of Peter confessing Jesus to be the Messiah.

[4] John 18:10.

[5] Romans 8:13.

[6] See Hebrews 10:1-18.

[7] 1 Corinthians 15:56.

The Years of Lyndon Johnson (Volume 4)

Things have been busy at my house as we are now showing it and trying to begin packing for our move to Virginia… But the busyness hasn’t kept me from sailing, as I crewed a boat up to Hilton Head on Friday and then on Saturday, we raced back to Skidaway (I’ll have to do a post on the long race with little wind, because we too first place in our class). I finished this book when in Virginia a few weeks ago.

Robert A. Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2012), 712 pages including notes and sources and 32 inserted pages of black and white photos.

 

This is the fourth volume in Caro’s massive study on Lyndon Johnson, and the third I’ve read. In this book, Caro begins with the run up to the 1960 Democrat Convention. It was assumed that 1960 would be the year Johnson would run for the President. With his leadership in the Senate, Johnson was a powerful man. But he kept giving off mixed signals as to his intentions to run and once he stepped into the race, he bet that no candidate could achieve a majority of the votes during the first round at the convention. In that case, many would switch to Johnson and he could capture the nomination.  Johnson was too late for Kennedy had wrapped up a majority of delegates.  As Caro has done in the other volumes, he provides mini-biographies of key players in the story including both John and Robert Kennedy.  After Kennedy was selected as the candidate, he chose Johnson as his Vice President candidate. Even this wasn’t without drama as there was a question whether or not Johnson would accept the position, as he’d be leaving the second most powerful position in the country with his leadership of the Senate. But Johnson, who wanted to be President since his childhood, accepts the position realizing he’s only a heartbeat away from the Oval Office. Caro, through extensive work, debunks the theory (that has been popularized by Robert Kennedy and his friends), that Kennedy’s invitation to Johnson was just a nice gesture and one that they assumed Johnson would decline. Robert Kennedy and LBJ would continue to have a running feud the rest of their lives. Caro makes a convincing case that without Johnson, who wasn’t as well liked in more liberal areas in the north, Kennedy would have never been able to win the presidency in 1960.

After the election, Johnson found himself sidelined. His feud with Robert Kennedy continued to grow. His advice on how to handle legislation in the Senate (something he understood) was ignored. As a result, Kennedy wasn’t able to achieve most of his agenda. Johnson, who was more hawkish, was even kept out of key meetings such as with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Compounding Johnson’s problems was the investigation into some of his supporters, especially Bobby Baker. This had the ability to cripple Johnson and perhaps even keep him off the ticket in 1964. Interestingly, Caro tells the story in a suspenseful manner as the hearings on Bobby Baker was running in Washington DC as the motorcade in which Kennedy was shot was driving through Dallas.

Upon the death of Kennedy, Johnson changed. He quickly assumed power. He knew what needed to be done to send the right signals to the rest of the world in to halt any mischief that the Soviets or the Cubans might stir up. Caro, who in previous volumes have been critical of Johnson and points out his flaws, has high praise of how he conducted himself through the end of 1963 and into 1964. Johnson was able to achieve Kennedy’s goal of a tax cut along with Civil Rights legislation. His handling of the segregationist Harry Byrd was masterful, as he presented a lean budget to win Byrd while working to keep him from blocking civil rights legislation. He was able to keep most of Kennedy’s staff and win their loyalty. While Johnson is often remembered for being mired down in Vietnam, Caro praises his ability to guide the country through this difficult time.  He also put his own stamp on the Presidency by showing foreign leaders a good time at his ranch in Texas.  In the spring of 1964, Johnson had the highest Presidential poll rating of any President.

Like Caro’s other books, The Passage of Power is a masterful volume that captures the complexity of the first President that I remember. I hope Caro will soon come out with his 5th volume, that looks at Johnson’s 1964 victory against Barry Goldwater and how his Presidency collapsed with the failures in Vietnam, leading up to his refusal to run for a second term in 1968. If you’re interested in history or in the complexity of powerful leaders, I recommend this book.

What’s Essential

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Matthew 16:13-20
August 23, 2020

Click here for the worship service. Advance to 15:30 to begin watching the scripture and the sermon.

At the Beginning of Worship

What does it take for us to be true to our calling as Christians? What are the most important activities that makes us a church? There are two, which are outlined in the second half of the 16th chapter of Matthew’s gospel: confessing Jesus as the Messiah and following Jesus, even to the cross. At times like this when society is semi-closed due to the pandemic, these two essentials remain. Are we still doing them? Today, is my first sermon from this part of Matthew 16, and we’ll look at the first requirement, confessing Jesus as the Messiah.

The Message (after reading Matthew 16:13-20)

After a long illness, a woman died and arrived at the Gates of Heaven. “How do I get in?” she asked.

“You have to spell a word”, Saint Peter told her.

“Which word?”
“Love.”

“L-O-V-E,” the woman spelled out and the gate swung open and she entered.

About three years later, Saint Peter needed a day off and asked the woman to watch the Gates of Heaven for him. Guarding the gate, she was shocked when her husband arrived. “How have you been,” she asked.

“Oh, I’ve been doing pretty well since you died,” he said. “I married the beautiful young nurse who took care of you while you were ill. And then I won the lottery. I sold the little house we lived in and bought a big mansion. My wife and I traveled all around the world. We were on vacation and I went water skiing today. I fell, the ski hit my head, and here I am. How do I get in?”

“You just have to spell a word”, she said.

“What’s the word?” he asked.

“Czechoslovakia.”

You may be wondering what this has to do with our text today. Well, there’s a weak link. You see, the idea of Peter being heaven’s gatekeeper comes from this passage, where he’s presented the keys and given the power to open doors. These jokes have been told for a long time. One source suggests that St. Peter at the gate jokes have been around since the 14th century and were originally used to tempt monks to break their vows of silence.[1] Although their context comes from our morning passage in Matthew, we have to realize that the jokes have little relevance into how one is admitted into heaven.

Let me tell another. A devout Presbyterian woman arrived at the Pearly Gate. Peter asked her why she should be admitted and she acknowledged that she really didn’t deserve being let into heaven, but that God was gracious and had ordained her for salvation in Jesus Christ. She staked her future on that promise. Peter nodded affirming. As the swung the gate open, the woman brought out a casserole. “Just in case grace wasn’t enough,” she said, offering it to Peter.” We like to hedge our bets, don’t we?

Now, let me assure you, getting into heaven isn’t what this passage is about. This passage is about who is Jesus. Jesus and the disciples have been together for sometime at this point. They’ve travelled together, teaching and healing and taking care of people and proclaiming the kingdom. Its only now, after they’ve extensively invested themselves into this man named Jesus, that he forces them to deal with his identity.

The setting for today’s passage is in the region of Caesarea Philippi. You are probably wondering what that has to do with anything. It’s important! This city was on Israel’s northwestern border. Before Jesus’ birth, Herod the Great built a magnificent marble temple there in honor of Caesar. His son, Philip, enlarged the city and renamed it Caesarea in honor of Caesar Augustus. But there were other Caesareas around, such as the one over on the coast. Philip, a politician, liked to see his name in print, so the city became known as Caesarea Philippi. It honored both Caesar and Philip.[2] This is the important part. It’s here, in this city devoted to the worship of the Emperor, that Jesus asks the disciple who they think he is. Deep down, there is a political statement being made here. If Caesar is Lord, then who is Jesus? Or vice versa. It’s interesting, that while Jesus took the disciples into pagan lands, from what we know, he never said anything derogatory about the paganism. We should learn from him. But by focusing on his identity and mission at a place where Caesar was worshipped as God on earth, Jesus challenges earthly powers.[3]

Jesus first asks the disciples what people are saying about him. “Oh, some people think you’re John the Baptist, raised from the grave, or Elijah, or Jeremiah, or one of the other prophets.” This first question was a teaser, for then Jesus goes to the heart of the matter. He asks a question we must all answer, “But who do you say that I am?”

Ultimately, it all comes down to this question, doesn’t it? I can see why people believed Jesus to be a prophet, for he had done great things. Most people like Jesus, even those who are outside the church. He’s known as a good and kind man who was a good teacher. I recently had someone tell me that she doesn’t consider herself a Christian anymore, but she loves Jesus. I wasn’t sure what to make of that. The book They Like Jesus But Not the Church, points out how most people in our country like Jesus and how the church is often a barrier from people getting to know Jesus better. That hurts, but some churches are so overzealous with a desire to save (which is the Spirit’s work, not ours), that all they do is to encourage people to accept Jesus when people don’t even know who they’re talking about. Jesus has invested a significant portion of his time with the disciples before he hits them with this question, “Who do you say that I am?”  Likewise, we need to invest time discovering who Jesus is and talking to others about who he is before we try to encourage them to join up and become a follower of the Savior. We plant the seed, God brings about the harvest.

When Jesus asks the disciples who they say he is, Peter responds: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Peter nails it. This is no weak response. There are no qualifying phrases. He doesn’t say, I think you’re the Messiah,” or “You appear to be the Messiah.”  Peter is direct and his confession is the foundation of the church. “Jesus is the Messiah!” Peter is staking out what he believes, even though as we will see next week, he doesn’t really understand the implications of what he has said. But that’s okay, for as Jesus informs us, Peter wasn’t speaking on his own; his confession is coming from God. Then Jesus called Peter the son of Jonah, which is an interesting and paradoxical reference. First, Peter caught fish, a big fish caught Jonah. In addition, Jonah isn’t exactly a model for he ran from God, just as Peter ran after Jesus’ arrest. Another and maybe a more important parallel is that Jonah was a prophet to Gentiles, and that’s the direction the church will take under Peter’s leadership.

Peter is important. Jesus says, “You are a rock and on this rock I will build MY church.” There has been plenty of controversy over this passage. The Roman Catholic Church sees it as the beginning of papal succession, that the rock refers to Peter as the pope. We Protestants question this idea. Yes, Peter plays an important role in the establishment of the church, but the church leadership throughout history isn’t from Peter as an individual, but is invested within the body of the church.[4]

More importantly than the rock concept is the emphasis that Jesus places on “my church.” It’s clear, the church doesn’t belong to Peter or to the disciples as a whole, nor does it belong to us. The church belongs to Jesus Christ. He’s the one who gives the church life and its power. Certainly, as a body we can do great things. We’ve even been given the keys to the kingdom![5]  But our abilities aren’t due to who we are, but to whom we worship. Even death cannot stop the church, which is the meaning of the “gates of hell or Hades shall not prevail.” In Jesus’ day, Hades was a place for the dead, but death has no power which Jesus will demonstrate with the resurrection. The church is to have one focus: Jesus Christ. It’s his name we lift up in praise, it’s his example we lift up as a model for our lives, it’s his power we rely upon when we don’t have the strength to do what we need to be doing. We depend upon Jesus.

While we are totally dependent on Jesus, we are still valuable and endowed with responsibility. The church is given great power, including the power to loosen or bind sins, or the power to forgive sins and to withhold forgiveness.[6] That’s an awesome power. We should accept it with humble reverence for Jesus doesn’t give it for us to use for our sake or to abuse for our benefit, but for us to use to help others become more Christ-like.

Our passage ends with Jesus telling the disciples to keep a secret about his identity. We may find this strange. Wouldn’t Jesus want everyone to know? Certainly, when we get to the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus sends out the disciples to all nations with the command to baptize and to make more disciples.[7] That commandment, known as the Great Commission, is for all believers. But here, before the resurrection, we must guess as to why Jesus wants the disciples to keep this secret. Perhaps it is because he knows that they do not yet fully understand the implications of Peter’s confession. Maybe Jesus is afraid they’ll mix in their own incorrect ideas and political opinions and muddle the message.[8] We don’t know for sure why Jesus wants them to be quiet at this point, but certainly, after the resurrection, Jesus is forceful in his command that we go out into the world and share his love.

Now it’s back to us?  Who do we say Jesus is?  Our first goal, as a follower of this man from Galilee, is to understand him. As I pointed out earlier, Jesus didn’t spring this question on the disciples the first day they were together. The disciples have spent a significant amount of time with him, maybe nearly three years at this point. To be able to answer that question, we must pick up this book (the Bible) and read about him. We must study the gospels. We must take our questions to him in prayer. And as we come to know him more fully, we need to begin to question our lives and see where we fail to live to his standard, and to be honest to Jesus in prayer as we repent.  And finally, as we learn more about him, we need to share our knowledge with others, so that they too may know him.

You know, in this time with things slowed down because of the pandemic, now is a perfect time to work on your relationship with Jesus. Read one (or all) of the gospels. Write down for yourself your questions and who you think Jesus is and what he means to you. Having such a foundation will help you articulate your faith when it’s important. It’s a good investment in your eternal future. After all, what are you going to say to St. Peter at the Pearly Gates? Being prepared is better than bringing along a casserole. Amen.

 

©2020 

[1] In searching for jokes, I came across this sermon which had the jokes I’ve used (I’ve altered them a bit) along with the suggestion as for the jokes origin:  http://geoffreythebold.blogspot.com/2005/09/fabled-pearly-gates-joke.html

[2] John Kutsko, “Caesarea Philippi,” Anchor Bible Dictionary Vol. 1 A-C, David Noel Freedman, editor (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 803.

[3] To learn more about the political reference here and why Caesarea Philippi matters, she Scott Hoezee’s take on this passage:  https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-16a-2/?type=the_lectionary_gospel

[4] Bruner, 127-130 and 135-137 and Douglas Hare, Matthew: Interpretation, a commentary for preaching and teaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), 191. Bruner, in an in-depth discussion on Peter’s role later in his commentary quotes another commentator who tries to bridge the “hyper-Catholic” and “hyper-Protestant views of Peter and summarizes him as “a man with a unique role in salvation-history… his faith is the mans by which God brings a new people into being.” Bruner, 137.

[5] Although in this passage, Jesus refers to Peter as the one with the keys and the ability to bind and loosen, later in Matthew’s gospel he speaks of all the disciples (and the church) being given this power.  See Matthew 18:18.

[6] Historically, the words “loosen” and “bind” have been understood in two ways. Doctrinally, they refer to the ability to loosen (or open) through teaching the way of Jesus and their binding is a warning of the consequences of not hearing and abiding in the word. Secondly, these words have a disciplinary meaning. The church has the right to bind disobedient believers, and to loosen the bindings of those who are repentant. Bruner, 132.

[7] Matthew 28:19.

[8] Burner, 137-138, makes this point.

Three Collections of Poems

  David Lee, Mine Tailings (Boulder, UT: Five Sisters Press, 2019), 79 pages.

David Lee was formerly the poet laurate of Utah and has been affectionally referred to as “the Pig Poet.” About the time I was leaving Utah, Lee retired as head of the English Department for Southern Utah University. Ever since I left Utah, I have hauled around a large collection of his poetry that came out in 1999, The Legacy of Shadows: Selected Poems. When rereading some of those poems recently, I decided to see if he was still publishing and learned about this volume. It appears that for part of the time, Lee hung out in Silver City, Nevada, a town on the south end of the Comstock Lode (I lived in Virginia City, on the north end of the lode, in 1988-89). Curious, I had the Book Lady Bookstore in Savannah find me a copy of the book for my pandemic reading.

Mine Tailings is divided into three sections: Silver City, the Shaft, and The Ore. In the very first poem of the book, “Silver City Dawn Poem,” Lee touched on many of my favorite memories of the Comstock: pinon fires, the wind, the morning sun, the sage, wild cats and rattlesnakes. As a reader proceeds further into this collection (and especially in the second section, appropriately named “The Shaft”), one comes upon many harsh poems that leaves little doubt as to what Lee thinks about President Trump. Some of the poems, like “On a Political Facebook Posting from a Former Colleague and Friend that Upset Jan,” are discombobulated and fragmented, similar to the President’s tweets. Lee often borrows snippets of Trump’s own words to turn around and challenge him through a poem.  The last section of poems contains many poems that are what I considered typical David Lee poems. These contain narrative and dialogue, tell a story and are often quite humorous. One such poem is “Globe Mallow” which is about a flower that Lee and his wife stopped to photograph while driving through a Native American reservation. When a rubbernecking tourist stops and asks what he’s seeing, the man confuses Globe Mellow with marshmallow. The photographer plays along, creating a tall tale about these plants producing marshmallow fruit in the fall. The man drives off, telling his family what he’s learned. The reader is left to humorously image his disappointment when he drives back into the valley in the fall intent on poaching marshmallows from Indian land.

It was good to read some fresh poems from David Lee. I am still pondering the role of the quail (which you had in the Nevada desert, but at least when I was there not to the extent that they show up in Lee’s poems) in these poems. In a sense, the bird is a thread that flies through the various poems.

Gary Synder, Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2009).

I have often heard of Gary Synder and have read a few individual poems and essays of his, but never a full collection. After reading Michael Cohen’s Granite and Grace, a book about Yosemite, I decided I needed to read more of his poetry. The Riprap poems were mostly written in the mid-1950s, about the time when Cohen first visited Yosemite and a year of so before my birth. Synder, as a young man, worked on trail building crews in the park. The title of these poems is appropriate as one often must riprap the side of the trail with rock to prevent erosion. These poems capture the places Synder worked, along with the people with whom he lived and worked. I enjoyed his descriptions of some familiar landscape. The second half of the book is his translations of a seventh century Japanese poet, Han-shan, writings. These poems were also interesting.

Nancy Bevilaqua, Gospel of the Throwaway Daughter: Poems (Kindle, 2004)

While drawing loosely on stories in the New Testament and other “non-canonical” writings of the first centuries of the Christian era and blending in the setting of the Biblical world, Bevilaqua has written a collection of poetry that area are alive with possibilities. These poems are steeped with a sense of place and often are linked to Mary Magdalene. One can feel the sunrise or the night sky, the parched earth under the midday sun, or the brilliance of stars at night, and the dusty feet from traveling along dirt paths. All these images draw the reader into this world.  I appreciated Bevilaqua’s ability to make the reader feel they are present in the first century even though I found myself (against the author’s advice not to read these poems from a religious perspective) wondering about their theological significance. There are certainly poems in here drawn on events of Jesus’ passion. In some ways, these poems attempt to recreate a piece of a lost world, reminded me Alice Hoffman’s novel, The Dovekeepers. In telling the story of the end of the Jewish rebellion against Rome in the first century, Hoffman draws from the experience of four women at Masada. Bevilaqua even has one poem placed at the Battle of Taricheae, an earlier defeat of the Jewish army in their revolt against Rome. Both authors, a poet and a novelist, create a wonderful sense of place at a particular time in history and should be appreciated. I read this collection on my Kindle.

A sapphire dawn, and silver palms. Venus
near the earth
still charred and yet I smell a coming
storm. He is sleeping
on the roof. I am too much awake.
-the opening lines of “Dawn, Migdal”

 

 

 

 

What is Faith?

JEFF GARRISON
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Matthew 15:21-28
August 16, 2020

To watch the service, click here to go to our Youtube site. To see just the sermon (skipping prelude, announcements, call to worship, first hymn and confession) forward to 15:35. 

Last week, we heard about Jesus saving Peter from drowning after he attempted to walk on water. Afterwards, Jesus referred to Peter as one of little faith. Today, we have Jesus referring to a foreign woman’s great faith. What’s up with this? Let’s see…  Read Matthew 15:21-28

###

Let’s go back in time to the First Century, to Tyre, a town on the Mediterranean, a port used by the Phoenicians. Like everything else in this part of the world, the town is now in Roman hands. But the roar of the waves crashing the shore are still the same. The taste of salt in the air is still the same. And on this day, as the heat begins to fade and an afternoon breeze from the ocean rolls in, the market opens. As we enter, our eyes catch the vision of a woman shopping. She has come early, before the crowds, her eyes red from crying, to gather food for her and her daughter. She doesn’t speak.

While examining slabs of bacon at the butcher’s shop, she listens in on the gossip. The butcher, a baker and a fisherman are chatting.

“Did you hear that Jesus, you know, the guy who fed 5,000 people with just a few loaves of bread and a few sardines, is in town?[1] A few more stunts like that and I’ll have to sell out,” the baker jokes.

“I might be with you,” the fisherman nods. “The method he uses to catch fish over on the Galilee will put little guys like me out of business.”[2]

The woman lingers, listening and wondering.

“Isn’t Jesus the guy who sent those demons into a herd of pigs causing them to run off the cliff?” the fisherman asks the butcher. [3]

“Yeah, it’s a shame, all that good pork washed out to sea. The price of ribs haven’t yet recovered! It seems the only trade he’s helped has been the roofers.”[4]

“Where’s he staying?”  The baker asks.

The woman’s interest is raised, she leans over the counter to hear…

“He had a hard time finding a place after that incident in Capernaum where some people cut a hole in the roof of a house in order to get to him,” the butcher replies. “Finally, Mr. Jones rented his old place up on 2nd Street. I couldn’t believe he’d rent it to Jesus. I asked him about it, but old man Jones’ wasn’t too worried. He said the place needs a new roof and maybe, this way, insurance will cover it.

“I think that’s him coming now,” the baker says, pointing to a crowd gathering at the town’s gate.

Overhearing this gossip, the woman’s face lights up. “Jesus,” she says to herself. “I must meet Jesus.” She drops her shopping bag, kicks off her heels and runs, without stopping, toward the crowd. Pushing through the folks, she shouts as if she’s insane: “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David. My daughter is tormented by a demon.” She’s so loud that everyone else stops speaking as she approaches. Even Jesus appears lost for words. The disciples consider her crazy and urges Jesus to send her away. After all, she’s pagan and it would be of no surprise that a pagan’s kid is possessed by a demon. She, too, probably is possessed, they think.[5]

Jesus brushes the woman aside. Pointing to his disciples, he tells her he’s been sent to the lost sheep of Israel. She continues, frantically asking for Jesus’ help. She’s tried everything. Jesus is her last chance for her daughter to be made well. Then her heart sinks, her head drops in shame.

Think about how this woman feels? She’d give her eye teeth to have her daughter freed. When she hears that Jesus is in town, her hopes are raised, only to be crushed. Imagine the pain she felt at this rejection—Jesus being either too busy or too tired to tend to her child. She’s helpless.

Many of us have felt helpless when dealing with our children. It’s a fairly common among parents, because there are often things beyond our control. But it’s even more common among those who are marginalized. Think of immigrant families risking everything to get a child to America, a place of promise, or to get them out of a place like Syria where the violence is terrible. Or consider African American parents who must have “the talk” with their sons. Knowing that you are not being taken seriously because of your ethnic background is something most of us don’t know about, but there are many such people in the world. Such folks are modern day examples of this Canaanite woman—feeling there is no food at the table for them.

This passage, we all know, is not just about disappointments and bad news. God, through Jesus Christ, is doing something incredible. It actually starts at the beginning of the chapter where we learn that food laws aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. “It isn’t what you eat—what’s in your stomach—that defiles you,” Jesus says. “It’s what’s in your heart.” God’s creation is good. Since we are all created by God, there is a possibility for us to all claim a divine inheritance.

The woman, as are most Gentiles who live near Galilee, is used to being called a dog. Humanity has almost always treated “others” within contempt. It was common in 1st Century Palestine for the pious Jews to refer to the Gentiles as dogs. Yet, I still don’t know what to make of this passage. It disappoints me for Jesus to use such language. I’d prefer to have him say, “My dear child,” or something similar. Just don’t call her a dog, Jesus, but I suppose political correctness wasn’t in vogue during the first century.

But instead of getting hung up on this one word, let’s put this into context and see what Jesus is saying. By saying he has to fed the children before the dogs, we learn Jesus’ mission is first to the Israelites. He’s ministering and teaching to the Jews But knowing this doesn’t help the woman; it doesn’t solve her problem. Jesus is supposed to be a good man and she’s stung by his words.

With her head bowed, I image she begins to leave, then pauses. Has Jesus denied her request? Or maybe, when the disciples are fed, there’ll be something left over for her child. It takes a few moments to get up her courage, but when she does, she spins around like a ballerina, raises her head and looks Jesus in the eyes. “Sir,” she addresses, “even the dogs eat the crumbs from the master’s table.” This lady is bold. Jesus is now going to have to deal with her, one way or the other.

“Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall for the master’s table,” what a great line.

“You’re right,” Jesus says. I imagine a big smile came over his face as he continued, with a voice loud enough to drive home the point home to the disciples, when he says, “Great is your faith. Your daughter will be healed.”

There is, after all, good news in this passage. The woman’s bloodline isn’t going to keep her from experiencing the healing powers of Christ. Even her religion isn’t a barrier. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say anything about casting the demon out because she was good or have kept the law or any other reason. Instead, Jesus acts freely and shows compassion to her and her child in the same manner he responds to our concerns brought to him in prayer. When there is something we, or someone we love, need, be bold in your prayers!

As I’ve said, this story comes right after Jesus has spent the first half of the chapter dealing with the religious elite of the day who complained that Jesus and his disciples were not keeping the tradition of the Elders. Jesus turned around this challenge, to emphasize that it’s not what we eat that defiles, but what comes out of our mouth and what’s in our heart. In other words, what we do is what’s important. To those leaders, this woman, by her racial status, is problematic and should avoided, but her insistence on the behalf of her daughter is a sign of faith. And Jesus responds to faith. In scripture, instead of talking about faith, Jesus mostly responds to it as he does in this situation.[6]

Which leads me to ask, what is faith? What do you think when you hear the word faith? It’s a word we use often, but do we really understand it? Do we have faith? The Second Helvetic Confession, written during the Reformation by Heinrich Bullinger, insists that faith is not an opinion or a human conviction, but is a “firm trust and a clear and steadfast assent of the mind, and then a most certain apprehension of the truth of God presented in the Scriptures,” the Apostle’s Creed, and God himself, and especially Jesus Christ, the fulfillment of God’s promises. And, the Confession goes on to say, “Faith is a gift of God.”[7]

Faith is knowing your only hope is in God, not in your own ability, which is what this Canaanite woman knew when she approached Jesus. She was unable to deliver her daughter, so she sought out the one who has such power. Faith is often described as a verb. It’s not just describing something, it’s about doing something. It’s placing trust in Jesus. Even though Jesus’ earthly ministry was to the Israelites, and the expansion of the gospel to the rest of the world would fall on his disciples, he was compelled to respond to the faith she demonstrated in him.

When we have no place else to turn, where do we place our trust? Is it with God as revealed in Jesus Christ? Or do we try to hedge our bets, hoping our own skills might save us, or perhaps our financial resources, our friends, our guns, or whatever else we place our trust. True faith trust only God as revealed in Jesus Christ. True faith is humbling because it acknowledges we can’t do it ourselves, that we’re dependent on the Almighty.[8] May we have such faith. May we be so bold as this woman in our prayers. At times like this, we need it! Amen.

©2020

[1] Matthew 14:13-21. This story also appears in other gospels.

[2] Luke 5:1-11.  A similar story is told in John 21, but that is a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus.

[3] Mark 5:1-20.

[4] Mark 2:1-12.

[5] In his commentary on this passage, Scott Hoezee writes about how demon possession would play into the disciples stereotyping of the Canaanites. Scott Hoezee, Proper 15A (August 14, 2017), Matthew 15:21-28. Center for Excellence in Preaching. https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-15a/?type=the_lectionary_gospel

[6] See Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), 169.

[7] Presbyterian Church USA, The Book of Confession, “The Second Helvetic Confession,” Chapter XVI, 5.112-113.

[8] Perhaps the reason Jesus says it is easier for the poor to get into heaven than the rich (Matthew 19:24) is because the poor, without resources, have no place else to turn for help.

Heading to the Mountains

Rock Castle Creek

I was not planning on making a change, but it’s happening. Maybe it was COVID. We’ve certainly have had more time to think and ponder about what is important. Could God be using this time to open me to listening? Whatever it was to bring this on, I have accepted a call to two small historic rock churches located eleven miles apart and right next to the Blue Ridge Parkway in Southern Virginia. These are two of six churches built by the Rev. Bob Childress in the first half of the 20th Century, at a time when this part of the county was remote and often violent. Ever hear of the Hatfields and McCoys? Childress story has been captured in Richard C. Davids’ biography, The Man Who Moved a Mountain. Once he was converted, he began to encourage the people of the mountains to help one another and not just look after their close family members. Sixty years after his death, five of his six “rock churches” are still going strong.

As I said, I wasn’t looking to move and thought I’d spend another year or two on Skidaway before trying to find more relaxed position. But back in March, I learned of an opening of a large camp and conference center in Texas that was looking for a new president and CEO. Their current one was retiring at the end of the year. They wanted a minister in this position and it was suggested that I had some of the skills of which they were looking. I have led churches through relocations and large building projects, along with having done fundraising and development work. I sent them a C.V. thinking they’d probably not be interested. They responded back and had me answer a bunch of questions. I wrote an extensive essay. Then they invited me to interview. While the position would have prestigious and I’d been well compensated, there was something (other than moving to Texas, which was another issue) that kept nagging at me. We discussed it as a family. I’d always thought that when I turned 65, I would try to find a small church to serve, knowing that my pension would be adequate to take care of the rest. Here I was, just two years away. There was a certain amount of trepidation about assuming, if offered the position, a job that would require a lot of travel, along with the headaches of managing a huge staff and raising a lot of money (mostly from Texas oil leaders, who weren’t able to give their oil away this Spring).  Was this something I really wanted?

Bluemont Church

While this was going on, I saw an advertisement for a pastor to serve two churches along the Blue Ridge Parkway. My thought was, “I wish this was two years from now.” But then, the more I got to think about it, I decided to check it out. I sent them an email. Less than a week after receiving my query email, I received a call from the chair of their Pastor Nominating Committee. Early in the conversation she said, “We want you as our pastor.” I responded, jokingly, “You don’t know me.” That’s when I learned that while they hadn’t met me, they knew a lot about me as they had watched sermons and read this blog. I agreed to visit and found everyone to be nice and the area to be wonderful. At the end of my visit, they made an official offer for me to become their pastor candidate (the congregation still had to vote).

I realized that I could live on what they were paying without having to tap into my retirement funds. As they say, the rest is history. I pulled out of the interview for the Texas position. However, I realize now that position served as the catalyst for me being led to this new call.  Last week, we signed the contract that made it all official. I will assume the position in October. I will be preaching twice a Sunday, leading Bible Studies, but mostly pastoring the folks living up on the mountain along with a lot of seasonal residents with cabins who attend the churches during the warmer months.

God’s ways of leading are mysterious until much later. Like Abraham, we head off on a journey, unsure of our destination, but sure of the one we follow.  I am going to miss the good people at Skidaway just as I am looking forward to meeting the good people on the mountain. I have been blessed. I have enjoyed my time here, just as I have always found something to enjoy everywhere I have lived. After all, it’s all God’s world. And God is going to see us all through this transition.

Mayberry Church

I have always loved the mountains and the Appalachians are my first love. Long before spending significant time out west, I hiked the Appalachian Trail. The southern mountains are beautiful in all seasons. While the colors are spectacular in the fall, the spring is full of life. In the winter, the mountains often rest under a thin blanket of snow, and in the summer, everything is green and lush. And the history in these ancient mountains runs deep.  While there is much I will miss by not living on the coast, especially sailing, I look forward to spending more time paddling rivers, hiking in the mountains, and bicycling along numerous “rails-to-trails” in the region.  It’s also a little closer to my parents and easier to get to Donna’s family (you don’t have to drive through Atlanta from there).

View of the “Buffalo” (from the house that’s under contract)

If you’re ever up this way, stop in.  Sunday worship at Mayberry begins at 9 AM, followed by a 10:30 AM service at Bluemont.  I think they keep the time close together, knowing the pastor has to travel 11 miles (with the Parkway’s 45 mph speed limit), as a way to make sure I won’t go into overtime! The Mayberry Church is located just a few miles south of Meadows of Dan (and US 58). The Bluemont Church is eight miles north of Fancy Gap (US 52), which is where the Blue Ridge Parkway crosses Interstate 77. As we’re going to be dealing with this pandemic for a while, one of my first tasks will be getting the services up on YouTube.  I’ll let you know through this blog when that happens and how to find it.

Life is always exciting, but now I have to go pack some more boxes.

Lunch rest while on a hike last week along the Blue Ridge

 

 

Jesus, We Need You in the Boat

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Matthew 14:22-33
August 9, 2020

To watch the sermon, go to our YouTube page (linked here). The sermon begins at 16:30.

 

As you heard in Deanie’s wonderful sermon last week, it had been a tough day for Jesus and the disciples. Jesus had received the news that his cousin, who’d herald his coming, had been executed. Jesus and the disciples tried to get away, but the crowds caught up to them. Jesus stopped and spent the afternoon talking and healing. The crowds feasted on Jesus’ words, but the disciples knew that words would not fill an empty stomach. The twelve watched the sun drop in the western sky. In the age before fast food, there was no place to eat and they knew folk’s stomach’s would soon be growling. Worried, they interrupt Jesus and suggest he sends the crowds away so they can go into the villages and buy food. They are surprised to learn that Jesus expects them to feed the crowds. With Jesus’ help and a bit of fish and bread, everyone is fed and to drive home the point, there is enough food that each of the disciples left with a full basket. Then, as people are licking their fingers, Jesus has the disciples get into a boat to sail for a distant shore. He, himself, stays behind, saying he’ll catch up later, and disappears into the hills. Jesus still hasn’t dealt with the grief of John’s death. Like I said, it’s been a long tough day and it ain’t over yet.

Everyone else gets to goes home while the disciples row toward a distant shore. Then, in the darkness of night, something happens. Clouds move in, darkening the moon and clouds. The wind picks up and whitecaps begin to dot the lake. The disciples struggle with the oars as the waves rise. Normally at night, the sea calms as the air cools, unless there is a storm. And on this night, there’s a storm building. The disciples, which include four fishermen, panic. They struggle, hoping to keep the boat afloat long enough for the storm to abate. With the bow into the waves, some pull on the oars while others bail water.

The storm blows throughout the evening and into the early morning hours. The wind has put so much water into the air that everything is misty. It’s hard, in an era without navigation lighting, to make out the shoreline. So, they keep rowing, which is good advice, for you need momentum to push through the waves.  Keeping the oars in the water helps maintain the boat’s stability. This goes on for hours.  Imagine how exhausted they are when they see someone walking across the water toward them. It’s not surprising they think it’s a ghost. Even if you didn’t believe in ghosts, you’d reconsider. Or maybe, you’d think it’s the angel of death, coming to extract its toll. Exhausted and seeing such an apparition is enough to push you over the edge. But just when the disciples fear all is lost, they hear Jesus’ sweet Galilean voice. Jesus calls to them across the water; he’s coming to them in their hour of need.

Had the disciples had time to think theologically, they might not have been so shocked. After all, one of the first thing God does in creation is the calm the chaos of the waters and in the Exodus, God divides the waters so Israel can escape the wrath of the Egyptians.[1] In Psalm 77, God is portrayed as making his way across the mighty waters and in Job, we’re told of God trampling the waves.[2] God’s control extends even over the waters and if Jesus is Lord, it should be of no surprise that he walked out on the sea to rescue the disciples.

But the disciples are not clearly thinking this night. All they know is that they are in trouble and their friend Jesus is coming to bail ‘em out (I know, that’s a bad play on words). They are in need and here comes Jesus. The storm, it appears, rages until our Savior takes a seat in the boat, but even if it had continued, Jesus’ presence would have been enough. With Jesus there, their fears are calmed.

There’s a mini lesson in this for us. When we know someone in need or trouble, we often don’t act because we don’t feel we can do anything helpful. But being present is one way we can act. Just being presence with a person in need can help. Furthermore, when we are in need, it is comforting to know Jesus is with us. The comforting presence of our Savior is enough to calm our troubled souls. Just having a friend beside us in the boat is a blessing. We make more out of Peter getting out of the boat in this story, but it’s more important for us to understand the need to have Jesus in the boat. But let’s now consider Peter.

Peter is so excited that he wants to try Jesus’ stunt himself. Before he gets to the boat, Jesus says, “Okay, come on out.” Peter does. He walks on water. Think about it. This is an amazing feat. But the problem is that he thinks about what he’s doing. When Peter looks around and sees the waves and the water under his feet, he panics and immediately sinks. You know, in a couple of chapters, Jesus, in a play on Peter’s name, which comes from the Greek work, petra, or rock, proclaims that upon this rock he’ll build his church.[3] Its generally assumed that because Peter was a strong man from having spent a lifetime pulling nets that he received the name that means rock, but perhaps there’s some humor in all this. Ever heard of someone who “swam like a rock?” That’s Peter!

Can you image the disciples gathered around Peter and Jesus, snickering about Jesus building his church upon the rock—the rock that sank? But Peter wasn’t building the church alone. Peter had to have faith in the Almighty to step up into the leadership role after Jesus’ ascension. In a way, however, we’re all like Peter and sooner or later, we’ll all find ourselves in over our head and sinking and at that point we’ll need a lift, like the one Jesus gave Peter. Jesus will be present with us and will help us when we are in need.

In a way, we’re all like Peter, who was a man of human frailty. Peter often screwed up. He thought he could tell Jesus what not to do… “No, No, No, don’t go to Jerusalem to be crucified.”[4] And then later, when Jesus was arrested, Peter, perhaps Jesus’ closest disciple, denies knowing him.[5]  And here, he’s able to take a step or two on water, as long as he focuses on Jesus, but then sinks when he‘s distracted. We’re a lot like that as individuals and the church. There is a lot God can accomplish in us if we remain focused on Jesus. But when we stop focusing on Jesus, we get in trouble.

This is what most people focus on in this story. John Ortberg even wrote a book titled, If You Want to Walk on Water, You have to Get Out of the Boat. And that’s what we think this story is about: having that kind of faith in Jesus and focusing on him so that we can walk on water and not slip under the waves. But such an interpretation of this passage makes it into a moral story in which we feel guilty because none of have walked on water,[6] nor have we known anyone to walk on water except perhaps up north when the lakes are frozen. If this is only a story about stepping out in faith, we’d feel pretty bad because none of us is up to the task. So, let me suggest another interpretation.

There is good news even with Peter’s near drowning. When life begins to overwhelm us, as it appears to be doing these days as we worry about the pandemic and the economy and the upcoming election and everything else going on in the world, it is easy to be overwhelmed. It is easy to slip under the waves. But just as Jesus came into our lives when we first believed, he is also there when we get in over our heads. He’s there to help us turn our lives around. We can learn from our mistakes, which is a very thing for we have a forgiving God who is willing to help us when we depend on him and not on our own abilities.

You know, I image there was quite a bit of tension in that boat before Jesus stepped in. The twelve disciples were all afraid, but there may have even been some tension between the four fisherman and the rest of the disciples. The other eight, who were not seamen, were depending on the fishermen to know what to do. Why did they allow themselves to get into this dangerous predicament? But when Jesus comes aboard, they all calm down, as does the wind and waves. They know they’ll be alright. And as the wind dies and the waves cease, they do what we should do whenever God saves us. They worship Jesus. That’s the message we should take with us. Don’t worry about jumping overboard and trying to walk on water. Instead, let’s make sure we invite Jesus aboard our boats. For Jesus comes to save us and our response is to worship him. May it be so.

 

©2020

 

References:

Bruner, Frederick Dale, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids, MI:
Eerdmans, 2004).

Hare, Douglas R. A., Matthew: Interpretation, A Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1992).

[1] Genesis 1:1-13 and Exodus 14.

[2] Psalm 77:16-20 and Job 9:8.

[3] Matthew 16:18.

[4] Matthew 16:21-24.

[5] Matthew 26:69-75.

[6] See Scott Hoezee, “Proper 14A (August 3, 2020), Matthew 14:22-33 at the Center for Excellence in Preaching website.

The Cross and the Lynching Tree (with a personal note)

James H. Cone,   (Marynoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), 202 pages including notes and an index.

 

The late James Cone (1938-2018) tackled a tough topic, linking together the most powerful symbol for Christians, the cross, and the most shameful symbol of white supremacy, the lynching tree.  The shame of the latter has been with me since the fourth or fifth grade. We had just moved back to North Carolina and in our state history book, there was a photo of lynching in Moore County that occurred in the late 19th Century. The main thing I remember was all the people, many young, were smiling around a dangling lifeless body. It was as if they were having a party. I was born in Moore County. I quickly did the math and realized that some of my great-grandparents (several of whom were still alive) could have been in that photo. I was horrified and didn’t want anyone to know that I’d come from that county. Of course, lynching wasn’t limited to Moore County. There were more lynchings (and ex-judicial killings) in other counties within the state and even more in other Southern states. Lynching wasn’t even limited to the South. Lynchings occurred all over the country. While some victims were white; in the West, Chinese and Mexican were thrown into the mix. But most of the victims were African American. Lynching was a way to keep the race terrified and, having been freed from slavery, under the control of their former white masters.

Cone set out to ask, “Can the cross redeem the lynching tree?” and “Can the lynching tree liberate the cross and make it real in American history?” (161)  There is a danger to our theology when we spiritualize the cross. There is a danger to our humanity when we ignore the lynching tree and deny the sin of white supremacy and the horrible treatment that African-Americans have experienced since first being brought in chains to American shores in 1619.

Cone begins his study with a detailed look at the cross. As a religious symbol, the cross is a paradox. Like the lynching tree, the Romans used the cross to terrify and keep at bay those who might threaten the Empire. Death on the cross was horrible. Yet, the church adopted this horrific symbol, claiming that God’s power is greater than the worse evil humans can inflict on others. For the human mind, as the Apostle Paul points out, the cross is a contradiction. But God can redeem this symbol and today the cross instead of being the horrific symbol of the empire’s power, is a sign of freedom and hope. As Cone explores as the beginning of his book, the cross is a common theme in both Black and White churches, but because of the experience of the two races, the cross is experienced differently. In White Churches, its more about the other world. That’s true in Black Churches, too, but there the cross is also a powerful symbol of hope for a people who have been oppressed.

Cone explores the theology of the cross of Reinhold Niebuhr. Perhaps the greatest American theologian of the 20th Century, Niebuhr had a lot to say about the cross. (Cone suggests Reinhold Niebuhr may be the greatest American theologian ever, but I would argue that point. However, Niebuhr was a major theologian and a scholar in the public realm during the 20th Century.)  Much of Niebuhr’s early writings (1920s-1940s) was done at a time when lynching was at its height. And while Niebuhr spoke out against white supremacy, Cone finds it strange that he never linked together the cross and the lynching tree. The second theologian Cone explores is Martin Luther King. While King, coming from the African-American tradition, focuses on the cross, also avoids linking it with the lynching tree. However, the poets and musicians from the Black tradition, do make the link as Cone explains:

They ignored white theology, which did not affirm their humanity, and went straight to the stories of the Bible, interpreting them as stories of God siding with little people just like them. They identified God’s liberation of the poor as a central message of the Bible, and they communicated this message in their songs and sermons. (118)

Cone’s fourth chapter focuses on the women’s voice from the Black community. While some women were lynched (warning: there are horrific details of lynchings in this book), most victims of lynching were men. Women spoke out for the men who, in the face of the lynching tree remained quiet and tried not to be seen. However, the lynching tree, like the cross is stripped of its gender and made an experience of all who encountered it, whether as a victim or as a witness. Perhaps the best-known woman’s voice to raise the issue of lynching was Billie Holiday. In 1939, she began singing the song “Strange Fruit.” No publisher wanted to record this song, so she sang it in nightclubs. No one could doubt the meaning of the lyrics: “Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze, strange fruit hanging from the poplar tree.”

This book may be difficult for white middle-class Christians to read, but we can’t deny that these things happened. If we want to get into the experience of how others understand their faith, we must listen to their voices. We must acknowledge their pain. In this book, Cone forces us to see the horrible treatment of a race and how it contradicts the Christian message. We need to lift up the lynching tree, in confession, realizing the sin it represents and live in the hope of a God who has the power to free us from such a past and shape us into a new people who might live in sister and brotherhood with those of a different hue.

This is the second book I’ve read by Cone. In the late 1980s, while in seminary, I read A Black Theology of Liberation. As a seminarian, I also studied under Ronald Stone, whose writings and conversations helped Cone shape his interpretation of Reinhold Niebuhr’s views of the cross. While the subject matter is often difficult, Cone is an engaging writer. In a time when American seems to be coming apart at the seams, this book should be read by those of us in the majority culture so that we can “walk a mile” in the shoes of those who are of a different color and whose experience as an American is different that ours.

Kingdom Parables

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-50
July 26, 2020

Click here. The entire service can be seen on Youtube. The service proper begins at 15:30 and the sermon begins at 28:00. 

 

At beginning of Worship:

Today, we’re finishing our look at Jesus’ parables in Matthew 13. Over the past two weeks, we’ve looked at larger parables, about farming. Today, Jesus rapidly fires off five parables about the kingdom that come from a variety of experiences. In these stories, we learn of God’s work and our need to respond with full commitment. Even when it doesn’t feel like it, when we are overwhelmed by the world, God is at work. When we discover God’s work, we need to join in. My question for us today, “Where do we see God at work and how should we respond?

 

After reading the scripture (Matthew 13:31-33, 44-50)

One purpose of a parable is to use simple things in which people can relate to tell a story that has profound implications. Jesus’ audience hasn’t seen Disneyworld or Las Vegas, which are at best cheap imitations of what God can do,[1] so instead of our Savior explaining God’s kingdom as some wonderful place, he tells stories. In a way, Jesus hops from one metaphor to another, telling them things they might know. They understand yeast and seeds, valuable treasures, and fishing. Like Jesus, let me tell a couple of stories.

When I was in seminary, I took a year off from my regular studies to take a test drive of pastoring. First Presbyterian Church in Virginia City, Nevada offered me a yearlong contract, as a student, to be their pastor. Up until this point in my life, I had never been to that part of the country. I’d been to the West Coast, to Los Angeles and to San Francisco. I’d even been to Yosemite, but I had never been in that vast sagebrush ocean known as the Great Basin. I was nervous. Nevada had gambling. “What kind of heathens gamble,” I wondered. Back in the mid-80s, you didn’t have casinos weren’t ubiquitous.

My second concern was it being the desert. I’d always been around water. I asked a member of their committee, who had lived in North Carolina, what Virginia City is like. He said I’d find it a lot like North Carolina, with the hills covered with pines. I knew he was teasing, but I needed to check it out. One weekend, I flew to Reno. It was night when I landed and in darkness, I was picked up and we drove up to the Virginia City, which is a couple thousand feet higher and on the back of a mountain range from Reno. The next morning, I couldn’t wait to see what kind of world I was in. I rushed to a window, opened the blinds, and looked out, and shook my head. Yes, there were pine trees alright, but the tallest of them might had been 12 feet high. Not much larger than the mustard tree in Jesus’ story. In time, I would come to know that these pinion pines, like the mustard bush, teams with life. Stellar jays, magpies, wrens, bluebirds, all kinds of small rodents and, in summer during the heat of the day, perhaps a great basin rattler. God takes care of them all, just as God took care of me. I soon got over my shock and set out exploring.

We are surprised by God’s kingdom. Who’d think that a little seed, be it a mustard or a pinion pine seed (which is great in pesto, by the way) could make such a difference?

The second image from my past is yeast. As you may remember, I spent five years working in a wholesale bakery, starting out while in college. You know, it doesn’t take a lot of yeast to make a lot of bread. Now, we used 50-pound bags of yeast, but we also received our flour in railcars. It’d take a couple of cars a week to supply our flour needs, during which time we’d go through a pallet or two of yeast. The thing about yeast is that once it’s mixed in, you have a hard time controlling it. The yeast takes over and the dough continues to expand until the yeast is killed in the baking process. When things go smoothly, the plant ran like clockwork. But occasionally, something happened, such as a jam in the oven. Suddenly everything stops, except the yeast. By the time things are fixed, the proof box is a mess cause all that dough kept growing and rising until it couldn’t rise anymore. Dough would be on everything. We’d have to take steam pressure cleaners and wash every rack in the proof box and all the pans. It was a mess. Thankfully, this didn’t happen often, but it happened enough that kept us humble.

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast that a woman takes and mixes with flour until all of it was leavened.” Think about this.  Once she introduces the yeast, it’s out of her control. If there is something in the dough for the yeast to eat, it continues to grow.

What Jesus is telling us here is that the kingdom is dynamic. Once the gospel is introduced, it starts growing and there is no stopping it. Think about how fast the church is growing today in China, even as the Communist Party tries to stamp it out. The church is growing in Africa and in the former Soviet Union, in India and South America. But the Kingdom is not only out there, on the mission field. It is also here in our congregation and even right here inside each of us.

The Kingdom is like a bit of yeast that can transform flour into a voluminous loaf, or a seed that can grow into a tree. Think about this for a moment. There are just a few things a baker can do to enhance the yeast. You keep it at the right temperature, feed it with sugar, and so forth… Likewise there are things we can do to enhance the growth of a tree such as watering and fertilizing. But ultimately, the yeast and the seed are not our doing. Their success, as both parables attest, belong to the hands of the one who controls life. These parables point to God’s involvement, to God doing something in our world and in our individual lives which we, by ourselves, cannot achieve.

At a time like this, with the pandemic and violence in the streets, we may wonder where God is and what God is doing. These stories remind us that we might not see God showing up in major ways, for that’s not how God works. Jesus was born among the animals in the poor hamlet in a far corner of the empire. A tablespoon of yeast or the seed that you can barely see can bring about great change. The change God brings into the world, into the kingdom, may not make the headlines of the New York Times, the Savannah Morning News, or even the Skinnie. But it’s here, alive, and working.

Jesus addresses the parable of the mustard seed and of yeast to a crowd of people. He wants everyone to know that God was doing something exciting and new in the world. Jesus wants to make it clear to everyone that God’s spirit is available; that if they would just open themselves up to the Kingdom which he’s ushering in, God could do wonderful things through their lives. The promise set forth in these parables still apply today.

After addressing the crowd, Jesus and the disciples slip away into a house. There the disciples questioned him concerning the meaning of parables. This gives Jesus an opportunity to tell more parables. The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, the merchant finding a valuable pearl, or a net cast into the sea.

Let’s think about these parables in relationship to the first two parables told to the masses. In the first set, Jesus suggest God’s action. As with the yeast or mustard seed, God is doing something in the world that we as humans cannot do. God is forgiving and creating new beings out of the old. It’s all God’s doing. However, in the parable of the hidden treasure and the valuable pearl, Jesus suggests we also act. The one who buys a field or buys the pearl does so because they want desperately to obtain the treasure or pearl. It’s the same way with God’s kingdom. When we experience a just a taste of it, we’re going to want it so badly that we’ll give up whatever in order to have it. This is the Calvinist doctrine of irresistible grace. If we experience the kingdom, we’re going to make it the number one priority in our lives. We need that kind of passion for God! Such passion will strengthen the church and further God’s work in the world. Now, parables can only be taken so far. No, unlike the person finding the treasure, we can’t buy ourselves a spot in the kingdom. But believe this: if we could, we should be willing to pay top dollar.

Jesus concludes these parables with one comparing the kingdom with a net which catches fishes, but in the end the good fish are separated from the bad. This ending parable is, in many ways, different from the others. Instead of being directed at the crowd or the disciples, it seems to be intended for the church. The parable is also the only one of this group which talks about the Kingdom in the future. The others four emphasize the beginning of the kingdom, here and now. Furthermore, this parable is about judgement. The fish which do not measure up are thrown out. However, it would be wrong to interpret ourselves as the discriminating fishermen. That task belongs to God. The familiar ring, which Jesus has already instructed, comes to mind: “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”[2]

There you have it. Two parables about God growing the kingdom, two about the value of the kingdom, and a warning… You know, Jesus doesn’t give us a clear picture of heaven here or anywhere in the Bible. He doesn’t talk about it as a place.[3] In The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard speaks of a kingdom as a place where one person’s influence determines what will happen.[4] This kingdom is where Jesus’ influence is a living presence. The kingdom of heaven is not someplace we strive to get to; instead, it’s something which starts inside each of us when we open our lives to God and invite Jesus in…. Amen.

©2020

 

Resources and References:

Bruner, Frederick Dale, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids, MI:
Eerdmans, 2004).

Duffield, Jill, “Looking into the Lectionary,” The Presbyterian Outlook (Online edition, July 20, 2020).  https://pres-outlook.org/2020/07/8th-sunday-after-pentecost-july-26-2020/

Gundry, Robert H., Matthew: A Commentary on His Literary and Theological Art (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982.

Hare, Douglas R. A., Matthew: Interpretation, A Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1992).

Hoezee, Scott, Proper 12A (July 20, 2020), from Calvin Theological Seminary’s “Center for Excellence in Preaching. https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-12a-2/?type=the_lectionary_gospel

[1] I’ve always been struck by Steve Wynn, one of the Las Vegas developers, often quoted (and blasphemous) quip about Vegas being how God would have done things if he had money.

[2][2] Matthew 7:1.

[3] In Revelation 21 & 22, John has a vision of a “new heaven and a new earth,” which is place, but Jesus keeps his kingdom talk to metaphors and ideas about what God can and is doing in the world.

[4] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, as referred to by Scott Hoezee in his notes on this passage. See https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-12a-2/?type=the_lectionary_gospel

Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy

David Zucchino, Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2020), 426 pages including notes, bibliography, and index along with 12 additional pages of prints.

On November 10, 1898, Wilmington, North Carolina erupted into violence. It began with an armed mob of white men burning the building which housed the Daily Record, an African American newspaper. Supposedly, this was because of an editorial that had been published months earlier that challenged the idea that lynching was necessary to keep black men away from white women.  After the fire, the mob terrified the African American community while white community leaders set out to exile leaders within the African American community along with members of the City Council and the Police Chief. Backing up these groups were reserve soldiers and sailors who had just recently returned home after having been deployed during the Spanish American War. By the end of the day, Zucchino estimates that there were 60 dead and that most of the black community had fled into the swamps. Some would leave right away; others would leave over the next few months and their absence would change the community forever.

After the terror created within the African American community, the leaders of this coup, turned to the elected and appointed leaders within the city government, who were mostly Republicans who had been elected with the help of the black vote. The election two days earlier had been a landslide for the Democrats (who at this time in history were the conservatives and had made the election about white supremacy). But with the mayor and aldermen not up for re-election, the leaders of the coup used the violence of the day as a reason to march on city hall and to demand the resignation of the city’s leaders. Then they placed their own people in power. The story reads like a who’s who of Wilmington’s leading families who were involved in the coup, along with clergy and members of the Jewish community.

David Zucchino, a reporter by trade, is not the first to tell this story. But Zucchino, with engaging prose, offers new insight into the events leading up to 1898 as well as what happened afterwards.  While much of what had been said about 1898 throughout history had been a lie, but the book could have also been called “Wilmington’s Secret.” This is not the kind of story a community speaks about publicly and, until the 100th anniversary of the event approached, most people knew little about what happened in 1898. I lived in the Wilmington area from age 9 to 24 and only knew rumors about 1898. I even played baseball at Hugh McRae Park (which recently has been renamed), unaware that the park was given to the country to only be used by whites. Even in the late 60s, I don’t remember seeing any blacks in the park. McRae was one of the leaders of the white supremacy movement in Wilmington. It wasn’t until the late 1990s, when I was home visiting my parents and picked up Philip Gerard’s novel, Cape Fear Rising, that I began to fully understand what happened. Since then, I have read four other books about this episode in history.

Zucchino begins his story with the fall of Wilmington to Union forces in the final months of the Civil War. In short chapters that focus on an event or a point in time, which reads like a newspaper column, Zucchino paints a broad picture of what was happening in Wilmington prior to 1898.  Wilmington was a place of opportunity for African Americans and many moved to Wilmington seeking a better life. At this time, most African Americans in North Carolina still had the right to vote and many did, which led to the 1898 election in which the black population was discouraged to exercise their rights. In the aftermath of 1898, the state would establish laws that would essentially disenfranchise black voters. Zucchinno shows that the event of November 10 was carefully planned. It was the ultimate example of playing the “race card.” The white leaders within the city excited fear of a black uprising among the white population, but they kept the white citizens from acting until after the elections. They even stopped earlier attempts to get Manly and his newspaper (which had published the supposedly offensive editorial months before the November events). By waiting till after the elections, they were able to intimidate the black population from voting while keeping the federal government from becoming involved. Even on November 10th, they were careful not to avoid endangering federal government property and employees (such as the head of the Customs for the Port of Wilmington, who was African American) because of a fear of the federal government becoming involved.

Zucchino doesn’t end his story in 1898. He looks at the impact on what happened in Wilmington on the rest of the country and tells what happened to the leadership on both sides in the decades following the coup. As he points out, even in 1998, at the 100th anniversary of the event, there was tension as to how the story would be told.

While there are many books about the 1898 coup, Zucchino’s book is professionally written and brings the events to light in a clear manner. This is a worthwhile addition to the growing library on both this horrific event and the rise of the Jim Crow South, as well of an example how fear, hatred, and misinformation can be used to incite evil.

My review of We Have Taken a City, another book about this event, click here.

The Danger of Forcing Others to be Good

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
July 19, 2020
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

 The worship service is available at Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church’s YouTube site. Click here. I began reading the scripture at 13:50 and the sermon begins at 16:50 and ends at 37:30.  

Opening of Worship: Nothing needs reforming as much as other people’s bad habits.” That’s probably Mark Twain’s most quoted saying. It rings true. It’s easy to see where someone else is wrong and to ignore our own blind spots. We want everyone but ourselves to clean up their act, forgetting the log in our own eyes.[1] Today, we’re looking at another parable from the 13th Chapter of Matthew. Like last week, it focuses on agriculture. This second “big field” parable is about the weeds growing within the wheat. We want everything to be pure, but at what cost? This morning, ask yourself if we really think we’re capable of being an honest judge?

###

 

I was gypped as a child. I don’t remember a sermon on this text. This scripture could have been added to the arsenal I used to make a case for not chopping weeds in the garden. I wasn’t a biblical literate child.

However, I am not sure this reason to not to pull weeds would have worked any better than when I told my siblings that the Bible said they should respect and obey me since I was their elder. Two things you can take away from this: using the Bible for our own self-fulfillment is dangerous, and the Bible is not a “how-to-farm” manual.[2]

Jesus tells this parable because he knows we’d like nothing more than to clean up other folk’s lives and when we attempt to do this, we often create a mess. If the church had paid a little more attention to this parable, we’d have had fewer headaches. Crusades, witch-hunts, inquisitions, and other quests for purity that have given the church black eyes and created massive suffering could have been avoided.

This parable is about the church.[3] We could easily place ourselves in the role of the farmhands who inform their boss of the problems going on in the back 40. “There are weeds in the wheat.” It’s a terrible thing… What should we do about it?

When I was in seminary and working for a church in Butler, Pennsylvania, I took the youth skiing one Saturday. The kids could invite friends. Ryan invited a friend who attended a very conservative church. In our group was another kid named David. This was back in the mid-80s. David was a “skater” and a problem child. On this particular day, it took him only an hour or so for the ski patrol, who had called him down a few times, to revoke his skiing privileges. David got to spend the rest of the day sitting in the lodge with a mother who didn’t ski, but volunteered to come along as a driver, to fix our lunch, and watch over our stuff. I’m not sure if she realized watching over our stuff including sitting on David.

After lunch, I spent some time skiing with Ryan and his friend. Riding up on a lift, this guy, filled with self-righteousness, asked me what kind of church we were to allow the likes of David to be in our midst. He assured me that his church would never allow David to go on their trips. My first thought was to get rid of the weeds and to throw this kid off the lift. But I came to my senses and tried to reason with him about how, if we’re here for anyone, we’re here for the David’s of the world. Then I mentioned about how Jesus seemed to prefer the company of sinners to those who are self-righteous. I began to take pride in my ability to rub his nose in Jesus’ words, until I realized I was no better than him.

You know, there have been times when I’ve wondered why someone was in church. Wouldn’t the church be a lot better if we didn’t have self-righteous folks like that kid on the lift? Wouldn’t it be better if there were no hypocrites giving us a bad name? Wouldn’t it be a lot better in here if we were all squeaky clean?  Probably not; if we were perfect, we wouldn’t need a Savior and we wouldn’t need the church. And if the church was that perfect, without the self-righteous, the hypocrites and those less than squeaky clean, most of us including myself would be out.

Let me suggest this… The farmhands’ question as to where these weeds came from is the same as us wondering why there is so much evil in the world.[4] Scripture doesn’t give us a good answer as to why there’s evil; instead we’re given a prescription of how to overcome it. Our righteousness is not from our efforts, but from Jesus Christ.

Martin Luther realized the church can’t be without evil people. Writing about the parable, he said: “Those fanatics who don’t want to tolerate any weeds end up with no wheat.”[5] This parable reminds us that we have to deal with the weeds and the wheat, the good and the bad. As much of a pain the weeds might be, they can make us stronger (as with a plant that must compete with other plants for nourishment and sun). Furthermore, the weeds serve as a constant reminder that we are not the ones who are in control.

God is in control. And there are many good reasons why God might not want to purify the church right away. First of all, God knows that any campaign to purify is going to create problems. The wheat, whose roots are not fully established, may be harmed when the workers try to pull out the weeds, just as good people are often harmed when someone becomes over zealous and instills a campaign of righteousness.

I’ve referred before to C. S. Lewis’ little book, The Screwtape Letters. It’s the fictional correspondence from Screwtape, an older and well-seasoned demon, to his nephew, Wormwood. Screwtape gives the younger demon advice as to how to win a soul over to the dark side.  Screwtape refers to Wormwood’s subject as a patient.  When Wormwood’s patient becomes a Christian, obviously a failure if you’re a demon, his uncle encourages patience:

One of our great allies at present is the church itself.  Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners… Fortunately, it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is the half-finished sham…

Screwtape goes on to point out that when Wormwood’s patient gets into the pews and looks around he’ll see “his neighbors whom he has hitherto avoided.” Then the demon could make his move.

Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like ‘the body of Christ’ and the actual faces in the next pew. It matters very little what kind of people that next pew really contains… Provided that any of those neighbors sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes… Work hard, then, on the disappointment or anticlimax which is certainly coming to the patient.[6]

This parable reminds us that we have to be careful that our zeal for holiness doesn’t become corrupt and our love becomes hate. If that happens, we’re no better than those whose actions we deplore. Scripture is clear that God has an enemy in the world who would like nothing more than to turn us away from the truth. It’s not always wild and sinful living that cause us to fall; we can also become so consumed to rid our world of evil and we begin began to think we are so important that we ignore       The parable of the weeds reminds us that if our enemy is unable to keep the seeds from taking root, he will as one commentator on the passage observed, “Overwhelm us with a loathing of evil.” In other words, he’ll corrupt our love and use it against us.[7]

Of course, the farmer in the story is God. As the farmhands, we may think we can be in control, but as we find out here, the farmer is wise and wants to make sure that the crop is not harmed by our zealous efforts. Now, there is another underlying message here. We might want to ask why we have to suffer evil in this world… At times, it may even appear that there is a benefit for being bad, for being a weed. But this passage reminds us that sooner or later, everyone gets their due. The evil may seem to prosper in this world, but there’s judgment coming. When the harvest is ready, the weeds will be consumed. Judgment means there will be “weeping and gashing of teeth,” which is another way of saying it won’t be good for the weeds.[8]

What might this passage say to us? It encourages tolerance. As sinners, redeemed by Jesus Christ, we must be careful not to think too highly of ourselves or to be too quick to condemn others. The church isn’t going to always be perfect. In Martin Luther’s writings, he recalls this old saying: “Whenever God erects a house of prayer, the devil builds a chapel.”[9] Trying to destroy that chapel may result in terrible collateral damage.

The church on earth will never be pure, but that’s okay because God is not finished with us yet. If we as the church can be accepting of others in the manner of Jesus, we will draw others to us that may not, at first, look like they belong. But we’re not the one who judges. Instead, we give thanks for those in our midst and love them unconditionally in the same manner that we’ve been loved by our Father in heaven. So, before we go out and volunteer for a crusade or sign up as the Grand Inquisitor, think about what Jesus is telling us through this parable. As farmhands within the story, we’re not in control.

A second thing to consider is that sometimes we might look a lot like weeds and on those occasions, we’d like to experience a little grace (just like others would like a little grace from us). Grace is a powerful tool in this world of ours. A little grace will go a long way toward breaking down barriers and bringing people together. As followers of Jesus, as his farmhands, we need to be showing the world what grace looks like.

In his memoir, A Dresser of Sycamore Trees: The Finding of a Ministry, Garret Keizer tells of a time he’d stopped at a grocery store to pick up some bananas for an elderly friend he was going to visit. He was smug thinking of his good deed. But then, ahead of him in the check-out line was a woman who had a bunch of little purchases. She paid for them individually. He had no choice but to wait as she fumbled around with these little piles of money. Waiting, he began to resent the woman. As he followed her out of the store, having quickly paid for his bananas, he “shot her that look” that said, “You’re a jerk.” But then, he noticed her opening the door of a large van. On the side was a sign for a local nursing home. Before she drove away, she handed each of the residents who were inside the van, their packages.[10]

We gotta be careful. We just might pull the wheat up with the weeds.

Show some grace this week. People are pretty tense with all that’s going on in the world. It’s easy for us to get upset with “Them,” whoever “them” might be. When we are stressed, we can make bad judgment. So, let’s show patience and trust God to judge, while we do what good we can. Amen.

 

©2020

[1] See Matthew 7:3.

[2] “[T]his story is not about agriculture but instead it is about theology…  do not consult it for best agricultural practices!”  Scott Hoezee, “Proper 11A, July 13, 2020, https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-11a-2/?type=the_lectionary_gospel

[3] There have been debates as to whether this parable is about the world or the church, but the evidence and most scholars think this passage applies to the church. See Douglas Hare, Matthew: Interpretation (Louisville; John Knox Press, 1993), 155.

[4] F. Dale Brunner, The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 28.

[5] Martin Luther,  as quoted by Bruner, 30.

[6] C. S. Lewis The Screwtape Letters (1941, New York, Macmillan 1961), 12-13.

[7] Bruner, 27.

[8] Bruner, 45.

[9] Luther’s Works, 51:173-87, as quoted by Bruner, 27.

[10] Garret Keizer, A Dresser of Sycamore Trees: The Finding of a Ministry, as told by Jill Duffeld, “7th Sunday after Pentecost:  God Does the Sorting,” The Presbyterian Outlook (July 13, 2020, online edition)

Overabundant Harvests

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
July 12, 2020
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

 

    A crowd gathers around Jesus. They press in, each trying to get closer to the mysterious storyteller, to touch the garment of the great healer. It’s an age before social distancing. Our Savior, to create breathing room, jumps into a boat and rows out a short distance from the shore. Then he turns toward the crowd and sees their tired faces: peasant farmers who toil to make ends meet, sun chapped fishermen who struggle day by day to provide for their families, young women whose bodies are already old from laboring in the fields. Jesus also sees the discouragement of disciples who’ve witnessed believers turn away. His heart goes out them. Knowing and understanding their disappointments, he tells a story:

 “Listen! A sower went out to sow.   And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away.  Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”

What does that mean, they began to ask themselves? Many are farmers and none had experienced such abundance. What kind of harvest have you received from seeds you’ve sown?

You know, gardening is big this year. I had a hard time finding seeds and plants earlier in the spring when I was setting up my summer garden in my plot at Skidaway Farms. With the lockdown and the limited products available at the grocery store in the spring, it seemed many were returning to their roots. People are digging in the dirt, which is a good thing. And I’ve had a good year. Sadly, the tomatoes, cucumbers and squash are done in this heat—but I’m beginning to get my fill of okra, eggplant and peppers! There are a variety of items to tease my taste buds. And it’s good to work in the dirt.

A number of years ago, I asked a farmer about this parable. I wanted to know what a good harvest of oats—one of the grains of choice in Jesus’ era, would be today. I was told such a crop generally yields between seventy and hundred bushels per acre and that he might use 2 or 3 bushels planting that acre giving a yield of roughly thirty fold.[1] With all our technology and science, tractors and herbicides, a hundred fold still seems out of reach.

The discouraged farmers and disciples listen to Jesus’ message, but they’re confused. They identify with the difficulty of the sower whose seeds are eaten or fall along the path, but they cannot understand where a farmer could have found such good soil to produce a crop of even thirty fold, and certainly not sixty or a hundred fold.  Farmers in Palestine in the first century had it tough. On average, for every bushel of grain they planted they reaped only seven and a half bushels. If it was an exceptionally good harvest, they might gather ten bushels.[2]

Obviously, God would have to really bless the crop if one was to reap 30 or more bushels. And Jesus’ message is just that, the harvest, those in whom the gospel takes root is a blessing from God. As humans, we cannot produce such an effort. But God can and therefore, as farmers know, we do our part and then must be patient, waiting and expecting the best.

This parable is an analogy and it is dangerous to push the analogy too far and think that the seeds which fell in the good soil were lucky while those who fell in the poorer areas were just ill-fated. Such an interpretation would diminish our responsibility for our actions. Perhaps, because the analogy can be interpreted in such a way, Jesus explains the story:

“Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

Jesus’ explanation emphasizes three dangers facing Christians in the world. Those who do not understand the gospel are quickly snatched away by the evil one just like the seeds on the hardened path are eaten by birds. To understand the gospel means more than an intellectual comprehension. To understand, in the Old Testament sense, implies a moral commitment as shown by the author of the 119th Psalm: “Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart.”[3] The first seeds lost are those who do not seek to live within God’s word.

The second danger facing Christians is marginal belief. Like the plant which grows in rocky soil, the believer who is not firm in his or her faith might grow up quickly, promising to do great things, only to turn away when times are tough. We’ve seen it happen, haven’t we?  People who get all excited and join the church, then become disinterested, burned-out, or melt away when challenged. We need to carefully strengthen our faith in Jesus Christ, allowing ourselves to get a good root system started. Otherwise, in our immaturity, we’ll try to take on the world and end up overwhelmed and give up.

The third obstacle facing Christians are the temptations of the world. The seeds overwhelmed by the thorns are examples of those who are more attracted to worldly affairs than to the gospel. We cannot serve two masters, Jesus has already told us in Matthew’s gospel,[4] and those who focus on worldly concerns soon forget about the gospel. As Christians, we are to be concerned for the world because God’s love for the world, not because of our own desires. Sometimes we get this turned around and then end up working for what we want and not for what God would have us do.

But this passage is not about avoiding good or bad soil, which is something over which the seed has no control. Instead, it’s a parable about what God can do. Jesus tells of the good soil which produced upwards of hundred fold. I’ve already discussed how such a yield was impossible in Biblical times and unheard of today, so we must conclude that the good soil is even more blessed by God so that it can produce such results. It’s important to understand that a plant is not judged on how it looks while growing, but on the fruit it sustains. Note that both the seeds sown on rocky soil and among the briers grow at first… Often, as with the case of the plant in the rocky soil, such seeds sprout and grow fast, but produce no long-term harvest. Only the seed in the good soil produces a bountiful harvest.

Our purpose isn’t to be digging up the thorns. Instead, we’re to encourage growth and deep roots.[5] Jesus also emphasis this later in this chapter, which we’ll look at next week, with the parable of the weeds amongst the wheat.[6] Judgment belongs to God, we’re to encourage growth and trust in the Almighty.

You know, when I was a kid we always had a large garden. Even though we lived in suburban America, my mother still thought she was on the farm… Every year, it seemed, she was in a contest with her mother and mother-in-law to see who could can the most green beans. Continually, throughout my childhood, they competed and set new world records for the number of quarts of green beans they canned. Why our family needed 75 quarts of green beans was beyond my comprehension-then and now-especially since everyone else was also busy canning them. They couldn’t give them away so after being forced to snap the beans, the beans were forced on us kids all winter long. This was in the ‘60’s, a time when Nuclear War seemed like a real possibility. I assure you, the thought of the bomb wasn’t nearly as frightening as living in a cellar eating green beans out of old Mason Jars… Now you know why it is I don’t like green beans. As for the green bean casseroles, I’ll steal an onion ring off the top, if you’re not looking, and leave you the rest.

Green beans aside, it takes time to produce a good crop. In my garden at the community farm, where I refuse to plant green beans, I am constantly pulling weeds, fighting fire ants, and trying to scare away birds. None of us have Jack’s magic seeds, we can’t plant a seed and have it grow up overnight. If we want a good garden, we must take the time to tend to it. The Christian life is similar. We must nourish ourselves continually, being constantly on the lookout for that which keeps us from focusing on Christ. And when we nourish ourselves—by studying God’s word, praying, worshipping, keeping the Sabbath, striving to be generous, and to show grace to all—we open ourselves up to be used and transformed by God. And God can use us to sow more seeds in the world which, if nurtured, will lead to more transformations, which offers the world hope.

But remember this is a parable. Don’t despair, thinking you are in the wrong soil. Don’t give up if things don’t go the way you feel they should. It’s easy to get discouraged and depressed. Instead of us seeing ourselves as seeds, we should see ourselves as the one who sows the seed. Even though God has blessed us, and for this we should continually give thanks, when we look around our community and across the globe, we see many people who are in need and not being reached by any Church, people who don’t know the love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ.

You know, the disciples must have felt the same way as we do before Jesus told them this parable. After hearing his words, they realized God was with them.  Sure, there were many people who rejected Jesus’ words. Sure, there were those who seemed so eager to follow Jesus, but had no roots and quickly fell away. Sure, there were guys like the rich young ruler who wanted to follow Jesus, but just couldn’t let go of the world.[7] But there were also blind men who could see and those who had been lame were walking. The disciples must have understood what Paul would later say: “So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.”[8]

Jesus’ story encourages us not to give up. Keep sowing the grain. Even in face of meager results, be true to the gospel and continue to praise God and proclaim to the world that Jesus Christ is the way and the truth and the life.[9] For we never know when God might provide a harvest of a 100 fold! That’s our job. Even amid doubt and despair, even during a pandemic, we claim this world for God. We believe that God is working out things for the best, and we pray God will give us a harvest. So let’s do our part and sow the seeds of the gospel. When you can offer hope to someone, offer hope. When you can help someone, help them. Do it all in the love of Jesus and give him the credit. Amen

[1] Wayne Kent, Ellicottville, NY.

[2]Douglas Hare, Matthew: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox, 1992), 152-153.

[3] Psalm 119:34.

[4] Matthew 6:24.

[5] Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 254-255.

[6] Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43.

[7] Luke 18:18-23.

[8] 1 Corinthians 3:7.

[9] John 14:6.

Let’s Join in the Fun

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
July 5, 2020
Matthew 11:16-19

To watch this service, click here. To watch the sermon, fast forward to 20:00 minutes in the stream.

 

Opening of Worship:
          How many of you remember Calvin and Hobbes, the comic strip? I always identified with that kid. There was a time when Calvin was writing a self-help book. O Great, you might think, just world needs, another self-help book. But Calvin saw a fortune to be made, as he confides to Hobbes. His strategy is to convince people there’s something wrong with them. It’s rather easy, because advertising has already conditioned us to feel insecure about our weight, looks, social status, sex appeal, and so on… “Next, he’ll convince people that the problem is not their fault.” This, too, is easy because nobody wants to be responsible.

        Having prepared the way, Calvin feels he can sell folks on his expert advice and encouragement. He’s on to something. We long for satisfaction and we expect someone to show us where to find it.

But the answers are not so simple. For followers of Jesus, we must admit that we don’t have simple or easy answers for life’s problems. You know, the early church was known as “The Way.”[1] That was because they didn’t give out pat answers, instead they point to the only enteral truth they knew—Jesus Christ. The church was the way people learned about Christ and is the vehicle God uses to share the gospel to the world. Think about it…

Back to that comic strip, Calvin decides he’ll help people get over their addiction to self-help books. His book is titled, Shut Up and Stop Whining: How to Do Something With Your Life Besides Think About Yourself.”[2] Actually, there’s some truth in that title. Sometimes we are too serious. We need to lighten up. We need to learn to play and enjoy life. That’s the theme of my message on this 4th of July weekend: enjoy life and play!

 

 

Sermon (After Scripture Reading):
There was a congregational meeting in which the topic of money (or the lack thereof) came up. An elderly statesman of the church stood up and complained about the lack of commitment. “We need to be willing to pull our share; the Christian life is one of suffering and sacrifice.” He concluded his speech, pleading “We need members who are willing to pick up their cross.” Many nodded their heads in agreement, but there were a few who were uncomfortable. A younger woman stood timidly and challenged the older member with Jesus’ words: “I come so you might have life and have it abundantly.”

Do you feel the tension between these two positions? The older member demands sacrifice while the younger member wants to enjoy the life promised by our Savior. Both positions can be “proved” by scripture. Both are valid. We must live within the tension of the two.

This is a beautiful world God has created. We’ve been placed here to enjoy it. Think about all the good things we enjoy. We should relish life, each other, and our Lord. Life is a joyful dance and we should make the most of it. Of course, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t sacrifice, but there should be joy in our giving since God has given us so much.

Children, if given a half a chance, know how to enjoy life. Even in poverty, you see kids laughing. Have you ever watched a child act like they were mowing the yard when you were out sweating and pushing a mower? The child pushes their own Fisher-Price popcorn mower back and forth, just like you’re doing under the hot sun. Perhaps you remember being like this as a kid? I couldn’t wait until I was old enough to mow the yard. That desire lasted about three weeks after I was old enough to mow. At that point, I decided growing up wasn’t such a big deal.

Kids play games. It’s fun. Think about your childhood. You could be a real cowboy without having to shovel manure. You could be soldier without being shot at or a nurse without having to dump bedpans. Children have a wonderful view of the world. They enjoy acting like grown-ups, and that’s okay. The problem arises when it goes the other way.

The way children act like they are “grown-ups” sheds light onto this parable of Jesus. In the passage, Jesus refers to a game played by kids in a village marketplace. The kids act like adults at a wedding or at a funeral. If it’s to be a wedding, one child plays a flute and the rest dance together in a circle. Or, if they act out a funeral, they cry and pound on their breasts in mourning.

Jesus said that people of his generation were like children who refused to join the game. Imagine the marketplace. Sometimes, you know, children refuse to get involved. Maybe because they don’t know the other children, or they’ve been picked on. It’s a sad thing to see a child standing to the side watching other kids enjoying themselves. And yet, once these children get into the game, something magical happens. They forget their apprehensions and have a great time. Jesus tells us that those who refused to hear his call are like children who refuse to get involved. By not participating, they missed out on the fun. We adults can be like this when we take things too seriously.

Jesus goes on to say that John the Baptist, the guy who lived off insects in the wilderness and dressed like a “deadhead,” is rejected as being a demon. John lived a rigorous life and people don’t want to hear about that. Sin and repentance are never been popular topics. So along comes Jesus who enjoys life. Jesus, it appears, never turns down an invitation to a party… Think about the weddings and banquets Jesus attends. Jesus enjoys the company of people and the pleasures of food and drink. This leads some people to call Jesus a glutton and drunkard. And they criticized him for the friends he hung around: tax collectors like Matthew and other obvious sinners like the fallen woman who dried his feet with her hair. Talk about a way to develop a reputation. Imagine the gossip when word got around about that scene.

There is a “Catch-22” situation here. Folks reject John because he lives without comfort and they reject Jesus because he enjoys life. Most people of Jesus’ generation wanted nothing to do with either one. They are too busy in their own little worlds to join the dance. But Jesus invites us all to join him. He invites us to live and really experience life. Are we ready for it? Are we willing to cast away our doubts and our troubles and to enjoy what we have been given?

In Joseph Girzone’s parable of Jesus, titled Joshua, he writes:

Jesus came to earth to try to free people from the kind of regimented religion where people are threatened if they don’t obey rules and rituals… Jesus came to teach people that they are God’s children and, as God’s children, they are free, free to grow as human beings, to become beautiful people as God intended. That can’t be legislated. Jesus gave the apostles and the community as a support to provide help and guidance and consolation. Jesus did not envision bosses in the worldly sense. He wanted his apostles to guide and serve, not to dictate and legislate like those who govern this world.[3]

This passage encourages us to enjoy life—something we tend to do around Independence Day. We need to have fun, enjoy the summer. We should live that first beautiful statement in the Westminster Catechism, which defines our purpose as “enjoying God forever.” Horace Bushnell, a 19th Century American theologian wrote during the dark days of the Civil War, “Religion must be a form of play—a worship offered, a devotion paid, not for some ulterior end, but as being its own end and joy.”[4] Yes, we need to be concerned for sin, but not too concerned. Jesus came to free us up to live.

Now, let me talk a bit about sin. You know, there are basically two kinds. If you were present here in the sanctuary and I could ask you to name some sins, you might begin your list with the favorite sins of your neighbors: adultery, stealing, murder, greed, not wiping your feet before entering the house, forgetting an anniversary, and so on. But all sin can be grouped into two categories. The classical form of sin is that of pride which comes from our desire to be God. That’s Eve eating the fruit because the serpent told her she would have the knowledge of God. It’s the same sin we all commit when we live as if we are the ultimate authority. We’re all guilty.

The other kind of sin is the opposite. The first type of sin was trying to be God, the second type is not living up to our God-given potential. In other words, we do not become the person God created us to be. Not enjoying the life that God has given us falls into this category of sin. In the parable, this is the child who doesn’t join in the game the children are playing.

So, let’s all be playful and enjoy God. Don’t sit on the sidelines. Join in the dance. Enjoy life and live up to the potential God has given us. Doing so, we fulfill our purpose. Not only do we bring God glory, I expect we bring a smile to God’s face. Think about it, God, like a parent, smiling while watching his child play with others. Amen.

[1] Acts 9:2.

[2]“Calvin and Hobbes” this comic appeared on June 6, 1993.

[3]Joseph F. Girzone, Joshua: A Parable for Today (NY: Macmillan, 1987) pp. 73-4.

[4] Horace Bushnell, Work and Play; or, Literary Varieties (New York: Charles Scribner, 1861), 21-22. As quoted by Leonard Sweet, The Jesus Prescription for a Healthy Life (Abingdon, 1996), 52.

Rocks, Water, and a Personal Note

Michael P. Cohen, Granite and Grace: Seeking the Heart of Yosemite (Reno: University of Nevada, 2019), 220 pages. A few hand drawn maps and line drawings at the top of each chapter by Valerie Cohen.

When most people think of Yosemite, they think of the valley with its huge waterfalls and sheer-faced granite cliffs where, at night, you can see the flashlights of climbers’ bivouac in hammocks slung along the rock walls. But there is another side of Yosemite. This part of the park is high above the valley and surrounds Tuolumne Meadows. The top of the park is also granite, mostly sculptured by glaciers. It is here, in a series of essays, that Cohen focuses his study of the rock that made the park so famous. For nearly three decades, Cohen taught at Southern Utah University. During the summer, he and his wife would leave the sandstone of the Colorado River Plateau for June Lake, on the backside of Yosemite. The two of them have been coming to Yosemite since childhood. Early in their life together, Michael worked as a climbing guide in the park while Valerie worked as a summer ranger.  Now in his 70s and no longer climbing the steep pitches, Cohen reflects on a lifetime living around Yosemite.

Granite and Grace centers around a series of essays that are often told from the point of view of a walker/hiker/climber in Yosemite. As Cohen recounts walks and climbs, he branches out to discuss various rock formations. Within these essays, he covers the geology of granite, how it was formed under the earth and is often found at the edge of continents. He writes about how the science around granite has changed especially within increase understanding of plate tectonics. He discussed the makeup of granite and why it’s appreciated by builders and climbers for its toughness. I had to laugh in appreciation of Cohen’s fondness for granite as he speaks of eating many meals upon it, but not wanting it as a countertop. (Granite does contain some radioactive minerals and houses built on granite have to be carefully constructed to avoid radon gas buildup). The reader will learn the role of ice in shaping the granite found in Yosemite’s high country. Weaving into his personal quests and the science behind granite, Cohen draws from a variety of literary sources. He quotes authors like John Muir and Jack Kerouac, poets such as Gary Snyder and Robinson Jeffers, and recalls songs from Paul Simon and Jefferson Airplane. While the book is part memoir that mixes in geology and literary interests, at its deepest, it is a philosophical exploration of an individual trying to understand a small section of the world.

In the concluding paragraph of the last chapter before the epilogue, Cohen writes a lyrical paragraph about granite’s “otherness and freedom.” His opening sentence, “I am attracted to granite and intimidated—especially by its textures—precisely because it is not flesh,” sets the stage for reflecting on how the “otherness” of this rock that doesn’t care or care if you care can provide a sense of peace. I was reminded of the last line in Norman McLean’s novella, A River Runs Through It. While Mclean finds peace at being in the river’s waters that gathers all that is, Cohen finds peace in that seemingly solid rock which is totally foreign and indifferent. Both views, I think, are valuable in our understanding the complexity of the human experience.

I recommend this book for anyone wanting to know more about Yosemite (this is not stuff you’ll find in guidebooks). There is something for most everyone in these pages. If you’re curious about geology, there are insights. If you want to know who we relate to the world in which we find ourselves, you’ll find parts that will speak to you.. Cohen is a deep thinker who searches for the precise word to describe his thoughts. In reading the book, if you’re like me, you’ll pull out the dictionary (or google) to look up many of his words. And, if you’re also like me, you’ll want to go back to Yosemite. His description of the Dana Plateau (which was an island above the impact of glaciation) made me realize there are places I still need to explore.

I was given a copy of this book by the author (see below) but was not compelled to write a review.  This is the fourth book I’ve read by Cohen.

Michael Cohen along the John Muir Trail, 1997

A Personal Note:  My first visit to Yosemite was in 1985, thirty years after Cohen’s first visit. I had flown to San Francisco where my girlfriend at the time was in grad school. We drove to Yosemite for a few days. I was amazed as we snaked up the road that parallels the Merced River. By the time we got into the park, I had used up all my film and had to buy expensive film in a park store to continue photographing the amazing sights. It was between Thanksgiving and Christmas and was snowing. The next morning, while my girlfriend spent the day inside the cozy cabin reading and preparing for exams, I laced up my boots headed out at daybreak. I hiked up toward Nevada Falls. It was amazing (I again ran out of film). Along the way, I met a hiker with a loaded pack. He had skis and crampons strapped to his pack that was filled with winter camping gear and provisions. He was heading up over the top to Tuolumne Meadows where he planned to ski along the highway and down Tioga Pass to Lee Vining. There, he was going to be picked up three days later. I was intrigued. Tuolumne Meadows was beckoning me like Eden.

I have been back to the park a half-dozen times since 1985 and, with one exception, I have always come into the park from the east, into Tuolumne Meadows. When another guy and I completed our hike of the John Muir Trail, Michael Cohen (the author) joined us near Devil Post Pile. As I was living in Cedar City at the time, I had gotten to know Cohen when I audited his class on creative non-fiction. Michael hiked with us for several days as we made our way down Lyell Canyon and into the Meadows. Wanting to avoid the crowds of Yosemite Valley, Michael’s wife Valerie picked him there, while the two of us continued on for another two nights into the valley. When most people think of the park, they think of Yosemite Valley with its huge waterfalls, sheer granite cliffs, and hordes of tourist. Few make it over to Tuolumne Meadows. Cohen’s book will help those who only travel through the valley understand what they missed in the high country.

Michael also appears in another book I reviewed in this blog, Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking.

 

Alice Outwater, Water: A Natural History (New York: Basic Books, 1996) 212 pages with index and notes. Line drawings by Billy Brauer.

In this collection of what seems to be independent essays, the author describes the history and evolution of water in North America. She begins with the fur trade and nature’s engineers, the beaver. In subsequent chapters, she writes about prairie dogs, buffaloes, alligators, freshwater shellfish, as well as the forests and grasslands. She explores the path of rainfall and how its been altered as we have altered the environment. She discusses the role of the toilet and sewer systems. Toward the end of the book (175ff), Outwater brings together all these seemingly diverse ideas as she discusses our attempts to “save the environment.” She points out the fallacy in many environmental efforts. We attempt to preserve an “endangered species… as if they were items in a catalog… [while] missing the larger ecological picture.” (181). At first, I was wondering where Outwater was going with these essays as they seemed to be independent of one another, but by the end of the book, I understood her point. She encourages us to see how the natural work really does work together.

Water: A Natural History is really a history of human impact upon the waters of North America (mainly the United States). Outwater recalls how we have misused our water and are now changing our views and our behavior as we strive to clean up our rivers and streams. She appears optimistic even while acknowledging there is more to be done. And example of her optimism is from seeing how the non-native zebra mussel, which was introduced by an ocean-going ship into the Great Lakes, is taking over the role of native mussels that have been wiped out by human activity. Having lived in the Great Lakes region for a decade, I know her view isn’t shared by many who see the zebra mussel as problematic.

Much of the concluding chapters of this book comes from Outwater’s work as an environmental engineer in the Boston Harbor cleanup project. Her writing is clear and concise. She caused me to ponder much about water and how we depend on it. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in one of things necessary for life—water.  And I also find her name, “Outwater” to be appropriate for someone who writes on the topic!  This is my second book by Outwater. I had previously reviewed her book, Wild at Heart which also covers many of these same themes.

Trouble and Trust

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
June 21, 2020
Matthew 10:16-33

Click here to watch the worship service. To just catch the sermon, fast forward to 20 minutes and 30 seconds.

 

How many of you are afraid? I wish I could see a show of hands. Most of us, I expect, have them raised. After all, we’re dealing with a pandemic, a struggling economy, the highest unemployment in ninety years, and renegade police officers involved in unjustified deaths leading to unrest in our cities. For those of us who are fathers, we worry about our children making it in this world. There’s a lot of reasons for fear, but what if I told you that we’re probably living in one of the safest times in history. Yes, COVID-19 is a threat, but look at the illnesses we don’t have to deal with these days: polio, smallpox, and a host of childhood diseases. Yes, there have been some police officers who have done bad things and there is unrest in some streets, but overall violence is down (and has been dropping for decades). And the economic issues have more to do with the struggle to supply what is needed and a drop in demand as people try to avoid the virus. In the long run, we may end up with a less vulnerable supply chain, which could be a good thing.

So why are we afraid? If we step back, we would see that fear often has little to do with risk. And often what we most fear isn’t what’s most likely to affect us. But fear sells. Fear is a basic instinct. It’s a primal reaction.[1] Because it’s such a gut reaction, fear is used in a way for someone else to make a profit on us. Crime’s up, so you better buy an alarm system or a gun. We fear rejection, so we use the right deodorant and toothpaste and drive the right car and wear clothes that are in style.

A dozen years ago, there was an eye-opening book published. Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear spends the first chapter discussing the “profit-making bias” that results in us being continually fearful. Sometimes even the church is guilty. Fear can be used to increase offerings or, as in the Left Behind Series, in an attempt to scare us into heaven.[2]

But what does our faith say about our fear? What does Scripture say to us about fear? You know, when an angel appears before people in the Bible, their first words are often something like “Fear not.”[3] “Yeah, right,” I’d think, “if it was me, I’d be shaking in my boots”. But think about it, there’s something to be said about having angels around and not fearing. We should rejoice. Their presence shows that the God of Creation is interested in us. God trying to connect to us is a comforting thought. If God cares enough to send an angel my way, instead of (let’s say) a lightning bolt, at least there’s a chance everything will be okay. We’re in good hands. This is the point Jesus is making in our text which could be titled, “Trouble and Trust.”[4] Yep, there’s going to be trouble. But we’re to trust God that, in the end, things will be okay.

Because God is the creator and has power over life and death, we’re to stand in awe… Others whom we encounter in this life may have half the power of God—the power to destroy—but God has the power to destroy and to create. If we’re on God’s side, there is nothing anyone else can do to us that God cannot undo. The resurrection is the ultimate act.

However, a healthy dose of fear is a good thing. Fear keeps us from taking foolish risks. Even the best rock climber will be fearful of clicking onto a frayed rope. You don’t want to tempt fate, or as Jesus said to the Devil during his temptation in the wilderness, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”[5] A healthy dose of fear can help us be safe, but too much fear becomes a problem because it leads us to inaction. And with 24-hour news, feeding us fear day and night, it’s amazing anyone gets anything done. The problem of too much fear is that it keeps us from taking risks, and if we don’t risk, we have no need of faith or trust.

In our passage for this morning, Jesus is preparing the disciples for the troubles they’ll face once he’s gone. There’ll be persecutions and lots of reasons for the disciples to be afraid. They’ll be hauled into court and flogged and betrayed and even face death. But Jesus doesn’t want them to be paralyzed into inactivity. Jesus is depending on this motley group of followers to spread the good news. He promises the Spirit will speak through them. The disciples must be willing to proclaim God’s word from the housetops. This is risky business.

In an Empire that will see the church as a threat, Jesus gives them reasons not to fear the powerful. First, at judgment, all things will be revealed. Martyrs can say, “I told you so.” But let’s face it, the promise our concerns will be addressed after the grave isn’t all that reassuring. So, then Jesus tells them not to fear those who will take their lives, but to fear God. After all, God has power over not just this life, but life after judgment. If you think about what Jesus is saying here, you’ll see because the disciples believe, they’re freed to do great things. They’re not afraid of death. All of us will die, but eventually many of them died at the hands of persecutors. Some, like Peter and Andrew, were crucified; Stephen was stoned; and Paul and John the Baptist literally lost their heads.

By refusing to be paralyzed by fear while trusting in God’s goodness, we can achieve more than we’ve ever imagined. Recall the Parable of the Talents.[6] The man who received only one talent and refused to take risk, because he was afraid of his master, is punished. Those who took risks are rewarded with even more talents. It’s that way with us. If we invest the talents God has given us, for godly purposes, God will bless our efforts. If we hoard our talents, we will be judged harshly.

“You’re to trust in God,” Jesus tells his audience, “whose concern extends even to the lowest sparrow.”  Jesus must have been an animal lover. This passage is filled with animals: sheep and wolves, serpents and doves, and sparrows.[7] Or maybe it’s the little things in creation that brings Jesus joy. Think about this, a sparrow at the temple in Jesus’ day could be purchased for next to nothing. If God is so concerned for the small parts of his creation, think of how much more concern God will show us, the pinnacle of his creation. To further emphasize God’s concern, we’re told that God has counted even the hairs on our heads (with some of our heads, God has an easier time).

In verse 32, Jesus returns to his rationale for us not being afraid. He doesn’t want us to become so scared that we slip into inactivity. That’s why he reminds us that our purpose is to be his ambassadors, shouting from the rooftops (at least, metaphorically). The warning here is that if we are unwilling to risk letting others know of our faith, we run an even greater risk that Jesus will not acknowledge us before the Father.

The gospel still puts people at danger. Yet Jesus calls us to take risks. “To those whom much is given, much is expected,” we’re told.[8] And we’ve been given a bounty, and if we fail to take a risk and use it in a worthy way, we’ll have something to fear when all is revealed! Furthermore, as Christians, we’re called to a higher standard. We’re to speak out when we see people being abused or being taken advantage of. We’re to call for justice and mercy and to stand up against those who bully and abuse. By keeping quiet, we may avoid the wrath of a boss or friends, but is that what Jesus want us to do? As we see in this passage, keeping quiet can cause us to run a greater risk: experiencing God’s wrath…

When Jesus is first in our lives, we will have the courage necessary to stand up to the powers in the world that challenge his authority. When he’s first in our lives, we can take the risk needed to expand his kingdom, for we know that we’re taking that risk with the God of Creation on our side.

Do not be afraid of anything earthly, we’re told. If we trust God, there is no reason for us to fear anything else. If we don’t trust and fear God, then everything may be feared. Amen.

©2020

[1] Scott Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2007), 16.

[2] Ibid.

[3] See Matthew 1:20; Luke 1:30 and 2:10.

[4] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994). 471-492.  Bruner divides this passage into trouble (Verses 16-23) and trust (verse 24-39).

[5] Matthew 4:7.

[6] Matthew 25:14-30.

[7] Bruner, 484-485.

[8] Luke 12:48.

Lessons from Dad

As Father’s Day is this weekend… 

Fishing off the jetty at Cape Lookout on a foggy day

It’s not true that I’m crazy about fishing. I enjoy it, but mostly I enjoy being outdoors and fishing is one way to fulfill such a desire. My father, however, is crazy about fishing. Most of what he taught me about life came through the lens of this sport.

We moved “Down East” when I was nine years old. “Down East” in North Carolina means on or near the coast. My parents had always wanted to live near the ocean and when my father got an opportunity to transfer to the area, he took it. Dad quickly learned the art of fishing for flounder and taught my brother and me. We spent hours on the rising tide, fishing for flounder at Masonboro Inlet. Although such fishing may not be as graceful as using a fly rod, it requires at least as much skill.

My father, as a teen, fishing on the Linville River

 

Dad taught us to tie our own rigging, using an 18 inch piece of light wire with a triple hook on one end and a one ounce torpedo sinker on the other. The rigging was attached to the line of a lightweight spinning rod. A live minnow, which we generally caught with throw nets (another acquired skill), was hooked through the lips. Walking in knee deep water armed with a light spinning rod we’d cast the line out into the depths, searching for holes where a flounder might be hidden. The line was slowly retrieved, the weight keeping the minnow near the bottom where flounders lay. You carefully felt for tell-tell bumps on your line, indicating a flounder taking the bait. When that happened, you’d loosen the drag and give the flounder about a minute to take the minnow into its mouth, before yanking the line in order to set the hook. If you prematurely yanked the line, you’d pull the minnow out of the mouth of the flounder. From such fishing, we learned patience. Hurrying only caused you to miss fish.

Fishing off the jetty at Wrightsville Beach ~2010

Shortly after we moved to the area, Dad brought a 14 foot johnboat with a six horsepower Evinrude outboard motor. For years, that was the only boat he had and it was perfect for navigating the creeks running behind Masonboro Island, a nine mile long barren strip of beach that stretched from Masonboro Inlet to Carolina Beach Inlet. He’d take us fishing on the beach for founder on the rising tide and for Bluefish during the fall run. The island became like a second home. Since the creeks only have water in them on high tide, a fishing trip that was more than an hour or two committed you for at least half a day. Often, we’d make a two day trip, camping overnight. In the fall, at low tide, we’d collected oysters and in the evening roast them over coals. At times, breakfast consisted of roasted bluefish.

At the helm while fishing offshore, 2010

On one of our overnight fishing expeditions, my dad hooked a huge fish on a heavy surf rod. For nearly an hour he fought the fish, as he’d get it almost up into the surf only to have it run back out into the ocean. Finally, he beached the largest Red Drum I’ve seen. The tide had already dropped and there was no way we could get the fish back to the mainline till the next morning. My dad knew the fish might be close to a record, but since he couldn’t get it to a weight station, and since our cooler wasn’t large enough to hold it, he gutted the fish, stuffed ice in its hollowed cavity, and buried it in the sand. The next morning, we dug the fish up and took it to be weighed. Even after being gutted and drying out a bit overnight, the fish still weighed 47 pounds, just a couple pounds shy of the season’s record. My father stoically accepted fate. If he had been able to get the fish to the marina the day before, he might have set the record. However, if it bothered him, he never let on to it. Another lesson taught by action, you don’t complain about things you have no control over. This, by the way, included mosquitoes and sand gnats and the weather. There was no need to complain about the obvious.

Paddling in the Okefenokee. A good son would have warned his dad instead of waiting to catch a photo of when he discovered the alligator

My father seldom spoke of the beauty of it all, but the times I spent on the beach with him instilled in me an awe of creation. I’ve seen more sunrises and moonrises on the ocean that I can count. I’ve watched many sunsets behind the marsh grass of the Myrtle Grove Sound. I taught myself early the names of the stars, especially the autumn sky, since fishing was best in the fall. There’s nothing more majestic than watching Orion’s belt rise above the ocean on a moonless night. Enjoying the outdoors was something he taught silently.

My dad and mom on Gun Luke in Michigan, 2008

 

Over the past fifteen years, I’ve seen another new side of Dad as he cared for his wife, my mom, as her mind and mobility slowly disappeared due to Alzheimer’s. Mom and Dad were sweethearts in high school and have been together ever since. He goes down to the nursing home where my mother lives to feed her breakfast every morning. While they have restricted most guests because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they still let my father come in and feed my mom even though she no longer acknowledges him or anyone. In these latter years, my father, through his commitment, is silently displaying grace and love and is an example for all who are around him.

A few years ago with my sister presenting my father a cake at his 80th (or was it his 08th?) birthday dinner at the Pirate’s Table in Wilmington, NC.

The Harvest is Ready

 

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
June 14, 2020
Matthew 9:35-10:15

 

 

 

You can watch this service on YouTube by clicking here. If you just want to hear the sermon, fast forward to 20:36.

We made Blood Mountain Shelter on our third day of hiking. Reuben and I had started at Springer Mountain in North Georgia. After resting a bit, we set out to fix dinner. By this point, we’d hiked 100s of miles together and formed a well-oiled team. I hauled water from the spring while Reuben got out the stove and started to assemble it. In a large gallon Ziploc bag, I poured the contents of instant pudding, powdered milk, and water. I kneaded the bag by hands till the lumps were gone and then walked back to the spring to place the bag in the cool water to set up. Reuben started boiling water as I opened soup packs for each of our cups. He started the noodles and we chatted and enjoyed a drink while they cooked.

About this time another hiker came to the shelter. Paul looked to be an old man, but he was much younger than I am now. He’d been on the trail for six days, covering the distance we’d covered in two and a half days. He’d gotten lost earlier this day which explained why we hadn’t meet him when we passed along the trail. His pack was heavy; his knees were killing him. He didn’t look like he was having fun. Paul plopped down and began to prepare his dinner as he watched us. Reuben poured the water from the noodles into the cups, so that we had soup. We mixed in the ingredients for mac and cheese, which we ate next, followed by pudding for dessert. As we ate dessert, we put another pot of water for tea and clean up. We used our tea bags to scrub out our bowls. Paul watched in amazement, we had only what we needed and nothing was wasted.

Paul was a schoolteacher from Oregon and planned to spend his summer hiking. He’d done a little camping in his life, but had never backpacked. Gathering what he thought he needed and had taken a flight to Georgia and was walking through the woods with a 70-plus pound pack on his back, twenty or twenty-five pounds more than what we were toting.

The next morning when we set out, Paul asked where we were going to camp for the night. For us, it was going to be an easy day, even though there wasn’t anything easy about the trail in Georgia. There’s little ridge line in the southern part of the Appalachians; although the hills aren’t tall, you are either going up or down. We gave him our destination, a campsite by a stream about 13 miles north. We said goodbye and thought that’d be the last we’d see of him. We were surprised later that day when he hobbled into camp. That night we went through our dinner routine again and Paul started asking more questions. Before the evening was done, Reuben and I had given him tips on hiking, on food, and most importantly dug through his pack and showed him how to lighten his load by a at least fifteen pounds. To our amazement, he was carrying a hatchet and a folding saw, yet had not built a single fire. It was too hot. He had a stove. Scalping, I assured him, was no longer in vogue, so the axe could go. He had extra clothes and cooking utensils and all sort of stuff that he could get by without. The following day, when we were met by friends for a food drop, we arranged for Paul’s extras to be mail home. With his load lighter, Paul began to enjoy hiking.

The ninth chapter of Matthew’s gospel ends with Jesus telling the disciples that the fields are ripe with the harvest, but the laborers are few. “Ask the Lord,” Jesus says, “to send laborers out into the harvest.” Mission begins in prayer. This plea is answered in the tenth chapter where the Master’s plan is set in place with Jesus commissioning the disciples to go out on their own and do the work of the kingdom. For the past five chapters, Jesus had been preparing the disciples. Now, their apprentice ends. They’ll get a chance to live out their call to be fishers of men and women (although Jesus’ shifted metaphors as they are sent as farmers reaping the harvest).

When Jesus sends the disciples, he insists they go light. No extra clothes, no extra gear, no extra food, and no extra cash. They go by themselves, taking only the blessing Jesus bestowed upon them. They are to learn first-hand that Jesus is sufficient—he has given them power over evil as well as the ability to bring healing to those who are sick and to bring to life those who are dead. Going out without possessions, they will be continually reminded that they are dependent upon God and the generosity of others. Furthermore, they would be continually reminded that they are working for Jesus.

Jesus advice to the disciples is to start in their own neighborhoods. The mission to the Gentiles will come later; they first must take the message to the Jones and Smiths who live down the street. As they travel, they’re to live modestly and with the people. They are to be gracious and content with what they’re offered. They’re to “be courteous.” They’re not out to bring judgment or to browbeat folks, they’re just to go about helping people and sharing with them the good news that the Savior has come. If they’re not welcomed, they’re not to make big deal about it, they’re just to move on to the next neighborhood, not taking it as a failure. They’re not to mope around showing disappointment.

There are many things we can learn about mission from this story. First, it’s interesting who Jesus has called. The twelve disciples are all ordinary folk, including as our text points out, the one who would betray Jesus. They are not going out on their own skills, but with Jesus’ blessings, which makes the difference.

Another thing we learn that the world isn’t how it should be. We know this is true. If there was any question about it, the last few months dispelled our doubts. But at this point in the First Century, Rome had beaten all its enemies, and those who thought world peace had come. Of course, Jesus sees problems. There are people suffering. Jesus is compassionate. He realizes the struggle many face, especially the poor and slaves. Many are battling demons and the powers of evil. Many are grief-filled, or hurting physically and emotionally. Jesus’ plan is to turn the world upside down, offering grace and hope that can only come from God.

We also learn here the importance of mission for the church. It’s essential. It’s our purpose. We’re not here just to praise God, although that’s important. We’re not just here to sooth folks concerns by proclaiming forgiveness through Jesus Christ, although that’s important. We’re not just here to provide a safe haven for Christians to gather and be in fellowship (when there’s no pandemic), although that’s important. The church is called onto the mission field. For a few of us, that means going to exotic places. As we see here, the mission field starts at our doorstep. Jesus first sends the disciples into their own neighborhoods, to their own people. It’s not that Jesus isn’t interested in other people, but first he wants to solidify his base. As we saw last week, Matthew ends his gospel with Jesus commissioning the disciples to go to the ends of the world. Mission starts locally but extends globally. As Christians and followers of Jesus, we can’t ignore either group. To say that we only do mission locally is just as much of a travesty as to say mission is only what we do for those who live across salt water.

A final truth I want us to consider is that mission involves more than just telling people about Jesus. You know, Reuben and I could have spent all day telling Paul about how much fun we had backpacking and it wouldn’t have made any difference. It was only by helping him go through his gear and showing him how to lighten his load were we able to help. It’s the same with our calling as disciples. We’re not to just share the good news; we’re to demonstrate godly values in our lives and to show others how it can make a difference. That famous saying attributed to Francis of Assisi, “preach the gospel, if necessary, use words,” comes to mind. As the 18th verse reads, “you’ve been treated generously, so live generously.” Doing is just as important as telling, as Jesus makes clear in this passage. He didn’t give the disciples golden words to woo people; he gave them the ability to minister, to heal, and to confront evil.

This is still our goal. Live simply and generously, ministering to the needs of others. In other words, let the love of Jesus flow from your hearts, and be gracious. These days, the world can use a little help. Let’s flood it with grace. Amen.

 

 

 

Works consulted:

Bruner, Frederick Dale, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids, MI:
Eerdmans, 2004).

Gundry, Robert H., Matthew: A Commentary on His Literary and Theological Art (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982.

Hare, Douglas R. A., Matthew: Interpretation, A Commentary for Teaching  and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1992).

©2020  Jeff Garrison

Ancient History, Poems, and a Baseball Story: Three Book Reviews

Steven Pressfield, Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermoplyae (New York: Bantan Books, 1998), 386 pages.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel that is based on ancient Greek historians’ writings, especially Herodotus.  The story is told through the eyes of Xeones, who was from the city of Akarnania. He alone had been found barely alive after the Persians wiped out the small Greek contingent conducting a delaying tactic against the much larger Persian army at Thermoplyae. Thermoplyae (the hot gates) is a narrow pass that received its name from the hot springs in the mountains. Xerxes, the Persian king had his surgeons work hard to save Xeones so he could learn more about Greece and the bravery of the 300 Spartan soldiers had shown at the pass. Xeones insist that he was just an aide to a Spartan officer, but would tell what he knew. He begins the story from his youth, when his city of birth was destroyed by another Greek city. He and his older cousin, Diomache, were able to escape (even though Diomache is raped several times by enemy soldiers), but as they made their way to the hills they learned how to survive in a cruel world.  Xerxes wants to go to Sparta with the hopes of becoming a warrior and defeating his enemies. Later, while they are living off the land with Bruxies, an old man from their city, Xeones is caught at a farm and his hand is nailed so that he no longer is able to hold a spear in the fashion of a Spartan warrior. He feels his life is over, but has a vision of Apollos who gives the vision of using the bow. His wounded hand can’t grasp a spear, but it can pull back the string and he becomes an excellent archer. Eventually, Bruxies dies and Xerxes and Diomache split up. Diomache heads to Athens and Xerxes to Sparta.

 

Once in Sparta, Xeones learns about the Sparta ways. While he will never be a part of the Sparta elite, he is chosen as partners to help young Sparta men in the rigorous training to become warriors. He becomes an aide to an officer, which places him at Thermoplyae. Pressfield does a wonderful job of providing a picture of Spartan society as Xeones tells his story to the Persians, as well as their preparations and the battles they fought as they kept the Persians from obtaining the pass for several days before failing after a group of Persians were led through the mountains and able to get behind the Greeks. The reader gains knowledge about Greek society, religion, and mythology roughly 500 years before the Common Era. However, the language of the warriors is often coarse and book describes a lot of violence (which was true of the time in which they lived).

 

Paul J. Willis, Rosing from the Dead: Poems  (Seattle, WA: WordFarm, 2009) 99 pages.

This is a wonderful collection of poems by a professor from Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. There are three sections of poetry, each about a “chapbook” length. In “Faith of our Fathers,” we learn the meaning of the author’s name, his interest in baseball and football, as well a beloved Sunday School teacher who “fell from grace.” In “Higher Learning,” the author writes about becoming more aware about life. There are poems about other professors, the library, language, the downhill road to bifocals (and a few pages later trifocals) and even a poem about smart classrooms.  The third section, “Signs and Wonders” is my favorite. Most of these poems are set in the outdoors, whether in a backyard or deep in the wilderness. Most of the poems are in the American West, but a few are set at other places around the country. Willis has a keen eye to spot something unique and then to write about it. At places, the outside world slips in such as the hearing of a freight train during the night. Many of the poems are set at places that I find special like Telescope Peak, which rises high above the western rim of Death Valley. Willis is the only poet I know who can tie together “ripening ticks in the fall” and Advent.

I first read this collection in 2012. I had come to know Paul through the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College in Grand Rapids. As a board member of Pierce Cedar Creek, an ecological center about 50 miles away, I encouraged Paul to do a reading. That day, before the reading, Paul and I hiked six or miles within the property. It was early spring, the skunk cabbage had pretty much played out. It was too early for there to be trilliums in bloom, but the May apples were appearing. That evening, Paul presented a poem he’d written that afternoon, after we’d take that hike, about what was happening in the bottom lands. It was good to revisit these poems.

 

Dave Moyer, Life and Life Only (New York: IUniverse, 2009), 188 pages.

I have mixed feelings about this book. It’s a wonderful story of Dan learning what’s important after several failures (as a pitcher after a career debilitating injury and a failed marriage). But I was disappointed in the writing, much of which felt I was just being old the facts and not being brought into the story. The book could have been greatly strengthened by more dialogue and narrative and less of a statement of what happened. At times, it felt like I was being told the details, but not shown the action. The author does tries to link world events that happened during the years of the book, which can be a very good way to show the passing of time, but it felt a little over the top and often as we were given lists of the things that happened in a given year. The book would have been strengthened if such events could have been woven into the story. The same is true of Bob Dillion songs. Dan is a Dillion fan. While some of the songs are worth listing, especially when they could be written into the narrative, a list of every song played in a concert was a little too much for me. However, like Dan, I agree that “Blind Willie McTell” is one of Dylan’s best. I also thought Moyer did a good job describing Savannah (of which I live just outside of), which is where Dan had played with a traveling ball team and a city he’d later travel to with his first wife. She was a Georgia Peace from Swainsboro (I’ve even been to Swainsboro).  While Dan seemed to make a mess of things with his first wife after his arm problems kept him from pitching in the majors, he does get things right with his daughter and with his second wife.

Trinity Sunday

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Matthew 28:16-20
Trinity Sunday
June 7, 2020

To watch to this service, click here.

 

Disclaimer: Just because I use wheat bread and don’t use Hellmann’s Mayonnaise on tomato sandwiches doesn’t mean I’m a heretic, despite what members of my Bible Study think.

 

Introduction Before Worship:

Last Sunday was Pentecost. Today is Trinity Sunday. If you go by the liturgical calendar, this is the last “big” Sunday until we come to the end of the Pentecost season, when we are back at Advent. The Pentecost season, also called “ordinary time,” takes up the largest chunk of the church year. We’re reminded that our lives are mostly lived outside of feasts and holidays. Yes, there are times for big celebrations, but there are also normal times in which we live out our faith while doing the laundry, fixing dinner, paying the bills, or mowing the grass. But God is God of all. It’s all sacred, even the ordinary periods of life.

We enter this season on Trinity Sunday. The Trinity, this great mystery, reminds us that God is relational. The ceiling painting we’re using as our artwork today illustrates this. God relates, not just within the three persons of the Godhead. You can see the Trinity represented as the Father and the Son in the bottom along with the dove in the center. But these persons are surrounded by all kinds of heavenly and earthly beings. The Trinity also reminds us of God’s desire to bring more into this life—heavenly beings as well as human beings. The Trinity is about love—the love of the three persons within the Trinity as well as their love for all creation, as we’re embraced within the family. We live in a world of sin and only in God can there be true love so we need to accept the invite to come in close. As a Russian Orthodox meditation on the Trinity proposes, “outside the Trinity is hell.”[1]

The Trinity isn’t a philosophical or theological concept for us to master. We can’t fully comprehend such a mystery. Instead, we accept it along with the love God shows us. Today’s passage is the only place where Jesus uses the trinitarian formula, “Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which is from the end of Matthew’s gospel, chapter 28, verses 16-20.

This passage is known as “The Great Commission.” At the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus commissions his disciples to take over. We learn three important things here: Who’s the boss. What we’re called to do. What help we’ll have with our task at hand. We don’t learn much about the Trinity. But our faith is to be active. It’s more about doing than knowledge, and this passage is a call to action.

Many of the highlights of Matthew’s gospel occur on high places: mountains or hills. We have Jesus’ temptation, the Sermon on the Mount, the transfiguration, and even the crucifixion. Now, once more, Jesus calls the eleven remaining disciples up on a mountain in Galilee. They’re back in their old haunts, where their ministry had been focused, but up high, they are away from the crowds.

Interestingly, we’re told that the disciples worshipped Jesus even though some doubted. This is an important insight for those of us with doubts. Even some of the disciples doubted, but they listened and obeyed and followed Jesus. Accepting everything perfectly is not as important as doing the work for which we’re called.

With the remaining disciples gathered, Jesus tells them who’s boss. “All authority in heaven and earth have been given to me.” At the beginning of his ministry, the devil tempted Jesus on another mountain with authority over the earth, but now we learn that for the resurrected Christ, authority will extend far beyond that.[2] As the one in charge, Jesus is the one who can commission the disciples for the work at hand. And Jesus wastes no time issuing his orders. With four verbs—go, make, baptize, and teach— he sends them out to all nations.

Let’s unpack this a bit, first by looking at the destination, “all nations.” The promise to Abraham was for land and descendants, but Jesus owns all the world, so now the call is for all people, not just for a particular family. Jesus’ new family, the church, extends beyond national boundaries. While they may be national churches, there is no such place for an only American Christian, or a British Christian, or a Ugandan Christian. We are Christians, first and foremost. This idea of all nations means that our work isn’t limited to just people like us.[3] The gospel needs to be heard by everyone. Paul later captured this vision when he wrote, “there is no longer Greek or Jew, for we are all one in Jesus Christ.[4]

Yet, we’re still living in a divided world and, as from what we’ve seen over the past few weeks, there is much work to be done to overcome this. As believers in Jesus, we can’t condone the actions of a few men in Brunswick or a police officer in Minneapolis, each case leading to an unnecessary death.[5]  As a people, we must cry out for justice. Our present world, in which the color of one’s skin means you’re treated differently, does not represent the image of what Christ envisions in Scripture.

Jesus calls us to make disciples. Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t say to go out and make Christians. Instead, we’re to make disciples, or students of Jesus Christ. Making disciples isn’t an instant conversion. It requires time.[6] Such folks may even have questions and doubts, as we see with the original disciples, but at the very least they are open to learning from the Master. As we make disciples, we baptize them in God’s three-fold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In other words, those who sign up to learn from Jesus are connected to the Triune God. We’re part of that holy fellowship in which all followers are invited to join. And we’re to teach these people what Jesus commands. Being a follower of Christ means we strive to keep Jesus’ teachings. God gives us commandments as a way to help us live in a way that will be affirming of God and of our brothers and sisters. But people won’t know what those commandments are unless they are taught.

That’s right. People need to be taught. And judging a lot of what happening, it appears that before we go out into the world to teach, we need a refresher course in this country. We need to be taught that just because someone makes us uncomfortable because of the color of his skin, we can’t take the law in our own hands and attempt a “citizen arrest,” as a few men supposedly tried to do down in Brunswick back in February.

More recently, in Minnesota, we had a police officer attempting to arrest someone who may have passed a twenty dollar counterfeit bill (which he may or may not have known was counterfeit). Is a life only worth 20 bucks? George Floyd was already cuffed and subdued. He wasn’t a threat. Yet the officer kept his knee on his neck three minutes after he became unresponsive. Of course, looting and burning is not acceptable either, but where did this problem begin? It didn’t begin with protests, but with an officer doing an unthinkable act. Officers are supposed to protect and serve, but for at least a part of our population this isn’t their experience.

We’re living in trying times, but there is hope in this passage. In the last verse, after telling us that it’s our responsibility to make and baptize and teach disciples, Jesus reminds us that he will be with us till history comes to an end. Jesus is going to be with us wherever we go in this world to do the gospel’s work. That’s the hope we take with us as we challenge such injustice. We’re not alone. We’ll get through this trying time of pandemic and racial tensions if we can just remember the two essential things Jesus taught: Love God and love your neighbor.[7]

You know, I love my neighbors, but I also love a good tomato sandwich. During this time of the year, when I have tomatoes on the vine, I eat a tomato sandwich every day. I peel the tomatoes and then slice ‘em thick. They are juicy and messy. I take two slices of wheat bread, cover a side of each with Miracle Whip, grind some pepper over it, then lay on the tomatoes and create a sandwich. If I want to be uptown, I might add a little celery seed or some provolone cheese. Its good eating and I tell you this because our passage can be envisioned as a sandwich.[8] Outside, the two pieces of bread, are about Jesus—one slice of bread being his authority and the other being his promise to be with us. Inside the sandwich, the thick tomato, is our marching orders. As followers of Jesus, it’s not about us. We’re not about glorifying ourselves. We’re here to do the work of the one whose authority extends over all heaven and earth, the one who also promises to be with us. Because of Christ’s power and presence, we can boldly take risks for the sake of the triune God, who calls us into a community in order to send us out to make disciples.

In closing, let me encourage you to do two things. First, go to the Savannah Presbytery website and read our recent statement on racism.[9] Second, ask yourself: “What can I do to help people become curious about Jesus so they might desire to become a disciple?” Amen.

 

 

©2020

[1] Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), 291.

[2] Matthew 4:8-10.

[3] See Frederick Dale Bruner, The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 816-820.

[4] Galatians 3:28 (edited to focus on nationality)

[5] On June 3, 2020, the Savannah Presbytery made a statement about the Brunswick case and referred to the Minneapolis situation. See http://www.savannahpresbytery.org/savannah-presbytery-news-and-update/

[6] Bruner, 815-816.

[7] Matthew 22:34-40.

[8] The idea of this passage being a “sandwich comes from Bruner, 804.

[9] Look for the post from June 3, 2020: http://www.savannahpresbytery.org/savannah-presbytery-news-and-update/

Pentecost 2020

Decked out in red with my Snoopy tie for the morning service

Our worship services are available at our church’s YouTube page. This link will take you to this service. The sermon begins at 16:00 minutes and is over at 36:10. You can fast forward to the sermon. 

 

 

 

 

 

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Acts 2:1-14
Pentecost, May 31, 2020

 

 

2020 is turning out to be a year we’ll not forget. Everything seems out of control. A virus has killed over 100,000 Americans topped off by an economy in a free-fall. We’ve witnessed the murders of innocent and unarmed black men in Brunswick and in Minneapolis, and the resulting riots threatening to unravel our nation. It’s scary. But the world has often been a scary place. For Christians, the world of the first century was scary. Jesus was essentially lynched and many more would also die a martyr’s death.[1] But out of that death came the church.

Something happened on this day nearly 2000 years ago. God’s Spirit poured down on the few believers and they began a movement. As I read this passage, think about what God did in Jerusalem, and what God might be doing in the world today.  Read Acts 2:1-14.

        There was an elderly woman who came home from a Bible study one evening and discovered a burglar in her home. In the darken house, she yelled at the intruder, “Stop, Acts 2:38.” The thief turned and she yelled again, “Stop, Acts 2:38.” He froze. He raised his hands as she calmly called the police. After the officer had handcuffed the man, he asked why he’d surrendered to a woman shouting out a Bible verse. “A Bible verse? I thought she had an axe and two 38s”.

        Peter, after his great sermon, that follows the account we’ve just read, called on those within his hearing to “Repent, be baptized, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven and you will receive the power of the Holy Spirit.” Acts 2:38.

Too often, we think we need force to back up our words, or as in the joke, the possibility of force. But Scripture constantly reminds us our hope is not in what we do or what we have, but in what God has done and is doing in Jesus Christ. We see this with Pentecost, when those flames of the Spirit poured out on a motley group. God takes the initiative. Without God, our efforts are in vain.

As dawn broke on this day in which the church came into being, there were only 120 or so believers. From this small beginning, the Christian faith now claims approximately 1/3 of the world’s population. These “tongues of flames” fell upon the timid group of believers. Filled with God’s Spirit, they set the world on fire. When the morning began, they were like a car with no gas. They had a purpose, but no energy. So, they waited, knowing Jesus promised his Spirit.

        These men and women are not the type of people you’d think could change the world. They’re marginalized. And, to be honest, they don’t change the world. That’s part of the point of the story. God’s the primary actor. Without God’s intervention, nothing would have happened. And the same is true in our lives. God can use us; we don’t have to be sophisticated or multi-talented. The disciples were not great leaders or thinkers, government officials or military heroes. What God needs are people who are faithful. These believers displayed their faithfulness. Many of them were faithful even unto death. With God, all things are possible.

The second aspect of Pentecost for us to consider is the linkage between the Old and New Covenant. Those who’d gathered on this morning, on the day of Pentecost, gathered to celebrate a Jewish holiday. The name Pentecost is derived from the festival held on the fiftieth day following Passover. The festival was also known as the Feast of the Weeks, the Feast of the Harvest, or the Day of the First Fruits. Originally it was when the grain harvest was formally dedicated, but over time the festival came to represent the giving of the law on Sinai, which, according to tradition, occurred fifty days after the Exodus from Egypt.

The two flames on our Presbyterian cross represent the two covenants—the Old and the New. The same is true for the two candles on our communion table. The flame of the Old Testament is the giving of the law on Sinai. The other flame represents the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost when the Old Testament prophecy was fulfilled. God wrote the law onto the hearts of believers.[2]

To have the fullness of God’s word, to know God to the best of our limited human abilities, we must draw upon all of Scripture. The two covenants remind us of the mysterious nature of our God. What we know about God has been revealed to us by the Almighty, first in the Hebrew Scriptures and then, the final revelation, in the life of Jesus Christ. Again, God is the actor; God is the one engaging the world.

        The final aspect of Pentecost for us to consider is how this event serves as a model for God’s intention for the world. Consider the group who’d gathered on this morning. They were all Palestinian Jews. First century Judaism was more multi-cultural than they were. They gather, a homogeneous lot, without an idea as to what will happen. Soon a violent wind destroys the morning calm. Luke describes the coming of the Spirit as a gale blowing into the house. Picture the curtains blowing, as they used to do in the days before air conditioning when a storm was rising. It was frightening. “What’s happening,” they wonder?  Luke goes on to say that the wind was like tongues of fire; like a wildfire that gains momentum consuming all that’s around. And those who had gathered begin to speak, in all different kinds of languages.

In addition to celebrating the giving of the law, the Pentecost holiday was special for another reason. Passover was considered the “high holy day” for the first century Jewish faithful. But because it was such a long trip, many would stay through Pentecost and would have caught wind of what’s happening at this time.[3] We need to remember that by the first century, Jewish settlements had been established throughout the known world. This explains why there were so many different people in Jerusalem for this festival. They’d come to worship; they’d come with expectation. And here, as they’ve gathered in their ancestral homeland, people who were no longer fluent in Hebrew, begin to hear the gospel in their native languages.

Again, God is the one who is acting. The early disciples and believers who’d gathered weren’t sitting around scheming, trying to create a strategic plan of how the church would grow.  And if they had been, you can bet they wouldn’t have even considered reaching such a diverse group of people as they did that day. After all, these people had a tradition of interacting only with those who looked and sounded and acted like they did.  God is doing the work here. God’s vision is much larger than they could imagine. God is calling all people to hear the good news of Jesus Christ.

         Friends, we live in an uncertain time. We must place our faith in God as revealed in Jesus Christ, and live humbly and compassionately, showing the world a different way to live with one another. Violence isn’t the answer. Love is. God loves this world and calls on his church to love the world. When we marginalize others, when we turn our heads at injustice, we fail to live up to our calling.

    Let me tell you a story. I was in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia and was walking with other tourists in the business section of the city. Across a four-lane road, coming toward us, was a man and woman. They were arguing. Then the man pulled back and hit the woman with his fist to her head, knocking her down. In shock, we looked at each other. Others had seen it, too, but no one except us-a group of English-speaking tourist-seemed fazed. We were outraged, yet never felt so helpless. If it had been an English-speaking country, we’d all been on the phone with the police. But here, few knew English and we couldn’t speak Mongolian. We needed those tongues of fire!

         Pentecost shows us that not only does God show up, God gives us the tools needed to do the work for which we’re called. That motley group of disciples are able to preach in the languages of those gathered in Jerusalem. Today, we no longer have to wait for God to show up. God’s Spirit’s with us. Unlike Mongolia, in our country, in our neighborhood, most people understand us. We have no excuse. We must be compassionate toward those suffering from COVID-19. We should grieve the deaths of over 100,000 of our citizens, we need to do our part to keep the virus from spreading further, and we need to speak out against racial injustice. At Pentecost, God gave us a vision of the nations and people being brought together. It’s now our turn. We must help make the vision a reality. Amen.

 

©2020

[1] For a link between the cross and lynching, see James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Orbis Books, 2011).

[2] Jeremiah 31:33.

[3] Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Acts (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 74-75

Peter’s Commissioning

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
John 21:15-25
May 24, 2020

This service can be watched in it’s entirety on the church’s YouTube channel. If you want to just see the sermon, go to 13:00. Go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vD3awv89c1E

We’re finishing up our look at Jesus’ post-resurrection encounters this week with the ending to the passage we began studying last week. As I indicated on several occasions throughout this series, the post-resurrection encounters generally had a mission component. We’ll this today. The disciples were sent out to do something-Mary at the tomb was sent to tell the Apostles, and the disciples what we know as the Sea of Galilee, Jesus gives Peter a mission.

Again, I’m using a classical painting to illustrate our text. Today, the painting is by Raphael, an artist who painted just before and at the beginning of the Reformation. To put this in perspective, this tapestry was finished the year before Martin Luther posted the 95 Thesis and is titled, “Christ Charge to St. Peter.”[1] I like the painting because it shows the sea (and glimpses the bow of a boat) along with a flock of sheep. Peter, a fisherman, is being commissioned to tend to Jesus’ sheep. The other ten disciples (remember Judas is no longer with them) look on. However in John’s gospel, we’re told that there were only seven disciples present. Hear God’s word for today. Read John 21:15-25.

        Some of you may know the Reverend Proctor Chambless. He’s a retired minister member of the Savannah Presbytery, and has served a number of congregations within our presbytery and across the South. When I came to this presbytery, Proctor was serving an interim position in another presbytery upstate. He wasn’t here. During the first person examined for ordination as a Minister of the Word and Sacrament at Presbytery, someone stood up and said that since Proctor wasn’t present, he was going to ask Proctor’s question. The question: “Do you love Jesus?” The presbytery, as a body, snickered. I realized I wasn’t in on the joke. I asked someone about this and was told that Proctor always asked that question. When Proctor returned, I figured out who he was before I met him. We had another candidate to examine and Proctor stood and asked this question. It’s kind of a fun thing. The rest of us are thinking probing questions to prod the examinee on the fine points of Reformed Theology, as Proctor, with his deep southern drawl, asks the essential question. “Do you love Jesus?” That’s the question Jesus asks Peter three times. And it’s a question we’re all to ask ourselves. Furthermore, as we’re going to see when we delve into this text, there is one way of knowing that we love Jesus. Do we care for others?

Let’s look at the text. Throughout this chapter, Peter is in the forefront. He’s the one who decides to go fishing. The other six disciples tag along. He’s the one, when he learns it’s Jesus on the shore, jumps into the water and swims to Jesus, letting the six others fight with a full net of fish. Now that breakfast is over, Jesus questions Peter in a way that almost seems as if he’s being commissioned or ordained for his task once Jesus has ascended to heaven. We’re not told this, but I image Jesus drawing Peter away from the rest of the disciples and putting his hand on this shoulder, saying “Simon, son of John.”

       Jesus uses his full legal name. “Simon, son of John.” Did any of you have parents, or maybe a teacher, who when you were in trouble, would use your full name? “Charles Jeffrey!” I would hear that and immediately knew I had done something wrong. Was Peter in trouble? I don’t think so. But Jesus emphasizes the importance of his questioning. When someone uses your full name, it grabs your attention. Jesus asks Peter if he loves him more than these. We can assume Jesus is pointing over toward the other disciples. We’re told that Peter, in two of the gospels, brags at the Last Supper about how much more he loves Jesus than the others, so much so that he’ll never abandon Jesus.[2] Of course, pride comes before the fall, and later that night Peter denies Jesus three times.

        Now, after everything that has happened—the betrayal, the crucifixion, the resurrection—Jesus asks if Peter really does love him and, of course, Peter responds positively. “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus then tells Peter to feed his lambs. This questioning goes on for three times, with just slight variations.[3] After the second question and answer, Jesus says to tend his sheep and after the third, feed my sheep.[4] Jesus gives Peter the mission to care for those whom Jesus brings into his church. But Jesus repeatedly asking Peter if he loves him gets on Peter’s nerves. It bothers him, he’s hurt, yet Peter continues to answer, “Yes, Lord, I love you.” Maybe Jesus asks this three times to undo the triple betrayal Peter committed after Jesus’ arrest. Jesus wants to make sure that Peter understands he’s forgiven and that he’s ready to take over his responsibility of the church.

Peter is then informed of what kind of death he will endure. Peter, this wild and free man who so full of passion, will end up a prisoner hauled off to be executed. Peter earlier had boasted that he was willing to die for Jesus. It’s now seen as prophetic. Jesus ends this discourse with the words he first used to call Peter while there at the seashore, “Follow me.”[5]

        We’re not given a sense of just how this prediction of Peter’s death was received, but Peter must have pondered it, for he asks about another of the disciples. Jesus tells Peter a great truth. “Don’t worry about him and his death.” It’s almost as if Jesus is saying, “You have enough troubles. Don’t worry about what God seems to give someone else to worry over.” In other words, accept God’s gift as grace and be thankful.

         Here we are, fifty or so generations Peter.[6] This is a time of turmoil and fear, of pandemic and economic uncertainty. We’re all a little on the edge. What can we learn from this text?  Well, we’ll all have our own burdens. Hopefully, we won’t have Peter’s burden of a crucifixion. Also, we learn that some seemed more blessed in one area of life than another. Some get the virus and don’t even know it. Others get it and struggle to breathe and their bodies break down. Some die. Why? This text suggests that’s a futile question. Instead, we’re shown what we, like Peter, should be doing. We’re to follow Jesus, whose path led at one point to the nourishing waters of the Jordan and at another point to that hill name Golgotha, the place of death. And along the way, we do what we can to care for those whom Jesus calls. We’re not told here to save the world. In fact, Peter isn’t even told to save anyone. Jesus is the Savior. Peter, who is being retrained from having been a fisherman to being a sheepherder, is to care for those Jesus sends his way. And that’s the role of the church, to care for those whom Jesus sends our way.

          During these trying times, when we are hiding out in our homes, we might wonder how we can help anyone. There are ways. The Session, at the request of the Mission and Benevolence Committee, has called for a special offering to help care for the homeless in our community. Do what you can to help. The homeless ministries of Savannah are struggling to meet the needs of those who live under the bridges and on the streets.

Or maybe your gift is crafts and sewing. With plenty of time, you can help make masks, as my daughter and a neighbor of David and Linda Denhard has done. See my selfie on the slide? That’s an example of my daughter’s handiwork. Masks can be shared with nursing homes and for our own use when we are in public. When we start gathering back together for worship, masks will be encouraged. Wearing a mask not only protects us. If we’re asymptomatic, masks will protect others. Wearing a mask can be a gentle way of caring for Jesus’ sheep.

And if you’re not crafty, why not make some phone calls and write some letters. There are people who need to feel connected, especially to those who live alone. As Paul says in his first letter to the Thessalonians, “encourage one another, build up each other.”[7]

This week, I want to encourage everyone to reach out to someone and offer hope. For we who believe, are not to despair. We are to have hope and share that hope that we have in a loving Savior. When we do this, we are living up to the calling that was first given to Peter: “feed my lambs, care for my sheep.” Amen.

 

©2020

 

 

 

Sources Consulted:

 

Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John XII-XXI: The Anchor Bible (          Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1970

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

Michaels, J. Ramsey, : John: Good News Commentary (Harper & Row, 1983.

Sloyan, Gerald, John: Interpretation, A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988).

[1] The tapestry is also known as  “Christ’s Handing the Keys to St. Peter.” Raphael combines the story of Peter receiving the keys (Matthew 16:18-19) and Peter after the breakfast on the beach (John 21:15-17) to create this work. For more information see https://www.artbible.info/art/large/683.html

[2] Matthew 26:33, Mark 14:29.

[3] Much has been made about Jesus use of the word love. The first two times, Jesus uses the Greek word “Agape.” Peter responds with the Greek word “Phila” (from which we get Philadelphia which means “city of brotherly love.”) The third time, Jesus uses “Phila” instead of “Agape.” These two terms are closely related and in English both are translated as “Love.”

[4] Lambs could be those new to the faith (those being initiated) while sheep could refer to those more mature in their faith.

[5] See Matthew 4:19 and Mark 1:17. In John’s retelling, Simon comes to Jesus through his brother Andrew and at their first meeting, Jesus changes Simon’s name to Peter. See John 1:40-42.

[6] A Biblical generation is generally considered 40 years.

[7] 1 Thessalonians 5:11

Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life

Nancy Koester,  Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 371 pages, B&W photos, notes.

Harriet Beecher Stowe is best known for her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The novel’s popularity fueled the anti-slavery movement in the North and helped change the narrative of the American Civil War from an attempt to restore the Union to a crusade to rid the nation of slavery. The novel is often criticized for being overly sentimental. It has been ridiculed even in the African American community. The term, “Uncle Tom,” is used for members within the community who were unwilling to fight back against white supremacy. In the novel, Tom is a Christ-figure, who accepts his death after a severe whipping for not being willing to whip other slaves to force them to work harder. Malcom X called Martin Luther King an “Uncle Tom,” although that’s not surprising considering Malcom was not a Christian and would not understand the sacrificial position of Uncle Tom or Jesus Christ. Despite these criticisms, the book was a best seller in the 19th Century America and Great Britain. The book not only encouraged the American abolitionist movement, it’s popularity in the United Kingdom help keep Britain from coming into the war on the South’s side.

Stowe was more than just the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  She was the daughter of Lyman Beecher, a well-known Calvinistic preacher whose large family produced many major public figures during the middle of the 19th Century including Henry Ward Beecher, who is often considered the greatest preacher of the century. Henry was close to his sister Harriet, and together they worked against slavery. Lyman’s other children were also accomplished in their fields.

Harriet Beecher married Calvin Stowe, a widower without children. Calvin was also a theology professor at Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, where her father was President. It was a struggling school that was made even more challenging sitting across the river from Kentucky, a slave state. While in Cincinnati, Harriet began to publish articles in various papers. After the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she would be the primary breadwinner of the family. Later, Calvin moved his family east to take a position in Maine and then to Andover Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. This had an added advantage of Harriet being closer to her publishers (she often would visit them in New York while staying with her brother Henry in Brooklyn).

With Harriet’s success, the Stowes made three long trips to Europe, building relationships with British abolitionists. Harriet, like many of her siblings, moved away from her father’s stricter Calvinistic views. She questioned eternal damnation and the idea of predestination. In her travels to Europe, she began to appreciate the Catholic Church and, after her husband’s retirement, became an Episcopalian. She also dabbled in spiritualism and seeking to connect to those who had died, especially after the death of her son. While this was more than just curiosity, she always maintained that a Medium could not offer the comfort of Jesus. She may have left behind much of her father’s theology (and she blamed Jonathan Edwards for what she was as problematic with New England Calvinism), she remained firm in her commitment to her Savior.

In the Civil War, her son would lead a company of freed blacks.  Racial reconciliation remained important to Harriet, but she also worked on other social reforms of the day. Although she saw her primary role as a wife to her husband, she was also supportive of the women’s right movement and knew many of the early founders.

Harriet had a strong sense of what was right and wrong. On her European travels, she had met Lady Bryon, the estranged wife of the poet Lord Byron. Harriet had been told of Lord Bryon’s affairs and even incidences of incest. After both of their deaths, Lord Bryon’s last mistress wrote a book about her life with Bryon and attacked his wife as cold and unloving. Harriet felt she needed to set the record straight and wrote an article (and later a book) pointing out the poet’s failures and comparing him to Satan, who used his charm for seduction instead of for God’s glory.  For this, Stowe was criticized, but it was something she knew how to handle after the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. While the book was popular in the North, she was despised and criticized in some corners in the North and across the South. Stowe’s critique of Lord Bryon provided inside into the control of a patriarchal society and while the book was published a few years before the “Me Too” movement, it appears Stowe would have been sympathetic.

Harriet and Calvin’s life had many tragedies. One was the loss of a son by drowning a few years before the Civil War. Another son, Fred, was wounded in the ear during the war was in constant pain afterwards. His parents purchased him a farm in Florida with the hope he could start a farm that gave work to freed blacks. Fred eventually left the farm and took to the sea, and never again saw his parents. Fred Florida adventure did introduce the Stowes to the state and they began to spend their winters there. She would write two books that help popularize the Florida to those in the north. A half century before Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ writings help bring an end to the practice, Harriet attacked the widespread killing of birds for the use of their feathers in women’s hats. Her training in the Westminster Catechism could also be seen in her satirical writings about hunters in Florida who think the “chief end of man is to shoot something.” She wasn’t opposed to hunting, just killing for sport. In a way, Stowe was an early environmentalist. The only son of the Stowe’s who took up their father and grandfather’s position in the pulpit was Charles. But this, too, became a concern when he flirted with Unitarianism.  However, he stayed within the Congregational Church. She was also bothered by the charge of adultery against her brother, Henry. He would be vindicated (even though he was probably guilty), but Harriet remained his defender.

This book provides insight into a complex woman along with her family who were major figures in 19th Century America. Koester’s writing is easy to read and comprehend. I recommend this book to anyone wanting to know more about Harriet Beecher Stowe and the era.

Jesus Shows the Disciples How to Fish

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
John 21:1-14
May 17, 2020

This worship service can be found at on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KSbn75Dr6d8. To listen just to the sermon, go to 12 minutes into the service. The sermon ends at 36:40. 

Today and next Sunday, we are going to explore Jesus’ last post-resurrection account in John’s gospel.[1] Two weeks ago, when I preached last, we discussed Jesus eating left-over fish for dinner.[2] Today, the disciples eat fish and bread for breakfast on the lakeshore.

As we’ve done throughout this series, we have a classical painting, this one from the 15th Century, to help us get into the story. This artist, I doubt, ever saw the Holy Lands. He images Jesus and the disciples on a European stream. But he gets some things right. There are seven disciples in the picture, Jesus is showing them how to fish, and Peter is so excited he’s swimming to shore to be with Jesus. But more importantly, he shows Jesus coming to the disciples! Place yourself into the painting, just downstream. Think about all this. You have this landlubber giving instructions to the men in the boat who haven’t caught a fish all night. Suddenly, there’s more fish than they know what to do with? Is it a miracle or a lucky guess? What do we make of this story? What can we learn?  Listen as I read from John 21, reading from The Message translation.

        The best fish are fresh from the water. Even greasy bluefish make a great breakfast when grilled over a charcoal fire on the beach. I was probably 10 or 11 when I first had such a treat. We were fishing on Masonboro Island. It was in the fall, when the bluefish run. We got up when it was still pitch dark and chilly. My dad started a charcoal fire, which helped us stay warm. But instead of sitting around the fire, we soon had lines in the dark water, casting out into surf. In darkness, we fished with bait. On the end of the line, we had a rig with a weight and two hooks, each containing a strip of mullet. When the fish hit, we’d yank the rod to set the hook, then reel hard. Soon, if lucky, a flapping fish could be made out from the distant light of the lantern. We’d have to bring the fish into the light in order to safely get out the hook.

         Leaving our fish on sand, we rebait our hooks and again cast out into the surf. Slowly, the sky changes. The stars began to extinguish themselves. A ribbon of light appears on the horizon, and it gradually growed. We began to be able to make out the beach and could see where the waves were breaking. Soon afterwards, the sun would slowly rise, its rays seemingly racing across the water toward me, as if they whose rays were destined just for me.

         When there was a lull in the action, we’d stop and clean a few fish, washing them off in the surf, and then lay them on a grill over the coals. In a few minutes, we’d be “eatin’ good.” Afterwards, we’d change the rigging on our rods to plugs and spoons and head back to the water’s edge. Good memories of good times.

 

         Perhaps it was because I grew up in a home where fishing ranked just below church attendance in priority that Peter’s statement, “I’m going fishing” seems normal. And to the six disciples with him, it sounds like a plan. They head to the water and fished the night. They had terrible luck. That happens. Some mornings there are no bluefish for breakfast.

These men, before becoming disciples, had been fishermen. But this isn’t a story about fishing, even though surprisingly we’re told exactly how many fish they caught. Instead, it’s a post-resurrection story, about Jesus coming to the disciples.

         As I’ve emphasized in these sermons on Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples learn a true lesson. They are not in control. Jesus is in control. We often have this image of going to Jesus, but in truth, Jesus first comes to us. In today’s story, Jesus knows where many of his disciples are. They’re by the lakeshore, fishing, because that’s what they know how to do. So, like when he first called them, he returns to call them again. Next week, we’ll look at how Jesus sends out Peter with a mission, but before we go there, I want us to spend some time in this story.

Imagine, having spent the night fishing with nothing in the bucket. Then along comes someone on shore, 100 yards or so away, far enough away you don’t recognize him. This someone greets you and asks that question that fishermen despise on a bad day. “Have you caught anything?” A loaded question. If you out on a pier and ask that question to a fisherman, his response will probably depend on how well the fish are biting. If there’s only one pinfish in the bucket, you’ll get a grumbled answer that essentially tells you to keep moving. But if the fishing has been good, the fisherman may open the cooler and let you look with awe on his catch.

        On this night, the fishing hadn’t been good. Jesus then does something else that goes against fishermen etiquette. “Why don’t you fish from the other side?” That’s like suggesting a different lure or fly. “Take off that spinner and put on a jitterbug; or get rid of that wooly bugger and put on a popping bug.” But Jesus’ advice pays off as they catch so many fish the net is about to break. Only then does the Beloved Disciple realizes it’s Jesus. Before he can act, Peter throws on some clothes, jumps in and swims toward shore.

Peter, whose nickname was “the Rock,” obviously had learned to swim since that earlier occasion when he tried to walk on water and sank—like a rock.[3] The disciples struggle to pull in the net and when they get to the beach they realize Jesus has already prepared breakfast. But Jesus doesn’t just let those good fish go to waste. He encourages the disciples to bring some of them over and add them to the fire. Jesus uses what we offer to make the banquet table even larger—there’s a message here.

        Like the other post-resurrection appearances, there’s also bit of mystery. Why do we even have verse twelve? After Jesus calls them in for breakfast, we’re told that no one dared to ask, “Who are you?” They knew it was Jesus, but the text leaves us wondering what’s going on. Furthermore, they don’t recognize Jesus right off. It’s only when they follow his suggestion that they encounter him. There’s probably a lesson in that, too. When we listen to Jesus and do what he says, our relationship grows.

         There are three things that happen to the disciples in this passage that we should take to heart. First, Jesus comes to us. Jesus shows up at the most unexpected places. In these stories, he doesn’t show up at church or the synagogue or the temple. Instead, it’s at work, after or before visiting hours. Think about the post-resurrection appearances. Except for meeting the disciples on the road to Emmaus, Jesus always shows up on the shoulders of the day (at daybreak and in the evening). In this case, Jesus arrives as the disciples are finishing up their night shift at a job that wasn’t going to be paying much this day. As followers of Jesus, we must be ready for whenever our Savior decides to pop by. Jesus is not just Lord over Sunday or over religion, he is Lord of all, and can meet us wherever we find ourselves. This is good news in a time that many of us find ourselves prisoners in our own homes! Yes, Jesus can show up even there, you’ll just have to let him in.

A second thing we learn is that Jesus doesn’t just give us all we need. Yes, Jesus had the fire going with fish and bread being prepared, but notice he doesn’t say to the disciples: “We don’t need those 153 fish, throw ‘em back.” That would have belittled their efforts. Jesus doesn’t even take credit for helping with the catch. Instead, Jesus invites the disciples to bring some of what they caught and to place them over the coals. Jesus uses what we have and expands it.

          Let me tell you a story to illustrate this. Many of the photos I’ve using today came from a 2008 trip into the Quetico Wilderness in Western Ontario. The guy at the camp stove you see now is Doc Spindler. One morning, he was talking about having pancakes and so proud of himself for prepacking everything he needed. To be helpful, Jim Bruce (who visited us here at SIPC in February and seen in the picture with the full plate) and I went out early that morning, braving the bears as we picked a quart of so of blueberries. We brought them back and Doc was so happy to have blueberries to mix into pancakes. You use what you’re given. Doc knows this. Although a great guy, however, Doc isn’t Jesus. Instead of the baggie with pancake mix, he used a package of meal for frying fish and the blueberry pancakes ended up coming out like goulash. But with a little syrup and butter and an empty stomach, it was still good.

Jesus takes our gifts, our talents, and employs them in manners beyond what we ever imagined. We just need to be willing to share our blessings. What have we’ve been blessed with that we could offer Jesus for his use in the building of his kingdom?

         Finally, Jesus feeds us. In this case, he fed the disciples a hearty breakfast of fish and bread. But Jesus, who calls all who are weary to accept his yoke, will restore our tired souls and feed our minds and bodies with his presence and comfort.[4] We know, that with him, we have nothing to worry about, for his love is greater than death. When we’re burdened, and let’s face it, we’re all burdened these days as we worry about what’s going to happen, we should call on and depend upon Jesus. He’ll stand by us when no one else will. Amen.

 

 

Commentaries Consulted:

Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John XII-XXI: The Anchor Bible (          Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1970

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

Sloyan, Gerald, John: Interpretation, A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988).

 

©2020

[1] Next Sunday, we’ll look at the last half of John 21.

[2] Luke 24:36-49.

[3] Matthew 14:28-30

[4] Matthew 11:30.

Walking Around Austin

Austin, from Zikler Park

The other day I was telling someone about going to Austin in early March. He told me of all the places he lived, that he liked Austin the best, that it was a blueberry in a bowl of tomato soup (that’s a political joke, you’ll have to figure it out).

Was it only two months ago that I was in Austin? This is a weird time we’re living. In early March, two days before I flew down for a seminar by the Foundation for Reformed Theology on the writings of John Leith, a Presbyterian theologian of the second half of the twentieth century, South by Southwest was cancelled. I didn’t realize just how large of a music event this was, which may have explained why there were so few rental cars available. But I flew down in flights that, once they called up standbys, were full. This was only two months ago.

The 7 11’s where I grew up never had signs like that! Was it formerly a bar or tavern? Photo taken on a walk around town.

My flight options into Austin from Savannah were not great. Since I had to be at Austin Theological Seminary on Monday at nine in the morning, I considered preaching on Sunday and then flying down. But by waiting until the afternoon, the earliest I could get to Austin was 10:30 PM, which would have put me exhausted. Instead, I decided to fly down early on Saturday. This would leave me a day and a half to explore the city, before engaging in discussions.  It was a good choice. On March 7th, I took an early flight to Atlanta and then on to Austin, arriving in the city at 11 AM. I’d decided to forgo renting a car, so I took a bus (that seemed to be waiting on me) into town. I got off just north of University of Texas’ campus and two blocks south of the seminary.  It was a few minutes after noon when I arrived.

The guy at the guest counter was accompanying for my early arrival. I dropped my bags in my room. While they normally don’t have food service during the weekend, this day there was a multi-cultural seminar going on and some of the faculty, who were talking behind me as I asked the person at the desk where to go for lunch, invited me to join them. I had wonderful homemade tamales and other Mexican and Native American food. It was made even better as I got to talk over lunch with a number of the students at the seminar.

Near the LBJ museum

Then I headed out. As I have been reading Robert Caro’s multi-volume biography of the first President I can really remember, Lyndon Johnson, I head over to his library and museum on the east side of UT’s campus.  I was curious of the spin they’d put on this complex man. I thought the library looked like an oversized mausoleum.  As I came into the museum, a docent greeted me. I was told that it was a free day, which surprised me, but I didn’t complain.  We talked a few minutes and I had to tell him the first joke I can remember, which probably came from an old Boy’s Life magazine around 1965:

What do you get when you up your finger in the President’s ear?
Johnson’s wax.

I was sure he had heard it, but it turns out he had not and had me tell it to a few others working in the museum. While the museum was honest about some of LBJ’s struggles and failures, it avoided dealing with some of his childhood and education issues and the extramarital affairs he had. Caro tells of LBJ’s affair with the wife of one of his big financial supporters. Forget morality, that took nerve (and a lot of risk)!  One of the neat displays had a wax figure of Johnson telling jokes. LBJ was known for his jokes and stories (and getting into people’s faces).

Large prehistorical Texas bird

It was around 4:30 when I left the library. I headed over to the Texas Memorial museum. By the time I got there, I only had 20 minutes, but since I was told the day was free, I decided to see what I could. I also asked why things were free and learned that this day, at the beginning of the South-by-Southwest festival, is the traditional day for upcoming freshmen to visit the University of Texas. So, they made things free. The orientation day had been canceled, but they kept the museums free.  The Memorial Museum focuses on natural history and has a huge skeleton of a prehistoric bird that practically fills the main room on the first floor. Texas does like to show off how big things are there.

After my rush tour through the Natural History Museum, I walked over to Pho Thai Son, a Vietnamese restaurant I’d seen along Guadalupe Street, on the far side of the campus.  I enjoyed an evening meal of Pork and Lemon Grass on a salad base. I then walked back to my room at the Seminary and went to bed early.

I found this a little sad… there must be some lonely rivers somewhere.

 

 

I’d decided to attend church at Central Presbyterian, which was about a mile and a half walk from the seminary.  It was the day we changed to daylight saving time, but since I was an hour off from my usual time, I didn’t notice losing the hour. Since there was no meal service at the seminary on the weekends, I left early hoping that I could find something to eat along the way. Walking through the campus on the “Speedway,” I came upon a unique sculpture. I often wondered what happened to all those old aluminum canoes from the 70s. Now I know, they are welded into a canoe tree that stands to the side of the speedway (which is really a walkway). Getting to church early, without passing anyplace to eat, I find Bidemans Deli, a block to the west.  I had breakfast and read till a few minutes before church was to begin at 10 AM. At church, they started with an announcement about the closing of South-by-Southwest. This church was a site for many of the musical venues, but without the event, they were out of a lot of money. I was impressed that the church included all types of people. There were homeless (which they feed afterwards) and those in suits. I was casually dressed as I planned to make the most of my day.  Most of the congregation was on the younger side, but I learned that many of their regulars who were older were not there out of the fear of the virus. There was a guest preacher this day. He was articulate, and I enjoyed listening to him even if he spent a little too much time talking about himself and his family.

Reflection of the Catholic Cathedral

After church was over, I backtracked and attended the sermon part of the mass at the Catholic Cathedral.  There, the priest must have been Vietnamese or from somewhere in Southeast Asia. His homily was packed with information, but he read the sermon and never made eye contact. I found myself wondering if he had even written the sermon, or if he was just reading someone else’s. However, unlike the Presbyterian Church where people were already staying away due to virus fears, the Catholic Church was packed. I listened to the homily and then left, heading to the capitol as my first stop as a tourist.

The Texas capitol looks a lot like the United States capitol, only dirty. It is also a few feet taller, something Texans are proud of and I have no idea how many people bragged about this to me. Not wanting to start a war, I did not tell them I thought their capitol looked dirty. I wanted to make it safely out of the state. The “dirty look” comes from the reddish colored marble. Originally, they were going to use limestone, but found that Texas limestone discolors. The contractor suggested importing white marble from Indiana, but that flew over about as well as a block of marble. Instead, they found a Texas quarry that could mine this reddish-brown marble and used it. Texas tried to build its capitol on the cheap (using convict labor). The miners in the quarry decided to strike instead of teaching the convicts how to do their job, which meant that the marble cost more than planned. But they saved on all other aspects of the building.

One of many water features in the Botanical Gardens

After touring the inside of the capitol, I walked around looking at the monuments dotting the grounds, then headed South. I had wanted to go see Ladybird Johnson’s wildflowers, but learned that was two miles beyond bus service. So instead, I headed to Zikler Botanical Garden. Walking south, I crossed the Colorado River on the Congress Avenue Bridge, known for its large colony of bats during the summer (they are not normally seen until April). Then I headed up Barton Springs Road, stopping for an ice cream cone to tide me over till dinner time. Along the way, I passed Terry Black’s Barbecue. They had five huge cookers going, using split hardwood. I talked with one of the pit workers and knew where I was going to go for dinner.  I head on to the Botanical Gardens, which sit up on a hill overlooking Austin. I enjoy the view and the scenery, especially the Japanese garden. There were many lovely water features that started at the top of the hill and created cascading creeks flowing down the sides.

After a few hours of walking through the gardens and some time to write and read, I began my walk back along the river, watching several rowing crews practice on the water. Then I cut back over to Barton Springs Road, where I’m shocked at the line at Terry Black’s. I was told it was a 45-minute wait. If folks are waiting that long it must be good, I thought, and joined the line. It was.  I had some of their pork and a brisket, both which were good. The banana pudding was passable.

The sun was setting by the time I was fed. I continued back toward the campus several miles away, crossing the river on the Lamar Street bridge.  I walked fast through a mostly empty city, arriving back at the campus around 8:30 PM. Several of those in the seminar had arrived and we talked a bit. They had not eaten and decide to go out for dinner while I read a bit before turning in early.  It had been a good day and I figured I’d walked at least 15 miles.

Chapel at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary (The trees were just beginning to bud out)

The rest of the week rushed by. We meet for three hours each morning and another three hours in the afternoon, followed by dinner. The first night was at La Mancha, a Tex-Mex establishment. On Tuesday night, we had barbecue at “The County Line,” which had a wonderful view of a stream that look so inviting for fishing. Wednesday, we ate “Hoovers,” a well known Southern cuisine establishment that’s been featured on “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives.” All were excellent restaurants. While we were involved in talking and making presentations, we kept an eye on the stock market and on the news of the country shutting down due to COVID-19. The market was taking some huge drops, would regain a bit, then drop again. There was a weird feeling in the air. In the seminary’s lunchroom, they were wiping the tables and putting up safety signs.

On Wednesday evening, I worked on a letter to go out to the congregation. With staff, we sent drafts back and forth, ironing out safety procedures for worshipping during a pandemic. After several revisions and phone calls, they sent the letter (which I posted here) out on Thursday in an email blast.

“The Bible”

Our last day was Thursday. John, another participant, and I had half a day, so we skipped the airport shuttle and walked over to the Harry Reason Center at UT’s campus. This building holds collections of interesting historical artifacts and papers. We both took pictures standing behind an original Gutenberg Bible. They had an exhibit of David Forster Wallace and Gabriel García Márquez, both of whom the Center holds many of their papers. Both exhibits were interesting. We then headed back to the seminary, picked up our bags and took the bus to the airport. It was March 12, and a completely different attitude could be felt. The place was not very crowded. We flew through security and after a final dinner, we were on our way home in half-filled airplanes. The world had changed.

I was always a little nervous walking around this tower on UT’s campus

 

When I went into the office on Friday, exhausted from the travels, things were seriously shutting down. While we decided not to shut-down worship on Sunday, we sent another email out to the congregation, encouraging them to stay home and to watch our service via live-stream. All but one other of the churches on the island had closed. We only had around 35 in worship on March 15. It was the last week of any kind of regular service. Ever since, a skeleton crew of 6 or 7 have put together a live-streamed worship service. Our draft pandemic procedures were quickly made obsolete.

It now seems as if it was two years ago that I was walking around Austin.

Cuppy and Stew (and a moon-rise)

Eric Goodman, Cuppy and Stew: The Bombing of Flight 629, A Love Story (San Francisco: IF SF Publishing, 2020), 220 pages with a few photographs.

The narrator is Susan, the youngest daughter of Cuppy and Stew, who died in the crash of United 629 in 1955. She and her sister, Sherry, are orphaned and sent to Canada, where their parents are from, even though they were born in South Africa and were living in the United States. The book nicely divides in half, with the first part providing us the background of their parent’s steamy romance. This led their father accepting a position as a mining engineer in South Africa. Then came the Second World War. Stuck in South Africa, they had two kids. After the war, they move to the United States and are living near Chicago. With the father having been estranged from his family (I won’t give it away, you will have to read the book to learn why), the girls maternal grandmother stays with them while their parents travel by plane to the West Coast. They change planes in Denver, at which time their lives unknowingly intersect a disturbed young man who had stashed a dynamite bomb in his mother’s suitcase. The man then purchased insurance on his mother. The plane, which should have been high over the mountains when the dynamite exploded, had been delayed and was only ten minutes into the flight. Everyone died, but because the crash was over farmland, it was quickly discovered how the plane crashed and who had done the deed. The bomber’s pending execution hangs over the two girls.

After the crash, the girl’s adolescent years in Canada are horrible. They first live with the grandmother who has many problems of her own. Then there are other relatives and foster families and a boarding school. The girls face abuse-emotional, physical and sexual. Susan, the narrator, is able to escape (she goes to Northwestern for college), while Sherry is trapped and unable to escape the dysfunctional situation she and her sister found themselves in as younger girls. The book is both hopeful and sad. There are adults whom the reader will want to slap upside the head and ask why they have to be such a monster or so cruel. And there are others who do what they can to look out for the girls. Children should never be pawns. Sadly, however, too many are pawns in an impersonal world, as show in this story.

This is a very personal book for Goodman. While it is book of fiction, it is based on his wife’s and sister-in-law’s story. Their parents died on United 629. The book reads well and quickly. This is the second book I’ve read by Goodman. Two years ago, in preparation to taking a writing class from him at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, I read and reviewed his book, Days of Awe.
###

High tide last night was at 9 PM. I went out around 8 PM, catching the last of the sunset and then watching the moonrise, paddling around Pigeon Island (approximately 5 miles). The tide was very high and I could easily go through the marsh. Here’s a poor quality photo taken with a smart phone from a kayak that was slightly rocking from the gentle waves. The photo doesn’t do the view justice. It was an incredible sight and the paddle was delightful

 

Leftovers for a Risen King

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Luke 24:36-49
May 3, 2020

The worship service can be watched on YouTube. The sermon starts at 15:01 and is over at 36:06, in case you would like to fast forward to just catch the sermon (or watch all but the sermon). Just click here to be taken to YouTube. 

We are continuing our look at the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. As I said last week, Luke provides three vignettes of Jesus on that first Easter. The first is with the women at the empty tomb, then Jesus meets up with the disciples along the road to Emmaus. Somewhere, too, this day, we’re told Jesus encountered Simon Peter, but we’re not give a first-hand account of that meeting, just an after-the-fact mention.[1] The final meeting on this first Easter is similar to the Easter Evening description in John’s gospel, but there are some differences we should explore. In Luke, the disciples are confused and wonder if Jesus is a ghost. Jesus points to himself and his “flesh and bones” as an indication that it is really him. Then, Jesus asks if there is something to eat. After all, ghosts (according to their belief) didn’t eat. Jesus is given some leftovers from dinner.

I don’t have a classic photo to show you of this encounter. Artists seem more interested in painting the Emmaus story or the story of Thomas sticking his hand in Jesus’ wounds. So, let’s think for a minute about leftovers. Leftovers doesn’t seem suitable fare for a risen king, does it? Cold fish? But Jesus surprises us. Just as he was born a king, but in a manger and not a castle, upon his resurrection, Jesus doesn’t expect a fancy banquet. Just a piece of broiled fish. Simple food, the food of the masses.

Jesus isn’t pretentious. With Jesus, it’s never about having the best stuff. Instead, it’s about relationships and being connected to God the Father. Sometimes his followers forget this. We build fancy cathedrals in his honor. But for a man who lived most of his life on the road, one should ask if this is where Jesus would feel at home? For this reason, those of us in the Presbyterian and Reformed Tradition have tended to shun that which is flashy.[2] Our buildings tend to be simple and functional. Our Scottish ancestors saw to it that even clergy dress is simple. Most of us wear Geneva gowns, more akin to the academy than to the high church. We’re simple folk, which brings us back to leftovers. It’s the perfect meal. Don’t waste things; make the best of what God has given you, and be thankful.

For those of us who are living in this strange time of pandemic, this is a good reminder that we should be thankful for what we have, even leftovers. Read Luke 24:36-49.

         One of the common characteristics of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus is that no one is looking for him, and no one “finds him.” Instead, Jesus just shows up. The disciples are hearing from the women about Jesus not being in the tomb, reports of him being in Emmaus, and from Simon Peter. But they don’t send out a search party to find Jesus. They’re scared. They lock themselves into a room while discussing what they consider as rumors. And when Jesus mysteriously shows up, they freak out. “It’s a ghost!”

          One of the lessons we should learn from the resurrection stories is that Jesus controls both his and our destinies. It’s not about us going out looking for God, it’s about God looking for us. There are no barriers that we can put up to avoid God. The disciples discovered this when Jesus pops in. This is good news for those of us sheltering and avoiding contact with others in order to stay healthy during this pandemic. While we might not be able to go to church on Sunday mornings, God can invade the privacy of our homes. We can’t keep God out. As Jesus shows us, God is in control. That’s good, because we can screw things up, so we’re a lot better off depending upon the God who surprises us, than depending on our own inability to bring us back into a relationship with the Almighty. This is what the Presbyterian doctrine of election or predestination is all about.

          But before the disciples can understand this, they must realize who this is that has invaded their meeting. In their mind, Jesus is dead. You don’t come back to this life once grasp the idea that he is risen. First, he asks for a bite to eat. It’s been a while since his last supper. It’s important that they see food going in his mouth (see food, seafood, get it?). Jesus then points to his flesh and bones. Luke wants to assure us that Jesus’ appearance to the disciples after his death isn’t just wishful thinking on their part.[3] The disciples expect Jesus to be dead and his appearance strikes fear in them. Jesus assures them what is happening by eating and showing his body. Still, his presence in the resurrection state creates questions for us such as how just how he got through the walls and locked doors.[4] Because Jesus is also God, there are mysteries we can never comprehend.

          The second thing Jesus does, which is like what he did with those in Emmaus, is to help the disciples understand the scriptures. Jesus wants them to grasp the idea that his suffering, death, and resurrection has been God’s plan.[5] The Law of Moses (or what the Jews call the Torah or the first five books of our Old Testament), along with the prophets and Psalms, all point to Jesus Christ. God is working out history with humans, which means there is much in the Scriptures that’s messy. We had this discussion yesterday in the men’s Bible study. We are reading Genesis. As humans, we have a hard time understanding stories like that of Tamar playing the role of a prostitute, yet finding a place in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus.[6] God has a way of redeeming us and working through us to bring about his purposes. We might screw things up, but God can make it right. Again, that’s the doctrine of election or predestination at work.

This brings me to the last point I want to make on this passage. Jesus doesn’t open their eyes only so they can understand what had happened that weekend which began on that terrible (yet good) Friday. Jesus is preparing these misfits, who denied and abandoned him, to continue with his ministry and to take it to the ends of the world. Throughout these post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, there is a call to mission. The disciples are to be Jesus’ witnesses.[7]

         Of course, because this is God’s doing, not the disciples’, they will need to be given the strength and ability to carry this mission out. Jesus, in his commission to the disciples in Luke’s gospel, is looking forward to the: coming of the Holy Spirit, to Pentecost, after which the disciples will take Jesus’ message to the end of the world.[8] As I insisted over and over again when preaching through Luke’s second book known of as “the Acts of the Apostles,” it should have been called, “The Acts of God through the Apostles.” For it wasn’t the Apostles that made the difference, it was God working through them. With God, all is possible. Without God, nothing is possible.[9]

So, what can we take away from this passage as we sit, isolated, in our homes? First, while we keep others at a distance (and for a good reason as we are striving to stop this virus), we can’t keep Jesus out. You never know where he might show up. But don’t worry if you’re in your pajamas or an old sweat suit. That doesn’t bother Jesus, just as he won’t be offended if you offered him leftovers from the fridge. But understand this. Jesus doesn’t just show to make us feel better. He shows up because he has a job for us to do. He shows up to encourage us to trust in God and to be his ambassadors, starting where we are at and then to the ends of the world. Jesus shows up to call us to be gracious and thankful even during a pandemic.

          Jesus shows up and calls us because, sooner or later, we are no longer going to be hiding in our home. Life will open back up and when that happens, we need to be ready (just as the disciples were ready on Pentecost) to go into the world and make a difference. Think of this time we’re in as a Sabbath. Like the disciples, we rest today. In a short while, there will be plenty for us to do. As followers of Jesus, we’re to change the world, to make it a kinder more generous and gracious, home. May we catch that vision and live into it. Amen.

 

©2020

[1] Luke 24:34

[2] See Book of Order F-2.05 and Westminster Larger Catechism Question 141.

[3] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 729.

[4] While Luke doesn’t mention locked doors, it is still apparent that Jesus suddenly appearing in the midst of the disciples is miraculous and unexplained. See John 20:19.

[5] Fred B. Craddock, Luke: Interpretation, a Biblical Commentary for Preaching and Teaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 291.

[6] Genesis 38 (especially verses 14-19) and Matthew 1;3.

[7] In Matthew 28, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary are sent to tell the disciples, then the disciples are sent to tell the world. In Mark 16:15, the disciples are to go tell the world. In John, Mary Magdalene is sent to tell the disciples (John 20:17); the disciples are sent into the world to forgive sin (John 20:21-22); and Peter is sent to tend and love Jesus’ “sheep.” (John 21:15-23). In the cases where there is not implicit instruction, the disciples seem to know that they are to go tell about Jesus’ resurrection as in the case with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13ff).

[8] Edwards, 735.

[9] Matthew 19:26, Mark 10:27.

Making the best of things during a pandemic

lunch and morning coffee included

Surprisingly, things have been pretty busy for the past six weeks. You’d think t hat wouldn’t be the case since many places are closed down to visitors so I’m not making hospital or nursing home visits. Our office is closed for public visitation, but since they’re all separated, some of us still come in. Learning how to keep a congregation somewhat connected during a time of pandemic has taken it’s toll. Nothing is as easy as you’d think. The main thing that has keep me sane is that I’ve been able to regularly bike to work–which is good for the 3.2 miles each way gives me some physical exercise since the fitness center is closed. Plus, if I’m not going to the hospital, I don’t need a car, and since people only see me via a zoom camera, I can wear a dress shirt and shorts!  That’s me, riding to work one cool morning this week.

 

But by last week, things were clicking and I was able to get out on the water twice. Last Wednesday, I paddled over to Wassaw Island, took a nap and did some reading and writing while on the island, then paddled back. It’s about five miles each way. While I paddled with the tide, I had quite a wind against me heading out (thankfully the wind was to my back when I paddled home.

Nap Time on Wassaw

On the two trips I did, I decided to try to do a “devotion” from my kayak. I recorded these on Facebook live and had a lot of folks watching and commenting. Then I copied and posted in my newly created YouTube channel, so you can watch. I need to learn to do this a little smoother, but I’m curious as to what you think. The first (3 minutes) is a prayer by a favorite Scottish theologian of the early 20th Century, John Braille. The second includes two poems (one by Mary Karr and the other by me) along with a Puritan prayer. Clink on the links below:

Earth Day Prayer

Two Poems and a Prayer

Friday, Paddling around Pigeon Island

How are you surviving the pandemic? I hope you have been able to get outside–it’s a great way to enjoy while creating social distance.

Encountering Jesus Along the Way

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
April 26, 2020
Luke 24:13-35

To watch the entire service (approximately 40 minutes), click here to go to our YouTube site.

           It is solved by walking, Augustine of Hippo said.[1] I believe it. When I don’t know what to do, I often take a walk (or ride a bicycle or spend time in a kayak). There’s something about getting out and moving that helps us re-center ourselves. It’s especially true during these times of social isolation. We need to get some fresh air and pick up a little sunshine. It helps our mental state. And maybe that’s why the two disciples in today’s scripture reading decided to hike over to Emmaus. After all, they’d had a bad week. We’ve all had some bad weeks lately and could all probably use a good walk. The weather is going to be nice today—just maintain a safe social distance.

As we’ve done through Lent and have continued through the Easter season, I’m going to use a piece of art to help us get into the text for today. Our picture shows two disciples flanking Jesus as they walk along the road. Now, as we’ll see when we get into the text, they don’t recognize Jesus. We do! He’s in the middle (remember my sermon from last week-Jesus is always in the middle and we need to keep him there.). Also, Jesus is wearing white! That’s a dead giveaway! One of the disciples holds a scroll and Jesus is obviously helping him understand what he’s reading. But let’s step away and get into the mind of what this lad, over on the edge, might be thinking.

          I have a lot of time to think out here, watching the sheep. I see a lot of people coming and going. Jerusalem, the Holy City, is just over the rise, a few miles away. These three were heading away from the city and engaged in a great debate. Even with my back turned, I could hear them a mile away. And as they were talking, the third guy, the one in a white robe, catches up with them. He joins their conversation. They seem rather surprised that he didn’t know what they were talking about. There’s this man, supposedly a king, who’d been crucified. But then he starts asking questions and I can tell they are intrigued. Here, a guy who didn’t seem to know the news, yet knows the scriptures.

          Later in the day, as the sun is setting, I see the two men again, rushing back toward Jerusalem. They are joyous and excited. I wondered what happened to the third man, the one who seemed to know so much.

 

It’s still Easter in our text, the afternoon after word began to spread around about Jesus not being in the tomb. People are trying to figure this all out. One of the things that I like about Luke’s retelling of the resurrection is how he gives three different stories which all happened that first Easter Sunday. There is the account of the women and Peter at the empty tomb early in the morning. Then there is this account that happens along to the road to Emmaus. Finally, there is the appearance of Jesus among the disciples at a fish fry. In today’s account, we learn that what happened was necessary and foretold by prophets. The Messiah had to suffer, die and rise again.[2]

In the account we’re looking at today, we join up with two disciples walking to Emmaus, a town which according to Luke was about seven miles from Jerusalem. We’re not sure, today, where Emmaus was located. One of the disciples is identified as Cleopas, and we don’t really know who he is as this is his only mention in Scripture. It’s assumed these two disciples were not part of Jesus’ inner-circle (the twelve) but of a larger group of those who followed Jesus.[3] Some think the unnamed disciple might have been Cleopas’ wife. Perhaps they were two of the 70 disciples Luke mentions in the tenth chapter, who were sent out by Jesus.

On this occasion, they are walking and discussing the events of the past few days when they are joined by a stranger. This makes sense to me, as I have walked a lot in my life. I recall numerous occasions along the Appalachian Trail where I was talking to someone and a third person comes up behind us and, overhearing what we were talking about, puts his two cents worth.

Interestingly, they do not recognize Jesus. Certainly, if they had traditional robes and head coverings, it could be hard to recognize him, but we’d think they would be familiar with his voice. But Verse 16 indicates that their eyes were prevented from seeing Jesus, which parallels what happens in the guest house, where their eyes were opened.[4]

When the stranger joins them, he asks, essentially, “What’s going on?” Think about this. It’s been a troubling few days in Jerusalem. This is kind of like someone coming up to you in the grocery store, way too close, while you’re decked out with gloves and a mask, and ask what’s up with the gloves and masks. Does this person not know what’s going on with the COVID virus?[5]  Cleopas, the only disciple named, questions him harshly. “Are you the only one that doesn’t know what’s happened? It seems odd that this stranger is clueless, and they fill Jesus in on all that has happened. They witness to Jesus, about Jesus! But it turns out, Jesus’ isn’t so clueless. He helps them understand the Scriptures by asking a question. It has been said that questions “help tune the soul,” as they help “illumine the world.”[6] Jesus’ question, on the need for the Messiah to suffer before glory, does this. Jesus, whom they still don’t know, helps these disciples see the Scriptures in a new way.

There’s a part of me that feels as if Jesus is playing with the two disciples. Yes, he knew very well what happened in Jerusalem over the past few days. But Jesus, instead of pulling down hood of his robe and demanding the disciples look him in the eye, or maybe showing them his hands and feet, takes the time to lead these disciples to the point in which they can accept and understand what happens. Jesus is never in a hurry; he takes his time, helping us to understand God’s grace.

The disciples, who still haven’t figured out who Jesus is, appreciate his words and invite him to eat with them in Emmaus. We have the sense Jesus was willing to just keep on walking, but hospitality is appreciated, and Jesus’ accepts. This sets up an occasion for him to break bread with the two disciples and it is in that act that their eyes are opened, and they recognize him.

Something else happens. Jesus, at the table, goes from being the guest to the host.[7] The disciples are rewarded for their hospitality, perhaps foreshadowing what would later be written in the Book of Hebrews, “Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it.”[8] In this case, it’s not just an angel. It’s the Lord himself.

As they walked to Emmaus, I imagine the two disciples lollygagging along. Their heads are down, they’re kicking stones. They’re sad about Jesus and not sure what to think of the rumors they’ve heard. Their slow pace allows this stranger to catch up with them and join in their conversation.  Afterwards, after Jesus opens their eyes, they run back to Jerusalem. Their pace picks up. They have a purpose. They head back to find the disciples and to share the story of their encounter.

Jesus gives us a purpose. In the other resurrection stories, Jesus sent off those he met with a mission. Mary Magdalene is to go tell the disciples. The disciples are to build a church on forgiveness. But here, Jesus just disappears. However, the two disciples know what to do. This is just too glorious to keep to themselves. They must share the message with others, so they head back to Jerusalem to tell the disciples.

In some ways, our encounters with Christ are probably more like these two disciples walking to Emmaus. There are very few Damascus Road experiences, like that of Paul. It ranks up there with Moses’ burning unburned bush. Most of us experience Christ, like these two, when we realize something someone said caused our hearts to burn, or when someone opens Scripture and we learned the eternal truths of God’s Word. And when something like that happens, we must tell someone. It’s a Truth we can’t keep to ourselves. This is how our faith spreads. We encounter Christ through his word or through someone who speaks to us about Christ and then Christ becomes real to us.

When Christ became real to these two disciples, they rushed off to tell others. What do we do? How do we respond? How does our faith change our lives? In this time of social distancing we might not be able to barge into a neighbor’s house sharing the good news, but there are still ways we can let people know what we’ve found to be true. There are ways we can let people witness our faith, for we have a story that demands to be told. Amen.

 

©2020

[1] Solviture ambulando. It’s one of my Augustine’s more well-known sayings that has been often quoted.

[2] See Luke 24:6-7, 25-27, and 46.

[3] Norval Geldenhuys, The Gospel of Luke: The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 632.

[4] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 716-717, 724.

[5] This story came from Jill Duffield, “Looking into the Lectionary-3rd Sunday of Easter,” The Presbyterian Outlook (April 20, 2020).

[6] Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred (New York: MJF Books, 1998), 24.

[7] Edwards, 723.

[8] Hebrews 13:2, New Living Translation.

Three Books: Civility, Theology, & Poetry

What are you reading this days?  Looking for a good book while you isolate yourself? Here are three books from books I recently read. It’s by sheer accident that two of them discuss Epictetus (but different parts of his philosophy):

P. M. Forni, The Civility Solution: What to Do When People are Rude (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008), 266 pages including notes.

The late P. M. Forni was the founder of the Civility Institute at John Hopkins University. In this short book, he deals with issues we face all the time, rude people. He encourages his readers to take the high and honest road when dealing with such folks. It’s the only way to build a more civil world.

In the first chapter, Forni defines rudeness as a disregard for others and an attempt to “control through invalidation”. He lists the costs rudeness has for individuals, the economy, and society: stress, loss of self-esteem, loss of productivity, and the potential of violence. He also discusses the cause of rudeness, which is simplifies as a bad “state of mind”.

In the second chapter, Forni presents and explains how to prevent rudeness by listing and explaining eight rules for a civil life:

Slow down and be present in your life
Listen to the voice of empathy
Keep a positive attitude
Respect others and grant them plenty of validation
Disagree graciously and refrain from arguing
Get to know the people around you
Pay attention to the small things
Ask, don’t tell

In the third chapter, Forni writes about how we can “accept real-life rudeness.” He quotes Epictetus, who encourages us to want things to happen as they happen for a life to go well. After all, we can’t control other people, and if we expect that there will be rudeness in life, we won’t be surprised. But once we accept the situation, then we can act upon it, which may be to remove ourselves or to refuse to be react. “Rudeness is someone else’s problem foisted on you,” Forni notes (62). Once we accept reality, we may choose to respond appropriately and even assertively to redirect the situation.

In the fourth chapter, Forni writes about how we respond to rudeness, but does so by beginning with a wonderful (and very rude example) from two 18th Century British politicians. Scolding his rival, John Montagu cried, “Upon my soul, Wilkes, I don’t know whether you’ll die upon the gallows or of syphilis.” Wilkes responded, “That will depend, my Lord, on whether I embrace your principles, or your mistress” (67). Forni suggests that when we encounter rudeness, we cool off, calm ourselves, don’t take it personally (most often it’s not personal), and then decide what we need to do. While we do not need to respond to all situations, we don’t want to ignore all situations, either. When we do decide to confront, we need to state the problem, inform the offending party of its effect upon you, and request such behavior to cease. Forni then lists special situations such as bullying, rudeness at work, and rudeness with children.

The second half of the book consists of a series of case studies. Starting with those close to us, Forni offers examples of rudeness that we might face along with a solution to how we might confront the behavior. Other chapters deal with rudeness from neighbors, at the workplace, on the road, from service workers, and within digital communications. While these chapters contained many important ideas and examples, it essentially applied the principals laid out in the first half of the book.  It’s too bad that Forni is no longer with us. He could have updated this issue with a section on political rudeness.

Another of Forni’s books have been on reading list for some time. This book was brought to me by a colleague, who had found it at a book exchange and brought it for me, knowing of my interest in civility.  I was glad to read it and would recommend it. I also look forward to reading more of Forni’s writings.
###

 

N. T. Wright, Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 223 pages including a scripture index.

This is a collection of twelve lectures crafted into independent articles addressing many contemporary issues in the world: the debate over science and religion, the role of women within the church, the environmental crisis, evil, natural disasters,  politics, and the future. For those who have some familiarity with Wright’s theology, you will see many of these topics addressed with his recognizable theology of the cross and resurrection ushering in a new era in which we now live. The resurrection is the eighth day of a new creation brought to us by God the Redeemer (paralleling the new creation in Genesis). For Wright, the purpose of salvation is to restore us to stewards of creation (36).  Wright is also critical of the adoption of Epicureanism during the Enlightenment, which allowed us to do away with “God.” The result is that we’ve gone back to the old gods of Aphrodite, Mammon, and Mars.  In other words, we’ve “got rid of God upstairs so that we can live our own lives the way we want…. And have fallen back into the clutches of forces and energies that are bigger than ourselves… forces we might as well recognize as god” (149-154). Wright also draws some interesting comparisons from his native home in the United Kingdom to the religious situation in American. He points out how the “right” is seen as the savior of religion in American, and how it’s the “left” in Britain that for the past forty years have tried to restore religion to the public life (164). The closing essays looks at the future. While debunking ideas such as the rapture and others end world scenarios popularized by the “Left Behind” series, he leaves his readers with a more hopeful vision of the future.  I enjoyed these essays. They left me with a lot to ponder and I recommend the book to others interested in how the Christian faith might inform our lives and world today.
###

 

Laura Davenport, Dear Vulcan: poems (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2020), 63 pages.

There is much about the South in these poems. Her grandfather’s grandfather walks back from Richmond in the spring of 1865, burying his burdens along the way. A girl becomes a woman in the industrial city of Birmingham, Alabama, with its mile-long coal trains snaking around closed steel mills. While the title poem, “Dear Vulcan,” is set in Birmingham, Davenport explores many places across the region. There are urban and rural settings, places inland and others by the ocean. Hell is seen in a basement pool hall. The August thunderstorm at night “washes summer metallic edge from the air.” There’s the city without women, which keeps reappearing, populated by a boy experiencing the world. Sexuality is explored in parked cars, church basements, and by a married couple drawn to each other in bed after painting the room. In each poem, the reader stumbles upon more pleasant surprises.

While I found much about the South in these poems that I related to, the one missing element was race. Birmingham was not just the Southern Pittsburgh; it was also the city of Bull O’Conner and the 16th Street Baptist Church where four young black girls waiting for their Sunday School class to begin, died in a racist firebombing. Perhaps, one could hope, this could be forgotten and buried or painted over, and we could have a South where race no longer mattered. But that’s my bias, instilled by growing up during the Civil Rights era. But maybe the absence of race (as in women in the poems in cities without women) is that the South often struggles to ignore that which it doesn’t want to face. In my own personal life, I am still amazed that I could live in a city in Virginia for three years, (this was before they segregated schools) and never realize that we (whites) made up only 20% of the population. For the South as a region to come of age, it’ll have to learn to face the unspeakable.  In the meantime, children become adults and must experience the world around them which Davenport captures beautifully.

I met Davenport through a writer’s group that I’m in. I was hoping to catch her book release, but it was the day after I had flown back from Austin, Texas, just as the country was shutting down over the fear of COVID-19. As I had been around several hundred of my “best friends” inside two airplanes, I decided it was best if I self-quarantined. I missed the reading at the Book Lady Bookstore but was able to pick up a signed copy of the book thanks to the “Booklady” (who had an employee drop the book off at my office on his way home). How’s that for service!
###

The Resurrection, Parts 2 & 3

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
April 19, 2020
John 20:19-29

 

Throughout this Easter Season, we’re looking at post-resurrection stories of Jesus. We find these mostly in the gospels of Luke and John. As we left off last week, Jesus had risen and had appeared to Mary Magdalene. He sent her off on a mission to tell the disciples. Prior to her arrival, all they know is that Jesus’ tomb is open, and his body is gone. They are fearful, worrying that they may end up facing the same kind of death Jesus’ endured. But that changes.

What is this resurrection about? What does it mean for us, today? In Richard Rohr’s devotional this week, he quoted Franciscan sister and scientist Ilia Delio:

Christianity can help us realize that death and resurrection are part of the evolutionary path toward wholeness; letting go of isolated existence for the sake of deeper union. Something dies but something new is born—which is why the chaos of our times is, in a strange way, a sign of hope; something new is being born within.[1]

Is this a time of hope? In this time of pandemic, what do we need to let go of? How might we become more whole? How might we develop a deeper union with Christ? Our text provides some suggestions.

We’re continuing to look at art to help us get into the Scriptures. Today’s painting, of Thomas checking out Jesus’ wounds, is by Caravaggio, an Italian painter of the late 16th and early 17th Century. Let’s get into the head of the other disciple looking over Thomas in this depiction of the event. What do you think was going on in his mind?

Like Thomas, I also have doubts. I was just not willing to speak up. Can this really be Jesus? After all, his body was so broken when they pulled him off the cross. Yet, he’s now in front of us. Jesus insists that Thomas, who doubted when they said Jesus had risen from the dead, stick his finger into his wound. I’m watching. Thomas is reluctant, but Jesus grabs his wrist and pulls his hand toward the wound. Can this really be the same Jesus, that just a little over a week ago, hung on a cross?  And is he the same Jesus we followed throughout Galilee? Will people believe us when we tell what we’ve experienced? I no longer understand what is happening, but I know that nothing will ever be the same.

Let us read from the gospel of John, chapter 20, beginning with verse 19.

 

          What a week it. From the Parade to the cross and now on the evening of the first day of a new week, the disciples gather in secret. The doors are locked. Everyone is exhausted. Fright and fatigue show on their faces. After three years, they only have each other. And now there’s a rumor going around, started by Mary Magdalene, that Jesus is alive. Some think it possible, but others believe it’s just idle tale?”[2]

        And then suddenly, as the sun sinks in the West, Jesus appears. How did he get through the locked doors? But here he is, when he belongs, in the middle of the middle of the gathered disciples. Jesus was the one who unites the disciples. He’s always in the middle. He was even in the middle of those crucified on Friday. The middle is where Jesus belongs.[3] Remember that!

Holding up his hands, greeting his friends, Jesus says: “Peace be with you.” What a sight! The nail holes are evident. There’s a rip in his side where the Roman spear was thrust. The fatigue on their faces disappear, but the fright remains.

Again, Jesus says: “Peace be with you,” only this time he continues, telling them that just as he was sent by the Father, he’s sending them out into the world. The unique thing about the resurrection is that Jesus speaks to the disciples as if they are his equals and able to continue in his mission. Then, reminiscence of God blowing breath into the nostrils of the clay figure there in the Garden, giving life to Adam, Jesus blows upon the disciples.[4] Obviously, they weren’t worried about COVID-19.

A week later, the disciples are again in the house… Again, it’s the first day of the week, Sunday, the day after the Jewish Sabbath, the day of resurrection, the primary day that most Christians worship.[5] Again, the doors are locked. The shades are pulled… So much for Jesus’ command to go out into the world… It’s been a week since they’ve seen the resurrected Christ, with his wounds still visible, yet they’re still hiding, still afraid for their lives, still afraid to go out into the world…  Then Jesus reappears. And, where is he? Standing there among the disciples—in the middle—where Jesus belongs.

Thomas, the empiricist who wants to see, sense, and touch Jesus before he commits himself to believing is also present. Knowing this, Jesus invites Thomas to place his finger in his wounds… Imagine Thomas reaching out his hand. And then he sees. In awe, Thomas cries out, “My Lord and my God!”

         We could argue that this is the climax of John’s gospel. “My Lord and my God,” acknowledges that Jesus is more than the Messiah. We get a whiff of this in Matthew’s gospel where we’re told the women at the tomb worshipped Jesus.[6] We don’t worship a person; we worship God. Thomas takes this a step further and declares that Jesus is God. His confession has gone beyond all other confessions of the disciples up to this point.[7] A doubter at first, Thomas is the first disciple to recognize Jesus as more than a teacher. Jesus is God. Furthermore, Thomas’ proclamation is a political statement. Roman emperors were addressed as “Our lord and god.” Here, Thomas confesses who truly is Lord and God, and it’s not Caesar or anyone else to whom we might be lured into professing allegiance.[8] By calling Jesus Lord, Thomas asserts Jesus is worthy to obey. By calling Jesus God, Thomas declares that Jesus should be worshipped, as we’re doing today.

N. T. Wright suggests that Thomas serves as a parable for our need to both have the historical and scientific facts. He wanted to touch, to experience, and to see. But when he claims Jesus to be God, he transcends the historical and scientific realm into something “higher and richer.” We’re into a new creation.[9]

         What all this means to us, today, two millenniums after the resurrection? Jesus’ last words in this passage are interesting. It’s a blessing on us. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” Jesus says.  Did you hear that?  He’s talking about you and me; he’s blessing those of us who have not had an opportunity to stick our fingers into his wounds. Instead of seeing, we believe due to the presence of the Holy Spirit and the testimony of others who have felt Jesus’ presence in their lives. And because we have faith in Jesus Christ, we’re to listen to his teachings and to live lives that strive to glorify him. That’s the challenge we have, as individuals, to listen to Jesus and to live faithful.

       Furthermore, as a community of believers, we’re able to offer forgive sins. That’s quite a task. You know, there are a lot of good things that the church does in the community that other groups can also do, and in some cases these groups can even do it better than the church. But there is one thing that no other group can do. The government can’t do it, civic clubs can’t do it, political parties can’t do it—and that’s forgive sins. As God, Jesus has this power and he grants it to his church. For this reason, the church is an essential business. But the church isn’t a building; the church is wherever God’s people are at, which now, hopefully, is in the safety of our homes.

There’s a lot of hope in this passage. We have a God who can do incredible things and I believe God is doing that right now. This pandemic is offering us a chance to pause and re-evaluate our lives and what is important. We have plenty of time as we sit around the house watching TV and reading novels. But just remember this, the church isn’t here in this building, it’s where you and all the other believers are located. And, more importantly, as it was in that first Easter, and the next Sunday, Jesus needs to be present, in the middle of us. It’s easy to be depress these days, but Jesus is here, ready to give us strength and hope and encouragement. While this pandemic might suggest that it’s not safe to invite people into our homes, the exception is Jesus. Invite him into your home. Spend time with him during these weeks of isolation, asking him what you might learn from this time. For Jesus is not in the grave, he’s descended to the Father, but he’s left behind his Spirit to guide and comfort us. And for that, we should be thankful.  Amen.

©2020

[1] https://cac.org/death-transformed-2020-04-12/?utm_source=cm&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=dm&utm_content=summary

[2] Luke 24:11, “and these words seemed to be an idle tale.”  John’s gospel only tells about Jesus’ encounter with Mary Magdalene prior to meeting his disciples later in the day.  See John 20:1-19.

[3] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 1162.

[4] See Genesis 2:7.

[5] Christians worship on the first day of the week because the Lord rose that Day (John 20) and the Holy Spirit descended upon the church on that day (Acts 2:1ff). See also 1 Corinthians 16:2.

[6] Matthew 28:9.

[7] As an example, the climax in Mark’s gospel comes with Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, but Thomas makes a stronger Christological statement, proclaiming that Jesus is also God. See Mark 8:29.

[8] Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI: The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1970), 1047.

[9] N. T. Wright, Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 60.

“I Have Seen the Lord!”

 

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
John 20:1-18
Easter Sunday, April 12, 2020

 

Throughout Lent, we have been looking at pieces of art from around the world as a way to get into the Scriptures for each Sunday. We’re going to continue this tradition through the Easter Season. Today, we are looking at another artwork from the country of Cameroon, as the artist imagines Jesus and Mary Magdalene looking like the people of that country. Let’s think for a moment about what Mary Magdalene is thinking up to this point in the story:

          I’ve stuck by Jesus ever since I encountered him that day on the road, long before we came to Jerusalem, when he freed me of those seven demons that had tormented me.[1] I gave him what I had to support his ministry. I followed him from Galilee to Jerusalem. This past week has been overwhelming, from the glorious entry into Jerusalem, beginning with the waving of palm branches and the shouting of Hosanna. Whenever I could be close to Jesus and listen to his teachings, I was there. I heard him teach in the temple about giving to Caesar what was Caesar’s  and giving to God what was God’s, and about the generosity of the poor woman with two coins, whom most ignored, but whom Jesus lifted up as an example of faith. I was there, in the background at the dinners, and I followed Jesus as he was led away like a criminal. How a man who had freed me of such evil could be considered a criminal and a threat to the nation, I’ll never understand. I watched in horror as he was beaten and mocked and then led to the hill of death, where they crucified him. I couldn’t believe what was happening.

          I’ve had a hard time sleeping the last two nights. I kept wanting to be with him again, but I know he’s dead. When the birds began to sing in the predawn hours, I decided to get up and head to the tomb. I wasn’t prepared to find it empty, and Jesus’ body gone. I wondered where they had taken my Lord, and ran and told the disciples. Afterwards, as I was wandering around lost, I couldn’t believe my ears. He called me by name, “Mary.” Things are never going to be the same…[2]

Now let us listen to today’s lesson as I read from the 20th Chapter of John’s gospel.[3]

         We have spent all of Lent looking at the last week of Jesus’ earthly ministry: From the entry into Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday, to the teachings at the temple and the various dinners and then the betrayal that led to Jesus’ death. On Friday, we appeared to be the end of the story. Jesus is dead. His lifeless body is sealed in a tomb as the sun is going down on the day for preparing for the Sabbath. Everyone returns to their homes or where they’ve been staying. I’m sure Caiaphas, the chief priest, and Pilate, the Roman governor, along others in leadership positions are glad to be done with this rabble-rouser. They may have even rested well on the Sabbath. Others, like the disciples and those who had followed Jesus were troubled. But they, too, felt it was over. They saw Jesus’ limp body be taken from the cross. But, as we know, the story doesn’t end.

         John begins the 20th Chapter with several statements about time. It’s early. It’s the first day of the week. In the first chapter, John’s gospel has an echo of Genesis. Both start the same way, “In the beginning…” John takes that well-known phrase from the opening chapter of Scripture and applies it to Jesus. Jesus, the Word, was with God at the beginning of creation. God is doing something new. As in the seven days of Creation, when God created heaven and earth, we now have a new week. In the first week of Creation, God created humanity, the crown of creation, on day six. Now, on day six, God once again does his triumphant work, reconciling a sinful humanity with the divine through the sacrifice of God’s Son. That’s Good Friday. God rests on the seventh day, the Sabbath, our Saturday. And then, on the first day of the new week, in those early morning hours, God begins a new age.

          As Paul proclaims, Christ is the first fruit of those who died.[4] With the resurrection of Christ, God is beginning to do something new. N. T. Wright explains in his essay on John 20, the Easter story is more than just God putting a happy ending to a really bad week. Easter is the beginning of God’s new creation. The work of the Father in creation, and the work of the Son in redemption, are complete.[5] It’s now the eighth day. We’re in a new era.

         The reports of this new era start with a restless Mary Magdalene going to the tomb while it’s still dark and seeing that it’s open. Of course, her experience, as is ours, is that once you are dead, there’s no coming back. So she runs to tell the disciples. Two of them, Peter and probably John, race each other back to the gravesite.[6] And there they find an empty tomb, with the linen cloths that had wrapped Jesus’ body left behind. But none of them know what to think. In verse 8, we’re told that the faster disciple believed, but what did he believe? The next verse seems to indicate that he only believed the tomb was open, and that Mary’s report was factual. They did not understand that Jesus must rise from the dead. So instead of hanging around, they head back to bed.

        Mary hangs around. We get a sense of what she is thinking when she answers the angels who want to know why she’s crying. “They’ve taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they laid him.” Mary Magdalene still believes that Jesus is dead. She assumes, because she can’t imagine otherwise, that some grave robber broke into the tomb and took the body away. In her mind, this is a terrible deed. It would be a terrible deed. You don’t mess with dead bodies. Even our military prosecutes soldiers who desecrate enemy dead. After all, once they are dead, they no longer pose a threat and are no longer enemies.[7]

Mary Magdalene, who has a front row seat at what God is doing, can’t imagine what’s happening. Even when she first sees Jesus, she assumes he’s the gardener. After all, dead men don’t walk around. She thinks the gardener may even be responsible for removing Jesus’ body. It’s only when Jesus calls her by name does she realizes that what has happened is more marvelous than she could ever imagine. John has already told us that the Good Shepherd knows his sheep by name.[8] And Jesus knew Mary, and when she hears her name, she recognizes him.

In Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, he is always assigning his followers with a mission. Jesus assignment for Mary Magdalene is insightful. Go and tell my brothers…” he says. The disciples are elevated; instead of disciples, they’re now brothers, on equal terms with Jesus. Furthermore, Mary is lifted up into this family, for Jesus tells her that he’ll ascend to “my Father and your Father, my God and your God.” Having been called by name, Mary Magdalene is now a part of Jesus’ family.[9] She runs off to obey Jesus, going to the disciples and saying “I have seen the Lord!” Could there ever be a more wonderful proclamation? Their world would never be the same.

         This is an Easter unlike any we’ve experienced before. Instead of being together, wearing new clothes, bringing flowers to decorate the cross afterwards while kids hunt Easter eggs, we’re all separated as we strive to stop this virus that has unleashed death upon the earth. In some ways, we’re like the disciples, who were essentially hiding on that first Easter. Yes, Mary was out, as well as Peter and John for a short period, but once they saw Jesus’ body is gone, they head back to where the rest of the disciples are hiding. In fact, if you keep reading, you’ll see the disciples were not only hiding, they were behind locked doors.[10] But this time of isolation didn’t last for them, nor will it last forever for us. Sooner or later, things will go back to some kind of normality.

We will once again be able to gather and to enjoy each other’s presence. Yes, we’ll once again show off Easter bonnets and hunt eggs and flower a cross. But we won’t be able to go back to exactly the way things were, and that’s okay. This was true for the disciples, too. They didn’t go back to those carefree days of traveling around Galilee with Jesus. But that was okay, too, because they were experiencing something new and even better. They got to tell the world the good news.

          This is the meaning of this “great pause” we are living through right now.[11] In a way, we’re given a gift. We have the time we need to ponder what’s important in our lives. And if we can hold on to what’s important, what we value and cherish, our lives after things return to normal will be much richer. Friends, use this time, this gift, to grow closer to our Lord and to learn to depend upon him. And if we do that, we can be like Mary Magdalene, so when our Savior through the Holy Spirit calls us by name, we’ll be ready to answer. Amen.

 

©2020

[1] Luke 8:2

[2] Inspired by John 20 and an article on Mary Magdalene in Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (New York: Harper and Row, 1979), 101-103.

[3] In the worship service, the Reverend Deanie Strength will do the opening monologue of Mary Magdalene’s thoughts and read the Scriptures.

[4] 1 Corinthians 15:20

[5] N. T. Wright, Surprised by Scripture, (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 209.

[6] While John’s name is not given, it is generally assumed that he is the other disciple.

[7] For such rules from all nations including the United States, see https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/customary-ihl/eng/docs/v2_rul_rule113

[8] John 10:3.

[9] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 1152 & 1154.

[10] John 20:19.

[11] The term “great pause” comes from Julio Vincent Gambuto, “Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting,” April 10, 2020, https://medium.com/@juliovincent/prepare-for-the-ultimate-gaslighting-6a8ce3f0a0e0.

Jesus in the Garden

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Mark 14:32-43
April 5, 2020

 

Our text for today, as we finish looking at the events of Jesus’ final week of earthly ministry, is his prayer in the Garden. It’s a time of temptation. Jesus is worried. He knows what will happen and grieves. He’s troubled. A lot of us may be like Jesus on this night, as we worry about the future and this unseen enemy that we all face. May we learn from his prayer.

As we’ve done throughout this Lenten Series of looking at the events of Jesus’ final week of earthly ministry, we will use a painting. This painting come from the African country of Cameroon. We see Jesus praying while his inner-circle of disciples nod-off. Let’s imagine what Peter is thinking as he falls asleep.

          Too much wine, perhaps. Or maybe I’m so sleepy because I’m just so very tired. This week is taking its toll. Watching our every step, wondering when the other shoe will drop, afraid that the commotion stirred up about Jesus will result in something terrible. I’ve been on edge ever since we got here.

          But oh my, that parade! Who would have thought that this man I met on the shores of my fishing spot would turn out to be three years of non-stop surprises?! The entrance into Jerusalem was more amazing than all of it combined. I felt sure that I was part of something that was going to change everything! Now I’m not so sure. Not everyone, it turned out, was so pleased about Jesus’ arrival here. We’ve been under scrutiny for days.

          Then tonight at the table, Jesus revealed that one of us was about to hand him over. My gut turns over with the thought of it. Could we, who’ve become family, my family, turn against one another under pressure? Fear threatens our very bonds!

          So why put ourselves out here in the open? I need to stay awake, keep watch! I’ve got my sword. I know Jesus told me not to bring it, but come on! All he seems to think we need to do is pray. He asked us to pray with him. Yes, I pray, I’m praying, I’ll fervently pray! But is it enough? How can God help us if soldiers arrive? And yet… I’m so sleepy.

 

Soloist sings: Enter
Enter the story
Enter the place you belong
Not just looking on
For this is your story
Enter the story

 Enter
Enter the passion
Enter the place we belong
Not just looking on
For this is our passion
Enter the passion
[tag] Enter the story…
Enter the passion…
Enter his passion.[1]

          There are many paintings of Jesus praying in the garden in addition to this one from Cameroon. One of my favorites hung in the Session room in the congregation I served in Utah. I always felt it was an appropriate picture for a board room. Board rooms often have photos of the company founders, or the company president. Such paintings remind us of our heritage. Having Jesus in a church board room reminds us of who’s really in charge. It’s not the Session. Jesus Christ is the head of the church.

In this painting, Jesus overlooks Jerusalem. A few lights can be seen in houses below. Just above the horizon, a full moon hangs in the sky but it is partly covered by clouds or fog and you get the sense that landscape might soon be totally dark. By the way, since Passover occurs at the full moon in the Jewish month of Nisan, this part of the  that something sinister will soon happen. Looking back on this final week of Jesus’ earthly ministry, we have been given hints all along that something isn’t right, something is going to happen. Now, we’re at the decisive point. Does Jesus go through with this plan or not?

        Leaving the bulk of the disciples behind, Jesus takes the three disciples that consist of his inner-core and heads into a garden. For those steeped in Scripture, a garden recalls the perfect adobe of Adam and Eve, but also the temptation that occurred there.[2] And certainly, now, Jesus is to be tempted once more, perhaps ever a greater temptation. Does he follow his Father’s will and endure the shame and pain of a crucifixion? Or does he slip out of town and head back to Galilee? This is a pivotal point.[3] Does he go forward and experience the horror of an abandoned death? He can still back out, but that won’t be the case once Judas arrives.

Matthew and Mark both identity this garden as “Gethsemane,” a Hebrew word that means oil press. Luke says it’s on the Mount of Olives, which is a fitting places for an oil press, and John’s gospel says this occurs across the Kidron Valley, which cuts between the temple and the Mount of Olives.[4] So essentially, all the gospels are in general agreement on the rough location of Jesus’ prayer. And they agree that he prays fervently.[5]

         Jesus positions the three disciples close by. While he wants to be alone with the Father, he also wants to be close to friends. He asks them to stay awake. Yet, they immediately fall asleep. Was it the wine? Was it the exhausting schedule? Are they worried and depressed and the only way they can shut their brains off is through sleep? Jesus steps away and prays, then comes back to check on the disciples. He does this three times. Each time, they’re asleep. This compounds his troubles. He will have to go through the experience all alone. After his third trip back to the disciples, he arouses them and announces the arrival of the betrayer.

         What can we learn from this story? Let me suggest three things. First, to prepare ourselves for trouble, we need to take our concerns to God in prayer. Prayer is important even when we know the answer we’ll receive might be no.[6] God the Father wasn’t going to remove his cup, yet Jesus prayed. We might pray, “Lord, take this cancer away.” Sometimes God does, sometimes God doesn’t. But in praying and in bringing our personal concerns to God, we are drawn in closer to our Creator, and that’s a benefit that can help us cross troubled waters.

At a time like the present, we all need to be in prayer, for ourselves, our friends, and the world. We need to pray for our leaders, for those who are sick, for those who have lost loved ones, for those who have lost their jobs, and for those who are treating and fighting the virus. But we also need to pray for ourselves, our own struggles and for our own peace of mind. For we can endure almost anything if we have God on our side.

         A second thing we can learn from this story is that there is a benefit of being supported in prayer. While God will hear our prayers, there is something to be said about having others praying with us. Like they were in the garden, separated by some distance, and like us now dealing the COVID-19 and being separated by six feet, we need to remember that we don’t have to lay hands on one another for our prayer to be effective. We must be willing to ask or to be asked to pray. And when someone asks us to pray for them, we should consider it an honor and fulfill their request. It helps to be supported in our prayer.

        And finally, we learn that even when we fail come through (and we’re all human and won’t always do what we should), we should remember that God doesn’t abandon us for petty failures. Look at the disciples. None of them could keep their eyes open on this most important night of their lives, but Jesus didn’t throw them under the bus. Instead, he faithfully kept his promise and even though Peter would go on to deny him, Jesus would use him to build his church. In fact, these three—Peter, James and John—would all become major players in the church following the resurrection. So even if we fail, don’t lose hope. Keep going and trust that God is with you.

These are tough times in which we’re living. Let us do what we can to support one another. We begin our preparation in prayer. Amen.

 

©2020

[1] This edited monologue and song is from the Worship Design Series: “Entering the Passion of Jesus: Picturing Ourselves in the Story.” Subscription from www.worshipdesignstudio.com.

[2] Amy-Jill Levine, Entering the Passion of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to Holy Week (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2018), 133.  See Genesis 2 & 3.

[3] William L. Lane,  The Gospel of Mark: NICNT (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1974), 516.

[4] See Matthew 26:26, Luke 22:39, and John 18:1.

[5] John’s gospel doesn’t have Jesus praying in the garden, but while still at the table. His prayer isn’t even for himself, but for his disciples and is found in John 17.

[6] Levine, 132.  

In Memory of Baseball (a poem with a recording and a book review)

The 2020 baseball season was scheduled to kickoff this past weekend. Unfortunately, it has been postponed due to the current pandemic. So here is a poem I wrote this weekend (you can even listen to it–how neat is that) along with a review of a book I recently read with my book club on the 1949 baseball season. Enjoy and wash your hands!.

I am not sure why there is not the arrow to start in the strip below, but if you click just to the left of the 00:00, you can start the recording. It’s a minute and 16 seconds long. 

David Halberstam, Summer of ‘49, (1989, New York: HarperPerennial, 2002), 354 pages, with a bibliography, index, and some black and white photographs.

 

In the post wars years, as players returned from the war, baseball captured the imagination of Americans. It was America’s sport. Football and basketball prominence was still in the future. The ballpark was a place where the melting pot vision could be witnessed firsthand. Immigrant children like the DiMaggios (there were three brothers who played in the majors) were second generation Italians and stars. Then, staring in 1947 with Jackie Robinson, African-Americans were included in the roosters. Postwar ball reached a new height with the thrilling 1948 pennant race in the American League. In the days before playoff series, the top team in each league went to the World Series, and if there was a tie, there was a one game playoff. Three teams were in contention in ‘48: the Cleveland Indians, Boston Red Sox’s and the New York Yankees. The Indians won, leaving the younger Red Sox’s and the older Yankees disappointed.

The 1949 season turned out to be just as exciting as the Yankees and Red Sox’s battled it out for the American League pennant. The season began with the Yankees great Joe DiMaggios (who’d bridged the team from the Ruth/Gehrig era to the Mantle/Maris era) being out with an injured foot. The other great hitter was the Red Sox’s Ted Williams. Also playing for the Red Sox’s was Joe’s brother, Dominic. It was an exciting season in which the Yankees won the pennant in the last inning of the last game as the two teams battled it out.

Halberstam, who was a teenager during this season, captures the excitement that came down to the final inning. Once again, the Red Sox’s are disappointed. The Yankees win. Halberstam tells the story of this season, providing insight into the financial workings of baseball as well the changes that were taking place. This was a time when players still mostly traveled in trains, but planes were making their debut. It was also a time that most games, which had previously not been broadcast locally, were being on the air and great names were emerging in the broadcast booth, many who would soon become the well-known reporters who overshadowed the previously honored sportswriters. Even television made an appearance during the World Series. And for the Yankees, new names were rising up such as their new manager, Casey Stengel, and their rookie catcher, Yogi Berra. Other players who would grow into greatness were also beginning to make themselves known such as Willie Mays (whom the Yankees took a pass on due to his race).

Although I have never liked the Yankees, I was impressed with their teams discipline and how they instilled hard playing in each member of the team. Joe DiMaggio exemplifies this when asked why he plays so hard in games in which little was at stake and he responded that there might be someone in the crowd who’d never seen him play. For anyone who enjoys baseball, this is a good read.

The Second Dinner

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
John 13:1-20
March 29, 2020

 

 

Before reading the scripture, I want us to take a look at our image for the day, which can help us get into the text. We’re looking at part of a mural by the late David Paynter titled, “Jesus washing the disciples’ feet.” The setting is along the Sri Lankan coastline. Zoom in on the guy on the left, a servant, who’s looking at what’s going on.[1] Let’s get into his head:

Jesus and the disciples have booked my master’s banquet hall. I have prepared everything according to their wishes and am ready with the water and basin as I always am. Years ago, my parents gave me to the owner as collateral for the debt they owed. But things did not go well for them, and the debt was never repaid. And so, I work to pay it off. Roman law says that someday I could be a freed person, but I will never again have the full rights in society. I’m marked as a slave for life. I keep my head down and do what the master asks because legally he has the right to punish me.

          So, here I am with the bowl, just waiting for the go-ahead. The honored guest will be first, of course, and I know which one he is by where he’s seated. This is protocol, everyone has a place according to status. When he shows up, I recognize him and remember the stories I have heard about this teacher. He says things that upset those invested in this system of status… things like “the last shall be first.” I just can’t imagine a world like he describes.

          And then he comes up to me. Smiling, he takes the basin of water from my hands. He takes my servant’s towel and wraps it around his own waist and kneels, inviting Peter to come sit. This is going to be no ordinary night. I realize my life, my view of myself and my station in life, is never going to be the same.

Sung:
Enter
Enter the story
Enter the place you belong
Not just looking on
For this is your story
Enter the story

Enter
Enter the passion
Enter the place we belong
Not just looking on
For this is our passion
Enter the passion
Enter the story…
Enter the passion…

Enter his passion.[2]

Our Scripture this morning comes from the 13th Chapter of John’s gospel. Read John 13:1-20.

Last week we explored the first meal recorded during Jesus’ final week of earthly ministry. This is the dinner in Simon’s home interrupted by the woman with perfume anointing Jesus. Today, we’re looking at the second meal of this week. Of course, there weren’t just two meals eaten during these seven days. These are just the two recalled in the gospels. Both meals are rich with symbols. Last week, we could almost smell the expensive perfume being poured. This week, we have the bread and the wine, the foot washing, and the betrayal, all mixed in. We know this dinner as the “Last Supper” and there’s enough material here for two dozen sermons. I promise I won’t exhaust the passage.

All four of the gospels have these stories about Jesus’ final meal with his disciples. John’s gospel, unlike Matthew, Mark and Luke, has a unique twist to it. Instead of it being the Passover, it’s the day before the Passover. You could say that in John’s gospel, they start partying early! Seriously, John wants us to think of Jesus as the Passover lamb, the one who was slain for our sins.[3] So the crucifixion occurs on Passover. The other thing John emphasizes is that there is evil lurking, but Jesus allows it to go on. It’s not like Jesus was dragged to the cross, as would have happened with most of those condemned to such a death, but that Jesus willingly gives up his life to fulfill a greater purpose. So, Jesus allows Judas to do his deed.

Interestingly, unlike the other gospels, John doesn’t recall Jesus reciting the words of the Lord’s Supper… There’s no, “This is my body broken for you…” or “This cup is the new covenant…” Instead, we’re told that as they enjoy the meal, Jesus does something strange. But before we get there, John tells us that Jesus loved the disciples to the end. Now, this can be taken that Jesus loved the disciples all along, up to this point, but there’s more here than that. It’s not merely a chronological statement, implying that up to this point in time Jesus has loved his disciples. Instead, it implies the fullness and completeness of his love. He will love them unto death, which will become clearer as the events of the night and next day unfolds.

Jesus then assumes the role of the servant. For those of us living on this side of the resurrection, we immediately think of Paul’s “Christ Hymn” in Philippians, where we’re told that “Christ emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.”[4] Like a servant, like the dude in the picture whose job this should have been, Jesus goes around the table with a basin and washes the disciples’ feet. This is an example of extreme humility and sets up the rest of our reading. There are two implications of Jesus’ action. The first, which is covered in verses 6 to 11, is theological. This deals with our relationship to God. The second, covered in verses 12-20 is ethical. It focuses on how we relate to others.[5] Let’s look at each.

Peter has a problem with what Jesus is doing. In his book, this is just not right. The Master shouldn’t wash the dirty feet of the disciples. But Jesus not only offers to do this, he insists that he must. In verse 8, Jesus says that if he doesn’t wash Peter’s feet, he’ll have no share in him. The Gospel is summarized in this short sentence. We must be open to Jesus taking on our sins, washing them away, if we want to be in fellowship with him. This is the theological part of this passage. If we think we are too good or to dirty for Jesus to wash our feet, we won’t be able to share in his free grace.[6] Jesus freely takes up the towel and basin, just as he freely takes up the cross, and we have to accept him. Theologically, if we are not open to God doing for us what we can’t do for ourselves, we can’t experience grace.

The second implication of the foot washing is ethical. “I’ve done this for you,” Jesus says, “so you need to do it to one another.” Jesus has shown us how to live our lives. We are called to live in mutual service, showing submission to one another, being willing to forgive when we are wronged, and having patience. All these traits, Jesus demonstrated. We too must learn from the Master. We must be willing to follow his example.

So how do we live this way at a time when we’re called to keep our social distance for the sake of society? Obviously, Jesus wasn’t worried about COVID-19 when he washed the feet of his disciples, and these days we’re told, again and again, to be sure to wash our own hands. We are living in a unique time. After all, we been called to sit on the couch and watch TV as if that’s a sacrifice. But we got to do more. We are still the church deployed in the world.

Who wasn’t moved by the story of the priest in Italy whose parishioners purchased him a respirator? But the priest insisted the respirator be used on a child who was ill.[7] He died. That’s showing the extreme side of what Jesus is talking about here.

But there are other things we all need to be doing. Staying away from others and isolating ourselves will help slow this disease. With the marvels of technology, we can still be connected through the phone and over the internet. And don’t forget the U. S. mail. The Session and Pastors of this church have made a commitment to call every member every week through this crisis. If you don’t get a call, let me know. We’ll see to it that you are included. And you can join us in calling and checking in on one another. After all, we do have new directories that are well suited for this. There are those who live by themselves and are lonely. Let’s do what we can to stay connected. We can also uphold one another in our prayers. We can write letters of encouragement. We can still be supportive of organizations that are making sure the most vulnerable in our communities are safe and cared for during this scary time. Did you know that this congregation collected 190 pairs of socks on the last day we were able to meet in worship? This Monday, those socks will be taken to Union Mission to be distributed.

Finally, we’re living in a time when we should be extremely grateful for others. Think of the sacrifices others are making, as they assume the role of the servant. Those work in the hospital, whether they are doctors and surgeons or the cleaning staff, they’re on the front line for us. And how about those who work in the club here at the Landings, working hard to get for food and groceries to us. Those who pick up our trash. And don’t forget the grocery workers, those in the shipping industry, those making masks and gowns for the medical profession. At a time like this, we need to remember all these people we depend on and be thankful and grateful.

Jesus comes before us at the table, with a towel wrapped around his waist and a basin. He kneels. Do we let him wash our feet? And, if so, are we willing to humble ourselves and serve others in the manner that he has served us? These are questions we need to ask ourselves. Amen.

 

©2020

[1] A copy of this mural is in the “Art in the Christian Tradition” collection at Vanderbilt Divinity Library in Nashville, Tennessee. The original is in Trinity College.

[2] This edited monologue and song is from the Worship Design Series: “Entering the Passion of Jesus: Picturing Ourselves in the Story.” Subscription from www.worshipdesignstudio.com.

[3] This image of Jesus as the Passover lamb becomes clearer in John’s revelation.  See Revelation 5:12 and 6:1.

[4] Philippians 2:7.

[5] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MIhigan: Eerdmans,2012), 749.

[6] Bruner, 765.

[7] https://nypost.com/2020/03/24/italian-priest-dies-of-coronavirus-after-giving-respirator-to-younger-patient/

Two Books and Two (or three) Wars

If you have time on your hands as we wait out this pandemic, there are two good books that I recommend to anyone who enjoys history. In they cover three wars (Mexican, Civil, and World War II).

S. C. Gwynne, Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson (New York: Scribner, 2014), 672 pages including appendix, notes, bibliography, maps. There are eight pages of black and white photos.

Stonewall Jackson was an amazing man. Deeply religious, somewhat of a hypochondriac, who had led an honorable but not overly impressive life, he rises to the top during the Civil War. Gwynne portrays his life and death in a compelling manner that shows not only what he meant for the Confederacy but also to America. At the end of the book, he may have overreached when he suggests that Jackson’s death at the height of his career was the first major death in this country by someone at the height of their fame. While the nation had lost former presidents and war heroes, most had been out of office or their deaths came years after their military career. Jackson’s death, mistakenly shot by his own troops, occurred just after his army won a major victory over a much larger Union army at Chancellorsville. In two years, Lincoln’s death would be the next major American hero to die at the zenith of their life.

Jackson was a man who overcame many obstacles. He was orphaned at an early age and sent to live and work with relatives in Jackson Mill, Virginia (now West Virginia). However, Jackson was ambitious and while not a great student, he was able to work himself into West Point. There, he worked very hard as it was quickly evident that he was not prepared for the rigorous course of study. By the time of his graduation, he had come from the bottom of the class to graduate at number 17. His class of 1846 would produce more generals than any other class at the Academy: 22 in all, 12 for the Union and 10 for the South.

In the Mexican war, Jackson stood out as a brave officer, one whose artillery unit held its ground against a much larger Mexican force at the Battle or Contreras, just outside of Mexico City.

After the Mexican War, Jackson served at a military post in Florida before taking a teaching position at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia. He was considered a poor teacher except for in the subject of artillery.  He was known for his Puritanical habits, but also had a happy home life until his first wife died, along with her daughter, in childbirth. He would marry again. Anna, his second wife, would also lose a child. In 1862, staying with her parents in North Carolina (her father was a Presbyterian pastor and president of Davidson College), she gave birth to daughter whom Jackson would only see for a few days including the day he died of his wounds. Jackson, while very private in person, was much more social and warmer with his family. This biography liberally quotes from Jackson’s personal letters that show his warmth.

Jackson was also a very committed Christian and a member of the Presbyterian Church. He had considered the ministry, but never became a a public speaker. He was a Deacon and started a Sunday School for African Americans in Lexington, both slaves and free. Interestingly, while he owned six slaves, they were obtained in a unique manner. His second wife received three as a wedding present, but the other three had been purchased by Jackson. The first, Albert, had asked Jackson to buy him and to let him work off his bondage for freedom. Jackson did and leased him to VMI as a waiter. When he was ill, Jackson took care of him, and before the war, Albert had paid Jackson for his purchase. Amy, his second slave, was about to be sold to pay a debt of her master. She, too, asked Jackson to buy her. And the third slave he purchased was a young girl owned by an older woman in town. This girl had a learning disability and Jackson agreed to buy her, thinking she could be useful to his wife. The three slaves that came with Anna included her nurse from infancy and her two teenage sons. Anna would teach both boys to read.

Much of the book is about Jackson’s rise to one of the great military geniuses of the Civil War. Being from the Virginia mountains and lacking the “blue blood” of Virginia’s planter class, Jackson was initially looked down on by many within the Southern leadership. This had also been the case when he was a he had been a student at West Point and a few of those earlier feuds (from “Blue Blooded” Virginians) continued into the war years. Jackson became a hero at First Manassas (Bull Run). Then, given command of the mountainous area in Western Virginia, he crippled three much larger Union armies that had been sent against him with a plan to burn the breadbasket of the Shenandoah Valley. Jackson was known for the element of surprise, pushing his men harder to do what no one thought possible. He was not one to share much information with others, including his commanders. These had to learn to trust his commands. Jackson was also strict as a commanding officer, demanding obedience of his orders. Often, his strictness, especially his punishment of those under his command, were overruled by the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis.

Jackson was involved in the Peninsula campaign. During this campaign, Jackson failed on several occasions to achieve the initiative but coming on the aftermath of his victories in the Shenandoah Valley, his failures may have resulted from exhaustion. He would later take a lead role in routing the Union Armies a second time at Manassas. Afterwards, at Harper’s Ferry, he captured the largest group of soldiers up to that time ever captured in America, even larger than the number of British who surrendered at Yorktown. A few days later, at Antietam, Jackson was responsible for the Union’s inability to break the Confederate lines and achieve a victory. He would later be responsible for the Union disasters at Fredericksburg. During the winter of 1862-1863, Jackson spent time encouraging religious revivals and establishing a chaplain corps for the Confederate Army. As the winter waned, Jackson’s brilliant strategy at Chancellorsville stopped the Union attempt to move behind the Confederate Army. It was there, where he was shot in the arm and hand. His arm was amputated. He would later die of his wounds. His was a glorious career, that was cut short by a mistaken identity.

This book reads like a novel. It is the second book I’ve read by Gwynne. A year or so ago, I read Empire of the Summer Moon. Both are excellent reads. Gwynne’s research is impressive, and his writing is engaging.

###

MY-WAR-by-Andy-Rooney

Andy Rooney, My War (1995, NY: Public Affairs, 2000), 333 pages including an index and a few black and white photographs.

Like many Americans, I always enjoyed listening to Andy Rooney. He was the best part of the CBS news show 60 minutes and even if I missed the show, I tried to catch Rooney’s monologue at the end. Reading this book about his war years, I could hear his voice and imagine him reading the words to me.  The book is filled with insight and humor, as only Rooney was able to pull off.

Rooney was in college before the war. The draft had begun, and he had been called up for the Army. He trained to be in the artillery. Even back then, Rooney was something of a troublemaker. He told about one officer whom he disliked and who was bucking for a promotion. Rooney’s job was to put the right amount of powder bags into the gun behind the projectile. They would call out the coordinates and the bags of powder needed, and Rooney would either put too many or two few and the projectile would either fall short or overshoot the target. The officer didn’t get the promotion. After the war started, Rooney’s unit headed to England, where he received a lucky break. He transferred into the correspondence pool, become a writer from the Army’s Stars and Stripes newspaper. With a million Americans in Europe, the newspaper was a major production. It was also a training ground for those who would step up and take starring roles in American media for the rest of the century.

While in England, Rooney was assigned to a wing of the 8th Army Air Force. He would write stories about the mission and the men whose daring raids over German was attempting to crush the German industrial might. But it was a costly business as planes were often lost behind enemy lines. As a correspondent, Rooney even had an opportunity to go on such missions, including one horrific event that he describes. In this book, he also writes honestly about what he didn’t write for the newspaper. He’d heard and witnessed many horrors that he wouldn’t report on because it would not have been good for morale

As D-Day approached, Rooney was assigned to go ashore with the Army. He spent most of the rest of the war driving his own jeep around Europe in search of stories. At times, he was dangerously close to the enemy and at other times he was enjoying the good life of food and wine. He did miss out on the Battle of the Bulge when he was temporarily reassigned to New York (each of the correspondents took turns of working a few weeks in the New York offices).  But he was back toward the end of the war. When other reporters told him of the horrors of Buchenwald (one of the German concentration camps), he wouldn’t write about it as he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He set out to see for himself, an event that continued to haunt Rooney for the rest of his life.

As the war in Europe came to an end, Rooney had a chance to travel to American bases in India, Burma and China, before traveling home.

I appreciated Rooney’s insight on heroes, which he suggests that it’s best that we don’t meet our heroes. Hemingway had been a hero of his, until he met him in Europe. He was never much of a fan of General Patton, which he remarked in one of his 60 minutes monologues. He recalled how Patton’s daughter wrote to inform him that her father wouldn’t have been impressed with him, either.

My biggest complaint about the book was Rooney’s take on my home state of North Carolina. He didn’t like the state and even questioned why his friend and North Carolina native Charles Kuralt liked it so. Sadly, Rooney had the misfortune of spending 6 months in barracks at Fort Bragg, which is one of the less nice parts of the state.

A couple of quotes:

“Patriotism and war go together. Anytime anyone gets to thinking patriotism is one of the supreme virtues, it would be a good idea to remember that there was never any group of people more patriotic than the Nazi Germans. It’s strange that a love for country brings out the vicious character in so many people. In that respect, it’s a lot like religion. Here are two things that almost everyone believe are good, patriotism and religion, but between them they account for almost all the people who ever died in a war.”

“The whole business of reporting makes me suspicious of history.”

###

How are you handling this pandemic and avoiding crowds? Read any good books lately?

 

Taking a Risk at the Table

Please remember, especially during this time when we need to maintain social distance from one another in at attempt to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus, that you can always worship virtually with Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church on Sunday mornings at 10 AM Eastern Daylight time.  Just go to sipres.org and click, “Watch Live.”  The sermon will also be available to watch later this week on our church website. 

Jeff Garrison 
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Mark 14:3-9
March 22, 2020

 

 

As we’ve done in the first few Sundays of this series, let us concentrate on this painting that depicts the passage I’ll read. Focus in on this guy, looking down as this woman who is anointing Jesus. Let’s get into his head. Listen:

        None of us are happy with the way things are going in Jerusalem. It’s not just the political oppression. We’re troubled by the dire situation of the hungry, the poor, the sick, and the disturbed. The Roman’s don’t’ care about them? At least we try. Every penny we scrape up we try to pass on to those who need it. Before Jesus arrived for dinner, some of us were also wondering if we should save some money in case we needed to hide out in the not-too-distant future.

          And then SHE walks in.

          Look at that beautiful alabaster jar! Get a whiff of the oil. This is expensive stuff! And a whole bottle. How much does this stuff cost? It seems a ridiculous waste, given what we had just been talking about. This kind of money could go a long way.

          Look at her. She’s not said a word. Yet she is intense and devoted. This love lavished on him is somewhat embarrassing and yet it’s what I really want to do—tell Jesus how he has changed my life and how finally I have a purpose. I’m loved, and it’s such a gift. But how can I offer any gift to Jesus. He’s “The Messiah,” anointed by God. But here she is anointing him! I’m jealous and fear we are losing him. He tells us to stop judging her. “She is preparing me for burial,” he says. No! Don’t say that, Jesus. It can’t happen.

Soloist sings: Enter
Enter the story
Enter the place you belong
Not just looking on
For this is your story
Enter the story

Enter
Enter the passion
Enter the place we belong
Not just looking on
For this is our passion
Enter the passion
Enter the story…
Enter the passion…
Enter his passion.[1]

 Let’s listen as I read of this story from Mark’s gospel. Listen for the differences.  Read Mark 14:3-9.

         There are two big meals highlighted in the final week of Jesus’ earthly ministry.[2] We all know about the Passover meal, the Last Supper, but a few days earlier there’s another highlighted meal in which a woman enters and anoints Jesus. In two of the gospels (Luke and John), like the picture we see, the woman anoints Jesus’ feet.[3] In Matthew and Mark, from which we read today, the story is of the woman anointing his head with oil, something that might be done for a king.[4] Reflecting on this scene, Dale Brunner suggests it serves two purposes. It’s a call to worship. Jesus is to be worshipped, something that will come clearer in less than a week, after the resurrection. The second purpose is as an illustration of the double-love commandment Jesus used to summarize the law—the love of God and the love of others. This woman demonstrates her love of God through her unselfish actions toward Jesus. And Jesus, by protecting her dignity, shows how we can care for others.[5]

 

Think for a minute about this woman. Because this story is told a little differently in each of the gospels, we tend to get it all mixed up. In Luke’s gospel, she’s identified as a sinner. Her presence upsets those around the table. But that’s not the case in Mark’s gospel. She’s totally anonymous. Luke may have been describing a different event. If that’s the case, both women take risk to show love and devotion to Jesus Christ, and that should be a message to us.[6] What kind of risks are we willing to take for our faith?

 

Jesus is at a banquet in a home where he can relax. He’s reclining. It’s a laid back affair. He’s with friends. We’re not sure who Simon is. It was a popular name back then. But being labelled “the leper” takes the reader back to early in Jesus’ ministry when he cured a man with leprosy.[7] Leprosy was generally an illness that created isolation, but maybe, if he’d been healed by Jesus, he’s proud of the description and continues to use it after his healing as a way to honor Jesus. Maybe this was a dinner party in honor of Great Physician?

        Now consider the risks this woman takes. She shows up uninvited. She shocks the guests with her generosity. Ever give a gift and wonder and worry if it would be accepted? Her gift does upset those around the table. Why isn’t this money being given to the poor? They ask. Jesus’ protects her dignity, saying she’ll be remembered because of what she’s done. And Jesus doesn’t stop there. He goes on to say we’ll always have the poor, but he won’t be around long, at least not in person.

The verse concerning the poor always being with us is possibly the most misinterpreted passages in scripture. Think of all the times you’ve heard this passage quoted in support of inaction when it comes to helping the poor. I bet many of us, and I’m guilty, too, have used this passage in such a manner. But it’s a misuse of scripture. Jesus is quoting the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 15:11 reminds us that we will always have the poor, but because of that, we should always be willing to help. “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbors in the land.’”[8] The ubiquitous poor are not there so we can opt-out from helping. They are there to remind us of our need to help others.

          In Matthew’s gospel, we’re told that helping the poor and needy, the sick and the prisoner, is the same as helping Christ,[9] but here she is able to do something to show her devotion and love. It’s kind of like buying flowers for someone. They may seem frivolous as they don’t heal us or enrich us. In a few days they wither. But we don’t give flowers for such reasons. We do it because we want to be able to do something, to show our love and concern. This woman can’t keep Jesus from the cross,[10] but she can do this, and she does.[11]

          What can we do? We certainly can’t heal the world, just as the woman couldn’t keep Jesus off the cross. But what kind of risk might we take for Jesus? Things are changing so rapidly around us. It’s scary. But we need to remember, this is not the first time Christ’s church has witnessed pestilence. In the 14th Century, a large percentage of the population died from the plague, but at the same time Great Cathedrals were being built.[12] Our call is not to fear and worry. Our call is to be faithful to Jesus. If we are sure that Jesus, as Lord, has our best interest in his hands, we can take risks that will further the kingdom and do good for others.

There are going to be a lot of hurting people in our world in the near future. Not only will we have to deal with folks who are infected, and a small but not insignificant percentage who may die. But we will also have to deal with those who are so traumatized they aren’t sure what to do. We’re going to need to encourage those who are depressed. In the short-term, we’re going to need to find new ways of connecting beyond handshakes and being physically present. And then they’re those losing their jobs as the economy contracts. I fear it will only get worse. We are going to need to support them. We’ll need to live fearlessly, trusting despite evidence to the contrary that God has things under control. This is a time that we as the church and as individual believers need to be bold and positive. For we’re on God’s side and our Savior won’t abandon us.

          This woman might be seen as a fool for Christ. She faced ridicule, but Jesus protected her dignity and honored her. Don’t be afraid to be a fool for Christ. For our Master will take care of us. Amen.

©2020

[1] This edited monologue is from the Worship Design Series: “Entering the Passion of Jesus: Picturing Ourselves in the Story.” Subscription from www.worshipdesignstudio.com.

[2] Three of the four gospels place the woman anointing Jesus at the table during his final week of earthly ministry. John’s gospel names her “Mary.” In addition to this passage, see Matthew 26:6-13 and John 12:1-8.

[3] Luke 7:36-50 and John 12:1-8.  Luke’s gospel, unlike Matthew, Mark and John, place this event earlier in Jesus’ ministry, not in the week of his death.

[4] Matthew 26:6-13 and Mark 14:3-9. Anointing the head may symbolize Jesus’ kingship. It was often something done to honor guests (which the host may not have done on this occasion). And it’s also points to Jesus’ coming death. See Morna D. Hooker: Black’s New Testament Commentaries: The Gospel According to Saint Mark (1991, Hendrickson Publishers, 1997), 327-328.

[5] F. Dale Brunner, The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 599.  

[6] For this idea of her taking risks, see Amy-Jill Levine, Entering the Passion of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to Holy Week (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2018), Chapter 4, “The First Dinner: Risking Rejection.”

[7] Mark 1:40-45.

[8] Deuteronomy 15:11, NRSV.

[9] Matthew 25:31ff.

[10] There are two types of anointing. She anoints Jesus (GK: myrizo) brial. Anointing for kingship and as “the anointed one” or the Messiah uses another word (GK: mashiach). See Levine, 95.

[11] Mary Ann Tolbert, Sowing the Gospel: Mark’s World in Literary-Historical Perspective (Minneapolis, Fortress, 1996), 274.

[12] See Barbara W. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (New York: Knopf, 1978.

Where do our loyalties belong?

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Matthew 22:15-22
March 15, 2020

 

 

        If you read the entirety of Matthew 22 (and with the extra time we may be having on hand as everything is being cancelled because of the Coronavirus, it’s not a bad idea), you’d witness a masterful campaign to trap Jesus. But Jesus isn’t so easy to catch. He’s kind of like Stonewall Jackson in the Valley Campaign in the spring of 1862. Jackson faced much larger armies who wanted to trap and do him in.[1] Similarly, with Jesus during Passion week, he’s confronted with a large number out to destroy him. But Jesus doesn’t fall in their traps. Jesus bewilders his enemies.

         What’s happened is that unlikely groups join together to challenge Jesus. The old cliché, “politics make strange bedfellows,” rings true. Groups who wouldn’t normally give each other the time of day have come together to take on Jesus. They sense that Jesus is challenging the existing order. You have a few Herodians, who are Jews who believe they’re be better off cooperating with the Romans. They take their name from Herod, who had Jewish blood but worked for the Empire. And you have the Pharisees; a group of seriously committed religious leaders who believe in the resurrection. Theologically, they’re most like Jesus, but Jesus constantly challenges them and exposes their hypocrisy.

        What we read this morning could be described as one movement in a tag-team wrestling match. The Herodians and the Pharisees team up on Jesus.[2] Once they are dismissed, in the next passage we have the Sadducees, the conservatives of the day, crawl up on the mat.[3] According to most translations, Jesus’ “silenced them,” but the original language is a bit harsher. A better translation would be that Jesus “muzzled” them.[4] Think of muzzling a dog!  Jesus is on a roll! But the Pharisee’s still come back for more.

    So what is Jesus telling us in this passage? Do you remember those big posters that use to sit out in front of the Post Office and government buildings with Uncle Sam pointing his finger and saying: “I want you!” I believe we could easily surmise this text into a big poster of God saying: “I want you!”

Let’s now look deeper into the passage. We’re told that the Pharisees are plotting to entrap Jesus. How does Jesus know this? We could say that because he was God he knew, but that explanation does not uphold the human side of Jesus. The human side of Jesus would have realized something was up when he saw the Pharisees and the supporters of Herod walking hand in hand.

These two unlikely groups approach Jesus. They try to butter him up a little by telling Jesus he’s sincere, he speaks the truth, and that he is impartial. This Jesus’ second clue. “For flattery is on their lips, but their heart is set on their gain,” we read in Ezekiel.[5] Most of us, I would expect, are smart enough to realize something fishy is up when those who have nothing to do with us began to butter us up. And that’s what happens here. With compliments, they try to catch Jesus off-guard before snapping the trap with their sixty-four thousand dollar question.

         “Tell me,” they ask, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”  Jesus has to be careful. Last week you heard Deanie preach about the revolutionary act of Jesus cleaning the temple. Now they want Jesus to make a revolutionary statement against the civil authorities. If Jesus says they should not pay taxes, the Herodians could have him arrested for treason. But then, if he says to pay the taxes, the Pharisees can attack him for not being a patriotic Jew.[6] It’s almost a no-win situation.

          Jesus asks them for a coin. Unlike us, he didn’t have to worry about where that’s coin has been or picking up some a virus from its surface. However, Jesus still has to be careful. The disciples, we know, had a common purse and he could have gone there to fetch a coin, but then the Pharisees might have charged him with toting around an engraved image of the emperor.[7] So Jesus has them to look at a coin they are carrying, and he asks them whose picture is on it…. They reply, “Caesar’s.” Jesus then flips the coin back to them, saying give Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to give God what is God’s. The little band of tempters are astonished. They are amazed. They don’t know what to say, so they leave.

These men are amazed, but do they understand all that Jesus says? They hear “Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” but do they hear “Give unto God what is God’s.” Do they understand what Jesus meant? Probably not for they continue their attempts to attack Jesus throughout this chapter. But let’s not worry about them. How about us? Do we hear what Jesus is saying? Back to that revised army poster of Uncle Sam saying, “I want you!” Jesus is saying, “God wants us!”

The coin had an image on it, Caesar’s, therefore give it to him. In Genesis, we’re told we’re created by God, in God’s image.[8] The coin belongs to Caesar, it bears his image; our lives belong to God, they contain God’s image.  Caesar may have a lien on our possessions while we’re on earth, but God has a lien on our total being—now and forever.  God is calling us to dedicate our lives. God, in Jesus Christ, is in that poster pointing, and saying, “I want you.

        Give to God what is God’s.  This phrase is often overlooked.  We tend to get hung up on what is Caesar’s and what is ours. We get hung up on the petty details and we miss the important question. What does it mean for us to give ourselves to God?

Sure, a part of devoting ourselves to God is about money, but it’s more than that. Money is only a start for God wants and expects much more from us. God wants us to trust him and then to do what we can to live in a manner that will further God’s work in the world. If we believe that we are owned by God and not Caesar, our lives should reflect such faith. If we believe that we belong to God, and are in God’s hands, we have nothing to fear, not even the Coronavirus. For regardless of what happens to us on this earth, God has us in his hand and is working out all things for good.[9] That may be hard to believe considering that panic that is going on around us, but it’s true. It’s why Christians for the past two thousand years have risked their lives and their well-being on behalf of others. Yes, we can give Caesar what is Caesars. But we can also take risk and do what is right and noble and good because we have trust in God.

         Earlier I mentioned Stonewall Jackson, whose biography I’m currently reading. But let me tell you two other Civil War stories, they’re both short, and demonstrate this point. At the Battle of Shiloh in the spring of 1862, Albert Sidney Johnson led the Confederate troops as they overwhelmed the Union forces near Pittsburg Landing along the Tennessee River. It was a bloody day and the Union lines were broken in places. During a lull in the first day of battle, Johnson, seeing a number of wounded Union soldiers in need, ordered his surgeon to set up an aid station and to tend to their needs. According to Shelby Foote in his novel about the battle, his surgeon, Dr. Yandell protested. Johnson cut him off saying “These men were our enemies a moment ago. They are our prisoners now. Take care of them.” A few minutes later, a stray bullet struck Johnson’s leg and without medical aid, he quickly bled to death.[10] To this day, there is debate as to whether or not Johnson’s death caused the tide of the battle to turn. But the tide did turn and General Grant became a national hero.

          A second story comes from the city of Wilmington during the Civil War. In 1862, a blockade runner that had come in from the Caribbean brought Yellow Fever to the town. Those who could fled to the country, but several of the pastors and the leading citizens of the town stayed behind, feeling it was their Christian obligation to help out the victims. Over 400 people died of Yellow Fever that fall, including many of those who intentionally stayed to care for the dying.[11]

Of course, with the current threat we face, we need to think about our response. We need to help when and where we can, but we also need to be wise enough not to become a carrier of the disease. So while mercy might call us to act boldly, it also might call us to isolate ourselves (especially if we’ve been recently travelling and could have potentially been exposed to the illness). Such isolation might help slow the spread of the disease and, with the phone and the internet, there are many other ways that we can read out to those for whom we care and love. The Christian faith calls us to be brave, after all we don’t belong to ourselves but to God. But it also calls us to be wise!

      Give to God what is God’s, is the message here. So yes, we should pay our income tax. And when you write that check this April, we might remember that giving Caesar his due can be a lot easier than giving to God what is his. For our whole life belongs to God. But then, God’s given us life and in Jesus Christ has redeemed us to be his people. That’s a debt we can’t repay, nor is such repayment expected. As the old hymn goes, “Jesus paid it all.”[12]  Amen.

 

©2020

[1] I have been reading S. C. Gwynne, Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson (New York: Scribner, 2014).

[2] Matthew 22:15-22.

[3] Matthew 23-33

[4]  Frederick Dale Bruner, The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 410.

[5] Ezekiel 33:31b.

[6] Bruner, 397.

[7] Bruner, 398.

[8] Genesis 1:27.

[9] Romans 8:28.

[10] Shelby Foote, Shiloh (1952, New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 199.

[11] James Sprunt, Chronicles of the Cape Fear River, 1660-1916 (1919: Wilmington, NC: Dram Tree Books, 2005), 286-288.

[12] “Jesus Paid it All,” Elvira Hall (1865).

The Church and the COVID-19

I spent the last week at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in a Foundation for Reformed Theology seminar discussing the writings of John Leith. The seminary’s campus is just north of the University of Texas’ campus, which allowed us to do some exploring during free time. This photo is of me checking out one of the surviving Gutenberg Bibles that’s on display at the Harry Ransom Center. It was an interesting time to be away as we kept hearing about how the COVID-19 virus is spreading around the world. Working with Deanie and the rest of the staff at SIPC, we sent out this communication to our church family yesterday, which I am posting below. We need to be diligent and to remember that the virus isn’t just about us, but those we may be contact with, many of whom may have underlying health issues that could make this virus really bad:

SIPC Responds to Health Concerns

As the Coronavirus (COVID-19) spreads across the globe, we are reminded that the world we live in can be a scary place. But as followers of Jesus Christ, who trust in a benevolent God through life and death, let us hold fast to our faith and do what we can to mitigate risks to ourselves and others.

The staff and leaders on our Property and Worship committees have been in touch and are implementing the following suggestions in preparation for Sunday’s worship service:

  • Increasing the cleaning of hard surfaces in the church, including the backs and armrests of sanctuary pews and door knobs
  • Refraining from the Passing of the Peace and encouraging ushers and all present to greet one another with a smile and their favorite “non-contact” gesture
  • Encouraging worshippers to be seated throughout the sanctuary, possibly on alternate rows, to give adequate social distancing
  • Placing offering plates at doors and on vestibule and communion tables rather than passing them
  • Asking anyone handling food for communion or at coffee hour to sanitize hands and use gloves located in the kitchen
  • Asking members and visitors to wash their hands regularly and to use the hand sanitizer dispensers mounted upon entry into the flower room by the Sanctuary, Liston Hall, and the Office Workroom (Note: Other sanitizer pumps are being placed throughout the church but members are also invited to bring their own sanitizer with them!)
  • Promoting our Live Stream option to those who are not feeling well or who have health conditions that make them vulnerable. To Live Stream the Sunday worship service, go to sipres.org and scroll down to the red “Watch Live” box on the Homepage just before 10 AM. Please share this link with friends and family members.

As uncertain as these times are in matters of health and finance, let us place our trust in the eternal God who holds us in the palm of His hands and remember, “God is good all the time…And all the time, God is good.” The church is at its best when we minister to those around us and so we encourage you to reach out to someone in need, go to the store for a friend, help sanitize public places, and be considerate of those who may be more vulnerable than you. Let us look to the example Jesus set for us in relieving the suffering of others.

If you have concerns, please reach out to your church. Please contact us if you or someone you know is sick or self-quarantined. If you are diagnosed with COVID-19, communicate with us immediately.

We will continue to look to the state and local public health departments and the CDC for guidance about best practices and procedures. If that results in a change in what we are doing or what we ask you to help us with, we will let you know.

We are God’s house, if we keep our courage and remain confident in our hope in Christ.  –Hebrew 3:6

 

A few helpful links: 

Texas Bluebonnets in bloom

Two Nonfiction Book Reviews: Social Media and Eugenics

W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking, LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media (2018, Mariner Books, Boston, 2019), 407 pages including index and notes plus eight pages of photos.

This timely book begins in 2009 with Donald Trump’s first tweet, promoting his appearance on David Letterman that evening. It then weaves various threads such as political operatives use of social media in the 2016 campaign, to celebrities who use Social Media to increase their fan base, and to social media’s reach onto the battlefield. Social media was used to ignite the “Arab Spring.” There were many who felt it held a promise to bring more democratic processes into autocratic countries. But the dictators who survived learned and soon, social media was being used by those on both sides, such as in Syria. Isis also learned to effectively use social media, not only to recruit followers but to terrorize the countries in which they operated. Isis captured the city of Mosul with much smaller army and one poorer equipped because the Iraqi forces were so scared of Isis’ inhumane acts toward their enemies which were splashed across social media. By the time Isis arrived in the backs of pickup trucks, the Iraqi garrison had fled. Today’s battlefield involves not just military tactics, but social media strategies. In some cases, enemy fighters taunt those on the other side on social media, making them feel more vulnerable. Not only is social media changing the way war is fought, it is changing the meaning of war.

Social media has quickly been adopted as a way for us to remain connected with friends and family, but it is also the place most Americans get their news. The authors spend significant time discussing the development of the internet and then the evolution of social media. As the various menus of media grows, so do those who attempt to use such media to sway our opinions. While Singer and Brooks extensively covers the Russia use of social media as a way for them to influence politics around the world, from the British Brexit vote to the American elections, they have also looked at how other countries have used social media for their own purposes. Truth and fact checking that used to be expected by the established news media is now out of the window. And because everything is based on algorithms that few understand, social media can be used to make the outlandish seems true (why else, would so many people like something is it wasn’t true).

Of course, it’s not all about “fake news.” Some countries want to limit the news their citizens receive.  China, in a way to only let its people know what the party wants them to know have created a firewall to control unwanted information which has led to humorous stories. When a study published under the title of “the Panama Papers,” which documented how many in the upper echelon of the party were stashing money overseas, Chinese firewall quickly blocked anyone from seeing anything that mentioned Panama. For a while, an entire country ceased to exist, at least according to the Chinese internet, under the internet police changed their blockage from anything Panama to “Panama” and other key words.

At the end of the book, the authors argue that social media companies (most of whom are U. S. based companies, need to be more responsible for how their technology is used.

In a perfect world, I would recommend this book, or something similar, to be read by every voter. But then, a perfect world wouldn’t have such issues with social media!

###

Daniel Okrent, The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics, and the Law that Kept Tw o Generations of Jews, Italians, and Other European Immigrants Out of America (New York: Scribner’s, 2019), 478 pages including an index, bibliography, notes, along with several pages of black and white photos.

 

This is a difficult book, to read and to realize people thought this way. However, the message is important and the book is well researched which is why I gave it 4 stars on Goodreads. The author begins in the 19th Century and looks at how native born Northern European Americans saw themselves as the ideal race. Using science (especially drawing on Darwin’s theories), they debated how they might protect the race and even improve the race. This had profound impact across the society including non-voluntary sterilization in most states. But Okrent, while acknowledging these other implications, focuses his study of this “false science” on its influence in the immigration debate in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The thrust of the book essential ends with the 1924 legislation that limited immigration at a percentage of those who ancestors came from counties as defined in the 1890 census.  After the passage of this act, which remained the law until 1965, the author only briefly notes how the American debate over race and eugenics was picked up by the Nazis in Germany.

Starting with leading American families from New England, there was a rising concern about what immigration was doing to America in the late 19th Century. Leading politicians like Boston’s Henry Cabot Lodge sough a restriction in immigration but ran up against obstacles. Literacy was one of the restrictions, but as schools began to be more popular in places like Italy, educational barriers were no longer effective at reducing the influx of new populations. Immigration kept the price of labor cheap, which meant that many business leaders wanted new immigrants. Steamship companies often brought empty ships to America in order to ship American products (especially timber) to Europe found immigration to a windfall to their business. Business leaders saw that the attempts to restrict immigration kept failing. In an attempt to boost their argument, many who were against the immigrants south to support their arguments with science. The proposed there was a danger of mixing American blood (Northern European) with the blood of those deemed less desirable.  It’s interesting (and frightening) how groups like the American Breeder’s Association, which had worked to improve agricultural practices such as raising healthier sheep, growing higher yielding soybeans and corn, and mildew-resistant cherries, began to debate at how to build a better “human.” Thankfully, these ideas never took a strong hold in the United States, but these ideas did catch on in Germany and even after the war, it was used as a German defense at the Nuremburg Trials, where Hitler’s “doctors” pointed to America as the source of their heinous ideas on race (see pages 392-393).

While there were many conservative and traditional politicians and business leaders drawn to such theories as a way of avoiding “racial suicide,” such as Henry Cabot Lodge and Henry Adams, this was not only an issue supported by conservatives. Those with more progressive views such as Madison Grant (of the Bronx Zoo Fame), Teddy Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt also supported such views. Okrent follows the money and intellectual trail, as he links the support of such research, the scientist involved (such as Charles Davenport and Fairfield Osborn), the leading universities, and those funding such studies (which included Rockefeller, the Harriman family, and the Carnegie Institute. Also thrown into the mix includes Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood and Samuel Gompers of American Labor fame.  In a way, the ideas that lead to the 1924 restrictive immigrant policies in America, drew support from leading thinkers across America. It is sobering to look back today and to see the flaws in their thinking. As Nazism began to rear its ugly head, most moved away from such theories.

Okrent notes how his own publisher (Scribner) supported such theories in the past. Madison Grant’s book, The Passing of the Great Race, and Lothrop Stoddard’s Rising Tide of Color against the White World, were both published by Scribner.

It would be nice to know such ideas that were popular in the United States in the early years of the 20th Century are no longer present as we move into the 21st Century, but I’m not so sure.  The recent debate over immigration and with a book like Pat Buchanan’s The Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil Our Culture and Civilization (2002), makes me wonder if there are still those who hold on to such ideas about race.

While Okrent mentions issues with Asian immigration, and early anti-Catholic immigration issues, this book primarily focuses on the attempt to limit immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe. I listened to this book via Audible, and then checked out the book from the library and read selections in preparation for a book group meeting where we were discussing this book.

###

The Parade: Risking Reputation

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
March 1, 2020
Matthew 21:1-11
Zechariah 9:9-10

 

 

Everyone loves a parade. Or so they say. I’m not sure it’s true. If you’re like me and prefer to take the back roads for scenery, and then find yourself stuck behind a small-town parade, you know what I mean. Yet, there is something intoxicating about crowds. It’s addictive to be a part of something larger than ourselves. Hopefully, that something is God, but we must acknowledge that we’re also lured by the masses (except for during flu season or when a virus is on the loose).

It’s an exciting spring day in the imperial city of Jerusalem. Pilgrims pour in; Jews living throughout the Mediterranean gather at their ancestral city to celebrate the Passover. What a wonderful day for a parade…

Jesus and his gang are also coming to Jerusalem to celebrate. When only a few miles from town, Jesus sends his disciples into the next village in order to procure a donkey and colt for his entry… He tells them where to find these animals. He instructs his disciples to respond to anyone who challenges them with, “the Lord needs it and will return it.” The disciples find the animal; some bystanders question their taking the colt, but they seem satisfied with the answer. Did Jesus work this out in advance or is this a sign of his divinity? The text lets allows us to ponder, providing no clear indication as if this Jesus’ humanity at work (he arranged for the colt in advance) or his divinity at work (he knew where to send the disciples).[1]

         The disciples, without being asked, placed their cloaks on the animals as a saddle. Now, how Jesus rode two animals, as Matthew seems to suggest, we’re not told. We might image him, holding the reigns in his teeth, with a foot on each animal, like a circus rider taking a victory lap, but that’s probably not the case. Instead, he may have sat on the donkey, sidesaddle, as was the custom for riding such beasts, and had the colt follow along, staying close to its mother.[2]

        Quickly, as he and the disciples approach the city’s walls, excitement builds. Followers start placing their cloaks on the ground—in Sir Walter Raleigh’s fashion—as the procession begins. Someone brings in branches—we’re not told if they’re palms (the palms only appear in John’s gospel).[3] These branches are waved, making the parade more festive. The waving branches welcome Jesus as if he’s a general or a king returning victorious… And they begin to chant Hosanna, which means “Save us,” as they quote from Psalm 118:

Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest heaven![4]

         I image its mostly pilgrims making up the crowd. Many of them would have been from the small towns and villages in Galilee, who’ve come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. This is Spring Break, 30 AD. Just like today, most everyone makes a trek south—but instead of Florida, they head to Jerusalem. For many of the pilgrims, this is the highlight of their life—being in Jerusalem for the holiday. It’s like us getting a chance to celebrate New Year’s Eve on Times’ Square, Mardi Gras in New Orleans, or Christmas at Grandma Moses’ farm. This is a once in a lifetime chance. And as they come to Jerusalem, they recall God’s great acts of salvation in the past, of how God freed the Hebrew people from Egyptian slavery and saved them from Pharaoh’s army. Reminiscing about God’s past activity opens them up to the possibility God will act again and restore Israel to her former glory. They’ve gathered in hope.

Many of them are hoping Jesus is the one they’ve been waiting for, for so long. They see him as the man God will use to shake off the Roman shackles and allow Israel to once again be free. Jesus, however, doesn’t fulfill their expectations.

       We’re left to wonder what our response would have been if we were there? Where would we be in this story? Would we have been in the crowds shouting “Hosanna?” And if so, would we’ve also been in the crowds shouting “Crucify?” For you see, it’s hard to separate the parade at the beginning of Holy Week, with the crucifixion that comes five days later.

What is it about our nature which allows us to get excited when our religion seems to support our expectations? And then, back away when things seem to move in a direction with which we disagree? We often forget that God’s ways are not ours.

          Jesus takes a risk with this parade. In this series we’re going to see repeatedly the risks Jesus and the disciples took during Holy Week. Here, with the parade, Jesus mocks politicians who entered Jerusalem with pomp and circumstance. As Jesus comes into Jerusalem, there were two other significant political figures either already in the city (or if not, they were soon to be there): Pilate, the Roman governor, and Herod, the Roman puppet king. There was probably a parade for them too, one involving fancy horses and soldiers with shiny brass and perhaps even a band. Pilate and Herod display the power of Empire; Jesus, humbly riding on a donkey, displays the power of a mysterious kingdom, one not of this world. Who do we follow? Are we lured by the fancy horses and war chariots of the kings and politicians? Or do we follow the man on a donkey.

This is political, and church always has difficulty with politics. We walk a line between being prophetic in calling government to a higher standard (which is appropriate) and playing the court jester. With the later, we sometimes divert people’s attention from what’s important and thereby providing support for the status quo. In a way, with the decline of the mainline churches, we no longer play the role we once did in politics and that’s probably good.

 

A few years ago, I heard Miroslav Volf, a theologian and the founder of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, address this issue. “Don’t look with nostalgia on when the church was in the center of everything,” he said, “for then it was used and abused by those in power… instead, we must find the language and the confidence to cheerfully live our lives as followers of Jesus Christ.” The church can’t and shouldn’t depend on political power.[5] Jesus, riding on a humble donkey, demonstrates this. We depend on God’s power to carry out God’s purposes.

Many people think that the reason the mainline churches have declined in influence is that we no longer reflect the values of the larger society. This may be so, but even if it is, we must remember that we’re not called to reflect the values of society. We’re called to reflect the values of that man who rode into Jerusalem on a colt some 2000 years ago. And his values constantly challenge us as to who we are and to whom we belong. Do we conform to how others want us to be, or do we strive to conform ourselves to the example of our Savior Jesus Christ? Are we intoxicated by the crowds, or by a desire to stand by the one who is the way and the truth and the life?[6]

          As we move through this season of Lent, we need to ponder what Jesus’ risked during Holy Week, and what we are willing to risk for the sake of the gospel.[7] Here are some things we should consider. Do we only support our church when things go our way, or when we hear what we want to hear, or when the church does only the things we want to do? If that’s the case, are we taking risk? Are we being supportive? Are we being Christ-like? Are we being open to where God is calling? Or, to ask the question another way, if we only listening to what we want to hear from Jesus, are we really being faithful to him? It takes faith to stand alone when the crowds disappear; it takes faith to buck the trend. Granted, sometimes we, as individuals and as the church, are wrong, and when we are it takes faith to admit that we are wrong and to seek the new trail Jesus is blazing for us…

        We hear the crowds… We are drawn toward Jesus… Will we just hang around for the fun of the parade, or will we take a risk and continue to follow him as his journey moves toward the cross upon which we’ll be called to sacrifice our wills and desires for his? Amen

 

©2020

About the background slides:  The photos and artwork with attributions are either  from pixabay.com or the collection at Vanderbilt Theological Seminary. The rest of the photos are mine. The ones of a parade (procession) were taken on the first Sunday in Lent in Antigua, Guatemala in 2018.  The graveyard shot was taken above the town of Benton Hot Springs on the California/Nevada border and the photo of the highway was taken between Benton Hot Springs and Mono Lake, as I was driving toward the Sierras. These photos were taken in 2013.   

 

[1] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28 (Grand Rapids: Eerdman, 2004), 353.

[2] For more on the two animals, see Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew: Interpretation, a Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), 238-239.

[3] John 12:13.

[4] Psalm 118:25-26.

[5] Interview of Miroslav Volf by Cornelius Plantiga, Calvin College, April 12, 2014

[6] John 14:6

[7] Risk is the theme for this series. See the “Sermon Fodder”  in www.theworshipdesignstudio.com/passion

Get Up; Don’t Be Afraid

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Matthew 17:1-8
February 23, 2020

Today, we’re coming to an end of this series on SAD (Spiritual Affection Disease). We’ve looked at several ordinary activities that can be used, beyond prayer and Bible study, to draw us closer to God. Today, we’re going to see that everything focuses on Jesus. Once we encounter the Savior, we need to fearlessly carry out his work.

Our passage is the Transfiguration. These are some verses I’ve often wondered about. Why are they in Scripture?” I’ve asked. “Is this story needed?” This week, I thought about this passage while attending a two-day Theology Matter’s conference on Hilton Head.[1] We considered what it means for Jesus to be the “way and the truth and the life,” In that setting, I began to clearly understand the importance of this text. It points us to Jesus, and to our need to listen to his Word.

The Transfiguration is a mysterious event with which the western church has always struggled. The Eastern Church, the Orthodox tradition, from early in its history, celebrated the event with a feast. In the West, it wasn’t until the 15th Century, right before the Protestant Reformation, that the Roman Catholic Church set aside a special day to recall the Transfiguration.[2] And for Protestants, we came even later to the table. But it’s important that we deal with this passage for it appears in all three of the synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke.[3] Let’s listen to Matthew’s account of this story. And as I read this, think about what your reaction to such an encounter might be.  Read Matthew 17:1-8.

###

 

There are four questions I want us to explore from this mysterious text. Of course, many other questions may arise, but this morning, we’ll stick with these four:

Why did Jesus only take three of the twelve disciples up on the mountain?
What is the significance of Moses and Elijah’s appearance?
What do we learn about Jesus from this encounter?
And finally, what’s the implication of this text for our lives?

 

That’s more than we can chew on in one sermon, but let’s see where it takes us.

We’re told that Jesus took Peter, James and John up on the mountain. In Scripture, many things happen on mountaintops, going back to Abraham. So the reader is expecting something to happen up on the mountain, at a place that symbolically links the earth to heaven.[4] But why does Jesus only take three of the twelve disciples? Did the other nine feel left out? We’re not told, but we must admit that there are times it’s easier to have an experience with a few than with many. These three, in a way, form Jesus’ inner-core. Each of these become the major players in the early church.[5] So maybe Jesus had a tactical reason for allowing them to have this experience. Furthermore, mountaintop experiences in Scripture tend to happen only to individuals or small groups and it’s up to those having the experience to share what happened with others.[6]

What’s important here is not that those of us who follow Jesus have a mystical encounter, but that we learn from the experiences of others. Not all of us will have a Damascus moment like Paul, or witness a burning, non-burning bush like Moses, or the Transfiguration like the three disciples. After the resurrection, Jesus responded to Thomas (who wasn’t at the Transfiguration): “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”[7] Most of us will fall in the latter category. We are those who have not seen and have yet, because of the testimony of others, believe.

Once Jesus and the disciples make it to the top of the mountain they experience a vision.[8] Jesus begins to glow. His face was like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white. That in itself was amazing, but then there appeared Moses and Elijah, who were alive and talking to Jesus. We’re not told how the disciples knew it was Moses and Elijah. I’m pretty sure they weren’t wearing name tags. But how they knew is not as important as to who they are. These are the two great figures in the Old Testament. Moses brought God’s law down from the mountain to God’s people at Sinai. He represents a fulfillment of the covenant that began with Abraham. Elijah is the representative of the prophets, those individuals called by God to demand the Hebrew people’s faithfulness to their Lord.

The appearance of Moses and Elijah is a reminder of the importance of the Old Testament and how it points to Jesus. The Scriptures of the Old Testament are still valid, but they now take on a different dimension with Christ, the one who came to show us the way home, the way back to God. In their appearance, the past (or what we might call tradition) points to the way forward. This is especially true for those of us on this side of the crucifixion and resurrection.[9]

        This all amazes the disciples and causes Peter to begin babble about building shelters, perhaps to prolong the event. But while Peter rambles, we’re told a bright cloud suddenly overshadowed them. Think about this, Jesus is already dazzling white, so this cloud must have been really amazing. And from the cloud, as it was at Jesus’ baptism, God speaks. “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him.” The words are the same as at Jesus’ baptism except for the last three: “Listen to him.”[10] Again, God confirms Jesus’ identity and role, but now God commands the disciples to listen to him. God is saying that what Jesus says is important. As we learn in the prologue to John’s gospel, Jesus is God’s Word.[11]

Here, in this passage, we have God the Father, and the traditions of the past (Moses and Elijah), all pointing toward Jesus as the way forward. He’s the one whom we’re to follow, which is the core of the message within this passage.

The disciples are overwhelmed and fearful. They fall to the ground. But it doesn’t last long. Jesus comes over and shakes them as they crouch on the dirt and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And as they look up, it’s all over and it’s time for them to leave the mountain and join the rest of the disciples at the base of the hill.        

Two things we should take from Jesus’ words. We can’t stay on the mountain. As followers of Christ, we are called to live out our discipleship in the valleys, with the people, not up on the mountaintops away from problems. Yes, sometimes we need a break, we need time alone.[12] But ministry (and we’re all called into ministry) is among people, down the mountain, where things can be dirty and messy. And as scary as the mountaintops might be, going back down can even be scarier. But we’re not to be scared because Jesus is with us. Our lives are to focus on him, first and foremost. And if we focus on Jesus and trust that he has things under control, we shouldn’t be afraid of anything. Yes, in life some bad stuff can happen, just like it happened to the disciples, BUT Jesus has it all worked out. He’s secured our future so that we might live for him in this life.

         So what does the Transfiguration say to us today? Jesus is Lord, listen to him, obey him, trust him, follow him, and don’t be afraid. “Get up, don’t be afraid.” Good words for us to consider as we, as a congregation, prepare for our future. Amen.

 

©2020

[1] The theme of the conference was John 14:6 (Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life).  See https://www.theologymatters.com/.

[2] R. F. Buxton, “Transfiguration,” The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986), 510.  The Eastern Church celebrates this day on August. 6.

[3] See Mark 9:2-8 and Luke 9:28-36.

[4] Douglas R. A. Hare (Matthew: Interpretation, a Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Louisville, John Knox Press, 1993), 198.

[5] Jesus took this same group to Gethsemane to pray (Luke 26:37).  Frederick Dale Bruner, The Churchbook: Matthew 12-28 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 165.

[6] Think of Abraham and Isaac on the mountain (Genesis 22), Moses on the mountain (Exodus 3 and 19:20ff), Elijah on the mountain (I Kings 19:11ff), and Jesus in the wilderness during his temptation (Matthew 4:1-11).  See also Bruner, 165. Bruner refers to J. A. Bengel’s 18th Century commentary. Bengel suggested the mountain may not have been named to avoid superstition. In light of this, I suggest it’s not the mountain that’s important, but the Jesus who is revealed on the mountain, therefore it’s more about what we do with this experience than the experience itself.

[7] John 20:29.

[8] While the story (verses 1-8) doesn’t say this is a vision, when they head down the mountain, Jesus describes it as a vision in verse 9.

[9] Bruner, 167.

[10] See Matthew 3:13-17.

[11] John 1:1-2.

[12] Even Jesus took time alone, away from the crowds. See Matthew 14:13.

Walk This Way

Jeff Garrison 
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Psalm 119:1-8
February 16, 2020

 

We’re back looking at ways for us not to be so SAD. How can we overcome bouts of Spiritual Affective Disease? How can we get closer to our Creator? This series offers us ways, beyond the usual Bible study and prayer, that we can reconnect with God. So far, we’ve looked at meditation, music, laughter, serving others, and appreciating God’s presence all around us.

Today, we’re looking at walking. In a way, the ability to walk is what makes us human. In Genesis, we have that beautiful image of God walking in the garden and wanting the man and woman to join the stroll.[1] According to Bruce Chatwin, in the Middle Ages it was thought that by going on a pilgrimage (which meant walking), you were recreating that original condition of humanity. Walking through the wilderness brought you back to God.[2] As humans, we are designed to move which allows us to experience God’s world, to connect with God’s people, and to come closer to God.

Our two scripture passages from the Psalms this morning have to do with walking. Our third passage, which we heard earlier from the Gospel of Luke, about following a path set forth by God, is about a metaphorical walk. As we journey through life, we need to follow God’s path and use the legs God’s given us to connect with one another and with God. And even if we can’t get up and walk, we can use our bodies in whatever way we can, to move and to delight in God’s creation.

Before reading our last passage, from Psalm 119, let me share a bit about this mega-Psalm. You might know that this Psalm is the longest chapter in the Bible. There are 176 verses to the 119th Psalm. It’s way too much to preach on in one sermon! But it’s also a unique. I know you’ve heard me speak of acrostic Psalms… This is a type of poetry where every line begins with the next letter in the alphabet. In English, it would be like writing, “Apples are red, Berries are blue, Cats are cute… etc. Using an acrostic method helps in memorization. I’ll come back to this later in the sermon.

Psalm 119 is an acrostic poem on steroids. Each letter in the Hebrew alphabet receives eight lines, and each of those lines starts with a word with the same letter.[3] Unfortunately, this doesn’t translate well across languages. Since Hebrew has 22 letters, you multiply that by 8, and you get our 176 verses! Be thankful I’m not reading them all!

The late Kurt Vonnegut once informed his wife that he was going out to buy an envelope. This was what ensued:

“Oh, she says, well, you’re not a poor man. You know, why don’t you go online and buy a hundred envelopes and put them in the closet? And so I pretend not to hear her. And go out to get an envelope because I’m going to have a heck of a good time in the process of buying one envelope. I meet a lot of people. And see some great-looking babies. And a fire engine goes by. And I give them the thumbs up. And I’ll ask a woman what kind of dog that is. And, and I don’t know. The moral of the story is – we’re here on Earth to play around. And, of course, the computers will do us out of that. And what the computer people don’t realize, or they don’t care, is we’re dancing animals. You know, we love to move around. And it’s like we’re not supposed to dance at all anymore.”[4]

It’s very easy today for us all to become couch potatoes, but that’s not why we’re created in this fashion and with these bodies. If these bodies are still working, we need to use them, even if they don’t work as well as they did when we were younger!

“Travel by its very nature demands simplicity,” Rolf Potts proclaims in his book, Vagabonding.[5] This is even more so when walking, as one is limited to what one can carry. Walking simplifies things further by slowing us down and forcing us to look around. After all, we want don’t want to trip on a crack in the sidewalk or step in a mud puddle. As we start looking around, we become more aware and notice more about what’s happening. We appreciate the flowers that throw off a scent in the spring. Don’t you love it when the oleander and jasmine are in bloom? We can stop and meet our neighbors. Or perhaps we might catch a neighborhood battle that we’d missed as we speed along on asphalt in a car with the windows up.

Have you ever seen an eviction? It’s something to behold. You wouldn’t want to miss it, would you? Now that I have your attention, let me tell about a walk I took a few months before moving from Michigan.

I was walking down Green Street in the early spring and heard all this commotion in the maple trees that lined the road. It was in the evening. Looking up, I saw an owl sitting in top of the trees. The feathery neighborhood association, all of which had eggs or babies in those trees, weren’t too happy. They knew what that owl was up to no good. A dozen or so birds, of all varieties, worked together to encouraged the owl to move on. One would fly close by and as the owl followed it, another bird would come in on its blind side and peck the owl on its head. I stood and watched for a good twenty minutes, until finally the owl had enough and moved to another tree. Think of all we miss as we huddle inside our climate-controlled homes and cars.

Of course, we’re not just to walk for walking sake, even though it is good for our physical being. Scripture tells us repeatedly to walk in the ways of the Lord. Psalm 119 is a meditation on God’s law. Throughout this passage, we’re encouraged to walk in the law, to walk in the ways of God, to let God’s law light the path for our feet.

This Psalm opening section, which I read this morning, speaks of how those who walk in God’s ways are blessed. And so are we, if we do our walking with God at our side, using our time out when alone or with others, to be delighted in God’s creation and to appreciate God’s providence. You see, walking can benefit us, spiritually and physically. When we move, we can connect with others and with God. So, this week, ponder this passage as you take time each day to take a walk. Let’s get moving and enjoying where we live.

But I also want you to join in on another walk, one that will involve all the congregation. As you know, next Sunday we’re going to lay out a new Strategic Plan for our congregation. We want to be a “joyful, thriving church reflecting the face of Jesus to the world!”  Our mission is to “Love God, Love our Neighbors, and to Change the world.” We have set up core values (using an acrostic formation-kind of like Psalm 119-that spells out WORSHIP). These core values demonstrate God’s love by Welcoming, Offering, Respecting, Serving, Helping, Investing, and Praying.  All this is supported by four pillars, which we as a church need to walk within. These pillars will require each of us to commit ourselves to excellence, and we if bind ourselves on this journey together, we will live into our Vision and Mission.

What are these pillars?

  • A joyful worship experience.
  • Grow our membership.
  • Improve our financial sustainability.
  • And increase our community outreach.

 

In each of these four areas, there are ways for you to walk with your friends here at Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church.

We’re all needed in worship, to lift our praises to God and to focus, first and foremost, on the Lord. Also, we need those of you who have special talents to help with music, with drama, in the sound booth, or with the liturgy. As we continue to work on creative worship, we’ll need to draw on everyone’s creativity.

To grow our membership, we need you to invite friends and family members to experience our church. And once someone visits, they need to see what a caring family we are. We need to love one another in a way that will make others want to be a part of our family.

To improve our financial sustainability requires us to look forward to the future. Past generations built and paid for this wonderful facility. Those of us who came here later received it as a gift. As we move forward, we need to sustain our ministries in a way that finances won’t be such a burden. We need to build endowments and to encourage everyone to be generous as God has been generous to us. What kind of gift can we give to those who follow us?

And finally, we need to increase our outreach into the community. We’ve been doing this with Civility Forums (the next one is March 4th), with the Calvin January Series, and with the very popular sunrise service. What other ways can we reach out and provide a home for those in our community who want to come and to learn and to be a part of changing the world?

It’s time for a long walk. Will you join us? Be here next week for the town hall meeting and between then and now, take a walk or two and ponder what you can do to further the gospel in the world. Amen.

©2020

A note about the photos.  All but the photo of the owl (which came from Pixabay.com) and the one of Kurt Vonnegut are mine. The first one of a two-rack road was taken in Spooner Summit in Nevada (on the west ridge over Lake Tahoe). The lantern was my grandfather’s. The next images were taken on a backpacking trip in the Porcupine Mountains of Michigan. The last photo of a two-track road was taken on Cumberland Island, Georgia. 

[1] Genesis 3:8-9.

[2] Bruce Chatwin, Songlines as quoted by Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred (New York, MJF Books, 1998), 18.

[3] This is easily seen by looking at a Hebrew text. For more information see James L. Mays, Psalms: Interpretation: A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, JKP, 1994), 381-382.

[4] I am not sure where this came from. I read it a month ago, cut and pasted it and saved it without providing the source. When I looked on the internet, I realized it’s been a quoted a lot over the last 15 years…  I cleaned up the text a little for the sermon, replacing hell with heck and play for fart.

[5] Rolf Potts, Vagabonding (New York: Villard, 2003), 32.

Questions and answers in a field of sunflowers

Back in December, The Armchair Squid honored me with this award.

Sorry to disappoint  you, but I will give no acceptance speeches that flaunt my politics. I like how “the Squid” modified the original rules:

  • You don’t have to display anything you don’t want to.
  • You don’t have to pass on the award to others in order to accept it for yourself.  You are thoroughly deserving without having to jump through any hoops.
  • You also don’t have to answer my questions, though I hope you will.  I am genuinely interested in your responses.
  • Simply know that I am grateful for our blogsphere friendship.

I’m finally getting around to these questions, which I found interesting and fun to ponder. Here’s my answer.

If you could live one year of your life over again, which year would you choose and why?
Is this a trick question? In Thornton Wilder’s play, “Our Town,” Emily Gibbs is allowed to go back and see one day of her life. It is suggested that she go back to an insignificant day, for it’s going to be so difficult. That said, maybe 1987, when I completed most of the Appalachian Trail. But that’s probably one of the more significant instead of insignificant years of my life.

If you could learn to be an expert at something without putting in the work, what would it be?
A violinist

If you could learn a new language instantly, which would you choose and why?
Mandarin  I might as well know what most of the world is saying behind my back.

If you could give $1 million to any charity, which would you choose?
A charity that works with disabled or disadvantaged children.

When was your Robert Frost moment a la “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…”?  The poem says you can’t go back and that is true.  “Way leads on to way” and so forth.  But if you could, would you?  What is the difference you think it would have made?
It was one winter in Michigan, when the snow was deep and I had shoveled a path to the driveway and another to a large locust tree for obvious reasons. Then, warming up inside by the fireplace, I pinned these immortal lines (with apologies to Robert Frost):

Two roads diverged in yellow snow,
And glad I am not to travel both
One traveler with four legs runs to the tree
And looks down as he hunkers low
And lifts his leg to take a pee

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Some where ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged from my front porch, and I—
I took the one with the white snow,
And that has made all the difference

Of course, it didn’t make much difference, but I got a laugh out of it.

Time travel: where would you go and when?  Why?
Virginia City, Nevada in 1875.  Having spent a lot of time studying and writing about Virginia City and the role the church played there, that was an interesting year. It was the year of the big fire and the interesting split within the Presbyterian Church. Visiting would allow me to see how much I got right in my history.

Who would you want on your fictional character bowling team?  You get to pick four.
Yosemite Sam, Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse and Yogi Bear…

What would you want for your last meal?
I’d be like Jefferson in Ernest Gaines novel, A Lesson Before Dying, who asked for a whole gallon of ice cream and a pot spoon to eat it with. He’d never had enough ice cream, he said, and while I’ve never been as poor as him, I’ve never had enough ice cream, either. By the way, it’s a tradition on the Appalachian Trail to eat a half gallon of ice cream at the half-way point. I didn’t do it at time, eating only a quart!

What’s your favorite song?
Can I have two?  A modern one and an ancient one?  Why yes, I can, my conscience tells me, but remember the Armchair Squid teaches music! Okay, then two it’ll be:

“Deacon Blues” by Steely Dan and “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”

Are you an introvert or an extrovert?
I’m just barely an extrovert on the Myers-Briggs scale.  That seems right as there are times I like being in crowds, but I also need to retreat into “me time.”

If you came over to my home and I offered you a drink, what would you want me to serve you?
I would ask for your best bourbon on the rocks, unless it’s Derby Day, then I’d ask for a mint julep. If it’s St. Andrews Day or Burn’s Night, let’s have Scotch or maybe a Rusty Nail.

Book Reviews (memoirs and poetry)

David Sedaris, Thief by Finding (audiobooks, 1977) 13 hours 52 minutes.

Years ago, I read Me Talk Pretty One Day. It was a very funny book and I’m not sure why it took me so long to get around to another of Sedaris’ books. I was looking for something humorous to listen to in the gym and decided to give this one a try. It took me a long time to get into the book and several times I thought about putting it aside. The first years of his diary are somewhat bare, glimpses of him hitchhiking around the American West, making a few bucks with temporary labor, while spending most of his time getting high.  As we must be close in the same age, so that as I listened to his diary entries, I kept thinking what I was doing during those years. After wandering around the country for a while, Sedaris settles down as he enters Chicago Institute of Art. He still struggles to pay bills (in his early years, he seemed to have a particularly hard time with this phone bill). He hangs out watching people in the International House of Pancakes. And he begins to write. There are some things that Sedaris wrote in his journal from the 70s, that reminded me of that era. Race relationships were often in tension and he had a several scary run-ins in both Raleigh (where he grew up) and in Chicago.  He also wrote about his relationship with his siblings (especially Amy) and his parents (he adored his mother and didn’t care as much for his father, even though his father did give the kids a trip to Greece).

After he graduated from college, Sedaris stayed in Chicago, working day labor jobs and as an adjunct writing professor at the Art Institute. During this time, his journal observations become sharper and more humorous. Then he moved to New York, where he and Amy had plays produced in small off-Broadway theaters. There’s no “eureka” moment, where Sedaris realizes he “had it made” but soon instead of struggling to find enough money to pay the rent or phone bill, Sedaris is eating in nice restaurants and traveling back and forth to Europe.  He publishes Naked. His lover is French and they move there, where Sedaris studies the language (and his teacher didn’t appreciate her portrait in Me Talk Pretty One Day). He also begins to clean up his life, admitting he’s an alcoholic and keeping a count on his days of sobriety. He has some interesting entries concerning 911, both from his time in France and when he returns to visit New York without the twin towers.

I am glad I stuck with this highly edited and published journal. In a way, reading these excerpts, Sedaris provides a personal glimpse of his view of the world in which we both lived, but in very different ways. I was often turned off with the language, but found that as the years went by, Sedaris began to cut the number of times he used the “F-word”. He even noted, while teaching writing, his criticism of a student’s paper that overused such language. Also, the book shows Sedaris sharpening his pen with humor, which is an interesting insight. His writings become mature as he ages. Finally, I was glad I listened to this book while working out in the gym. I’m not sure I would have stayed with it had I been reading it instead of listening to it.

 

David Baker, Swift: New and Selected Poems (New York: Norton, 2019), 179 pages

David Baker is a poet who is aware of his place in creation. In this collection of fifteen new poems and selections from his seven previous books of poetry, we are drawn into our common world that is highlighted by his keen observations and knowledge of nature. One collection draws upon the negative impact of chemicals used on the farms in Mid-America.  He writes about death and bemoans the idea that the American way of death takes us out of the circle of life as we ensure that not even worms can feast on our bodies.  In a note after another poem, he points out the insane about of fuel used to cremate bodies in North America (estimated to be equivalent fuel needed to drive a car the distance of 80 round trips to the moon).  He hears the coyote cry at night and muses about birds and butterflies, fish and frogs. Through a variety of styles of poetry, some I found easier to comprehend than others, Baker draws us into this world we inhabit. I encourage others to indulge themselves with his words and images and ponder how we might live as a more responsible member of this planet.

 

Chad Faries, Drive Me Out of My Mind: 24 Houses in 10 Years: A Memoir (Emergency Press, 2011), 280 pages.

This was a hard book to read. I picked it up after hearing the author, who is a professor at Savannah State University, a few years ago. Knowing he was from the Upper Peninsula (UP) of Michigan, a favorite get-away when I lived in the mitten state, made it more appealing. But my first attempted to read the book failed. It was just too hard to imagine, and I kept thinking that no kid should ever have to live in such situations. But I picked it back up last month and forced my way through this memoir of the first ten years of Faries’ life. A warning if you read this book: It’s brutally honest. The language is rough, drug and alcohol abuse are a constant, and the sex scenes that a child observes is shocking. Yet, there are children who grow up in such situations. It is amazing that Faries survived the 70s.

There are several threads that hold the book together. One is the places they lived. Often, it’s a house, but on one occasion it was a room above a strip club and another above a bowling alley. Faries mother was just a teenager when the book begins and suffers from drug and alcohol abuse and, what seems to me, an addiction to sex. But she does love and cares from her son. While the book is called a “memoir,” there is a little license taken in using that title as the opening parts of the book are obviously before the author had actual memories. For such memories, he had to rely on his family.

A second thread is the constant mobility Chad and his mom make as they roam around the UP and off to Battle Creek (also in Michigan), Florida, Texas and Montana. They travel in old cars, in buses, by hitchhiking, and on the back of the mom’s boyfriend’s motorcycle. In one trip, the three of them rode from Battle Creek, Michigan to the western part of the UP (about 600 miles) with the boy sandwiched between his mom and her boyfriend. The constant moving is highlighted with a simple sentence at the end of each chapter, “And then we moved.”

The third thread is music. Faries begins each chapter with a quote from a “classic rock” tune of the era, and often during the chapters he recalls certain songs of the decade.

While most of the chapters are told from the point of view of the boy, there are a few interesting ones toward the end such as the chapter that is told from the point of view of the hamster who understands his role on earth is to protect the boy. I found myself cheering on a rodent. The last chapter has Faries with his mother and several other women discuss his early life. It’s 2003, and Faries is teaching in Eastern Europe and has come home on a visit. His aunt is tattooing his Greek girlfriend’s name on his back. As she does this, Faries interviews her and his mother about his recollections of growing up. This chapter, written more like a dialogue of a play, serves to wrap up many of the story’s loose ends.
I forced myself to read this book and learned much. But I’m saddened to know that children do grow up in such situations.

Altars, Altars Everywhere

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Psalm 84
February 2, 2020

 

In her book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.”[1] Picture this for a moment, a world filled with signs of God’s glory, so many that we’re constantly tripping over them. There’s truth here. In Genesis, we’re told God created everything in the world as good.[2] The Psalms proclaim the world and all that is in it belongs to God, that God is beside us even when we find ourselves in death’s shadows, and that there is no place we can go to be away from God.[3] This is all good news. We’re not abandoned. We’re not alone.

This winter we’re looking at ways of beating SAD: Spiritual Affective Disease. How do we pick ourselves up when God feels so far away? We’ve looked at meditating on the light during darkness, listening to soulful music, laughter, and doing good deeds for others. Another way to lift ourselves up is to realize that God is always close to us. God is accessible. We can easily reach out and connect to the Almighty. Yes, we may feel far from God, but that’s not the case. Feeling far from God has more to do with our feelings than with God’s absence.

         Today’s service is titled “Altars, Altars, Everywhere.” Let me point out that I’m using term “altar” for a place where we worship God. Biblically, an altar was a place for a sacrifice. The word comes to us from the Latin to describe a place where a sacrifice is made.[4] But since Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice, we don’t need to make sacrifices in order to obtain God’s favor.[5] Those of us in the Presbyterian and Reformed branches of Protestantism tend not to use the word altar as a place within a church building. Instead, we have a communion table, where we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, which we’ll do in a few minutes. So, when I use altar this morning, I’m not talking about sacrifices, but I’m using it in a symbolic way for a place we connect to God.

        Our text, Psalm 84, calls us to come into God’s dwelling place. Let me ask you what you think when you hear of such a place? Pearly gates and golden streets? Fluffy clouds inhabited by choirs of angels and accompanied by orchestras of strumming harps? Golden rays of sun highlighting a peaceful landscape?

         Another way of considering experiencing God’s dwelling place is to consider ourselves already there. After all, Jesus taught that the kingdom has come near.[6] We can look around us and can see places God is present. Certainly, at the marsh at the beginning and ending of each day, or at night when we look up at the twinkling stars, or whenever we encounter a mother and child and ponder the miracle of life. Yet, even in times of tragedy, God is present. We hear stories of those who, exceeding the bounds of human expectations, serve their neighbors and strangers in a way that provides a glimpse of Christ’s presence.[7] Opportunities abound for us to experience God and to see the glory of his domain. But is this what this Psalm is about?

          This is a crusader’s psalm. It’s one sung by pilgrims as they made their way from far off, perhaps even a foreign country, to the temple in Jerusalem.[8] The dwelling place for the Psalmist is Solomon’s magnificent temple. The Psalmist isn’t using God’s dwelling place as a metaphor for God’s domain in heaven or even God’s presence throughout the good earth. His joy stems from the thought of worshipping with God’s people in the temple. So, in a very literal sense, we understand the Psalmist call for us to worship at the temple. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that such a place supersedes our need to worship elsewhere.

        The Psalmist speaks as a pilgrim coming into sight of Mt. Zion, upon which sits the city of Jerusalem. And there in the middle of the city is the temple of God. “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!” the Psalmist sings. Perhaps this is his first visit to the temple. He’s overcome with joy. Although singing, he’s almost faint from excitement. He observes the birds nesting high up along the roof and acknowledges the glory of God who takes care of all creation, from the greatest mammal to the smallest feathered friend.

         The Psalmist then turns his attention to the priests, those who work in the temple day in and day out. He ponders their happiness. This must be a great job, he thinks.[9] “Yeah,” I think, “like being a vendor at Wrigley’s Field.” Of course, we only see the glorious side of those vendors. We think they’re lucky to be able to catch every game, ignoring their hard work of cleaning up. The same is true of the priests. He sees them leading worship and offering up sacrifices but doesn’t see them cleaning out all the burned meat from the altars or the polishing of the candlesticks. But for someone in awe, the position of the priest is enchanting.

          But then he realizes that he, too, is blessed by God. We see this in verse five, “Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways of Zion. In other words, he and those who have travelled the road to Zion, the road to Jerusalem, can be glad that God has given them the strength needed for the journey. Then, in the next verse, he recalls his journey through the Valley of Baca, the unknown valley of tears he had to traverse in order to get to Jerusalem. Even that desolate land is blessed by God. A miracle is witnessed as the dry summer heat is replaced with cool rains leaving behind pools of water from which the pilgrim can quench his thirst. Notice, that as the Psalmist sings, he realizes God’s presence is all around, not just at the temple.

         Acknowledging God’s providence in his life, the Psalmist prays in verse 9 and 10 for God’s continual blessings upon those who seek to worship. In verse 11, he shifts to metaphorical language, conceding that a day in the temple is better than a thousand elsewhere, even while acknowledging God’s gifts and goodness extends far from the walls of the temple. God is both the sun, the giver of life for the earth, but also the shield, the one who protects us from the sun when it becomes overbearing in the desert. God is the source of all good, or as John Calvin liked to infer, “God is the fountain from which every good gift flow.”[10]

          What does Psalm 84 teach us about worship? While the ultimate worship experience for the Psalmist was the temple, Solomon’s temple hasn’t existed for over 2,500 years. It was destroyed by Babylon. But that’s fine for there are now places of worship all over the world, and hopefully whether it’s here or somewhere else, you will find a home to worship.

But we don’t have to wait till Sunday, either. We don’t even have to be in God’s house to worship God. Because we have access to God, 24/7, worship could and should be continual. Paul tells us to “pray without ceasing.”[11] And prayer is an essential part of worship, as we acknowledge our total dependence on God. So, wherever you are, whether out in nature where the grandeur of God is evident or in the darkness of your bedroom, know that God is present and give thanks. If we do, as we told at the end of the Psalm, we can find happiness. We are not abandoned. For our scouts, this means that even if you get lost on a hike, you have a companion with you. Don’t ever forget this.

         So, this week, stop frequently and meditate about being in God’s presence. You might even set up a special place to meditate and pray in your home, a reminder that God is with you. Think about bumping into God’s altars, for they are everywhere. Be on the lookout for them, and then give thanks to God for his faithfulness. Amen.

©2020

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (New York: HarpersOne, 2009), 15.

[2] Genesis 1.

[3] Psalm 24, Psalm 23, and Psalm 139.

[4] C. E. Pocknee, “Altars” in The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1982), 6-7.

[5] Hebrews 10:10-15.

[6] Mark 1:15.

[7] Matthew 25:40.

[8] Artur Weiser, The Old Testament Library: The Psalms (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), 565ff.

[9] Weiser, 567.

[10] John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, I.2.1

[11] 1 Thessalonians 5:17

Make Somebody’s Day

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
January 26, 2020
Micah 6:1-8

 

A widow’s son who died in a tragic accident. This put her in great grief as she was not sure what to do. A friend took her to a holy man who was also known as a healer. “Use your power to bring my son back to me,” she sobbed.

The holy man spoke kindly to the woman. “Bring me a mustard seed from a house that has never known sorrow. I will use that seed to remove the pain you have in your life.

The woman set out immediately on a search for such a mustard seen. She visited the home of the wealthiest person in the area, thinking that no tragedy could have struck them. She knocked on the door and the told the woman of the house about her search and how she needed a mustard seed from a house without sorry.

“Never known sorrow?” the woman asked. “You’ve come to the wrong house.” She began to sob and told of all the tragedies that had struck her family. The widow remained in the home for many days, listening and caring.

Upon leaving the wealthy home, she resumed her search and tried a modest home about a mile down the road. The experience was the same. Everywhere she went, she was greeted with tales of sadness and sorry. And everyone she met found her to be a listening and caring woman.

After months of travelling, she became so involved in the grief of others that she forgets about her search for the magic mustard seed, never realizing that her search had driven sorry out of her life.[1]

You know, sometimes we should just do it. Nike may have coined that term, but it’s also the call of a disciple. Our belief needs to be displayed in our actions. God wants us to live in a way that will bless those around us with peace and comfort. We’re not to do good to earn God’s favor, instead we should be touched by what God has done for us and order our lives accordingly. How might we make someone’s day, today?

Our lesson for the morning is from Micah 6:1-8, reading from the Message translation.

###

          The Scriptures we read today make it abundantly clear that God isn’t looking for heroes. God doesn’t require us to be “Super-Christians.” We don’t have to sacrifice everything we have in order to find favor with God. Instead, God is satisfied with us living a life which brings no harm to anyone and which honor righteousness. These teachings from the Old Testament can be somewhat summarized into Jesus’ command to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves.[2]

       The sixth chapter of Micah begins with a courtroom scene. God indicts Israel, asking her to come and plea her case against the mountains and the hills. Why the mountains and hills?  Because they have been around for ages and have seen how God has shown mercy to Israel.[3]

 

        In the third verse, God asks Israel a rhetorical question.  “What have I done to you, in what ways have I wearied you?”  The people of Israel have been ignoring God. God’s question is designed to grab their attention. Was God the reason for Israel disobedience? Probably not…

The indictment against Israel continues as God reminds her of the Exodus and other great deeds which have shown the saving grace of Israel’s Lord.

         In the sixth verse, Israel answers. Israel knows she has been disobedient and asks how she might come back before God.  Shall it be with the best of sacrifices? Armloads of offerings, and a yearling calf? Or perhaps, like King David,[4] a thousand rams along with buckets and barrels of olive oil?  And if that’s not enough, how about the most valuable thing of all, her first-born? As this response is made to God, each item escalates the value of the sacrifice.[5]

Standing before God is awesome and frightful. The Hebrew people believed that if they saw God’s holy face, they’d be consumed by God’s righteousness. So, it seems natural that if they are called into a lawsuit by God, they should up the ante of what they’re willing to offer. But God is so much greater than anything we can offer. What does God need from us? The offer to ratchet up of the sacrifices allows the prophet to correct the people’s misconception about what God wants. It’s quite simple, Micah says in verse 8. Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, and walk with God (Or as the Message translates that ending of the verse, don’t take yourself seriously, take God seriously).

You may be asking yourself, does that mean that sacrifice and offerings to God are of no use?  No, not at all. Instead, what we are told is that living a moral life is required if we expect our attempts at worshipping God to be valid. If you remember, Jesus said something about us healing the rift with a wronged brother before we make our offerings in the temple.[6]

          The beauty of this passage is its simplicity. God is not expecting us to make a monumental effort in order to gain favor.  God does not want religion to become such a burden that we harbor resentment in our hearts. Instead, God wants us to incorporate our faith into our lives so that God is glorified in all that we do…

Wendell Berry is a Christian, an environmentalist, a farmer and a poet from the hills of Kentucky. Years ago, at a commencement speech during a college graduation, which he titled “The Futility of Global Thinking” he told the students:

 

“Nobody can do anything to heal the planet. The suggestion that anybody could do so is preposterous. The heroes of abstraction keep galloping in on their white horses to save the planet—and they keep falling off in front of the grandstand.”[7]

        Think about what Berry is saying. When we look at the environmental crisis from a global level, it becomes unmanageable. Berry goes on to tell the students that instead of worrying about how to save the planet, they should concern themselves with the care of their own neighborhoods.[8] This is true not just for environmental issues, but every other kind of challenge our world faces. We can’t change the hearts of others and avoid a war, but we can love our neighbors and began to build a community that reflects godly values. And slowly, if blessed by God, such communities can take shape and change the world.

What does Berry have to do with Micah? Well, in a sense, they are both prophets speaking to a world which has lost its connection to its source of life. The priest of Israel might demand that 1,000s of rams and barrels of oil be offered up to God to get Israel back on the right track, but what effect would that really have had on the average Hebrew in the 8th century BC? They’d be overwhelmed. Likewise, we are told that the answers to the world’s problems are global, but that’s overwhelming. We can’t get our minds around such problems.

         Let’s think of the implication of what Micah and Berry have to say to the discussion of the church in America in the 21st Century? We cannot deny-things are changing in our world.  The shape of the church and society are undergoing radical restructuring. Our church and society seem helpless in stopping the violence and the brutality which we read about daily.

We have a lot of problems in our world. The environment, crime, hunger, drugs, war, domestic violence, teenage pregnancy, unemployment… the list seems endless. As Christians, our Lord and Savior calls us to be concerned and to do our part to make the world better. But isn’t it nice to know that we are not required to do it all ourselves?

        One of the problems of the modern church, I believe, is that we’ve become practical atheist.[9] As practical atheist, we still believe in God, we just don’t believe God is doing anything in the world so we have to make up the slack. Practical atheists can be either conservatives or progressives, and they seem to flourish at both extremes. God is still real for them; they can use the fear of God or the teachings of Jesus to excite Christians into zealous actions. These “practical atheist” are mostly committed to single causes. The conservative cause may be abortion or prayer in school, the liberal cause may be the homeless or minority rights. They demand action now and see themselves as carrying out God’s mission even to the point of martyrdom. Both can cite ways that God is on their side, and in that they are both probably right.

         But the revitalization of our world is not going to happen because of what some individual or group does to drag along everyone else into their camp. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we shouldn’t be involved in these issues. I’m just saying that, first and foremost, we should remain focused on Jesus Christ, or as Micah says in the New Revised Standard translation, “Walk humbly with our God.” We don’t need a giant to save the world. Jesus didn’t bless the superstars in the beatitudes.[10] We already have a Savior, in Jesus Christ. We don’t need another Savior; we just need to trust and have patience in him.

What’s holding you back? What’s stopping you from being fair, compassionate and loyal? What keeping you from walking with God? Start today. Do the small things. Do something good that will make someone’s day and make the world just a little brighter. Amen.

 

©2020

[1] An old Jewish legend retold by William R. White, Stories for Telling: A Treasury for Christian Storytellers (Minneapolis, Augsburg, 1986), 42-43.

[2]Matthew 22:35–40, Mark 12:28–34, and Luke 10:27.

[3]Ralph L. Smith, Micah-Malachi: Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word, 1984), 50.

[4] See I Chronicles 29:21.

[5]James Limburg, Hosea-Micah: Interpretation, a Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), 191.

[6]Matthew 5:23.

    [7]Wendell Berry, “The Futility of Global Thinking,” Harper’s Magazine (September 1989), 16.

    [8]Berry, 18.

[9] I’m not sure where I first heard this title used, but such atheism can be described this way: “[U]nbelief or atheism is a problem, not intellectually, but politically. Most of our social activism is formed on the presumption that God is superfluous…”Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville: Abingdon, 1989), 36.

[10]Matthew 5:3-12.

Aunt Callie’s Place

Francis Wilhoit was born in 1920. He was a little younger than my grandmother, and he died a number of years before her, in 2010, at the age of 90. I never met him (as far as I know), but my Grandmother used to always tell me that I reminded her of him. When I was in college, she gave me a copy of his book, The Politics of Massive Resistance, and I expect I’m the only one in the family to have read it. It deals with the white reaction to the Civil Rights Movement. Wilhoit was outspoken against racism at a time few Southerners were speaking up about the problems. He was a professor at Drake University in Iowa. Years ago my grandmother sent me a copy of a poem that he wrote about her childhood home. Callie McKenzie was her mother (my great-grandmother) and Kenneth was her father (my great-grandfather). Wilhoit wrote this poem in 1977, which was over a decade after my great-grandmother’s death and seven or eight years after my great-grandfather’s death. Now all from those generations are gone.

Unfortunately the spacing Wilhoit used in the poem was lost when I posted it in WordPress. I will have to see if I can get it corrected (but not tonight).

“Aunt Callie” is to the left. Next is my father and in front of him, my Uncle Larry. My great-grandfather Kenneth is holding me, and my grandmother is on the right. The picture was probably taken late 1957 or early 1958

 

“Out at Aunt Callie’s Place”
By F. M. Wilhoit

Based on a poem by James Whitcomb Riley
September 1977

Pleasant it was, O yes I know,
In the good old days in the glow
Of youth, when summer at last had come
And the call of the country beat like a drum,
And we went visiting, our hearts never glum
Out to Aunt Callie’s Place.

It all seems only yesterday!
Though I’m now aged and silvery gray—
Out in the country, by the side of the road,
We aimlessly wandered through Nature’s abode,
Not a fear in the world, not a care to unload,
Out at Aunt Callie’s Place

We tramped the lowgrounds and crossed the wood
Where many an ancient oak tree stood,
Where jack rabbits sprang from tall wiregrass,
And honeybees buzzed in a swarming mass,
And threatened to sting as we tried to pass,
Out at Aunt Callie’s Place.

And down to the house of Tom and Kate;
And up to the Garrisons’ vast estate;
And on to the Old Place, over to Culdee,
From tobacco labors happily free—
Our faith as firm as the tallest tree
Out at Aunt Callie’s Place.

Yes, I see her in the screened-in porch,
Her face as bright as a miner’s torch;
And Uncle Kenneth and the children too!
Wasn’t it great, for me and you,
To place among kinfolks, tried and true,
Out at Aunt Callie’s Place?

The apples, the grapes and the gingerbread
And the jams and cakes—O how we were fed!
And the corn in the peas and the deep berry pies—
It all seemed to me like Paradise;
And the more we’d eat the more she’d devise
Out at Aunt Callie’s Place.

In the old frame-house in the evening cool,
With supper done—as a general rule—
We’d take and talk and talk and talk
And listen to the crickets loudly squawk,
Or maybe join in a nighttime walk
Out at Aunt Callie’s Place.

And many a time have you and I—
Barefoot kids in those days gone by—
Built mighty castles in the summer sands,
Dreaming of far-off, strange new lands,
Knowing we’d all meet Life’s demands,
Out at Aunt Callie’s Place.

And O, my cousins, how the times have changed,
By age and progress all disarranged;
She’s waiting, though: a smile on her face,
Patient as ever, full of God’s grace,
Calling us back, with a spiritual embrace,
Back to Aunt Callie’s Place!

 

A few note (from me, not Wilhoit):

Wiregrass naturally grows under longleaf pines.

We lived several hundred feet east of “Callie’s Place” when I was a child (we moved when I was 6). I can attest that the bee’s my great-grandfather kept were known for their temperament and we always stayed away from the hives.

Culdee Presbyterian Church is the family church, which was located South of “Callie’s Place,” on the other side of the Lower Little River

My great-grandmother was known for her berry pies that she always baked in a wood-fired oven (there were two ovens in the house when I was a child, a gas range and a wood stove, and she mostly cooked and baked on the wood stove). She would set them out on the back porch (which was screened) to cool.

One memory of mine that Wilhoit must have forgotten was the nasty spittoon on the back porch and how my great-grandmother loved dip snuff and, I assume, my great-grandfather chewed tobacco. The spittoon was for when they had to spit it out.

Lighten Up (Let’s Laugh)

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Mark 10:23-27
January 19, 2020

 

 

We’re looking at another tool to beat Spiritual Affective Disorder. We’ve talked about spending time reflecting on the light. We’ve looked at how music can lift our souls. Today we’re looking another sure-fired way to beat SAD (that’s Spiritual Affective Disorder). We can use humor and laughter. Too often we think of humor as inappropriate in churches. God is seen as some stern judge up in the sky, with piercing eyes and a frown, upset with all humanity. But God delights in humor. We can see it in creation. Why did God create the opossum? Or the anteater? Or the monkey? Or some of us?[1] We can also see it in scripture. In our Old Testament reading we hear of Sarah laughing at the possibility she, as an old lady, will give birth.[2] The story shows us God had the last laugh. God wants us to lighten up, to not take ourselves too seriously, and to trust him. We’ll see this in our New Testament reading, too. I’m reading Mark 10: 23-27, from the Message Translation.

Jim Johnson is a former pastor who now owns the Bull’n Bear Saloon in Red Lodge, Montana. On making this transition for the pulpit to behind the bar, he tells this joke: “Two guys walk into a bar and stop dead in their tracks. One thinks to himself, ‘Oh no, my preacher’s a bartender!’ The other thinks, ‘Oh no, my bartender’s a preacher!’”[3] This joke illustrates how humor is perceived different depending on your perspective. What one person finds as funny might not be funny to someone else, just as a preacher as a bartender gets different reactions from a bar patron and a parishioner.

          It may have been the same way with Jesus’ parable about the camel going through an eye of a needle. Just try to image how silly this word picture looks—a camel, one of the larger animals in that part of the world compared to such a small opening. This is funny, in a “Far Side” kind of fashion.

 

Imagine the disciples laughing as Jesus tells this story. Jesus had just encountered the rich man who wouldn’t follow Jesus because he had much to lose. The man went away sad. He just couldn’t risk giving up his stuff, but that’s another sermon. The disciples who witnessed this looks to Jesus for some reassurance for their salvation, and Jesus’ tells this story.

           For what we know, none of the disciples were rich, so it’s easy for them to laugh at the absurdity. Or maybe not. Maybe there were those who saw riches as a sign of God’s favor. Unfortunately, there are still some people like that, proclaiming a prosperity gospel. But this story undercuts the idea that wealth equals God’s favor. Now the disciples, whose bank accounts aren’t exactly overflowing, may have laughed at all the absurd image and at all those people with all that money who are doomed.

But then, one by one, they began to think. We’ll I’m not totally poor. I own a fishing boat, I own some robes and don’t go hungry, I have a house… Maybe I’m not rich by some standards, but at least I’m middle class. Does this mean me getting into heaven, would be more like a dog or a cat, instead of a camel, getting through an eye of a needle? I still don’t stand a chance. Their minds run wild. What kind of animal can get through the eye of a needle? Well, what about a worm or even an ant. But there’s two problems here. First, unless it’s a very small worm or ant, they’re not going to be getting through the eye of a needle. And secondly, is Jesus saying I must be so small that I can only be a microscopic worm or ant? Where does that put me?[4]

          The laughter begins to subside as they realize their predicament. They’re doomed. Frustrated, they ask Jesus, “Just who can be saved?” Jesus responds, telling them it’s impossible for humans, but nothing is impossible for God. Jesus uses humor to make this point, but we often have a hard time accepting it which is why people have tried to reinterpret this passage such as suggesting that Jesus wasn’t referring to a needle used for sewing, but that it was the name of a narrow gate through the city’s walls. I’ve heard that interpretation in sermons and think it displays our fear of the truth—that we’re not in control.[5]

        When you push an idea to the absurd, you get humor. Mark Twain knew this. He once wrote a letter from Virginia City, Nevada to his mother, telling on his brother for stealing some stamps from a local mill. According to Twain, his brother had slipped these into his pocket. Twain thought it was a perfect joke. His mom would get on his brother’s case, for she had no idea that the “stamps” in a stamp mill weigh 100s of pounds and were used to crush rock.[6] It’s absurd, which makes it funny and no way it could be factually true.

Bill Bryson is another humorous writer who is a master at expanding a truth to the point that it’s humorous. In his book, A Walk in the Woods, about hiking the Appalachian Trail, he does this with bears. Anyone who hikes a significant portion of the trail will probably see a bear, but Bryson makes it sound like bears are a constant threat and regularly snack on hikers. He did the same thing in his book, In a Sunburned Country, about his travels in Australia. Reading it, you’d wonder if most people in the land Down Under die from being bitten by snakes and spiders or eaten by crocodiles and sharks. He makes it sound like the country is trying to kill you, which some might think is true with their recent fires.

           Using exaggeration to be funny is a way of saying, “Lighten Up.” We don’t need to be so uptight about everything. No, we can’t save ourselves. But the good news is that with God all is possible. Where do we point our trust? In our stuff (which won’t fit through the needle’s eye) or in God? Of course, it’s easy for us to miss the joke. That’s partly because jokes don’t always translate across cultures. Furthermore, jokes are best told and not read.[7]

        Another humorous writer I enjoy is the late Patrick McManus. He’s published a dozen or so books and wrote humorous columns for Outdoor Life and Field and Stream. While McManus used exaggeration for humor, he often reported on his own silliness and mistakes. The best jokes are those we make about ourselves and not others. The mess he found himself in while hunting or fishing can be chuckling, because many of us have been in similar situations. As he aged, McManus lamented how things change. The trails have become steeper and the oxygen in the mountains have decreased since his youth. We’ve experienced that, haven’t we?[8]

          One of the problems the church has in the world is that other people see us as taking ourselves too seriously. We carry heavy burdens and don’t trust God’s Spirit enough, it’s easy to get down and depressed. And then we don’t do a good job of reflecting Jesus’ face to the world.

In my blog, I recently posted a humorous piece about Communion. I was a little nervous about how it might be accepted but was comforted by the comments. One suggested that if such humor was used more often, they’d be more people in the pews on Sunday. Another woman, from Australia, who confessed to not having been raised religious, said the humor helped her understand.[9]

Jesus doesn’t want us to be uptight. Jesus wants us to have abundant life, beginning now, and that means we need to be joyous and to laugh more. Humor is good for us. It can be holy! We should, at the very least, be able to laugh at ourselves. It keeps us humbled. The great mid-20th Century Theologian Karl Barth once said that “laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.”[10]

 

 

Think about children and how they laugh. They laugh at the silliest of things. We adults think we must be more serious. I wonder if, when Jesus said that if we want to enter the kingdom of God we must come like a child, he meant that we must come laughing like a child?[11] It’s something to ponder.

 

         Laughter is also good for us. Do you remember the movie, Patch Adams, where Robin Williams played a doctor who used laughter in treating patients? Do you recall how he got a children’s ward filled with kids suffering from cancer to laugh? And how the head nurse was mortified and ordered him out of the ward and told the kids to get back in the bed? The movie showed how we adults are too serious and that the world needs to lighten up and enjoy things.

          Laughter relaxes us. According to some studies it can heal us by boosting our immune system. In addition to lightening our hearts and reducing anger, laughter helps us to burn a few extra calories. It lowers our stress. And it makes us more pleasant to be around![12]

 

        So, this week I want you to take time to laugh. Read the comics or pick up a humorous book. Take an opportunity to laugh at yourself. If you come across a great joke, drop it in an email to me or to a friend. We all need laughter and we’d be a lot better off if we could laugh at ourselves, for our follies makes us realize how much we depend on God.

Let me close with a part of a poem titled, “The Rowing Endeth,” by Anne Sexton. She describes being in a rowboat making for the Island of God. I’ll begin reading as she steps ashore:

 

“On with it!” He says and thus
we squat on the rocks by the sea
and play—can it be true—
a game of poker.
He calls me.
I win because I hold a royal straight flush.
He wins because He holds five aces.
A wild card had been announced
but I had not heard it
being in such a state of awe
when He took out the cards and dealt.
As he plucks down His five aces
and I sit grinning at my royal flush,
He starts to laugh,
the laughter rolling like a hoop out of His mouth
and into mine,
and such laughter that He doubles right over me
laughing a Rejoice-Chorus at our two triumphs.
Then I laugh, the fish dock laughs,
the sea laughs. The Island laughs.
The Absurd laughs.[13]

 

Amen.

 

©2020

[1] This is an old preaching joke that I’ve heard attributed to Billy Sunday, among others.

[2] Genesis 18:9-15.

[3] https://billingsgazette.com/lifestyles/faith-and-values/religion/pastor-turned-bar-owner-writes-on-similarities-differences-between-bars/article_673abca0-5749-5a9e-981f-a0e6291c5421.html

[4] Jesus is challenging a false sense of security here.  See William L. Lane, The New International Commentary on the New Testament:  Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 369.

[5] As for debunking the theory of enlarging the eye of a needle to a gate, see Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (Hendrickson Publishing 2nd Ed, 1997: London, A & C Black, 1991), 243.  

[6] I’m pretty sure I am remembering this from when I read Twain’s published correspondence from Virginia City, NV. Twain often made fun of his brother, once saying his brother was “as happy as a martyr when the fire won’t burn.”  See Philip Ashley Fanning, Mark Twain and Orion Clemens: Brothers, Partners, Strangers (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2003), 151.

[7] See John L. Bell’s essay “Giggling for God” in 10 Things They Never Told Me About Jesus (Chicago: GIA Publishing, 2009), 126.

[8] Patrick F. McManus, Kerplunk (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007), 104.

[9] http://skidawaypres.org/pastor/?p=3368

[10] https://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/practices/features/view/20120

[11] See Mark 10:14.  See also Matthew 19:14 and Luke 18:16.

[12] See https://www.helpguide.org/articles/mental-health/laughter-is-the-best-medicine.htm

[13] Anne Sexton, The Awful Rowing Toward God (Boston: Houghton Mufflin, 1975) 85-86.

 

A Lighthearted Yet Serious Look at the Lord’s Supper from a Protestant Perspective

When I was in seminary, there was a debate at how often communion should be served in Chapel. This essay, which I recently came across, has it’s roots in that debate which occurred 30-some years ago. It displays my somewhat skeptic side:

Not exactly a communion photo. This is me giving a blessing taken from the movie “Its a Wonderful Life:” “Bread! That this house may never know hunger. Salt! That life may always have flavor. And wine! That joy and prosperity may reign forever.”

 

The highlight of Christian worship is the Lord’s Supper. We break bread and share wine together, uniting ourselves through a very ordinary act with all the saints who have gone before us and to Christ himself. It’s a mysterious feast, especially for the stomach that often leaves the meal hungry.

Standing in front of the table, the minister repeats Jesus’ words. “This is my body broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the Reformation, Protestants and Catholics fought over the meaning of these words—whether or not the bread was really Jesus’ body. Protestant Reformers could smugly point out that Jesus was speaking metaphorically. After all, he also said he was a door and nobody believes he is a literal door, wooden or otherwise. However, from the small portions used, you would think that all churches believed that it was Jesus’ actual body and they must hoard some for future generations. Of course, Protestants like me do not believe the bread is the literal body of Christ, but a sign to remind us of our unity with Christ in his death and resurrection.

The second part of the service involves drinking wine or, as most Protestants prefer, grape juice. The words of Jesus are again spoken. “This cup is the new covenant sealed in my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” In the Middle Ages, only priests were allowed to drink the wine because of a fear the common people might actually spill some. Only Jesus was allowed to shed his blood, they reasoned. In some churches, everyone drinks from the same cup, a nice gesture that demonstrate how we all share in Christ. However, the majority of American Protestant Churches understanding that such sharing involves germs; therefore, they use small individual cups about the size of a thimble. Since the women’s movement, most of these churches have begun using disposal plastic cups because no one is volunteering to wash the glass ones.  Ecologically minded Christians are bothered by this, but until they sign up for cup washing, the trend toward plastic cups will continue.

Christians participate in the Lord’s Supper in a variety of ways. Versions of the fast food method are generally preferred. In most Methodist, Lutheran and Episcopal Churches, everyone goes up to the front of the sanctuary and kneels or stands, awaiting their turn to receive the bread and cup. The most common way in Baptist and Presbyterian churches is the drive-in method. You sit in your pews and the elements are brought to you. A take-out plan is generally available for those unable to attend services.

Another method that has become more common is intinction. Each worshiper breaks off a piece of bread and dips it into the cup. This method rapidly facilitates the distribution of the elements, however the Biblical foundation for such a technique is weak. Even the most liberal exegete would have a hard time interpreting Jesus’ words, “take and eat” with “take and dunk.” More problematic for those sharing this method is that the only example we have of a disciple eating dipped bread at the Last Supper being Judas Iscariot.

A hundred or so years ago, it was common for American Protestants to actually sit around a real table and share a feast with others. This method, which had its roots in the Scottish Church, was the formal dining plan. To be allowed a seat at the table, a member had to produce a communion token that he or she earned by being good, paying one’s tithe, not breaking the commandments, and attending a preparatory lecture. As the worshiper approached the table, he or she was greeted by the maître’ d, a role played by an elder of the congregation. Those not tipping with the appropriate token were escorted to the door by the same elder who was also a bouncer. Once the worshipers were seated at the table, they were served a hunk of bread and a cup of wine. This was done rapidly in order to accommodate the next seating. Unfortunately, for all its appeal, formal dining has gone the way of fine china and finger bowls. Few churches bother.

As Christians, we celebrate the Lord’s Supper in order to proclaim the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We do this obediently and solemnly. Nobody talks; everyone bows their head. Most believe we are conducting the service in the same manner as Jesus, having forgotten that Jesus instituted this sacrament at the Passover meal in which four cups of wine was served. Unlike the Passover, a modern communion service lasts just a few minutes, after which everyone is still able to drive home.

The celebration of the Lord’s Supper also serves as a foretaste of the kingdom to come. At the heavenly banquet, we will all sit at table with Christ at the head. The Bible doesn’t give us the menu, but considering that four of the disciples were fisherman, maybe it will be a seafood banquet. Or maybe it will be lamb supplied by the good shepherd at the head table. Whatever the menu, the heavenly banquet promises to be livelier than the somber communion services. This is a good thing. Mark Twain noted that if heaven is just sitting around singing hymns, he couldn’t understand why anyone would want to go there. Likewise, if the heavenly banquet is only as exciting as its earthly counterpart, no one will RSVP.

After communion, the minister pronounces the benediction. Like the flagman at Indianapolis, it signals the beginning of a race. Some parishioners rush out to a restaurant. In good Christian competition, they attempt to beat those from other churches to the restaurant. Others head home where the television is the first order of business. After finding the game of the week, one family pulls a roast from the oven while another grills burgers out back. Those without ambition order pizza. Such hearty food is served and, as long as the right team is winning, we laugh and love joyfully. After having fed us at his table, Jesus wonders why he’s not included.

Soothe a Savage

Jeff Garrison 
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Psalm 40:1-11
January 12, 2020

 

Between Christmas and Lent, we’re exploring Spiritual Affective Disorder. Many people during winter, when the days are short, suffer for a Seasonal Affective Disorder. It’s due to the lack of natural light. When we don’t receive the light that comes from God, our spirits can also be troubled. Each week, I’ll suggest strategies we might use to break the cycle of despair. One way to get us out of the doldrums is music. As I read from the first eleven verses of Psalm 40, listen for what the Psalmist has to say about music. Read Psalm 40:1-11.

       There is something about music that can take us to a place and time in the past. Those in the advertising world have known this for a long time which is why they often use popular music in the background to help sell products. Movie producers are no different as they use music to put us into the mood they are trying to convey. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the sadness, yet hopefulness, brought about from watching the movie, “Platoon.” These feelings were intensified by Samuel Barber’s haunting score, “Adagio in Strings.” Or, on a more positive note, think of the upbeat tunes used in the Charlie Brown movies. How does those tunes make you feel?

          Music has a power to draw us back to specific places in time, which is why it’s often used in therapy for those battling Alzheimer’s or brain injuries.  From my own life, there are songs that can take me back just by listening to them. The Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky” takes me to my childhood bedroom, in a late December evening in 1968. I was listening to the radio I received for Christmas that year. Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May,” takes me back to a wet night camping at Fort Fisher. A friend and I listened to the radio while trying to endure wet sleeping bags. The Eagles’ “Hotel California,” takes me to another rainy night, when I was in college. With kayaks strapped to the top of my car, my brother and I drove to the North Carolina Mountains to paddle in rain swollen rivers. I had no idea then that I’d hear that song so many times over the next few decades that I would become sick of it. Every time I hear haunting voice of Enya, the Irish singer, I am taken back to a drive over Sonora Pass in the Sierras at sunset. I’m sure you have such experiences, too.

        The same can be said about church and music. Maybe there was a special Christmas Eve service in which you sang, “What Child is This? and are taken back to that time. Sometimes we’re taken back to sad memories such as a song sung at a funeral. “He Leadeth Me,” was a favorite hymn of my great-grandfather McKenzie. I don’t remember him singing it as I was only 12 when he died. But I do recall the pastor officiating at his service sharing this insight. Now, whenever I hear that hymn, I am reminded of my great-grandfather and that great cloud of witnesses that have led us to his place.[1] Or maybe it’s a funny memory. I love the majesty of God presented in the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy,” but every time I sing it, I also am reminded of my Grandfather Garrison, boldly singing this hymn, that has been referred to as the Presbyterian National Anthem, off-key.[2] And if I could tell he was off-key, you can be assured he was far off. But Granddaddy sang with gusto! I shudder when I think of the hymns that will remind my kids of me.

         Music has ancient roots. Archaeologists learned to discover cave art when exploring in France by singing. They discovered that caves with the most resonance for singing were also the places where they were more likely to discover cave paintings. Many anthropologists believe that music was first used as a way to strengthen community bonds, maybe even going back to the prehistoric cavemen.[3] Anecdotally, this idea of music strengthening communities seems true for if you talk to people about music: those of different generations will tend to gravitate to what was popular when they were teenagers or young adults. Music helps form our bonds.

        And music seems to exist beyond the human experience. There have been a lot of talk about coyotes on our island lately, but have you ever heard a pack of coyotes sing? It’s haunting yet beautiful. Each coyote has a slight variation to the song.[4] Have you heard recordings made of whales singing? Certainly, we’ve all heard songbirds sing. One of the memories I’ll always have about Michigan is how, in early March, I’d realize the birds were back as they start singing when it was still dark, before dawn. It was as if they were challenging winter, reminding us it wouldn’t be long before it was over. In a way, all creation sings so it’s natural for those of us who are humans to join in songs of cosmic praise.

          Melody can change our disposition. Depending on the tune, it can make us sad or happy, reflective or energetic.[5] All of these are valid experiences and hopefully in our music on Sunday, we experience most of them. We may not experience all emotions every Sunday, but over a collection of Sundays, music should speak to all our moods. God is so big. God is God of our joys and our sadness, so it takes a wide repertoire to even begin to cover the vastness of God’s presence. Another thing, not everyone prefers the same music. Therefore, we need to be open to what others like, along with being willing to expand our own repertoire. We’re all in different places and have different backgrounds and what speaks to one might not speak to another. And, what speaks to us one day might, on another day, become weary, like hearing “Hotel California” for the millionth time.

          Now, what does all this have to do with Psalm 40? Our text for this morning, the first half of this Psalm, is an offering of thanksgiving to God. The Psalmist, this one is attributed to David, begins by recalling how he waited patiently for God to hear his cry. In the second and third verses, we hear how God pulled him up from the muck, put him back on firm footing, and taught him a new song. The Psalmist is humble, acknowledging everything that has been done for him is a gift from a benevolent God.[6]

          But let’s consider a moment the thought of God giving the Psalmist a new song. I like this idea: God as the great choirmaster, teaching us new music. In our early reading from Revelation, we heard about all the singing in heavenly courts.[7] Music may have had a long history within humanity, but it goes back even further, to creation, shortly after birds are introduced. And, from what we read, music is going to be around for a long time as we praise God in eternity. God will teach us the song, if we are just open to listening and hearing and rejoicing.

         Starting with verse four, the Psalmist calls on all who have experienced God’s grace and mercy to join him. He invites others to turn away from false gods, to turn away from that which is worship in the world, and to focus on God’s wondrous deeds. So not only is the Psalmist given a new song, he now uses this song to witness to others, showing what God has done in the world. The Psalmist does what the redeemed are supposed to do, give credit to God for our salvation.[8] God doesn’t show mercy as a way to receive sacrifices, the Psalmist says in verse 6, but to have us follow him and to delight in the word, the law, which God places in our heart.

          There are three important movements in this Psalm. The crying out and waiting on God to act, the new song that God provides, and our willingness to witness to God’s faithfulness. This is what the Christian life is to be about. We confess our hopelessness and helplessness to the one who can help. God hears our plea and responds gracefully. And then we tell (or better yet sing) of God’s good deeds as we witness of God’s goodness to a lost world.

What can we take from all this? When you are feeling down, like the Psalmist, call out to God, trusting in the Almighty to hear. But also, be willing to listen and to sing, to praise God for what he has done in the past which gives us hope for the future. Make a playlist of songs you can listen to when you are down that will help lift your spirits. Today, such a list can be easily assembled using apps like Pandora, Spotify and Apple Music. If you’re technical at all, you can then have the music with you always (even on your phone), to help you overcome despair and embrace the beautiful world in which we live. I also encourage you to share with your church family music that has special meaning for you—you can do this either on our communication cards or email them to me and I’ll keep a running list which we can later publish.

       Let’s all be willing to sing new songs, songs that glorify and praise God, songs that lifts our hearts and prepare us to soar with joy. Amen

 

©2020

[1] Hebrews 12:1

[2] At an evangelism conference in the early 1990s, the pastor of Mt. Harmon Church of God in Atlanta jokingly called Holy, Holy, Holy the Presbyterian National Anthem and since I grew up in a church that sang it every Sunday at the beginning of Sunday School, it seemed right.

[3] Robert Jourdain, Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy as quoted and referred to by Marcia McFee, PhD., Think Like a Filmmaker: Sensory-Rich Worship Design for Unforgettable Messages (Truckee, CA: Trokay Prs, 2016), 127-128.

[4] For a discussion of coyote singing, see John Lane’s prologue “Redemption Song” in his book, Coyote Settles the South (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 2016).

[5] This is my variation on Marcia McPhee’s list of patterns: thrust, shape, swing, and hang.  See McFee, 136-139.

[6] Artur Weisner,   The Psalms, translated by Herbert Hartwell, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), 335.

[7] Revelation 5:6-14.

[8] James L. Mays, Psalms, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994), 168.

Reviews of Three Very Different Books

Patrick F. McManus, Kerplunk! (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007), 227 pages.

 

There is a favorite used bookstore in Wilmington, North Carolina that I often stop in when I’m home. This time I was looking to pick up another copy of Guy Owen’s The Ballard of the Flim-Flam Man to give to a cousin, along with any books by Archibald Rutledge (both Southern writers). I didn’t have any luck, but I came across a book by Patrick McManus that I had not read. I promptly purchased the book and read half of the stories that evening. All these stories had previously seen ink in Outdoor Life. They are funny and many have a good moral lesson, too. McManus has always been a bit of a curmudgeon. He longs for the days of old, when mountain trails weren’t so steep and there was more oxygen in air. He recalls hunting 80-acre section of land where the deer were seldom seen, but when he visited recently his old hunting ground, he sees that it’s not been developed into a gated community and the deer are plentiful, snacking on the shrubbery. The deer earing shrubs hit home! In these stories there are also good safety lessons, such as the purpose of hooking the safety chains on a trailer, because having your boat pass you on the highway us “one of the least pleasant sights you may encounter during your lifetime.” And McManus is also a master as self- deprecation, such as the time fishing for steelhead, his friend already had one on the line while he, having made a half-dozen casts, he hadn’t yet gotten his line in the water.  As for “Kerplunk”, you’ll have to read the book to find out. I do recommend McManus’ books!

 

David McCullough, The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019), 331 pages, a few illustrations.

 

I have enjoyed many of McCullough’s books (John Adams, The Wright Brothers, The Johnstown Flood) and while I enjoyed this book, it’s not one of McCullough’s best.  While the book is about the opening up of the Northwest Territory (which included the future states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin), McCullough spends the first part of this book discussing how the territory came to be in the early days of the Republic. As the nation was broke, this territory allowed the country to pay the soldiers in the Continental Army with land. Of course, these former soldiers had to clear the land and fight for it, as the native tribes were not agreeable to giving away their land. One of the promoters of the territory was Manasseh Culter, a Congregational Pastor. He spent time in Philadelphia lobbying for the territory and would later travel westward into Ohio but would not move there. It was through Cutler’s eyes that McCullough tells of the passing of the Northwest Territory Act. After discussion of the passing of the act that opened the territory, McCullough focuses on those who establish the town of Marietta (which is located just north of the Ohio River, where Interstate 77 crosses). McCullough does a wonderful job telling the story of how the settlement was established, overcame the hardships of the early years, and became a permanent town.  I think he should have stopped there.

Where McCullough’s book fails is that he tries to tie his story through the middle of the 19th Century, which leaves many gaps in the story. By focusing only on Marietta and towns along the Ohio River, the reader is only given insight into one strand of settlers who poured into the territory. That said, I still enjoyed reading this book which my men’s book club read for its December selection.

###

James Clavell, Tai-Pan  (1966, Blackstone Publishing, 2019), 885 pages (~34 hours on Audible).

 

Tai-Pan is a fictional account of the founding of the British Colony “Hong-Kong.” This is a long book. I listened to all the book and read some sections (as this is our January book selection for my book group).  While Clavell tells a good story, he seems to excel at foreshadowing, which means that when things happen there is little surprise. An example was when the Chinese lover of the Tai-pan was bitten by a mosquito, I knew she’d be coming down with malaria. Thankfully, Clavell doesn’t make a direct connection as, at the time (1842), it was thought that malaria came from “night vapors.” Clavell also seems to spend too much time in what goes on in the heads of various characters. People act or seem one way, but often have different ideas, which is especially true for the Chinese and their secret societies that even place mistresses so they can know what the British are up to. Clavell seems to embellish certain “kinky” sexual fantasies, from playful spankings of a lover to more harsh beatings and torture (he especially seems drawn to thumbscrews). I also felt he had a love for the sound of “reefed” sails. In his wonderful descriptions of sailing, he almost always has something to say about them being reefed (sails shortened due to excessive wind).

 

However, I did like how he worked in principles of economics, the advantage of free trade, the world views that tied together or put in conflict the interest of a variety of nations (from Britain, to Russia, and the America), and a main character (Dirk Sturan, a Scotsman) who is open and interested in what he and the English can learn from the Chinese. Staran is the “Tai-pan” or the leader of the strongest trading group in China. He has a number of other challengers including his arch-enemy, Tyler Brock. Staran is planning on leaving Asia and turning the operation of this company over to his son, Culum, which happens to be in love with Brock’s daughter.

 

The dream of the traders is to have a safe harbor where they are free to trade in China without Chinese control, and their fleets (the British navy and merchant ships of many nations) can survive storms. The book ends with a terrible typhoon (foreshadowed by the constant checking of the barometer), that destroys much of Hong Kong. But the fleet is spared. The trade will continue and Hong Kong will rebuild. Upon the death of his father, Culum assumes the role of the new Tai-pan while this half-brother (half Chinese and half Scot from Staran’s mistress plots to control the city.

 

While Clavell’s story does try to give value to the Chinese (their customs and their medicine), it is very much written from a Western point-of-view. I found myself wondering, while reading, how the book would be received in today’s more culturally sensitive and “Me-too” climate. While I’m glad I read the book, I won’t recommend it to anyone else (but I might make you a good deal on a used copy of the book 😊).

Flip the Switch


Jeff Garrison 

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Isaiah 60:1-7
January 5, 2020

Tomorrow is Epiphany, a word that means a manifestation. Think of it as an “a-ha” moment. It’s the 12th Day of Christmas, but in the Western World, Christmas Day has overtaken his feast day in which we recall the coming of the Magi or the Wisemen. The Wisemen followed the star to Bethlehem. Their coming to the manager is important because it fulfills, as we’ll hear from Isaiah, the light shining in the darkness that draws people from all nations to experience what God has done. Jesus was not born for just Mary and Joseph to cherish. His birth was not just a way to relieve the boredom of a few shepherds. His birth was to offer hope to the entire world. His birth shows that God is not done with us. Let’s listen to Isaiah as I read from the Message version of Scripture. Read Isaiah 60:1-7.

 

         I was blessed as a child to spend many days camping on an undeveloped beach, generally in the fall of the year when the bluefish were running. We’d crawl out of our sleeping bags while it was still dark and start a small fire on the beach to drive away the chill. You could only make out everyone’s shadows created by the light of the fire or lantern. Before the stars began to disappear and the sky lightened, we’d have a line in the water, baited with cut mullet. You’d cast the line out beyond the surf, hoping you were in a good spot. Gradually, the shades of black and gray would be replaced by color as we shivered in the chill and held our rods high, an index finger touching the line waiting for the signature bump of a fish.

When darkness began to fade, birds would take to the air. It was often then, right before the sun rose, that the bluefish would begin feeding. They’d take the bait and we’d feel the bumping of the line. We’d yank the rod to set the hook, and began to haul them in, trying to keep our feet out of the breaking surf. (as a young-one, I didn’t have any waders). Soon, we’d see a fish flapping in the receding waves and not long thereafter, a few of the fish would be roasting over the coals of the morning fire. But as busy as we were catching fish, we’d pause to watch the sun come up as a bright orange ball. It was a few minutes of amazement. Afterwards, as the sun rose even higher, and its orb seem to shrink (it doesn’t, that’s an optical illusion), we’d begin shedding jackets and no longer needing the fire to stay warm. Now that we could see where we were casting, we’d change from cut bait to a lure or spoon, casting out toward the birds which hovered over the feeding fish.

There’s something magical about the sunrise. The new day is filled with possibilities. With the rising of the sun, there’s hope. It’s a time to give thanks for the day God has given us and, on these mornings, for the fish destined for the freezer.

         You know, the Prophet Isaiah had a lot of depressing things to say. He wrote about the fall of Israel and the coming exile for Jerusalem. War and destruction is at the forefront of his message, but occasionally Isaiah breaks out of the darkness. In Chapter 9, he writes, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,”[1] a text read often during the Advent and Christmas seasons. In Chapter 42, Isaiah recalls Lord’s promises by reminding the Hebrew people that God is turning darkness into light.[2] And as his book moves toward its conclusion, he again brings up the coming of light. “It’s time to rise and shine.”

This passage reminds me of that old camp song, “Rise and shine and give God the glory, glory.” Isaiah is reminding his readers that it’s time for God’s people to be “the light to the nations.”[3] Isaiah’s viewpoint is that the world is in darkness, but God is bringing about a change and it will be up to God’s people to help light shine in the world. As God’s people, it’s as if we’re given flashlights. We’re not to hoard our light, but to share it share with others as we draw them to the beach to watch the greatest son-rise of all (that’s son with an “O”), the coming of God in the flesh.

         As Christians, we read these passages through the lens of Jesus, the light coming into the world as proclaimed in John’s gospel.[4] Furthermore, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls us to be a light to the world.”[5] Think of it this way. Jesus is the light of the world, but he calls us to also be lights of the world. Maybe we’re not as bright as his light, maybe we’re more like the moon than the sun, reflecting the light of the true light. But that’s okay. Remember it doesn’t take much light to offer hope. It was mere star that drew the wise men from the East. On a dark night, a few small red and green navigation lights show us the channel. It doesn’t take much to provide hope and guidance, and if we’ve seen the light, we can also be that light, that hope, for someone else.

         Years ago I had the opportunity to spend a few days spelunking (or caving) in eastern West Virginia. It was an incredible experience. When you are below ground like that, there is no light at all. Turn off your light and you can’t even see your hand in front of your face. At one point, we gathered in a huge underground room. Our guide had us place our cameras on tripods and to open the shutters, then had us go around the room popping flashes. Each splash of light would illuminate a section of the wall and ceiling, which we didn’t see until after the film was processed (these were the old days, long before digital). By bringing light into this cave, we got to experience on film the incredible beauty of this huge underground chamber that was dotted with crystals.

         This is what we as Christians are to be doing, bringing light into the world. Yes, there are problems. There are evil people who do terrible things, like the Iranian general who was just killed. There are hateful people who want to wipe others off the face of the earth. There are dishonest people who will lie and cheat to get ahead. There are misguided people who create chaos and whom try to profit at the expense of others. We live with partisan hatred in our own country and under the threat of terrorist attacks, both domestic and foreign. The possibility of war is always on the horizon. But despite all that, as believers in the one who came into a troubled world as a child, the one who was willing to die for our sin, the one for whom the grave could not hold, we have hope. There is much that’s good and beautiful in the world which, like that wall inside a cave, only needs a little light to shine upon it. That’s our job, to point people to all that’s good in the world and to what God is doing through his son, Jesus Christ.

        As we enter a New Year, flip the switch and be the light of the world. Hold tight to the faith we have and share the hope that in Jesus Christ, God has things under control. The good news is that we’re not alone as this New Year begins. Remember the truth of the Psalmist, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.[6] Amen.

©2020

[1] Isaiah 9:2.

[2] Isaiah 42:16.

[3] Isaiah 42:6 and 49:6.

[4] John 1:1-5.

[5] Matthew 5:14.

[6] Psalm 30:5.

Two Very Different Book Reviews

I am in North Carolina, taking a few days off and sitting inside watching it rain…  Here’s my last post of the year as I review two recent books I’ve read. I hope everyone has a wonderful New Year’s Eve and a prosperous 2020 (and please, no more eye jokes)!

John Kasich, It’s Up to Us: Ten Little Ways We Can Bring About Big Change (Hanover Square Press, 2019), 237 pages.

John Kasich was the last Republican in the running against Donald Trump during the 2016 primaries. This little book makes me wonder how much better things might be in America had he succeed in his quest for the White House. While definitely conservative (certainly he is truer to conservative principles than Trump), Kasich also appears to be a good guy. And, at least from what I gleam in this book. He appears willing to listen to all people and not resort to ad hominem attacks upon those who challenge his position. In fact, he seems to seek out those with opposing opinions as well as having a more open view about those who think differently than him. He’s a man of deep faith who draws upon his religious belief in how he treats others and views the world.

Kasich encourages his readers to make a difference in the world by offering “ten little ways.” However, “little” is a marketing word, for some of his suggestions are big undertakings. He begins suggesting we start a movement, with examples that are not so “little.” He begins by recalling the work of Greta Thunberg (his book was published before Trump got into a twitter war with the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist). He discusses the youth from Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and their efforts at being to the forefront the need for sensible gun control legislation. He discusses those involved in Special Olympics and (as if he was speaking to me directly) recalls the work of his (and my) childhood hero, Roberto Clemente. Where Kasich conservative principles show is where he suggests that all great movements rise from the people, not the government.

While starting a movement seems to be a big thing, Kasich follows it with an encouragement to start local and to “be the change where (we) live.” Again, as he does with all his suggestions, he offers examples such as a janitor who supported the Children’s Hospital Free Care Fund to the tune of over $200,000. “Find a hole in our community and fill it,” he suggests (78). Another suggestion is to “Be Prepared to Walk a Lonely Road,” reminding us that often those who are on the forefront of any worthwhile change are ridiculed and often persecuted. He encourages us to “Slow Down” with the 3 T’s [time to think (115)] and quoting race car driver Bobby Rachael who said: “You can’t go racing into things all the time. You have to step back and see where you are going” (124). Others in his list of ten include “Bounce Back,” “Love Thy Neighbor,” “Get Out of Your Silo,” “Put Yourself in Someone Else’s Shoes,” “Spend Time Examining Your Eternal Destiny,” and “Know that You are Mad Special.”

At the beginning, Kasich said he wrote the book because he didn’t want people to think they could only change world is through politics. This book highlights many people who are changing the world for the better without seeking notoriety. The book is easy to read and for those of us who have a heart for Pittsburgh, many of his stories comes from the area. Kasich grew up in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania. He also draws on the music of the Baby Boomer generation, opening the book with the line from The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” suggesting that often the votes do get fooled again and again.

 

Caryn Green, Overland: Remembering Southeast Asia (Chicago, IL: Manitou & Cedar Press, 2018), 241 pages.

A few weeks before reading this book, I had responded to a request of a blogger about my most  spectacular train journeys. I listed several including the ride across the island of Java in Indonesia, from Jakarta to Jogjakarata. Shortly afterwards, someone else echoed my comment about the Indonesian train ride being one of her favorite. When I looked at her profile, I saw that she had recently published this book on her journey across Southeast Asia. I ordered a copy. I’m glad I did.

Caryn Green was a 24 year old woman from Chicago when she decided to hit the trail, traveling to Indonesia and then making her way overland from Bali to Jakarta, on to Singapore and into Malaysia and then to Bangkok and around Thailand. She even made it into Burma. My trip didn’t take me into Burma, as I hung a left in Thailand and headed into Cambodia and then Vietnam, before running north and traveling on to Europe. That wasn’t an option for Green, as she did her travels in the winter of 1975-76, shortly after the fall of Cambodia and Vietnam. Those countries were definitively off-limits at the time. It was an interesting time to travel as the recent American presence in Asia was evident and American travelers were often berated and drawn into unpleasant conversations.

Green wonderfully describes her travels and the people she meets. She mostly hangs out with fellow travelers, many from Australia and Germany, but also meets many natives along the way, especially those who provide housing and services. She is taken with the children. I was also impressed with how much of the languages she learned, more than just being able to say thanks or to ask for the bathroom or where to find beer. Some reading the book might be taken back by how honest she was about her relationships with a few of the men she met along the journey (although nothing is too graphic) as well as how she occasionally enjoyed drugs. She did draw a line at the use of harder drugs.  Reading this, I found myself wondering if the airport in Indonesia had large banners in several languages reading, “death to drug runners,” on the concourse in 1975 as you entered the country as they did when I traveled.

Perhaps the most exciting part of her trip comes at the end, when she travels with a guy filming a documentary on the Karen resistance in Burma. The Karen are tribe in northeastern Burma who have long wanted to separate from the rest of Burma. They passed over into Burma in a remote part of the country, from Thailand.  I knew some of the conflict with the Karen from Pascal Khoo Thue’s memoir, From the Land of the Green Ghost: A Burmese Odyssey.

I felt a little cheated that she was able to take a ferry from Jakarta to Singapore. Back then, ferries were more available. When I made the trip, it was only running once or twice a week and, even then, didn’t go to Singapore, but to an island south of the city-state, where you had to take another ferry into the city.  The other place that we both spent time on was on the island of Penang in northern Malaysia. While I had a Malaysian blogger friend to show me around, she hung out in beaches on the north part of the island where lots of young people gathered. Today, these beaches have been “gentrified” as places where lots of wealthy Arabs hand out.

Green is Jewish, which provides an interesting point of view for the variety of religions within this part of the world.  She spends Christmas in Singapore, a city that has Buddhist, Muslims, and Christians. She was drawn into the celebration by hanging out with a retired FBI agent on Christmas Eve. When she leaves Asia, after three months, she flies on to the Middle East in order to spend time in Israel.

In ’75, Green journey was the end of what had been known as the “Hippie Trail” which lead overland from Europe to Southeast Asia. Interestingly, at that time, the trail Overlanders were taking went south because of the political issues of traveling across the Soviet Union and China. These days, those making such a journey as I did in 2011, travel further north through China and Russia in order to avoid places like Pakistan, Iran and Iraq. It’s interesting how things change.

This book is a quick read, and I enjoyed it because of the comparisons I was able to make with many of the places we both travelled (36 years apart).  I would recommend the book for those who have experienced this part of the world.  Another book that deals with overland travel in Asia during the mid-70s that I found enjoyable is Tiziano Terzari’s A Fortune-teller Told Me: Earthbound Travels in the Far East.

Christmas Evening 2019

The tree at my house (we put it in the dining room this year so it can be seen better from outside).

Merry Christmas everyone. Today was beautiful in South Georgia, a nice day for a walk with the dog, after opening present, playing a new board game (Ticket to Ride: Rails and Sails), and continually snacking on ham. For the past few days, we’ve experienced a deluge (6 inches of so of rain). But yesterday afternoon, the clouds dispersed in times for us to line the church driveway with luminaries for our evening service. Our sanctuary is most beautiful when decorated and filled with candles. Unfortunately, I’ve been fighting a head cold for the past week, but thankfully I was on an uptick yesterday, which made the evening much more pleasant. I will work tomorrow and then be on vacation for the rest of the year. But I do have a few more post. Below is my message for the candlelight service last night.

 

Christmas Eve Meditation 2019
Jeff Garrison

Bethlehem wasn’t a thriving town. It wasn’t the capital. It was off the beaten path. It’d seen its better years as Jerusalem grew and became the place to be. When you entered the city limits, there might have been a commentative sign acknowledging their favorite son, David, who went on to be the King of Israel. But I bet there were some who still harbored ill feelings toward David. He was the one who put Jerusalem on the map, positioning the Ark of the Covenant on the spot where Solomon would build the temple. Since those two, David and Solomon, almost a 1000 years earlier, Jerusalem prospered while Bethlehem slipped into a second-rate town.

Bethlehem was the type of town easily by-passed or driven through without taking a second glace. It might have had a blinking stoplight, or maybe not, like the towns we drive through when we get off the interstate.

Bethlehem could have been a setting for an Edward Hopper painting. He’s mostly known for “Nighthawks” a painting of an empty town at night with just a handful of lonely people hanging out in a diner. It’s often been parodied in art, with folks like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe sitting at counter. But all his paintings are sparsely populated, providing a sense that time has passed his urban landscapes by. Or maybe the town could be a setting for a Tom Wait’s song—the roughness of his voice describing lonely and rejected people, struggling through life.

In many ways, Luke sets up Bethlehem by placing the birth of the Prince of Peace in a historical context. In Rome, we have Augustus, the son of Julius Caesar. Some twenty-five years earlier, he had defeated all his enemies and the entire empire is now at peace. The glory of Rome far outshines even Jerusalem and makes Bethlehem seem like a dot on a map. Caesar has the power that can be felt in a place like Bethlehem, but he probably never even heard of the hamlet. And, of course, the peace Rome provides is conditional. This peace is maintained at the sharp points of its Legion’s spears and swords and, for those who would like to challenge the forced peace, the threat of crucifixion. Luke also tells us Quirinus is the governor of Syria.

The tree in our sanctuary. Photo by Lynne Kaley

Those rulers are in high places. They dress in fancy robes, eat at elaborate banquets, and live in lavished palaces. They aren’t bothered by the inconvenience their decrees place on folks like Mary and Joseph. This couple is one of a million peons caught up in the clog of the empire’s machinery. If the empire says, jump, they ask how high. If the empire says go to their ancestral city, they pack their bags. It’s easy and a lot safer to blindly follow directions than to challenge the system. So, Mary and Joseph, along with others, pack their bags and head out into a world with no McDonalds and Holiday Inns at interchanges. For Mary and Joseph, they head south, toward Bethlehem.

If there were anyone with even less joy than those who lived or stayed in Bethlehem, and those who are making their way to the home of their ancestors, ancestors who may not have lived there for generations, it would be the shepherds. The sheepherders are near the bottom of the economic ladder. They spend their time, especially at night, with their flocks out grazing. The sheep are all they have. They have to protect them. They can’t risk a wolf or lion eating one of their lambs. So, they camp out with the sheep, with a staff and rocks at hand to ward off any intruder. They don’t even like going to town because people look down on them and complain that they smell.

You can’t get much more isolated than this—a couple who can’t find proper lodging in Bethlehem, with the wife that’s pregnant, and some shepherds watching their flocks at night. But their hopelessness quickly changes as Mary gives birth and places her baby in a manger. There is something about a baby, a newborn, which delights us all. Perhaps it’s the hope that a child represents. Or the child serves as an acknowledgement that we, as a specie, will live on. While birth is a special time for parents and grandparents, an infant child has a way to melt the hearts of strangers who smile and make funny faces and feel blessed if the mother allows them to hold the child for just a moment.

This child that comes into this town and brings joy. Joy comes not just to the parents, but also to the angels. The angels share the joy with the shepherds. The shepherds want in on the act, so they leave their flocks and seek out the child. All heaven is singing and sharing the song with a handful of folks on earth. The shepherds also are let on the secret that, so far, only Mary and Elizabeth and their families share. This child, who is to be named Jesus, which is the same word that in the Old Testament is translated as Joshua, is coming to save the world. Soon, in a few generations, the song will spread around the known world.

And for this night, the sleepy hamlet of Bethlehem is filled with joy. The darkness cannot hide the joy in the hearts of this young mother and father and the shepherds. Something has changed. Yes, a child has been born. But more importantly, this child is the incarnation. God has come in the flesh, in a way that we can understand. God has come in a way to reach all people, from the lowly shepherds, to the oppressed people on the edge of the empire, to all the world. This child, whose birth we celebrate, has brought joy to the world.

Friends, as we light candles and recall that night in song, may you be filled with the joy of hope that comes from placing our trust in Jesus. Amen.

©2019

Click here to read my latest article in The Skinnie, as I reflect on the carol, “Joy to the World, it’s 300 year history (including a Savannah connection).

Peaceful Joy

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Matthew 1:18-25
December 22, 2019

The Isaiah scripture is also referenced in Matthew’s telling of the birth narrative.[1] Before I read it, let me tell you a bit about the opening of Matthew’s gospel. The Gospel of Matthew is filled with surprises. It begins with a genealogy of Jesus. That seems innocent enough, but within the names, we find scandals. There are four women mentioned, none of who seem to meet the Jewish holiness standards. Two are foreigners, and there’s a prostitute, an adulterer and one involved with her father-in-law…[2]  Matthew drives home the point that God works in mysterious ways and can use anyone to further the kingdom. Following the genealogy, we are told of Jesus’ birth and again, we find a scandal. A woman is pregnant and the man she’s to marry is not the father. Joseph, the man, is about ready throw in the towel, but then he has a dream. Let’s listen to the text. Read Matthew 1:18-25.

###

Christmas often doesn’t seem peaceful. Pressure can build as we strive to find the right gifts for our loved ones, or fix the perfect meal, or attend all the parties and concerts.

The holiday stands in contrast to the birth of the Prince of Peace, as it was with a woman shopping in one of those big city department stores. It was a multi-floored building, with escalators and elevators and an entire floor devoted to toys. To her four and six-year-olds, it seemed like heaven. The mother was reminded of another place. Her kids kept singing the “I want this” song over and over. On every aisle they discovered a new “I gotta have” toy. Frazzled and about to come unglued, the lady finally paid for her purchases. She dragged the bags and her two kids to the elevator. The door opened. She and the kids and the presents squeezed in. When the door closed, she let out a sigh of relief and blurted, “Whoever started this whole Christmas thing should be found, strung up and shot!” From the back of the elevator, a calm quiet voice responded, “Don’t worry, madam, we already crucified him.”[3]

That joke reminds us that the Christmas story is all a part of a larger drama in which God is directing. Christmas is a celebration of the God coming to us in a way we can understand. It’s a new genesis (which we’ll discuss in a bit). In that child born of Mary, a peaceful joy is offered to the world. We can now experience forgiveness and to be reunited with God. Christmas, Good Friday and Easter are all linked together.

Birth is always an exciting time, for when a child is born there is no telling what might come from his or her life. But for this child, the child Mary carries, there’s something even more special about him. He’s the Messiah. But he’s not the Messiah folks are expecting. He’s not going to be a great military leader wiping out enemies. He’s not going to be a pretentious king sending decrees out from his throne in Jerusalem. He’s going to be a carpenter and a teacher and a healer. Instead of providing earthly rewards, he’ll erase the gap between us, citizens of earth, and God. He comes to save us from ourselves, from our sins, and from our failures at trying to be our own gods.

God certainly chose a unique way to bring the Messiah into the world. Our text begins simply: “the birth of Jesus took place in this way.” Interestingly, the word for birth used here literally means “the genesis.”[4] With Jesus, there comes a genesis, a new beginning. If you look at the opening chapter of John’s gospel, you’ll see John drawing upon the images of creation as recorded in the first chapter of Genesis; likewise, Matthew reminds us that this isn’t just an ordinary birth. God is starting anew.

This is a new beginning, a genesis. In Romans 5, Paul makes this analogy, comparing the works of Adam, who brought death into the world, with the works of Christ, who brings new life.[5] With Christ, our history with the Almighty, with our Creator, a history marred since Adam, starts over.

This new beginning starts with a young pregnant woman, not yet married. Her fiancé, we’re told, is a righteous man. It’s not easy to be an unwed mother today, but an unwed mother in the first century was in a real pickle. She didn’t have the social services we enjoy today to help such individuals and in a harsh religion that frowned on moral failure, such a woman had few options. She and her child would always be a social outcast. But Mary wasn’t just any woman with an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. She was carrying the Messiah… Her situation is precarious considering the pivotal role she plays in salvation history.

As we would expect, her fiancé is also shocked. We’re told he planned to quickly dismiss Mary which may sound harsh, but not in the culture of that era. He could have gone public and humiliated Mary and, at the same time, made himself look righteous. Because Joseph would have been wronged yet so righteous, his sad eyes would have drawn women. They’d be falling at his feet. But instead of boosting himself at Mary’s disgrace, he decides to quietly dismiss her. Joseph would now have to take the heat. It was an honorable thing to do, for he would protect Mary from crowds (for there would have been those willing to stone her) and he himself would accept her shame. From this story, we learn something about the true nature of righteousness. It’s not just doing what is right according to the laws or customs. It also means taking on, at the expense of oneself, the guilt of another. Christ does this for the world, and to a lesser degree, Joseph was willing to do this for Mary.

The glue that holds this passage together is the Holy Spirit. In a way, the Holy Spirit is like divine matchmaker. The Spirit impregnates Mary, bringing life into her womb and setting off this genesis, this new beginning. The Spirit also works on the other side of the equation, with Joseph, getting him to buy into the plan. Through the dream, Joseph is informed of Mary’s righteousness and of God’s plan for the child she carries. And when Joseph awakes, he decides not to dismiss Mary, but to go ahead with the wedding. They’ll marry and together raise this child and participate in God’s plan for reconciling himself to a fallen world. It’s a good thing Joseph listened to God in this dream.

I’m may have told you before that when I was considering seminary, I had several dreams affirming my decision. I’m not sure I would have been as willing and ready to quit a job, sell a house, and move four states away had it not been for those dreams. In one, I found myself asking if it was worth it as I didn’t really think I was cut out for all this. But in this dream, I heard a very distinct voice saying, “Go ahead and go, and when you’re done, you’ll know what you’re to do.” Notice that I did not know where I was going or what it was that I’d be doing. I had to step out in faith, just as Joseph’s decision still required faith. But these dreams gave me the confidence I needed to pack up and head to seminary.

Joseph’s dream shows us the importance of listening to God and when we listen to God and follow his path, we will often find peace. Let me clarify. I don’t think listening to God means trying to understand all the dreams of our sleep. Often our dreams are a way that our minds sort out stuff. Instead of investing large amounts of time trying to understand what our dreams are telling us, we need prepare ourselves to hear God’s voice by studying Scripture, by praying and by being open to hear God by whatever means he comes to us. God’s word can come many ways: in our sleep, through a thought we have while walking or driving, or in a conversation. What’s important is that we know God’s word enough to make sure what we hear is from God. Notice in our account today how Joseph is reminded of the prophecies in Scripture.  For him, that was assurance God was behind this.

A second clarification needs to be made is about the meaning of peace. Obviously, if you read beyond the first chapter of Matthew, you’ll see that peace eludes Mary and Joseph as they flee as refugees to Egypt to escape Herod. The peace they had, in that little bundle of joy they protected, was knowing that they were fulfilling God’s will. God’s Spirit was with them, giving the strength they desperately needed. God’s peace doesn’t mean the absence of conflict, but the assurance of God’s presence. As the Psalmist reminds us, it’s the peace that overwhelms us even in the “shadows of death.”[6]

This passage is about the work of the Holy Spirit, guiding and directing mere mortals, like you and me, to help bring in God’s kingdom. Life is like that. It’s not about us; it’s about God. As for us, today, we, too, need to be open to experiencing that prod from God to take the risk before us. We need to be prodded to step out in faith.  God’s Spirit gives us new life. In our prayers, in our Bible Study, in our mediation time, in times of quietness which may only come when we’re asleep, we need to be open to hearing God’s invitation to participate with him in bringing about the kingdom.

We learn in the first chapter of Matthew that God works through ordinary people. I have recently been reading John Kasich’s book, It’s Up to Us. He writes, “Leadership comes in all shapes and sizes, but it almost always starts at home and grows from there.”[7] Well, sometimes, it starts in a manger. And it starts when we respond to God’s call, for God can do great things through us, things that are frightening and things we would never have dreamed of doing on our own. When we hear God’s call and we answer, God will give us the peace to know that he’s with us and will guide us that we might do whatever small part we’re called to do to bring about the peaceful kingdom. Amen.

 

©2019

[1] Isaiah 7:13-15 was our Old Testament Reading

[2] Tamar (Genesis 38), Rahab (Joshua 2), Ruth (the Moabite with her own book) and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11)

[3] I have told this story several times. I read the story and modified it from one used got the story years ago from a sermon by Dr Clayton Cobb, St Peter’s by the Sea Presbyterian Church, Rancho Palos Verdes, CA.

[4] Dale Brunner, The Christbook, Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2004), 23.

[5] Romans 5:12-21

[6] Psalm 23.

[7] John Kasich, It’s Up to US: Ten Little Ways We Can Bring About Big Change (Hanover Square Press, 2019), 108.

Granddaddy Faircloth

Granddaddy Faircloth holding me when I was an infant (1957)

Granddaddy Faircloth
Christmas Day, 1966
Jeff Garrison

I’m now ten years older than you were
when I snapped that photo,
a nine year old boy on Christmas morning
with his new camera, a Kodak Instamatic.

It took some persuasion for you to get up
and step outside, but my grandmother coaxed
and with the camera you’d given me
I snapped a slightly crooked shot.

Mom said it was probably the last photo taken of you,
in a dress shirt beside your tall skinny bride, adorn in a white dress,
the two of you standing like sentinels by the holly bush
just off the front stoop where, in summer, we grandkids killed flies.

That photo has been lost for half a century,
but it’s still etched in my mind
your grin and crew cut hair,
and your arm around your wife, my grandma.

I wonder what you were thinking?
Did you want to get back inside to take a drag off your Lucky Strike?
Or sip dark black coffee from your stained cup?
Or ponder when we youn-ins (that rhymed with onions) would be quiet?

Perhaps, though, more was on your mind
as you thought how, in another month, you’d be preparing beds
in order to set out tobacco seed,
but that would be weeks after you took your last breath.

There’s much about you I’m curious to know,
things that’s been lost over the years.

When you visited us that fall of ‘66,
shortly after we moved to Wilmington,
you joked that we now needed a maid since we had a brick house
with two bathrooms.

Later that afternoon, we walked in the woods out back,
and you told of hunting among those pines during the war
when you were a welder at the shipyard,
and how they cut the bottom of your shirt off for missing a deer

Did you ever shoot a deer with that old Savage Stevens,
or did I avenge your bad luck,
when, as a seventeen year old, I downed a six pointer in Holly Shelter Swamp,
the only deer I ever had in that double-barrel (or any barrel’s) sights?

And I like to have an opportunity to see you once more
work in a tobacco field with your mule, Hoe-handle, pulling the plow,
or perched up on top of that orange Allis-Chambers tractor,
pulling a sled of Bright Leaf up to the barn for curing.

But what I’d really like to experience is a night with you at the barn,
keeping the fires hot by feeding wood into the heaters
under a sky filled with stars and lightning bugs
and the flickering kerosene lantern that now sits on my mantel.

On those evening, swapping stories with friends,
did your mouth water for something to quench your thirst,
something smooth that you’d long sworn off,
but the desire, I expect, was still there?

It must have taken quite a bit of strength,
to give up the drink and break with some of your brothers
as you strove to live a straight life
and earn the respect of your mother-in-law.

But I will never know, in this realm at least, any of this
and must be content of my memories of that Christmas,
in the home that belonged to the women around you,
your mother-in-law, your wife and your daughters.

You’d cut a beautiful red cedar that year,
decorated it with white lights, red bulbs,
and an abundance of icicles with presents for your grandkids
filling the floor around the base of the tree.

After our presents were opened,
you called us back to your bedroom where,
with boxes of fruits and nuts you stuffed bags for everyone,
contents that’ll have to last a lifetime.

Granddaddy’s lantern: I have often used this when fishing or camping at night for it doesn’t blind you like a Coleman lantern

Unabashed Joy

 

Jeff Garrison 
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Luke 1:46-55
December 15, 2019

 

 

 

       Earlier in the first chapter of Luke’s gospel, the angel Gabriel met Mary in Nazareth to give her the good news. However, I’m not sure that everyone saw this as good news. I am not even sure Mary saw it that way. After all, she was just a young woman. Tradition has it she was only 14 years old, and here’s this angel is talking about all of what this child she’s to carry will do. Mary wonders how it’s to happen and told that the Holy Spirit will fill her, and she’ll conceive. In addition, she’s told that her relative, the old barren Elizabeth, is also pregnant and will bear a son. God appears to be active with the oldest and the youngest.

Upon hearing this news, Mary doesn’t break out in song. Instead, she humbly submits, telling Gabriel, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord: let it be with me according to your word.” The angel departs, and Mary leaves Galilee for the Judean hill country where Elizabeth lives. It used to be common, even when I was in high school, for an unmarried pregnant girl to be shipped off to an aunt or some other relative in a different city. Maybe that’s part of Mary’s desire to travel: to get away from those who know her and who whisper behind her back as her belly grows.

         “Girl, how’d you get yourself in this mess?” isn’t how Elizabeth greets Mary. Instead, she starts out praising Mary, wondering what she, Elizabeth, has done to deserve such a visit. She proclaims Mary as the most blessed of all women. Mary breaks out in song. She didn’t sing to Gabriel, at the heavenly encounter she had earlier. She sings when another person, one whom must have known as a kind older woman, confirms her status.[1] At this point, Mary belts it out in a song the church has been singing for 2,000 years.

My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.

Mary is joyous, but not in the manner we think of joy. For us, joy is a child experiencing an ice cream cone for the first time or us witnessing the child’s wonder. Joy is a mother watching her son make a home run as a Little Leaguer. Joy is laugher at a good joke, the awe of a beautiful sunset without sand gnats, sitting around a fire telling stories when it’s not too cold, or the Pirates winning the World Series. All these things are great, but is this what joy really is? Or is it something deeper.

         When Jesus was at table with his disciples on the night before his crucifixion, he instructs his disciples and then says he’s telling them all this so that his joy will be in them, and that their joy will be complete.[2] Jesus then continues, talking about laying down their lives and how the world is going to hate them. I tell you, joy during troubling news is common throughout Scripture.

        When Paul writes from prison to the Philippians, he tells them how he’s joyous when he prays for them and asks them to make his joy complete by being of the mind as Christ.[3] When he chastises the Corinthians for being stingy, he lifts up the Macedonians who despite a “severe ordeal of affliction” and “extreme poverty,” have abundant joy that’s shown in their generosity.[4] James, the brother of Jesus, suggests we consider our trials as joy, for they help us grow in endurance and maturity.[5] Peter speaks of rejoicing in our suffering that will lead to us being joyful when Christ’s glory is reveal.[6] All these passages in the New Testament suggest that joy isn’t the absence of suffering. Joy is something deeper within us, a hope that we have in what God is doing in the world. Because we place our trust in God, we should be joyful even when things are tough because we know God is beside us, working out things for our well-being.

This idea of joy in times of trouble isn’t limited to the New Testament. Our Old Testament reading today from the Book of Isaiah is a song of promise and joy sung during a time of war and destruction. In the chapter before this reading, God pronounces judgment to the nations, and after this song, we learn the Assyrians are threatening Jerusalem. As one commentator on this passage says, “Isaiah dares to speak a word out of place. A word that refused to wait until things improve.”[7]

          This is unabashed joy; joy regardless of the situation. All is not well in the world, then or now, but we as believers are called to see beyond the present and to have faith in what God’s doing. We are called to be joyous and to have hope and to share our hope with others. In the long arch of history the impeachment of a President, a rogue nation like North Korea having rockets and weapons of mass destruction, and the eruption of a volcano in New Zealand (or heaven help us, if one blew up in Bluffton) isn’t the final word. For we believe God has things under control and even if we screw everything up and blow the planet to smithereens, God will not let that be the final word.

          So, we go back to that young woman, pregnant and not yet married, in a world without social safety nets. You can’t be much more vulnerable than Mary, standing before Elizabeth. Yet she breaks out in this beautiful song that focuses on what God is doing. Mary doesn’t speak of what God is doing for her, personally, except for having chosen her. She’s not thankful for a new house, or car, or clothes or a servant. Her lot is not joyful by most definitions. She has this son that runs away at the age of 12.[8] He’ll says some things that are hurtful during his ministry, even asking rhetorically “who is my father and mother?”[9] (How do you think that made her feel?) And if that’s not enough, she’s there at the end, watching that bundle of joy whom she carried in her belly die on the cross.

Despite all the heartache Mary experienced, she still had joy in her heart, not because of her experiences, but what God was doing in the world through the son whom she brought into the world. Her hope wasn’t for an easy life and a comfortable retirement as she watched her son succeed in business. Her hope was in the future, knowing that she was playing a little part in God’s great drama of turning the world on its head. In the fullness of time, God will show mercy on the poor, people like her, who find themselves blessed beyond measure.

What does all this unabashed joy, which at times seem absurd, mean to us? It means that we, knowing that God is in control, need to do what is right and just despite what society, peer pressure or even an unjust law might say. Unabashed joy influences our behavior for it means we’re not invested for the short term. As people of faith, we’re committed for the long term, longing for that new heaven and new earth, praying “Come, Lord Jesus, come.”

 

Don’t confuse joy with happiness. There wasn’t much in Mary’s life that was happy, and that may also be true for us. Happiness is on the surface, but joy resides deep within us. As David Brooks writes in his book The Second Mountain, “We can help create happiness, but we are seized by joy. We are pleased by happiness, but we are transformed by joy.”[10]

 

Be transformed! Show unabashed joy. Don’t let discouragement or the news of the world get you down. Trust in the Lord and believe in God’s goodness and let joy transform you. Amen.

 

 

©2019

[1] Norval Geldenhuys, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1983), 84.
[2] John 15:11
[3] Philippians 1:4, 2:2.
[4] 2 Corinthians 8:1-2.
[5] James 1:2.
[6] 1 Peter 4:13.
[7] Barbara Lundbald, as quoted in the “Sermon Fodder” for “Heaven and Nature Sings” by the Worship Design Studio.
[8] Luke 2:41ff.
[9] John 2:4 and Matthew 12:48.
[10] David Brooks, The Second Mountain (Random House, 2019), xxiv. Quote obtained from a Facebook post on joy.

Two Books by John Lane and a poem of mine

A little over a month ago, I attended the closing session of the Pat Conroy festival. Most of the events were held in Beaufort, SC, but the closing one was held in Bluffton, which is just across the river a bit from Savannah. It featured four South Carolina authors talking about place. Afterwards, I picked up a couple more John Lane books, who was one of the authors. I’d previously read two of Lane’s books: My Paddle to the Sea and Waist Deep in Black Water.

John Lane, Coyote Settles the South (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2016), 186 pages.

The first coyote I saw was thirty-some years ago outside of Virginia City, Nevada. Since then, I have seen them in many other parts of the West, but also in areas far beyond their original range. At one point, coyotes only existed in the American West. As their territory changed, the adapted and began to move eastward. In this book, which is kind of a travel narrative, Lane sets out across the South to learn about how coyotes are adapting to their new territories in the southern part of the country. These animals are taking place of the red wolves, who used to roam eastern woods. They are generally hated, in the same category that rattlesnakes are hated, as they are considered a threat to humans and especially to our pets. While there has been human death to coyotes (there was one during his study of the animal), the animal is very problematic for pets, especially small dogs and cats. They help cull the deer population (they prefer to eat fawns), love fruit, but will also eat armadillos (flip ‘em over and eat ‘em on the half shell). As the coyote is well established and able to reside close to humans, it appears there will be no going back. The beast is a hard one to trap, as one famous coyote from West Virginia showed. This animal was even known to relieve himself right next to traps set out for him as if he was playing with his trappers. After figuring out that it was a male, they finally trapped him using a captive female coyote in heat!

In addition to discussing the coyote, Lane spends time talking about the red wolf, as specie that is in even more danger from the coyote, for the two species have been known to interbred. By the time I got through this book, I find myself having more respect for the coyotes. Lane begins the book describing the first time he heard them at his house in northwest South Carolina. Having been surprised to hear them baying in the woods while out at night skiing in Michigan, I can attest, it’s a beautiful but also hair-raising sound. Pick up this book if you’re interested in nature and in an animal that is a lot cleverer than the cartoon depiction of Wile E. Coyote.

John Lane  Abandon Quarry  (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2010), 169 pages.

This is a wonderful collection of poems that capture places and events (real and imagined) in Lane’s life. The author has a keen vision for what’s happening around him, as he travels from Cumberland Island along the Georgia coast to the Virginia mountains and places in between. The bulk of the book are made up of selections from seven previously books of poetry published by Lane. In addition to these seven, there are new poems, some from earlier in his life and others written more recently. Many of the imagined poems were about visits from his father who’d committed suicide when Lane was a child. His father, a veteran of World War II, was a mechanic who ran a gas station. In these “dreams,” he teaches his son about cars and his mother (and women) among other things. I imagine it was helpful for Lane to write these verses.  I was shocked to find a poem, “Chicory Brought Inside,” that ties together chicory and Queen Anne’s Lace, two common roadside flowers that often grow together along the ways of the Midwest. It reminded me of a similar poem I wrote years ago.  A place I discovered that we’ve both written poems is “Connemara,” the vacation home for Carl Sandburg in the North Carolina mountains. I am still trying to find my poem, which was written in the early 80s. I enjoyed this book of poems immensely and highly recommend them.

 

Chicory and Lace
by Jeff Garrison, 2009

A smile broke over your face.
You blushed as your eyes twinkled
when you noticed me watching
you raise the cup to your lips
and gently blow across the dark,
before sipping.

It was a chicory blend, wasn’t it?
Served early in the morning
at the sidewalk café
in that town along the Sierra foothills.
We searched for the ghosts of 49ers
yet couldn’t exonerate the spirits of our past.

We lingered that morning, I mesmerized by you,
sitting slightly sideways in a wrought iron chair,
a lacy-white sundress with blue flowers
that stood out against your tanned shoulders and arms,
and those long shapely legs, crossed at the knees,
a flip-flop dangling from your rocking foot

I don’t remember of what we talked,
nor now, even what year it was
for there have been so many since.
But I remember the chicory coffee and the lace of your dress
and seeing chicory grow wild along the roadside,
amongst the Queen Anne Lace, I smile.

Loving Joy and the Preaching of John the Baptist

Jeff Garrison 
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Matthew 3:1-12
December 8, 2019

 

Our series, “Let Heaven and Nature Sing,” is all about joy. But this series is also based on traditional lectionary readings from scripture and today’s reading, on the second Sunday of Advent, includes the preaching of John the Baptist. How shall we bring joy out of this guy who today would be passed over as a desert lunatic? The background material for the series even suggest doing a cantata today and skipping the sermon based on this text. To me, that’s not fair to Scripture. We need to wrestle with what God is trying to tell us in his book.

Have you ever thought about this: Why do we only find the story of Jesus’ birth in two of the gospels: Matthew and Luke? And why do we find the story of John the Baptist preparing the way for the Messiah in all four of the gospels? And in all four gospels, there is the link back to Isaiah, of that voice howling out in the wilderness.[1] The story of John the Baptist is one with which Scripture demands that we contend. What are we being told here? How does the fire and brimstone preaching of John the Baptist prepare us for the loving message of Jesus?

If we want to get to the good news, we must face up to the bad. So, let’s listen to what John has to say to us. Read Matthew 3:1-12.

###

          There were two preachers who, on their day off, enjoyed fishing. They were at a river next to a highway. Before sitting on the bank, where they’d watch their corks in the hope they’d be the tug of a fish on the line, they posted a sign. It read, “The end is near! Turn yourself around before it’s too late.”

A few minutes later a car flew by.  Seeing the sign, the driver yelled out, “Keep your religion to yourself, you fanatics.” He then hit the gas, sending rocks flying and dust swirling as he headed around a curve.

Just a moment later, there was a screech from braking tires, followed by a big splash.

One of the preachers looked at the other and asked, “Do you think we should have, instead, put up a sign that said, ‘Bridge Out’?”

         I wonder about John’s message. It’s so harsh, maybe he should have toned down his words. Repeatedly, he talks of fire, and not the warming flames of a campfire, but the ominous fire like those recently experienced in California and Australia. “You brood of vipers,” he calls the religious leaders of the day. That doesn’t sound very loving, does it? Jesus would never say that, would he? Actually, he does; twice in Matthew’s gospel.[2] What does this phrase mean? And how does this relate to a loving God?

Law and gospel must go together. In scripture, law came at Sinai during the Exodus and the gospel came roughly 1400 years later with the exemplary life, atoning death and glorious resurrection of Jesus. John is the last in a series of prophets who show our failure of abiding by the law as he calls us to clean up our acts. God is doing something new and marvelous and we need to be ready! All this talk about fire and calling people snakes is a way to get our attention, to force us to examine our own failings so that we might repent and follow Jesus.

          Law and gospel, they go together. To understand the story of scripture, we can’t just push off the “law” parts of the Bible and only focus on the gospel. The gospel makes no sense without the law. The gospel is about how God saves us from our failures, our sin. Those who listened to and were moved by John’s preaching were left with no choice but to confess their sins in order to begin the process of repentance, a word that means to turn around or to start in a new direction. They had to leave sin behind as they joyfully accept what God was doing in their midst.

So, why does John call the religious teachers of the day a brood of vipers? It’s a pretty harsh term. For many people, it conjures up nightmares, a den full of snakes, a place for Indiana Jones but not the rest of us. In the desert, you must be careful when trying to find shade under a rock overhang or in a grotto or cave. Snakes tend to gather in such places to avoid the heat of the day and you don’t want to be messing with them. John implies their words are poisonous.

Consider this: both the leaders of the day and John took seriously the sins of the people. But the difference is that the leaders of the day taught that people must justify themselves before God through an elaborate system of sacrifices, whereas John twists the concern of sin around to where people must accuse themselves before God, confessing their sins, so that they might be washed of them as symbolized in baptism.[3]

        But it all comes back to this. God is doing something new. With John the Baptist, God was paving the way for his Son to come on the scene and to teach people a new way to live and to be human. In order to prepare for something new, people must admit their own sinfulness and to realize that they long for something better. Of course, if we don’t think we need to be better, there’s a warning here. Judgment that comes from transgressing the law is a reality. So, do we ignore our sinfulness and die to the law? Or do we accept and confess our sinfulness and embrace the grace that Jesus’ offers? Those are our choices.

          Advent is the time for us to prepare for the loving tenderness shown by Jesus. If God is redeeming this world, if God is promising a new heaven and a new earth, then we should want to be ready to receive this gift. But to receive the gift, we must leave the past behind. We have to be willing to examine deep within our souls and to offer up all that’s not godly so that we might be both cleansed of our sin and have the room to accept Christ into our hearts. We must be willing to allow ourselves to be transformed into something new and better. For Advent is a time not only to remember that Christ came, but that he will come again, and we must be ready.

Your assignment for this week is to examine yourself, your words, your thoughts, your actions. What have you done that’s not been Christ-like? Have you harbored bitterness or showed unkindness or said things that twisted the truth or belittled another? If so, bring it to God. Get rid of the darkness by bringing it to the light.

         We must not just prepare ourselves; we should prepare the church, which is, in the final events of history, to be the bride of Christ.[4] That means that the church must confront all it’s done that’s not been holy, and there’s been a lot. From the crusades to the inquisition and witch-hunts, from the support of slavery and conquest to our tendency to huddle into crowds of similar people and turn our backs on the world for which Christ came and gave his life. The earthly church has not always been holy. We need to confess this! John’s call to the religious establishment of the day still holds. Are we willing to confess our shortcomings and to be open to what God is doing in the world? That means we must give up control, for this enterprise known as the church isn’t about us. It’s about God. It’s about us bringing glory to God as we serve as the hands and the feet of our Lord in the world.

          Is there loving joy in this passage that will lead to us “repeat the sounding joy”? Yes, there is, but we must get beyond the call to prepare, which John focuses on, and realize that God is doing a new thing. We trust in a God of resurrection. Even if the world destroys itself, God won’t let that be the final word. God wants to remake us. John’s role is to prepare us. Our role is to respond to John’s call to repentance so we might be open to what God is doing in our lives and in our fellowship.  Confession and repentance may not in favor in today’s secular world, but in the church, it’s where we begin. All of us need to take a deep look at ourselves and then turn to God and fall on our knees… Amen.

 

©2019

[1] Isaiah 40:3-5. Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook, Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids: Eerdman, 2004), 88.

[2] Matthew 12:34 and 23:33.

[3] Bruner, 89.  Bruner attributes this idea of a shift from justifying to accusing to Matthew Henry’s Commentary (1721).

[4] Revelation 21:2.

St. Andrew’s Talk

Yep, that’s me, decked out in formal threads with a McKenzie tartan kilt

 

Jeff Garrison 


A talk given at the St. Andrew Society for the City of Savannah’s Annual Banquet


November 30, 2019

The title for my talk this evening is “A Glorious Defeat.” By the time I’m done, I hope you understand what I’m talking about.

Alistair noted in my introduction that I’m from North Carolina. Like most Tarheels, I’m proud of my heritage. This pride is especially true of those of us of Highlander lineage. We take after St. Andrew, whose name in Greek implies manliness, valor, and bravery. We struggle with humility.

Of course, there is no Garrison clan. The Garrisons may have even been carpetbaggers for all I know. (actually, they were in NC around High Point before the Civil War). My great-grandfather Garrison moved into the land of the Highlanders of North Carolina early in the 20th Century. Twenty years later, his son set his eyes on a McKenzie girl. They married and had a son, who would later marry and have a son, and that’s where I come into the story. But if you look back through my family, you’ll find a lot of Scots blood: Blues, Blacks, McDonalds, McCaskills, McLeods, and such. But the McKenzies are on both sides. My paternal grandmother was a McKenzie, as was my maternal great-grandmother. I wear this tartan honestly and pray the inbreeding isn’t too damning.

So, why are there so many Highlanders in North Carolina? One former governor of the Old North State proclaimed there are more Highlanders in North Carolina than any other country, including Scotland. I’m not sure that’s the case, but for some reason, Highlanders began pouring into the colony in the early 1730s, long before the Battle of Culloden.  And actually, they didn’t settle throughout North Carolina. They mainly settled along the Cape Fear River and its tributaries. The Lowlanders mostly stayed close to the coast, while the lands to the west and north were settled by Scot-Irish (which sounds like a badly blended whisky).

Why did so many Highlanders head to the Sandhills? After all, it’s nothing like Scotland. There are no mountains or sweeping shorelines and the weather tends to be fairly mild. Two things: First of all, as beautiful as Scotland is, especially the Highlands, it’s not the best country to farm. These early Scot settlers were drawn to the rich land without rocks. It’s a lot easier to plow sand. This land that was abundant and cheap (after all, they were Scots).

At the podium. Photo by Jason Talsness

The second reason they came and concentrated themselves there is that the merchants in Wilmington marketed the region. If you look at a map of North Carolina, you’d notice that the rivers in the Western Piedmont and eastern mountains all flowed into South Carolina. The Cape Fear is the only river in North Carolina suitable for ocean going traffic. These merchants wanted farms and settlements so they could trade both up river and across the Atlantic.

Highlanders poured into North Carolina, mostly through the port of Wilmington, where they piled their belongings in long boats for the tough paddle upriver. They made their way to Cross Creek. (What kind of name is that? How does one creek cross another? Or is this a creek mad at the world?) But that name didn’t stick, except for in a shopping mall. And that mall probably won’t be there much longer. After the Revolution, the citizens of Cross Creek changed the name of the town to Fayetteville in honor of the Layfette, the French General who aided Washington. But that would be in the future, beyond the story I’m telling.

As these piney woods filled with Scots, they set out clearing land so they could plant corn, turnips and beans. They raised hogs and sheep, and kept a cow or two. They built mills for grinding grain and sawing lumber. They cut heart-pine timber and saved the tall straight logs to be used as masts on ships. They collected pitch from the pines and distilled turpentine. They did some other distilling, too, with something other than pine sap. I’m sure there was a field or two of barley. That which wasn’t drunk, along with the naval stores, were floated down the Cape Fear to Wilmington. There, it was shipped out across the sea. Life was pretty good. But along came a war, a war that brought division to the region just as it had to their homeland in 1745.

Early in 1776, the governor of the colony sounded the call to raise an army of Highlanders. The goal was 3,000 men, enough to help the regular British army nip the revolution in the bud.  They called upon General Donald MacDonald (Donald McDonald, you gotta admit, we Scots aren’t the most creative when it comes to names). MacDonald, a loyalist and experienced British officer, went through the Carolina Pine Barrens recruiting. He was only able to muster an army of 1,600. These recruits weren’t overly excited about war, and desertions started as soon as marching commenced. They gathered at Cross Creek, thinking they were going to join a large British force, only to learn that the Brits were still at sea. So they began to make their way toward Wilmington.

It was a miserable hike. Cold and wet. A small band of Patriots from Wilmington had an annoying habit of blocking their path at key points along the way, forcing them to take long muddy detours. As these Highlanders were not trained, and only about half of them had weapons, MacDonald hoped to avoid battle until he joined with the British regulars and his men were armed.

On the night of February 25th, they were 20 miles from Wilmington. Their path again was blocked by Patriots. Thinking they had superior numbers, they decided to strike. The Patriots were camping with their backs against the creek, at Widow Moore’s Creek Bridge. General MacDonald, being ill, relinquished command to the less experienced Colonel McLeod. Assembling the men in the early morning hours of February 26. Stuffing socks in the bag pipes, for it’s hard to be stealth with pipes blaring, they quietly marched off to surprise the enemy. Arriving at the encampment in front of the bridge, they found it abandoned. But the campfires were still warm. Then they noticed the planking over the bridge had been removed.

Col. Mcleod handpicked a contingent of men to cross the creek and to see where the enemy might be hiding. Dawn was just beginning to break, and a fog concealed the lowlands around the water. They carefully crossed the slippery timbers which had been greased with fat, probably from the Patriot’s evening barbecue.

Coming off the bridge, they silently made their way through the fog and up the road out of the swamp. Maybe a twig snap, for suddenly, someone ahead shouted, “Who goes there?” “A Friend of the King,” was the response, followed by something mumbled in Gaelic. At that point, knowing the enemy was just ahead, they drew sabers and charged up the road yelling “King George and Broadswords.” They were brave, living up to Andrew’s name. But the Patriots had dug in. It was a trap.

The patriots held their fire, hiding behind breastworks as the Scots came out of the fog. They charged as if they were William Wallace reincarnated. When only 15 or 20 yards from the line, the Patriots opened fire. In addition to their muskets, they were armed with two small canons loaded with grapeshot. With the road being flanked on both sides by swamp, the Scots were trapped. McLeod fell first, followed by fifty-some of his handpicked men. The rest of the Highlanders fled. The battle lasted only minutes. Over the next couple of days, 800 or so of the Highlanders were captured. Some were pardoned and went back to their farms, but many fled or were banished to Nova Scotia, Florida or the West Indies.

The defeat meant the British could not control the interior of the South and were severely hampered in their efforts at defeating the colonists. That summer, in Philadelphia, the Continental Congress issued the Declaration of Independence. Many of those who had refused to join General MacDonald, such as my Umpteenth Great Grandfather Hugh McKenzie, joined in the fight for Independence.

Defeat can be bitter, especially for the proud manly sons of St. Andrew. But in time, God’s providential hand can be seen. As in Culloden, which strengthened the United Kingdom as the nation rose to reign supreme in the 19th Century, the defeat at Moore’s Creek was one step toward the creation of our great nation. At the time, these Highlanders had no idea, but theirs was a glorious defeat.  Thank you.

In January 2018, I gave the keynote at the Society’s “Burns’ Night” banquet. Click here to read my talk, which I was more humorous than this one. 

Sources:

McKenzie, James Duncan, Family History: A Comprehensive Record of the McKenzie Family from the Immigration of Hugh McKenzie to America from Scotland about the year 1750 and Continuing through the Present. (Unpublished Manuscript, 1940).

Meyer, Duane. The Highland Scots of North Carolina, 1732-1776. (Chapel Hill, NC:        University of North Carolina Press, 1957, 1961).

Powell, William S. North Carolina Gazetteer: A Dictionary of Tar Heel Places (Chapel            Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1968).

Ray, Celeste. Highland Heritage: Scottish Americans in the American South. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2001).

Wikepedia, “The Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge,”             https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Moore%27s_Creek_Bridge (accessed November 20, 2019).

1957

Every day, Garrison Keillor sends out a new edition of “The Writer’s Almanac.” He always begins each day’s post with a poem. Today’s poem was by Charles Simic and titled “Nineteen Thirty-eight.” Thinking about his poem written about the year of his birth, I recalled a piece I wrote a few years ago on the year I was born. I wrote this in prose, but wondered if it might be crafted into a poem?  Probably not this week… This piece originally appeared in my former blog. 

1957
Jeff Garrison

Ike II

I arrived at the Moore County Hospital, just outside of Pinehurst, on a Wednesday morning in mid-January 1957. The highways we drove home on through the Sandhills were all paved by then, but many of the county roads including the one we lived on were still dirt.   It was a simpler time.  Longleaf pines surrounded the highways and golf courses and small farms raising bright-leaf tobacco dotted the landscape. The Lower Little River was populated by my relatives. We were mostly descendants from Highlanders from Scotland and for us, tobacco was king (and still considered safe).  It sold for 59 cents a pound. Nearly a half million acres were raised in North Carolina, producing over 1700 pounds an acre. You can do the math.

In the same month I arrived, a meeting of African-American pastors led to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  We’d hear more about them in the next decade as integration was moving into the forefront. Before the year was out, there’d be the incident in Little Rock and the Senate under the leadership of Lyndon Johnson passed the first civil rights legislation since the Reconstruction. We’d also be hearing more about civil rights and Johnston in the years ahead.

Two days after my arrival, three B-52s made the first non-stop around-the-world flights and General Curtis LeMay bragged that we could drop a hydrogen bomb anywhere in the world.  The one place we did drop one that year, accidentally, was New Mexico.  Thankfully, it didn’t detonate which is why no one knew about it. The military were exploding bombs in Nevada but said everything was safe and no one knew differently except for the sheepherders whose flocks began to lose their wool and die off. There were other nuclear accidents in ’57 in the US and UK, but we didn’t know about them. We just trusted that our governments would never do anything to harm us.

Although there were no major wars going on, the world was tense. In October, the first American soldier was killed in Vietnam, a country we’d learn more about. But in ’57, the focus was mostly on the Suez Crisis and the threat of a Soviet nuclear attack. The DEW line was completed in the Arctic.  When proposed, it was to provide a six hours warning before the first Soviet bomb could be dropped on an American city. By the time the work was completed, the margin was cut to three hours as Soviet jets had doubled their speed.  A few months later it became extraneous as the Soviets launched their first intercontinental ballistic missile. Later, they launch Sputnik and we’d spend the next twelve years in a space race. Amidst all this, some yo-yo created the first plastic pink flamingo. The end was near as prophesied by Nevil Shute, On the Beach, a post-nuclear war novel published in 1957.  I’d read it in high school.

To save us from calamity, we placed our faith in Ike, the President, who many thought I resembled as I too had a bald head.Thankfully Ike wasn’t Herod and didn’t waste any time worrying about a newborn impostor as he perfected his golf swing and began his second term as the leader of the free world.

Jack Kerouac published On the Road in 1957, and people were heading out on the road as a new line of fancy cars with high fins and excessive chrome were revealed. The ’57 Chevy became an icon of the era as Ike announced the building of interstates to connect the cities of our nation. Cars ruled!  New York City abandoned its trolley cars in 1957, and shortly afterwards the Brooklyn Dodgers (originally the Trolley Dodgers) announced they were moving to Los Angeles. In other sporting news, the University of North Carolina beat Kansas in the NCAA basketball finals. These teams have remained near the top throughout my life. The Milwaukee Braves led by a young Hank Aaron beat the New York Yankees in the World Series. We’d hear more from Aaron and the Yankees, but Milwaukee faded when the Braves high-tailed it to Atlanta. The Detroit Lions, a team whose demise parallels its city, won their last NFL championship.

Ayn Rand published Atlas Shrugged in 1957. Nearly six decades later, “Who is John Galt?” bumper stickers are occasionally spotted on American highways. In the theaters, The Ten Commandments was the top box office success. For a country that seems so religious yet so consumeristic, the commandment about not coveting appears overlooked and Rand “look out for me” philosophy glorified the sin.  Other commandments were also being broken as “Peyton Place,” which debuted in theaters, reminded us.

Radios in 1957 were playing the music of Elvis, Buddy Holly, Debbie Reynolds, the Everly Brothers, and Sam Cooke.  In Philadelphia, teenagers danced for the first time on American Bandstand as more and more homes acquired televisions.  In England, two chaps named Lennon and McCarthy met and would go on change music as we know it.  Humphrey Bogart died just two days before my arrival, but it was still a good year for Hollywood.  Not only was Moses selling, but so were dogs as children everywhere cried watching Old Yeller.  Another movie released was the Bridge over the River Kwai which motivated whistlers everywhere.  That old British army tune would later be used in a commercial for a household cleanser and inspired one of the beloved parodies of my childhood:

Comet – it makes your teeth turn green.
Comet – it tastes like gasoline.
Comet – it makes you vomit.
So buy some Comet, and vomit, today!

###

Looking with Gratitude

 

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Acts 4:32-35
November 24, 2019

“The story of Jesus doesn’t end with Jesus,” Eugene Peterson writes in Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places. The Christian story continues on in this community and in all communities where people gather to “repent, believe and follow.” Nor does “the supernatural doesn’t stop with Jesus. God’s salvation, which became articulate, visible, and particular in Jesus, continues to be articulate, and particular in the men and women who have been raised to new life in him, the community of the resurrection.”[1]

Ponder the implication of this for a moment. We are a part of a movement that began 20 centuries ago in an obscure part of the world. Christ is still alive, working in his church, whether it’s here on Skidaway Island or in some remote city in China or a hamlet in the savannahs of Africa. Today, the question for us to ponder is this: “what should this community look like?”

In my reading over the past few weeks in preparation for the stewardship campaign, I came across this indictment of the modern church in America:

“One of the reasons churches in North America have trouble guiding people about money is that the church’s economy is built on consumerism. If churches see themselves as suppliers of religious goods and services and their congregants as consumers, then offerings are ‘payments.’”[2]

 

Contrary to what we often think, the church is not to be a supplier of religious goods and services. The church is to be a fellowship that brings people together under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Our offerings are to be signs of our gratitude for what God has done for us. To get a good idea of what the church should look like, let’s go back to the first century and consider the church in Jerusalem at the very beginning. Luke paints an interesting picture of this community who pinned their hoped and placed their faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s a community of people filled with gratitude. I am reading today’s passage from the Message translation and will put the words on the screens. Read Acts 4:32-35:

 

        I will always be indebted to the congregation in Virginia City, Nevada, a place where I first experienced ministry on my own as a student pastor for a year. The church on the Comstock, at least in the modern era, has always been small. But there was something about the fellowship of that group that made it an attractive place for all kinds of people. The people in the church worked hard together, keeping the church going, which was quite a task in a wooden building built in 1866. But they also worked hard to help one another. And they tried to help others, sending clothes to an orphanage in Mexico and collecting food for a pantry in Carson City.

Every month, this congregation gathered for a dinner party. People from all walks of life came together to enjoy one another’s company. Its appeal was magnetic for there was plenty of laughter at these gatherings.

One of the more colorful townsfolk was a guy named Bob. He could be best described as a skid-row drunk. He lived in a shack outside of town and mostly stayed mostly to himself. But you’d see him several times a day, winding through town, often going down the alleys where he dug through the trash from the bars. He’d eat leftovers, but what he was really after was the dregs of alcohol that remained in the bottles thrown away. Bob would pour these drops into a gallon jar that he toted around with him. Even with its high concentration of alcohol, this was a nasty cocktail none of us would consider drinking.

One evening we had a dinner at the church. As I was walking down the boardwalk, I came upon Bob. I’d been there a few months by this point, so I knew people would be okay with his presence, so I invited him in. He thanked me but wouldn’t come in. I then offered to fix him a plate of food, which he again turned down. One of the women in the church who was walking up the boardwalk, overheard my conversation. She told me that Bob had been invited many times, but would never come in, but suggested we fix him a plate and sit it on the steps. Bob didn’t want to be fussed over, but he would most likely pick up and eat a plate of food if sat out. And that’s what happened. The first plate fixed that evening was for Bob. We covered it with foil and let it at the top of the steps. When we left that evening, the plate was empty.

Virginia City had never been known as a religious place, but that’s okay because our faith isn’t as much about religion as it is about relationships. Our faith manifest itself by being kind and generous and, as we talk about here at SIPC, reflecting the face of Jesus. There was no need for Bob to be uncomfortable inside the church building. We could still provide him a good meal. As a church, we must be willing to meet people where they are at, and not demand that they conform to our ideas or go where we want them to be.

         The congregation Luke describes here near the beginning of the book of Acts wasn’t spectacular. It wouldn’t be considered particularly successful according to modern business practices. The fellowship didn’t include the leading folks of Jerusalem. Everyone was poor and marginalized. They didn’t have any glitzy advertising or even a fancy sign out front. After all, they tried to blend in and not stand out because there were those didn’t appreciate their message. But, despite all this, there was something magnetic about this community. They were generous and gracious. They were willing to help each other and to forgive others for the wrongs they’ve done because they’d experienced forgiveness in Jesus Christ. It was this magnetic appeal that drew folks to the church. Why else would someone risk persecutions and isolation by becoming a Christian?

Let’s look at this passage. What they owned wasn’t important. They knew the truth of the Psalmist who proclaimed, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.”[3] Instead of holding tight to possessions they knew belonged to God, they willingly shared with one another. They had set their minds on the glorious resurrection of Jesus and knew that was all that mattered. So, they attempted to do what they could to do for others which meant that no one in the fellowship was needy. Because of what God had done for them, they were filled with gratitude and willing to help others.

        I recently read an article on why we need to make a weekly commitment to attend church. I’ll post this article I my next e-news. It was written by a young widow who describes the church as “the sweetest fellowship this side of heaven.” Her husband died suddenly one night after having been taken to the hospital by an ambulance for shortness of breath. She was left with seven kids. Before leaving the hospital, she called a friend from church. By the time she was home, the friend was there to sit with her. Others came in to grieve, to bring meals, to help clean the house, fix broken appliances and cars, and to minister to and pray for her and her children. The church is not always perfect, she notes. At times, the church can be even cruel. But when we live up to our calling to reflect Jesus’ face to the world, we demonstrate what was described in our passage today. The church can be the sweetest fellowship this side of heaven.[4]

There are two essential traits we need to foster in our lives to help the church grow in this direction: generosity and graciousness. Think about your life and ask yourself, how generous are you? How gracious are you? What can you do to become more generous and gracious?

          Friends, today we receive our estimate of giving offerings for 2020, which is a sign of one half of that last question—how generous we are. We are encouraged to grow in generosity. As Vic Bell suggested last week, we’re to take a step toward being more generous, as we strive to become the church described in Acts. I pray that you will be generous and continue to take steps in this direction. But just as important as generosity is, don’t forget to be graciousness. On your walk with Christ, show grace to one another, just as God has been gracious with us. Realize what God has done and commit yourselves to do what? Say it after me… To be more being generous and gracious.  Amen.

 

©2019

[1] Eugene H. Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 267.

[2] Doug Pagitt from a lists of stewardship quotes that was in an old file of mine.

[3] Psalm 24:1.

[4] https://www.ibelieve.com/faith/5-reasons-you-need-to-make-church-a-weekly-commitment.html

Once Upon A River

Bonnie Jo Campbell, Once Upon a River (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011), 348 pages.

 

I enjoyed this novel even though it was hard to get through the opening part which included an incestuous rape of Margo, a teenage girl. I almost put the book down. However, Campbell never glamorized the sex scenes in the book and tells the reader just enough for us to know what happened. The rape sets up a series of events that leads into the story of Margo learning about herself and her own strength while overcoming numerous obstacles. The only thing that appears constant in her life is the river that becomes her home. Margo loves living outside, even when the weather is less than desirable and when she has an option to be in comfort. Reading this book, I was reminded of my own experience after completing the Appalachian Trail. Having spent months outdoors, I was not interested in being inside, either.

 

While the Kalamazoo, which is where the story is based, is an actual river, much of the scenes described in the book are fictional. The first half of the story takes place on a tributary to the Kalamazoo, the “Stark River,” that doesn’t exist.  According to the map, it would be approximately the location of Battle Creek, which flows into the Kalamazoo at the town by the same name.  The Stark River here is populated by a rough but resilience class of people who are barely making it and who struggle when their industrial jobs disappear. Having paddled many such rivers in Michigan, I saw a lot of people living in such a condition. Old trailers and shacks dot the flood plain of the rivers. The book captures this lifestyle. In the book, the Kalamazoo is polluted. Just a year before the book was published, an oil pipeline broke on a tributary that flowed into the Kalamazoo. It was the second worst inland oil spill within the United States and took years to clean up.

 

I enjoyed Campbell’s ability to describe life on the river. While it’s tragic that anyone would have to endure what Margo, the book’s protagonist, had to endure, the reader begins to cheer her on as she struggles to live independently. While she always have to find others to help her, many of whom also take advantage of her vulnerable position, she overcomes the challenges and, by the end of the book, appears to have at least come to understand what’s life is about.

###

 

A Summary (don’t read this if you want to be surprised reading the book):  Margo Crane is fifteen years old. She is being raised by her father, as her mother has run away, leaving the two to fend for themselves. The backdrop for the story, which was set in the 70s, is a metal fabrication factory that is slowly shutting down. Margo’s father has lost his job at the factory and now working in a grocery store to provide a meager existence for him and his daughter. They live on the Stark River, just across from extended family members. The book takes an unpleasant twist early in the story when Margo is raped by her uncle. Her father, when he realizes what happened, takes revenge, shooting out her uncle’s tires. This rift causes problems for Margo as she had been used to playing with her cousins and saw her aunt as a mother-figure.  Margo has taken to the woods and has become quite a good shot with both a shotgun and rifle. She fashions herself as Annie Oakley.  Margo is also out for revenge and shoots her uncle in a place that will curtail his ability to rape anyone else. Unfortunately, it is assumed that Margo’s father shot the uncle and her cousin shoots the father in “self-defense.” Now, like Annie Oakley, she’s truly an orphan and takes off in order to keep the state from taking her into protective custody. Using her grandfather’s boat, she explores the river and finds several different young men with whom to hang out. Sometimes she has consensual sex, but she is also raped. Later, she extracts her revenge, shooting the man who’d raped her in the chest. When his body is found, it is assumed he was shot for a bad drug deal.  Over the next two years, Margo learns more about living on the river and befriends a couple of older men who watch out for her, especially now that she’s pregnant. She also cares for one of the men, “Smoke,” who commits suicide by running his wheel chair into the frozen river in order drown himself in a successful attempt not to be moved to a nursing home. Through these events, Margo finds the will for her and her child to live.

Looking Out

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
1 Timothy 6:17-19
November 17, 2019

 

 

 

Last week scripture from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount was used to explore how we might “look in” on the role money plays in our lives. Because money and possessions have a power that can lead us astray, we must be careful. Today, I’m using a passage from 1st Timothy that has almost the identical message, but now I want us to look out instead of in. How does our use of money impact our community and others? We need to ask ourselves what good comes from where we spend and give our money? What kind of vision do we have for the church, our community, and world and how might we support such a vision? Read 1 Timothy 6:17-19.

###

A group of us watched “It’s a Wonderful Life” this week. The turning point of the movie has George Bailey moan that it would be better if he had never been born. Clarence, the angel sent to save him from despair, then provides a glimpse of what his community would be like without him. It goes back to when he saved his brother’s life when he was ten. In the movie, the adult George is a bit envious of his brother who became a hero in the Pacific War by shooting down kamatzes aimed at a troop ship. If he had not saved his brother, his brother would not have been there to save the ship and it would have sunk with 2000 men aboard. He also learns of the good the Bailey’s Savings and Loan has done in allowing people to own homes. In this vision, he sees the families he’d help live in terrible conditions. In fact, the town isn’t the quaint “Bedford Falls” but a raucous “Pottersville,” named for the owner of the bank. The only escape from the drudgery of the town without George appears to be sex and alcohol.

        George Bailey had no idea he’d touched so many lives. Sometimes the “little things” we do are hard to see and don’t reach fruition until years later. But if we have our priorities right, we can plant such seeds that have the potential to make a difference in the world. That’s the implication from our passage from the Letter to Timothy. Let’s take this text apart and consider what we’re being told.

Paul speaks of those who are rich in this present age or, as another translation has it, those who are rich at this time.[1] By speaking of the present, Paul implies that those who are rich might not always be that way. Wealth comes with uncertainty. A market collapse could wipe us out. And, as we saw last week, nice things can go bad. They can rust or be eaten by moths or stolen by thieves.[2] The riches of our world are transitory. But Paul isn’t just talking about how riches can be lost or lose value in the present.

He suggests that the present won’t last forever. In God’s economy, gold and silver have little value. As Jesus says, we need to remember to store our treasures in heaven.[3]

 

 

        Paul, like Jesus, doesn’t condemn riches in and of themselves. Instead, he points out the dangers or the temptations that come with wealth. Those who are rich must be on guard for two temptations. John Calvin called them “pride and deceitful hope.”[4] The two go together, for pride comes from the hope we place in things which will ultimately fail.

        Let’s explore these two items deeper: Riches can tempt us to act haughty. In other words, we are tempted to have a big ego, or to think more of ourselves than we should. The extreme example of this type of behavior in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” is Mr. Potter. He’s a Scrooge-like character that doesn’t experience the joyous conversion of Dicken’s Scrooge. Riches can be a barrier from the humility that’s needed in order to properly see ourselves in God’s kingdom. Augustine, in a sermon during the 4th Century, reflected on this passage saying riches isn’t the problem, it’s the disease which some get from riches which is pride.[5] The vaccine to this disease is generosity.

The second temptation of riches is that we place our trust, not in God, but in our wealth. Paul reminds us, as Jesus did last week, riches are uncertain. All the wealth in the world can’t reverse certain diseases or stop a speeding bus or prevent a plane crash in bad weather, or whatever demise might befall us. Sooner or later, life will end. We must not place our trust in wealth, but in God, who provides us with the ability to create wealth in this life. God wants what is best for us, so we trust God as we move forward into the next life.

But, while we are here, in this life, we are to use our riches in ways that are pleasing to God. Instead of just enjoying our blessings by ourselves, Paul encourages Timothy to teach others to be rich in their generosity. We are to be people who do good works and who are ready to share with others. A generous life is a well-lived life. Back to the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George Bailey lives such a life as he has helped many people, and in the end when he needs help, people respond. George, who minutes earlier was ready to commit suicide, finds that he is rich beyond measure. Maybe not monetarily rich, but rich in a way that helps him to enjoy a wonder full life.

        In this week’s e-news that I sent out, I linked to an article about a small Lutheran Church in Minnesota. They were down to 20 members and had enough money to carry them for 18 months when a new pastor arrived. He told them his first Sunday, “You’re dead.” Then he asked, “Now what you are going to do?” The members of the church decided if they were to die, they’d do it well, so they began to seek ways to love and care for those around them. They made no demands on those they helped. They offered to do whatever they could to help people in their neighborhood. At first, they only had a few offers. But they kept on and as they continued, they picked up volunteers. Many of these people were not religious, but they liked the idea of church being supportive of the community.[6] And while this church isn’t out of the woods yet, it has grown and is holding its own.

          When we look beyond ourselves, we realize there are three things we can do with money.[7] We can spend it, we can save it, and we can give it away. Neither Paul nor Jesus condemned anyone for spending money on that which was needed or even on the finer things in life. God wants us to enjoy life. We’re not called to beat up on ourselves for enjoying life. Instead, we’re told in Ecclesiastes to enjoy ourselves and to take delight in that for which we’ve toiled.[8] As long as what we’re doing is wholesome, we should enjoy that which we receive from our spending and not feel guilty.

A second thing we can do with money is to save it. This, too, in and of itself, isn’t bad. We’re told in Proverbs that the wise save while the fool devours.[9]  But we must remember the limitations of our nest-eggs. Our savings might make tomorrow or the next decade or our retirement easier, but it doesn’t have the ability to add a single day to our lives. So, while we should save, we shouldn’t worship that which we have saved. Our salvation is in Christ, not in our portfolios.

And finally, we can give it away. Again, over and over in Scripture we’re told how it is more blessed to give than receive and how sharing what we have with others is pleasing to God.[10] If for no other reason, we give because God has given to us.[11] Giving allows that image of God that’s in us shine as we strive to live in a manner that is more god-like.

Spending, saving, and giving. All are good, if done for the right reasons.

         When we look out from ourselves, we should consider how we might make a difference with our money. Whether we can give large amounts or only a small amount, we need to see our giving as an investment in God’s kingdom. But we don’t do it only if we know we can make a difference, we do it because we know that our efforts will be joined with the giving of others and then that will be blessed by God’s Spirit. Giving is an act of faith. It’s like the message we heard from Dean Smith a few weeks ago, about how that annoying jingle of change in our pockets can be saved and when we add them with change from other pockets, we soon have enough to make a difference in the lives of the hungry. When the community comes together like this, we can make a difference in the world.

         Next week is Consecration Sunday. We are asking for you to make an estimate of giving for 2020, to help the church do its budgeting. As you prepare yourself to make this estimate, I ask you to pray throughout the week for God to give you a vision. You can add this prayer to the prayer that you we’ve been asking you to make on behalf of the church. Ask God how you can make a difference in the world? Let us pray:

 

Almighty God, give us a vision of how we might partner with you, and with our brothers and sisters, to make a difference in the world.  Amen.

 

©2019

[1] Contemporary English Bible translation

[2] Matthew 6:19.

[3] Matthew 6:20.

[4] John Calvin, Commentary on 1st Timothy, https://biblehub.com/commentaries/calvin/1_timothy/6.htm

[5] Augustine, Sermon 36.2 as quoted in the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament IX (Downers’ Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2000), 224.

[6] http://www.citypages.com/news/peace-lutheran-staved-off-death-by-taking-love-thy-neighbor-to-a-radical-extreme/563648921

[7] This idea comes from Maggie Kulyk with Liz McGeachy, Integrating Money and Meaning: Practivs for a Heart-Centered Life (chicorywealth.com, 2019).  The authors spoke of four things you can do with money, adding “earning” to my list.

[8] Ecclesiastes 3:12-13.

[9] Proverbs 21:20

[10] Acts 20:35 and Hebrews 13:16

[11] Matthew 10:8

Looking way back: 3 Reviews of History Books

Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (New York: Knopf, 1978), 720 pages including notes and index.  Some plates of photos and artwork.

 

The world, or at least Western Europe, seemed to be coming apart in the 1300s. England and France was involved in a 100-year war.  Whenever they took a break in fighting, it was time to attack (crusade) the Muslin invaders who had invaded parts of Europe or Muslin pirates hindering shipping along the African coast. The Black Death kept reappearing. The nobles and noble want-a-be’s wore fashionable shoes, pointed and curly ends, that were condemned by the church. In England, the followers of Wycliffe provided a precursor to the Protestant Reformation (which would be another 2 centuries in the future). During this century, the population of Europe fell, mostly due to plague, but also from war. This had a dramatic impact on the economy.  Without people to work the fields, forest took over farmland. Taxes to finance wars and to keep the nobility in luxury became a burden to everyone, especially to the lower class who paid a much higher rate of taxes than those with affluence. The Roman Catholic Church split. With both an Italian and a French pope, who excommunicated each other, people worried about their salvation (which was seen as coming through the Church) for no one knew which church was the right one.  A lot happened in the 14th Century as Barbara Tuchman skillfully tells in this mammoth work. But, when you think of all that happened, it’s amazed that she can touch on so much of the events in 700 pages.

This was the age of the knights, although these warriors weren’t nearly as noble as we’re led to believe. Knights with their heavy armor, fighting it out on a battlefield, was the ultimate. When the English began to use commoners and arming them with longbows, it was seen by the French (who mostly was on the losing side of battles) as denying the knights their glory. It was also a shift in power, lifting commoners while demoting the power of the nobility. Instead of revising their tactics, the French started using heavier armor to protect them from arrows and made them even less mobile.

The key figure in this book is Sire de Coucy, a man who appeared to be almost as large as his huge fortified castle in Picardy. Coucy seemed to dominate all the great events of the second half of the century. Although he was not the king of France, he held more power and controlled more wealth. He was involved in many of the great battles and, at a time where military judgment was not a defining characteristic of the armies of France, he was one of their successful military leaders. During the last crusade, he was captured by the Turks and died in prison, awaiting ransom. Ransom was a part of war back then, as nobles were “sold” back to the country from which they came. Coucy had a modern vision of war that most of his French contemporaries refused to see.

This book reads well, but there are just too many names and dates and events to keep everything straight. Nonetheless, I enjoyed it and learned a lot about life in the premodern world.

###

 

Edward Dolnick, A Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society and the Birth of the Modern World, 2012 (Audible 10 hours and 4 minutes).

 

I am not a math person, but I found myself listening to this book and wishing I could go back and study math once more. But then, Dolrick notes that most great mathematic discoveries are discovered by younger geniuses (especially before 25), so I realized that my math ship has sailed. Nevertheless, I enjoyed this book immensely. The mid-17th Century was a time of change as the world was moving into the modern area. But as exciting of a time it was for a few intellectuals, for most people it was a dreadful age. Filth and disease abound, as cities did not yet have sewers or safe drinking water. London, the location in which much of the book occurs, was ravaged by fire and famine. But there, within the Royal Society of Science, men began to ask questions and ponder new solutions. Some, at least to my mind, were crazy, but this drive to know more about God’s creation (and most of these men were religious) led to breakthroughs in mathematics and science, especially in the understanding of space. Calculus became the language for much of this understanding and the two men most responsible were Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz—a Brit and German. The two appeared to have discovered it independently, but both insisted they were first. In the end, Newton had the best PR, but Leibniz wasn’t forgotten and was resurrected more recently as his binary system predated the development of the computer by three centuries.

This book has a lot in it. We meet many of the great men of the era who pushed math and science beyond the ancient Greek thinkers: Descartes, Kepler, Galileo, and Haley (who, in addition to discovering and predicting a comet’s path was the catalyst behind Newton publishing his thoughts). But the two main characters are Newton and Leibniz, who both admired and were jealous of the other. Their relationship forms a tension that holds the book together.

###

 

John H. Leith, Assembly at Westminster: Reformed Theology in the Making (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1973), 127 pages.

 

I first read the Westminster Confession of Faith as a high school student and have studied much of it throughout my adult life, but I have never read any detailed account of the assembly of “Westminster Divines” who wrote the work. In this short work, the late John Leith provides the background and the setting for the Assembly. The authors of the confession were living on the edge of the modern world, yet they had been raised in the medieval world. The politics of what was going on in England during the Puritan era, as well as what was happening on the continent played a great role in both the writing and influence of this work. After the restoration of the crown in England in 1660, the Confession would no longer play a role in English society, but due to the number of Scottish members of the Assembly, the confession would be adopted in Scotland and become the main confessional document for Presbyterians around the world. In this book, Leith covers the make-up of the Assembly, the political and theological context in which they worked, how they went about their tasks, the nature of confessions, and the key doctrines of the Westminster Confession. He also discusses the limits and fallibility of confessions. This is a good starting point for learning more about Westminster.

###

Looking In

 

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
November 10, 2019
Matthew 6:19-24

 

 

Our morning passage comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Jesus forces us to consider what we value. Ponder this. What would you grab if your house was on fire? Or, what would you pack if you had to flee, as a refugee or hurricane evacuee and could only take a suitcase? For some of us, our treasures are tangible things. An Arnold Palmer autograph, a trophy, a special putter, or a favorite Hawaiian shirt. For others, our treasures are in bank statements and stock certificates. Granted, most of us like to think we have more noble treasures—our families, our friends. But even with good treasures, a problem arises when they become the most important things in our lives. Then they began to control us and eventually will become our god, with a little g. Such a god will not satisfy our needs. Today, I encourage you to “look in” on what you value. Ask yourself what your life might look like if you spent more time storing treasures in heaven than on earth. Let’s hear what Jesus has to say. Read Matthew 6:19-24.

###

The trail, somewhere between northern VA and southern PA.

   When hiking the Appalachian Trail through Pennsylvania, I stopped one night thinking I was going to get to spend an evening by myself. My plan was to get up early and catch some friends who were a day ahead of me. I was in the middle of fixing dinner when a family of four came trudging into the campsite. They were dead tired—they’d set out that day to hike ten or so miles and hadn’t even gotten half that distance. The man asked if I would mind if they camp there, as there was a spring for water nearby and plenty of room. “Not a problem,” I said, even though I wasn’t overly excited about the prospect.

          Continuing with dinner, I kept glancing over at the family. They were quite amusing. It was like watching the backpacking version of a National Lampoon Vacation movie. The father even looked like Chevy Chase. They were obviously new at this and, making it even more humorous, they had not tried out their gear. I’ll give them credit, they had good gear. It was all new and shiny and never out of the package. The family appeared as if they stepped out of an L.L. Bean catalog. With my dirty and torn clothes and well used equipment, I looked a bit like a hobo. After a comedy of errors, they finally were able to pitch their tent. Then it was time to eat.

I could tell the dad was getting flustered. Finally, he came over and asked for my help. He had a top-of-the-line stove, the same one that I had, an MSR multi-fuel stove. This was the preferred backpacking stove for long distance hikers because it burned regular gas. You could fuel up at a gas station. While a good stove, it wasn’t the type of stove most folks had if they were just hiking for a weekend. Next, he had the top of the line cook set that all nestled together and included a windscreen in which you sat the stove. Knowing this, he left behind the simple windscreen that came with the stove. He was trying to put all this together, but there was one problem. The cook set was designed for a Sevier stove, not an MSR one. They didn’t go together. No matter how he tried, it wasn’t going to work. I told him to put away his windscreen and showed him how to set up some rocks upon which he could make a windscreen as he cooked. Soon, they were cooking dinner.

A friend with his possessions on his back. This was back in the 80s, before digital cameras, so I don’t have as many digital photos from which to select.

After they’d finished dinner and while his wife was putting their kids to bed, we talked. He was a physician. He’d hiked a few times with the Boy Scouts and now thought he’d like to get his family into it. He went to a backpacking store to get what he needed. I’m sure the guy selling gear had a nice dinner later that evening on the commission he made. Everything this family had with them, and they had way more than they needed, was first class (even if some of it wasn’t designed to work with other pieces of gear). And the sheer volume of their gear was overwhelming. He confided in me that they were probably going to hike back to their car in the morning instead of continuing down the trail, for there was no way they’d make the distance they’d planned.

Talking with this guy, I realized a couple of things that I jotted down in my journal. First, in the woods, it didn’t matter than he had the money to buy all this fancy gear. It didn’t do him any good. Then I realized that backpacking is a great equalizer. When you have too many treasures, it weighs you down. This guy was carrying nearly eighty pounds on his back, and his wife had another fifty. Each of their kids had a small knapsack. All this stuff was killing them. My pack weight was more like his wife’s and that was only when I was fully loaded with ten days of food, a liter of fuel, and two quarts of water. Thinking about this, I felt a bit of pride.

That me, the traditional photo taken on Mt. Katahdin in Maine at the end of the trail

Then I realized that I, too, was storing up treasures, in the form of memories and bragging rights. Idolatry is a sneaking temptation. I wanted to be able to say that I hiked the whole trail and at that time was roughly halfway to Maine, a goal that was an obsession. Likewise, what the man was doing by getting his family out into the woods was also noble. But ultimately, neither of us was what we’re to be mainly about. Hiking is okay, just as a lot of other things we enjoy are okay, provided they’re put into priority. God must come first. It’s not about what I can do. It’s about what God can do through me.

 

Jesus realized the danger of treasures. He knew “stuff” wouldn’t be able to satisfy us like a relationship with God. When it comes to stuff, be it money, the junk we collect, or accomplishments, it’s never enough. We will always want more. Supposedly John D. Rockefeller was asked how much more money he wanted. “Just a little more,” he said. If we try to satisfy our appetites with our treasures, we’ll always be hungry.

         This passage is about us looking deeply and getting our priorities right. There are three connected proverbial thoughts here, which Jesus uses to encourage his listeners to evaluate their lives and to see where they are placing their trust. First, we’re not to trust worldly treasures for they have a way of disappearing. A fine wardrobe can be destroyed by moths, objects crafted out of metal can rust, and what’s to stop someone from stealing them when we’re not looking. Notice, however, Jesus doesn’t say that having nice things is bad. He just says we can’t trust them to always be there and that the problem with such niceties is that when we place too much trust in them, we risk not trusting God. Ultimately, our treasurers are going to fail us.

         The second proverbial through is about a “healthy eye.” My father just had cataract surgery this week and was telling me on Friday about how bright the colors are now that his eye is healthier. But Jesus isn’t making a pitch for eye surgery. Jesus listeners would have known right away what he was talking about when he mentioned an unhealthy or evil eye. They understood that an evil eye referred to an envious, grudging or miserly spirit, while a good eye connotes a generous and compassionate attitude toward life. One of my professors from seminary, in his commentary on Matthew, says it’s as if Jesus’ says: “Just as a blind person’s life is darkened because of an eye malfunction, so the miser’s life is darkened by his failure to deal generously with others.”[1] Generosity brings light into the world; greed darkens the world.

         The next statement by Jesus concerns serving two masters. A slave would be run ragged if he had to answer to two masters. Likewise, if we try to serve both God and money, we find ourselves with two masters and the latter, money, makes a harsh master. There can never be enough. We need to place our priorities in order. We need to stick with God.

But then again, as I said, Jesus never says that treasures in and of themselves are wrong. He never says that our desire to have treasure is wrong… We’re not Buddhists trying to remove all desire from our lives in search for enlightenment.[2] Instead, Jesus knows we have desires… So, he encourages us to put our desires into the right channels. “Strive to store treasures in heaven.”

It sounds too simple. “Store up your treasures in heaven; don’t worry about things here on earth.” Easier said than done, right? We all worry about having enough for tomorrow—and the day and the year and the decade that follows. We must admit that our prayers for daily bread seem unnecessary when we have a pantry full of food. When we have too much, it’s hard to depend upon God.

But Jesus wants us to trust in God, which is why we’re to store up treasures in heaven. Jesus, in this passage, teaches a good Reformed concept. On earth, we’re to be about doing the Father’s work. And when we do what God calls us to do, we’re storing our treasures in heaven. But when we forget about what God wants us to do and focus only on our wants and desires, we lose our way.

          How might we learn not to store up our treasures here on earth? First, “Enjoy things, but don’t cherish them.” God created this world good and wants us to enjoy life and the blessings provided, but God gets angry when we see such blessings as being ours or being worthy of our worship. Second, “Share things joyfully, not reluctantly.” If it bugs you to share something you have with someone who needs it, you should then know that item has gotten a hold on you. It’s an earthly treasure, an idol. Finally, “Think as a pilgrim, not a settler.” “The world is not my home, I’m just passin’ thru,” the old gospel song goes.[3] Store your treasures at your destination, then your journey will then be easier.

          Look inside yourself and use these thoughts to evaluate what you have: Enjoy, Share, and think like a pilgrim. A pilgrim is like a backpacker. Remember, you don’t want your pack to weigh you down. Amen.

[1] Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew: Interpretation: A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: JKP, 1993), 72.

[2] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 321.

[3]  Kirk Nowery, The Stewardship of Life (Camarillo, CA: Spire Resources, 2004), 122-123.

Not Guilty

Not Guilty by C. Lee McKenzie
Published October 2019

This book grabbed my attention in the first chapter and kept me engaged throughout. I didn’t want to put it down, wanting to figure out how the protagonist, Devon, gets through his dilemma. A high school junior with the hope of playing college basketball, Devon is dumped by his girlfriend after someone falsely identifies his car parked on the street where his ex-girlfriend lived. That was a start of a bad day that only got worse. He skips his last class and went to the beach. On the way, he’s receives a ticket for speeding and then later, identified as the person who stabbed a local surfer on that afternoon. When he’s found guilty, he is sent to juvenile detention for five months and then is on probation afterwards. Along the way, he’s haunted by a basketball player from another town who he runs into in detention (and afterwards). In detention, he befriends several Hispanic youths who teach him what true friendship is all about. After he gets out of detention, he realizes things have gone downhill for his family (they suffered financial hardship because of his conviction). But in the end, everything works out as Devon helps put the pieces together that eventually lead to the arrest of the person who committed the assault. In a way, the Devon and his family fortunes have changed so that the book seems somewhat comic (in the classical sense). But Devon does learn what it means to work hard, to have true friends, and that although the justice system doesn’t always get it right, it often corrects itself.

This would be a great read for any teenager, especially for boys who have found themselves being wrongly accused by police (as I experienced nearly a half-century ago). Lee McKenzie should be congratulated for writing a book that addresses such issues.

I received a free electronic copy of this book for an honest review.

Looking Back

Jeff Garrison 
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Matthew 22:15-22
October 27, 2019

Homecoming is a time to look back, and the sermon is titled “Looking Back.” But we don’t look back just to be nostalgic. Instead, we should look back to help us understand where we are and how we got here. Think about all the people who helped build this sanctuary and establish this church. We’re in debt to them, and hopefully the next generation will be in debt to us. But we also look back to see where we picked up burdens that influence us today. Which ones are good that we should continue carrying and which ones should we discard?

Today, we start a new worship series titled “A Wonder-Full Life.” Speaking of looking back, the title comes from the classic 1946 film, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. We’re using this series as a lead-up to Consecration Sunday on November 24th, the day we make our faith promises to church for 2020.

      The characters in “It’s a Wonderful Life” provide us with archetypes for the many different ways we relate to life and we handle money. The book that goes with this series, Integrating Money and Meaning, uses these archetypes to explore our spiritual relationship with money.[1] And the first task to become more spiritual is to look back and understand how we relate to money. In the movie, George Bailey plays the role of the martyr. He often does the right thing, always looking out for the needs of others, but he resents it. He slips into despair. As we heard earlier, to be discouraged is worst than being sick… He’s ready to end his life. Money can be a terrible master, which I think is a message we get from today’s text. By the way, if you’d like to read the book, let me know as we have a couple extra copies. In addition to reading the book, it would be good for us to be reminded what the movie is about, so we’re planning a pot-luck lunch and viewing of the movie on Wednesday, November 13.[2] I hope you join us.

Our Scripture for today comes from Matthew 22:5-22.

 

          At our first forum on civility, Dr. Robert Pawlicki told of an incident when he was a psychiatrist and professor at a Medical School. A patient had gotten into an argument with a resident and he was called in by a nurse who was concerned the confrontation might become physical. Stepping between the two, he said to the patient, “You’re really angry, aren’t you?” By giving a name to what was happening and the emotions the patient showed, he opened a channel that helped the patient calm down. The situation de-escalated. This is good advice. Sometimes we need to go to the heart of the matter and, without increasing the confrontation, name the issue. But this is not what the Pharisees and the Herodians do in our morning text.

          It’s hard to understand this passage without explanation. The Pharisees are plotting to entrap Jesus, we’re told. How does Jesus know this? We could say that because he’s God, but that explanation doesn’t uphold the human side of Jesus. Instead, I think Jesus knew something was up when he saw the Pharisees walking hand to hand with the supporters of Herod.

Who are these people? The Pharisees: They’re good, upright, outstanding Jews, the keepers of the Law. And they are not too happy with the Roman occupation of Palestine, but they deal with it. Right beside them are the Herodians, the supporters of the Herod family. This half-Jewish family had a foot in both camps: the Jews and the Romans. The Herodians accept the Romans. Possibly, they want to modernize Palestine, for the Herods were great builders. Herod the Great began rebuilding the Jewish temple. They built ports along the coast and even coliseums for the Roman games, along with temples for the Roman gods. It’s said that politics make strange bedfellows. None could be stranger than these two groups: devout Jews and those supporting the pagan Romans. The Herodians and the Pharisees together would be like Trump and Pelosi working together. If you see it, you know something may be askew. Jesus smells something fishy!

These two unlikely groups approach Jesus. They butter him up by telling Jesus he’s sincere, he speaks the truth, and that he’s impartial. Don’t you love it when someone you are not so sure about butters you up? Then they ask the 64-thousand-dollar question. “Tell me,” they ask Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” A trap is set. If Jesus says we should not pay the taxes, then the Herodians could have him arrested for treason. And if he says to pay the taxes, the Pharisees can attack him for not being a patriotic Jew. It’s a clever trap!

        Jesus asks to see a coin. He has to be careful here. He doesn’t want the Pharisee’s to charge him with toting around an engraved image of the emperor. So Jesus has them to look at a coin they are carrying, and he asks them whose picture is on it…. They reply, “Caesar’s.” Jesus then tells them to give Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to give God what is God’s. The little band of tempters are astonished. Amazed and not knowing what to say, they leave…

Amazed, but did they understand what Jesus said? They hear “Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” but did they hear “Give unto God what is God’s.” Do they understand the implications? Do we?

          The coin had an image on it, Caesar, therefore give it to him. But remember, we’re created by God, in the image of God. The coin belongs to Caesar, it has his image; our lives belong to God, they contain God’s image. Caesar may have a lien on our possessions, but God has a lien on our total being. God is calling us to dedicate our lives to himself. God, in Jesus Christ, is like those old recruiting posters found the post office, with Uncle Sam saying,  “I want you.” And you, and you, and you (point at myself last).

Give to God what is God’s. We tend to get hung up on what is Caesar’s and what is ours. Let’s face it, none of us like paying taxes. They didn’t like it in the first century and we don’t like it now. But what about the giving to God part? Essentially, Jesus is saying that we’re to respect (and support) the state, but there is a limit to the state’s powers for they belong under God’s realm, and ultimately our allegiance belongs to God.[3]

If the Pharisees and Herodians really wanted to know what Jesus thought about paying taxes, they could have taken a clue from Dr. Pawlicki and admitted how uneasy it made them feel and then ask Jesus what he thought. But instead, they wanted to trick Jesus and the attempt failed.

          What Jesus does here is demonstrate the delicate balance that exists in our use of money. Money is necessary. It’s what we trade for the necessities of life. But, as is taught in the book Integrating Money and Meaning, we need to understand the power of money. If we don’t understand its lure in our own lives, it can bring out the worst in us. There’s a shadow side to money that’s pointed out in scripture. “The love of money is the root of evil,” we read in the First Letter to Timothy.[4] It’s not that money, itself, is bad. Money is a tool, just like a hammer. A hammer can be used to build good things like houses, but it can also be used as a weapon. Remember the Beatles’ catching tune, “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”? “Bang, bang, Maxwell’s silver hammer came down upon his head…” Likewise, as a tool, money can be used for good and for bad, which is why we need to spiritually discern how we relate to money. What do we spend our money on? Why do we want more of it? Will it really bring us security? Do we put our trust in God or what’s in the bank?

          Over my next four Sunday’s (we will skip next week with a guest preacher), we’ll look at how we spiritually relate to money. How do we balance things like paying taxes, buying what we need, and giving to God through the church? How much control does money have in our lives? What would we do if we experienced a windfall of money? Or what would you we do if suddenly your money was of no value? These are questions we should all be wrestling with as we come to understand, as Jesus taught, that money isn’t anything to fear. We’re not to fear money, but we’re warned that it contains power. If not understood, money can overtake our lives and become a dreadful master. Look back in your lives and ponder this question, “How do you spiritually relate to money?” “What kind of power does it play in your lives?”

Friends, take care of your obligations. I think that’s what Jesus means when he says to give Caesar what belongs to him. But remember, Jesus also speaks about what we owe God. We’re to remember that we should have only one Master, and his name is Jesus. So, we take care of our obligations, but we must remember our first obligation, that we owe everything to God. Amen.

©2019

The background photo is of me looking at a sunset on a lake deep within the Quetico Wilderness Area in Western Ontario. 

[1] Maggie Kulyk with Liz McGeachy, Integrating Money and Meaning: Practices for a Heart-Centered Life (Chicorywealth.com, 2019).

[2] The church is obtaining a video license to legally show this movie (which is required if it is shown outside a home audience).

[3] F. Dale Bruner, The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28 (Grand Rapids: MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 399-400.

[4] 1 Timothy 6:10.

Tidbits from last night’s Civility Forum

From left: Archie Seabrook, Tim Cook, Jeff Hadley, Robert Pawlicki, and Jessica Savage

Last night, Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church held our first “Civility Forum.” The purpose of these forums is to help people communicate with those with whom they disagree and to be civil in their discourse.  It was moderated by Jessica Savage, the 5 PM news anchor and investigative reporter for WTOC. She did a wonderful job keeping the conversation moving and the hour went by quickly. The panel included Dr. Robert Pawlicki, a retired psychologist and university professor; Chief Jeff Hadley of the Chatham Country Police Department; Tim Cook, director of Landing’s Security; and the Rev. Archie Seabrook, a 25 year chaplain for Hospice Savannah and a 7th Day Adventist pastor.  Here are some highlights from the evening:

 

Pawlicki:

  • “If we’re happy, we don’t act out as much. We act out because we take things personally.”
  • Pawlicki told of a situation when he was teaching at University of West Virginia Medical School. A resident and a patient were arguing to the point of almost fighting. He stepped in and spoke to the patient, saying, “You are really angry.” This comment didn’t confront the patient or even deal with the issue, but by identifying with the patient’s emotions, it helped him de-escalate the situation.
  • More people believe we live in a tribal society and as a result, we fear “others.” We see this played out on TV. We need to remember we can’t change another person’s point of view, but we have to listen and put in time to build a relationship.
  • We can ask others why they believe the way they do, not to contest or argue, but to listen. This helps us build friends with people with whom we may not agree on many issues.
  • Just because we don’t agree with someone doesn’t mean they are a bad person.
  • We can’t control others, we can only control ourselves.
  • Speaking about social media: Groups on social media seem to have more power. We should avoid jumping into groups, but if we do jump in, we should say something civil and not become part of the problem.

 

Hadley:

  • The police are interventionist. We get called into conflicts. “But sometimes as in Ferguson, Missouri (and other places) we can also be a part of the problem.”
  • It is easier to maintain our emotions if we’re closer to people and know them better. He described law enforcement as having an “arranged marriage” with a community. We must put in an effort every day (as in a marriage) to build a better relationship with the community. In making this point, he spoke about working with a Black Lives Matter organizer in Kalamazoo, Michigan and the trust that he and the department were able to build with those wanting to protest (and how the protest was carried out without anyone being arrested).
  • Building on what Seabrook had said about African-Americans relationships to the police: “We have to remember that it wasn’t that long ago police were called to enforced unjust laws such as separate water fountains.”
  • If we can engage in community in a positive way, making human contact before there is a problem, the badge and uniform melts away.
  • “I tend to believe there are more good people than bad, but we get trapped into thinking otherwise because of all the rhetoric.” The news makes us more aware of it.

 

Cook:

  • “My father said, ‘You can be a part of the problem, or a part of the solution.’ Since I wrote an article complaining about the lack of civility, I felt I needed to do more so I agreed to participate in this event.”
  • Cook told about working as supervisor in the Greensboro NC jail. The officers who did the job were those who were willing to listen (even if they didn’t agree) with the prisoners.
  • I’m not a friend of social media. It is too easy to get sucked into negativity.
  • If we do get sucked into an argument, we should remember to fight fair.
  • Four things we should do:
    1. Set a standard for ourselves.
    2. Model that standard.
    3. Coach that standard in others
    4. Hold ourselves to that standard.
  • If you ask questions of others, you show interest.

 

Seabrook:

  • We deal with conflict all the time in hospice. It used to be that most of my time was spent in ministry, but now more time spent with arguments and attempts to de-escalate situations.
  • Seabrook told about an African-American man at Memorial Hospital whose wife had died. The man was very upset and beating on the wall. Security was called by the nurse and when the man saw the uniformed security guard approach, he became both scared and angrier. As a chaplain, Seabrook had to intervene, asking the security officer to step away as he spoke to the man and calmed him down.
  • A healthy death requires peace with God and family—hospice attempts to help the patient bring closure to both sides.
  • I believe in more prayer.
  • We’re to love our neighbors as ourselves. We should go to our neighbors and introduce ourselves and reach to people in our neighborhoods.

Click here to read my article, “Civil Discourse: Reviving a Lost Art” in The Skinnie (pages 20-24). 

Paddling the Lumber River with my Dad (September 30-October 2, 2019)

A high bluff along the western bank of the Lumber River just south of US 74, Pea Ridge is a lovely spot. We arrive early enough to enjoy it. For a wilderness site that is only accessible to the public from the water, this is near perfection. There are a few benches, a picnic table and a trash can and grass! Across the river stands several huge cypresses, their needles turning brown. Around us are a variety of trees. The bank of the river is lined with cypress and water birch. The site itself features sweet gum, maple, sycamore, pines and holly. I place my hammock between trees and find a mossy place to set up my tent so that I have a good view of the river. After setting up camp, I lie in my hammock resting and reading for an hour, then go for a swim before dinner.

This is our second night on the river.  We’ve covered 14 or so miles after launching at Matthew Bluff bridge late yesterday morning. The first day was supposed to be easy for we knew it was going to take time to shuttle vehicles. Not wanting to leave a vehicle at a bridge for two days, Joe Washburn, the pastor of First Presbyterian in Whiteville agreed to help us with the shuttle. After we got everything ready and loaded in our boats, we slid them down the muddy bank into the river. My dad has his boat in the water first but falls into the water as he tries to enter his boat. The river drops off quickly. After fishing out his equipment and restowing it, we were soon on the way. The river around the Matthew Bluff bridge was trashed with beer and soda cans and household waste, as some people treat the area as a dump. Thankfully, after a couple turns, the river becomes more natural. We’d been warned when we presented the ranger with our float plans that the river had not been cleared of blow-down trees since Hurricane Florence. That was a year ago. Sadly, they’d just finished clearing the entire 100-mile waterway from on Drowning Creek and the Lumber River of down trees from Hurricane Matthew which occurred in 2016 a month before Florence struck. He told us to be aware that there would be some blow downs above Boardman (Highway 74). He was right. About a mile into our trip, we came across the first, a huge old oak that laid across the river. The water was deep and I pulled my kayak parallel to the log, slid out of the boat and straddled the log (as if I was riding a Clydesdale, pulled my boat over the log and tied it off and then helped my father get his boat across. Thankfully, there were no problems and we were soon on our way.

After crossing the Willouby Bridge, four or so miles down the river, we came to another blowdown where we had to get out and cut a path for our boats to make it through the branches of the down tree. Our first campsite, Buck Landing, was a mile or so south of the Willouby Bridge, on the east side. I kept wondering when the site was going to show up, as I saw few pine, trees that indicate high ground. This area was swampy and populated with cypress, tupelo, river birch and a few bay trees. But soon after wondering where the pines were, they appeared and right afterwards was the campsite.

my tent at Buck Landing

Like Pea Ridge, Buck Landing was also a wilderness/canoe-in site but with easier access by locals as the one trash can “over-runneth” with beer cans. I spent a good deal of time emptying the trash and crushing the beer cans so that they were all able to be contained within the provided can. Although I may be mistaken, I was pretty sure the no one had paddled the river with that many cases of beer. This site also had a small pavilion, which wasn’t needed due to the clear skies, but the supports made a good place to sling my hammock. As the site was on the eastern side of the river, we saw a nice sunset through the hardwood swamp on the other side. Shortly thereafter, a thin crescent of the new moon was visible. After a dinner of some MREs that my father had brought along, we both decided to avoid the mosquito battle and headed off to bed, listening to the owls hoot and the buzz of insects.

The next morning, I’m a little panicked. When I pulled out my glucose test meter (I am a diabetic) to check my blood sugar level, it wasn’t working. I wasn’t bothered too much until I made my way over to my boat and pulled out the small dry bag I always carry with me whether kayaking or sailing, in which I keep a backup meter. The battery was dead. As they are different kind of meters, I can’t change the battery from one to the other. I wasn’t sure what to do, but my father was more concerned than me as he’s never dealt with diabetes. I told him I thought I would be okay and hopefully I could get a new meter when we crossed US 74 at Boardman, later in the morning.

cutting our way through a blow-down so we can push the boats under

After breakfast of coffee, an orange, and oatmeal, we shoved off a little after 9 AM. It was to be a difficult morning. It takes two hours to cover just a few miles as we spend almost as much time in the water as in the boat as we pulled over, under, through, and around fallen trees. When we weren’t pulling ourselves through down trees, we enjoyed watching kingfishers dart up and down the river, and great blue herons led us downriver when we interrupt their hunting. I even saw a red tail hawk. Throughout the morning, I keep snacking, not wanting my blood sugar to drop.  After two hours of exhausting work, we finally get to where the river opens up more. Then, maybe a mile from the bridge, we passed a fisherman who’d pushed a jon boat up the river with a small battery powered motor. Only then did we know we were done with blowdowns.

Going over a blow-down

At the wildlife boat ramp at US 74, I knew better than walking into the village of Boardman. It used to be a large town, back in the early 1900s when the area was heavily lumbered,but the only business left today is a gas station. I tried calling local pharmacies in Fairmont and Chadbourn, hoping to find one that delivered. Unfortunately, as it was now noon, all their delivery drivers had gone out to make their daily runs. They laughed when I asked about Uber or Lyft.  But, while I was waiting, with my meter out in the sun, it began working again, which made me pretty sure it was a problem with humidity. Being able to see that my blood sugar was in a good range, we continued paddling another mile to Pea Ridge campsite.

For being in his 80s, my dad did well on this trip!

Notice the grass around the fire pit

That night, we built a fire and talk. For some reason, my dad asked me about which of his guns I want him to leave me. While I have guns (all of which are in need of being oiled because they haven’t been shot in decades), I’m not a gun collector. All my guns stay locked up in a gun safe. But I told him I’d take the 30-30 Winchester lever action in case I move back out west. He suggests instead taking a higher powered gun, but I told him the Winchester was enough. Then he asks about shotguns and I was surprised to learn that he has a 20 gauge double barrel coachman (short barrel gun that those who rode “shotgun” on stagecoaches carried). What are you doing with that? I ask. “It’s your moms.” “What?” Then I learn the story. They were visiting my great aunt who, after my father’s uncle had died. She lived by herself out in the country. My mother asked if she wasn’t scared living out there. She said no, and showed my mother the gun. My mom, who I am sure was trying to be nice or trying to make a joke, said “maybe that’s what I need.” Well, lets just say, “I don’t think her next birthday went over well.”

Pea Ridge Campsite launch

After crawling into bed, I have a great view of Cassiopeia, Pegasus, and Andromeda, rising over eastern bank of the river. I fall quickly asleep and wake up once before morning. Taurus is overhead and Orion is rising just behind him.  It must be well after midnight, but I don’t check the time and when I wake up again, it’s dawn. I get up, write a bit, then prepare coffee and water for oatmeal.

timbers left over from an old logging railroad

 

not what I thought Paradise would look like…

Queen Anne Landing

We’re on the river at 9 AM. It’d been cleared from here on down to our takeout point at the State Park at Queen Anne’s Landing. It was an easy 9 ½ miles. Down trees are not a problem, but at one place there’s a sandbar that runs across the river and we end up getting out of our boats and pulling them across it. After a lazy float, we arrive at the landing a little after noon.

 

 

The Lumber River is located in Southeastern North Carolina. The river starts north of Laurinburg, as Drowning Creek and wanders 115 miles as it passes the city of Lumberton and the town of Fair Bluff on its way to merge with the Pee Dee RIver a few miles into South Carolina. The state of North Carolina maintains a linear park along the river from the 15-501 bridge to Fair Bluff. In 2016, Hurricane Matthew dropped so much water into the river basin that much of Lumberton and Fair Bluff were below water. I used to work this area back in the early 80s for the Boy Scouts of America. At the time, Fair Bluff was a delightful small town. Today, the town is mostly deserted. To learn more about the river, check out the Lumber River State Park website.

that’s me (a selfie)

 

Disassembly Required

Beverly Willett, Disassembly Required: A Memoir of Midlife Resurrection (New York: Post Hill Press, 2019), 269 pages.

 

The framework of this story is rather simple. The author sells her home in Brooklyn, New York and moves to Savannah, Georgia. But we quickly learn that this was not an easy decision. Willett had placed so much hope in the brownstone house she’d sold. It was her nest where she raised her children. But eventually, she would be the only one living there. Her husband had abandoned her for another woman, and the house held the memories of when she had learned of his betrayal. The house also held the memories of her daughters, but once the last had started college, the big house was lonely and too much to maintain. Knowing the difficulty to keep the house and feeling she needed a new start, Willett decided to sell. Once that decision is made, there is much to be done as the reader learns about hoarding and the decisions to be made about saving and storing stuff, along with our reluctance to let go of stuff.  Then there’s the work to be done to prepare the house for market, the real estate listing, the waiting, and finally selling of the home so the author heads south.

This story is more than just what is required to sell a house. It’s a spiritual journey as the author struggles to come to term with her relationship to stuff. The house is part of her, as is all the stuff that is in it. Likewise, the people around her (like here) are changing. Willett, who grew up a Southern Baptist who had married a secular Jew, discusses the role her faith plays as she comes to depend on it more and more as she becomes more active within an Episcopal congregation while also spending time learning the wisdom and mediation practices of Buddhism. The reader will identity with Willett as she makes this transformation that eventually leads her to her new life in Savannah and perhaps learn for her new wisdom. I recommend this book to all readers. I expect those going through difficult mid-life changes would find this book helpful and encouraging.

I am a friend of Beverly Willett and have been in a writing group with her that meets at Flannery O’Conner’s childhood home in Savannah since 2015. I purchased the book and did not receive compensation in exchange of writing this book review.

Vessels holding a fountain of tears

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Jeremiah 8:18-9:3
October 13, 2019

 

 

        I’d ridden my bicycle down to the marina to meet with some friends late Friday. It was after dark when I left. With a rather bright LED light on my handlebars, I wasn’t worried. But about halfway home something flew into my right ear. The bug dug down deep and as it fluttered its wings. I stopped. I’d always thought the saying, “a bug in your ear,” was a metaphor. Now I was shaking my head and pounding it, in an attempt to free the bug. I was going insane. I rode on home and about every 15 seconds the insect would have saved enough energy to flutter again for a few seconds. Coming into the house, I called out that I needed help. Donna, after checking with the Mayo Clinic website, warmed up some oil and poured it into my ear. It was supposed to flush the bug out, but it never came out. Eventually the bug stopped fluttering. I assumed it drowned. Yesterday morning (which is why I wasn’t in Bible Study), I went to urgent care. They were able to remove the bug. It was a big bug and counting its antenna was over an inch long. That may not sound big until you consider the size of your ear canal.

As a good Calvinist, I’m glad that’s over. That constant fluttering drove me crazy. It forced me into action. I felt a bit like those in Jerusalem did about Jeremiah. This man with his rants drove them crazy, only they didn’t heed his words. But, unlike that bug, Jeremiah had an important message to share.

Today we continue our walk through the book of Jeremiah in our series titled “Prophecies and Pottery.” Listen carefully to our text, for we’ll hear the line of scripture from where the familiar spiritual that we just sang, “There is a Balm in Gilead” comes. The unknown writer of this spiritual answers a question that Jeremiah asks, “Is there no balm in Gilead?” Yes, the Spiritual answer, there is balm and it’s found in the work of the Holy Spirit and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. This song gives hope to people who had little hope.

         Professor James Cone, writing about the African American musical tradition, said that spirituals do not deny history. They don’t deny that there’s a lot wrong in our world. Instead, spirituals see history leading toward divine fulfillment.[1] Or, as Martin Luther King was fond of saying, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

Our faith does not automatically replace all that’s wrong in our lives or our world. Instead, it’s a hope that is ground in the goodness of the Almighty who, in time, will make all things right. Many of us have had to deal with disappointment. Jeremiah is a poet for such a time. Jeremiah reminds us that sometimes it takes tough love for us to be molded and fired into a vessel that’s useful. Let’s listen to God’s word to us today: Jeremiah 8:18-9:3.

         Let’s imagine ourselves in the 6th Century before the Common Era and join Jeremiah. Having left the city, the prophet walks alone, across what should be a grain field. With each step he kicks up dust. The immature stalks of grain, long dried under the desert sun, crunch under his feet. This should be the time of the harvest, but there are no men out swinging sickles nor women gathering sheaves. The grapes and the figs and the olives area also shrivel on the vine. The harvest has failed. There’s going to be hunger. And with Nebuchadnezzar’s army on the loose, there won’t be a chance to trade for food. Jeremiah’s heart is heavy. As he looks back toward the walls of the city, he cries. He images the bloated bellies of the young and the riots when there is no more bread in the market.

The sentry assigned to the tower on the West Wall had just come on duty as Jeremiah left the city. He follows the dust of the prophet. Squinting under the hot sun, he notices Jeremiah’s glance back at the city. “What a crazy man,” he thinks, as he wipes the sweat beading up on his forehead. “It’s good he’s gone.” Unlike Jeremiah, the sentry feels secure behind the strong walls surrounding the city. Yes, he worries about the drought, but the religious leaders have things under control. “Don’t they?” “The gods will provide, won’t they?”

Kicking the barren ground, Jeremiah recalls the promise of the harvest. All the work that went into it, was the plowing and sowing were all in vain? Dust is the only crop that’s in abundance and Jeremiah tastes it with every step. He continues walking. When the city’s walls are finally out of sight, he rips his robe, falls to his knees, beats his chest, and cries out to the heavens. “The harvest is past, the summer is over, and we are not saved.”

          “We are not saved.” What painful words. It’s tough being a prophet, bearing the burdens of a people. Yet, as he cries, he hears something. A voice? Can it be God’s voice? “I’m disappointed. Why have they provoked me to anger with their images and foreign idols?” Yes, it’s God, speaking judgment on the Hebrew people.

It must have been in late August or September when Jeremiah issued the prophecy. In Israel, the grain would have been harvested in late spring or early summer. If that failed, there was still hope for in July and August, the grapes, figs and olives were harvested. If that, too, failed, the people were in a pickle, for there would not be a chance for another harvest until the next spring.[2] “The summer is over, and we’re not saved,” implies the hopelessness of Jerusalem.

Our passage shows us how Jeremiah’s emotions are tied up with God. His joy is gone. He is in grief, as is God who we are shown grieving as a spurned spouse might grieve upon the divorce. Ezekiel, who was a contemporary of Jeremiah, has a vision of God leaving Jerusalem and allowing the Hebrew people to reap the fruits of their idolatry.[3] Essentially this is what Jeremiah envisioned. God has become so flustered with his people, that God abandons them. What we see here is a harsh example of tough love.

 

         Jesus told those in the synagogue in Nazareth that a prophet is never accepted in his hometown.[4] Certainly, this was the case with Jeremiah, who cried bowls of tears as his people not only continued to ignore God, they also abused him. At the beginning of chapter 9, he wishes that his head was filled with water and that his eyes were a fountain for he could cry day and night. What an image of a prophet who loved his people and who, yet, feels so helpless.

During his life, Jeremiah was considered a traitor. He challenged the king, the ruling authorities, the priests, and the military leaders. He was a thorn in their side, always speaking out for justice and for true worship of the one true God. In Scripture, we are not told what happened to Jeremiah, except that he was taken to Egypt with some who escaped there after the fall of Jerusalem.[5] One legend has it that Jeremiah kept on with his prophecies and rants and finally people had enough, like I did with that bug, and they stoned him.[6]

        While Jeremiah was considered a traitor in his life, looking back we cannot help but to see that he was a true patriot. God’s people are not called to be loyal to a king or even to a nation. Our first loyalty always belongs to God and when we fail to put God first, we risk hardship, judgment, and perhaps even defeat. Do we have the faith and the perseverance of Jeremiah? Are their Jeremiahs in our society today? If so, do we listen? Or do we tune him or her out, or worse, mock and abuse?

         You know, on the 22nd, we’re going to have our first community forum to discuss civility. If we want to build a better society, which is one of the goals of the church as we are to be a part of building God’s kingdom, we must listen to others. I hope you plan to attend and to tell others about the forum. Go to our church’s Facebook page and like the event and share it with others on your page. We have got to get our community and our nation on a new direction. We need to be about listening to all voices, even the voice of a Jeremiah, crying a fountain of tears. Only by listening to others who challenge us, like Jeremiah challenged Jerusalem, will we be able to build a better society.

         Let’s go back to that day, some 2500 years ago, and join Jeremiah once more… The heat of the day is over when Jeremiah starts back toward the city. Having wrestled with God through lament, Jeremiah is more assured than ever of God. Ahead, the city David claimed his capital, is magnificently lighted by the setting sun. As the even breeze picks up, Jeremiah picks up his pace.

The sentry, near the end of his shift, can’t believe his eyes. Emerging from a cloud of dust he’s been watching on the horizon is the prophet. He’s coming back. Why? He’d expected Jeremiah to have fled to another land. But as much as Jeremiah wants to, he cannot abandon his people. They may lack faith. They may be adulterers and traitors and idolaters, but they are still his people. And they are still God’s people. And he’s God’s prophet.

Jeremiah’s presence in a decaying society reminds Jerusalem of God’s judgment. Although the Almighty is disappointed and deeply hurt by his people’s idolatry, God never forgets Israel. God’s faithfulness once saw the nation through slavery. God will see them through defeat and exile and eventually restoration.

Jeremiah’s beat by the time he reaches the wall. The sun has set, and the stars are popping out. The air is more humid. “There will be dew in the morning,” the sentry remarks as he allows Jeremiah to enter through the locked gate. “Yes, Yes, I think you’re right,” Jeremiah responds. “The dew will be welcomed. It will remind us of how Almighty God, the God of Abraham, faithfully fed our ancestors in the wilderness.” Amen.

 

 

If any would like to be anointed with oil, as a reminder of our faith in Jesus Christ, come forward during the closing hymn and Elder Laurel McKeith or I will be glad to make the sign of the cross on your forehead.

 

©2019

[1] James Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1972), 86 as quoted by LindaJo H. McKim, The Presbyterian Hymnal Companion, (Louisville: W/JKP, 1993), 393.

[2] J. A. Thompson, The Book of Jeremiah: The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), 306, n. 9.

[3] Ezekiel 10. While Jeremiah and Ezekiel are contemporaries, their ministry was to different groups of God’s people. While Jeremiah remained in Jerusalem, Ezekiel was called to be a prophet to the first wave of those exiled in Babylon.

[4] Luke 4:24.

[5] Jeremiah 43.

[6] Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1979), 61.

“Them”

Ben Sasse, Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How to Heal (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018),  272 pages including notes and an index.

 

One would need to be deaf and blind not to realize there are serious problems in American society. Instead of rationally discussing issues that divide us, we join polarized camps and dismiss those with whom we disagree. We use unflattering names or spread false rumors about those we see as opponents. Instead of debating topics of concern, we yell at those with different views. It’s as if we believe that the one who yells loudest is right, which is absurd. Instead of looking for common ground upon which we might build a relationship, we use perceived differences to Balkanize ourselves into camps of like-minded people. And when we are only around those who look, think, and act like us, we just confirm our preconceived biases. And there is no doubt that 24-hour cable news and the algorithms of social media have only strengthened this divide. We no longer watch the same news programs and entertainment, nor read the same authors and newspapers. Instead, with a world flooded with information, everything comes tailored for us as individuals. This whole system, according to Sasse, makes us very lonely.

I was a little shocked when I began reading this book on how divided America is to read Sasse’s critique of America culture and how our problems stems from loneliness. I did wonder if he makes more out of the problem of loneliness than it deserves. He also suggests that the decline of the traditional home as another reason for society’s problems. I hope his ideas are debated. Perhaps they can play a role in building a more civil society. That said, there are critiques he makes that will make everyone a little uncomfortable. He challenges an article that identifies the genesis of nasty politics from the 1994 election and Newt Gingrich. Sasse suggests that Gingrich was only a backlash of nasty politics of the Democrats against the Robert Bork nomination to the Supreme Court in 1986. (Personally, I’m old enough to think the issue goes back further than 1994 or 1986). But those on the right can’t rejoice, for in the next chapter, he challenges Fox News and suggests they profit greatly from monetizing the fear. He particularly attacks Sean Hannity for not only preying on this fear and inciting rage, but also ignoring any evidence he finds inconvenient. By the time most readers with die-hard political positions, whether on the right or left, have finished the first half of the book, they’ll have found cherished positions challenged. Sadly, many will probably skip the second half of the book where Sasse suggests strategies for building bridges instead of walls.

Sasse grew up in a small town in Nebraska. It was a place with strong rivalries between towns and sports played a major part of these rivalries. He idolatrizes his father, who was a coach. He obviously grew up in a traditional family.  Sasse, himself, attended college on a wrestling scholarship. He would later earn a Ph.D. at Yale in American history and became the president of a small Midwestern liberal arts college. He also comes from a strong Lutheran Church background. His experiences with small towns, family, sports, religion, and education come together in this book as he seeks a way to bridge in the impasse that exists within American society.

Sasse’s eureka moment of his childhood came when he attended a Nebraska football game. There he was in the big house in the prairie, with 100,000 other folks, all in red, cheering on the cornhuskers. A few rows a way he spotted a group of people from a neighboring town that was a big rival of his town. These were folks his town cheered to their demise at Friday night football games, yet here they were, enemies, cheering on Nebraska. The problem caused by isolation (and loneliness) when we maintain isolation is that we fail to realize that we often have a lot in common with those we see as “them.” He learned from an early age that these folks from a rival school district weren’t really enemies. However, Sasse doesn’t suggest we end rivalries, for competition helps us be our best.

In the second half of this book, Sasse lays out several ideas on how we can begin to break down the walls separating us from them. In his first chapter in this half, titled “Become Americans Again,” Sasse provides a civics lesson about what should unite us. I found it refreshing to read a Lutheran who can write like a Calvinist as he calls for us to admit our that we’re all flawed. He encourages us to set limits on our (and our children’s) use of technology, to be more open to diverse debate within the university (an idea, he points out, that he and Obama agree on), and to develop roots while also exploring outside our own tribe. While most readers won’t agree 100% with the author (and I assume that would be fine with Sasse), Americans would be better off we seriously debated his thesis as we seek to breakdown the divides that separate us. This is a good book for all Americans to read (and maybe even those in Russia or China to read to learn more about what America should look like).

Shards: Still My People

Jeff Garrison 
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Jeremiah 4:5-31
October 6, 2019

 

 

We’re back working through sections of Jeremiah in our series titled Prophecies and Pottery. And we’re moving backwards in Jeremiah. Two Sundays ago, we looked at what is probably the most popular passage in book, from the 18th chapter, Jeremiah in the potter’s house. If you remember, there was hope that Israel would repent and change her ways. But in this passage, in the fourth chapter, there is little hope. One of the overall themes of Jeremiah is survival.[1] How do God’s people survive when there is a collapse of the nation and religion? How do you survive when everything is lost?

Theologically, Jeremiah’s task is to defend God in the face of catastrophe.[2] The people have not trusted in God. They have placed their trust in other gods. They have sought out political alliances to save them. They’ve turned everywhere except to their God. Because of their insolence toward the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the book is rather grim. God’s people are like broken shards.

         Beautiful pottery breaks. Today, during the sermon, hold on to the shard you’ve been given, and ponder God’s judgment. Think about what it means to be broken, unfixable. But don’t throw away the shard. When the service is over, take it over to Liston hall, where we’ll attempt to put it back together and see what kind of design Sue Jones created for us.

Let me say a little more about Jeremiah. The book is not laid out chronologically. The timeline seems to jump back and forth. Was this because the scrolls got mixed up at one point? Or, were they assembled this way for a reason? We don’t know. But it’s clear that while in the potter’s house, as we saw two weeks ago, there was still hope for God’s people. There is much less hope in this passage. Storm clouds are building. Today, I’m reading a just a selection of a larger passage that begin with the 5th verse in chapter 4 and runs to the end of the chapter. I encourage you to read the passage in its entirety, but I will only read verses 11-12, and 22-28.     

 

(choir members sing first verse and refrain of Ghost Riders in the Sky)

 

        For the people of Jeremiah’s day, storm clouds are gathering. It’s not looking good. It’s kind of like that vision we get from the song “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” those wayward cowpokes who are eternally damned to chase the Devil’s herd. Storm clouds are always frightening. But let’s think about ourselves.

          You know, we have blessed as a nation in that no foreign army has invaded us for over 200 years. The last was during the War of 1812. It’s been a century and a half since those of us who are from the South experienced the horrors of having towns and cities burned, armies destroyed, and people suffering. We can only image what it was like for the people in Savannah during that Civil War, hearing the distant bombardments of Fort Pulaski and Fort MaAllister, and then, in 1864, the rumors building fear as Sherman’s army approaches.

          In this section of Jeremiah, the approaching Babylonian army is described as a hot wind blowing up a frightful dust cloud off the desert. This could be like the dust clouds off Africa that eventually turn into hurricanes that threaten our coastline. In the part I skipped, we hear how the rumors begin to filter down to Judah and Jerusalem, starting way to the north, above the Sea of Galilee, in the territories of Dan. We know a similar drill with hurricanes as they approach the Leeward Island and the Lesser Antilles and the Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Cuba, and the Bahamas as the storm makes its way across the South Atlantic. Sometimes these storms are like Jeremiah’s vision, bringing total destruction. Just as we hurt seeing the damage Dorian caused the Bahamas, we also worry what might happen to us if the storm doesn’t turn, Jeremiah is bothered by his vision. He can see it happening and cries out in anguish. But despite the heartache of what he sees, he faithfully proclaims God’s word.

         The second part of my reading describes the aftermath. Destruction is total. Starting with verse 23, the poem recalls the “dismantling of creation.”[3] The land is depopulated and void and without light. There is little hope in this passage for judgment is total… well, almost total. At the end of verse 27, we get a glimpse of hope. After God promises to make the land desolate, we read that God “will not make a full end.” In other words, a remnant will survive. God will continue to have a few to survive, after all they are God’s chosen people, in order to re-populate the land. So, there is hope, just not much. And everyone, including Jeremiah, will suffer.

          For Christians living in America, we may have a hard time relating to Jeremiah’s vision. But many Christians, those living around the globe in places where it’s dangerous to worship Jesus, recognize Jeremiah’s anguish as their own. For them, gathered around this table on World Communion Sunday, they are in danger. They know what it means to worship in fear, to experience the loss of jobs, of their homes and their land because of their faith. They know what it means to be locked up, to be tortured, and to watch loved ones be taken away and never return because of their faith. Christians are suffering in China, in Eritrea, in North Korea, in Iran and Iraq, in Syria and parts of India. We must stand by those who do not enjoy the freedom to worship as we enjoy it.

We must also realize as bad as life gets on earth, there is always hope. It may be just a glimpse. Jeremiah’s vision of destruction was so troubling that it affected him physically.[4] He knew what was coming was terrible, yet he never gave up on God. For as bad as things were get, he trusted that God was present and, eventually, things would change for the better.

          Remember, we have an insight Jeremiah didn’t have. We know about the resurrection, how the grave is not the end. Jeremiah knew that somehow God’s destruction wasn’t going to quite be total. We know that even if it appears total, as it does at death, as when we peer down into the grave, God is still God and the end is not the end.

Yesterday I did the funeral for Gerry Baumgardner. We heard about how Gerry was a reader and instilled her love for books into her children and grandchildren. I’m not sure she read horror, and I’ve only read a few such books. But when you read a good horror book, you are excited to finish and find out what’s happens, but you also don’t want it to end. But it must end. Sooner or later we have must put it down and be done with it. In a way, life is like that, except that when it’s over, God is waiting with a sequel. But, unlike with a horror book, the sequel will be beautiful.

         The center of the gospel is the hope we have in the resurrection to eternal life. And for that reason, we can face those storm clouds. We can face the stampede of Satan’s herd and the cowboys running roughshod across the skies, and know that as bad as things are, there’s hope. We may feel like we’re just broken shards of pottery, but God has the power to make what’s broken new and whole. Believe in God. Hold on to such hope. Amen.

 

©2019

[1] Kathleen M. O’Conner, “Jeremiah Introduction” in the New Interpreter’s Study Bible (NRSV with Apocrypha) Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 1051.

[2] Ibid, 1052.

[3] Walter Brueggeman, To Pluck Up, To Tear Down: Jeremiah 1-25,  (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, International Theological Commentary, 1988), 56.

[4] Verse 19, which is translated in the NRSV as “My anguish, my anguish! I write in pain!” is an attempt to capture the vivid description of the Hebrew in which Jeremiah cries of pain in his bowels. See J. A. Thompson, NICOT: The Book of Jeremiah, (Grands Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 227-228.

The Potter’s House

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
September 22, 2019
Jeremiah 18:1-12

 

How many of you have a cabinet at home filled with Tupperware and other such plastic containers? (Raise your hands. Be honest). If your home is like mine, there are a variety of plastic stuff of all sizes. When it comes time to save left-overs, or to pack a lunch for the office, I can always find the size I need. Of course, I then struggle to find the matching lid, but that’s another story. Ponder for a moment what would our lives be like without such containers? How would we get by? Now let’s go back 2500 years.

        You might be wondering about all this emphasis on pottery as we look at the Prophet Jeremiah. Pottery was a revolutionary technology in the ancient world. It allowed more movement as people could store things in pots, such as water and grain.[1] It provided a better way for cooking. No longer did our ancestors have to roast things over a fire like cavemen. They could make something tasty, adding herbs and spices and making broth. The pottery revolution was one of the great steps in human history that devolved to Tupperware. It allowed our ancestors to settle down. No longer did they have to wander from one source of water and food to another. They could stop and build cities. The potter played an important role in the ancient world. God often uses examples from everyday life to make a point, and with Jeremiah, it was the potter and his work. This morning, we’re visiting the potter’s house.  Read Jeremiah 18:1-12.

 

Show Video of Lee Hyong-Gu, Ceramic Master                      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RxpyG6ClIDU  (3 minutes 20 seconds)

 

I love watching a potter shape clay. Don’t you?

         About twenty-five miles northwest of where I was born, where the Carolina Sandhills turn into clay hills, is a dot on the map known as Jugtown. It’s a place I like to visit when I am back in that part of the world. Today, the area around Jugtown and Seagrove is dotted with crafty potters who turn muck into beautiful and useful art. It’s a treat, as we’ve just seen on the video, to watch a potter turn a lump of clay on the wheel into something useful and beautiful.

          Jugtown received its name, as you can guess, from jugs. The law-abiding folks in the clay hills around there, I’m sure, intended their jugs to store molasses, honey, cane syrup, or something similar. Of course, it was also used to hold liquefied corn (also known as white lightning or moonshine). But with the advent of mason jars, such use of the jugs ceased. But early on, some of the potters had new ideas. In 1917, two of the potters began selling their wares in a store and tea shop in New York City. They emphasized utilitarian pots, things that could be used such as pie plates, crocks, mugs, and bowls. They stamped their unique mark on the bottom of each vessel. Over time, they began to teach new potters the craft and as one generation passed, another took up the wheel. Today, if you go to the area around Jugtown, you’ll find dozens or potters selling their wares. These artists have brought new life into that worthless clay that sticks to your shoes and gums up a plow.

Finding a new purpose is sometimes helpful, and it could make a good moral of this story. But is it really what this passage is about? We need to remember that we’re not the potter, we’re the clay. Our purpose comes from the potter. And while, as this passage shows, the potter wields power over the clay, the clay might not always be suitable. If that’s the case, the potter starts over and creates something that works with the quality of the clay he has. In this passage we see God’s sovereign control, as a new type of pot is created. God’s in control, a fact we’re not always comfortable with.

        Jeremiah is called to the potter’s house where God uses a common image of the ancient world to make a profound message. God’s word comes to him as he watches the potter over and over start off one direction with clay, and it not working, so he reworks the clay into something more suitable. This sounds hopeful. God will continue to work with us until we become a vessel that serves some purpose. One preacher, writing about this text, said that it demonstrates a sovereign God, “not a God of absolute capricious control, but a gracious willingness to change his plan to benefit his flawed people. When God discovers this fatal flaw in his people, he does not simply destroy them; he offers to start over.” [2]

But there’s a tension in the text that comes in verses 7-11. To make this passage to be only hopeful, we must cut the passage short and stop at verse 6. But that’s not fair to the text. Yes, there is hope in this passage, but the hope is offered to a repentant people who heed the warning that comes at the end of the passage. If they don’t heed the warning, the hope evaporates.

       Jeremiah’s task is to preach impending judgment to God’s people. If they don’t shape up, if they don’t stop running around chasing foreign gods and idols, if they act like they’re in control and the God of the Universe is of no matter, they will be punished. Just as the potter can shape a vessel in a new way, they can be handled in a different manner. God can shape another nation to punish. There appears to still time, at this point, for the Hebrew people to change. Later prophecies of Jeremiah hold out no hope of repentance, but here, it’s not too late.[3] But time’s wasting. If they don’t hurry up and repent, it’ll be too late. And as we see in verse 12, the people don’t take Jeremiah’s words seriously. They follow their own plans and act in their own ways. God is not amused.

          The message of this passage is that God has the power to reshape us, but we must let God work with us. If we resist God’s shaping, we may not be completely crushed, but we won’t fulfill the potential for which we were designed. The intention of our passage isn’t to be fatalistic and say we have no control. Instead, it’s a warning that we’re to work with God and not against him.

We often look at Scripture through our individualistic lens, and there’s no doubt that God has control over us as individuals, but it’s important for us to understand that this passage isn’t about a person, but about a people. God’s people. Today, we could apply this passage to the church. Those of us in mainline denominations often feel the church is being pulling apart. But using this analogy, we can see that perhaps the church is just being reshaped. If that’s the case, we need to look beyond our own perceived needs within the church, and to look where God needs the church within the world. That’s the hard task the Session has before it. It’s not what we can do to please the most people, but what we should be doing to join in God’s work.

        When you leave this sanctuary today, ponder these questions: Where is God at work in the world? How can we participate? How can we be the clay that trusts the potter? Amen.

©2019

 

[1] Eugene H. Peterson, Run with the Horses: The Quest for Life at Its Best, (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1983), 76-77.

[2] Stan Mast, Old Testament Lectionary for September 2, 2019: Jeremiah 18:1-11” published by the Center for Excellence in Preaching: https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-18c-2/?type=old_testament_lectionary

[3]  John Bright, The Anchor Bible: Jeremiah (New York: Doubleday, 1965), 124-125.

Between Full Moons (A photo saga)

Moonglow at Cumberland Falls

It’s been a while since I had a post on my activities, so I decided I’d do a full moon to full moon post. The August full moon occured on the 15th, and I was at Cumberland Falls, Kentucky. It was a clear night and those who came out to the falls an hour or so after the moonrise, were treated with seeing a “moonbow.” It’s just like a rainbow, except it is more whitish, appearing a little like a ghost of a rainbow. The moonbow occurs in the spray from the falls, which also creates a lovely rainbow in daytime, as you can see from the two photos I’ve posted.

Rainbow the next morning

From one of the historical markers around the site, I learned that the Cumberland River was named by Dr. Walker, an early explorer in the area. According to him, the river was the crookedest he’d seen, so he named it after the Duke of Cumberland because it reminded the explorer of the Duke.

Leaving Cumberland Falls, we headed toward Cumberland Gap. It was about lunch time when we hit Corbin and we decided to have lunch at Colonel Sander’s place. The original restaurant and hotel was torn down, but they rebuilt a Kentucky Fried Chicken on the site many years ago. In addition to the children and biscuits, three was a small museum showing how it was back in the 30’s. It’s also a major stop on the old Nashville and Louisville Railroad, so I had time to watch a few trains.

At Cumberland Gap, we rode the bike/horse part of the Wilderness Road. We needed Daniel Boone, for it was rough with several down trees. Also, after a long downhill run, we crossed a small bridge and at the other end, a horse had relieved himself. It took some maneuvering to miss that pile of crap! We enjoyed the delightful town of Cumberland Gap which has an interesting bicycle museum and several good coffee shops/restaurants.  I had my first beet burger at the Pineapple Tea Room and Coffee Ship. It was good! Camping, we also ate good as we picked up in a rural grocery store some rib-eyes to grill. They were local and grass fed and it was some of the best meat I’ve had in the eastern part of the country where all the meat tends to be corn-fattened.

Black-eyed Susans along the Wilderness Road bike/horse path

After a couple of nights at Cumberland Gap, we headed over to Abingdon and Damascus for the purpose of riding the Virginia Creeper trail. We found a wonderful camping spot (with a cucumber tree, which I had to look up to identify).  I enjoyed being back in this country, as it’s been well over thirty years since I came through here while hiking the Appalachian Trail.

 

The Virginia Creeper is a neat trail that follows an old railroad bed from Abingdon to Whitetop, Virginia, and on to Todd NC. The train stopped running in the mid-70s, and in the 80s, it was converted to a bike trail. Where were lots of people on the trail. You can catch a shuttle from Damascus to the top of Whitetop, which we did. There were several shuttles running every hour. Talking to a driver, I learned that during the fall color season, there are as many as a dozen vans an hour coming up to the top!  It was a nice and easy ride. I stopped and walked a bit on the Appalachian Trail for old time sake (but the AT has been relocated here since I hiked this area, so I wasn’t exactly walking in my old steps.

New River as seen from an old trestle

 

Leaving the Damascus/Mount Rogers area, we headed over to the New River State Park, where the state of Virginia runs a fifty some mile long linear park along the New River from Galax to Pulaski.  We road the trail from from Galax to our site, about 28 miles, which made a nice day. But this trail involved more peddling than the Creeper trail in which you could almost coast the whole way.

 

I-77 bridge over the New River

My bike resting against a mile marker on the New River trail 27 miles from Pulaski

One of two tunnels on the trail

One of many trestles along the New River Trail

The campsites are rather expensive for pit toilets and no showers ($25/night), but we loved our site. It was just steps from the river and we had the place to ourselves. We slept to the sound of water running over rocks (augmented by the sounds of birds, frogs, insects, and the wind). It was a wonderful place to camp. And every evening, I took a swim in the river.

 

After getting back and having a hurricane threaten, another full moon came around. This time, at home and on a semi-clear evening, I made the best of it by paddling around Pigeon Island (about 6 miles). It was a magical evening starting with incredibly red skies and then the beauty of the moon.

Don’t be a Crackpot

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
September 15, 2019
Jeremiah 2:1-13

 

We began our series on Prophesies and Pottery last week, when we saw how Jeremiah was formed by God to be his mouthpiece to Israel. Our image was that of a lump of clay, which has not yet been formed into the vessel. We’re all like that lump and when we allow God to mold us, we can become something beautiful. Throughout the Book of Jeremiah are images of pottery and clay. Some are being formed. Others have already been formed and fired and are now broken and no longer useful. Today’s image is like that, of a broken cistern. There is not much use in a vessel which no longer holds water, just as the cracked pot in our display is useless. Today’s message can be summarized: “Don’t be a crackpot.”

       Last week we learned of Jeremiah’s call by God as a prophet to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”[1] As I stated then, Jeremiah was one of the longest serving prophets in Israel’s history, with a career spanning roughly forty years. In chapter two, we see that the prophet gets down to business, as he calls on God’s people to change their ways before it is too late.

This chapter takes the form of a legal indictment, a common genre in the ancient world. There are surviving examples in which a ruler or a king wrote an indictment against a ruler of a vassal state who is not fulfilling the desires of the controlling state. Think about the king of Judah, as a vassal state of Assyria, receiving a letter from the king of Assyria. The letter would contain an indictment. It could be used to nip in the bud any thoughts of revolution, as the superior king reminds his inferior king the benefits of their relationship while also threating punishment if things don’t change.[2] A more recent example might have been a letter sent from the Soviet premier to Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968, right before troops rolled in. The leaders of Hong Kong have probably also received such a letter. It’s also like a letter of a jilted spouse or lover. God sends this letter to his people through Jeremiah. It’s a warning and a reminder of who’s in charge.

This passage contains some of the earliest words of Jeremiah,[3] perhaps being spoken even before the religious reforms of King Josiah, long before Babylon comes onto the international scene. Last week, I spoke about how Jeremiah was called to be a prophet at an optimistic time in the history of Judah. The armies of Assyria had destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and for a century had controlled Judah as a vassal state. But Assyria’s power was waning. Without them on the international stage, there was hope of a better future for the Hebrew people. But it didn’t happen. Josiah was killed, his reforms were short-lived, and the people continued to chase after the gods of their neighbors. Jeremiah’s voice brings God’s indictment against the Hebrew people, especially the leaders (both religious and secular) for allowing and encouraging such idolatry. As you can imagine, when things are looking up, people don’t want to hear such rants as came from Jeremiah. But he was called to be faithful, not to scratch their itchy ears. Read Jeremiah 2:1-13

 

        In the spring of 2018, my sister, my father, and I took a trip to the Dry Tortugas. I’m sure many of you read the article I had about the trip in The Skinnie.[4] A popular misconception is that Key West is the last of the keys. It’s not. Sixty-eight  miles west of Key West are the Dry Tortugas, a collection of small coral keys that rise just above sea level. The island was discovered by the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon, who named it “las Tortugas” or “the turtles.” Without any fresh water to drink, cartographers added the word “dry” as a warning to sailors. Even without water, the islands were strategically important for our country, especially in the days of sailing ships.  The keys provided a harbor for ships during storms and they provided an outpost to intercept any attempts of an invasion of our Gulf Coast. The islands protected the harbors of New Orleans, Mobile and Pensacola. In the early 19th Century, after the War of 1812, when our nation began to seriously deal with national defense, Fort Jefferson, a huge brick fortress, was built on the largest key. Fort Jefferson may be the largest brick structure in the Western Hemisphere.

      If you’re going to have a fort with a substantial garrison on an island without fresh water, you must find a way to overcome that limitation. The engineers who designed Fort Jefferson came up with a unique way to address the lack of water. They built a series of cisterns under the walls of the fort and designed a system to funnel rainwater into the cisterns where they provided water for later use. The fort could hold nearly two million gallons of water. It was thought there would be enough water and provisions within the walls for the fort to survive a yearlong siege.

       But the plans of men and women often fail. This massive fort, built with millions of bricks and packed dirt, was so heavy that of the 136 cisterns, all but three cracked and allowed saltwater to infiltrate. They became useless.

Through Jeremiah, God says that the Hebrew people are like cracked cisterns. The Hebrew people knew that God was talking about, for they lived in a semi-arid land that only received water part of the year. Farmers would dig out cisterns in the rock, but since the rock was limestone, which is porous, they’d have to seal the rock with a plaster-like substance. But the earth moves and at times such cisterns would crack and began to leak and when the farmer needed water, none would be available.[5]

       The cracked cistern image shows Israel’s condition after chasing after non-existent gods. As humans, we all need water. An image of God’s providence found throughout Scripture is that of living water nourishing us.[6] God expects us to draw from such living water, but when we turn our backs on God, or try to create our own source of water (be it security or prosperity) while ignoring God, we risk dying of thirst. That huge, powerful fort that couldn’t provide its own drinking water is a good example. It takes more than human strength and might to provide for our needs. It’s also dangerous for us to seek security in anything outside of God, for no other gods (that’s gods with a small g), or human systems of power, will last forever. Sooner or later, we will fail. Only God is eternal. Do we stick with God or with the plans of men and women?

But the people of Israel didn’t want to hear this. Jeremiah the bullfrog, croaking in the corner of society, was a nuisance they tried to ignore. And soon, it would be too late. Jeremiah’s call needs to be heard throughout all ages: “trust in the Lord, not in anything else.” It’s as true today as it was 2500 years ago.

As you know, the Session of your church have been studying the challenges facing us. As a congregation, we are aging. We are struggling to find ways to reach new groups of people, and to invite them to be a part of our fellowship and help us continue to reflect Jesus face to our community and to the world. The Session has spent considerable time and energy examining the congregation and the community. We have looked at our worship services, the message and the music, along with the needs and wants of members and non-members. But about half-way along this road, it finally dawned on some of us that what’s important isn’t what we want, but what God wants. So, we added a prayer component to our attempts to strategically plan. We know that without God, we are useless. We are like cracked pots in which the water runs into the ground. The problem with cracked pots or cisterns is that sooner or later, when drought comes, we’re left dry. So, I encourage you to join with the Session in praying daily for our congregation. Each week, you’ll receive a new prayer. It’s on your flyleaf of the bulletin and you’ll also receive it as an email reminder during the middle of the week. Take this prayer and pray it daily. Whatever we end up doing, we need to be seeking God’s direction.

      Friends, we don’t want to be cracked pots. We want to be vessels holding abundant living water that will quench our thirst, and can be shared to others, to quench theirs. Amen.

 

©2019

[1] Jeremiah 1:10.

[2] J. A. Thompson, The Book of Jeremiah: TNICOT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), 159-160.

[3] John Bright, Jeremiah: The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1965), 16.

[4] Jeff Garrison, “A Visit to the Dry Tortugas,” The Skinnie, Vol. 16 #15 (July 20, 2018).

[5] Thompson, 170-171.

[6] Jesus spoke of this as recorded in John’s gospel (see John 4:10-14, 7:37-38). It appears several places in Revelation (see Revelation 7:17; 21:6; 22:1, 27), Even more common is the stream that God provides which brings life, which is found at Creation in Genesis (Genesis 2:6) and throughout the Psalms (see Psalms 1:3, 46:4 as examples). Jeremiah will later use the image of the stream bring life in 31:12.

Called to be a Bullfrog

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
September 8, 2019
Jeremiah 1:4-10

 

 

 

        The prophet Jeremiah lived in interesting times. He was one of the longest serving prophets in Israel’s history, his calling coming as the Assyrians were losing power.  It was a time of optimism in Jerusalem because they had existed as a vassal state under Assyria for over a century. It appeared they might be free once again, as in the years of Kings David and Solomon. Furthermore, Josiah, one of Judah’s few good kings, was implementing religious reforms. But then Josiah is killed in battle against Egypt.[1] Instead of peace and prosperity, the years following Jeremiah’s call are troubling. Babylon rises in power and the nation’s existence is again threatened.[2] Jeremiah, as a prophet, must go against the grain as he brings God’s message to the Hebrew people.

          We, too, are living in interesting times. Things are scary in our world: rogue nations having the bomb, individuals going berserk and killing people, terrorists creating political instability, and huge storms leaving behind chaos and destruction. The news often leaves us fearful and angry. And since we often don’t have answers for the problems we face, we blame others. Ben Sasse, a Senator from Nebraska, suggests one of the few things uniting us is our contempt for those of whom we assign blame. “At least,” we say, “we’re not like them.”[3] By the way, in his book Them, Sasse suggests this is not the way to live!

As in the days of Jeremiah, we need to hear a rational voice reminding us to trust in a God who has the power to reshape and remake us, as a potter crafts clay, in a way that the future will be bright and wonderful. Maybe we—look around, you and I—need to be that rational voice. This is God’s call to the church of today. We must step up to the plate and offer an optimistic challenge to the world today. This morning we’re going to look at the call of Jeremiah. As I read this passage, consider how God might be calling you… Read Jeremiah 1:4-10.

 

Jeremiah was a bullfrog,
was a good friend of mine.
I never understood a single word he said
but I helped him drink his wine.[4]

 

Did Hoyt Axton, who wrote this song that became a major hit for Three Dog Night, have the prophet Jeremiah in mind? There’s some debate about it. His lifestyle didn’t exactly display Sunday School values, but the words “Joy to the World” certainly draws upon the Christian imagination.[5] We don’t know his intentions, but Jeremiah was a bullfrog. Let me explain.

        Back in early May, Gary Witbeck and I took a trip into the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. On our second night, we were camping on a platform at a place called “Big Water.” It’s the headwaters for the Suwanee River. As the sun set and evening descended, we watched alligators battle over territory (or maybe they were fighting over mates, or were flirting, we couldn’t tell the difference). While the gators fought, in the background a chorus of frogs sang. Their song would come in waves, starting up the river and working its way down and then back up. The frogs were in perfect harmony. You couldn’t tell one frog’s croak from another. It was quite beautiful.

But occasionally during that evening, we’d hear the loud croaking of a bullfrog. They were distinct. They were loners. You could pick out each individual one and the direction toward where the frog was located. Jeremiah was like that, like a bullfrog. He provided a distinct message to the people of Israel. He was heard off to the side. There were others in those days, a chorus of prophets, who spouted off the message the people and the king wanted to hear. Their sounds all blended together. But Jeremiah was alone, going against the popular chorus. He was God’s messenger.

        But this is where the song gets it wrong. The one singing, claims to be a friend of Jeremiah, enjoying drinking his wine. But the Jeremiah of the Old Testament, was often lonely. He didn’t have many friends bellying up to him at the bar. Like a bullfrog, he cried out the message from God that he’s been given, and message that no one wanted to hear, so he was often alone and vulnerable. But he was faithful, and when we consider eternity, that makes all the difference in the world.

Today, the church appears more and more marginalized in society. After decades of arguing over things around the periphery (issues of sex and of women leadership and homosexual rights and such), and having been so caught up in political debates, those outside the church identify us more by what we’re against than the person we are to be following. For Jeremiah, doing God’s work was a challenge. For us, following Christ can be just as challenging.[6] We need to offer hope to the world that can only be found in Christ Jesus. But it’s easy to succumb to the chatter around us, to become a frog in the chorus and not the distinctive sound of the bullfrog.

        You’ll notice in the text that Jeremiah didn’t have a choice in all this. He was chosen by God before the foundation of the earth. Yesterday morning, in the Men’s Bible Study, we were reading Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, where are reminded that God calls us through Jesus Christ to do the work which has been prepared for us.[7] Our call, like Jeremiah’s and the Ephesians’, isn’t something that we initiate. It comes from God.

Eugene Peterson notes how we often get things wrong. We see ourselves coming to church to learn about God or to check in on what’s God up to. But that’s backwards. It’s not our initiative. God has known us all along and is calling and leading us through the Spirit. God’s doing this long before we even accept his existence.[8] Regardless of who we are, God loves us and sees us as important and can use us to help make this world a better place.

        Of course, like Jeremiah, we can beg off. Jeremiah said, “I’m just a boy.” Looking around, we might say, “we’re too old.” But God has heard that one, too.  Remember Abraham and Sara? How old were they?[9] Have you ever wondered if maybe the reason God used all these old folks in the Old Testament was to take away our excuses? We’re all young. None of us have an excuse. God promised Jeremiah that he’s going to be with him and that he would be given the words to say to the corrupt generation into which he’d been born. Likewise, Jesus promises his followers (that be “us”) that we’ll be given the words to say.[10] Do we trust God enough to live differently, to sing a different song, to stand out against the crowd and to live, not for ourselves, but for our Lord Jesus Christ?

          Jeremiah has been appointed for a mission. Likewise, the church has been appointed for a mission. We’re all called by God to follow Jesus and to point to him as our hope in a world that often seems hopeless.

 

         Over the next six weeks, as we work through this series, we’ll be using images of potters. Our image today is a clump of clay, being kneaded like bread dough. The technical term for doing this to clay is “wedged.” The potter takes the clay and stretches and pushes it like a baker works dough. In doing this, all the air pockets are worked out so that the clay is easier to shape on the wheel and afterwards, when firing, the pot won’t have air pockets that’ll explode and destroy the vessel.[11] As followers of Jesus, we have to be open for God working with us, just as a potter works with clay, in order that we might be reshaped. God will work out the old and create in us something new. Are we open to such shaping? Are we willing to be a bullfrog for God and to call people to be attentive to Jesus’ way of living?

         Paul, writing to the Ephesians, encouraged them to put away all bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling, slander and malice. Such behavior is to be wedged out of us, like air is wedged out of the clay, so that we might be kind to one another, tenderhearted, and forgiving.[12] The world may see such traits as signs of weakness. They even got Jesus killed. But that was then. We need to remember that the world, as it is, won’t last. We’re not looking for the world’s approval. We’re striving to be faithful to that which is eternal, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

©2019

[1] 2 Kings 23:28ff.

[2] For a background on the world in Jeremiah’s day, see John Bright, “The Life and Message of Jeremiah,” in Jeremiah (New York: Doubleday, 1965), LXXXVI-CXXIV.

[3] Ben Sasse, Them: Why We Hate Each Other-and How to Heal (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018), 9.

[4] Hoyt Axton, “Joy to the World.” Recorded by Three Dog Night on Naturally, 1970.

[5] https://www.songfacts.com/facts/three-dog-night/joy-to-the-world

[6] See Stan Mast, Notes on Jeremiah 1:4-10 published on the “Center for Excellence in Preaching website: https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-16c-2/?type=old_testament_lectionary

[7] See Ephesians 2, especially Ephesians 2:10.

[8] Eugene H. Peterson, Run with the Horses: The Quest for Life at Its Best (Downers’ Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1983), 37-38.

[9] Abraham was 75 when he was called (Genesis 12:4). He was 100 and Sara 90 when Isaac was born (Genesis 17:17).

[10] Matthew 10:19.

[11] For a discussion of this process, see Marjory Zoet Bankson, The Soulwork of Clay: A Hands-On Approach to Spirituality (Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths, 2008), Chapter 1: Grounding.

[12] Ephesians 4:31-32.  Likewise, Jeremiah is called to both “pluck up, tear down, destroy and overthrow” while also building up and planting  (which we can assume to mean removing that which is not pleasing to God, and planting/building up that which is pleasing).

The aftermath of the Storm

Dorian is gone. It was more a “non-event” here. I ended up not evacuating even though I continued to watch the Weather Channel to see if things might change. But the storm stayed well off the Georgia coast. We received only a little wind and rain. I actually thought we had received very little rain, barely over an inch. Then I looked at the gauge again, 30 minutes later, and it was empty! The bottom of the gauge had sprung a leak. So I have no idea who much water we received. Our neighborhood also maintained power until we were on the backside of the storm. We lost it yesterday morning about 7:30 AM. I had to go out and dig into my camping equipment to fetch a coffee peculator. Since Hurricane Matthew (where I cooked on a camp stove on the front porch), we had replaced the electric stove top with gas. So, yesterday morning, I fixed corned beef hash, poached eggs, and coffee for breakfast, as you can see in the photo.

The gifts of Dorian

I got sick of the Weather Channel after three days of it being constantly on. At first, they seemed to be sponsored by hair growth and coloring folks. I wonder if they think the storm was going to either cause people to prematurely gray (Dorian Gray?) or to pull out their hair. I also noticed how, whenever a governor wanted to speak, they cut in live to their press conferences. We heard the governors of Florida, Georgia, South and North Carolina. They all spoke from the same script (be careful, follow directions, etc). When the Gov. was done, they would call up the person in charge of disaster operations for the state (ie, those who know really going on) and that’s when the Weather Channel would cut away to Jim Cantore (who must not receive any free product samples of the hair growth product that pays his salary). I would have liked to heard from the state expert and not the politician, but… By day three, I was searching for old World War II movies.

After eating breakfast yesterday morning, I spent some time on the front porch reading. As the rain stopped and the winds began to die, I set out to clean up the yard. By 12:30 AM, it was all picked up and even the back deck blown off. The picture to the right is of the yard debris, the gifts of Dorian. We were blessed. My family up in SE North Carolina also came through the storm unscathed. I wish we could say the same for the people in the Bahamas.

LBJ and on the cusp of a storm

This photo was taken at Delegal Creek last night as the sunset. Hurricane Dorian is several hundred miles south at this point. Today, as I write this, we have had a few bands of rain with wind, but nothing too bad. The storm should brush by us late this afternoon or in the evening, but will be staying off shore. Prayers to those in the Bahamas who suffered so greatly, and for those in the Carolinas who may experience more of this storm’s fury.

 

 

Robert A. Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power, (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1982), 882 pages, photos, index and detailed notes on sources used.

 

It’s a goal of mine to read Caro’s multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. He’s the first President I can remember. The only thing I remember of Kennedy was him being shot in Dallas, as I had just started the first grade. LBJ would remain President throughout my elementary years.

 

Several years ago, I partly read this volume, but this summer invested the time to listen and/or read the entire volume that covers the life of the future President from before his birth through the beginning of the Second World War. The first volume I read in this series, over a decade ago, was Master of the Senate. It was Caro’s third volume, which consists of the years from 1948, when LBJ was elected to the senate, to the late 1950s as the 1960 Presidential campaign heated up. Caro has four volumes out and has just began covering Johnson’s presidency. As he is now in his 80s and I (along with lots of other folks) hope he’ll complete his life-long ambition to cover all of Johnson’s life.

 

As with Caro’s other volumes, he spends a significant portion of his book providing background information. The reader learns about the events that shaped life in the Texas Hill Country and the people who influenced Johnson. We’re taken back to the early years of Texas and of its frontier heritage that was still in the memories of those alive when Johnson was a boy. Johnson always discounted his father as a failed drunk and attempted to create an image of a self-made man, but Carol dug deeper and discovered a different truth. Johnson’s father was a very honest former legislator whose ties to populism was so strong he had his son listening to the speeches of Williams Jennings Bryan. He also took Lyndon, as a boy, with him to Austin, where Johnson experienced the political life for the first time. There were many other individuals who helped Johnson’s rise to power. Richard Kleberg, one of the richest men in Texas and a new congressman, hired a schoolteacher named Lyndon to be his congressional aide.  As an aid, Johnson both learned politics as well as began to build his own base of power. Then there was Sam Raybun, a Texas congressman who became speaker of the House and who saw LBJ as the son he never had. There was Herman Brown, of Brown and Root, became a mighty industrialist who helped and was helped by Johnson’s growing power. Caro also provides details in how the landscape of the hill country shaped those who settled there, such as Johnson’s families on both sides of his family. He even provides detail into a dam that helped push Brown and Root to a major corporation, a dam in which Johnson worked to fund as a junior congressman. The funding was in jeopardy because the dam did not meet the New Deal guidelines, but Johnson found a way around such requirements.

 

As Caro points out over and over again, the real Lyndon wasn’t likable. He was awkward, didn’t really fit in, and learned early on how to manipulate others. Most of his peers didn’t think highly of him, but some saw his ambition and was willing to work for him with the hopes that as he rose in power, they would too. When he was denied entry into the White Stars, a college club, he created his own secret club, the Black Stars. Those who joined him had also been denied entry into the more elite group. They were able to secretly control school politics. While he wasn’t popular with those his age, Johnson had a way with adults and spent more time with them.

 

From an early age, he wanted to be President. Caro’s shows how LBJ never lost that ambition. From politics in college, through working as a congressional aide for Kleberg, to heading the New Deal’s Youth Program in Texas, to a young congressman raising money for other congressmen, Johnson was constantly building a larger organization with the goal to become President.  Interestingly, while through the book, Johnson publicly is seen as a “Roosevelt man,” and in favor of the New Deal, Caro shows how Johnson’s politics was more about achieving and holding power than ideology.

 

Johnson was quite a risk-taker.  After marrying LadyBird, he carried on an affair with the beautiful and younger mistresses of Charles Marsh, one of his top supporters who also owned a number of newspapers in Texas. Obviously, had that become well-known, it had the potential to destroy the young Congressman’s political future.

In the spring of 1941, a senator from Texas died suddenly. Johnson, seeing this as his opportunity to increase his power, campaigned for the race. He quickly went to work building a base and becoming the front runner against many other better-known candidates, when the state’s colorful governor, Pappy O’Daniel, through his name into hat. “Pass the biscuits, Pappy,” was a former flour salesman, who knew how to campaign (his character even shows up the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou). It became a bitter race with both sides having precincts that they controlled. When he through he had a comfortable lead, Johnson told his precinct bosses to release their votes. Pappy, holding on to a handful of precincts, was then able to “best” Johnson by 1300 votes. It would be the only election Johnson would lose.

 

While Johnson doesn’t come across as a likeable character throughout the book, there were places where Caro showed a gentler side of him. As a teacher in a mostly Mexican-American school, he was one of the few who cared for this students and encouraged their success. Later, after college, he became a teacher in Sam Houston High School where, as a debating coach, was able to propel his students to greatness. Johnson was a complex man, who carefully cultivated his image. The book leaves the reader wondering what’s going to happen to the young congressman who receives an appointment as a naval officer as the country goes to war. I also came away book wanting to know more about Johnson’s father and his “surrogate” father, Sam Rayburn.

 

If you have the time (and you’ll need it) and interest, I recommend this book!

Banquet Etiquette?

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Luke 14:7-14
September 1, 2019

 

The fourteenth chapter of Luke’s gospel opens with Jesus attending a dinner party at the home of a leading Pharisee. It’s the Sabbath, so it’s a special gathering with food that had been prepared earlier. As the sun sets and the Sabbath begins, Jews put on their finest robes and light their best candles. The Sabbath is important; one Jewish scholar describes the whole week as a pilgrimage to the Sabbath which is a foretaste of the eternal Sabbath.[1] But, as we know, there was a lot of debate in Jesus’ day over the meaning and purpose of the Sabbath. Jesus taught that the Sabbath is created for us, not us for the Sabbath, as some taught.[2]

Luke creates tension by telling us in verse two that all the eyes are on Jesus. There’s a man suffering from dropsy, an illness swells the body with water. Today, it might be called “Congestive Heart Failure.[3] He’s right in front of Jesus. Is Jesus being set up? Jesus asks the gathered crowd if it’s right to cure on the Sabbath. He receives no answer, so he cures the man. The he justifies his actions by asking them if they would intervene if they had an ox or a child fall into a well on the Sabbath. The crowd remains quiet.

This dinner party must have been the quietest on record. Normally, as everyone gathers, people mingle around with cocktails and greet one another. There’s a lot of talking. People offer their opinions about the day’s ballgame or the hurricane offshore or the Treasury’s inverted yield curve. But that doesn’t seem to be the case here. Everyone is quiet, so Jesus takes the stage and teaches with a series of parables. Today, we’re going to look at the first parable. Read Luke 14:7-14.

 

         At the end of the sixth grade at Bradley Creek Elementary School, there was a graduation banquet. It was held in the evening, which made it special, and in the cafeteria, which wasn’t so special. I’m sure we had macaroni and cheese. We always had mac and cheese. There must have been a rule that you couldn’t open the cafeteria without mac and cheese. But this was a special meal, so maybe there was a slice of ham or a piece of chicken and a piece of cake that was larger than the one inch cubes they fed us at lunch.

While I don’t remember exactly what we ate, there’s another memory from that evening that haunted me for years. I assumed our parents were invited to this banquet. I encouraged my parents to come. I am not sure where I got this idea, for there no other parents there. I’m not even sure why I thought it would be a big treat for my parents to eat cafeteria food. I was embarrassed, even though they graciously slipped out. Instead of eating cafeteria mac and cheese, they went to Wrightsville Beach for a seafood dinner.

Knowing the feeling of having invited someone who wasn’t invited, I understand some of what Jesus is driving at in this passage. Don’t make assumptions. It’s always better to be called up to the head table, than to be told you need to go to the back of the room. It’s simple banquet etiquette.

          In the bulletin, I titled this sermon “Humility and Hospitality.” The problem with coming up with a title a few weeks before writing a sermon is that you often have no idea where the sermon is heading. I later decided that a better title might be Banquet Etiquette. But as I continued to study and ponder, I decided to put a question mark at the end. Yes, Jesus expects us to be humble and not pretentious. Such advice will also keep us from being in an embarrassing position. Yes, on the surface, this is about etiquette. But is this what Jesus is driving? Is this Jesus’ attempt to be the Emily Post of the first century? Or is there a deeper message here?

         Remember what I said about the Sabbath, before reading this passage? That it was a foretaste of the eternal kingdom. And this section of Luke’s gospel is filled with parables that focus on the kingdom.[4] Parables generally operate on more than one level. They often, as Ken Bailey describes in his work on parables, contain a “play within a play.”[5] Each level has a different meaning. While the obvious meaning of our text today is about being humble and not pretentious, the deeper meaning of the parable has to do with God’s kingdom. What is Jesus envisioning here?

       The surface meaning may have to do with avoiding embarrassment. A deeper meaning might be that we should humble ourselves. One of the challenges that Jesus had was his disciples wanting to grab key positions in the coming kingdom.[6] Two of the dudes when so far as to ask their mom to intervene with Jesus on their behalf.[7] This is a deeper meaning of the parable. Don’t get caught up in all the fuss over where you’re going to be seated at the heavenly banquet (or even an earthly ones).

         But there is another way to look at this parable, which I had not considered until I read a blog post by a pastor in Iowa earlier this week.[8] He found himself needing to get to Minnesota where his wife was at with one of their cars that he needed to drive back to Iowa. He took the bus, which meant leaving Des Moines at 5 AM. Taking a bus can be an experience as most of the people on the bus are not like us. We drive or fly. I know what he means by taking a bus because 25 years ago, Donna and I had taken the train out west. It was a summer with a lot of floods and since train tracks are often right by rivers, they were flooded. Coming back, we ended up being on a bus for part of our journey. On this trip, from Iowa to Minnesota, the blogger realized the blessings that can come for being among those who were not like him—those with darker skin, many of whom spoke Spanish. Blessings can be experienced even when sitting at the back of any banquet.

          Instead of Jesus wanting us to show humility in the hopes that we might be called up to the head table (as you could read this passage), maybe Jesus is telling us to meet others where we find ourselves. Show hospitality to those less fortunate. If our only goal was to sit at the head table, we could easily display false humility to gain such a blessing. [9] Image a Monty Python skit where everyone is trying to outdo one another in humility in order to be seen as most humble just so they could be exalted.

         But Jesus wants us to long for the kingdom, which isn’t going to be made up of exclusively of those who look, and act like us. Jesus’ vision is for a world where believers cherish their friendship and fellowship with all people. It’s about us showing goodness to those who have no way to repay us for what we can do for them. Ponder what this kind of world might look like.

          You know, none of us know what this week will bring as Dorian churns up the waters. When Hurricane Matthew hit in 2016, I spent a few days in Dublin, GA. There’s a great hot dog shop there, not far from the courthouse, where I found myself drawn at lunchtime. There were the regulars, but there was also those of us in exile: from Savannah, from Hilton Head, from Brunswick and Saint Simons. The place was packed. Friendships were made as we were forced to share tables. Stories were told of shared experiences such as being in gridlock on the highway. There was a lot laughter. I image that’s how the kingdom will be. So, if we evacuate this week, and you find yourself in a strange land for a few days, don’t see it as a burden. Instead, take it as an opportunity to sample the kingdom. That’s what Jesus would have you do. Let us pray:

 

God of the wind and waves, the earth and the sky, we know of Jesus calming the storm. Calm our hearts as Dorian approaches and keep us safe. We pray for the people in the northern Bahamas, who are experiencing the worst of a natural disaster. Be with them, and with us. Where ever we find ourselves, whether we are at the head table or in the back corner, help us to be the people who show kindness. Amen.

 

©2019

[1] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (1951, New York: Farrar, Staus, & Giroux, 1979), 90-91.

[2] Mark 2:27. See also Luke 6:1-5.

[3] https://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=13311

[4] In Luke 13, Jesus tells two parables of the kingdom (verses 18-19: Parable of the Mustard Seed, and verses 20-21, Parable of the Yeast). After this parable, he tells another parable of the great banquet, which is also about God’s coming kingdom.

[5] Kenneth El. Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), xiii.

[6] I. Howard Marshall, New International Greek Testament Commentary: Commentary on Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1981), 581.

[7] Matthew 20:20.

[8] https://blog.reformedjournal.com/2019/08/27/my-bus-ride/?utm_source=Email+Subscribers&utm_campaign=ef7c65f61a-RSS_EMAIL_CAMPAIGN&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_6195eefb80-ef7c65f61a-111355499

[9] See Fred B. Craddock, Luke (Louisville, KY: JKP, 1990), 176-177.  Craddock reminds his readers that the word in the New Testament that’s translated as hospitality literally means “love of a stranger.” Hospitality isn’t just rolling out the red carpet for important guests but welcoming those who may be on the margin.