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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Two threads that run through the book are her relationship with God and her dealing with depression, thoughts of suicide, and her struggles with relationships (beyond that with her siblings) which has much to do with her struggles with PTSD. As a young child, she had grown up Catholic in Vietnam. It had given her the foundations so that she would pray when things were bad. But from her experience, she saw God as angry and vengeful and wondered what she’d done to deserve such treatment. It took a lot of work for her to learn to handle her emotions and the way her past colored her world.

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

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

The Perils of Sleeping in Church

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

©2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[8] Bruce, 408.

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

[10] Bruce, 408. Gaventa, 279.

[11] Gaventa, 280.

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

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

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

Two Books Reviews for Today’s Church

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Friday’s Paddle

Osprey and chick in their nest

heading out

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

 

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

 

Is that a funnel cloud or not?

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

On Wassaw

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

Storm to the west, looking back across Pine Island

Chilling in a hammock

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

South end of Pine Island

South end of Wassaw

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

Paul in Ephesus, Part 2

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

Read Acts 19:23-41.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2018

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

[2] Matthew 6:19-20.

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

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

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

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

[7]  Gaventa, 276.

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

Two Poems

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

 

Resurrection, or a New Children’s Crusade

Hastings Cemetery

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

 

 

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

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

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

The Thornapple River below the cemetery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spring along the Thornapple

 

 

Ode to Lovers Lost and Unknown

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

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

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

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

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

Old Postcards of the Lumina

 

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

 

The Power of Jesus’ Name

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Acts 19:1-20

June 3, 2018

 

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunrise, Wrightsville Beach, NC, 2008

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

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

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

[3] Luke 12:49-53.

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

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

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

[7] F. F. Bruce, 390.

Soup from the garden

Cabbage Soup and Beet Soup

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

 

Beet Soup

Several onions, chopped

5 stalks of celery, chopped

3 carrots, chopped

6 cloves of garlic, chopped

3 cups of thin sliced beets

10 cups vegetable broth

Oil

Salt and pepper

Sour cream

 

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

 

Cabbage Soup

3 onions, chopped

6 cloves of garlic, chopped

Head of cabbage, cored and chopped

3 quarts chicken broth

1 quart water

2 cans of stewed tomatoes

Basil, oregano, salt and pepper to taste

Oil

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Nicodemus visits at night

Jeff Garrison  

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

May 27, 2018

John 3:1-17

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

©2018

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

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

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

[4] Matthew 5:16.

[5] Numbers 21:4-9.

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

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

Pentecost 2018

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Ezekiel 37:1-14

May 20, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

©2018

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

[2] Psalm 134:8

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

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

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

A Prayer (and its origin)

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

 

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

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

Two Roads

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

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

May 13, 2018

Psalm 1

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

V & T Railroad, south of Gold Hill, NV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spring along the Thornapple River, MI

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

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

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

 

©2018

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

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

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

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

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

[6] Psalm 119:14-16.

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

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

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

The House by the Side of the Road

Helen McKenzie Garrison Wright 2016-2016

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

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

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

The House by the Side of the Road

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

A Day (and two nights) in the Dry Tortugas

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

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

 

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

 

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

Our campsite from the top of Fort Jefferson

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

 

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

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

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

Sunrise over Long Key from the docks at Garden Key

 

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

 

Loggerhead Key Lighthouse

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

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

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

Barracuda

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

Inside Fort Jefferson

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

 

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

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

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

Don’t believe everything you hear

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

May 6, 2018

I John 4:1-6

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buyer beware! This is a lesson the human race should have learned back in the garden when Eve had that little chat with the serpent. But the lesson hadn’t taken hold by John’s day, nor has it taken hold in ours.

There are two main points that John brings out here. First of all, to put this in the style of an English teacher instructing students on writing essays, “we must understand that misinformation abounds and we check our sources.” John’s concern is primarily in what people are saying about Jesus, so he tells his readers not to trust those who do not confess that Jesus has come in the flesh and is from God. Secondly, John reminds his readers that God has already won the victory for us and that God’s Spirit is stronger than any of the lesser spirits in the world—those from the antichrist—who are spreading misinformation about Christ.

John is mainly interested in Christology, what people believe about Jesus Christ. Do they believe that Jesus is both human and divine? In John’s day, it seems that some were erring on the side of divinity? Today, it seems as if the pendulum has swung and many folks instead of placing too much emphasis on Jesus’ humanity, deny his divinity. Both are wrong. Now, John is right in that we need to love others, including them, we just don’t need to follow them.

John’s advice here, not to believe everything we hear, is as useful today, if not more so than it was 2000 years ago. For not everything we hear is noble. Not everything is true. Not everything is good. We have to test the spirits, we have to test what we hear and discern if it is true and also good. Unfortunately, John doesn’t give us a lot of advice here on discernment.[3] His focus more narrow. He gives us a test as to whether or not a teaching about Jesus Christ is true. If such a teaching is true, it’ll assert that Jesus is God incarnate, which is a tension that we hold together, this notion that yes, Jesus is divine, but also yes, Jesus is human.

There are other places in Scripture where we can go to learn more about discernment. Jesus tells us to that we’ll know people by their fruits,[4] a teaching that presupposes the goal of evil to be death. If what one says and does brings life in the eternal sense, it’s true. If what one says and does brings destruction and death, it’s not true. In Galatians, Paul talks about the work of the flesh as opposed to the work of the Spirit in one’s life. God’s Spirit brings about love and joy, peace and patience and kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.[5] Is the teaching true; is it life-affirming; does it result in better people? We need to ask such questions about that which we hear as well as our own beliefs. Remember that folk song that lifts up a simple truth, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

Friends, we live in a tough world.  It’s a world that wants to deny the Creator, the source of life. Hold fast to the truth that God so loves the world that in the life of Jesus Christ, he came to us as a man! That’s the truth; that’s the gospel; that’s what we’re to be about and what we proclaim at this table. Amen.

 

©2018

[1] The NRSV begins this passage, “Don’t believe every spirit.  The King James and New International versions tend to follow the same path while paraphrases like The Living Bible and The Message emphasis what we  hear from others.

[2] See https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/5-errors-of-the-prosperity-gospel/.

[3] Two books dealing with discernment:  Thomas H. Green, S.J., Weeds Among the Wheat: Discernment: Where Prayer & Action Meet (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1984) and Danny E. Morris & Charles M. Olsen, Discerning God’s Will Together: A Spiritual Practice for the Church (Bethesada, MD: Alban Institute, 1997.

[4] See Matthew 7:15-20 and John 15:1-6.

[5] Galatians 5:16-26.  Quote from verses 22-23.

Abiding in Christ: The Church

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

April 29, 2018

John 15:1-17

 

 

Have you ever asked yourself why we profess in the Apostles’ Creed to believe in the holy catholic church? “Didn’t we break away from the Catholics back in the Reformation?” Yes, in an institutional sense, we did. We are not part of the Roman Catholic (with a big C) Church. Furthermore, Presbyterians don’t believe that our particular institution has a corner on the religious market—we’re not the only “true church.” The “true church,” as John Calvin taught, is found “wherever the gospel is rightly preached and the sacraments administered.”[1] The word catholic (in the little “c”) does not refer to an institutional church, but to the church that is throughout the world, the church that is anywhere people come together in Jesus’ name.

        Interestingly, while some people don’t like using the word catholic, thinking it makes us too much like the Romans, no one questions the use of the word “holy.” For me, that’s the troubling word. I’m sure all of us could give an example of the church acting in an unholy way. The church is made up of fallen, sinful folk. It’s far from being holy by most anyone’s standards. The word “holy” should need more explanation than “catholic.” Yes, we are holy, but not by what we do. We’re holy through our relationship to Jesus. It’s only through him that we can claim holiness!  And we are!

Let’s now look at John 15. Here Jesus, on that night of his betrayal, discusses about the role of the church. Read John 15:1-17.

 

          I’m sure many of you have read Shel Silverstein’s book, The Giving Tree. Considered a children’s story, it’s a parable for all ages. The story is about a tree’s relationship to a young boy who grows up. As a child, the boy plays under the tree and on her branches. As he grows up and needs money, the tree provides fruit that he can sell. As he grows older, she gives her branches for his house. And as he gets even older, she gives her trunk so that he builds a boat and sail far away. When he finally returns, he needs a place to sit, and the tree allows the boy, who is now an old man, to sit on her stump.[2] The story shows the graciousness of the tree and touts the benefits of sacrifice, for the tree is only happy when she is able to meet the needs of the boy. But there is a deeper meaning in the story, for the tree finds herself reduced to only a stump, having given all she could to satisfy a boy whose appetite could never be satisfied.

Jesus Christ is like that tree. He gave his all to us; as we’re reminded in this passage, Jesus as our friend was willing to lay down his life for us. But Jesus doesn’t tell us to be a tree.  Instead, he describes the Christian life as being lived out on the vine. This is an interesting comparison, the differences between a tree and a vine. A tree, as in Silverstein’s story, stands alone.  But as Christians, we’re not called to stand alone; we’re connected to one another which is why the vine is a more appropriate metaphor. Each branch of the vine must depend upon the vine itself for its life as it shoots out across the ground.  We’re all connected to each other.

        Jesus was probably thinking of grapes when he spoke about us being branches of a vine, but I wonder if Kudzu should be our metaphor. You know, the railroads brought kudzu over from Asia, a century or so ago, to help them maintain the banks alongside the tracks. It grows so fast you plant it by throwing the seeds as far as you can then running for your life. That’s the way the gospel should spread! Of course, unless you’re a goat, kudzu has no real useful fruit, so maybe we’re not to be like kudzu, gobbling up acres of land in a season. Instead, we’re to be like a grape vine that is tenderly cared for by the gardener as it matures.

         Consider the grape. Its vine is gnarly and twisted, yet it is through the vine that the branches and leaves and fruit receive nourishment. One thing about the trunk of a vine is that it’s almost indestructible. You can cut it back, cut it down, but as long as there are some roots, it grows back even stronger (kind of like our Wax Myrtle). This should remind you and me of the eternal nature of God’s promises. The church has faced many difficulties in its history. There have been times the church has been pruned way back, and that may be what’s happening to the Western Church today. But the church always grows back stronger.

         This morning I want to highlights three characteristics of our Christian life and faith that are apparent as we consider our life on the vine: openness, fellowship, and equality. Jesus tells us that we are not servants but friends because he has made known to us the Father. Our Christian faith is not to be shrouded in secrecy. Sure, we don’t know everything about God, but Jesus made known enough of God’s ways that we can find our way home, back to him. The knowledge of God which Jesus has shared with us is found in Scripture and is open for all people… As Jesus is open to us, we are to be open with God and one another about our struggles and pain. Only then do we make room for God’s help in our lives.

The second characteristic of the Christian life given in this passage is one of fellowship. The vine image shows our interconnectedness with each other through Jesus Christ. We are told to abide in his love and twice Jesus tells us in this passage to love one another. The church is about love! We are to love and respect and be in fellowship with each other. Yet, our love doesn’t stop with others who are on the vine; for our Savior tells us we must love and pray for our enemies[3] in the hope that they too will want to be grafted onto the vine. Love is essential for us to be a Christian. As individuals, we must constantly check our hearts to root out bitterness in order to be more loving.

The third characteristic of the Christian life is equality, which comes from the fact that we did not choose each other to make up a church, rather God chose us and put us together.  God grafted us onto the vine for a reason. God chose us to bear fruit. In other words, God choses us to carry out the mission of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, our equality is grounded in the fact that Jesus doesn’t call us servants but friends. Since there is an equality in our relationship to Christ there should be an equality with our relationship with sisters and brothers of the faith. We must not look down on another, for our value isn’t in who we are, but in to whom we belong.

       One of my favorite professors when I was in seminary was Dr. Douglas Hare.  Doug died a few years ago, but before retirement to the woods of Maine, he was considered a leading scholar on the gospel of Matthew as well as the persecution of the church during the first two centuries of the Common Era. He wrote numerous books and articles on these topics. But there was something strange about him. Unlike most of his colleagues, he refused to allow students call him Dr. Hare or Professor Hare. He insisted on being called Doug and this was one of the passages he used to support his claim that we are all equal in the faith. “We may be at different places in our journey,” Doug said, “but in Christ we are all equal.”  Unfortunately, Doug’s equality seemed to end on exam day…

Our equality in Christ is why I prefer to be called Jeff and often wonder who people are talking to when I hear Reverend Garrison or Doctor Garrison.

We may have different functions in the church, but we are all equal in the eyes of God and should be equal to one another.  As I’ve pointed out many times, one of the great contributions of the Protestant Reformation is the “priesthood of all believers.” Everyone—man, woman and child—has access to God through Jesus Christ. For this reason the Protestant Church has no priestly office. Your prayers are just as good and effective as mine.

The “priesthood of all believers” impacts not only religious life, but also our political structures. The concept made democracy feasible. One historian described the beginning of the Protestant Reformation “as a protest against arbitrary, self-aggrandizing, hierarchical authority.”[4] The Reformers, especially the Swiss and Scots, wanted more local control.

The church is filled with folks like you and me who make up the “priesthood of believers.” The belief in the equality of all human beings in the eyes of God has the power to drive changes in both church and society. Jesus emptied himself making himself equal to us and calls us to accept others who believe in him as brothers and sisters. If we go back to that image of the vine, maybe we can now see how we are all connected together.  And because of Jesus’ command to love one another, then we as the Christian family have responsibilities to each other.

        I can’t faithfully discuss this passage without making some reference to judgment. Pruning plays an important role here, for those branches that are unproductive are cut away so that other more productive branches can grow and bear even more fruit.  Judgment, we see, isn’t all bad from the perspective of new growth. It may hurt, but we have to be judged and to discard those things that keep us from Christ. Of course, judgment isn’t the main message here, the main message has to do with us living life on the vine, being nourished by Jesus Christ.

         What does life on the vine look like? It’s a life filled with graciousness toward others. It’s a life of forgiveness. We acknowledge our own imperfections which are in need of purring, and because we know we’re not perfect, we don’t we expect others to be that way. Instead, we have a mellow heart, being willing to forgive. Secondly, we encourage one another to strive to do their best.  We’re like members of an Olympic team who rejoice at a teammates achievements. Just as we’re cheered on by others who have gone before us, we’re to cheer on others running beside us. Finally, our lives are lived as we focus ourselves on the goal, on Christ.

I believe in the holy catholic church… The church is holy not because of us, but because of Christ. Friends, that’s good news! The church is catholic because it is universal, found throughout the world. And that, too, is good news and should give us hope. You are the church. We are the church and it’s only when we are together that we can abide with Christ on the vine. Amen.

 

©2018

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV.1.9.

[2] Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree (New York: Harper and Row, 1964).  For an interesting study of this story, see Susan Nelson Dunfee: Beyond Servanthood: Christian and the Liberation of Women (Latham: University Press of America 1989), 85-87.

[3] Matthew 5:44.

[4] Steven Ozment, Protestants: The Birth of a Revolution (New York, Doubleday, 1991), 19.

 

Safe at Home

Marc A. Jolley, Safe at Home: A Memoir of God, Baseball, and Family (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2005), 139 pages, a few photos.

 

This is a delightful book in which Jolley recalls childhood memories with his father on up to the time he became a father himself. Jolley links these life transitions together with his love of baseball and his growing faith. Like baseball with more strikeouts than home runs, Jolley’s story contains sadness along with joy. There’s the time he failed to make his high school team. Then there are the casualties experienced by those, like Jolley, on the sideline during a political battles between fundamentalists and more moderate members of his denomination (Southern Baptist). These were tough times to be in seminary as Jolley completes his MDiv and PhD.  Jolley also deals with depression. Through it all, Jolley is supported by parents and wife. In the end, Jolley discovers that family is the medicine needed to help keep his depression under control.

 

As a white Southerner, I have never understood fellow Southerners who root for the Yankees. As a child, it was always St. Louis and then Atlanta, when the Braves moved there. The Yankees were despised.  I recently learned this was also true of many African-Americans in the South (at least in the 50s).  I would have thought they would have seen the Yankees as liberators (a good thing), but the New York Yankees was one of the last teams to integrate.  Instead, African-Americans were drawn to the Dodgers, who brought up Jackie Robinson to break the color barrier in baseball.[1] That said, Jolley and his father were Yankee fans.  He describes entering Yankee Stadium with his son to watch their first game with the details of an architect entering a cathedral. Reading about this trip, I was excited for him.  I was almost as excited as I was three years ago when I saw my first game at Yankee Stadium.  Like his son, a Diamondback fan who rooted against the Yankees, I attended a Yankee-Detroit cheering on the Tiger’s.  Baseball has a way of bringing people together and providing a good time even though in my game it rained and the Tiger’s lost by 12 runs.

 

Jolley’s father’s love for the Yankees’ was tested when they pick up Reggie Jackson as a free agent. His father couldn’t stand Jackson saying he had no respect for one who bragged about himself and talked bad about others. But Jackson, Mr. October, backed up his loud mouth with homeruns. Sadly, Jolley was never able to attend a game at Yankee Stadium with his father.  When he was able to take his own son, his father was in a nursing home. But his smiled and enjoyed the stories when he heard about the trip Jolley took with his son.

 

I also appreciated how Jolley wove in many of my favorite authors into his narrative. Will Campbell’s Glad River makes an appearance as he reflects on his father’s faith (even though he was never baptized). He quotes William Styron and credits him with getting through depression.  Dante’s Divine Comedy makes an appearance as does W. P. Kinsella.’s classic, Shoeless Joe” upon which the movie “Field of Dreams was based.”

 

This is an enjoyable read and I highly recommend it. As Jolley points out in the quote below, there things baseball does better than the church in the disciple-making business:

 

I never learned to respect enemies at church. I learned a lot about hate and divisiveness at church. I learned nothing about a common goal, or a purpose. Not until much later did I ever figure church out.  Playing baseball that year, I got a head start on what church was supposed to be.  (Page 60)

 

[1] On race and team loyalty in at least one corner of the south, see Melton A. McLaurin, Separate Pasts: Growing Up White in the Segregated South (1987, Athens: UGA Press, 1998), 142-145,

My First Canoe

Paddling Town Creek with my brother (late 70s)

Buck and Nancy were the youth group advisors at church during my Senior High years. They were both teachers.  Buck, who’d done a stint with the Marine Corps as an officer in Vietnam, taught high school biology and Nancy taught in an elementary school. They were young and full of energy.  We had a small youth program, a dozen or so students, but it was a tight knit group. We spent a weekend painting the youth room.  The walls were blocked and we painted each block by hand: green, blue or yellow, in diagonal strips that ran up the walls.  Then we went back and outline each block, painting the mortar black.  When we were done, it was very psychedelic and very 70s!  We met in that room every Sunday evening and once a year we’d take a weekend trip to Camp Kirkwood, which was always highlighted by a day-long canoe trip on the Black River.

The water was high and fast that early spring day in 1973. Or maybe it was late winter as the trees were still bare. Whenever we reached a bend in the river, water continue to flow straight, cutting through the swampy side of the river, making it difficult to navigate our canoes as the water pushed you out of the main channel.  We struggled and paddled hard, especially at the bends and in the shoots through blow downs, where the force of water threatened to push us into trees that had fallen into the river.  Buck and Nancy paddled up and down the line of canoes, offering suggestions and encouragement, trying to keep everyone together and dry.  Most of the canoes had two paddlers, but there was one boat with three people.  Billy, who always marched to his own drum and never worried about what others said about him, sat in the middle as Marge and Rosa paddled from the bow and stern.  At one point, Buck was yelling for everyone to stop and Billy, thinking he would be helpful, reached up and grabbed a branch of a tree to hold the boat. His choice of branches wasn’t the best as it was rotted and a fell across the canoe. Luckily, they didn’t capsize. Seeing this large branch straddle the canoe, like out-riggers, gave us all a laugh. At lunch, on a high bluff overlooking a bend in the river, clouds began to come in and the temperature cooled.  Buck hurried us on, saying we might be getting some rain.  But it never did rain that day and by mid-afternoon, we were pulling our canoes out and loading them on the trailer for the trip back to Camp Kirkwood.

This was my first river canoe trip.  I’d paddled a canoe on a lake at scout camp, but there was something about the river where every bend held new possibilities of seeing wildlife.  The Black River gets its name from the dark water that’s stained by the tannin acid from the cypress and juniper that grow in the swamps around the river.  Although I didn’t know it at the time, we’d canoed through swamps that contained some of the oldest trees in the Eastern United States. One tree there is over 1700 years old.  But that didn’t matter, I was hooked. Not long after this trip, I began working at Wilson’s Supermarket and immediately started looking at canoes and saving some money.   My dad suggested that before buying a new canoe I put an ad in the classified section of the Star News. It was a simple advertisement, “Wanted: A Canoe” and included our phone number.  A few days later, while I was at school, a man from Southport called and left me a message.  I called him back and in a day or two, my father drove me over to look at his Grumman Canoe.  The man was moving and needed to sell it and offered it to me for $60.  At this time, a new would have cost me nearly $400.  I brought it and we tied it to the top of my father’s car and drove home, stopping along the way to buy paddles and life jackets.  Over the next ten years, I got more than my money’s worth out of the canoe.  That $60 investment was the best I’ve ever made as it provided me over a decade of explorations all over North Carolina, and into Tennessee and Virginia. But mostly I used it to paddle the black water swamps of Eastern North Carolina.

I was heartbroken in 1985, when I came home from the National Jamboree of the Boy Scouts of America to discover that during my absence, someone had stolen my canoe.  However, the “replacement cost rider” on my insurance (partly due to a decade of high inflation) paid me significantly more than what I’d originally paid for the canoe and I upgraded to a Mad River ABS boat (which I still have).

Overnight fishing trip on the Black River, 1975 Photo by Donald McKenzie

 

Kirkin 2018


Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Psalm 85

April 15, 2018

 

On this Sunday in which we celebrate our Scottish heritage, let me speak a bit about the Reformation in Scotland. Unlike the Swiss, German and English Reformations that were almost exclusively led by clergy, the leadership of the Scottish Reformation was mostly led by lay leaders within the church. Some of this filters down into the way the Presbyterians are governed to this day, with our emphasis on a church ran by elected elders.

        While lay leaders carried out the Reformation, there were those like John Knox, who served as a mouthpiece for the reforms. He was a chaplain at St. Andrews and later a preacher in some of the more influential pulpits of Scotland. Knox may not have been a theologian in the ranks of Luther, Zwingli and Calvin for he only wrote a few minor tracts. Bur he was known his preaching. He was a firebrand who didn’t mind pointing the finger at those in need of correction.

Now, my beard is rather modest compared to the one Knox’s wore.  Don’t worry, I don’t want one like his, for I’d be afraid I’d get it caught in an escalator or fan belt. That said, today I believe I can hold my own with Knox when it comes to pointing the finger.  You’ve been warned.  Watch out, especially those to my left. (In case you haven’t heard, I cut my left pointing finger on Friday and have 5 stitches in it, along with a huge bandage)

Our passage this morning is Psalm 85, a plea for the restoration of God’s favor.  Read Psalm 85.

        Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel, Kidnapped, is set a few years after the Scottish Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. In the story, the protagonist, David Balfour, has been “kidnapped.”  This was arranged by his uncle who didn’t want him to cut into his inheritance.  Balfour is locked up on the Covenant, a brig in Edinburgh harbor, bound for the American colonies. There, he’ll be sold as an indentured servant.

Aboard ship, Balfour befriends another passenger, Alan Breck Stewart, who was loyal to the Jacobite cause. Stewart is wanted by the English authorities who now control Scotland. Stewart is able to obtain Balfour released from his bondage. The ship upon which they travel is to make one more stop in Scotland before beginning the crossing of the Atlantic. Having sailed around the north of the country, they make their way through the Inner Hebrides, sailing around Iona and then head inland on the south side of the Isle of Mull. There, the ship strikes a reef and breaks up. Balfour and Stewart team up as they make their way across Mull and then across Scotland. It’s a dangerous time, with English Redcoats on the lookout.

As Balfour leaves the Isle of Mull on a ferry for the mainland, they spot a ship at anchor. At first Balfour fears it’s an English ship on the lookout for the French, who had supported the Scots in the revolt. But as they come closer, they hear the sound of moaning and melancholy songs as people are ferried to the ship. The ship is bound for the colonies, full of emigrants. “Those on board and those on shore were crying and lamenting one to another so as to pierce the heart,” writes Stevenson. They were leaving behind family and friends and their beloved homeland.[1]

        Scotland’s history is filled of such accounts of people leaving and heading to other lands to seek their fortune. Scotland, in the early 18th Century, was one of the poorer areas of Europe and especially after the failure of the Jacobite rebellion, people fled. Then came the clearances, which in some ways can be compared to the Cherokee removal in our own country. Those who had lived for generations upon the land were forced off, many of whom headed to the Americas. Today, across the Highlands, you can see the ruins of cottages which once housed those driven off the land. Scotland is such a lovely country. It had to hurt to leave that beautiful land, not to mention their friends and family.

         You might be wondering what this has to do with Psalm 85.  There’s a parallel.  Although the dating of this Psalm isn’t completely clear, the situation described fits the situation during or right after Israel’s exile in Babylon.[2] Here you had a nation proud its land of milk and honey, which had been given to them by their God. We see this pride in the first verse where they speak of God showing favor to the land. God restored the fortunes of Jacob who, if you remember had to flee to Egypt due to a famine. There, his descendants eventually became slaves. The Psalm looks back to a time when the people experienced God’s mercy. Likewise, those leaving Scotland could have called back happier days, before the loss at Culloden or before the clearances, when they were free to live on the land.

The Psalmist, who begins praising God, changes his tone in verse four. We quickly realize, as we read further, that things are not all pleasant for the Psalmist and his people. Something has happened. The situation is interpreted as the fallout from an angry God. The Psalmist and his people are in trouble. While he sees it as coming from a broken relationship with God, he knows only God can change things. God is the source of his salvation. In verse 6, he cries out for God to revive them if just for the purpose that they might rejoice and praise God. He knows that God is love and begs to experience, once again, that steadfast love.

          There are things we might take to heart and learn in these opening two sections of the Psalm. The Psalmist knows he can call upon God because God has been faithful in the past.  Having tasted God’s goodness reminds him that there is hope. The same is true for us. If we find ourselves struggling, remember back to a time when God was merciful and, in prayer, bring up how you felt then and ask God to intervene in the situation. Pray that the Almighty might once again let you enjoy the sweet taste of his mercy.

        We know life is not always sunny. There are gray days, when we have to move on. There are stormy days in which we trudge. The people of Jerusalem had to move as they were sent into exile. And for those of us of Scottish ancestry, our forefathers and mothers had to leave behind the heather-covered crags and brave ocean storms as they sought a new life. When we find ourselves in turbulent waters it is good to remember what God did for us in the past.  Recalling such grace reminds us that God will remain with us into the future.

         If you look at this Psalm, you’ll see the divisions to which I refer. Verses 1-3 recall what God has done in the past. Verses 4-7 reminds us of the presence troubles for which we need God’s help. In verse 8, the Psalm takes another turn.

For a moment put yourself back in time, back before the coming of Christ. The Book of Psalms was the worship book of the Hebrew people. Imagine in worship, one group of the gathered (let’s say those to my right) reciting what God has done for them in the past. Then, those on the other side (to my left) cry out in response for deliverance from their current troubles. The liturgical breaks are easy to see in this Psalm. Now, the Psalm could have ended at verse 8, but we’d been left wondering what will happen. So it continues. An individual steps out from the gathered congregation in verse 8 and shouts: “Let me hear what God has to say.” In the next two verses, he expresses confidence that God will speak, that God will act.

This individual then, beginning with verse 10, provides a beautiful eschatological description of the world to come.[3] It’s a time when love and faith meet, when righteous and peace kiss, where faithfulness springs up from the ground like a fountain while righteousness looks down like the sun.

      We need visions of hope like this today, with our complex problems. We long for peace in places like Syria, but we also realize that there is a justice issue. Peace can’t be brought by a tyrant gassing and killing his opposition with little regard to the death of children and innocent. That’s peace through elimination and it never works! Slalom, this Old Testament word translated as peace, is more than the absence of conflict. It’s a marriage of peace and justice, it requires harmony and righteousness. And we have such a vision in the closing verses of this Psalm.

The hope of salvation in this Psalm and within our faith is not in our abilities to wage war or to achieve great things. Our salvation can only come from God who chose us. If we depend on our own deeds of righteousness, we will be sadly disappointed. But if we place our hope in God, as revealed in Jesus Christ, we shall prevail and be given the strength to endure any hardship.

The Israelites endured hardships yet provided the setting for the birth of the Messiah. Our Scottish ancestors endured hardship yet many thrived in the New World.[4] We, too, will endure hardship, but God is faithful.  One day all of us, all the elect, will enjoy the promise offered in this Psalm. Until then, we continue to trust.  Amen.

 

©2018

[1] Robert Louis Stevenson, Kidnapped (1886: Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2014), 97-98.

[2] While acknowledging the appeal of the Psalm as post-exile, Weiser makes the case that it could have been pre-exile.  I suggest it could have also been during the exile. See Artur Weiser, The Psalms: Old Testament Library (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), 571-572 and http://seachurchesmedia.org/seachurches/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Day-126-PSALMS-OF-THE-EXILE-Psalm-44-Psalm-74-Psalm-79-Psalm-80-Psalm-85-Psalm-89-Psalm-102-Psalm-106-Psalm-123-Psalm-137-September-19.pdf

 

[3] James L. Mays, Psalms: Interpretation, A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1994), 277.

[4] See Arthur Herman, How the Scots Invented the Modern World, (New York: Random House, 2001).

John’s Love Letter

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

April 8, 2018

1 John 1:1-2:2

 

Today we’ll explore the opening of the 1st Letter of John. The letters of John have numerous similarities with the Gospel of John. Both begin talking about Jesus Christ as the eternal Word. As the Word, Jesus reveals God to us. Both use similar metaphors, such as connecting Jesus with light. He’s the light coming into the world, showing us the truth. This light shows us the right path but also exposes our flaws.

John did not write this letter just to give his reader a theological lesson. There’s something going on in the background that we don’t fully understand looking back from our perspective. You get a sense from reading this letter that people are leaving the fellowship. They are upset with what’s being taught and the way things are being done. As you’ll see in this letter, John thinks they’re wrong.

Some scholars believe those falling away from the fellowship may have been involved in an early church heretical movement known as Docetism, which comes from a Greek word meaning “to seem.”[1] Docetists believed Jesus Christ did not come in a real body, but only in a spirit form. Before the crucifixion, his spirit left his body. The doctrine refers to a belief that the humanity of Jesus was not real. Docetists saw Jesus as divine only; he only appeared human. According to them, Jesus was a divine being dressed up in human clothes, kind of like the Greek gods would sometimes do.[2] And if you remember those stories, when that happened, chaos erupted.

As people of faith, we believe that Jesus lived just like us. God became a human being in the life of Jesus, as a way to bridge the gap that exists between us and our Father in Heaven. Jesus came to show us how to live and how to get back on the wagon of eternal life.  Let’s listen to this passage.  1st John 1:1-2:2

You know, being a teenager is tough.  And one of the toughest parts about being a teenager is being in love. Perhaps it’s because life seemed fairly innocent then. Your feelings and the intensity of your relationships seem so strong at the time. There this strong desire to connect, but you don’t know what to do with all these feelings. And such love, as we know since most of us have been through it, seldom lasts. Sure, there are a few people who fall in love when they are in their early teen years, and live happily ever after. But for most of us, these early relationships fail after a matter of weeks or months.

          My first real love was Cathy, a dark haired Italian girl, who sat in front of me in my sixth grade class at Bradley Creek Elementary School. She had gone to Catholic school through fifth grade. In the sixth, she made the jump over to public school. Her desk was in front of mine. I spent days gazing into her long straight hair that sometimes laid over the top of my desk. As we wrapped up the sixth grade and entered Roland Grice Jr. High, home of the Black Knights, the two of us were an “item.” We were inseparable for the next year, except of course for when her brothers were around. They were a couple years older and loved tormenting me.

One day, trying to act big and bad, I did something incredibly stupid. Cathy took offense and broke up with me. I was so devastated I drew upon all the literary skill I possessed as a 13 year old and wrote a letter to her to woo her back. I admitted mistakes and promised her the moon. We talked, but we never got back together. Soon, we went our separate ways. Summer break was just a few weeks away. The next year, due to the district’s realignment, she was in another school and we lost track of each other.

I’m sure some of you have had similar experiences in your own relationships, especially as a teenager. You may have even written letters from a broken heart.

John’s letter may have been written from a broken heart.[3] There seems to be grief in the opening paragraph. In the fifth verse John says, “We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.” This expresses his sentiments. He’s concerned because there are those within the community of faith who have fallen away. They’re not holding close to the teachings of the Apostles. It breaks John’s heart. One of the strongest desires for us as human beings is a desire to be with others. When those we love and care about—whether a boyfriend, girlfriend, good friend, or someone we sit in the pews with—are no longer there, there’s a gaping hole in our hearts. How could John and his congregation feel joy without those they loved?

          John writes out of concern. His letter is filled with examples of this love.  He encourages the believers to have such love for one another. Jesus Christ showed us how to love and we’re to emulate it. When we are bound together in that love, we have joy. We don’t always have happiness, we may not always have all that we want or desire. But we can have joy when we know we are living as God would have us live.

“Restore to me the joy of thy salvation,” David prays in the 51st Psalm.[4] This is what John hopes will happen. Salvation is not just having a room reserved in heaven; salvation is about the restoration of relationships. John wants those who have fallen away to come back, and he wants those who are still part of the fellowship to stick together.

          From the text we read this morning, the first four verses deal with John reminding his readers that they are witnesses to what God has done for them in Jesus Christ. Then, in verse 5, he shifts a little bit, and talks about the message of Christ, comparing it as in the Gospel of John to the coming of light. When we’re drawn into that light, our sins are exposed and we are therefore able to be cleansed and live in the light. But he warns, that if we long for the shadows, we deceive ourselves and others.

       Three times in this passage, John begins, “If we say”, and goes on to expand upon a particular heresy or sin, which he refutes while continually offering the possibility of redemption. First, if we say we have fellowship, and we continue to walk in the darkness, we’re not doing what is true. But, if we walk in the light, we can be cleansed by the blood of Christ. Second, he says if we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and we have no truth within us, but if we confess our sins, he who is faithful (Jesus Christ) will forgive and cleanse us. Thirdly, when we say we have not sinned, we’re making Christ into a liar, and his words are not in to us, but if anyone sins, we have an advocate.

John does not desire for people to sin, but he realizes sin is a reality in our world, and he wants to assure us of the redemption available through Jesus Christ. The possibility available from Jesus Christ through the confession of our sins and acceptance of his grace and love is that we’ll be forgiven. Christ has atoned for our sinfulness. Not only for our personal sins but for the sins of the world.

Expanding this thought about the reality of sin, John highlights the problem of hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is where our actions don’t jibe with our words. And sadly, at one time or another, all of us here, myself included, have been guilty. But it is a serious problem because it makes us, the church, look bad.

Thankfully, there’s Jesus who came to show us the way.  John lifts up the purpose of Jesus Christ, who came as a human being, who was sinless, and who offered up his body on the cross to atone for all of our sins. Three things: the reality of sin, the danger of hypocrisy, both of which drag us down, and the redemption of Jesus Christ that lifts us up and offers us hope to get out of the hole we’ve dug for ourselves.

John reminds us that being good enough is not the goal. We can never be good enough. Instead of worrying ourselves to death about being good, John reminds us that Jesus has made us a good offer. Confess, step out into the light, and accept his grace, his forgiveness. If we do this, we don’t have to worry if we’re good enough. We can rejoice that in Jesus Christ, we’re righteous and are free to do God’s work in a way that will make the world a better place.

          With the idea of us being freed to do God’s work, let me talk for a moment about Faith in Practice. I like the name of this group our congregation partners with for mission work: “Faith in Practice.” We don’t do mission work so that we can be good enough or to earn more brownie points to help us overcome all the demerits we have in God’s eyes. Instead, having been freed in Jesus Christ, we can support and participate such work out of gratitude for what God has done for us. Our mission efforts is a way we practice living out our faith.

When I was with Faith in Practice in February, I was with a team going out into the countryside. While the team did all kinds of medical check-ups including some procedures, much of the work they were doing was seeing patients who might need surgery, often provided by the surgery teams in Antigua.

On the second day in the village of Monjas, a small town in Southeastern Guatemala, a young woman of 17 came into the clinic. She looked as if she was going to give birth at any moment, but insisted she was not pregnant. Just looking at her, Dr. Aileen wasn’t so sure. She had her tested. To the physician’s surprise, she wasn’t pregnant. Then, because we had ultrasound equipment with us, the doctor was able to identify a huge fibroid growth in her uterus. This was a critical situation, for it was so large that if it ruptured, she would likely die before she could get treatment. As the doctor explained, in America it would have never got that far, that critical, without someone taking care of her. The staff of Faith in Practice made arrangements for her to be immediately taken to where she could have life-giving surgery. That’s the kind of things that can happen when people live out their faith. We’re not all gynecologists, but we all have gifts that we can use to make the world a better place. Your contributions and prayers helped save that young woman’s life.

         John encourages us to act nobly. We’re to show our beliefs by what we do and how we act. Do we love one another, do we show the love of Jesus Christ? Of course, we’ll mess up now and then. But we don’t have to fret over it. God, through Jesus Christ, is a forgiving God. God desires us to live for Christ, and when we are united with Christ, we are cleansed to be a part of his community and to do his work in the world. Amen.

©2018

[1] As an example see Raymond E. Brown, The Epistles of John (New York: Doubleday, 1982, 57-58.

[2] Information on Docetism from Frances Young’s article “Docetism” in the Westminster Theological Dictionary, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983), 160.

[3] The idea that the letter is written from a broken heart comes from a sermon by Jana Childers on this passage, “That Our Joy May Be Complete.”

[4] Psalm 51:12.  This Psalm is attributed to David after his affair with Bathsheba.  In Psalm 51, the desire is for ones relationship to God be restored.

Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King’s Death

This week marks the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination in Memphis, Tennessee.  He was shot early in the evening of April 4th, 1968.  In honor of the memory, I attended a Learning Center lecture held at First Presbyterian Church.  The speaker was Dr. Robert Pratt.  An African-American, he’s been a professor of history at the University of Georgia for the past thirty years and is about my age.  He grew up in Virginia, raised by his grandparents in rural Essex County.

Dr. Pratt was ten years old when Dr. King died. He told the story about how, after dinner, his grandmother would go into her bedroom and watch TV while his grandfather retreated to the living room. Dr. Pratt normally sat on the edge of his grandmother’s bed and watched TV with her. On this night, the program they were watching was interrupted with the news that Dr. King had been shot.  His grandmother cried. He went into the living room and asked if his grandfather had heard.  He had and he was angry. The next day, he went to his segregated school. Instead of regular classes, everything was about Dr. King and what he’d been doing for his people.  On their way home, his bus passed the white school and he wondered what those kids had spent their day doing.

This hit home. For the first three years of my schooling, we were in Virginia and I attended an all-white school. We lived in Petersburg. To this day I am amazed that when we left in the summer of 1966, to move to the North Carolina coast, I had no idea the city was 80% African American. It was that segregated. Not that North Carolina was all that much better, but there were a few African American students in the elementary school I attended there.

I don’t remember hearing about Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination on the night of April 4, 1968, but I must have. It just didn’t seem to have any effect on my life. I do remember the next morning, as we rode Bus #6 along Masonboro and Greenville Sound Loop Roads to Bradley Creek Elementary School.  Some of my classmates joked about his death. It seemed insensitive, but my mind was on a Boy Scout camping trip.  As soon as I got home from school that day, my mother drove me up to the church to meet up with other scouts in Troop 206.  We were going to Holly Shelter Swamp for the weekend.  My clothes and sleeping bag were packed up in a duffel bag which was thrown in the back of the scout trailer. We left town, and as the evening light waned, set up camp on bluff overlooking the Northeast Cape Fear River.

Our scoutmaster was a detective in the Sheriff’s Department.  When we woke up the next morning, we learned he had been called back to duty that night.  Somehow, in the days before cell phones, word had gotten to him that Wilmington was aflame. Another father took his place and we ran around in the woods and enjoyed our weekend, not really worrying about what was happening at home.

We came back into town on Sunday afternoon and the streets were empty.  There was a county-wide curfew, even though the rioting was mostly in the inner-city areas. We were taken to our homes, where we stayed for the next week as schools shut down. That afternoon, there was a cookout at our house with neighbors.  The man next door was espousing his racial views on what they should do to calm the city.  He talked about an event unfamiliar to me and how, in 1898, the whites in the city rose up and put the blacks in their place and that the river ran red from blood. No one else spoke.  My father quickly changed topics.

I would later learn more about the Wilmington Massacre. Around the 100th anniversary, in 1998, there were a number of books published about it. The atrocity reminds us of how inhumane we can be to one another. Thinking back on this as an adult, I realized how this event, which had been whitewashed from the city’s history, was still fresh in the minds of the African-American community.  It had only been seventy years. As big of a deal as white Southerners were still making about the Civil War, this was much more recent. There must have been old men and women still alive in the black community who had experienced the terror of this event in their childhood.  While I can’t condone the violence that broke out after Dr. King’s death, I can understand the rage.

In the questions following Dr. Pratt’s lecture, he was asked if racial issues of our nation will ever go away. His answer was that there would be no complete reconciliation until we all see by the same lens.  Humbly following in faith the teachings of Jesus of how we love one another, and of Paul about how we are all the same in Jesus Christ, is a good starting part.

 

 

For books about the 1898 atrocity, click here.

“We Have Taken a City”: The Wilmington Racial Massacre and the Coup of 1898

Leon Prather, Sr., “We Have Taken a City”: The Wilmington Racial Massacre and the Coup of 1898 (1984, Southport, NC: Dram Tree Books, 2006), 214 pages, black and white photos.

“Politics, the old cliche goes, “makes strange bedfellows.” This can be seen in North Carolina politics of the late 1890s, when Republicans (mostly African-American and carpetbaggers in the party of Lincoln) joined with white yeomen farmers and workers to vote out the conservative politicians (who were Democrats) to elect “fusion” candidates. This threatened the status quo. Fearing threatened, the conservatives played the race card in order to split the fragile alliances and bring poor whites back into the fold of the Democratic Party and under the control of the conservative establishment. Within the rhetoric of the era, Wilmington, North Carolina’s largest city at the time, erupted in racial violence. When it was over, the African-American community was in shambles. At the same time, the conservatives who were working behind the scenes and used the events to bring about the only armed-coup in United States history, removing from office those who had been elected and replacing them with their own people.

In the late 19th Century, Wilmington, North Carolina had an African-American middle class. The community had their own newspaper, edited by Alex Manly, a mixed race man whose father had been the governor of the state right before the Civil War. Responding to a public speech by a Rebecca Felton, a Georgian who’d spoken out about the threat of rape that white women faced by black men and called for a campaign of lynching, Manly not only condemned such crimes by blacks, but extended it to white men abusing black women. He mentioned his own history, as he was mixed race descendant of a slave of a former governor. Excerpts of Manly’s editorial began to circulate and reappear in newspapers across the country. The fallout from it led to the events of November 10th. On this day, a group of white “redshirts” marched on Manly’s newspaper and burned the building down. Then, tension rose as a white man was shot, which provided an excuse for armed white men began to more into the black community where they faced minor resistance. A number of men were killed and most of the black leaders were rounded up and exiled from the city. Also exiled were a number of white leaders who’d participated in the fusion government that controlled the city’s politics.

When the events were over, those who had means within the African-American community left town and the white conservative establishment was firmly entrenched. Prather suggests the number of deaths, while significant, were probably been exaggerated. No official count was made, but there would not have been enough deaths to have turned the mighty Cape Fear River red with blood, as some have claimed. His work suggests that the conservatives used the lower class whites to do their bidding in the riot, providing them with the excuse to step in and remove the mayor, city council and police from power. The haunting part of this story is the number of names still present within the community. One of the ironic twist is that the grandson of John Bellamy, one of the conspirators, was the Superintendent of Schools who desegregation of the schools in the city in the 1960s. Hugh McRae, another, had his name on the park where I played ball as a child.

Prather sets the riot in historical context, comparing it with other race riots in American history. This riot came on the heels of “America’s Splendid Little War,” The Spanish American War. However, Prather doesn’t see that playing a role even though he points out parallels to other wars and race riots.

One area that I would have liked to have seen more study is in the role religion and faith played. Prather notes the doctrine of white supremacy was being proclaimed in the same pulpits that told Christ’s story (102). But outside of mentioning four local clergy (the pastors of the Presbyterian, Baptist and Black Baptist Churches and the Catholic priest), Prather doesn’t explore this thread further. However, two sources he draws upon were the Baptist and Presbyterian state newspapers, both of which supported the white revolt. The title, “We Have Taken a City” comes from the sermon by Peyton Hoge (Presbyterian) on the following Sunday, but nothing is said about the sermon and his source for the title came from a newspaper article. Interestingly, Manly was also a Presbyterian, attending Chestnut Street Presbyterian, an African-American congregation.

The events in Wilmington have been portrayed in a couple of novels. Charles Chestnut, a black author from early in the 20th Century, wrote The Marrow of Tradition based on the Wilmington story. A more modern retelling of the story is Philip Gerard’s Cape Fear Rising. I recommend Gerard’s story. He’d planned to write the book within the Creative Non-fiction genre, but because he wasn’t sure of some of the events, changed it into a historical novel. Another great source of information that came out around the 100th anniversary of the event is Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and Its Legacy. This book is a collection of essays edited by David Cecelski and Timothy Tyson.

April Fool: The Lion is a Lamb

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Revelation 5

April 1, 2018

 

 

         I can’t stand before you this morning without at least acknowledging the day. Yes, it’s Easter. But it’s also April Fool’s Day. This day doesn’t fall on Easter often. The last time was the year before I was born. The next time, I’ll be retired. Don’t worry. I don’t have any jokes or tricks to play on you, but it does seem to me that God played the perfect joke on the Jesus’ executioners. I’m reminded of a short collections of lectures by Frederick Buechner titled, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy & Fairy Tale. Some might take offense at the title, but it makes sense. As tragedy, the gospel begins with the crucifixion. As comedy, the reversal from death to life fits the classic understanding. And as fairy tale, we have the extraordinary things that happen to Jesus and his followers down to this day.[1] Happy April Fool’s and may we continue to be surprised by God.

When I was a pastor in Southern Utah, there were two families I knew I would not see in church on Easter. Both were involved in the sheep business and when you have 1500 pregnant ewes, all delivering during a three or four week period in early spring, they were busy. They lived during these weeks at the birthing sheds. They needed to be there in order to help the animals. It was quite an operation to see so much new life as these lambs tried out their legs and nursed at their mom’s bellies.

          Lambs and Easter seem to go together. You can find chocolate lambs. Some people roast lamb for Easter dinner. During this past season of Lent, we’ve been exploring throughout Scripture the theme of “the Lamb of God.” It’s interesting how, in scripture, God’s people are equated with lambs such as in the 23rd Psalm and in Jesus’ and Peter’s conversation at the end of John’s gospel. Jesus tells Peter to feed his lambs and sheep.[2] But it’s not only us who are seen metaphorically as lambs. As we’ve seen over the past six weeks, Jesus is also seen as taking on the role of a lamb, the sacrificial Passover lamb, providing life for God’s chosen people.

Today, this series on the Lamb of God will close with the vision that we have of the victorious lamb in the book of Revelation. The fourth and fifth chapters of Revelation are a vision into heavenly worship. The worship is focused on the throne and there are hymns sung in praise of the Almighty. This is an appropriate Easter theme for we see Jesus in his full glory. Having offered his life for the salvation of the world, he now rules as a lamb! Interestingly, the phrase “Lamb of God,” occurs 28 times in the Book of Revelation![3] Read Revelation 5:

 

       The scroll is the focus of the fifth chapter. Sealed with seven seals, it contains God’s plan for the future. John discovers in his vision, which fills the sky, that there’s no one worthy enough to open it. John cries. Without opening the scroll (without moving into God’s future) the powers of evil that have thrown themselves against the godly and have persecuted the church will prevail.

 

         John has this vision at a time the continued existence of the church is in question. Persecution threatens. John, himself, is exiled to a deserted rocky island because of his faith in Jesus Christ.[4] He’s lucky. He could have been killed. But there on those rocky shores with the sound of lapping waves, John has a vison that fills the sky. It’s a vision that reminds him and us that God will be victorious. It might not have looked that way when John was dumped out on this island. It didn’t look that way at daybreak on the first Easter when the women make their way to the tomb to prepare Jesus’ body for the grave. It may not look that way for some of us who are troubled. But God has a way of surprising us!

One of the elders standing near to God’s throne points out that there is, after all, one who can open the scroll. Time in Revelation is not neat and chronological as we like. At the point there was no one worthy probably refers to the time before Jesus’ death. Seeing the condition of humanity, God decides to rescue the world by entering the human sphere in the life of Jesus Christ. Now, moving back to after the resurrection, there is one person worthy.

        Now notice the difference between the fifth and sixth verses. Do you catch the humor? In the fifth verse, John is told to look at the lion, but in the sixth he sees a lamb. He expects to see a raging lion who has conquered evil by brute force. Instead, we see a lamb that has been sacrificed. April Fools! God didn’t choose to conquered evil by physical strength; rather, God chose to submit to evil through Jesus’ death on the cross. This sacrificial act shows the limitation of evil’s power. Jesus’ resurrection conquers death and demonstrates evil impotence. “Victory through sacrifice” is the central theme of the New Testament revelation.[5]

It’s important for us to remember that when John witnesses this vision, the church is in mortal danger. John’s vision isn’t to go and tell his fellow Christians that everything is alright. They knew good and well that things are grim and if something doesn’t happen they will all be exterminated. What John’s vision does for his readers is to assure them that God is in control. In the end God, through Jesus Christ, will reign triumphantly over evil and death and destruction. There may be suffering and persecution here on earth, but in heaven, they’re already celebrating victory won over evil when Jesus rose from the grave.

The lamb envisioned in Revelation 5 is a little weird.  Seven horns, seven eyes (and seven seals). This isn’t to be taken a literally as to how the resurrected Jesus looked. Seven in the Biblical world represents perfection and holiness, attributes assigned to Jesus.

        So Jesus Christ, the lamb that has been sacrificed, takes the scroll. You can one artist rendition of this on the cover of our bulletin, where the lamb sits on a book with seven seals (in this photo, he’s lost the seven horns and eyes and the scroll has updated to a book). God’s plan is moving forward. Having defeated death on the cross, he sets out to free the universe of all evil. This causes song upon songs to rise throughout heaven.  Christ, the Lamb of God, is praised. He inaugurates a new era.

Think about this for a minute… Christ has in his possession the scroll containing the future. But we are only in the fifth chapter of the book of Revelation. There are 17 more chapters. There are stories of galactic battles and martyrs to come; at this point Christ who has mortally defeated evil has not yet fully conquered it.

          Evil is still present in the world. We know that. We’ve seen it in Parkland and in dozens of other shootings. We’ve seen it in Syria. We see it in our community, though thankfully the number of shootings are not as high as they were a few years ago.        We also see evil in many places in the world where the church is still under threat. This past week a Christian man was beaten to death in Pakistan. Two weeks ago, Boko Haram, the horrible terrorist group in Nigeria returned all the girls kidnapped except the one who refused to deny her Christian faith.

        We don’t understand why God allows such evil to happen in the world. The question of why, if God is all-powerful, God allows such evil, has been around for thousands of years. The rabbis debated this question in Jesus’ day. The book of Job was written in an attempt to help us wrestle with this problem, but we’re left with what many consider an unsatisfactory answer. In Job’s search, he encounters God, and comes away only with a sense that God is greater.[6] It’s impossible to fully understand the Creator. But we are to sing, for we know the future. We know what is happening and will happen. So we join the multitude singing praises and trusting in the goodness of a God who raised Jesus from the dead.

Think about the building of the choir in Revelation 5. The singing begins with the four living creatures who guard the throne and the twenty-four harp strumming elders who represent the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles of the New Testament. Their music inspires a multitude of angels to sing. And the angels inspire all creation to join in the song of praise. Doxology! “Praise God from whom all blessings flow!”

        Now, was all of creation singing praises to God during John’s day?  Of course not. As I said earlier, time in this chapter is somewhat transitory—moving quickly from before Christ’s victory over death to the complete fulfillment of God’s plan for creation. A fulfillment for which we are long. But we know the ending. We know who’s in charge.

Friends, like those in this vision, be filled with the songs of Easter. May they give us hope. Death is not the last word. Evil will not have the last word. Jesus rose from the grave; there’s a new world coming. Rejoice! Amen.

 

©2018

[1] Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy & Fairy Tale (San Francisco: HarpersCollins, 1977), 7.

[2] John 21:15-19.

[3] Robert L. Reymond, The Lamb of God: The Bible’s Unfolding Revelation of Sacrifice (Mentor, 2006), 103.

[4] John 1:9.

[5] Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, revised, (Grand Rapids: MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 132.

[6] Job 38-41.

The Blood of Christ

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

1 Peter 1:13-25

March 25, 2018

 

We’ve done a survey of passages related to the Lamb of God within Scripture during this season of Lent. Starting in the Old Testaments, we saw how God called for and then provided sacrifices. Last week we moved into the New Testament, listening to John the Baptist pointing to Jesus as the sacrifice as he cried out “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” In the book of Hebrews, the author claims Jesus as the ultimate sacrifice. There is no longer a need for another sacrifice.[1] Our text for today, is from First Peter.  Peter reminds his readers that we’ve been ransomed from our prison of sin by the precious blood of Christ, who offered himself up as a lamb without defect or blemish.[2]

While our passage today shows, like all the other passages, that God provides the sacrifice, it’s also calls us to respond. As with the Hebrew people who were enslaved in Egypt, we are purchased for a price. Redemption isn’t cheap. It should cause us to be thankful and to live in a way that pleases God. Israel, once redeemed from slavery, was called to live as God’s chosen people. What’s our calling? Listen, as I read 1 Peter 1:13-25 in the Message translation. You can look at the text on the screen, but I also suggest you turn your Bible or the one in the pews to this passage so you can refer to it during the sermon.  Text below:  .

 

      

From that which I just read, what is our calling?  Or maybe I should ask this. In verse 16, what does this passage tell us about God? (I am holy). And what does it say about our calling? (We be holy). Of course, when it comes to being holy due to our own efforts, we’re a little behind the curve and we’re not going to catch up. Thankfully we have Jesus.

        You know, there is always a bit of irony about this day we observe as Palm Sunday. Those who were there when Jesus entered Jerusalem certainly had different ideas about who Jesus was and what he meant. They were ready to crown him king, but when he didn’t behave as they liked, they were all too willing to have him crucified. I’m not sure we’d be any different. We like people who support our own ideas about how things should be. When someone deviates from our preset ideas, we react with anger or walk away with indifference. We should remember that we can’t control God and if we walk away, we’re the ones who lose.

We should remember that there are differences between those of Peter’s world and our world. Peter’s audience were folks marginalized by the pressures of a pagan world.[4] In describing the precarious existence of Peter’s audience, one scholar suggests they understood that “Christians don’t have to fear their temporary masters [those here on earth] because they fear God.[5] Jesus says something very similar: “Do not fear those who can kill the body…, rather fear him that can destroy both the body and soul.”[6] But we’re not to have a nightmare-like fear of the Almighty. God loves us like a father.

        I like how Peter describes our life as a journey, but he reminds us that it must be traveled with a consciousness of God. In other words, we need to keep an eye on Christ. And this day in which we focus on the passion of Jesus, we’re remind that Christ might not take us where we want to go. The human Jesus didn’t want to go to the cross, as he prays, “Father if it is your will, please take this cup from me.”[7] At the end of John’s gospel, Peter learns first-hand that if he wants to be faithful, there’ll be a point he’ll be taken to where he does not wish to go.[8] With God, we can’t control the future, instead we trust God to be with us through thick and thin.

Have you ever started out on a trip, only to experience a flat tire or a busted water pump? Or maybe you started a new job with great expectations only to be fired or to experience a medical challenge that kept you for fulfilling your duties. Or you start out with an idea of a long life with a loving spouse only to have him or her prematurely die. We’ve all experienced such setbacks and disappointments, some more bothersome than others. But they are not reasons for us to give up on the faith. After all, Jesus headed into Jerusalem and, to the disappointment of the crowd, allowed himself to be sacrificed like a lamb. With the crucifixion, many people’s dreams died.

        But that’s where our faith really begins—with the death of the old dreams. We shouldn’t despair for with the resurrection, God shows his power over the forces of evil and death. With the resurrection, we have hope not only in this life but in the life to come. Let’s look at this passage.

          “Roll up your sleeves,” our translation begins. We’re being issued a call to action. Get ready. Jesus is coming back. Get ready, but I don’t think the emphasis should be on Jesus’ return as much as it is living the life we’re called to live. Get ready, don’t be lazy, and pull yourselves out of those evil groves that you were caught in during the past. A more direct translation is “Do not be conformed to the desires you formerly had.” We have been called, as I emphasized earlier, by a holy God for the purpose of being holy.

          Verse 17 reminds us that we can call upon God and God, as any good father, will help. But like a father, God also sets standards and will be upset when we live in a way that is unbecoming to being a follower of Jesus.

In the next paragraph, we’re reminded that God paid the price. There’s a consequence to sin, to disobeying our Creator. Back in the garden we’re told that disobedience leads to death![9] But we’ve been redeemed. Christ serves as the sacrificial lamb, his blood paying for our sin. According to Peter, this was a part of God’s plan all along. From the beginning, God planned a way for us to escape our bondage to sin and evil. Through the Son, we have a way open to life eternal. Because of what Jesus has done, we have a hopeful future.

         After making the case as to why we have hope, Peter returns to how we should respond. We’re to love one another. We should remember that we are no longer living by the old ways, the ways of the world. We have been born again through God’s living word. Our new life is conceived by God himself. We’re now caught up in God’s word which is eternal. Everything else will pass away, as Peter quotes Isaiah, but the Word of God endures forever.

       Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt was a German pastor and theologian in the early decades of the twentieth century. He isn’t well known, but had a great influence on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth (who are better known). In one of his sermons, which has been collected in a book titled Action in Waiting, he says:

We do not gain much by just accepting that Christ died and rose again. Many people believe this, but nevertheless go to hell. This belief is of no help unless you and I experience Jesus as Lord. It is not the worst if some people are unable to believe that Christ rose from the dead – at least they still regard it as something tremendous, too tremendous to glibly confess. The sad thing is that so many people today claim to believe it, and yet it means so little to them. It has no effect in their lives.[10]

         I think Peter would agree with Pastor Blumhardt. What purpose is there in Christ’s sacrificial death if we live as if nothing has happened? God loves us as shown in giving of his only Son. This Friday, we should recall such love as we contemplate what our Savior did for us on the cross. It’s a wonderful gift that should cause us to respond with gratitude, love, and a new focus in our lives. No longer should we live for ourselves. We now live for our Lord. To him be the glory.

Next Sunday, I hope you join us at dawn and against at 10 AM, to praise the one to whom all glory belongs. Amen.

 

©2018

[1] Hebrews 10:1-18.

[2] 1 Peter 1:19, New Revised Standard Version.

[3] 1 Peter 1:13-25, The Message.  (note, The Message doesn’t number verses).

[4] David L. Tiede, “An Easter Catechesis: The Lesson of 1 Peter,” Word & World (St. Paul, MN: Luther Northwest Seminary, 1984), 194.

[5] Tided, 197. Tiede quotes Gerald Krodel, “The First Letter of Peter,” Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, Jude, Revelation by Fuller, Sloyan, Krodel, Danker, & Fiorenza (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1974), 74.

[6] Matthew 10:28.

[7] Luke 22:42.

[8] John 21:18.

[9] Genesis 2:17.

[10] See https://www.plough.com/en/subscriptions/daily-dig/even/march/daily-dig-for-march-23.

The Lamb of God Identified

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

John 1:29-37

March 18, 2018

 

 

We’ve been looking at Old Testament passages which provide a background for our understanding of “The Lamb of God” over the past month. We saw in Genesis how, at the near sacrifice of Isaac, God provided a sacrifice. It was a ram caught in a thicket. We also witnessed how God provided a way out of bondage in Egypt through the Passover, a meal in which a lamb was on the menu. Although I didn’t cover all the texts, I alluded to other passages, especially from Leviticus, where God speaks of the need for a sacrifice to remove the stain of sin.[1] The Bible is a gradual revelation leading up to a complete revelation with God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ. Last week, in Isaiah 53, we saw for the first time in Scripture, the link between a vicarious sacrifice and a person who offers himself up. Today, we’ll see that person is identified as Jesus. This is where the rubber meets the road.  John the Baptist prepares to hand over his ministry to the one coming. And just how does John identify Jesus?  We’ll see in a few minutes.

        In the verses before this passage, a group of religious leaders from Jerusalem meet John the Baptist in Bethany for the purpose of checking him out. They wonder if he’s the Messiah. This he denies. “Are you Elijah?” Again, he denies it. “Who are you, then?” they press on. “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness,” he replies, drawing on the words of Isaiah. “Well then, why are you baptizing?” At this point, John confesses that there’s one coming to whom he’s not even worthy to tie his shoes.[2] This one is Jesus Christ, whom in our reading this morning is identified as “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  Let’s look at the passage.  Read John 1:29-37.

###

        I think we all need to be more like John.  Now that doesn’t mean we need to dress like a wild man, hanging out in a waist deep muddy river, and eating a disgusting diet of bugs slathered in honey.[3] But there are two things John does that we should also do. First of all, we should admit that on our own, there is a limit to what we can do to help someone. John’s fierce preaching encouraged people to examine themselves and to confess their sins. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates supposedly said and John would agree. We should examine our lives and, according to John, we won’t like what we see. Because of sin, we fall short of the glory God intention for us.[4] If we want to get better, we have to understand the problem.  John’s kind of like the “dental monitor” in the Lifelock® commercial, he points out the problem, but he can’t fix it. (Not even Lifelock® can do that).[5]

          John is a prophet, not a savior. He could symbolically wash away the problem in baptism, but he wasn’t able to wipe the slate clean. The same is true for us. We can’t wipe away our own sin. And if we can’t do that for ourselves, we certainly can’t wipe away the sin of another. So like John, we have to be humble and admit our limitations. Dealing with sin is God’s work.

But there is something we can do. While we can’t wipe the slate clean, Jesus can. John, in our opening verse, points to Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Here is the answer for whom we and others desire. Like John, we can also point others to Jesus.

         In our passage, we see that John has some unique insights into Jesus. Although Jesus comes after John, he was there before. As we learn in the beginning of John’s gospel, Jesus is equated with the word of God and was present with God from the very beginning of creation.[6] Throughout this entire chapter, John the author (we’re dealing with two different John’s here) wants us to understand that John the Baptizer is not the main character.  That’s Jesus. John is just the guy who might run across the stage in a high school play, holding a cue card so the audience will know what’s next. The guy or gal, dressed in black and holding the prop isn’t the star, just one to point out what’s getting ready to happen. Likewise, John lets us know what coming.

          John goes on to explain that he knew Jesus was the one when he saw the Spirit of God descend like a dove and land upon him. Although John’s gospel doesn’t mention Jesus’ baptism, this statement parallels what all the other gospels say about Jesus at his baptism, that the “Spirit descended like a dove.”[7] John is here to testify that Jesus is God’s son.

 

        Referring to Jesus as the Lamb of God, John informs us as to the identity of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53, the one who was afflicted with our sin and willing to offer his life as a way to pay for our sin.[8] It’s important to notice that the word sin is singular, not plural.  Jesus is coming to take away not just the effects of our disobedience (our sins) but to cut away the root of the problem, (sin). It’s not just our bad deeds, but the gulf that our rebellion against God has cause to separate us from the Almighty. Our sin has been purged—the chasm between the creature and creator that has existed since the Garden of Eden, has been removed.[9]  Jesus Christ is the bridge that reconnects us to God the Father.

         Another interesting choice of words here is how John implies that Jesus is and will continue to take away the sin of the world. This ongoing action is not just limited to the cross (which is three years away from the time John proclaimed Jesus as the Lamb of God). Anytime someone comes into an experience with Jesus and feel their guilt and sin removed, they experience this ongoing work of our Savior and Lord.[10]

Twice in our reading John points out to those around him that Jesus is the Lamb of God. In verse 35, John again makes this claim. While pointing out Jesus as the Lamb of God, we’re told that two of John’s disciples leave to follow Jesus.  Like John, we’re not on the earth to make disciples for ourselves.  We’re here to do God’s work which involves making disciples for Jesus.

John’s message is simple. He points to Jesus, the Lamb of God. The Apostle Paul will later take a similar tack when he says that he preaches that he knows nothing but Christ and him crucified.[11] That’s my message, that’s our message, the church’s message. For answers, we can only point to Christ as God’s hope for the world. He is the one who can lead us from bondage and offer us life, eternal life.

         There are two things we should learn and emulate from John. Like him, we are to be humble. We are not here to be Saviors. We’re to be willing to point others to the Savior of the world, to Jesus Christ, and give him all the credit. But you know, that’s hard to do. We want to be given credit for that which we do. We want to be paid our fair share.[12] But that’s not what being a follower of Jesus is about. We’re to point to the one who is willing to offer his life for ours. He is to be given credit for all our blessings; for he, the one who was there at the very beginning,[13] is the source of our blessings.

So let’s be willing to go out into the world and do good.  When someone praises us, let’s not let it go to our head.  Instead, point to Jesus and give him the credit. And when someone asks why our values are different that the world, why we insist on being honest, being fair, or standing up for those oppressed. Point to Jesus and give him the credit. We do it for him. And when someone questions our commitment to gather week after week for worship. There’s no need for excuses. Instead, we tell them what Jesus means for us. There’s no need to brag. As a theologian once said, “Evangelism is just one beggar telling another where to find bread. Like John, we’re point to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  Amen.

©2018

[1] See especially Leviticus 16.

[2] John 1:19-28.

[3] While the Gospel of John doesn’t provide this insight, two of the synoptic gospels make a big deal out of John’s dress (animal skins with a leather belt) and his food (locust and wild honey). Matthew 3:4 and Mark 1:6

[4] Romans 3:23.

[5] https://www.ispot.tv/ad/wgXM/lifelock-dentist

[6] John 1:3.

[7] Matthew 3:16, Mark 1:10 and Luke 3:22.

[8] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2012), 83-84.

[9] Bruner, 81.

[10] See Bruner, 82.

[11] 1 Corinthians 2:2.  See also Bruner, 100-101.

[12] See Matthew 20:1-16.

[13] John 1:2-4.

The Suffering Servant

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Isaiah 53

March 11, 2018

 

    In Genesis, we learn that the consequence of sin and disobedience of God is death.[1] In the last two weeks, we’ve look at the scripture passages dealing with the Passover and the near-sacrifice of Isaac. In both situations, we see God providing a way out of the situation. While in bondage in Egypt, God tells the Hebrew people how to avoid the angel of death by putting the blood of a lamb over their doorways.  With Abraham, God ultimately does not demand the sacrifice of Isaac, but provides a ram as a sacrifice.  In passages we’ve not looked at, such as those in Leviticus, we learn God even provided a way in which sinful humanity could atone for their sins through the sacrifice of animals and the use of a “scapegoat.”[2] You know that term comes from scripture, don’t you? Originally, the scapegoat was to take away the sins of the people, not just cover up our own misdeeds as the term is often used today.

In the continuing revelation of God in Scripture, we move from the need of a sacrifice to ultimately understanding that Jesus has, once and for all, made the necessary sacrifice on our behalf.[3]  Today, we’re looking at Isaiah 53, in which find for the first time in Scripture, a person serving as the sacrifice for others.[4]

         Our reading is from what’s known as the Fourth Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah.  The passage actually begins back at Isaiah 52:12.These suffering servant passages have been debated over the centuries. Jewish interpreters see the passage as applying to the suffering of Israel. Christian interpreters understand this passage as applying to Jesus. This interpretation goes back to Philip, in the book of Acts, who encounters the Ethiopian eunuch reading this passage and asking for help in understanding it. Philip leads him to see that this passage is about Jesus, who died for our sin.[5] Today, I’m going to read this passage in its entirety, from Isaiah 52:13 through chapter 53.

What are your thoughts about vicarious suffering? Should someone else suffer for our sins and misdeeds? Should we be willing to be punished for the misdeeds of others? What do you think?

         Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Franciscan priest provides an example of such suffering. Early in 1941, he was arrested by the Nazi’s for publishing unapproved literature and sentenced to hard labor. He was sent to a concentration camp, Auschwitz.  That August, a prisoner escaped. As was the German policy, they took ten men out of the barrack from which the escaped prisoner was housed to be punished. The ten were to be placed in a starvation chamber where they would be left till they died. One of the men who was selected cried out about his family and not seeing his children again.  Kolbe volunteer to take his place.  For two weeks, he suffered with the other nine.  At this point, only four of the men were still alive and the Germans, needing the chamber again, finished off the four with an injection of acid into their veins.  Kolbe was one of those alive and he held out his arm to his executioner to receive the injection.[6]

What causes someone to willingly give up their life for someone else? We know it happens. Many of us, if provided the opportunity, would be willing to risk our lives for other.  In the excitement of a moment, we might run into a burning building or dive into cold swift water to save someone. When situations arise, there are people willing to risk it all for a stranger. Parents are known to go to great lengths to save their children, and in times of famine there are stories of parents forgoing nourishment so their children survive. In most wars, there are examples of those who jump on grenades to save their friends, or who volunteer for suicide missions in order to give their unit a chance to survive. 

In the movie, “Saving Private Ryan,” the main character is sent on a mission to find a paratrooper whose three brothers had been killed in the previous days’ battles on D-Day and in the Pacific.  Captain John Miller, played by Tom Hanks, is sent to find and keep Ryan safe so that his mother won’t lose all her sons.  Miller, as well as many of his men, die in their efforts, which leads Ryan to ask his wife fifty years later if he had earned their sacrifice. That’s an awful burden to carry, the feeling that we must earn the sacrifice of another.

        Our passage this morning speaks of one who carries our burdens, our sins.  As I noted before reading this passage, up until this point in Scripture, God allows a way out of sin through the offering of sacrifices. But now, through the prophet Isaiah, we learn of another way.  It is easy to see why those after Jesus’ death and resurrection were drawn to this passage. This is a popular passage to read on Good Fridays.

The suffering servant is filled with God’s saving power, but with human characteristics, he’s so meek we might overlook him. He’s innocent, yet willingly and obediently suffers. Jesus is God who has come in the flesh. He comes, not as a king born in a palace but as a child to parents who have no other place to place him but in a manger.[7] Although Jesus trembles before his Father on the night before his death and asks if this cup might be removed, he’s obedient and affirms his Heavenly father’s will.[8] There are so many parallels between this passage and Jesus’ life and death.

         The suffering described by Isaiah also parallel’s Jesus’ suffering. He doesn’t complain to his executioners.  His suffering is great because he is innocent and it’s our sins that he bears. Like Jesus, the sufferer described by Isaiah dies with the wicked and then is buried in a tomb of the rich.[9] He becomes an offering for sin, and will make many righteous (or as we might, many will be washed in his blood). As we’ll see in the next three weeks, as I continue this exploration of the “Lamb of God’ theme, through Jesus Christ, God has provided us a way out of our bondage, God has given us a sacrifice that is above all others.

Now, there are many passages in Scripture where I can say, this means we should do this. But this is not a passage about what we do, it’s a passage about what God does for us.  The one who suffers on our behalf is done, not because of something we’ve do, but through the grace of God. God loves us so much that he has constantly, since our first sin, tried to draw us back to himself. That’s love; that’s grace.

Back to the question I asked earlier… What do you think about someone suffering vicariously for another? Do you think it is right or just? Regardless, if we accept Jesus, we are accepting his offer of suffering for our sin. Can we handle that?  Can we admit that we can’t save ourselves need a Savior?  Can we accept that what’s important isn’t what we do, it’s what God does for us? Can we humble ourselves that much?

         The question is not what we must do to obtain such grace, but how we respond to such grace. God has been so good to us, not only in creation, but also in our redemption.  Can we receive what God has done for us through Christ in humble gratitude and then, with gracious hearts, seek to follow Jesus.  And knowing that our eternal security is in what Christ, we can live fearlessly in this life, willing to offer ourselves for the life of another.[10]

Our eternal security is grounded, not in what we do, but in the grace of our Savior. Those of us who follow Jesus should be fearless in the face of suffering and death. We know we’re in Gods’ hands.  No one can take that away from us.[11] Amen.

 

©2018

[1] Genesis 2:15-17.  See also Genesis 3.  Paul drives this point home in Romans 6:23.

[2] See Leviticus 16.

[3] 1 Peter 1:19, Hebrews 9:11-14, 28.

[4] Robert L. Reymond, The Lamb of God: The Bible’s Unfolding Revelation of Sacrifice (Scotland: Mentor, 2006), 69.

[5] Acts 8:26-25.

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maximilian_Kolbe

[7] Luke 2:7.

[8] Luke 22:39ff.

[9] Jesus is crucified between two criminals and is given the tomb of a wealthy man.  Luke 23:32, 50-53

[10] John 15:13.

[11] See Luke 12:5.

The Lamb of God Passages: God Provides

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Genesis 22:1-14

March 4, 2018

 

 

Last week, I began a series of Lenten Sermons focusing on the theme, “Lamb of God.” This series will continue through Easter, when we meet the resurrected and victorious lamb as described in Revelation.  Having not been in the pulpit the first Sunday of Lent (as I was with Faith in Practice in Guatemala), I skipped over Genesis and began the series looking at the Passover.  But as I was writing the sermon at the end of last week, there was something gnawing at me about having skipped over an important passage in Genesis, known as the sacrifice of Isaac.  As you know, in the end Isaac wasn’t sacrificed, but what happened there sets the stage for all that comes afterwards. God provides.  That’s the message of the Lamb of God visions found throughout Scripture.

In a way, this is a horrific passage. I’m sure we all have a problem picturing ourselves as Abraham in this story. But the point of the passage, I believe, is not just Abraham’s faithfulness, perhaps reluctant but willing to carry out God’s commands. What’s important is that God provides.  Let’s pray before listening to this passage.

Almighty God, we know the world and all that is in it is yours. And we know that you’re a loving God. Which is why we struggle with passages of scripture such as this one. Open our hearts, our minds, and our ears, that you might speak to us this morning.  Amen.

 

 

        In Frederick Buechner’s novel, Son of Laughter, which is about Jacob’s life, there is a part of the book where Jacob recalls his father Isaac, whose name means laughter, tell him about this event. In telling of it, he relives it. There is no laughter in the old man voice as he recalls how his father has haul him and a load of wood, along with a knife and a cup of coals from the morning fire, up to the mountain. Just telling the story is a torment to Isaac, who remembers how he allows his father to tie him up and place him on the make-shift altar and how the old man’s hands trembles as he raised the knife.[1]

There is always a danger of trying to force our understandings into that of the Biblical world. Things have changed. Abraham didn’t even have the Torah, the Books of Moses, to guide him. Even those who came after Moses still didn’t have the benefit of Jesus, who helps us see more clearly who God is and what God is up to. And even with the New Testament, our situation in the world is different. No longer is the church a persecuted minority within the indifferent and sometimes hostile world of the Romans. That being said, one of the goals of Bible Study and Biblical scholarship is to take us back into the world in which the text was conceived. To look at what the text meant to those who first heard it, and only when we understand that should we attempt to apply it to our world.

Perhaps no text demands such treatment as the one we’ve just heard. From our point-of-view, this is a horrific text.  Would God really want Abraham, an old man, to sacrifice his only son, the son he loves (notice how the narrator underscores Abraham’s devotion to his son). Would God, who promised Abraham a great nation descending from Isaac, really want to knock off the heir? It goes without saying that the world in which Abraham roamed was different from ours. But let’s consider this story.

This is a story that had been told and retold in oral traditions for centuries before he was written down. The story is highly polished and very simple.[2] We’re not given Abraham’s thoughts while he was trudging up the mountain, or what Isaac thought when his dad tied him down and lifted him upon the wood. “All we want are the facts, Ma’am,” as Sgt. Friday would say.  And that’s all we get here.

      But Abraham’s mind must have been spinning.[3]  Decades earlier, God called him. He gave up his past and an opportunity for a nice comfortable retirement in Ur for the life of wandering.[4] He’d given his past up for God, now God asks for his future.  This child, who unknowingly hauls wood on his back up the mountain, is all Abraham has. In him, the old man has placed his hope that his descendants will be a great nation.  And now God asks even that from him. Think about Jesus’ commands.[5] God demands our ultimate allegiance.  Now this doesn’t mean God is might want us to do something as cruel as the story we have here, and I’ll come back to that.  But ultimately, our allegiance doesn’t belong to ourselves, to our families, to our political party, to our country, or to our favorite baseball team. God comes first!  God comes before all our petty loyalties of this world.

In the world in which Abraham lived, it wasn’t uncommon for people to believe that they should give god their best. We speak that language today, but in the ancient world, where children and the best animals were sacrificed, giving your best meant something more

          As a kid, I remember being told that we were to give our best to God which meant being nice, placing the first-fruit of my puny allowance in the offering plate and wearing my “Sunday best” to church—which included a clip-on tie.  I hated those ties. You had to button the top button of your shirt for it to hold.  I quickly learned how to tie a tie so I wouldn’t have to wear the clip-on and could leave my top button open. But being nice, plopping a quarter in the offering plate, and sporting a clip-on tie doesn’t compare to what these folks were willing to give up to gain the favor of a pagan god.

        This story, going back to when it was first told around a campfire on a desert night, explains several things. We learn the importance of the site of Moriah, which is later identified as the temple mount in Jerusalem.[6] This event makes that holy ground. They also discovered why their God doesn’t make the same demands as the gods of their neighbors were making. The Almighty, the God of Israel, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, doesn’t expect that we offer the life of another to satisfy his demands. Finally, they learn of the ultimate freedom of their God. This is a God we cannot control or contain, yet a God that demands obedience.  And this God is loving and provides us with the means to fulfill his commands.[7]

God tests Abraham, and he’s willing to do what God asked,.  God becomes not only the one who asks for the sacrifice, God provides for the sacrifice in the ram caught in the bushes. A god (with a little g) who can command your first-born may seem to be powerful, but such a god is not nearly as powerful as the God who supplies the sacrifice.

We’re back to this Lamb of God image in scripture, where we see over and over again, God provides. Do we trust God to provide for our needs? Do we accept that God is over our lives and our world? Do we trust God even when all seems to be lost, as Abraham did when he climbed the mountain with Isaac?

Let me make one thing clear. While Abraham is commended for being willing to obey God, the text isn’t just about listening and obeying God. I want to make this point clear.  There are many people who think they hear God tell them to do some weird stuff. Such people often end up on the front page of the newspaper. Or their portraits hang in the Post Office.

You have to consider that this story came from a long-gone era. We know more about God and about God’s intent for us than Abraham did.  Two thousand years of revelation has given us new insights as has an additional two thousand years of interpretation. You can’t use this story as proof that God demands you to sacrifice someone.

Abraham’s world was different world from ours. He didn’t know what we know. He didn’t have the scriptures. He didn’t have the laws that were given through Moses that are pretty explicit, “thou shall not kill.”[8] He didn’t have the Old Testament where child sacrifice was considered an abomination.[9] He didn’t know of Jesus who would call the children to come to him.[10] He didn’t have the insight from the Book of Hebrews in the New Testament that reminds us that Christ is the perfect sacrifice and the only one required.[11] If we think God is talking to us, we need to be careful. If what we hear doesn’t stand up to what God says in Scripture in the entirety of scripture, we need to reconsider if it is God’s Spirit. In the first letter of John, we’re warned that not all spirits are from God and we must be careful to discern for something demonic may be speaking to us.[12] If you think God is calling you to do something that goes against what is in the Bible, think again! Or come talk to me!

          So I hope you look at this text a little differently. Instead of it being a horrific text about a sadistic God demanding the sacrifice of an innocent boy, think of it as part of God’s ongoing revelation. Yes, we learn the hard truth that God is free. Following God faithfully can lead to anguish struggles. But we also learn why Israel didn’t participate in the sacrifices of her neighbors and that their God loved them enough to provide them what they needed. And that’s good news!

 

 

©2018

[1] Frederick Buechner, Son of Laughter, (New York: HarpersCollins, 1993), 9-20.

[2] Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis: Revised Edition, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1972), 238.  See also Hermann Gunkel, The Legends of Genesis: The Biblical Saga & History, (1901, New York: Stocken Books, 1964), 106.

[3] There are some scholars who said that Abraham believed that God would either spare or resurrect Isaac.  I think this destroys the tension in the text and also, how could Abraham had conceived of the idea of a resurrection?  See Robert L. Reymond, The Lamb of God: The Bible’s Unfolding Revelation of Sacrifice (Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2006).

[4] See Genesis 12.

[5] As an example: Matthew 8:18-22 and 10:37.

[6] See 2 Samuel 24:18-25, 2 Chronicles 3:1.

[7] See Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 185ff.

[8] See Exodus 20:13, Deuteronomy 5:17.

[9] For example see Leviticus 18:21, 20:2-5; Deuteronomy 12:31, 2 Chronicles 28:3.

[10] Matthew 19:13, 15, Mark 10:13-16, Luke 18:15-17.

[11] See Hebrews 10:1-14.

[12] See 1 John 4:1-4.

The Magic Kings

Brennen Arkins, The Magic Kings (2015), 259 pages.

The transition from elementary to middle school is a tough time for all students.  For Alan and his classmates, it is made more uncertain by the 911 terrorist attacks that occurs at the beginning of their last year of elementary school. Alan’s life is filled with challenges.  He’s being raised by a single mother. His father died when he was much younger. He’s now slowly coming to a realization of what it means to have a mother that is an alcoholic.  Arkins tells this story through the eyes of Alan. As a pre-teen kid, there are a lot of things he does not clearly understand. Like Alan, the reader is slowly provided clues.  Alan understands his mother is having problem with her former boyfriend, Art, who seems to be a good male role model for Alan. It appears Art and Alan’s mother both have issues with alcohol and even though they break up, Art helps her become involved with Alcoholics Anonymous.

 

As an escape from the confusing world of adults, Alan and his best friend Zak play in a fantasy world. Yet, they sense things are coming to an end (this will be their last year to “trick-or-treat” so they decide to make the best of it). But while they sense things are ending, they are excited about the fantasy world in which they create. They find a special spot on the other side of town (and across a dangerous bridge that they must ride across on their bicycles) in which they can live out their fantasies. There, Zak looks for his magic wand. But on their second visit, they are challenged by boys from the local neighborhood who have claim on the property. At this point, Zak decides they need a third king, and Joel joins them on their adventures.

 

As Zak and Alan play in their fantasy world, Alan’s mother begins to take him to church. Before, they had only occasionally attended church. Now they start going to Art’s church. His mother is concerned about Alan’s interest in fantasy and magic and suggests that it goes against the Bible. Their pastor isn’t as concerned as Alan’s mother, but she takes away his Harry Potter books as punishment for him riding over the bridge to their magic kingdom.

 

The book ends as Alan, Zak, Joel along with others including several girls, move into Middle School.  Alan notices the changes as he is more interested in the girls and less in the fantasy worlds that he and Zak had created. Alan is also more interested in sports and in reading the Bible, which seems to have become his new “magic book.” And construction has begun on the land upon which they’d envisioned their magic kingdom.

 

I found myself curious about Alan as he navigates his changing world. His challenges kept me engaged. At first I found myself not liking the pastor (who told Alan the only book he read when he was a kid was the Bible). I didn’t find that believable.  But I later liked him when he refused to tell Alan’s misdeeds to his mother, allowing Alan to take responsibility and to work it out himself.

 

This book could benefit a young boy troubled about his changing world (we’ve all been there, especially in those pre-teen years). The book could also help a boy with parents (or a friend’s parents) with drinking problems.  The story shows the benefits of a religious community and organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous to help address such problems. However, I found myself concerned with seeing the Bible as a substitute for “magic books.” In this way, I agreed more with the pastor, who didn’t appear overly concerned about the magic books. I found myself wondering more why Alan’s mother was so concern. Adding to the confusion was Zak trying to be a good friend to Alan and giving him a copy of C. S. Lewis’ “magic books,” The Lion, Witch and Wardrobe.  Lewis’ use of the fantasy genre as an allegorical way to understand Christianity is well known, and the gift shows that although Zak doesn’t get Alan’s interest in Christianity, he is supportive of his friend’s interests.

 

As for the Bible being some kind of magic book, I would hope that Alan would come to understand the purpose of Scripture is revelation. By showing us who God is and who we’re to be, the Bible helps bring us into a relationship with God. Maybe Alan’s new found interest in the Bible will help him appreciate it not just as a book with better magic or fantasy, but as a guide to a relationship with (to draw from AA language) a higher power.

 

I am curious as to how middle school boys might relate to this book.  While those of us who lived through the terrorist attacks of 2001 understand the fear and uncertainty expressed by Alan and Zak, I wonder if this would be the same for those who were born a decade later (Alan and Zak would be in their late-20s today). If Arkins was to do a second publication, I suggest he consider how that event might be perceived differently by younger populations.  The other issues that Alan face (a single parent with alcohol issues, fidelity to old friends while making new ones, and relationships with the opposite sex) are more universal than the 911 experiences.

 

The Magic Kings is easy to read.  Arkins is an excellent storyteller and his style maintains the interests of the reader.  I look forward to reading more books from him.

 

Disclaimer:  I am in a writing group with Brennen Arkins and was given a copy of the book for review.

The Passover Lamb: God Picks up the Tab

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Exodus 12:21-32

February 25, 2018

I’m sure many of you have seen the movie Fiddler on the Roof. It’s about a poor Russian Jewish milkman named Tevye, who has an incredible voice. His family consists of a worried wife and five daughters.  If I remember correctly, the movie opens with a comical fiddler, straddling the ridge of a roof, playing in the Sabbath at sunset. Tevye looks up to the roof and asks the audience, “And how do we keep our balance on the roof?  One word – tradition.” From this, he launches into a song about tradition, after which Tevye provides the audience a confidential piece of wisdom. “Because of tradition, every one of us knows who He is (pointing to God), and of what God expects of us.”

Our faith is steeped in tradition. At times, tradition has taken a bum rap, some of it justified for we don’t worship tradition. But there are critical points to our faith that we must understand and accept or we’re not Christian. One of these non-negotiable items that tradition reminds us is that God provides a way out of our troubles and back into his family.

As you know, we’re in the season of Lent. This is a season of reflection on our mortality, our sinfulness, and our need for a savior. Or think of it this way… The season of Lent is a time for us to realize that we all have a bar tab we can’t pay.  And God picks up the tab!

       This Season of Lent, I am focusing on a traditional image found throughout the Scriptures, the sacrificial lamb. We can find the roots for this concept in the Old Testament, back even into the early chapters of Genesis.[1] John the Baptist identified Jesus as the “lamb of God” and in the book of Revelation, Jesus is revealed as the victorious lamb.[2] Living where we do, lambs aren’t often observed outside the meat counters in the grocery store, but they were quite common in Bible times and in many more rural places still today.[3]

Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and King David were all shepherds. Jesus refers to us as sheep when he tells Peter to feed his lambs and he presents himself as the Good Shepherd who goes after the lost sheep, building upon the idea in Psalm 23, of God as the Good Shepherd.[4] And during Holy Week, which comes at the end of Lent, we see that Jesus offers his life willingly, as a lamb, for our sins. But what does all this mean for us? We’ll examine this over the next six weeks.

Today, let’s go back into the Old Testament story of the 10th Plague and the Passover, as we begin our journey through the Biblical pastures where lambs graze and contemplate their sacrifice upon the altar. Tradition, as Teyve said, holds us up. The Passover, a central event for our Jewish friends, ties in with Jesus’ suffering and death. These traditions remind us that we have a loving God that will go great distances to redeem us from bondage. Read Exodus 12:21-32.

 

          The tenth plague does it.  Of the first nine, many of the plagues were like jokes: gnats everywhere (something we experience here on every nice day), frogs jumping around, and flies abounding.[5] These are all a nuisance, but what harm do they really cause? But here, in the 10th Plague, we see God not only as the Gentle Shepherd as described in Psalm 23, but a divine destroyer—a God of judgment and vengeance.[6] In our understanding of God, it’s important to remember that the Almighty is beyond our control. As Hannah, the mother of Samuel, proclaimed, “There is no Holy One like the Lord.” She goes on to point out that God breaks the bows of the mighty and grids the feeble with strength, and that the Lord kills and brings to life.[7] We can’t control God, for he already has things under his control. It’s a frightful thing to consider God’s judgment. Before it, we can only pray for mercy. But if God didn’t have such power, what good would God be to us?

At midnight it struck. The first-born in Egypt die. This includes the oldest child of Pharaoh, the man who rules over the Nile and was viewed as a god by his people. Pharaoh’s predecessor played god when he tried to kill all the Hebrew baby boys. Now the tables turn. Pharaoh awakes to death within his palace and the cries across his kingdom. All Egyptians experience sorry and pain. Not even the prisoner in the dungeon is spared. Those from all walks of life—from all occupations and social economic levels—suffer. To our mind, this doesn’t seem fair! Couldn’t the Hebrew freedom been accomplished with less death? Perhaps just the death of the brutal taskmasters, sparing their offspring? Why does someone locked up in the dungeon, someone who had nothing to do with Hebrew slavery, suffer?

        We’re not given any answers here to the suffering question. Just as the Scriptures doesn’t tell us why Israel had to toil for 430 years as slaves in Egypt, we’re given no answer as to why the plague strikes those not guilty including livestock. We don’t comprehend why the first-born of the least of the Egyptians die, or even why in the third plague, the clueless frogs came up out of the Nile only to croak (in a figurative and literal sense). Instead of addressing the problem of suffering, the events of the plagues, especially the events on the night of the Passover remind us (as well as those in the story), that all life belongs to God. But even more deeply, this story reminds us of the cost of freedom.

For those of us who worship Christ, this should be of no surprise. The cross, like the events of the Passover, involves suffering. Whether we are enslaved by an Egyptian taskmaster or the burdens of our sin, our freedom from bondage is costly and to be cherished.

The Passover event, for the Hebrew people, could be compared to our Independence Day. We celebrate what happened on July 4th, 1776, but if we remember our history, it took another seven years of war for our nation to be free from Britain, and it would be another eight decades before there would be a movement to live into the document’s bold claim that “all men are created equal.” For the Hebrew people, there will be 40 years of forging a nation in the desert with many challenges ahead. But this is where their freedom begins. On the night of Passover, a vengeful God remembered his people and gave them a way to escape the angel of death that had descended upon Egypt.

As followers of Christ, we acknowledge the cost of freedom. Our freedom from sin and death did not come easily, as the Hebrews experienced and as we understand in the death of Jesus Christ. We must acknowledge the cries along the Nile this particular night as well as the cries from 1000s of other battles and gives thanks for the freedom we have enjoyed.  Furthermore, as we see in the Hebrew Scriptures, that while such freedom is costly, God is the one who picks up the tab!  God provides the Hebrew people in Egypt a way out.

       I wonder what went through Israel’s collective mind that evening as they participated in this bizarre ritual—putting the blood of sheep on their doorpost, hurriedly eating roasted lamb as they huddled indoors listening to the cries of the Egyptians piercing the air. While they longed for freedom, I am sure many were emotionally moved by the suffering around them. Before the night was over, Pharaoh calls on Moses and Aaron and tells them to take the people of Israel out of Egypt.  Pharaoh even acknowledges the supremacy of Israel’s God, asking for a blessing for himself.  And so the Hebrew people are free to go, to escape the bondage of slavery. But they must remember that God is the one who provided them their freedom, and that is why they reenact the Passover, year after year, something they’ve been doing for over 3500 years. That’s a long time to thank God for picking up the tab, but grace should make us eternally grateful.

       As you know, last week I was in Antigua, Guatemala.  One of the traditions they have there is that on each Sunday during Lent, there is a procession from a church outside of the city to the site of the old cathedral by the city’s main square. These processions involve 100s of purple-clad men taking turn shouldering massive floats that weigh up to 2,000 pounds (it takes about 40 men just to hold up one of the floats).  They come into town on streets decorated with painted sawdust and flowers, followed by a band playing mournful tunes.  When it is over, all is cleaned up.  By doing this tradition over and over, just as the Jews observe the Passover and we observed Holy Communion, we are reminded of how much God has done for us. We’re reminded that in Jesus Christ, God has picked up the tab.

         God desires to free his people from their bondage to sin and death and to allow us a new life in Jesus Christ. God redeemed the Hebrew families from their bondage in Egypt. Through the salvific work of Jesus Christ, God frees us from our bondage to sin. Our God is a God of grace. Our God is a God who picks up the tab. Rejoice and be thankful. As a God of grace, we not called to earn our freedom, but to respond with a grace-filled life. We hold to the traditions, not because they have magic powers, but because they point to a greater truth found in the Almighty. They remind us who God is and to whom we belong.  When we understand to whom we belong, we will live gracious and generous lives. Amen.

 

©2018

[1] Genesis 4:4, 22:13-14.

[2] John 1:29, Revelation 5:12.

[3] For a more detailed examination, see Robert L. Reymond, The Lamb of God: The Bible’s Unfolding Revelation of Sacrifice (Fearn, Roos-shire, Scotland, “Mentor Imprint, 2006).

[4] John 21:15-16, 10:1-18.

[5] Exodus 8.

[6] For a discussion of God as “Divine Destroyer” in Exodus, see Donald E. Gowan, Theology in Exodus (Louisville: Westminster, 1994), Chapter 6.

[7] 1 Samuel 2:2, 4 & 6.

Joyful Living in the Lord


Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church 

February 4, 2018

Philippians 4:4-20

 

 

As a Boy Scout, I loved a good game of Capture the Flag. We often camped in Holly Shelter Swamp on the banks of the Northeast Cape Fear River. There would be two teams, the battle of the snakes. Cobra Patrol verses the Rattlesnake Patrol was a Cobra. We’d start the game as the light was fading from the sky and it’d continue till well after it was dark. The objective was to capture the other team’s flag and bring it back across the center line without getting caught.  If you were caught (or tagged) on the enemy side, you were sent to a “prison” where you were held until the end of the game or until you were freed by being tagged by one of your teammates.

         We played out this battle in a large parking lot for a wildlife ramp on the river.  As we generally camped there in winter, there’d be few or no vehicles parked there, especially not at night, so the lot made an ideal set-up for the game.  On one side was the river, two sides were swamp, and behind us was the bluff where we camped. During my first campout, as one of the young kids who didn’t know what was going on, I and several others were quickly caught and placed in prison. It wasn’t fun sitting there. There was nothing to do but wait and complain. I know a bit of how Paul felt in prison, although I can’t imagine how it must feel to be there day after day, week after week… In prison, you’re at the mercy of others. You can’t participate in what’s going on. There is a restlessness that grows inside of you.

We’re finishing our look in Philippians today. Here, Paul offers some good advice for how we’re to live as Christians.  A lot of it is about our attitude, how we approach life.  Are we optimistic?  Are we gracious?  Do we trust God?  Our attitude goes a long way toward how we live our lives.

 

At the beginning of this letter, we learned that Paul’s circumstances are not ideal.  He’s writing from prison.[1] There is a guard checking on him regularly, making sure the cuffs are snug, the chains secured, and the door bolted. Guard duty for a soldier was the pits. Boring. Some of the guards would take out their displeasure of having pull this duty on the prisoners.

If you were to write a letter under these circumstances, what would you say?  How would you end your letter? I’m not so sure I could end my letter as Paul did, rejoicing in the Lord. Instead, I’d be begging for you to call a lawyer, to get me out, to raise my bail, or to slip a hacksaw blade in a cake and bring it to me…

Paul is attempting to calm the Philippians who seem to be stressed out. There is some bickering within the church in Philippi as you’d see if you read the beginning of this chapter. Over all, this is normal stuff.  Someone is not happy about something, someone else is stressing out over something else…  It still happens in churches, today. Paul wants the Philippians and would advise us to take a deep breath and then to joyfully continue the work they and we are supposed to be doing…

I recently read a story in the New York Times about how the most popular class at Yale this past year is about happiness. Almost a quarter of the freshman class signed up for the course. The professor suggested the class’ appeal is because the students are under so much stress.[2]

When my daughter was in Middle School, about the same age as many of these Boy Scouts here, she had a class that focused on stress. Consequentially, this stressed her out. She even had homework, to write a paper about what stressed her out. I suggested she write about homework (it sure was stressor during my childhood). In this class the teacher called for a “stress-free day” in which they did nothing.  Not only did they not do anything, they were not allowed to do any other work such as homework for another class. Leaving the class at the end of the period, Caroline told the teacher that the “stress-free class” was the most stressful she’d ever experienced. That was the point. We don’t avoid stress by doing nothing and I think that’s one of the things we see from Paul in this letter. Keep doing the good work, keep rejoicing, and don’t let the circumstances get you down.  Even though things may be bad in Philippi, at least they’re better off than Paul, whose chains rattle as he writes to the congregations he loves so much.

Paul begins this chapter, before our reading, mentioning several people who had been helpful in his ministry in Philippi. It seems they’re in a bit of a snit.  They’re fighting, their arguing, struggling to get alone and Paul tells the good folks of Philippi to step in and help out. They ought to be “of the same mind in the Lord.”  In other words, their focus needs not be on their internal struggles with one another, but on what God is doing in their community. When we focus on ourselves, we take things personally, but when we focus on the larger picture of what’s God’s doing in the world, there’s a lot all of us can get excited over.  We should want to be a part of it!

Paul provides the Philippians with a number of suggestions as to how they’re to live the Christian life.  First of all, they’re to rejoice in the Lord and as they do this, they’re to let their gentleness be known. You know, it’s hard to be praising God as you abuse others. Instead, if we lift up our hearts to God, we should also be led to deal gently with those around us, for we know from where our blessings come and to whom our future belongs. So take delight in God. Stand in awe of God’s wonderful creation, look to see God’s image in those around you, praise God in song and in prayer, with others and when you are alone.

Next, they’re told not to worry. Good advice, but how?  The Philippians probably asked the same question, and then they thought about Paul and his tribulations. “If Paul ain’t worrying, why are we?”  Instead of worrying, Paul encourages his readers to take their needs to God, the one who holds the world in his hands. Of all people, those of us of faith should not worry, but we all do. As followers of Jesus, we should be bringing a calming approach to our society, but I don’t often see that. We should do better.

Paul goes on to say that the Philippians need to focus on that which is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent and worthy. Verse eight is a beautiful verse. Paul knows that if those who are bickering focus on what’s important, things will work out. Problems arise. However, when we get sidetracked, what should be minor irritants grows and if left unchecked can become a full-fledge war. Too much of what we fight and argue over is trivial—whether it is in our relationships and family, in the church or in our community, in our nation or between nations. If we only could focus on that which is good and pure and honorable instead of trying to always be seen as right, we’d be better off.

Finally, Paul lifts himself as an example. “Keep on doing those things you’ve learned from me, that which you’ve seen me doing,” he says. Again, Paul is writing this in chains and, by his demeanor, sets an example for the Philippians and for us. We can learn from Paul, just as we can be a model for others by the way that we handle our sufferings. Out Scouts know the importance of doing a good turn daily, and when they do such, they set the example for all.

Let me take you back to my prison experience while playing “Capture the Flag” along the Northeast Cape Fear River. Our patrol leader, a guy name Gerald, served as an example to me for what unselfish leadership is all about. In one of our early camping trips, he gave up his own dry tent to two of us who were wet when water rushed under our tent during a storm. That made an impression on me.

On this particular night Gerald decided to free us and make a dash for the flag.  I told you the dirt parking lot in which played was surrounded by swamp on two sizes and the river on the third. Gerald slipped the river and quietly made his way unseen down the river till he was behind the enemy’s lines, then he slipped into the swamp until he was right behind where we were in languishing prison. With the enemy guard looking to the front, thinking his back was secured by the swamp, Gerald slipped out of the swamp, tagged us, and told us to run. As the guard and others started chasing us as we headed to safety, Gerald grabbed our enemy’s flag and, headed toward our lines. He was caught right before he was able to make it over. Then it was our turn to free him from prison. I don’t remember who won that game. It seemed to go on for hours, but at some point it was over and there was a campfire and a night sleeping along the banks of the river.

From Paul, remember to rejoice, to be gentle with one another, to be a good example, and to trust in a God whose love for us has been shown in Jesus Christ. If God loves us that much, we’re in good hands. Despite the chains, Paul knows he’s been freed by Jesus Christ, which allows him to rejoice even while locked in a Roman jail.  If we can rejoice in his circumstances, so too can we.  Amen.

 

 

©2018

[1] Philippians 1:13

[2] David Shiner, Yale’s Most Popular Class Ever: Happiness, New York Times (January 26, 2018).

Brendan Mungwena’s Testimony

Brendan Mungwena

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

January 28, 2018

 

I am aged 22, I have 5 siblings whom I love unconditionally which my mother did a great job on teaching us how to love, as well as tolerate each other. My family is supportive Christian Family and I consider myself one of the luckiest people to have such a great family. I believe in the one and only Messiah our Lord Jesus Christ of Nazareth. In Zimbabwe the majority of the people are Christian. On the other hand, there is a significant sum of people who still believe in our old ways of Ancestry Communication and Spirit mediums.

            Zimbabwe is known to have been the breadbasket of Africa as it has rich and fertile grounds which gives a good produce of a wide variety of crops which include Maize (Corn), cotton and tobacco. Not only is the land good for farming it is also known for its rich mineral resources.

Growing up we were unsure of what it meant to be Christian as people claiming to be prophets were using supposedly miraculous acts to lure crowds. This caused us to move from church to church in search of the Lord’s presence. Opening the Bible was one of the best things that ever happened to my family and me. Gifted with the opportunity to see what the Bible had in store for us, it was comforting to go through verses such as John 16 verse 33, which states, “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me you might have peace. In the world you shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” Through Scripture, am comforted by knowing that God is faithful, and is always looking over us. He truly cares and is our protector and comforter in times of need.

          I believe in God because I know not any other God or anyone better than the Father of the holy Jesus Christ, I believe in God because I choose wisdom over worldly positions as the Lord says in the book of Proverbs 8:19,“ My gifts are better than gold, even the purest gold, my wages better than sterling silver.” I believe in God because I grew to trust him wholeheartedly without question or doubting his glory and might. Perseverance was not much of a choice because failure was not an option for me and my family, stated in Galatians 6 vs 9 “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” It always rang in our ears that everything shall come to pass and I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

          There was a day we barely had anything to eat and I asked my mom what we will do for tomorrow and she responded by saying God will provide. At a young age I did not understand her faith and it did not seem logical that we could rely on forces we could not see to provide food for us. She is a woman of unquestionable faith who led us in believing in God no matter the case. Even when we had no clue about what to expect as a single mother she carried our weight with trust and fierce faith in the Lord. I admire her for her belief and I am happy to say God has never let her down.  She is a woman of faith. We went on with our daily activities and that afternoon we got food.   And we were very happy.

           After having experienced a fruitless night, I woke up one morning hungry. She looked at us and told us, “God renews your energy every morning with or without food.” She built a fighting and mental spirit in our lives that lives within us up until today.  We never give up easily on anything we attempt. God’s grace and mercy have been prevailing in my life in ways I cannot describe. There is no other way than God’s way, which is why I live everyday according to his will.

“Jesus wept, was a short verse that meant a lot to me.  Another one was from Psalms 23: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” I did not memorize the whole Psalm but I best related to those verses. They had me marching from one open door to another. It had me understand that I am the one who fights my battles, with a God who guides and protects us.

However, there are still believers in the old ways of spirit mediums and ancestral practices commonly criticize Christianity.  Such practices continue throughout the country.  It is different with each tribe, but they believe there is communication between the deceased who can connect us to God.  These practices have gone on for many centuries. It again became prominent during the struggle for independence among the guerrilla warriors who fought for The Republic of Zimbabwe. Their memories are honored by home brewed alcohol, which is shared amongst the elderly men and women.

           To me being a Christian was the easiest choice because I understood that God had chosen me before I was born. With this in mind, I felt like it was everyone’s responsibility to help other Christians with their spiritual lives and share ideas on understanding of the Lord our God and his text. My friends and I then started Scripture Union, which is a Bible study group. We kicked off with 5 students and grew to an attendance of 40 people, consisting of students as well as teachers. I am proud of establishing this organization because it still runs. This organization was successful in completing several tasks such as redistributing old clothes to orphanages and teaching kids educational games.

With the Eskews, Brendan’s American Host Family

The day when my little sister learnt there was someone greater than all existence who had created the world, she asked how we could repay someone who owns everything we know and touch. I had to answer a question I did not fully understand the answer. I explained to her that our good deeds and pureness of the heart is what will make him happy. We have nothing to offer Him as he is the Great God who creates everything. We can only praise and worship Him in the best ways we can. She still reminds me of this teaching as one of the moments she had clarity on what was going on in her life and how she perceived the world.

           I have come to accept and greatly appreciate God’s love.  I also consider the gift of life to be one of God’s great gifts. I have lived and learnt that God’s knowledge is beyond anything anyone can comprehend but he loves us all unconditionally and he takes care of his own. If that is not enough for one to love, trust and believe in him I do not know what is. He has equipped us for every battle that we can fight and he even provided everyone with a conscience that helps in decision making showing how good our God is.  Amen.

To learn more about Brendan, check out this article in The Skinnie

 

Burn’s Night Talk

Address to the Haggis

Jeff Garrison

Burns’ Night Talk

St. Andrew’s Society of the City of Savannah

January 26, 2018

 

Wow!  In our program I am identified as a Rector. I’m not sure how to take this. Should I be honored? After all, the word comes from an old English meaning “to rule.” Or perhaps, because I’m in a crowd of Scots, I should be afraid. As you know, Scots are independently minded. I can assure you that you will not find a minister within the Church of Scotland, the mother church of all Presbyterians, referred to as Rector. You may find the headmaster of a school referred to in that way, but as for the Kirk, that’s way too English, way too Anglican.

Let me take this moment to share with you a bit of history. In the 17th Century, following the Scottish Reformation, the people of Scotland signed the National Covenant, which adopted a Calvinist theology and a Presbyterian form of government. This placed Scotland not only in opposition to the Roman Church, but also to the Episcopal form of government as advanced by the Anglicans.

There were a number of battles over these issues. The Scots don’t like being told what to do. They didn’t like being told that had to pray in a particular manner so they resisted the Anglican prayer book. The clergy didn’t like being told they had to dress all fancy when leading worship which led to the adoption of the Geneva robe. And the Scots had a problem Bishops and clergy vested with lots of power, so they adopted a system of government that shares between the clergy and lay elders. This didn’t go over well with the crown. They liked the idea of having loyal bishops who could help it control the Kirk. The church fought back and eventually a compromise was achieved. The Crown would be Anglican when they were in England, and when in Scotland, they’d be Presbyterian. In Scotland, the Queen has no Bishops to do her bidding and there are no rectors within the Kirk.

Now on to matters at hand—our remembrance of Mr. Burns. Sadly, I never studied him while in school. In college, the only poets of interest to me were musicians. Steely Dan was a favorite. They had some immortal lines back in the seventies and eighties, one of which comes to mind this evening. It’s from their hit song, “Deacon Blue,” and you may know it. “Drink Scotch Whisky all night long and die behind the wheel.” It’s a great line, but please, don’t try to live it out. The same could be said for many of Burn’s ideas and examples.

I was in Scotland this summer. As you’ve heard, I scheduled a couple days around Edinburgh with a friend of mine, Ewan. He’d taken time off to be with me, but as it happens in our calling, people are not always considerate as to when they die. On our second day together, I could go to a funeral for a woman I didn’t know or spend the day tramping around Edinburgh on my own. After that hospital visit, I chose the latter.[1]

I started out my morning being dropped off up by the castle. I’d toured it before, so I was interested in something else. In the shadow of the castle, I’d learned of a Writer’s Museum and, fancying myself as a wannabe writer, decided to visit. Besides, the admission is free which warmed my Scottish blood. But the museum is hard to find. I had to humble myself and ask for directions. Not only did I have to do this once, but several times as it appears not many people know of the museum. Finally, someone pointed me to a small alley and said I’d find it up there. There were no signs, but the alley opened up into a square and there was the museum. It’s housed in a very old but unique home with wonderful wooden spiral stairways. There are large exhibits on Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott and the man of the night, Robbie Burns.  As a kid, I’d read Treasure Island, so I spent most of the time in the Stevenson’s section, while quickly running through the other parts. Had I known that I was going to be expected to talk about Burns, I would have lingered a little longer…

Leaving the museum, I worked my way across the city.  One stop you’ll have to make is the Scott Monument, for the author not the people.  If you’re not claustrophobic or afraid of heights, I recommend you climb it. From the top you are treated to one of the most incredible views of Edinburgh. I think it’s even more striking than the views from Arthur’s Throne. So the next time you’re in Edinburgh, if you are in reasonably good shape, have five pounds to spare and a few more to lose to exertion, and enjoy the snugness that comes from being confined in a straightjacket (as the stairwells are smug), check it out.

Don’t worry, I’m getting closer to Burns…  By mid-afternoon I’d made my way to Canonsgate Church. It’s the burial site for Adam Smith and I wanted to pay my respect and do a Facebook selfie to dispel any rumors that I have socialist leanings. While there, chatting with a guide, I asked if there were others buried in the church yard that I might be interested in. “Oh yes,” she said, “On the other side of the church is the grave of Robert Burn’s lover, Clarinda.”

I’ve told you that I’m not a Burn’s scholar, right?  But I knew enough about the man to know that he had more than a few lovers across Scotland. “I’m sure you’re not the only church in Scotland claiming a grave of a Burn’s lover,” I said. She took offense at my sarcasm and reminded me that Clarinda was special.  What does that make his other lovers?

In Garrison Keillor’s novel, Wobegon Boy, the protagonist writes a poem for his wife as a wedding gift. Reading it she embraces him and it suddenly dawns on him why men have been writing poems all these centuries: “to impress a woman with the hopes she will sleep with you.”

Our friend Robbie wrote many such poems for Clarinda. The two of them lured each other with their poetry and correspondence even though they likely never consummated, in a physical manner, their relationship. But their letters and poems are to be cherish. Clarinda is the reason we have “Ae Fond Kiss” and “Clarinda, Mistress of My Soul.”

Of course, Clarinda wasn’t her real name.  That was Agnes, but everybody called her Nancy. That is everyone but Burns, who gave her this beautiful nickname that is much softer sounding than Agnes and less common than Nancy.  And, with this secret name, it was a safer way for Burns to correspond with a married woman.

We can speculate as to why Clarinda maintained her purity while Burn’s promised to conquer her “by storm and not siege.” Their relationship got off to a slow start because after first meeting, Burns had to cancel their next due to an accident that put him on crutches and in bed.  But there were other reasons. Clarinda was pious and religious and even though her husband had run out on her, she wasn’t going to do the same. She would later travel to Jamaica in an attempt to win him back. And then there were a few other details. At the time they were flirting with each other, Robbie had already planted his seed with Jean Armour. When Clarinda resisted Burn’s advances, the poet set his eyes on her servant, Jenny Clow. Ms. Clow would also give birth to the poet’s child. Only a fool would be lured into his bed with the thought she’d have a long-lasting relationship with the man whose seed was germinating all over Scotland. Clarinda was no fool.

Clarinda and Burns were attracted to the others use of language. Both were gifted, and Clarinda was nearly Burn’s equal with the pen as these few lines illustrate:

Go on, sweet bird, and soothe my care
Thy cheerful notes will hush despair;
Thy tuneful warbling, void of art,
Thrill sweetly through my aching heart.
Now choose thy mate, and fondly love…

Although Clarinda probably never allowed Robert to take her to bed, the words the two of them exchanged were certainly intimate and salacious. As an old woman, she looked back fondly on their relationship and said she hoped to meet him in heaven. Of course, that’s assuming Burns made it… The Rev. John Kemp, Clarinda’s pastor, certainly had his doubt as to Burns eternal destination. Maybe he and Burns are sharing eternity together for it was later discovered that the Good Reverend had three wives at the same time! Had Burns’ lived, he would have enjoyed the satirical wit that situation offered. (I want to know how he managed to pulled off having three wives like that).

Clarinda, Jenny, Jean (not to mention Mary and a few others)… What would be Burns’ fate if he lived in today’s “Me Too” climate?  I mentioned Garrison Keillor and we know what happened to him, along with a long line of other popular folk whose sexual indiscretions have come back to haunt them. I don’t know how this would affect Burns. It may not have had any impact. In his day, more than one minister chided Burns for his behavior. He didn’t seem to let their scolding’s worry him.

Poets are often great lovers. Their command of language is such that they can take words and draw our minds into new places and possibilities.  Think of King David, a poet from the Bible. Many of the Psalms are attributed to him and, we’re told, he was a man after the heart of God.  And like Burns, he wasn’t always honorable. This is speculation, but can you image the love note he sent down to Bathsheba?  Of course, we know the pain that little affair caused. Poor Uriah. But we remember David, with his frailties, because we all have had our own shortcomings. David gives us hope and shows us the wideness of God’s mercy.

I am not sure Burns had the same desires for God as David, but we can still appreciate him. In his day, he brought humor to a serious society and pointed out social inequalities and hypocrisy. And today, he us still reminding us to look for beauty. Furthermore, Burn’s collection of poems and songs in the Scottish dialect gives identity to those of us whose ancestors left those rocky shores, yet whose hearts are still warmed by the beauty of heather blooming in the crags. And, furthermore, his poems are easily plagiarized when we court our sweethearts.

I did visit Clarinda’s grave that afternoon. It was covered with flowers—fresh flowers. She’s buried next to her cousin, Lord Craig, whose grave looks like it was last attended to during the Boer War. It’s been nearly two centuries years since her death and there are people who not only remember her, yet think highly enough of her to regularly place flowers on her grave. That’s quite an honor.  Here’s to you, Clarinda.

Thank you.

 

Sources Consulted:

_________, Robert Burns in Your Pocket (Glasgow: Waverley Books,      2009).

Brauer, Jerald C., editor, The Westminster Dictionary of Church History    (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1971).

Dawson, Jane, John Knox (New Haven: Yale, 2015).

Douglas, Hugh, Robert Burns: The Tinder Heart (Gloucestershire, UK: Alan  Sutton Publishing, 1996).

Herman, Arthur, How the Scots Invented the Modern World (New York:   Random House, 2001).

MacCulloch, Diarmaid, The Reformation: A History (New York: VikingPenguin,  2005).

[1] A story used in my introduction (story came from the Chic Murray Facebook site and “adapted” for this occasion:
This past summer, our speaker was visiting the Rev. Ewan Aitken, a friend of his in Scotland.  Ewan asked if it was okay for him to run in and see someone at Edinburgh General Hospital. 
 “No problem,” Jeff said, and asked if it was okay if he went in, too.” 
“Come on.” Ewan said.  While Ewan was making his pastoral visit, Jeff decided to see what he could do to cheer up some of the patients. He stepped into a ward and went up to a bed and said hello.
The man looked up and said, “Far far yer honest sonsie face great chieftens o the puddin race a boon them aw you tak..
Oh for goodness sake, Jeff said and moved on to the next bed
“WEE courin timid beastie wad caused this panic in tha breastie…..” the patient mumbled.
Shaking his head, Jeff moved to the next bed.
“Some hae meat and canna eat and some hae nane and want it…”
At this time, Ewan was ready to leave and came over to Jeff who asked if this was the insane ward. 
“Oh no,” Ewan, said, “this is the SERIOUS BURNS UNIT.”

 

Joyful Living: Affirming Priorities

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church 

January 21, 2018

Philippians 3:2-17

 

What’s our number one priority? What’s the most important thing for us to accomplish? What should we all be striving for? As followers of Jesus Christ, we’re to be thankful, generous, gracious, and focused on him. Our priority, as we’re going to hear from Paul in just a moment, is to be “in Christ.”

This morning I’m continuing to work through Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi. Read Philippians 3:2-17

It’s never too late to do what is right.  That’s good news, although at times it may not seem like it.

        I’m sure some of you have read Anne Tyler. She’s published twenty novels, several which has been considered for a Pulitzer and one which was awarded the prize.[1] I’m curious if any of you have read her novel, Saint Maybe?[2] It wasn’t considered for the Pulitzer, but a good book, nonetheless.

Saint Maybe is the story of Ian Bedloe. At the beginning of the book, he’s a high school student living in the shadows of Danny, his talented older brother. Ian looks up to his Danny and doesn’t know what to make of things when his brother quickly marries a woman with two children. She’s quickly pregnant with a third child, maybe too quickly. In time, Ian begins to have questions about Danny’s wife and one day, when he’s angry and feels he’s been taken advantage of by his sister-in-law, he shares his concerns with his brother. Danny becomes upset, flies out of the house in rage and is killed in an automobile accident. Or was it an accident?

Ian lives with a terrible secret.  He graduates from high school and goes off to college. Along the way, his sister-in-law, who struggles with three kids, dies from an overdose. Again, was it an accident? Or intentional? The guilt builds, as his parents who are now aging and have health issues of their own, must take care of three small children. Ian is unsure as what to do and one night while walking around with his hands in his pocket, stumbles upon a storefront: “The Church of the Second Chance.”

He becomes friends with Reverend Emmett, to whom he confesses what he has done. Emmett assures him that he can be forgiven, but that he needs to take care of his brother’s kids. He drops out of school and for the next two decades raises the kids, putting his own life on hold.

Tyler’s story is about forgiveness and shows a tension that exists between forgiveness and consequences, penance and doing what is right. Certainly, there is much in the story that smacks of works-righteousness and later in the book, his sister-in-law’s oldest child, a bright but troubled teenager, labels Ian “Saint Maybe.” He certainly saw himself, not working out of gratitude but striving to earn forgiveness… Was he paying the price or accepting the consequences of his sin?

Paul, I believe, would disagree with Ian’s feelings that he’s got to carry this burden to the end to be forgiven. Our forgiveness comes through the atoning death of Jesus Christ. But, the grace God has shown us frees us to live in a new way; it frees us to finally do what is right and good and noble, not because we want to earn our salvation but because our relationship with Christ is all that matters.

          Although I felt the “Church of the Second Chance” should have helped reassure Ian that he’s loved unconditionally by God, I credit them with helping him, just a kid in his late-teens, care for the three orphaned children. The church stands by Ian, babysitting and helping him bear the burden. And in the book, after years of struggling to raise these children who are not his, you see the fruit of the love they have for each other and their adopted father. Grace, along with love, does abide.

In our Scripture passage for today we get a sense Paul is in a battle with the Jewish Christians who wanted to burden Gentile converts with the Law handed down from Moses. Why else would he begin this section of his letter, in verse 2, with a warning for his readers to beware of dogs, evil workers and those who mutilate the flesh? This is nothing new for Paul. Unfortunately, if you read Paul, he always seems to be commenting on circumcision.[1] It was the big issue of the day for Christians in the Mediterranean region in the first century.

       Paul has every reason to be proud of who he is and of his background. In our text, we hear Paul cite his resume. It’s impressive, the guy has credentials. But then he turns it around and in verse 7 says he regards it all as loss because of Christ. It wasn’t enough. It could never be enough. Paul affirms that our priority is to be in Christ. That’s all that matters. He’s running a race focused on Christ. His goal at the end is to be reunited to his Savior.

        There are three points that I want to make today concerning this passage. First, consider what Paul uses, from his own life, as an example for others. Secondly, what is it that we value?  What’s important for our lives? And finally, there’s the good news in this passage. It’s never too late to do what is right.

 

  The Apostle Paul had a miraculous conversion on the Damascus road. Paul literally does a one-eighty; he starts out as a persecutor of the church and becomes the church’s greatest missionary. Such a change has set the pattern for what we, as Christians, see as the ideal conversion.[2] But interestingly, Paul doesn’t hold up his conversion as the ideal or even as the norm. It happened only because of the grace of his (and our) Lord Jesus Christ. Instead of talking about his conversion as a model for others, Paul lifts up his struggle to be faithful as the example.  In numerous places, he uses the metaphor of a runner or an athlete to describe the Christian life.[3]

Too often, I think, we see one’s acceptance of Jesus as the goal. If someone can just accept Christ, all is well. I’m not so sure that Paul would agree with this modern way in which we’ve cheapened the faith.  Paul saw himself in a long distance race, and the goal line wasn’t going to be reached in this life. Paul experienced grace, but that’s not the goal. Grace isn’t the end, it’s the beginning. Grace helps us prioritize what’s important and redirects our lives. Like Paul, we must continue to run, to hold tight to the faith as a runner in a relay might hold tight to the baton. The goal is to be with Christ, eternally. Paul tells people not to judge him by his past, for his life-long goal is to be faithful to his Savior. Nothing else matters. He’s looking ahead and encourages us to do the same.

       This leads into my second point, “what is it that we value?”  What’s important to you? How do you want to be remembered?  Paul makes a definite point here. What’s important isn’t the past.  His resume is impeccable, and he throws it out the window.  “Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ,” he writes in the 7th verse. Our accomplishments pale in comparison to what Christ has done for us. Even if we live a good life, we still have no room to brag and it’s all so trite when we think about the love shown to us.

Or maybe there are things in our past that overshadow our accomplishments. Some of us (perhaps many or all of us) are burdened with at least part of our past. We’ve done things and left things undone that we’ve regretted, things may still haunt us. That doesn’t seem to be Paul’s problem. With the exception of his stint as a persecutor of the church, his past is pretty remarkable. I expect for most of us, and I’m including myself, our past is a mixed-bag: some good and some bad and some indifferent. But Paul reminds us we can’t dwell on our past.  We’re to start where we are and make our way forward.

         This leads into my third point. The past is water under the bridge. We’re now on a new journey with Christ and we need to focus on him. The good news, as I said at the beginning, is that it’s never too late to do what is right, to change our direction, to find the peace that comes from knowing and accepting God’s grace and love.

Paul wasn’t ashamed of his past; there was much in his past of which he could be proud. Instead, he knew it didn’t matter. What was important is what Jesus had done for him and how he responds. The same is true for us—as individuals, as a congregation, as a community, as a nation and even as the collective citizens of the globe. If we spend too much time dwelling on the past—on the good we’ve done, the bad we’ve done or that which we left undone—we’ll miss out on what we can be doing now. How do we respond to God’s love in Jesus Christ? How do we live “In Christ?” That is what’s important.

We can’t let the past hold us back. Paul knows he has to move forward. He’s ready to run till Jesus calls him home. What about us?  Do we trust enough to turn all the joys and accomplishments, the broken dreams and missed opportunities, over to Jesus, and to dedicate this day and every day forward to serving him and him alone? It’s never too late to start. Let us pray:

 

Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we bow before you giving thanks for your grace and asking for you to help us run this race with Christ as our goal. May we live in Christ and in your good time die in Christ that we might be in Christ in your presence eternally. Amen.

 

©2018

[1] See Romans 2:25-29, 3:1, 4:11; 1 Corinthians 7:18-19; Galatians 2:12, 5:6, 5:11, 6:15; Ephesians 2:11; Colossians 2:11, 4:11; Titus 1:10.

[2] See Fred B. Craddock, Philippians: Interpretations: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox, 1984), 55.

[3] See 1 Corinthians 9:24 & 9:26, and Galatians 2:2 and 5:7.  The writer of Hebrews also uses the runner as a metaphor: Hebrews 12:1.

[1] Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, The Accidental Tourist and Breathing Lessons have all be nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. Breathing Lessons was awarded the prize.

[2] Published by Knopf in 1991.

I have used “Dwelling with PhilippiansReformed Worship #100 as a starting point for these sermons on Philippi.

 

 

Joyful Living: Imitating Christ

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

January 14, 2018

Philippians 1:27-2:10

 

We’re continuing our journey through Philippians. Paul has a special place in his heart for this church. It’s in Philippi, on the Sabbath, that Paul, Timothy and Silas meets a group of women down by a river who’ve gathered to worship. Paul shares the gospel message and one woman, Lydia, is especially moved. She invites Paul and his friends to stay in her home. Paul accepts her invitation and organizes his first church on European soil.[1]

As I’ve mentioned, Philippi was also where Paul first experienced prison. In the middle of the night, there was an earthquake that broke open the jail. The jailer thought Paul and Silas had escaped and was ready to end his life, but Paul cries out to him and assures him that everyone is all present and counted for even though the bars are opened and the chains broken. This leads to the conversion of the jailer and his family.

Paul is pleased with how his work was blessed in Philippi and, as we saw last week, he keeps them in his prayers. Likewise, the Philippians are also fond of Paul, even sending a gift to relieve his suffering while he’s in prison.      As I attempted to stress last week, joy is a theme that appears throughout this letter. This seems odd with Paul being, once again, in prison. In today’s reading, we learn that there are some difficulties facing the Philippians. Paul wants to encourage them as he draws upon Christ’s example. I am going to begin today’s reading at the end of the first chapter, beginning with verse 27.  Read Philippians 1:27-2:13.

 

          We know how to do this. We might forget sometimes, but we know that when we want to connect with a child, we get down on their level. Or we raise them up to our level. And the same goes with our pets. We get down on the floor and play, or if the pet is small enough, we pick them up and hold them close or place them on our shoulder. And if we’re trying to teach someone something, we don’t act superior and tell them to come to where we’re at, but we began on their level. It’s empathy. It’s walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. Such behavior is foundational if we want to build a good relationship. We might not always do it, but we know we should.

God shows us how this works. It’s why Christ came to us as he did, in a way that we can understand and in a manner in which we can related.

         Our reading this morning begins with a plea for those reading the letter to live in manner worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is a goal we should all strive to meet.  Paul has just given an update on his condition, and so he turns to the situation in Philippi.  He wants the Philippians to stand together, to be of one mind and spirit so they will not be intimidated by their opponents. He even has the audacity to suggest that it is a privilege to suffer with Christ!

        Our speaker at the January Series on Friday was Caroline Webb. She spoke on how to use behavioral science to improve our daily lives. One of the things she suggests is that by looking for the good in everything, our brains will catch on and focus on good. She seems to be echoing a bit of what Paul is saying here to the Philippians.  “Sure, you’re suffering, but stand firm and focus on the good for you know God is bringing about your salvation.” Focus on the good!

Early in the second chapter, Paul gives some wonderful advice which stands in the tradition of the Golden Rule. If we could only live by this:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each look not to your own interests, but to the interest of others.  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.

 

As Christians, we should ponder Paul’s counsel and consider what it means for us. The kingdom of God has no place for ambition or conceit. We’re called, as disciples, to work for the greater good of God’s kingdom, not to build our own little fiefdom. We should regard others better than ourselves which checks our tendency to be overly zealous and to look down on those who do not agree with us.

         I am often asked about the Christian belief that the only way to God the father is through Jesus Christ. Lots of people have a problem with this exclusive claim, seeing it as not accepting the pluralism that exist within our society. Yes, our belief in Jesus Christ as the way, the truth, and the life, is exclusive.[2] The problem, however, arises when Christians begin to think ourselves, or of churches, as superior to others. Such thoughts cannot be attributed to Jesus or to Paul. Paul, who certainly believed in the exclusive claim of Jesus Christ, tells those in the Philippian church that being a disciple means they must be humble, they must be of the mind Jesus.

Think about what this means. Jesus Christ, if we recall, got along better with the sinners of the day than he did with the faithful. He accepted them. Furthermore, he didn’t try to control them. He gave them a choice to follow him or not and didn’t beat up those who didn’t choose him. The only time he got really angry was when he saw people being an obstacle to worship as when he attacked the money changers at the temple.

         Another of our January Series speakers this week was John Inazu. For those of you who were not here, I hope that by mentioning these two speakers, you get a sense of what you’ve been missing…  Inazu is a professor of law and religion at Washington University in St. Louis and a fellow in the Institute for Advance Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He didn’t tell us how about his travel schedule back and forth between Virginia and Missouri, but he did encouraged us to have confidence with our faith. For you see, it’s only when we are confident about what we believe that we can take the risk to befriend those who are different. Otherwise, we’ll see them as a threat and have a tendency to demonize them. But if we are grounded in our faith in Christ, we should be willing to accept others who are different for we know that they, too, are created in God’s image.

It is a heresy, I believe, for the Christian faith to focus on how we might dominate and subdue others. Our focus is to be on Jesus Christ. Christ, as Paul tells us in the beautiful poem that follows this section, emptied himself, humbled himself, and took on the form of the slave so he could reach a broken humanity.

The example I used at the beginning—of us being willing to getting down in the floor with a child—is what God does in Christ. God comes down to our level, which is what the Christmas story is all about.

We should apply Paul’s principles to our lives. Are we standing firm in one spirit, in one mind, in the same love?  Paul certainly knows there is a need for diversity of thought and he’s not after a uniformity of opinion. Instead, he’s hoping, as one commentator on this passage wrote, the Philippians will “strive for an inner sentiment for one another that is full of love.”[3] That’s also my prayer for us. We’re not to flaunt or to brag about ourselves, but are to be called into the heart of Jesus Christ and into his service.

The Reformed understanding of call (and all of us here have been called by Christ) is twofold. We’re called for salvation and for service. We can’t laud over those outside the kingdom, for we’re not called to dominate, but to serve them with love so that, through God Spirit, they might come to know the truth.

Being a Christian isn’t anything special. Being a Christian means we’ve accepted a position of servanthood.  It means that we don’t trust ourselves; we trust Christ and allow him to rule our lives. Are we living our lives, as Paul asks at the beginning of this passage, in a way that’s worthy of the gospel. Or, as we say here at SIPC, are we reflecting Jesus’ face to the world? If not, what might we do differently? How might we gain the confidence needed in our faith to be bold in befriending the world? Amen.

 

©2018

[1] Acts 16.

[2] John 14:6.

[3] Gerald F. Hawthorne, Philippians: Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1983), 71.

Joyful Living: Divine Purposes


Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Philippians 1:1-21

January 7, 2018

 

 

For the next month, I’m going to focus on Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi. Unlike many of his other letters, where there were serious issues within the church that Paul addresses, this is a friendly letter. Yes, there are some issues in Philippi, but Paul’s primary concern is to strengthen their friendship and to remind them that he’s doing well in spite of being locked up in jail.  At the end of the letter, he thanks the Philippians for a gift they’d sent him through Epaphrodi, a member of their congregation. We can envision Paul, accompanied by his co-worker Timothy, penning a quick letter to give to Epaphrodi before he trekked back to Philippi. Without a postal service, he would have provided a means to promptly return thanks for the gift they’d sent.

        A few things about this letter. We’re not sure where or when it was written. We know from the letter, Paul was being held in a Roman city in which the Imperial Guard had an outpost.[1] It has often been assumed this was Rome, but could have been in other cities like Caesarea or Ephesus. As for the date, it could have been written most anytime within the 50s and early 60s of the Common Era.[2]

In addition to this letter being about friendship, it’s also about joy. Think about this: despite his situation, Paul is joyful. Are we joyful when facing troubles? Should we be? Listen as I read from the first chapter, Philippians 1:1-21

 

         Most of us, I’m sure, want to avoid prison and if we were locked up, we’d not very joyful. But prisons have been places where powerful statements have been made.  Think of Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Martin Luther King in Birmingham, Alabama, and Detrick Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany.  In the civil rights struggle, some leaders even saw jail as a welcomed escape from the busyness of the struggle. Behind bars, they had a chance to rest, catch their breath and collect their thoughts. From there, by letters, they could encourage their followers. Perhaps this was also true for Paul.

         This book within the New Testament has become known as “The Letter of Paul to the Philippians.” But take a look at the opening verse.  It’s not just Paul, but Paul and Timothy.  Paul, with his usual humility, puts himself and Timothy at the same level. They’re both servants and slaves of Jesus Christ. While this is a letter of friendship, it’s a friendship that’s sealed in Jesus Christ. However, the personal nature of the letter and the continual use of the first person pronoun makes it clear Paul is the primary author of the letter.[3]

Philippians follows a traditional ancient form for letters.  The opening lines tells us who’s being addressed within the letter, from whom the letter has come, and a greeting. In many of Paul’s other letters, he cites his credentials here. But with this letter, that’s not necessary. We wouldn’t write a letter to a spouse saying “I’m your husband or wife,” or to a child saying, “I’m your father,” or to a friend citing that I’m your friend, unless we were being very sarcastic or trying to make a cruel point. This letter is addressed to people Paul and Timothy know well. Although known to the Philippians, Paul doesn’t want the letter to focus only on himself so he greets his readers in the name of Jesus Christ. At its primary level, this is a letter about Jesus.

      After the opening salutation, Paul follows with a section of the letter that is a tradition for him. In every Pauline letter, with the exception of Galatians, Paul has an opening section where he offers Thanksgiving for those he’s addressing.[4] Paul is fond of the people in Philippi, noting that every time he thinks about them, he offers a prayer of thanksgiving.  In this section of the letter, we learn more of Paul’s gratitude and affection for the Philippians. Again, as in his salutation, the focus is ultimately not on the author or recipient of the letter, but on the work of God in Jesus Christ in which they’re involved. Yes, Paul is thankful they have stuck with him, even while he’s imprisoned. After all, he spent his first night in jail in Philippi![5] So Paul being locked up isn’t anything new for them. Paul finishes this section of Thanksgiving, as he often does, with a prayer for those to whom the letter is addressed.

The body of the letter begins with verse 12. Paul now addresses his situation. Instead of complaining about prison food or how the iron shackles are rubbing blisters on his ankles, Paul continues giving thanks. In fact, Paul now understands that his incarceration is having the opposite effect from what his enemies wanted. If they thought that locking Paul up was going to end his ministry, they were wrong. Instead, Paul now has an opportunity to preach and teach the Roman soldiers guarding him.  And those believers who are near Paul witness the strength of his faith and therefore their faith is strengthened. Paul’s attitude, while in chains, is giving voice to others who are continuing the work of proclaiming Jesus Christ.

          We learn that there are two kind of preachers who are filling the gap following Paul’s arrest. There are some who desire the spotlight and may even be secretly glad that the Apostle is locked up.  To them, it’s a competition. They’re not really doing ministry for the right reasons. They’re more like the Pharisee Jesus pointed to, who prayed loud and publicly.[6] But there are others, coming behind Paul, who are motivated for the right reasons, out of love. Paul decides he’s not going to worry about the first group, and just be glad that those spotlight-grabbers are talking about Jesus.  Of course, those in the second group, who love Jesus and want others to have what they have, warms Paul’s heart.  But because both are preaching Jesus Christ, God can use them both to further his work.  Sometimes, especially in my profession, people think that everything is on their shoulders and forget that God can take even our failures and use them for his glory and edification.

Paul is also at peace because he knows how things are going to turn out.  God’s got this under control. Even while he is imprisoned because of his faith in Jesus Christ, Paul knows that the spread of the gospel isn’t up to him. It’s in God’s hands. God is going to make sure Jesus’s message is heard.  Paul is so confident of his message that he is not worried if he lives or dies.  If he lives, great, he can keep doing the work to which he’s been called. If he dies, great, he can be with Christ.

        As followers of Jesus, we have a divine purpose.  We are to be about seeking out and doing God’s will in the world. When we are jealous of others, it’s often because we are focused on ourselves and our own ego and not on what God wants us to be doing. God has given us each talents which are to be used in building up the kingdom. If we use them in purposeful way, we should be satisfied with and joyful in our work. We should also trust that God has called others to do the work of the kingdom.  It takes all types.

There’s an attitude that Paul expresses in this letter that I wish we could all embrace. Think about it. We get uptight. We often see ourselves in competition.  We want to be better and to be seen as better, which can be a good motivator as long as we want to do the best for Jesus Christ. When we want to be the best for selfish reasons, so that we look good, so that we look better than them (whoever “they” are), we miss the point. God still might use us to do important work, but in our hearts, are we really concerned for others? We are to do what we can, as did Paul, but we must trust the future to God?

        A second thing we should learn from this passage is that God can even take our misfortunes and use them for a great glory. Bad can come from good. Hopefully none of us will ever experience prison for Jesus, and certainly not martyrdom, but in the course of human history those who have suffered so for their faith have been an inspiration.  John Knox, the leader of the Protestant Reformation in Scotland, was fortified with zeal when his mentor, George Wishart, the man who led him to see the truth of Jesus Christ, was burned at the stake in St. Andrews. When others see that we hold true to our beliefs in Jesus, even when it means we suffer, we become a powerful testimony. As Paul states in this passage, even his guards are curious about this faith. They want to know why Paul is willing to suffer so for his beliefs. They listen to him with willing ears. God has a way of turning earthly misfortune into eternal treasure.

      Think about this in the context in which we live. We don’t have to worry about persecution or imprisonment, at least not yet in America.  But when others who are not believers see that we are true to our faith and watch as we seek to live as Jesus’ disciples, we make a positive witness. When they see us being honest and truthful, willing for forgo short-term gains because it would force us to act in way contrary to our faith, we reflect Jesus’ face to the world. Consider your actions? Do your deeds provide a good witness to Jesus?  Think about your joy. Are you content with what God is doing through you to bring about a positive change in the world? Can you be happy, even when suffering, ‘cause you trust that God’s got this?

We must live noble lives, be thankful for what Jesus Christ has done for us, and trust that God has called us to a divine purpose.  If we do, believe, and trust, we can experience joy despite our situation. Amen.

©2018

[1] Philippians 1:13.

[2] Gerald F. Hawthorne, Philippians: Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word, 1983), xxxvi-xliv.

[3] Hawthorne, 3-4.

[4] Fred Craddock, Philippians: Interpretation, A Biblical Commentary for Preaching and Teaching (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985), 3.

[5] Acts 16:16ff.

[6] Luke 18:10-12.

I am basing this series on an article in Reformed Worship.

 

 

Christmas Eve Homily 2017

JEFF GARRISON

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Christmas Eve Homily 2017

Luke 2:1-15

 

         In this past Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, there was an article I hope you saw, titled “The Salvation of ‘Napalm Girl’”.  When I saw “Napalm Girl,” I knew who this was although I didn’t know her name. Those of us old enough to remember anything from the early 70s remember that tragic photo of a young Vietnamese girl running and screaming, her clothes having been burn off by napalm. That girl, Ms. Kim, is now in her mid-50s. In the article, she tells about her bitterness. She still receives treatment for the burns. But she also tells about how, a decade after the event, when she would have been nineteen, she attended a small church in Vietnam on Christmas Eve. And she heard the pastor deliver a Christmas message that would be very familiar to us all. Christmas is not about the gifts that are carefully wrapped at placed under a tree. Christmas is about the gift of Jesus Christ, wrapped in human flesh… A change was coming over her life as she experienced peace for the first time.[1]

The story we are about to hear for the umpteenth time has that kind of power, the power to change lives. Listen as I read Luke 2:1-15.

###

 

It all seems so long ago…. The humble birth in a stable and the horrible death upon a cross… Even the glorious resurrection, as the stone of the grave was pushed aside, seems distant. Yet, something brings us back year after year. Tonight, all across our land and throughout the world, people are gathering to recall that wonderful night of so many years ago.

The year after I graduated from college, I was the night shift production supervisor in a bakery. There was something strange about going to work late in the evening, driving by houses as lights are being turned off. I would think about those people settling in for the night and would feel strange. I was the odd one, laboring throughout the night. From that experience, I know how the shepherds must have felt, as they sat on a hillside overlooking the city and watched the lights in the houses below slowly extinguish.

The night was lonely. Furthermore, being a shepherd wasn’t exactly a romantic job in first century Palestine. People looked down on them. If there was ever a group of people needing a Savior, it was the shepherds early in the morning, when the air was the coldest and they felt as isolated as ever.

Over and over again we hear the words of the angels to the shepherds: “Do not be afraid; for see—I’m bringing you good news of great joy for all the people, to you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Perhaps the message was given to the shepherds because they were the only ones awake that night around Bethlehem. But more likely, since our God is merciful and all-knowing, the shepherds witnessed the angel’s song because they needed to hear it. They needed to experience something wonderful in their drab lives. Even though the shepherds continued to watch over sheep in the days and years afterwards, their lives were changed. After a storm, when the clouds were breaking and the moon shined brightly, they recalled another night when the heavens glowed brightly and would be warmed inside for they knew that God loved them.

But the herald of the angels was not just for the shepherds.  The good was and is for “all the people,” for you and for me, for God has come in the flesh. Sometimes we are tempted to forget this wonderful news and need to be reminded. Such is the purpose of Christmas. It is a time to be remind of not only Christ’s wonderful birth, but also his death which atoned for our sins and his glorious resurrection in which we have our hope.

In a poem titled “The Cross in the Manger, Ann Weems, a Christian poet, writes:

If there is no cross in the manger,

there is no Christmas.

If the Babe doesn’t become the Adult,

there is no Bethlehem star.

If there is no commitment in us,

there are no Wise Men Searching…

 

Her poem continues on and ends:

 

For if there is no reconciliation,

we cannot call Christ “Prince of Peace.”

If there is no goodwill toward others,

it can all be packed away in boxes for another year.

If there is no forgiveness in us,

there is no cause for celebration.

If we cannot go now even unto Golgotha,

there is no Christmas in us.

If Christmas is not now,

if Christ is not born into the everyday present,

then what is all the noise about?

 

Let me tell you a story and give you something to think about as you go home this evening. Once upon a time a country ruled by a king was invaded by a foreign army. The king was killed, but his loyal servants rescued his children and placed them with peasant families in the countryside where they would be safe. The youngest daughter was just an infant and never knew she was the daughter of a king. She grew up with a family in poverty, digging potatoes for a living.

One day an old woman approached the now young woman as she was digging potatoes. The old woman asked, “Do you know who you are?” The young woman said, “Yes, I’m the farmer’s daughter and a potato digger.”

“No, no,” the old woman said, “you are the daughter of a king.” Then the old woman then disappeared into the forest.

“Am I the daughter of a king?” the woman asked herself.  The next day, she still dug potatoes, but she dug them differently. She held her shoulders up high and there a light in her eye because she knew who she was. She was the daughter of a king.

Friends, because of Jesus Christ, we, like the shepherds, have been adopted as children of the Most High King. Being daughters and sons of the king is a high and holy calling which should be evident in our words and deeds. The way we carry ourselves and the way we celebrate should be a sign of God’s grace. Live as a child of the King. Take in this story and like Ms. Kim, let it change your life. Glory to God in the highest. Amen.

©2017

[1] Kim Phuc Phan Thi, “The Salvation of ‘Napalm Girl’”, The Wall Street Journal, (Friday, December 22, 2017), A15.

Fourth Sunday of Advent: Repent

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Fourth Sunday of Advent: Mark 1:1-8

December 24, 2017

This is a weird day thanks to the way Christmas falls this year. As with most churches, we celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve at night. But this morning, we’re not quite there.  Don’t jump the gun on your celebrations just yet. It’s not Christmas, but the fourth Sunday of Advent. We’re still waiting and as we’ve done through this season of Advent, we’re looking at passages from Mark’s gospel to give us a better view of this world in to which Jesus came. This morning we’re looking at John the Baptist. He plays an important role and if I’d followed the traditional readings of Advent, he’d take top billing for two Sundays.

One of the Spiritual practices I enjoyed this year was listening daily to the Advent readings and prayers developed by the Church of Scotland, our mother church. I highly recommend these short videos as they are well done. Before reading the gospel text, let’s watch this video about John.

Video Link:

Read Mark 1:1-8

I’m sure many of you know that Mark skips over the infant narratives of Jesus as found in Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels. In Mark, as in John, there are no stories of humble mangers, gawking shepherds, or gift-bearing Magi. But all four Gospels have stories of the wild man in the desert. Before we can get to that cuddly red-cheeked baby, we encounter John.
John’s not the kind of dude you’d invite to a Christmas cocktail party. Could you image him in such a setting?  Not exactly dressed to impressed, his camel-haired clothing isn’t a fancy sports coat. And heaven help you if he brought a dish to pass. Expect it to be an appetizer consisting of dead bugs soaked in honey (and I bet there’s not nearly enough honey for my taste). And the small polite talk in the parlor will soon be interrupted as John starts pointing out people’s sins. He’s known to call folks a brood of vipers,[1] which wouldn’t exactly endear him to other guests. When he starts preaching and waving his arms, he’ll knock over drinks and offend guests. I’m pretty sure you won’t make the mistake and invite John back the next year. That’s probably be okay with him. He has problems with polite society.

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” Mark’s gospel begins.  From the very first sentence, we are told this is a story of Jesus, but as I said, gospel writer doesn’t take us there right away, we have to first encounter John. But before dealing with him, let’s look at this opening sentence which sets the stage. It’s important for us to understand this sentence in the context it was written. First of all, “the beginning” takes us back to “In the beginning,” at the opening of Genesis. We’re reminded that the beginning starts with God’s action leading to creation, just as the coming of Jesus is a God-act. God is doing something new.

God’s action is reason for the good news, or the gospel as it can also be translated. However, the Greek word here (evangel from which we get the word evangelical) doesn’t come from scripture. Before it was a Biblical word, it was a political word. We associate it with “joyful tidings,” but so did the Romans of the first century who would celebrate when Caesar approached. In year 9, decades before the Gospels were penned, a calendar found in Asia Minor noted Caesar Augustus’ birthday with the inscription, “the beginning of joyful tidings.” In the Roman world, this term marked a new political situation in the world. Drawing upon this, Mark makes it clear that Jesus’ coming is a new situation for the world to celebrate. Just as the church took the Roman cross, a symbol of torture and shame, and reinterpreted it as a symbol of freedom, the good news no longer applies to Rome but to Jesus.

It’s Jesus, not Caesar. Jesus is the good news. Drawing on the prophetic tradition, the gospel writer proclaims that Jesus is the promised one. But before Jesus comes, the world must be prepared and this is where John the Baptizer enters.[2]

 

 

The gospel of Jesus Christ begins, not in a manager, but out in the desert with this wild man.[3] Like a coyote, he’s a voice crying in the wilderness. He’s an Elijah, the prophet who was nurtured by ravens, the prophet who found solace in the desert. [4] He has come to prepare the way. He’s the prophet that calls us to leave all that is comfortable behind and to travel into the wilderness. And we’re not going to a spa. When we arrive at those muddy banks along the Jordan, we’ll have to confront our sin so that we might repent and be baptized. He’s also the prophet who knew his place. He wasn’t the one coming, just the one who opens the door for the Messiah.

John was a prophet who came into a silent world. Israel hadn’t had any prophets in centuries. Were their prayers being heard? Being answered? I am sure many of the Jews were wondering if they’d been abandoned as they felt they had for four hundred years in Egypt. But then John is heard bellowing in the wilderness, telling people to prepare for and to expect the coming of the Lord. His message was heard as people flocked out to the Jordan, where they were called to repent and, as they came up from the waters of baptism, to start a new life.

John was a humble man. He didn’t exploit his popularity. He stayed focused to his mission, noting that the one coming was so great that he wouldn’t be worthy to untie his shoes. John didn’t even think himself worthy of serving as Jesus slave. Yet, we know that like John, Jesus, too, was humble. Although born a king, he didn’t exploit his position but assumed the position of a servant, washing the feet of his disciples.[5] There’s a lot we can learn from these two men and how they handled the power bestowed upon them.

Advent is a season of knowing we’re in trouble and we need a Savior. But as the Savior came that first time, on his own terms, not in a way expected by the powers-that-be in Jerusalem, so too he will come to us on his terms. We must prepare ourselves. We must make room in our hearts in and our lives in order to receive the child born in Bethlehem. But we can’t stop there for we must remember that that child grew up and walked the dusty roads of Galilee, calling people to follow him. And that man taught the disciples and the multitudes to love God and neighbor, to show mercy, and to be at peace. Tonight we celebrate his birth, his coming, but for the rest of our live we’re called to follow him and to live as he taught.

John was sent with a mission. He was to point to Jesus. Jesus calls us for a mission, too. We are to point to him and to continue to do the work he started there is Galilee. This season, as we enjoy the lights and the joy around the tree and at the table, let us not forget that we are celebrating the birth of a King and a Savior. Let us not forget that we live for him. Like John, we’re not worthy of untying his sandals, but Jesus loves us enough that he’s willing to wash out feet, to wash our sins away. Jesus loves us enough he’s willing for us to be his adopted brothers and sisters. And Jesus is the hope we, as Christians, have for the world. Let us prepare a place for him in our hearts so that we can show his love, reflect his face to the world. Amen.

 

©2017

[1] Matthew 3:7 and Luke 3:7.

[2] William L. Lane, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 42-43.

[3] Scott Hoezee, Elizabeth Steele and Carrie Steenwyk, “Living in Advent: Worship Ideas for the Gospel of Mark,” Reformed Worship #89 (September 2011), 10-11.

[4] See Mark 9:11-13.  See also Malachi 4:5-6 and 1Kings 17:5-6.

[5] Philippians 2:6-7, John 13:3-11.

Watch (Third Sunday of Advent)

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Mark 13:24-37

December 17, 2017

 

 

Sarah and her thirteen-year-old sister have been fighting a lot this year. This happens when you combine a headstrong two-year-old, who is sure she’s always right, with a young adolescent, who knows she’s right. Sarah’s parents, trying to take advantage of her newfound interest in Santa Claus, reminded the two-year-old that Santa’s watching and doesn’t like it when children fight. It has had little impact.
“I’ll just have to tell Santa about your misbehavior,” her mother said one evening as she picked up the phone and dialed. Sarah’s eyes grew big as her mother asked “Mrs. Claus” (really Sarah’s aunt) “could put Santa on the line.” Sarah’s mouth dropped as her Mom described to Santa (really Sarah’s uncle) how the two-year-old was acting. When Mom said that Santa wanted to talk to her, the toddler reluctantly took the phone.
Santa, in a deepened voice, explained to her how there would be no presents Christmas morning to children who fought with their sisters. He would be watching, and he expected things to be better from now on. Sarah, her eyes even wider, solemnly nodded and then silently hung the phone up. After a long moment, Mom (holding back laughter at being so clever) asked, “What did Santa say to you, dear?”
In almost a whisper, Sarah sadly but matter-of-factly stated, “Santa said he won’t be bringing toys to my sister this year.”[1]

I think we’re a lot like Sarah. We like to read into situations that we are in the right and they (a sister, someone else, or some other group of people) are wrong. But Scripture reminds us that there is a problem in the world (called sin) and we (as sinners) are a part of the problem which is why we need a Savior. We must be careful at making ourselves out as righteous and others as being in the wrong.

Today, we are looking at the ending of the 13th Chapter of Mark’s gospel. This chapter has an apocalyptic flavor. Last week, we looked at the opening where Jesus warned about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. He continued on discussing the tribulations that his followers would face during this time of the temple’s destruction. Then he moves to discussing the Son of Man’s return. This has generally be interpreted as Jesus’ return at the end of history, but if so, he doesn’t give us any clear understanding as to when it will happen, only that we are called to be ready.[2]

When you leave today, know two things. As sinners, we’re all in this together. As Christians, we long for Christ’s return. And we are to be ready for that event at the end of history. Read Mark 13:24-37.

 

          Keep awake…  As a child, that used to be so hard. Sermons were the worse. My eyes would be heavy.  School was also another difficult time to stay awake, especially in a warm classroom.  Keeping awake was hard, except for on Christmas Eve, when you were told to go to sleep. It was harder to fall asleep on Christmas Eve than it was when you had planted a tooth under the pillow! You knew something magical was happening. The anticipation was high; too much was happening while we were asleep. I’d roll and roll and when my parents looked in on us, pretend to be asleep, while the clocked ticked away.

         Keep awake, you don’t know when this is all going to happen and when the Son of Man might appear. It’s been almost 2000 years since Christ left—that must be the reason there is a lot of insomnia going around. But we’re weary of waiting. It’s not something we’re good at doing. We fret when we are in the doctor’s office for too long. We stew when we get behind a slow driver along the Diamond Causeway. We brood if a waitress or waiter in a restaurant is inefficient. Waiting makes us feel out of control, unimportant, unwanted and helpless. Yet, we have to wait all the time. Children wait for Christmas morning. Parents wait on children to go to sleep. And the more we wait, the more our blood pressure rises. When is it going to all happen?

And then, Advent rolls around in the church calendar.  A period of waiting, which is counter-cultural in itself, for we are a society of people who want instant gratification. However, most people probably don’t mind waiting for Christ’s return. After all, we can put off the important things in life for another time. But that’s risky, Jesus says. That’s a gamble we shouldn’t take.

       Mark provides us with a pretty gloom picture in this chapter. Certainly most of the chapter is referring to the destruction of the temple which occurred in 70 AD. It was a period of false Messiahs and great upheaval. But in verse 24, Jesus moves to discussing his return. One way of looking at this passage is how, with the temple gone, the focus is now on the Messiah, the risen Christ. The Jesus who lives in our heart and is present in the church is how God is represented in our world today. So yes, Jesus is here with us now in Spirit, but he’s also coming back in person…

In a commentary on this passage, Scott Hoezee, a friend of mine writes:

“If the first advent of Christ has any meaning whatsoever, it is only because he is coming back to judge the living and the dead. If he is not coming back, then there is nothing to celebrate at Christmas….  If ditties along the lines of ‘Have a holly jolly Christmas’ could cure what ails us in this life, then there never would have been any need for God’s Son to go through the bloody trouble of coming here in person.”[3]

As I said earlier, there is a problem in the world. As sinners, we’re a part of that problem and Christ is the solution.

       Our passage begins with a description of terrible days.  The sun and moon will darken and stars will be falling out of the sky…  Anyone see any of the Geminids meteors the other night?  I only saw one meteor streak across the sky, while taking the dog out, but it was supposedly a pretty good meteor shower. Of course, we know meteors are not stars, but they look like stars and we can see why such showers were frightening to those in the ancient world. Mark envisions not just a darkening of the sky, but a collapse of things we take for granted.

Perhaps we need to look at this passage in a less literal way.  What’s happening is that the lights need to be lowered as a way that all the light can be focused on the one coming—Jesus Christ. The distractions need to be removed so that everyone pays attention to what’s happening.  The scene is scary and wonderful at the same time. It’s God’s great and final drama in history.

         Think about being in a theater. At the beginning of a play or concert, the house lights are dimmed so the audience can only see the performance. The lights are dimmed so that everyone will be focused on Christ.

This return involves the gathering of the elect, the faithful, those chosen by God through Christ. Those who have been faithful are brought into Christ’s presence.

         Jesus then returns to the question that started this discourse, about when these things (such as the destruction of the temple) will occur. He uses a fig tree as a lesson. Just a day or two beforehand, Jesus had cursed a fig tree that was not providing fruit, and the tree shriveled up and died.[4] The fig tree was often used by the Prophets as a symbol of Israel.[5] Now, instead of a fig tree withering, he speaks of when it blooms, which is later that most trees, in early summer. The budding of the fig tree is a sign of when this is happening, probably refers to Jesus the Messiah rising into prominence as the temple, which will soon be no more, fades from history. In the future, God will not be seen in relationship to the temple (for with the temple gone, where would that leave God?). Instead, God is seen through his Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. The fig tree which appears dead in winter, puts forth new sprouts and is alive. Christ, who was dead, is resurrected.

Jesus doesn’t give an exact time for this to happen, instead he points to what will happen.

          Our passage moves on to the final section where Jesus insists that what’s important isn’t that we know when all this will take place (much of which took place before the end of the first century). Yet, we are still waiting for his return. What’s important is that we are ready. “Keep awake,” this chapter ends, or as The Message translates the ending verse, “Stay at your post. Keep watch.”  As one commentator on this passage writes, “vigilance, not calculation, is required.”[6]

The use of the story about the slaves or servants waiting on the master implies that they have assignments and must be willing to fulfill their calling while the Master is away. Interestingly, with this section in Mark’s gospel, relating to the Master’s return, there are no signs given. The slaves don’t know, so they must continue with their tasks… Likewise, each member of the church has work to do (by the way, we’re all called) and by doing that for which we’ve been called, we fulfill our obligation to “watch.”[7]

         Christ has come, Christ will come again. But until he does, we are to be his hands and feet in the world, taking care of one another while telling his story so that others will catch a glimpse of the hope the world has in Jesus Christ and be ready. As The Message translation reminds us, “Stay at our post” so we might be ready when Christ comes. Come, Lord Jesus, Come. Amen.

 

©2017

[1] http://www.humormatters.com/holidays/Christmas/xmasjokes.htm

[2] Some scholars suggest that this passage is primarily focused on Jesus’ resurrected glory.  See N. T. Wright, Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues (New York: HarperCollins, 2014), 97.

[3] Scott Hoezee, Elizabeth Steele Halstead, Carrie Steenwyk, “Living in Advent: Worship Ideas from the Gospel of Mark” Reformed Worship 89 (September 2008), 9.

[4] Mark 11:12-14, 20-21.  Morna D. Hooker, Black’s New Testament Commentaries: The Gospel According to Saint Mark (London: A. C. Black Limited, 1991), 320.

[5] See Jeremiah 8:13, Hosea 9:10, Joel 1:7, Micah 7:1.  See footnotes for Mark 11:12-14 in The New Interpreters Study Bible (Abingdon Press, 2003).

[6] William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark: The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 482.

[7] Hooker 322. See also Lane, 484.

A little child shall lead them…

This morning I was one of three wise guys to present a short seasonal talk at the Skidaway Island Kiwanis Club.  I was honored to share the podium with Pastor Jason Talness of Messiah Lutheran (he’s from Minnesota and a Viking fan) and Rabbi Robert Haas of Mickve Israel (who is also a stand-up comedian).

Kiwanis Club Talk on Inspiration

Jeff Garrison

December 14, 2017

 

One of the occupational hazards of being a Presbyterian minister is that I cannot stand before a group of people to talk without focusing on a Bible passage. It’s what we do. If I was Baptist, I’d have a supply of water and probably be making an altar call. If I was a Lutheran from Minnesota, I’d probably be touting some made-up virtue of godless-Vikings and suggesting that the significance of the purple color of Advent is deeper than its liturgical meaning. And if I was Jewish, I’d be thanking God for one of those hats, a yamaka, like Rabbi Haas wears. I don’t understand our God. Robert has nearly a full head of hair and has to hide it. Me, well, I’m just trying to figure out how to make such a head covering a part of my religious tradition.

My Bible verse for the morning comes from the Hebrew portion of our Bible…  See, Robert, I’m trying hard to earn one of those caps.  Isaiah 11:6-9:

 The wolf shall live with the lamb,
    the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
    and a little child shall lead them.
 The cow and the bear shall graze,
    their young shall lie down together;
    and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
    and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
  They will not hurt or destroy
    on all my holy mountain…

 

The painting I displayed as a backdrop was based on this verse in Scripture. It was one of over a hundred variations of “The Peaceful Kingdom” painted by the 19th Century Pennsylvanian artist Edward Hicks. With so many paintings of the same subject, you’d think he fell into a rut. But he was a Quaker, and in addition to oatmeal, peace is something they do a better job striving for than most of us. Hicks was captivated by this passage. Highlighted in each piece is a child (or in some cases, children) along with the animals depicted in the poetry of the prophet.

  And a little child shall lead them…

Often, I think, we hear this passage and think we’re to follow that child. But that’s not the point. The child in Hicks’ painting as well as the one referred to in Isaiah is leading wild and dangerous animals. In our world, the parents of such a child would be charged with neglect. Who let’s their children play with wild animals? Our world is too violent, too dangerous, as was Isaiah’s. The prophet’s vision, his longing, is for the peaceful kingdom to come about, and that’s something only God can instill. For Christians, we see this beginning with a child born in a manager. We are to follow that child when he’s no longer in swaddling clothes, but crowned in righteousness, as we work to protect children and strive for a peaceful world as envisioned by the prophet. We have our work cut out for us.

For Christians, Christmas remains a season for children.  My best memories of the season is as a child. I didn’t have to worry about sermons back then. And what few gifts I had to give were homemade and, I can assure you, a parent’s love is greater than a child’s skill. So for a moment, think about the holiday when you were a child.

How about that time you bravely climbed up into Santa’s lap and boldly told him you’d been a good boy or girl all year.  And remember how the old man in red could still be heard laughing as your mother dragged you out of the store?

Or how about your first candlelight service on Christmas Eve, the mystery of the evening and the joy of the music filling the hour. Think about how especially proud you were when you were first able to hold a lighted candle by yourself. I know I thought I’d made the big leagues. And then, because we live in a fallen world, think about how you realized you could tip the candle just right and wax would drop, missing the guard, and plop on your sister’s hand she unsuspectingly rest it on the rail of the pew in front. I don’t know about you. I was married and with kids before my mother trusted me with another candle. My current congregation heard of my sin and took care of this problem by issuing battery powered candles.

Think of how excited you were as a child to wake up on Christmas morning and discover the treasures left under a tree. In my family, there were three of us and we’d have to all be ready at the same moment to enter the living room where the loot had been stashed by St. Nick. We never could understand how he managed this since we didn’t have a chimney.

What we did have was a Super 8 motion picture camera and my dad wanted to capture all the action. We enter the room together, only to be hit by the flood lights with an illumination of a small nuclear explosion. The camera recorded us raising our hands over our bleached out faces in order to shield our eyes. It would be another thirty minutes before our eyes adjusted enough to make out what was under the tree. But it was a magical day and we completely overlooked our parents’ exhaustion. (I never could understand why they didn’t go to bed like the rest of us on Christmas Eve.)

And those carefree Christmas Days were special.  We’d play with friends and cousins, trying out everyone’s new toys. Early in the afternoon, we’d be called to a feast with an insane amount of food, which none of us were interested because we’d already been into the stuffing (that is the candy stuffed in the stockings Santa left).

That child born in Bethlehem serves as an inspiration for those of us who strive to follow him. And years later, when he was grown and wandering around the backroads of Galilee, calling the disciples and others to follow, Jesus reminded them (and us) of the importance of childhood. Jesus encourages us to hold on to the awe and innocence of a child, telling us that in order for us to enter the kingdom of Heaven, we must come as one.

As Kiwanians, thank you for helping children make and experience such memories. During this season, I encourage you to watch the children and capture some of their excitement. Then, hopefully, you’ll be inspired as Kiwanians to continue the kind of building Kiwanis is known to do with children around the world. Until God ushers in that Peaceful Kingdom, we have work to do.  Thank you.

Don’t be misled, God’s got this

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Mark 13:1-9

December 10, 2017

 

Advent is a time of waiting. Let’s face it; we’re not very good at it. Everything about our society wants to push us to go faster. We hear carols starting after Halloween. Why, cause some ad man or woman thinks it will lure us into buying presents. But the season of Advent tells us to hold on, to wait, don’t get all excited, not just yet. Remember, the Jews waited centuries for the Messiah. And we’re waiting for his return even as we wait to celebrate a birth that happened a long time ago.

Wait, be patient, things are happening that we don’t fully understand. Wait, be patient and trust for God has things under control. Wait, be patient, it’s a good spiritual discipline. Advent hymns express our waiting, our longing, our desires, our awe and our fear. “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus,” “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” “Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand.”  Yes, Christmas is a season of joy, but first, we have to prepare ourselves as we wait in awe of what God is doing.

This Advent I’m having us look at passages from Mark’s gospel that challenge us to be ready for the Messiah. You know, Jesus surprised people when he first came. That’ll probably be true for his return, too. In our reading this morning, we are reminded that following Jesus isn’t always going to be easy. We’re going to be tempted to turn away, to try to find a smoother road. But we are to endure, to remain faithful, to trust in our Savior.

         There is an old Peanuts cartoon where Lucy and Linus are looking out of the window into the rain, kind of like many of us have been doing much of the past week. Lucy expresses her concern that the whole world might flood. Linus assures her that that won’t happen because of God’s promise in the 9th Chapter of Genesis, when the rainbow was placed in the sky. Lucy, relieved, thanked Linus for taking a great load off her mind. Linus responds, “Sound theology will do that.”

Sounds theology reminds us that God is in control and we’re to trust the Lord in all things.  Read Mark 13:1-9.

          Having made their way from Galilee down to Jerusalem, the disciples are kind of like Private Gomer Pyle on leave in New York City.  Reading this passage, I can almost hear a wide-eyed Peter say Gawwww-leeeee, as he gawks and cranes his neck looking up at the skyscrapers. Stopping at every intersection, he uses one of those obnoxious sticks to take selfies with his cell phone. Or maybe he’d be like Jeffro Bodine, driving the Clampet family’s old jalopy from Tennessee to Hollywood in the Beverly Hillbillies. The “country bumpkin” who is amazed by urban Los Angeles. These old shows gave us plenty of laughs and sadly most of the actors are no longer with us. Jim Nabors, who played Gomer Pyle, died just a couple weeks ago.

     In our passage this morning, the disciples are awe-struck at the temple. Like Gormer and the Jeffro, they’re the country-bumpkins” who’d come down from Galilee and are amazed. They had reason to be. Herod’s temple was built with massive stones measuring up to 67 ½ feet in length, 7 ½ feet in height and 18 feet in width.[1] In the days without heavy equipment, to see such massive stones incorporated into the temple’s beautiful construction was awe-inspiring. That is, awe-inspiring to everyone but Jesus. The disciples walk in amazement while Jesus just kinds of shrugs his shoulders and says it’ll end up a pile of rubble. “You got to be kidding us, Jesus,” the disciples probably thought. His words put a damper on the disciples’ enthusiasm.[2]

We can image the disciples following Jesus out of Jerusalem in silence, shaking their heads. They head to the Mount of Olives, where they have a panoramic view of Old City and the temple. There, four of the disciples pull Jesus aside.  Still in shock, they ask about what he said and when is it going to happen. Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t directly answer their question and say this will happen in forty years. Or that in 70 AD the Romans, who’d been kicked out of Israel four years earlier, will come back with a vengeance. They’ll recapture the city, build hot fires under the stones so that they blow apart. And then, using captured Jews who had been enslaved, they’ll spread the rocks out so that nothing much remains of the temple.

You know, the Romans had a way of teaching their enemies a lesson, of getting rid of the icons of those nations who challenged them. Remember Carthage? They not only destroyed the city but sowed salt into the ground so that nothing would grow there. The destruction of the temple created a significant challenge for Jews and Christians.  No longer did they have a central place of worship and focus. Until this time, the church and along with Jewish believers looked to Jerusalem. The church had been spreading throughout the empire, but after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, the focus for the church moved away from Jerusalem, to Antioch and Alexander and eventually Constantinople and Rome.

          But Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples when this is going to happen. Instead he uses this moment to warn the disciples that the future will not be all rosy. There is going to be some serious trouble and he wants the disciples to be ready so that they’ll remain faithful and not be deceived by others who come along with a better proposal. When trouble happens isn’t important. How we face challenges, as Christians, is important. Do we remain faithful in times of trouble, or are we lured away from our Savior?

In a way, this is a passage about trust. Will the disciples place their trust in these seemingly indestructible walls crafted out of stone and laden with gold? Or will they place their trust in him, in Jesus? And where do we place our trust? In that which we build? In that which appears solid? Or in Jesus?

        One of our problems (a problem of humanity) is that we tend to have short attention spans. Despite the advertisements about investing for the long-term, we tend to take short-term views. We want to know what someone is going to do for us right now, in the moment. We don’t like to wait. If someone promises us that we don’t have wait, that we can have it now, that we can have our cake and eat it too, we’re gonna listen and be tempted to follow. It may sound too good to be true (and probably is), but that’s what we want, that’s what we feel we deserve, or so we think. But Jesus wants us to be loyal to him, to trust him, and not be misled by false prophets and messiahs.

       Interestingly, in our text this morning, Jesus tells us that there will be wars and rumors of wars, which has been pretty much true for all of human history. Yeah, we might get a decade or two without a major war, but that’s about it. But these wars, which happen all the time, don’t signal the end. Yes, nations will rise against nations, kingdoms against kingdoms, along with earthquakes and famines. We see it, don’t we? But when hasn’t the earth seen such troubles. Our only advantage today is that wars and the earthquakes (along with fires and volcanoes and other disasters) are brought into our living rooms on TV and through the internet. They’ve always been happening, it’s just that we’re able to know about them faster today than ever before. So we need to be careful about pointing to any set of events as being precursors to the end.

          But get this. Jesus doesn’t say that the end of time will come on the heels of such disasters, but that such signs will just be the beginning of the birth pangs. Birth pangs… now we are taken back to Mary and that long journey to Bethlehem. Think about this. Although birth pangs are not pleasant (of course, as you know, I’ve not experienced them firsthand), they are actually a hopeful sign. Because after all the pain comes that cry of a newborn, a child, a new life. And with that cry comes joy. So instead of us worrying about the troubles we face, we rejoice for we know that there is something glorious is happening. From the perspective of a birth, this isn’t necessarily a gloomy passage. Yes, there will be trouble, but God’s got this under control.

        Trust. Believe. Live in hope. But don’t be surprised if you find yourself persecuted and abused because of your belief. It’s just birth pangs. God’s got this! Jesus doesn’t want his disciples to be running around afraid, even though many of them were handed over to councils and beaten in the synagogues. Jesus wants them to trust in him and to realize that things are working out even when there appears to be no evidence of it.

What about you? Are you afraid of the signs of the times? Worried about the end? Or do you trust God in all things? It’s hard, but it is our calling.

Be strengthened by these words from Teresa of Avila, a Spanish mystic in the 16th Century:

          Let nothing disturb you.

Let nothing frighten you.

Though all things pass,

God does not change.

Patience wins all things.

But he lacks nothing who possesses God;

For God alone suffice.   Amen.

 

[1] Josephus gives two different dimensions in his writings.  45x5x6 cubits and 25x8x12 cubits.  A cubit is roughly 18 inches.  See Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (1991, London: Hendrickson Publishing 1997), 304.

[2] See Scott Hoezee, Elizabeth Steele Halstead, Carrie Steenwyk, “Living in Advent: Worship Ideas for the Gospel of Mark, Reformed Worship #89 (September 2008), 7.

Peace in the Heart (A Book Review)

Archibald Rutledge, Peace in the Heart (New York: Doubleday & Co, 1930), 316 pages, no illustrations

 
Margaret Reagan introduced me to Archibald Rutledge and lent me this book.  It’s the second of his books that I’ve read.

Rutledge was poet laureate of South Carolina for forty years. During his long life, he published nearly 50 books, mostly on outdoor life and poetry and wrote for a number of outdoor magazines including Field and Stream. Born in 1883 in McClellanville, SC, Rutledge grew up on Hampton Plantation. His ancestors include a long list of South Carolina royalty including a signer of the Declaration of Independence. As a child, his father, “the Colonel,” took him hunting and fishing. He attended high school in Charleston and later Union College in Schenectady, New York. Upon graduation, he taught English at Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania. While there, he made regular trips back to Hampton, especially during the Christmas break. In the 1930s, he moved back and devoted his life to the plantation and writing. He lived out his life at the plantation, except for the summer months when he headed to the beach or the North Carolina Mountains. Shortly before his death, he sold the plantation to the state of South Carolina. Today it is maintained as a park.

Peace in the Heart was first published in 1927. At the time, Rutledge was still teaching in Pennsylvania. There were a number of editions, the last published in 1947. Sadly it is out of print and hard to obtain. I was able to find copies of this book for sale (but with hefty price tags). There are a number of Rutledge’s other books that are still in print.

The book is a structured series of independent essays that follow the movement of the day and seasons. Rutledge starts at sunrise and spring and ends with night and winter. He finds God’s hand in the cycles of the day and the year.  “[W]e who love Nature sense that all seasons are divinely ordered,” he writes. “God takes our hands gently in spring” (28)

Drawing from his keen observations of nature, Rutledge explores life. An example of his observations is seen in the interest he took in a mud-dauber” (a type of wasp) who built his dirt home on one of the beams of Rutledge’s porch.  He kept knocking the dirt cave off his beams, but the wasp kept rebuilding it.  Each load of sand that the wasp mined near the creek took him four minutes to obtain and with each rebuilding, the sand home took on a redder hue as the wasp increased the portion of clay, hoping to build a stronger home that would last (279-80).

Hamilton Plantation

Rutledge professes his Christian faith, but at times I wondered if his faith is more influenced by the natural world than the Word or Bible.  “Face to face with Nature, we are face to face with God; and I for one believe Him to be the God of love as well as the God of law. That I cannot see Him troubles me not.  I find him in His works, in His constant abundant blessings, in the nature of the human soul” (76).  He thanks his Creator for supplying necessities and extras.  Sunlight, air, water, food and shelter are necessities.  Moonlight and starlight along with music, perfumes, flowers and the wind crooning through pines are extras to be enjoyed (15). He tells a friend who was dying, but miraculously recovered after hearing a bird sing. God “does not love us with words: He loves us by giving us everything we need in every way,” Rutledge notes. (16). While acknowledging his own sentimentalism and how nature writers are criticized for being sentimental, he wonders why it’s seen as a bad thing (68).  Toward the end of the book, he reports on how a German scientist came to the conclusion that wild things cannot reason. Rutledge then sarcastically quipped, “Well, they get along remarkably in a world in which reasoning men have a pretty hard struggle to succeed” (283).

He finds the natural world so intriguing and peaceful, suggesting that nature plans for life and not death (243). Obviously he overlooks the life and death struggle animals have in the wild. Although a hunter, he doesn’t glorify the killing of animals and in one story in which he went duck hunting but left his gun on a tree by the launch, he muses how he was glad for often a man who takes a gun “eaves his heart at home” (110). He finds that by observing natural laws we can keep out of trouble, drawing on how animals know on instinct how to act (51) and that the natural world knows to obey such universal laws and not to attempt to make a bargain with the Almighty (56).  While he has obviously learned much from scientists, he suggests that there are other types of questions that the scientists don’t ask. “What does this mean in terms of the spirit? What does all this beauty and intelligence suggest to the heart?  What can I learn from my own soul by surveying in thoughtful love the sounds of God’s wild children” (253-4).

Moving through the day, he explores storms and issues that arises with high water levels. He finds his heart rises during storms, which is why he sees them as a blessing (78), while also providing us an opportunity to shelter others. Caring for others during their storms helps us “develop our sympathies” (86). After the storm passes, he notices how we can rejoice that we have survived and find peace (90).  High water, especially where fresh water pushes into salt water, creates unique situations.  He tells about a beach in South Carolina in which bathers were horrified to see a large alligator, washed out to sea in high water, delighting in riding waves in the surf (107).  Interestingly, he does not include a chapter on drought and the unique ways low water levels open up new opportunities to explore.

A couple of chapters were devoted to two individuals who were influential in his life.  Prince was an African American boy with whom he grew up.  His family had live on the plantation as slaves. After emancipation, both of his parents worked at the plantation. His mother was the cook for 40 years and his father brought in the firewood and on the cool mornings would build fires in the hearths throughout the home. In Rutledge’s book, God’s Children, there are more stories about Prince.

The other individual to whom a chapter is devoted is Rutledge’s father. Colonel Rutledge fought in the Civil War and was the youngest Colonel in the Confederate army. He was wounded twice (at Malvern Hill and Antietam). While fighting, he had a slave with him, who saved him at Antietam, at risk of his own life and took him back to safety in Virginia. Rutledge tells of his father visiting him when he lived in Pennsylvania. They drove to the Antietam battlefield where a guide described the battle and mentioned, unknowingly, about the “gallant Colonel Henry Middleton Rutledge” of the 25th North Carolina Infantry.  Afterwards, his father introduced himself to the guide (217-218).  His father was a kind man and would often go to buy groceries and come back empty handed, after having given the groceries away to those in need. Living in admiration of his father, Rutledge wrote::

 

 “What a man’s worth is in this world depends on the kind of wake he leaves behind him as he passes.  If my Colonel came home empty-handed in a material way, it was because he had ‘bestowed all his goods to feed the poor.” His riches consisted not on what he brought with him but on what he left behind.” (208)

As for the slave who had saved his life, Rutledge tells his father’s story of a government agent visiting African-Americans that may have fought in the Civil War to determine their eligibility for a pension. This former slave told the agent (who was working on commission) that he was in the war all four years, omitting which side he had served during the war. To Rutledge’s father’s delight, he was granted a pension. After his wife died, he married a younger woman and at the time of the writing of this book, she was still receiving his pension (218-219).

Rutledge seems, however, to be most at home alone in the woods. He has a chapter on solitude and another on worship in the wild.  He talks joy and delight in the world and the animals within it.  He seems much more interested in the animal kingdom than plants, only mentioning flowers and trees in passing.  But with his intimate knowledge of wildlife, he believes that God delights in the world and it’s just another example of God’s love for us.  Although he doesn’t dwell on sin, Rutledge believes it’s only the human race that’s able to live “in opposition to his physical instincts” and to act as if he’s immortal (161). He does appears to have a concept of the incarnation, suggesting that the knowledge of God’s presence and love should be comforting as it means our foes are already defeated (177).

Like his book, God’s Children, there are paternalistic views that are considered politically incorrect in today’s world.  This comes out mostly when he talks about his father’s friendship with his former slaves.  Writing decades before the Civil Rights movement, Rutledge learned from his father that “while equality is often impossible, brotherhood never is” (210-211).  He appears to accept unquestionably that equality is impossible, but his views were probably more enlightened than most during the 1920s.

I recommend this book (if you can find a copy) for I found Rutledge to be a keen observer of nature. I especially like the analogy he made between water lilies and human beings.  Lilies appear to be floating on the surface, but what we don’t see is that they are tethered to the earth.  We, too, need to be so anchored.

Be Followers of Christ

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Mark 8:11-21, 27-31

December 3, 2017

 

 

This is a beautiful season as lights pop up around the neighborhood. I’m not much for over-top-decorations. We’re not the Griswolds.[1] But I do like to see lights. Especially simple decorations that seem to pierce the darkness of the season. On the southern end of the island, a number of people have small trees in their yards which back up to lagoons. These trees are lighted and then they reflect off the water. It’s something to behold. Looking at the reflections shimmering in the water, I pause to think of my own reflection of Jesus. I encourage you to do the same. Do our reflections pierce the darkness and offer hope?

Advent is a season for preparing for Christ’s coming. It’s comforting to think about Jesus’ first coming, the nights he spent in a manager as angels sang to shepherds and a mysterious star summoned the wise men. While Jesus started in a humble estate (and it’s important that God becomes a human), we can’t remain focused on that child sleeping on the hay. The Jesus we’re to follow doesn’t stay in the manger.

This Advent Season, we’re going to spend time with Mark’s gospel and struggle a bit with just who is this Jesus we’re called to follow. Mark doesn’t have a nativity narrative, like Matthew and Luke. Perhaps it’s because he wants to pull us away from the sleeping child to the man from Galilee. When Jesus first came, he surprised those he called and can still surprise us.

Today, we’ll begin this journey at the middle of Mark’s gospel, where we see people demanding Jesus for a sign. But will a sign make any difference? Let’s see… Read Mark 8:11-21, 27-31.

          “If I can only have a sign, I’d believe…”Are we any different that the Pharisees? We want to be assured. We want to know if we’re on the right trail.

The Pharisees demand for a sign came on the heels of Jesus’ second feeding miracle (4,000 bellies filled with just seven loaves). Is that not a sign? Why is it that those who have front row seats to the greatest story on earth have a hard time believing?[2] And how about us? We don’t have a front row seat.[3] What do we need to trust Jesus?

        And it’s not just the Pharisees. The disciples don’t get it either. When they leave in the boat, sailing across the lake, someone forgot to pack dinner. There is only one loaf.  (Interestingly, we’re left to wonder if Jesus is this loaf. After all, he’s the bread of life.[4]).

As they sail, Jesus warns the disciples about false teachings, and the disciples are only thinking about their growling stomachs. In the ancient world, yeast was used as an illustration of sin and evil, that starts small and grows and corrupts. It’s kind of like how we say, “One rotten apple ruins the barrel.” But when Jesus mentions yeast, instead of thinking about corruption, the disciples think about bread.

Now, the text doesn’t tell us this, but I can envision Jesus standing in the middle of the boat, he’s got his sea-legs on, shaking his head. Then, after a deep breath, he asks, “Why are you talking about having no bread? Don’t you understand? Are your hearts hardened? Are your eyes not working?  Are your ears clogged? Did you forget how we fed 5,000 with only five loaves and two fishes,[5] and how we fed 4,000 with just seven loaves?[6] They haven’t forgotten. They remember, but they still haven’t gotten it. They are still struggling to believe.

       After they reach their destination, we have a healing story, one of a blind man regaining sight. (I skipped that in our reading.) Then Jesus leads his disciples to a gentile city, Caesarea Philippi. This Roman town, built to glorifying Caesar and filled with pagan temples, is away from the distraction of the Pharisees and other religious leaders. Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t talk about the prevalent idolatry. Nor does he condemn those who really don’t get it, the pagans. Why not, we might wonder, it’d make him and his disciples look good. We should learn from this omission! We take care of our own house first. We pull the log out of our eyes before trying to clean a speck out of the eyes of another.[7]

Instead, Jesus asks the disciples who people are saying he is. Their answer is enlightening: John the Baptist, Elijah, or another prophet. People think that Jesus is someone important. Then Jesus turns the question to them, that most important question we all have to answer, “Who do you say that I am.” It’s Peter who answers, “You are the Messiah!”

Peter’s right, you know. Jesus is the Messiah. Of course, Peter doesn’t fully understand what this means. Peter is not going to live up to his bold statement, but that’s a topic for another time.

       You know, they’re lots of similarities between Christianity and the other great world religions. Our moral teachings are not much different than many of those teachings of Jews, Buddhists, Mormons, Hindus and even Islam. Most all faiths teach honesty and fairness, treating others well and taking care of the poor. As a follower of Jesus, we shouldn’t deny these similarities. Our Reformed tradition reminds us of God’s common grace given to all, believers and unbelievers.  Even those who do not know Jesus Christ may do good and wonderful things and for that we should celebrate. But there is one difference that separates us from other faiths. Ours is a Christocentric religion. That is, Christ is our center. Our faith is based on the person of Jesus Christ. Our hope is in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the one who was both human and God. God’s saving grace is Jesus Christ. God’s truth is Jesus Christ.[8]

Our hope is not based upon a philosophy. Our hope is not based on a book, but on the revelation of Jesus Christ within this book. Our hope is not even based upon the church, as important as the organization is for getting the message out. Our hope is based solely on Jesus. And Jesus isn’t just a cuddly baby napping among the animals in a manager. That may be a Jesus we can hold in our heart. It’s okay to start out there, at the manager. But to follow Jesus means we must leave the manager. We must get up and walk behind Jesus, realizing he may go places we don’t necessarily want to go. As soon as Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus shoots holes in Peter’s understanding of Messiahship. For Peter, the Messiah is a King, not someone executed like a criminal. The Messiah is a warrior, not the meek Jesus who gives up his life that we might live. As Christians, our hope is in Jesus Christ, it’s all the church has to offer. Can we accept that truth? Can we handle it?

        To become a Christian, we must admit our inability to save ourselves and place our trust in Jesus Christ, the Messiah. The second step is logical if we think about it. If we really believe Christ calls us, unworthy as we are, the only appropriate response can be obedience to his will. That is, we become a Christ-follower.

Henri Nouwen, a Catholic theologian, comments on these stages in his Latin American journals. “As soon as I say God exists, my existence no longer can remain in the center, because the essence of the knowledge of God reveals my own existence as deriving its total being from God’s.” [9]

What Christ asks us to do is to focus our lives on him and not on ourselves. He demands loyalty. He demands obedience.  He demands that we trust him enough that we’re willing to take a risk. We’re not to seek our needs and glory, nor are we to do only that which is safe. We have to be willing to follow Christ wherever he leads. We can’t stay at the manger.

       Think of following Christ from an economic perspective. If you really want to grow a business or to develop a market, you take risks. Our greatest returns, our most cherish rewards, involve risks. If we don’t take a chance, we find our competitors leaving us in the dust. If we don’t take a risk, we have little growth. It’s the same way with us personally as well as with our church. We got to have faith and be willing to step out trusting that Christ is with us. Churches always resist change, but it’s a part of taking a risk, of following where we sense Jesus is leading.

         The late Will Campbell, who often referred to himself as a “Bootleg Southern Baptist,” was critical of today’s church for proclaiming, “Pick up your cross and relax.”[10] He’s right. We want a safe Jesus, snoozing in the manger. We want to wear a fashionable cross, one that’s sanitized, and feel good about it. But Mark calls us to a different Jesus.

       Our faith is not easy. Yet, we’ve been given a sign. This communion table is the sign.  It’s here (pointing to the table), that the man we’re to follow, nourishes us for the journey. It’s a journey that starts in a manager, but moves on the hard sunbaked path of life to the cross. Are we up to following this Jesus? Are we willing to take that risk?  Amen.

 

©2017

[1] A reference to the National Lampoon Christmas Vacation movie, (1989) where Chevy Chase, playing Clark Griswold, wants the perfectly decorated house with enough lights it can be seen in space.

[2] The irony here is also found in John 6:30ff. Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to St. Mark, (London: A & C Black, 1991), 191.

[3] John 20:29.

[4] William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 283.

[5] Mark 6:37-44.

[6] Mark 8:1-9.

[7] Matthew 7:3-5.

[8] John 14:6.

[9] Henri J. M. Nouwen, i Gracias: A Latin American Journal (SF: Harper & Row, 1983), 48.

[10] Will D. Campbell, Souls Among Lions (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2002), 180.

The idea for this series based on an article by Scott Hoezee, Elizabeth Steele Halstead and Carrie Steenwyk, “Living in Advent: Worship Ideas for the Gospel of Mark,” Reformed Worship #89 (September 2008), 6-11.

Christ the King

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church 

November 26, 2017

Ezekiel 34:11-24[1]

 

Today is Christ the King Sunday. That may not mean much to those of us who grew up in non-liturgical churches. After all, Christ should be our king 365 days a year (366 days during leap years). You do believe that? Right?

As a day on the church calendar, Christ the King is relatively new. It didn’t come about until the mid-1920s when Pope Pius XI introduced it. Furthermore, the day was first shunned by Protestants for being too sectarian.[2] In time, however, many Protestant churches have adopted the day which falls on the last Sunday of the church’s year. Next week, with Advent, we’ll begin a new cycle in the church’s calendar.

When the Christ the King date was introduced, Pius XI was concerned over the rise of Mussolini in Italy and atheistic Communism in Russia. Both were demanding the worship of the state. A few years later, a handful of Protestants would take a turn at standing up to the state when a group of Reformed and Lutheran Church leaders in German published the Theological Declaration of Barmen in 1933. We’ll read from this Declaration as we profess our faith this morning after the sermon. For Christians, Christ is Lord and demands our ultimate allegiance.

Now, proclaiming Christ as King isn’t a new concept. Christ is proclaimed as king in scripture[3] and our Confessions lift up his kingly role as one of the three offices of Christ, the other two are the prophet and the priest.[4] To show the importance of putting Christ first, let me share a story from the past.

Hugh Latimer was the Bishop of Worcester in the 16th Century. As a Calvinist, he was a leader in the English Reformation. The King was Henry VIII, who (until he couldn’t obtain a divorce) was aligned with the Roman Catholic Church. One Sunday morning as Latimer was preparing to preach, he looked out and saw Henry sitting in the pews. “Latimer, be careful of what you say today. King Henry is here,” he heard whispered. But then, as he prepared to enter the pulpit, he whispered, “Latimer, be careful of what you say today; the King of Kings is here.”[5] Latimer would later suffer martyrdom at the hands of Mary 1, (also known as Bloody Mary). Today is a day to be reminded that we live out our lives in the presence of the true King, Jesus Christ.

My sermon this morning comes from a prophecy given to the Prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel is addressing the Israelites in exile in Babylon and lifts up a vision of a new order, in which God becomes the “shepherd” of his people. Of course, we who live on this side of the resurrection know who the “Good Shepherd” is. Read Ezekiel 34:11-24

 

Do you remember Calvin and Hobbes? There was one strip where Calvin was swinging on the playground at school. The bully Moe, who looks to be twice Calvin’s age and as one who may have repeated more grades than he’d passed, calls Calvin a “Twinkie” and tells him to get off his swing.  Brave Calvin responds, “Forget it, Moe, wait your turn.” Moe responds with a right punch that knocks Calvin out of the swing and onto the ground. Pulling himself together, Calvin thinks to himself, “It’s hard to be religious when certain people are never incinerated by bolts of lightning.”[6]

I expect the Israelites in exile felt the same. Where was their God when the Babylonians were storming the walls of Jerusalem? Some of the Israelites, I’m sure, lost their faith. But there were others listening and learning. Ezekiel lifts up a promise: no longer will those in power lead; no longer will those who bully and abuse continue. Instead, God will lead as a shepherd. As a true shepherd God will protect Israel. This passage contains both judgment and promise!

To fully understand this passage, we should look at the 34th chapter in its entirety. (Your homework assignment is to go home and read it this afternoon.) The whole chapter revolves around the “shepherd allegory.” Kings were often called shepherds in the ancient world. The shepherd image for a king implied one who cared and nurtured his subjects. Ezekiel uses this metaphor as a way to highlight the hypocrisy of Israel’s kings, shepherds who “enrich themselves at the expense of the flock.”[7]

A perfect example of Ezekiel’s “bad shepherd king” would be the Czars of Russia. Not only did they ruthlessly exile those who challenged their position, they became the richest monarchs in Europe while ruling over the poorest country. I know many of you have been to the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, Russia. The place is incredible. It’d take a week to really appreciate all the art work that was collected by the Czars. It’s one of the world’s great art collections, but as I thought (and have also heard others say the same thing after visiting the Hermitage), it’s no wonder the people revolted. A good king is not one who lives high on the hog while his subjects starve. Rather a good king is like a shepherd, one who helps protect his subjects from danger and leads in a way that they’re provided with fresh fields (or food) and running streams (or clean water). A shepherd is an appropriate name for such a leader.

Unfortunately, Israel didn’t have too many kings like this.  Surely, there were some who did a better job than others, but most looked out for themselves and for their friends, allowing the abuse of their citizens. This chapter begins with a condemnation of such wicked rulers, the “shepherds who have eaten of the fat and clothed themselves with the wool of their flocks, yet have not fed the sheep.

This is what God promises beginning in the 11th verse. “I, myself,” God proclaims, “will search for my sheep.” God will be the shepherd. God will bring the people, who had been scattered at Jerusalem’s fall, back together. There will be a reversal of their misfortune. God will provide good pasture; God will strengthen the weak; God will heal the sick; God will bind the injured; God will seek the lost. By the beginning of the 16th verse, there seemed to be a balance between judgment and promise, but then there was a shift and God again speaks of judgment.

“The fat and the strong I will destroy, says God. Notice the shift: no longer is God talking about the shepherds, or the rulers. God is now addressing “sheep and goats,” members of the flock. Obviously, it’s not just the leaders who are abusing their power, but there are some “sheep and goats” who are abusing others.

Have you ever watched animals eat and notice how the weak are pushed aside by the strong? Sheep do the same thing. Sheepherders spend a lot of time with the weaker animals trying to strengthen them. If a ewe gives birth to more lambs that she can nurse, the ewe will push away the weakest lamb and the shepherd will have to take that lamb and find another ewe, another mother, for its nurse. The sheepherder has to encourage an “adoptive bond.”[8] Otherwise, the lamb will die. Likewise, when the animals are being fed, the strong ones often push away the weaker ones. Without a shepherd, strong animals are able to take advantage of the weaker animals. And we see such behavior even among us humans. Without a good teacher, bullies in the classroom intimidate other students. Without good leaders, those with economic or political clout can take advantage and oppress those without.

Now that God has judged both the shepherds who have ignored the needs of their flocks and the sheep who, in the absence of the shepherds, abused the weaker ones, God returns to the future promise of a new shepherd. God and his servant David will rule and guide the flock. David, the former shepherd who became a king, will return to be God’s prince. This is a Messianic Promise spoken to Hebrews living in exile hundreds of miles from their home. God will gather the faithful together and lead them back home, and a king like David will return and rule justly.

Have these promises of God been fulfilled?  Yes, and they are continuing to be fulfilled! A new shepherd, the good shepherd, was born in the city of David—the one you and I proclaim as our Savior. We’ll celebrate his birth in five weeks! Yet, as we wait for Christmas, we’re reminded over and over that we’re still waiting and longing for the day proclaimed in scripture when Jesus Christ will rule, when all wars will cease, and every knee will bow and proclaim Christ as King.  Until then, we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus, Come.”

There are a couple of things I want you to take from this passage.  First, we’re reminded that there are bad shepherds and there are bad goats and sheep in the world. There are those who rule ruthlessly and those who use their power to exclude others.  As followers of Jesus, we shouldn’t do that, nor do we owe such people any allegiance. Secondly, there will be a new day coming that will bring justice and hope. The bad shepherds and the bullies within the flocks will be brought to justice, as we heard in our New Testament reading from Matthew 25. We have no need to fear those who abuse, for our hope doesn’t rest in their hands, but in the hands of our loving Savior. Finally, as Christians, we’re longing for that day when Christ will return and his kingship will be visible for all to see. We’re to be lifting up this vision, reflecting the face of Jesus to the world.

If our allegiance really belongs to Jesus, if Christ really is our king, then we should be like Bishop Latimer and not fear the King Henry XIIIs who sits in our midst.  Nor should we fear any other person who might be pushing us to ignore Christ and follow them. Nor should we fear the crowd who may mock our decision.  If our allegiance really belongs to Jesus Christ, what is important isn’t what people around us think. We shouldn’t worry much about them. Instead, what is important is what our Lord thinks. What does our King want us to do? That’s a question we should all ponder, every day. What does Jesus want me to do?  How can our lives reflect his? AMEN

 

©2017

[1] Parts of this sermon was taken from a sermon I preached on November 20, 2011.

[2] David I. Kertzer, The Pope and Mussolini (New York: Random House, 2014), 84.

[3] Matthew 27:11; John 1:49:1 Timothy 1:17, 6:15; Revelations 15:3, 1:9

[4] “The Westminster Larger Catechism” Questions 43-45.

[5] Robert F. Sims, “The Shepherd King,” in Under the Wings of the Almighty in “www.sermonsuite.com.

[6] Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes (November 8, 1990).

[7] Margaret S. Odell, Ezekiel (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2005), 432.

[8] When birthing lambs, a sheepherder will often smear the placenta from the lamb born of a ewe in order to entice her to accept a second lamb to nurse and feed.

Worship with Gladness

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

November 19, 2017

Psalm 100

 

It is deer season. In other churches I’ve served, we had to schedule things like Consecration Sunday around opening day just to make sure we had some men in worship. The hunting might not start till sunrise on Monday, but there was a lot to do to get the deer camp set up; men starting disappearing early in the weekend.

       One year, Bob and Tom, Bill and Fred headed out to deer camp. They camped at the base of a small mountain, at the confluence of two creeks that drained each side of the mountain.   They’d their figured out their plan for opening day. Bob and Tom were to take the creek along the south side of the mountain. Bill and Fred would head up the other creek. They set out before daylight, using flashlights, searching for the perfect spot to see a big buck as he came out for a morning drink in the creek.

It didn’t work out that way for Bob and Tom. They didn’t see a thing all day. As the sun began to drop in the western sky, they headed back to camp. As they approached the confluence, they heard trashing in the brush nearby. Checking it out, they saw Bill dragging the largest buck any of them had ever seen. He called over asking for help and they obliged, dragging the deer back into camp. As they were stringing it up in a tree to gut it, Bob asked Bill, “Where’s Fred? Why didn’t he help you get this deer out of the woods?”

“Oh yeah,” Bill said, “We gotta go back and get Fred.  Some other hunter mistook him for deer and shot him in the leg.  He fell back and hit his head on a rock.  He’s knocked out cold and lying next to the trail, about a mile back, near where I shot this fine buck.”

“Someone shot Fred?” Tom yelled. “And you just left him alone and unconscious while you dragged this deer carcass out?

Bill felt a little chastised. “Well, think about it,” he said. “Ain’t nobody gonna steal Fred.”

There are times we have our priorities mixed up. The 100th Psalm, which is my text for today’s sermon, reminds us what is important in life. It helps us to get our priorities right. When our priorities are right, things fall into place and we don’t forget the Fred’s of the world. Listen.  Read Psalm 100. 

###

 

         Joy is essential to the Christian life. It’s a gift from God and that makes it different from the pursuit of happiness we in American so cherish. What we consider as “happiness” is transitory and fragile, dependent often on external circumstances such as the Pirates winning the pennant. If that’s the case, I haven’t been happy in a long time. You see, human joy is often contradictory. Hope rises on the sound of a well hit ball. The crowd holds its collective breath as the ball sails deep. The centerfielder runs and leaps high with his glove extended as he crashes into the wall. He falls to the ground, and then stands up and grins as he pulls the ball from his glove. The home crowd moans and the batter kicks the dust as he heads toward the dugout. Some win, others lose. Some celebrate, others mope…

A friend of mine commenting on this Psalm wrote, “This Psalm tells us that the joy we find in God is unshaken and unchanging because it is based on something lasting and unchanging.”[1] Yes, there will be plenty of disappointments in life to weight us down, such as homeruns stolen by a talented centerfielder, but true joy has another foundation.  True joy, of the everlasting variety, is found in God. To quote the prophet Isaiah, “the flower withers, the grass fades, but the word of God will stand forever.”[2] In other words, all we cherish and love in this life will come to an end. Flowers are beautiful only for a few days or maybe a week or two, youth lasts but for a season, friends and loved ones die. If we are looking for eternal happiness in our lives here on earth, we’ll always be disappointed.

       Focus on God, on that which is eternal, and we’ll be ready to join the chorus marching into heaven making a joyful noise.  “Worship,” as Eugene Peterson tweeted this week, “is the strategy by which we interrupt our preoccupation with ourselves and attend to the presence of God.”[3] We should want to worship God, to offer prayers of thanksgiving, to shout praises.  Focus on God; true joy is knowing God and that we are loved by our Creator, claimed by our maker. Psalm 100 is about the joy in God which “is the motive power of faith” and which lifts up our hearts.[4]

This a Psalm of worship. It was probably originally sung by the Hebrew people as they gathered in the Jerusalem temple.  The first two verses serve as a call to worship. Imagine the chief priest standing at the temple’s gate. Suddenly trumpets blast, quieting the crowd. Then, in a loud voice, the priest dressed in his finest robe summons the crowd: “Make a joyful noise, worship the Lord with gladness, and come into his presence with singing.” The crowd responds, breaking into a round of “Holy, Holy, Holy” or “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee…”

        Verse three, “Know that the Lord is God, that he made us and we are his, we are the sheep of his pasture,” reminds those who have gathered that they are present for one purpose: to worship God. God is king, but also a caring shepherd. Those gathered in front of the temple, preparing to enter, recognize they are to put away thoughts of grandeur for themselves. Furthermore, they are to put away petty differences between one another. This is not the place or time for selfishness or bickering. All who have come are to be together, in unity, in worship. We are to leave our petty differences at the door of the sanctuary. This isn’t about us; it’s about our God.

         This may be a short psalm but it has a wonderful message for those of us who gather on a Sunday to worship. “Psalm 100 initiates worship and sets forth a theology of worship,” according to one commentator.[5] The focus of the Psalm, as we learn in the fourth verse is God. As the final verse indicates, we worship because God is good, loving and faithful.

The key to being a Christian is gratitude.  It comes from us having our priorities right. Gratitude is not only good for our souls, it’s good for bodies according to an article in the Wall Street Journal this week. Let me quote this passage:

 

“Gratitude is good for us in many ways. Studies have shown that it strengthens our immune systems, helps us sleep better, reduces stress and depression and opens the door to more relationships. But to reap those rewards, we need to do more than feel grateful.  ‘The word ‘thanksgiving’ means giving of thanks.’ says Dr. Emmons (a psychologist at University of California at Davis). ‘It is an action word.  Gratitude requires action.’”[6]

 

Today we’ll receive your estimate of giving cards and this week we will be celebrating Thanksgiving. They go together. Both are opportunities to display our gratitude. Gratitude should lead into generosity. It’s a personal issue, one that we each need to struggle with and decide for ourselves. Are we generous? Are our lives gracious? Do we love God, our Creator, and want to praise him in thought, word, and deed? The Psalm calls us to worship, but our worshipful attitude should be more than just what we do on Sunday morning. Likewise, we should be thankful more than just on a Thursday late in November. Our thankfulness, our worship, should flow forth from our lives, from our hearts. It’s what should be most evident when others see us. It’s what helps us reflect Jesus’ face to the world. Amen.

©2017

[1] Laura Smit, “Come, Let Us Worship and Bow Down,” Reformed Worship, #52 (June 1999), 14.

[2] Isaiah 40:7.

[3] Eugene Peterson (tweeted @PetersonDaily, November 12, 2017).

[4] Artur Weiser, The Psalms, Herbert Hartwell translator, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), 645.

[5] James L. Mays, Psalms (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994), 321

[6] Clare Ansberry, “Cultivating a Life of Gratitude, The Wall Street Journal (November 14, 2017), A15.

Offering Our First Fruits

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Leviticus 23:9-14

November 12, 2017

 

Confession, the picture is not China, it’s Indonesia

There was once a Chinese rice farmer whose paddies were high on a hill overlooking the ocean. One day during harvest, there was an earthquake. He looked around and noticed the ocean had drawn back and was lurching like an animal ready to pounce. He knew this meant one thing, a tidal wave, a tsunami. Down below, in the lower levels, other farmers were also gathering their harvest, unaware of the danger. With no time to run down to warn them, he set fire to his drying sheaves of rice, sending up a plume of smoke.  His neighbors, seeing the smoke, assumed his field had caught fire and rushed up the mountain to help him save his harvest. As they arrived, they look back down and saw the ocean sweep over their fields. He sacrificed his crop for their safety. They knew what it meant to be saved, and its cost.[1] Today, we’ll learn about the importance of sacrifice and sheaves of grain.

        The 23rd Chapter of Leviticus sets up the various festivals and feast observed in ancient Israel. The chapter begins with the Sabbath, a day of rest. Then it reminds them of the Passover.  In our reading this morning, we will hear about the Festival of the First Fruits. The chapter circles around the year with the Festival of Weeks, the Festival of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Festival of Booths.

For each of the festivals as well as for the Sabbath, they were to stop working. This was a gift, not only to the Hebrews, but to their slaves. By taking these days off, they demonstrated their trust in God. The Lord was in charge. The Lord watched over them and their crops on the Sabbaths, and during the festivals. You know, we make holidays about us. On Thanksgiving, we pig out with friends and family. At Christmas we give gifts. Even Easter is a time for new clothes and a ham dinner. And while the festivals in Scripture gave the people time to rest and to enjoy certain foods, the purpose of festivals was to point the individual to the God who provides. We will see this especially in the Festival of the First Fruits. We should do the same. Read Leviticus 23:9-14.

          Thanks to my wife’s intuitive and hard work, we have a plot in the community garden. Last spring, when we were setting it up and planting, I couldn’t wait to start harvesting tomatoes. A large vine-ripened tomato is about as close to heaven as we’ll come to in this life. Planting the tomatoes, I could tasted them. I took care to wrap a piece of paper around the stalks of the young plants when I transplanted them, to deter cutworms. I watered them and watched the plants grown, envisioning a hefty ripe beefsteak tomato. I’d carefully peel the tomato, then slice it at least an inch thick. Next, I’d take some soft bread, lathering it up with mayonnaise, adding a good bit of freshly ground black pepper and make a sandwich. I’m a simple man. A good tomato sandwich is hard to beat. To bite into such a sandwich and have a little tomato juice run from the corners of my mouth, which has to be wiped away with a napkin, is to experience true joy.

Attempting not to add any more heat into the house, I did the canning on the back deck!

We had a good harvest of tomatoes last summer. The best ones, especially early in the harvest, I saved for sandwiches.  Then I kept a bunch which I made into salsa and canned for winter. But the tomatoes kept coming and I was heading out of town. There wasn’t an opportunity for another canning session, so I brought a box of tomatoes to church and gave them away.  According to Leviticus, I did all this backwards. Those first tomatoes, the big juicy red ones should have gone to God…

The Israelites were to bring their first fruit to the Lord. Me, I gave away what was left!  Now, granted, the text doesn’t say anything about tomatoes (it mentions grain, lamb, olive oil and wine). I can only assume that tomatoes were unknown in the Promised Land during ancient times.

In a parallel passage in Exodus, we’re told to bring “our best first fruits” to the Lord.[2] There goes that juicy tomato. I might have to wait a day or two to enjoy that first tomato sandwich of the year.

       Bringing our first fruit to God seems like a heavy demand.  After all, why shouldn’t we tend to our own needs and desires first? You know, in our training as a firefighter, we’re always taught that our number one responsibility is to take care of our self… There is a reason behind this madness. If we are in trouble, then we are in no position to help anyone and furthermore we become part of the problem (and resources have to be focused on us, instead of the other victims or the fire). That makes sense, because we are not God! It’s when we get to the point to think we’re God that we have a problem.

      Let’s look at this from another angle. What about the future? Shouldn’t our first action be to harvest seed in order to make sure we’ll have a crop next year?  I mean, should we save some of that first seed before we give any away? That’s hedging our bets! But it’s not allowed, according to this passage.

 

    The tradition of giving to God first serves to remind us from where our blessings flow. It’s a discipline that helps us trust in God, not in ourselves. When we give to God first, we are training ourselves to trust. We are admitting our limitations; we can’t do everything ourselves.

In ancient Israel, when the harvest was ready, a sheaf, or an armful, of the first grain (probably barley as it ripen before wheat) was brought to the temple. That, along with a perfect lamb, some flour and olive oil, was offered to God. Then the farmer was allowed to enjoy the benefits of his harvest.

The man on the tractor is my Uncle Frank.

There are two thing we should understand about this practice today. First of all, thanks to the marvels of industrialization, there are fewer farmers today than back then.  Although a few of us may have gardens, whether vegetables or flowers, none of us to my knowledge are raising grain. So literally obeying the commands of Leviticus 23 is not applicable.  However, we can meet the spirit of the text by providing flowers for church or giving vegetables to a homeless shelter (as the community garden does, but then its backwards as what’s given is excess, not first fruits).

Furthermore, Jesus Christ has made the sacrifice for our sin, once and for all.[3] For this reason, we’re no longer bound by such commands such as bringing the first-fruit into the temple. Maybe I can still enjoy that first tomato, after all. Today, when we give, we do so out of gratitude. We should realize all God has done for us and we be thankful and gracious.

       We should ask ourselves why God has given us so much compared to others in the world. (At the same time, we should be praying daily, as I suggested last week, “God, How would you use me to further the kingdom of Jesus Christ?).  David Platt, author of Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream (of which I saw a few copies in the book exchange), asks, “Why not begin operating under the idea that God has given us excess, not so we could have more, but so that we could give more?”[4]

We’re not legally bound to the law we read in this passage and don’t need to worry about literally bringing an armful of grain to worship. However, we should learn from this text and use it as a guide. We give God first, out of thanksgiving, acknowledging that all we have comes from the Almighty.

      When I was a child, I was given an allowance on Saturday, with a reminder that before spending it, I should give to God first.[5] A dime from every dollar was to go into the offering plate. Giving to God first is a good habit for us to develop. In doing so, we grow in our faith and become an example for others.  It’s a habit we should also instill in our children and grandchildren. This year, as you consider what you are giving to God’s work through the church, ask yourself, “Am I giving to God first?  Or am I giving God the leftovers?”  Amen.

 

©2017

[1] Adapted from a story by Lafcadio Hearn in Thesaurus of Anecdotes (Edmund Fuller, editor, (New York: Crown Publishers, 1942) and included in God’s Treasury of Virtues (Tulsa OK: Honor Books, 1995), 285.

[2] Exodus 34:26.

[3] Hebrews 10:1-18.

[4] David Platt, Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream (Colorado Springs, CO: Mulnomah Books, 2010), 127.

[5] This was easy to do for there were no stores close to us and I wouldn’t have an opportunity to spend it all before Sunday.

Cast Your Bread Upon the Waters

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Ecclesiastes 11:1-6
November 5, 2017

We spent last month looking at the foundational themes of the Protestant Reformation. Can you remember them? (Grace Alone, Faith Alone, Christ Alone, Scripture Alone and To God be the Glory). It’s important to remember that grace comes first. God loves us before we can respond. God’s love is not something we buy or earn. It’s a gift. It’s up to us to accept it and respond. This month, we’ll look at how we respond as we lead up to our Consecration Sunday on November 19. That’s when we’ll make a faith promise, through an estimate of giving card, concerning our giving for the coming year. It takes money, helping hands and a willing heart to make a successful church. And you are very generous!
I am going to start this series in the wisdom literature found in the Old Testament, specifically the book of Ecclesiastes. Outside the third chapter, this is not an overly popular book. The third chapter is where we read about there being a time for this, that and the other, words that were arranged into a popular hit sung by the Byrds in the 1960s. But there’s more to this book than the third chapter, as we are going to see today.
Many see this book as sad and gloomy. After all, the book begins with “vanity of vanities.” Others translate this opening as “Smoke, nothing but smoke,” “it is useless, useless,” or “everything is meaningless, completely meaningless.” In our mind, the book doesn’t start off on the right foot! But there’s treasure here!


“Some scholars suggest Solomon wrote this late his in life and was depressed and looking back in regret. But no name is given for the author, except the Hebrew word Koheleth, which isn’t a name, but a title. It can be translated as “the Teacher.” I’ll use that term throughout this sermon. Solomon is also cited as the author because he was known to be wise and because “the Teacher” was a son of David. But David had a number of sons, it’s just that Solomon is the one known for his wisdom. However, the authorship doesn’t matter as much as the message.
The Teacher wants to instill a sense of urgency in the lives of the young so that when they are old, they will have made the most out of their time and not look back with regret. Our reading begins in the 11th Chapter. Read Ecclesiastes 11:1-6:

“Cast your bread upon the waters,” our reading begins, “and after many days you’ll get back a soggy mess.” In case you didn’t understand, the ending was my twist to this parable. What does it mean to cast bread upon the water? If it’s not eaten by the gulls or fish, what good would it be? Even burnt toast and hardtack, after a short time, would come back a soggy! Vanity of vanities describes tossing our bread on the waters. So what could this passage possibly mean?


There’s been much debate over its meaning. Imagine that! Some scholars think the Teacher is referring to trade, the sending of grain off to a foreign port where it can be sold for a profit. This goes with the second verse which suggests that the prudent farmer will diversify. Raise a variety of crops, send them to markets at different ports on different ships in order to hedge his bet against disaster. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, or as is known in the investment world, diversify! Make sure your portfolio has both stocks and bonds, domestic and international, and a variety of segments such as technology, medical, transportation and consumer discretionary. Certainly, there is some profound truth in such an interpretation, but there’s another way to look at this passage.


The Message translation paraphrases this verse. “Be generous: invest in acts of charity,” it advises. “Charity yields a high return.” This interpretation fits with the historical interpretation of the parable as well as with many ancient proverbs. There was an ancient Egyptian saying that went, “Do a good deed and throw it in the water, when it dries up it you will find it.” An old Arabic proverb went, “Do good, throw your bread on the waters, and one day you will find it.”


I’m in this latter camp, suggesting that charity (or good deeds) is the focus on this passage; however, even here there is a problem. If we do good only because we expect something in return, are we really charitable? If my only reason to do good is in the hopes that someday someone will do good to me, such as a father being generous to his kids knowing they’ll be picking out his nursing home, are we charitable?

You know, as a congregation, we were incredibly generous in our giving to the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance for hurricane relief, giving nearly $8,000. If we give just because we expect such a gift after we are hit by a storm, would we be generous? Or would we be buying insurance? The act of giving implies that we are no longer in control of whatever it was that we gave to someone else. It’s like casting bread upon the waters. Maybe it will and maybe it won’t come back, but we do it anyway because generosity is about as godly as we can be.
We’re to be generous when we’re able. There may come a time that we can’t volunteer to build houses for Habitat (although President Carter is still doing it at the age of 93).  We do what we can do knowing that sooner or later, thanks to aging and health issues, most of us will be in a position where we must depend on the generosity of others.


In the third verse, our text turns to a familiar theme in Ecclesiastes. We’re not in control. We can’t make it rain nor can we, as many sadly learned during Hurricane Matthew, cause a tree to fall in the right direction (away from our homes). But just because these things are out of our control, we are not to use them as excuses for a lack of activity. God is in control, and as we learn in verse 5, is working behind the scenes such as forming a life in a mother’s womb. The miracle of life. It’s a miracle because there is a lot we don’t know about it.  But od is there, working behind the scenes, and we must trust in him.

Our reading concludes with a call to action. Go ahead and sow your seed in the morning (don’t use the wind or the lack of rain as an excuse). Keep working, for we don’t know how things will turn out in the end. God has created us to work. You may remember I talked about this last winter in my sermons on the opening chapters of Genesis. Work is good. The Teacher understands this and encourages his students and us, his readers, to stay busy and not to look for excuses.


So what might we take from this passage? Let me suggest three things. Be generous. Be diligent. And make the most out of each day as we trust the future to God’s sovereignty. Be generous because we belong to a gracious and giving God. Be generous, remembering Jesus’ words that we are to store up our treasure in heaven. Be generous, for we know what Christ has done for us as we’ve been cleansed of our sin and called to a new life. Be generous, while we can, because we know that sooner or later, we too will depend on someone else for help. Be diligent means hedging our bets as a way to prepare for the future. It’s the advice of every good investment manager. We are diligent and hedge our bets, but we know that ultimately the future is not in our hands. Our futures are in God’s hands. Our comfort comes not from making a profit by sending our grain to foreign markets or even upon the sprouting of a bountiful crop in the field. Our comfort comes from knowing that we are in the hands of a loving God, a God whom we trust and whom, in thanksgiving, we share what we have for the building of his kingdom.
On November 19th, Consecration Sunday, we’ll ask you to make a faith commitment to the church for 2018. I encourage you to take time and to ask God in prayer, over the next two weeks, how he might use you to further the mission of Jesus Christ. Let us pray together.

Heavenly Father, you give us the breath of life and all that we have. How would you use us to further the mission of Jesus Christ? Amen.

©2017

Scripture Alone

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

October 22, 2017

2 Timothy 3:14-4:5

 

Over the past couple of decades there have been debates over the visible presence of the Ten Commandments in public places like courthouses. This has brought out the worse on all sides, those in favor of and those against such monuments. As Christians, we need to realize what’s most important. It’s not the monuments.[1] It’s obeying the law. It’s allowing God to write the law in our hearts as we heard in our Old Testament reading.[2] Yes, God’s law is important. It drives us to Scripture, where we can understand our need for grace in Jesus Christ, in whom we’re to place our faith.[3] Do you catch that? In that sentence I touched on the first four “Solas” or themes of the Reformation.

Deanie and I have been preaching about the “solas” since the first of October and now we’re on the fourth Sola: ”Scripture Alone.” It’s time for a test! I want to see what you’ve remembered from this series. What are the first three solas? (Grace Alone, Faith Alone, Christ Alone). Today, we’ll speak of Scripture Alone, and next week we’ll wrap it all up with the overarching theme, “To God be the Glory.”

I encourage you to be here next Sunday as a professor of mine, Dr. Charles Partee, will preach. Dr. Partee was the most popular preacher of the faculty of the seminary I attended.  Everyone made an effort to be in chapel on the days he was in the pulpit. You had no idea where his sermon might lead. But the message was always entertaining and grounded in Scripture.

 

            Our Scripture for today’s sermon comes from Second Timothy. There’s some debate as to if this letter was actually written by Paul to Timothy. Maybe it was written by a later disciple of Paul’s, some suggest.[4] But for the importance of our sermon today, let’s take the authorship of the letter at face value while seeking out the deeper truths of the letter. The letter opens with a reference to Timothy as “my beloved child.” This is one of the most personal sounding letters in Scripture, written by a teacher who knew his time on earth was limited, so he wants to impress his star student to continue his work of evangelism, of telling others about Jesus.
   We should understand that although Timothy is referred to as his child, he’s no longer a kid. He’s a grown man with responsibility over a number of churches. Let’s listen to God’s Word as I read from 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5.

###

 

The Westminster Confession of Faith, the key confessional document of Reformed Christians from the British Isles, which would be us Presbyterians, begins this way:

Although the light of nature and the works of creation and providence, do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men (and that includes women) inexcusable; yet they are not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary until salvation…

 

In other words, although we can know of God and God’s goodness in the natural world, there is a limit. Nature doesn’t teach us how to obtain salvation in Christ. The Confession continues:

therefore it pleased the Lord…to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his church… to commit the same whole unto writing; which maketh the Holy Scriptures to be most necessary…[5]

In other words, we need a revelation! We need to understand God’s will and so God saw to it that we have the Scriptures.

          The Bible is important and the Reformers knew it. It was through the Scriptures, especially Paul’s letters to the Romans and the Galatians, that Luther found hope in Jesus. All the Reformers held high regard for the Bible and strove to make the text available in the language of the people. Two centuries before the Reformation, John Wycliffe insisted that his English parishioners hear the Bible read in English and not Latin. Luther felt this, too, and translated the Bible into German. Once the printing press became readily available in the late 15th Century, Bibles were printed and people began reading. They no longer had to depend on the church to tell them what was in Scripture. This threatened the established church, especially as the Reformers insisted that authority belonged to God’s Word, not to the institutional church. Scripture Alone means that our trust is not in some human institution. It’s in God’s Word.

This passage can be divided into two parts. The end of the third chapter is concerned with the grounding of our faith.  That is, how we come to know and to trust in Jesus Christ. The beginning verses of the fourth chapter deal with its applications for our faith. What we should be doing because we trust in Christ Jesus as our Savior?

            Paul begins by reminding Timothy that his faith was built upon the teachings of those he trusted. Furthermore, Paul tells him that these teachings can be confirmed through Scripture. It’s important to notice here, according to what Paul says, good fuzzy feelings are not what confirms our faith. Such emotional feelings are transitory; our faith is to be grounded in something solid. To put what Paul says in theological terms, Timothy’s faith is grounded in tradition confirmed by the Word of God.

           What teachings had Timothy received? Paul says he was taught by those he trusted. Here, we assume Paul is speaking about Timothy’s mother and grandmother, Eunice and Lois. Timothy’s grew up learning the Jewish scriptures from his mother’s side of the family. At some point in his childhood, after an encounter with Paul, his mother and grandmother accepted Christ. Later, Timothy followed their example and became a companion of Paul’s.

It’s the teachings of those whom he trusted that gives Timothy confidence in the gospel of Jesus Christ. We should all learn from this. The church has a role in teaching scriptures, but so do parents and grandparents. We are to share our faith with children. We are to show them the importance of the Bible in our lives.

In the second part of this passage, Paul moves on to Timothy’s task at hand—the preaching of the gospel. In the presence of Jesus Christ, Timothy is to proclaim the good news, regardless of conditions.

Timothy is like the man who didn’t want to go to church one Sunday morning. Trying to get to the heart of the matter, his wife asked him why he didn’t want to go. He spoke about those who didn’t like him at church. He complained about the hypocrisy of members and how stuffy they are. And he complained that he was bored. Looking at his wife, he asked her to give him one good reason for him to go. She paused a moment and then said: “You’re the preacher!”

           Timothy has his marching orders and he’s to carry them out whether or not it’s what people want to hear, whether or not he suffers for his faithfulness.

“Convince, rebuke and encourage,” Paul encourages. Convince those who don’t believe, rebuke those who have wrong ideas and encourage those disciples who are building up the kingdom. Finally, he concludes his first list of instructions, reminding Timothy that patience is needed in teaching.

           Now Paul had a concern. He knows people listen to those who say what they want to hear. There’s a name for that today: “confirmation bias.” We tend to listen to those who confirm what we want to believe. It’s why Republicans listen to Fox News and Democrats to MSNBC. It’s why people “like” outlandish “news” on Facebook when it fits into what they want to believe. But there’s a danger when you only listen to what you want to hear—you confirm your biases. Paul has heard false teachers leading people away from Jesus Christ and so he shares his concern with Timothy. “Get to work, Boy,” he says, “Don’t miss an opportunity to proclaim the Gospel. We got to nip these false teachers in the bud.”

After expressing his concern for false teaching, Paul returns to giving instruction. “As for you, Timothy,” he says, “Be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, and carry out your ministry fully.”

           Be sober can also be translated as “Keep your head.” Paul is not telling Timothy not to drink;[6] instead, he’s telling him to keep his head clear so that he does not lose sight of his ultimate goal of being a loyal disciple of Jesus Christ.

As for endure suffering. Paul is a realist. He knows accepting Christ will not always bring joy and prosperity to one’s life… Paul knows this well, after all he’s spent time in jail and had been beaten for his testimony.[7] Furthermore, he knows suffering is often a lot for God’s people as seen in Scripture. Remember Job? Remember Jeremiah? A lot of times the world doesn’t want to hear what the church has to say…

We should gently share the message, and leave the decision for others and for the Holy Spirit. The greatest tool we have for evangelism, for sharing God’s love, is to strive to live a Christ-like life. That doesn’t go for just Sunday mornings. The measure of a great church is not how many people are there on Sunday morning, but what is happening to the congregation when the building is empty.” How are people living their faith in the workplace or on the golf course, when they are eating out or waiting in traffic? It’s up to all of us to live a Christian life seven days a week.

The reason Paul is so concerned that Timothy continue in his work is that Paul knows he’s at the end of his ministry.  Paul told Timothy that he’s being poured out as a sacrifice.[8]  But Paul was not bitter at his demise. Instead, he’s confident that he had done his best: “I have fought the good fight; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith,” he says later in the letter.[9] Paul’s not boasting here. He doesn’t say I won the battle, for he understood that the battle has already been won by Jesus Christ.

Paul’s message for Timothy is valid for us today as we strive to fulfill our calling here on Skidaway Island. “Stay with it, don’t get discouraged,” Paul would tell us. Trust in the Scriptures and take God’s word to heart.

           There’s a little girl of three who had the flu. Her mother takes her to a pediatrician for an examination. The doctor tries to make the sniffling young child comfortable so when he looks into her ears, he asks, “Is Donald Duck in here?” “No,” she says. Checking her throat, he asks, “Is Mickey Mouse down there?” “No, silly,” she chuckles. Then he put his stethoscope on her chest and asked if Barney is in her heart? “No,” the little girl says firmly, “Jesus is in my heart! Barney’s on my underpants.”

Hold fast to Scripture but be like that little girl and let people know that Jesus is in our hearts. (But remember, we’re adults so let’s keep our underwear to ourselves.) Amen.

 

 

©2017

[1] For more about my thoughts on the commandments see this editorial I wrote for the Presbyterian Outlook in 2003: http://skidawaypres.org/pastor/?p=1123

[2] Jeremiah 31:33.

[3] See “The Second Helvetic Confession”, Chapter XII, in the “Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church USA (5.083).

[4] See Werner Georg Kummel, Introduction into the New Testament (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1975), 370ff.

[5] Presbyterian Church USA, Book of Confessions, The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1 (6:001).

[6] In his first letter, Paul even encourages Timothy to “take a little for his stomach.”  See 1 Timothy 5:23

[7] See Acts 16:19-24.

[8] J.N.D. Kelly, A Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1960), 207f.

[9] 2 Timothy 4:7.

Editorial on the Ten Commandments

Jeff Garrison

Published in the Presbyterian Outlook, September 29, 2003

 

They’re marching in Alabama again.  This time the destination is Montgomery and those marching are supporting Judge Roy Moore’s fight to keep a granite monument of the Ten Commandments at his courthouse.  On August 27, the statue was removed.  It appears Moore and his supporters have lost, but they promise to continue fighting.  Sooner or later, the United States Supreme Court will have to step in and rule, but so far they’ve refused to handle this hot potato.

I’d sleep better if the Supreme Court decided such statues acknowledge a foundation of Western law and are thereby an appropriate symbol that doesn’t violate the separation of church and state.  Of course, there are a variety of interpretations of what the founders of the Republic meant by such a separation.  As one who swore off the study of jurisprudence for theology, like the Supreme Court. I’ll pass that potato on.

Instead, let’s consider what the Commandments are all about.  The Big Ten provide a boundary by which we live as God intends.  “The Decalogue prohibits what is contrary to God and neighbor and prescribes what is essential about it,” according to Roman Catholic Church teachings. Theologians distinguished between two tables of the law, the first table dealing with how we relate to God and the second addressing our relationships to others.  Put together, the two tables set the context for a society that honors God and other members of the human family.  The Ten Commandments are understood theologically as life-giving.   In ancient times, Jewish Rabbis put a drop of honey on the tongues of those studying the law to remind them that God’s law is sweet, not bitter.

A few generations ago, Christians spent more time studying catechisms.  These documents went into great detail behind the meaning of each Commandment.  If you read the Heidelberg Catechism of the Reformed Churches, you’ll discover “Thou shalt not steal” includes no deceptive advertising.  And in the new Catholic catechism, acts leading to the enslavement of another human being are treated as violations of the commandment.  In other words, we should be careful misrepresenting a used car or purchasing goods produced in a sweatshop.  “Thou shalt not kill” also means more than not murdering someone.  Martin Luther equated failure to feed the hungry, when you had the ability, to murder.  Likewise, “bearing false witness” is more than telling the truth.  The Westminster Catechism used in Presbyterian Churches extended the commandment to include backbiting and vainglory boasting, sins prevalent throughout society.

I could go on with examples of how we ignore each of the Ten Commandments, but I won’t.  Instead, we should understand those even if we have monuments by all courthouses or on every street corner, we won’t necessarily become better citizens.  It’s odd that about the time many churches de-emphasized the study of the catechism, granite and bronze memorials started popping up around the country.   In the 1950s, thousands of monuments were dedicated in the aftermath of Cecil B. DeMilles’s blockbuster flick, “The Ten Commandments.”  Today, we’ve lost the fuller understanding of the law while trivializing it into something chiseled on a rock.  With the law publicly displayed, we pat ourselves on the back and brag about our piety while forgetting what the law is all about.  Perhaps we should thank the ACLU.  Maybe the publicity generated by these lawsuits will force us to understand that the commandments are not an image to be viewed but a law to be studied and, as both Moses and the prophets insist, written on our hearts.

Before marching off to Montgomery, take time to study the Commandments.  In the larger scheme of things, having a granite slab out in front of the courthouse won’t make a bit of difference.  What will matter is how we apply the commandments.  If we write them on our hearts, as the Hebrew Scriptures encourage, rest assured they’ll be safe from an ACLU lawsuit.

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Christ Alone (Homecoming Sunday 2017)

 

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Hebrews 4:14-5:10

February 15, 2017

 

Today is homecoming Sunday and our kickoff for our 40th year. So let me begin with a cautionary note. Scripture warns us not to look back. It’s what turned Lot’s wife into a clump of salt and Jesus warns that one who puts his hands to the plow and then looks back is not fit to enter the kingdom.[1] When we look back, as the Jews do with the Passover, not to long for what is no longer presence, but to remember God’s faithfulness.

A second cautionary note: while it’s a pleasant thing to come home to church, we need to remember this isn’t our home. Our home is with our Heavenly Father.  We come here to worship and to point to Christ as the one who will ultimately take us to our true home. You know, when the Prodigal Son returned home, he wasn’t looking back on this sinful living in a distant land. Image the love he felt when his father embraced him.[2] We, too, can feel such an embrace when we arrive at our final homecoming. So this homecoming and this kick-off for our 40th year, we should not be drawn back into the past, but into God’s future. Ask yourself, “Where is God leading us?”

The same goes with the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Believe me, we don’t want to go back to the 16th Century.  It was an awful time with disease, religious wars and political turmoil.  But God was faithful and we should learn from that era as we push forward into the future. What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus? What wisdom might we glean from the 16th Century as well as from those who founded this congregation?

      One of the questions that bothered Martin Luther and got the Reformation rolling was “How can I be saved?”  It sounds pretty self-centered (how can I?), but the focus didn’t stay internal. Martin Luther’s study of the New Testament lead him to have faith in a gracious God. The focus quickly moved from Marty’s concern with his soul to God as revealed in Jesus Christ. And this is the Reformation’s third solas or theme” “Christ Alone.”  It is in Jesus Christ that we have hope; it is in him that we find salvation. And one day, before him, all will bow.[3]

One of the historical ways of looking at the role Christ plays in our lives and world is through his three fold offices: Prophet, Priest and King.[4]  As a prophet, Christ brings God’s word to us.  As a Priest, Christ stands between us and God Almighty. And as King, which is his eternal position, Jesus Christ rules over all creation, of which as prophet and priest he is redeeming. Today, as we consider Christ Alone, we’re going to look at the second office, that of the Priest.  Of course, these three are co-mingled, so we can’t really consider one without the others.  Read Hebrews 4:14-5:10.

###

The Hunger Games is set in a post-apocalyptic North America, in a dark future. (How many of you have seen the movie? Read the book?) The majority of people in this world live in fear and without hope. But those who reside in the capitol, live in luxury.  All who live in the twelve districts suffer and toil, making a rich life possible for those in those in power. Each year, there is a gladiator-like contest where twelve teenagers, two for each district, get to fight to the death in a televised reality TV program.  Only one will survive and this one will live in luxury. The cruelty of this event is entertainment for those living in the capitol and a reminder to those in the districts of the capitol’s power and of their need to toe the line.

The movie begins with the selection of the participants for the 74th annual Hunger Games. Everyone is listening as the names are called. There are sighs and tears in District 12 when Primrose Everdeen, a sweet young child barely old enough to participate in the lottery, is chosen. But then there’s a cry from the crowd and her older sister, Katniss, who’s 16, steps forward and volunteers in her place. Katniss stands between the officials and her sister. She is a mediator, offering her own life in order to save her sister.[5]

    In ancient Israel, at the temple, the high priest was the mediator.  Just as Katniss stood between her sister and the soldiers of the capitol, the high priest stood between the people and God.  It was too dangerous for an ordinary individual to go before God.  It was risky enough for the high priest, who only stepped into the Holy of Holies once a year to bring forth the sin offerings of the people. But the priest took that risk on benefit of the people.

       We have a great high priest, the author of Hebrews proclaims, Jesus Christ! Jesus has benefits as high priest that others did not have. He came from heaven and is the Son of God.  However, he is also able to relate to us. Not only is he from heaven, he has lived as we live. He has experienced temptation.  He knows the trials and tribulations (as well as the joy) of life on earth. When we bring our concerns to him, he understands. He’s not aloof.  He’s not like a leader who lives locked behind walls and gates with protection all around to keep people away. He’s not the most wonderful Wizard of Oz hiding behind a façade. He’s not an out-of-touch Maria Antoinette suggesting that those hungry in the streets should eat cake if there is no bread. Jesus is like Katniss, who had grown up in District 12 and knows the hardships of the people. The author of Hebrews wants us to understand two things: Jesus not only mediates our sins, he can relate to us and to our need.

The Book of Hebrews is perhaps best described as a sermon (or a series of sermons) from an unknown preacher who addresses a tired and wore-out congregation. Many of those who listened or read this sermon were wondering if following Jesus was really worth it. Some of you may wonder the same thing. Perhaps, they think, they should go back to their former ways, as Jews or Pagans. The preacher encourages the congregation to remain faithful and in doing so provides the most complex understanding of the nature of Christ. Who is this man and what does he have to do with us? Well, when we read Hebrews, we understand and are called to keep the faith and to trust in Jesus Christ, who came to bring us life.

        The ending of the 4th chapter is a call for us to take our burdens to the high priest in prayer. To approach his throne of grace with boldness!  For us, this might not seem a big deal.  As one Biblical scholar sarcastically noted, contemporary Christians often “engage in prayer with all the casual nonchalance of ordering at a fast food restaurant. ‘God, I would like this and that,’ we say, as if we had every right to speaking this way and as if God had every obligation to fill the order.”  “But true prayer is prefaced by awe.”[6]  Those Christians and Jews in the first century knew this. God is holy and dangerous. Which is why Jesus came.

       Jesus Christ is a high priest who came from heaven; this elevates him above all other high priest. So there is reason for awe, yet Jesus is also approachable because he came down to our level.

     As our passage moves into the 5th Chapter of Hebrews, we are given a job description of the High Priest and evidence that Jesus not only meets but exceeds the requirement. The high priest is chosen from mortals (Jesus was born of Mary); he is able to deal with the people’s wayward ways (although Jesus wasn’t sinful, he didn’t mind hanging out with those considered sinful); and he must be called by God (again Jesus exceeds in this category). Jesus, who did not brag about being a high priest, had been chosen by God. The writer of Hebrews refers to a mysterious person in the Old Testament, a priest in whom Abraham met, Melchizedek.[7] Jesus is such a priest, an eternal priest.

       Starting in verse 7, we’re reminded of Jesus’ life, and how he prayed when he was on earth. On earth, he was submissive to God his Father, through whom he was made perfect and became the source of Salvation. So not only is Christ the priest, the one standing between us and God, he is also the sacrifice. He is the Lamb of God.[8] He pays the price for our sin and brings us back into relationship with God the Father.[9]  In other words, he’s the one who will, when our life on this earth is all over and done with, usher us into a homecoming unlike one we’ve ever known.

When the Reformers shouted “Christ Alone,” they were saying that there was no one else they trusted to stand between them and God. This is why most Protestant Churches did away with priestly offices. We have pastors and preachers and teachers.  Our role is to point to Jesus Christ, the one who is the great high priest. Put your trust in him—approach his throne of grace with boldness—for in Christ alone is there salvation.  Let us pray:

Almighty God, we bow and shield our eyes for you are too awesome.  We thank you for coming as Jesus, for coming in a manner in which we can understand and relate. Accept us as his followers, and guide us as we strive to keep up with him as he leads us home to you.  Amen.

[1] Genesis 19:26, Luke 9:62.  See M. Craig Barnes, Searching for Home: Spirituality for Restless Souls (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003), 111.

[2] Luke 15:11ff.

[3] Romans 14:11, Philippians 2:10.

[4] See Westminster Larger Catechism, Questions 43-45.

[5] My appreciation to Stan Mast for the idea of using “The Hunger Games” as an illustration.  See http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-23b/?term=hebrews%204:15-5:10

[6] Long, 64.

[7] Genesis 14:17ff.  See also Psalm 110:4.

[8] See Revelation 5.

[9] John 14:6..

 

 

A New Logo

A New Logo

The Session of Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church has adopted a new logo for our congregation.  The logo includes our name, wavy lines representing water, the cross and the sign of the Trinity which together form a tree.  The colors are green and blue. This logo has a fresh look and also helps show growth and vitality and will make a wonderful springboard into our next forty years.  In addition, the logo also looks crisp and clean in black and white.

Theologically and Biblically, there is much to ponder in this logo.  The cross and the symbol for the Trinity reflect the truth of orthodox Christianity.  Protestants, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox all hold to essentials as taught in the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ (as represented in the cross upon which he died) and in the triune God (Father, Son and Spirit).  This logo reminds everyone what it is that we believe.

The water is also an important part of the logo.  After all, we worship on an island, surrounded by water.  In the logo, the waves on the water create flow reminding Christians that we are a movement. Early Christians were known as “The Way” because following Jesus is a “way” of life. Water, which is essential to life, is also a major theme throughout Scripture.  In Genesis, at Creation, God separates water and dry land.  Jesus offers the woman at the well the “water of life.”  We enter the church through the waters of baptism.  And at the end of Scripture, we learn of a river that flows through the New Jerusalem, watering the trees of life.

The tree is another important symbol as seen throughout Scripture.  The tree of life is in the Garden of Eden. Such trees are also present by the banks of the river in the New Jerusalem in the last chapter of Revelation.  We live on an island with trees and the symbol in our logo reminds us that we are planted here to grow and flourish.

The Session also officially adopted “Reflecting the Face of Jesus” as our official motto.  We will continue to use it along with the pen and ink drawing of our church in places such as bulletin covers.  The logo will be used on the back of all publications and business cards.  In time, it may be used on shirts, signs and banners, cups and other such places.

Faith Alone

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Romans 3:21-31

October 8, 2017

 

It is good to be back with you.  I’ve been looking forward to this day for the past month because it meant we could share our new logo! I am excited about what the logo means and how it can help convey who we are to our community.

And I’ve been looking forward to this month for the past year.  It was about a year ago that I woke up and realized, “hey, it’s going to be the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.” So it’s good to be back, but let me tell you about last week.  We were in Plains, Georgia. One of the things we’ve talked about doing for some time was to attend Jimmy Carter’s Sunday School class. So we headed over to that end of the state on Friday, spent Saturday visiting Carter’s childhood homestead, along with Andersonville and the National POW museum. We went to bed early on Saturday. We’d read that one should arrive at church by 6 AM to ensure a seat in President Carter’s class.  I was going to have to get up earlier than I normally do on Sundays!

We pulled into the parking lot at Maranatha Baptist Church a little before 6. Sixteen vehicles had arrived before us! It was pitch dark and I was able to get another hour or so of sleep, only to wake up with a Marine walking a dog around the parking lot sniffing cars for bombs. That was a new church experience for me!

At 8, we were lined up and after going through our pockets and running a wane over us, checking for weapons, we were allowed to enter the church. We were on the fifth row and had another two hour wait before Jimmy came out.

Carter was beginning a new study on Galatians and gave a perfect introduction to grace and faith.  By the way, last Sunday was also his birthday. We didn’t know that until we were in Plains and people started asking us if we were there to celebrate his birthday.  He turned 93! There is a lesson from his example—don’t think you’re too old to do God’s work!

We are on a journey this month that fits right into President Carter’s Sunday School message as we explore the great themes of the Reformation-the Solas!  Grace Alone, Faith Alone, Scripture Alone and Christ Alone.

   One of the concerns of the Reformation was salvation. How can I be saved and how can I be assured of my salvation.  Martin Luther and others questioned the Roman Catholic position that salvation was found in the church, a mixture of God’s grace and human effort or work. The problem with that understanding is what’s enough? Luther, studying the book of Romans, discovered that salvation didn’t come from his efforts but by God’s doing. The idea that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ is liberating. God is freely offering us grace which we are to accept on faith.

Justification by faith has eternal implications. Imagine standing before the judgment throne.  What are we going to say?  I was a good guy? I was a good father, a kind husband, an honest employee, and a faithful son? I once helped an old lady across the street? I was once president of a Kiwanis Club? I taught a Sunday School class? Those are all good things, but how about the times we were less than honest? Or the times we weren’t very good. The times we were less than kind or faithful. The times we ignored one needing help or failed our kids, spouse, or parents?  What about hurtful things we’ve said in anger? The list goes on and on. Does our good outweigh the bad on God’s scale of justice? How can we know where we stand?

Justification by faith means our salvation isn’t in our hands. It is a gift from a loving God, which we accept by faith.  When we stand before that throne, it is important that when it is our turn to speak, we can say with a clear conscience, “I have faith, not in myself, but in my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”   Let’s hear what Paul says about faith. Read Romans 3:21-31. 

 

I still have the first Bible that I was given when I was in the second grade. The small print was difficult to read, even back then when I didn’t need glasses. The sheer number of words were overwhelming to a boy who really wanted to be outside playing baseball or running in the woods. Reading wasn’t high on my list of things to do at this age, and when I did pick up the Bible, I was drawn to the pictures, charts and maps on the back pages.

      It was around this time we went to the county fair.  As we made our way under the big tents with booths advertising all kinds of stuff, there was an evangelist handing out little red books.  I don’t know whatever happened to mine, but I kept it for years even though the book was sticky with cotton candy.  Thinking back, I have to wonder if the idea of a Christian little red book was an attempt to counter-act Mao’s infamous little red book. But that’s speculation. What I remember of this book, is that each page contained only a verse or two, supposedly about comfort, assurance and salvation. It was easy to read a verse at a time. And I would read and memorize many of the verses including Verse 23 of our reading this morning: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” That verse got this 2nd grader’s attention. What? I’d been born into a depraved race? And I was no better off than everyone else? If there is one thing I knew as a boy, most boys know this, is that I’d done my share of bad stuff. And now I was assured that everyone else was bad, just like me. It’s amazing I wasn’t overwhelmed by despair.

“All have sinned…” What hope is there for us?  How is this good news? What comfort is there in knowing that we’re all messed up? What assurance do we obtain with this knowledge?  I think it is a bit unfair that this verse was included without the following verses that speak of grace and faith.

       Today we’re considering the second great theme of the Reformation: Faith. Last week Deanie talked about grace. Our salvation is not something we do or achieve. Salvation is freely offered to us by a loving God. That’s grace! And we receive it by faith in Jesus Christ. Grace and faith are intertwined with the other Reformation solas, for our faith is in Jesus Christ, whom we learn about through Scripture.

The idea that Salvation is a free gift of grace that one just has to receive by faith in Christ was a revolutionary thought in the early years of the 16th Century.  After all, the church insisted on regular confession and doing good deeds. The problem was that even our good deeds might not be enough and how could we know? We might have to spend centuries in purgatory before having done enough penance to ascend into heaven. But through the study of Romans, Luther began to realize that it didn’t work that way.[1] Salvation wasn’t something we achieved by actions and deeds. It was a gift to be received on faith. Luther’s insistence that salvation was by grace through faith radically changed the relationship between individuals, God, and the church.[2] God isn’t a scorekeeper, but a loving father. The church isn’t a dispensator of salvation, but is entrusted with Scripture which allows it to be the messenger of Good News. And in the end, the individual isn’t beholden to the church, but to God.

        Our passage this morning marks a major shift in Paul’s letter to the Romans. Much of what he’s written to this point has to do with the sinfulness of the human race. He wants to drive home the point that we’re all guilty, that we are all sinful. And in verse 23, he brings this to a climax. “All have sinned.”  BUT, Paul goes on, we can now be made righteous in Jesus Christ. We don’t have keep living in sin, nor should we throw up our hands in despair. God has created a way out. Paul doesn’t use the language of the cross in Romans, as he does extensively in some of his other letters such as those written to the Corinthians.[3] However, here he does focuses on the sacrifice of Christ for our sinfulness, on Christ’s atonement by his blood, so that when we accept Christ we can find forgiveness. Christ is righteous and justifies those of us who have faith.

         In verse 27, Paul changes tack and speaks of the implication of our faith. Faith kills pride.[4] To be justified by faith and not our own acts or deeds means that we can’t brag about it. Go back to that image of standing in front of the judgment throne. If the only way we are made righteous is through faith, we aren’t going to be there saying, “God, let me tell you about all the good I’ve done.” Instead, we will be humbled and we will bow our heads in reverence and look down at our feet and mumble, “the only chance I have is that I have placed my faith in Jesus Christ.” Bragging about our faith isn’t a Christian trait!

Martin Luther, in his commentary on Romans, says that our efforts to keep the law “puffs up and increases vainglory,” and that those who strive for righteousness are seeking to be able to boast about their works.[5] Of course, the law has a purpose, for it helps us to see our need for grace.[6]  It’s only when we accept the grace offered by faith do we have eternal hope.

         Paul concludes our reading by elevating faith to be source of justification for all people. The Jews may have had the law, but they still must have faith in Christ. The Gentiles were not blessed with the law, so they need of faith in Christ. Faith in Christ moves the focus from us and what we do, to a God who loves us and offers us a graceful way out of our entrapment to sin.  Are we willing to take that chance and in faith step out and accept what has been done for us?   Let us pray:

 

Almighty God, your love for us in Jesus Christ is so great.  We know we are sinners. Fill us with your spirit and help us place our faith in Jesus Christ, trusting that in him we have been cleansed and made righteous in your eyes.  And when this life is over, receive us not upon our good deeds, but upon the word of the one we call Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  It is in his name that we pray.  Amen.

 

©2017

[1] Luther first discovered the freeing understanding of grace and faith. It wasn’t until 1528 (in Confessing Concerning Christ’s Supper) that he (as had other Protestants already done) abandoned his belief in purgatory. He had earlier suggested it had no biblical foundation, but was primarily concerned in that humans could not help someone out of purgatory.

[2] Carol Hochhalter, “A Series on the Five Solas of the Reformation,” Reformed Worship 124 ((June 2017), 8.

[3] Krister Stendahl, Final Account: Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994), 22.  In Romans, Paul doesn’t use the word “Cross” and uses “Crucified” only once, in reference to the death of the old self (Romans 6:6).  He uses the term cross 2 times in the first letter to the Corinthians, and uses crucified 6 times in both letters.

[4] See Silverio Gonzalez’s notes on Thomas Schreiner, Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015) at https://cccdiscover.com/why-does-faith-alone-matter/

[5] Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans, J. Theodore Mueller, translator (1954, Grand Rapids, Kregel, 1976), 79-80.

[6] Luther, 77.,

Jacob and Esau are reunited

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Genesis 33:1-17

September 24, 2017

 

 

For the past two months we’ve been exploring stories of Jacob, the third patriarch of Israel.  Last week, we heard that God changed Jacob’s name to Israel.  Jacob, or Israel, has fought with men and with God and has prevailed.[1] But he shows the scars of battle as he limps along. We’ve seen how Jacob had cheated his brother and his father in order to obtain a blessing. Now God has blessed him and his family will carry on the promise that was first given to Abraham. The only problem is that Jacob must return to his homeland which means he must confront his brother, Esau.  Jacob, the fair skinned momma boy, must meet his macho brother, whom he’s not seen in two decades. When Jacob left after tricking his father and cheating his brother out of a blessing, Esau was furious. Jacob ran for his life.  And he’s been fretting over this reunion all along.  And now the two of them are about to meet.

One thing I should note is that while Jacob’s name was changed to Israel, among friends and family he’s still going by Jacob. They weren’t present for the wrestling match we read about last week.  Today, we’re at the end of this series on Jacob.  Let’s see how it turns out.  Read Genesis 33:1-17.

 

       I recently heard that procrastination is a sign of creativity.  Or at least creative people tend to procrastinate.  I don’t know if that is true. Maybe it is, maybe not. I just hope it is for I’d like to be able to use it as an excuse.

There have been times I have had things I didn’t want to do and I kept putting them off. I fret over them. This is especially true when there is something I need to make right with someone else.  An apology that needed to be offered, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. After a while, what could have been easily corrected with a hand-written note or a phone call becomes a huge task. I realize I should have taken the first step, even though I might have felt slighted and wanted the other person to make the first move. But we can’t control others, we can only control ourselves.

         Jacob certainly had a way of putting things off. It seems important for him to make an effort at reconciliation with his brother even though he’s not sure how it was going to turn out. He can only control what he does, not how his brother responds. I wonder if the years in which he fretted over making such an effort he created a monster out of the task at hand. The more Jacob thinks about it, the more he worries about that hairy masculine brother wringing his neck. And, on the night before their encounter, Jacob’s hip is pulled out of joint. Now he doesn’t even have a chance to outrun Esau.  He’s stuck.  He has to go through with meeting his brother regardless of the consequences.

         Another thing I have notice about myself is that although I realizing I’m changing, I don’t generally think about how other people might be changing. This is especially true of friends from the past whom I may not see for years. It’s not exactly “out of sight, out of mind” for I do think of them. It’s only that I remember them as they were when I last saw them. If I really think about it, I realize they, too, must be changing. I don’t know about you, but I don’t generally think about that. I noticed this most at class reunions, where I realize that almost everyone present is losing the battle to gravity. And where did these folks get all those wrinkles? I also have experienced this phenomenon on Facebook when I become reacquainted with a friend from the past and am surprised he doesn’t have any hair either.

Again, I wonder if this isn’t part of Jacob problem.  He still sees Esau as the young man he’d wrong and assumes that Esau had spent the past two decades letting his anger boil just as Jacob had spent that time fretting over what might happen when they meet again.

Jacob is certainly nervous when he sees Esau approaching.  We again see him picking favorites.  He lines up his family, starting with the servants of Leah and Rachel and their children.  Then he places Leah and her children.  And at the end he places his beloved Rachel and her son, Joseph.  Although we are not told the reason, it appears Jacob hopes that if his brother is out for blood, he might be appeased at taking out his vengeance on the first group of his family. He’s saved his favorite for the last. At least Rachel and Joseph will have a chance to get away. We’re not told how the mothers of his children felt about this alignment, but I am sure such favoritism didn’t bring harmony to his dysfunctional family.

But, to Jacob’s credit, he goes first.  He’s in front, limping along, with his extended family in tow. If there is going to be blood, he might as well offer his own.  After all, he’s facing demons of his own making. We’re told that Jacob bows seven times as he brother approaches—the type of homage that one would have shown to a Pharaoh.[2] As we saw last week, Jacob had already sent gifts ahead to Esau. Now he’s showing his submissiveness.  He has no idea how his brother will respond. Will Esau extract the vengeance that, at least in Jacob’s mind, has been building over the past twenty years?

Instead of vengeance, Esau is joyous! Much like the father in the Prodigal Son, Esau runs out ahead and embraces his brother. The two hug and cry together.

         Then Esau comments on his brother’s family and delights in meeting his sisters-in-law and nieces and nephews.  Jacob rightly gives God the credit for his family. Esau then insists that no gifts are necessary even though when Jacob presses, he accepts the gifts graciously. As Jacob says, he has all that he needs.  But it appears that so does Esau.  Both men have been successful.  Jacob has herds and a large family, Esau has a small army.

Then, in verses 10, Jacob expresses his joy, saying that looking at Esau’s face is like looking into the face of God.  Jacob has encountered God a few times by this point, and as Jesus tells us in the parable, we too will encounter him in the face of others.[3]  Maybe a part of this has to do with Esau’s willingness to let the past be gone and to make the reconciliation as easy as possible.

After a reunion, they go separate ways, partly out of necessity. With the herds and animals, Jacob’s crowd is much slower than Esau’s. What’s important is that the two brothers have been reunited and Jacob is back in the land of his father.

        A lot of times I think we are like Jacob, afraid of taking steps toward reconciliation.  We worry and agonize over it. Like Jacob, we may even go to great lengths to pave the way, such as offering gifts.  But when we finally get around to it, many times we find that it wasn’t nearly as big of a deal as we had made it out to be. Sometimes, like with Esau, the person we worry about has moved on with their lives. Or times have soften or erased their bitterness. So we need to be the willing to be the first person to take steps toward reconciliation with our brothers and sisters.

In our New Testament reading, we heard the familiar story of the Prodigal Son.[4] In this story Jesus tells, the father represents God. The younger son has done terrible things to the father, to the point the father could be justified to treat the son as one dead or at the very least to treat him like a servant.  Even the younger son realizes this, knowing that his father might not want to see him. But he goes back home, partly because he has no other choice, and he is warmly welcomed by his father.  His old man doesn’t wait for him to return home, but runs down the road to meet his wayward son. Think about God running after us. Maybe this is why Jacob saw God’s face in Esau, who ran and embraced him.

         If we want to be godly, we too must be willing to ask for forgiveness, to grant forgiveness when requested of us, and to seek reconciliation. That’s what the gospel is about. God through Jesus Christ is reconciling himself to the world. And as Christians, we are to take that a step further and seek to reconcile relationships broken between one another.

Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”[5] In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” or as a more modern translation would have it, “forgive us our sins as we forgive the sins of others.[6] And Jesus tells us to make things right with our brother (or sister) before we come to make a sacrifice to God.[7] Our willingness to forgive the wrong done to others is linked to God’s forgiveness.

          But as we see in our story of Jacob and Esau, it is sometimes hard for us to take that step and seek reconciliation. We’re told this story from the point of view of Jacob.  We don’t know what had gone on in Esau’s life. But it is evident that he was glad to see his brother. If there are those whom we love and whom we’re separated from, we need to be the ones to take the risk to seek out forgiveness. We need to be the ones to strive for a new relationship, or at least reconciliation.  For when we take such a step, we reflect Jesus’ face to the world that is bitterly divided.  It is a world that needs to see that reconciliation and not division is the way of the cross. And as God’s people, that’s our calling.  Amen.

©2017

[1] Genesis 32:28.

[2] Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis, revised edition (1961, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1972), 327.

[3] Matthew 25:37-40.

[4] Luke 15:11-24.

[5] Matthew 5:9.

[6] Matthew 6:12.

[7] Matthew 5:24.

Jacob’s Night of Wrestling

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Genesis 32:22-32

September 17, 2017

Most of us, I expect, are a little exhausted. In the two weeks since we were last together, a lot has happened.  Many of us, I’m sure, have done some wrestling with God. Right? Thankfully, we were spared from the worst, even though I know a number of you experienced some damage from Irma.  Our prayers must continue to be offered, as well as help, to those who experienced the full wrath of that hurricane.  Today, we’re going to look at a story about someone else who wrestled with God.

Two weeks ago we learned that Jacob and his father-in-law, Laban, made a covenant with each other and went their separate ways. Jacob and his extended family and their herds are now heading back to his home turf in Canaan.  He has another uncomfortable meeting ahead, with his brother Esau, the one he’d cheated twice. When Jacob was last in Canaan, Esau was furious and Jacob had to run away as quick as possible.  He was empty handed, not having time to pack, Now he’s returning a rich man, with a dozen kids, servants and slaves, and a host of animals.  Despite his wealth, this meeting with his brother weighs heavy on Jacob’s mind as we see in the opening verses of the 32 chapter of Genesis.

Of course, it wasn’t just Jacob’s idea to return to his homeland. God had told him it was time. In preparation for this encounter with Esau, Jacob sends messengers ahead to inform his brother that he’s coming.  The messengers come back and tell Jacob that Esau is coming to meet him, and bringing with him 400 warriors. Jacob may be rich, but he doesn’t have an army, so he is now even more afraid. He prays to God, humbling himself and confessing his fear that his brother is going to wring his neck.

And then Jacob makes preparations. He’s willing to offer a significant portion of his wealth, dividing out livestock and sending groups ahead as an offering to Esau. He hopes that with enough livestock, he can appease his brother’s anger. At this point, Jacob stays behind with Rachel and Leah and two servants. Read Genesis 32:22-32.

###

 

         In her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor tells about visiting Cumberland Island National Seashore, just south of us, just north of the Florida border. In case any of you want to visit, it’s currently closed due to damage from Irma.  Anyway, Taylor and her husband were out hiking in the middle of the day when they came upon a huge loggerhead turtle that had exhausted itself trying to make it through the dunes. Obviously, the turtle had mistaken some light on the mainland for the moon over the water and after dropping and burying her eggs, took off in the wrong direction.  It was midday and the turtle was barely alive. Her shell was hot. Taylor scooped sand over the turtle to cool its shell while her husband ran back to the ranger’s station.  Soon, he returned with a ranger in a jeep. They turned the turtle over on her back and attached chains to her legs. Using the jeep, they dragged the turtle to the water’s edge, where they righted the turtle.  With each wave, the turtle revived a bit and soon pushed off and swam out into the deep. Reflecting on all this, Taylor writes, “It is sometimes hard to tell whether you are being killed or saved by the hands that turn your life upside down.”[1]

I expect Jacob felt a bit like that turtle after his night of wrestling. Was it an angel? Was it a man? Or was it God?  Whatever, Hulk Hugan and crowd never had anything on Jacob.  He wrestles all night and in the morning is a changed man. Lots of things happen at night.  Sometimes we do things at night because we don’t want to be seen, like Nicodemus coming to Jesus. Other times things happen because when we lay down to rest, our minds are free to wander and things we’re able to keep tucked away when we’re busy come out. Was this what happened to Jacob?

          Jacob had a lot of stuff pinned up in his psyche.  He was a con artist. He cheated his brother, his father, and even his father-in-law, who’d also cheated him. And now Jacob’s worried about what it’s going to be like when meets his brother.  Esau is coming and he’s in command of 400 men. That’s enough to cause most of us to lose sleep. Jacob has made plans.  He’s sending gifts ahead.  He sends his family ahead, even his beloved Rachel. He alone remains safely on the opposite bank of the Jabbok River.[2] In the Hebrew text, one can recognize a word play here, between Jabbok and wrestle.  Jacob, who thinks he is on the safe side of this river, is disturbed. He assumes he’s safe and will be able to catch a good night sleep, but that’s not the case.

Our text leaves more questions to ponder than it provides answers.  First of all, we’re told that Jacob was alone, yet there was a man there who wrestled with him. The wrestling match goes on till dawn. Then the man asks to be released for dawn is approaching. Is he a ghost or a vampire that must be safely in the dark before the dawn? And why, when Jacob gives him his name, does the man not identity himself? And why does Jacob ask for his blessing?  If he’d been a man looking to rob Jacob or harm him, would he’d asked for a blessing?

          We don’t really have a clue as to who this mysterious wrestler was until we hear Jacob’s response as the sun rises and the mysterious stranger departs.  Jacob realizes he’s been wrestling with God. Take that, Hulk and Sgt. Slaughter, Hercules Hernandez, Jake the Snake, the Wild Samoans and all you other fake wrestlers.[3] Jacob is wrestling with the deity, the Almighty, with the Creator. That’s pretty bad! That’s a wrestling match that is sure to sell out!  I might even pay to see it.

But then, don’t we all wrestle with God. I know I have. Should I go to seminary?  Should I take this call?  Why did I do that? What will be the repercussions? Should I apology?  We’ve all be there.  And then, a week ago, it was sleepless nights wrestling with the unknown. What’s going to happen with this storm? There have been many nights I’ve laid in bed wondering, wrestling. My body is exhausted but my mind remains wide-awake. I’m sure many of you have experienced similar restless nights.  At times these have gone on night after night. But sooner or later there is a resolution.  For Jacob, it came in the morning when the sun rises and its rays reflect off the rippling waters of the Jabbok.

        Why is it that most artists depict Jacob wrestling with an angel?  The text refers to his opponent as a man and then, in the morning light, Jacob understands that was God. An incarnation? I don’t know? Perhaps artists want to protect God’s dignity.  What kind of God would want to get dirty in the mud by the river? Well, maybe the type of God who crafted Adam out of the dirt and who came to us as Jesus.  That’s good news! God seems to have a fondness for us. Even Jacob, who had done much in his life to earn condemnation, learns that God is with him.

     Of course, we ponder, if it really was God with whom Jacob wrestled, why he wasn’t smashed to smithereens?  Certainly, if God wanted to do in Jacob, a simple lightning bolt would have sufficed. But God has other plans for Jacob just as in our own wrestling with God, there may be something God is calling us to do.  Or maybe there is something in our lives that God wants us to change.  God’s wrestling isn’t to destroy us but to change us!

In Jacob’s case, he’s asked his name. “It’s Jacob,” he says.  By giving his name, which means “cheater,” Jacob confesses to God what his life has been about.  It’s been about him getting what he could from others. Then Jacob receives a blessing from the one whose blessings makes all the difference in the world.  And he’s given a new name. In God’s eyes, Jacob will no longer be “the cheat.” Instead his new name, Israel, implies “God will rule.”[4] God is in control of even Jacob’s life.  Jacob has been changed as is seen in the morning when he fords the river, limping.  He’s battled with God and has survived and so has the promise that has been made to his father Isaac and his grandfather Abraham. There will, from him, be a great nation.

         The good news in our text for this morning is that God is willing to get down and dirty with us in order to save us. That’s what happened when God came as Jesus. When we struggle in life, we can be assured that God is there beside us, struggling along with us. Even when we struggle with God, God is with us, not to blot us from existence, but to love us and guide us. This is the type of God with whom we, like Jacob, can be honest. After all, this is a God who knows all, yet wants our honesty. This is why Jacob is asked his name. God wants us to confess our failures and our sins.  This is the type of God who, through Jesus Christ, offers us a new beginning, a new life, a new birth.  Through Christ, God calls us back into a relationship with him.  Won’t you answer the call?  You may be changed, as was Jacob, who limped along praising God. God touched him in a way that changed him. Are you willing to risk letting God touch you? Amen.

 

©2017

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 66-67.

[2] The idea of Jacob being on the safe side of the Jabbok comes from a sermon by Edward Marquart, “Wrestling with God, www.sermonsfromseattle.com/series_c_wrestling_with_God.htm

[3] I didn’t know these names, but picked them out from this site: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WWE_Hall_of_Fame

 

[4] Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis, revised edition (1961, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1972), 321-322.

Jacob and Laban-Rapprochement

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Genesis 31:22-55

September 3, 2017

 

 

We’re continuing to explore the passages in Genesis about Jacob and his dysfunctional family.  In a way, Jacob is between a rock and a hard place.  He’s heading back to the land of his father, where he fears an encounter with his brother.  We’ll hear more about that next week.  But he’s also being pursued by his father-in-law, Laban.  Today, in our text, they have their final encounter.  It’s a long passage and I’m not going to read it all, but I want you to gain an understanding of this encounter and the skillful tactics of storytelling we find in Genesis. The narrator doesn’t let us just think this is between two men. God is involved. God’s in the background, protecting Jacob.  And, we also see that Laban, as crooked as he can be, has a heart.  There’s a human side to him.  As this is a long passage, turn to Genesis 31.  It goes from verse 22 through the end of the chapter, 30-some verses.  But I will only read the first few verses, then move on to verse 43 and read the ending.  I’ll fill in what happened in the sermon, but you might also take this as a homework assignment to read this afternoon!  Read Genesis 31:22-25, 43-55. 

 

 

You know, as a pastor I have found out that I am either the last to know about something or I know way too much about things I don’t necessarily want to know.  In other words, no one tells me what’s happening or I’m told things I’d just as soon not hear.  With that said, let me tell you about this guy from Hastings Michigan.  We’ll call him Jimmy, not his real name.  For someone in real estate, he had a bad reputation.  Lots of people told stories about how he’d cheated them out of this or that. There was a list of those with grievances, including the IRS. To say the least, Jimmy wasn’t liked by many if not most people.

      I was in Richies Koffee Shop one Saturday morning. Richies is a classic greasy spoon diner. Their coffee is good even if it’s spelled it with a K. They even know how to poach eggs and place them over corn beef hash, they can make a decent omelet, and there burgers were something to savor. But it was there onion rings that were too die for.  And if you ate too many of them, you probably would.

This particular Saturday morning, I sat at corner booth as I was editing my sermon.  I had seldom seen Jimmy in the place, but this morning he was sitting at the long table in the center of the backroom. This was the township informal court. It’s the place you wanted to sit if you wanted to know all the scoop on what was happening in town. And if they didn’t know what was happening someone would make it up.  This gathering place was as much as a rumor mill as it was a breakfast table.  People in the community rotated in and out from this table throughout the morning.

Once Jimmy got up and left to pay his bill, the guys at the table (and they were mostly but not all men) turned their sarcasm toward him. “Who allowed him in here?” one asked.  That’s not exactly what he said. I eliminated some of his more colorful modifiers that would not be appropriate in a sermon.

One after another at the table made disparaging remarks about Jimmy. It was as if a quarterback was sacked and the opposing team piled on. I was feeling uncomfortable with what I was hearing. I thought I should say something, but wasn’t sure what, nor did I want them to think I was listening in to their conversation (not that they were trying to shield their talk from anyone). Thankfully, one of the waitresses spoke up and berated the table for their attitude. Then they began to talk about her.

I had done some business with Jimmy, and I admit that I had watched my back. But I got to like him. I realized he had a good heart. I think he was also lonely. Outside his wife, he didn’t seem to have many friends. But then, as he started to come to church and to get involved, he began to make friends. And I knew that before he’d left the area to be closer to family, he made some incredibly generous donations to the church and community.  Not all of these donations were known even to those being helped.

Laban reminds me of Jimmy.  By the time we’re at today’s passage, he’s old. Two of his daughters have run off with their husband. For two decades, he’s been trying to get what he could from his son-in-law, Jacob.  And while he’s away from home, Jacob and his family saddles up and heads west. We’re told they’ve been gone three days when Laban gets the word of their departure. Perhaps he was out at the far pastures, three days travel away, where he’s sent spotted and black sheep and goats.[1]  The man was always trying to get the best of Jacob, but God saw to it that Jacob prospered as Laban’s ewes and nannies produced more spotted and black lambs and kids, those that Laban had promised to Jacob.

Hearing that Jacob and company had left, Laban gathers everyone up and they began their pursuit.  They catch up with Jacob at Gilead, after seven days of hard riding. There is a problem of understanding here as it would have been impossible to have made it from where Laban was thought to have resided to Gilead. It’s possible he’s from another place, that’s closer.[2]

We’re told that God informs Laban in a dream that he had better go easy on Jacob.  When Laban catches Jacob, he claims the flocks and his daughters and their children belong to him, but he doesn’t ask for them back.  He acknowledges that Jacob’s God has spoken to him. Jacob is protected, even though Laban supposedly has more men to fight and, from appearances, could easily take back what is his.  So instead of asking for his daughters or livestock (which he’d already given to Jacob) back, he asks for his household gods to be returned.  This is interesting that he wants these gods, for he’s already acknowledged that superiority of Jacob’s God.

Last week, I told you how this section of Genesis reads like a television sitcom, with each episode laying out something that will have to be resolved in future episode.  And we learned that Rachel, Laban’s beloved and beautiful younger daughter whom Jacob cherished, had stolen the idols belonging to her father. Perhaps Rachel felt she needed the luck these idols might bring. After all, even though she is the apple in Jacob’s eye, she has to deal with her older sister Leah, who’s been able to give Jacob four sons. At this point, Rachel has only given him one son, Joseph.

Not knowing that Rachel has stolen the gods, Jacob pronounces a death sentence on anyone found with them. The listener to this story would have been on the edge of their seat, in suspense. If the idols are discovered with Rachel, she’s a goner, and both men would have grieved. Laban storms through the camp, in a humorous fashion, trying to find his household gods. He comes up empty.  Rachel hides them by sitting on them. Because it is “that time of the month” for her, her father doesn’t check everywhere.

When Laban comes back having not found his idols, it’s Jacob turn to be angry.  He berates his father-in-law for the abuse he’s experienced over the past two decades.  Laban then suggests that they make a covenant with each other.  They gathered stones and built a monument as a reminder.  Laban shows concern for his daughters, as he acknowledges that he’s not going to be there for them, so he ask God to watch over them.  But there is a sadness in his words, for he realizes that he won’t be there to protect them.

Jacob points to the stone as a boundary marker between the two families.  They both agree to the covenant. Jacob then offers a sacrifice and everyone eats and has a big party.

Early the next morning, Laban kisses and blesses his daughters and grandchildren and returns to his home. Jacob is now free to move on to Canaan, to his father’s home. One chapter is closed, another is about to open.

What does this passage mean?  Don’t steal your daddy’s gods?  Certainly, one level, it does show how our deeds follow us.  A couple of chapters later, God, whom Jacob refers to as the “Fear of Isaac”, calls on Jacob and his family to cleanse themselves of all idols and these gods that Rachel hoarded would have been discarded. [3] But then, too much water had been under the bridge for them to be return.  By calling God “the Fear”, the story pulls us back into the era of the patriarchs.[4] They didn’t have theologians to write about God.  They didn’t even know as Moses did, who asked of God’s name and was told, “I am who I am.”[5]  And they certainly did not know God as we do, though the lens of Jesus Christ. “The Fear” is a good way to acknowledge this mysterious deity that spoke to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob through dreams and visions.  With the trust of Jacob, who listened to “the Fear”, we should listen and be in awe of our God.

A second thing we might take from this passage is the need for boundaries. When there’s conflict, it’s good for people to come together in a covenant, to set boundaries, and to move on with their lives with no hard feelings toward the other. Laban is free to go on with his life, having trusted his daughter’s to Jacob’s care, under God’s eyes. Jacob is free to go to his father’s land.  In the end, instead of trying to get the best of one another, forgiving and moving on is better for all involved.  And with such a parting, each party leaving it up to God to watch out over the other is an important lesson.

A third point is that both men call on the God of their father.  I don’t want to go too deep here, but maybe this text shows us how we can work with those who have different ideas about god. As we’ve seen, Laban’s idea of god is not the same as Jacob’s. Each, holding on to their own beliefs, looks to their deity to hold them to the covenant.

Finally, we must realize as Laban did, that we are not able to control everything.  God is in control and we must trust, as those in recovery say, in a higher power.  We place such trust in the triune God, we can sleep better at night.  Amen.

 

©2017

[1] Genesis 30:35.

[2] Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis, revised edition (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), 308

[3] Genesis 35:1-4.

[4] Frederick Buechner, in his novel about Jacob, Son of Laughter, uses Fear whenever he has Jacob referring to God.

[5] Exodus 3:14.

More Thoughts on Last Week’s Sermon

I know I raised a lot of questions with my sermon last week.  Some of you really liked the sermon and encouraged me to keep taking bold steps while others were less encouraging.  It was my hope that we would not to be like the “Sons of Laban.” We need to always respond to events with an open mind and a willingness to forgive, apologize and understand. It is my hope we can continue to dialogue with one another.  We must seek to live out our Christian belief, as expressed by Paul, that we are all one in Christ Jesus.  That is our calling, and we are working to live into it.  We are not quite there.  We must always strive to do better.  It is because of this, I thought I would share a bit of my journey.

The ninth grade was a turning point for me.  I fear I realize what I could have become when I look back.  It was the first year of crosstown busing and the students from Roland Grice Junior High were shipped to Williston, in the inner-city area of Wilmington.  We didn’t want to be there and those who were from Williston didn’t want us there.  It was a scary time.  There were riots.  At times, there was a National Guard presence in the street.

There were two camping trips that year which helped shaped me.   I didn’t get to go on the first.  My mother wouldn’t let me go as there were no adults.  It was probably the best thing that happened to me that year.  A bunch of guys with whom I’d hung out at Williston, kind of a gang joined together for protection and mischief, went camping by themselves.  There were some older brothers who joined them and brought along some alcohol.  Late that evening, everyone was feeling bold and they decided to go burn a cross in the yard of an African-American family.  They were lucky they didn’t get shot, but they all ended up with police records and spent the rest of their school years working off community service hours.  I hope I would have had the moral courage to have stood up to such an awful idea, but I’m not sure.  As a ninth grader, peer pressure is an awful thing. I am thankful my mom kept me from having to make that decision.

My mother instilled in me a sensitivity for others and was always asking me how I would feel if I were in their situation.  I hated such guilt, but it opened me up to think of how others feel.

The second camping trip was with the Order of the Arrow, a Boy Scout fraternity.  We were camping up on the northeast Cape Fear River.  It was a cold winter night and there was an African American Scout named Charles who needed a place to sleep.  I had a large four man tent and there was just me and another guy sleeping in it.  One of the leaders came to me and asked if it was okay for Charles to stay in my tent.  I was torn, but I also knew it was the right thing to do.  Besides, I knew if my mother ever got word that I had failed to open up my tent, I would be in trouble.  Charles and I talked a lot that evening and I realized he wasn’t any different than me, except that he was a few years older.  I would later become good friends with his brother who was my age.

As a young man working for the Boy Scouts of America, I remember calling on the sheriff of Bladen County.  Behind his desk in his office were two flags, an American and a Confederate battle flag.  While in his office, I couldn’t help but think that if his constituents in the county had known of the second flag, he’d probably not be sheriff.  He certainly didn’t have the Confederate battle flag on his campaign posters in a county that was over fifty percent African American.  Sitting before his desk, I wondered how others would feel with this flag being present in a public space.

Years later, I was a pastor in Michigan and was shocked and disturbed to see people in pickup trucks driving around flying Confederate flags.  I was shocked because these folks’ ancestors had fought and died for the Union.  I also felt as if they were taking something that belonged to my heritage and using it to promote a racist agenda.  I then learned that the county I was living in had a long history of Klan activity.

Yes, racism isn’t just limited to the South.  It’s around the world.  In my travels, I’ve witnessed it in far flung places like Japan, Malaysia, and Russia. It is a part of our fallen human state.  But as Christians, as followers of that Jew from Nazareth, we are called into a new relationship with one another.  We are going to have to find a way to talk past our differences.  Those of us who are followers of Jesus should be willing to take the first steps to break down barriers that divide us and also to build bridges that will allow us to see one another as having been created in God’s image.

What is most important to us?  Is holding on to myths of the past more important than seeking the face of the living God in all who are alive today?  Can we open ourselves to God’s guidance and have a conversation about this?

Jacob, “Son of Laughter”

As I have been preaching from the Jacob stories in Genesis this August and September, I thought I would also share a review to a novel based on Jacob’s story:

Frederick Buechner, Son of Laughter (San Francisco: Harpers Collins, 1994), 274 pages

 

Jacob is a complex character and his life takes up a good chunk of the book of Genesis.  He is known as a trickster.  He cheats his brother, twice, and fools his father.  He is also tricked by his father-in-law Laban into working much longer than he’d planned in order to marry the woman he loves. Laban forces him to marry both of his daughters, the one he doesn’t love and the one he loves.  This creates conflict within Jacob’s family, which grows large with a total of twelve sons.  Frederick Buechner takes this story from scripture and writes a novel about the third patriarch in Genesis.

Jacob’s father is Isaac, whose name means laughter.  Isaac’s parents were well beyond social security age when he was born. They’d laughed at the idea of having a child so that becomes his name. “Laughter” carries a horrible memory, of being tied on a pyre about to be offered up as a sacrifice (Genesis 22).  It is a memory he reveals to his sons, Esau and Jacob.  With favorite children and secrets, we see the dysfunctionality of this family.  Yet, it is through this family that God is at work to fulfill the promise.

Jacob, like his father Isaac and grandfather Abraham, has intimate conversations with God.  But God isn’t yet known.  It’ll be 400 more years before Moses experiences God’s presence as the great “I AM” at the burning bush.  Jacob’s experiences God in a dream and as a stranger in the night.  He refers to this invisible deity as “the Fear.”  The Fear is stronger than the local gods, such as the ones of Laban, gods whom Jacob’s favorite wife Rachel had stolen when they broke away from Laban.  These “idols” cause trouble within the clan. Jacob follows the directions from the Fear, which often comes to him through dreams.  And his favorite son, Joseph, is the interpreter of dreams.  The story ends with Jacob and his family being saved by Joseph who has risen to power in Egypt.  But Jacob knows he doesn’t belong in this land.  He extracts a promise from his sons that they will see to it that his bones are returned to the place of his ancestors.

Buechner brings the story of Jacob to life.  In this novel, we’re taken back in time, back before the Exodus, before the Prophets, and before the coming of Christ.  In a world of a multitude of gods that’s filled with superstition, Jacob fosters a relationship with the One God.  I think it is appropriate for God to be referred to as “the Fear,” for we can only stand in awe before such a deity. And Jacob, who is a flawed character, reminds us of God’s grace and freedom.  He believes strongly that The Fear has chosen him and his sons to be a blessing to the world.  His story also reminds us that we live with a promise from God, one that goes back long before our birth and will not be fulfilled until after our deaths. We, too, are to be a blessing.  We live our lives in faith, trusting beyond what we can see or will experience.

If you’d like to learn more about Jacob, read Genesis 25-37 and 47:27-49.  And then read Buechner’s novel.  It’s amazing what God can do through flawed characters!

Danger of Looking Down on Others


Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Genesis 31:1-21

August 27, 2017

In the past two sermons, I’ve mentioned how the stories of Jacob (as well as other stories from Scripture) would have been shared around the campfires. People would have laughed and have enjoyed the tales, but would have also learned something about themselves as well as the ancestors and their God. While I was away the other week planning my preaching for next year, one of the books I read was titled The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America. The quote on the leaf of the bulletin came from this book. I encourage you to check it out. It reminds us of the role the fire pit played in the lives of our ancestors. It was around places, such as intimate campfires, where these stories were first told.

Today, we’re looking at a continuation of last week’s text.  These passages are laid out like a good sitcom. In each section there is a seed planted for a future episode.  Last week, we learned how Jacob was able to prosper despite Laban’s attempt to con him. The two had agreed that Jacob would take the stripped and spotted sheep and goats for his payment of twenty years work.  Laban thought he’d be getting the more valuable animals, but even as he agreed, he had his sons drive the spotted animals to distant pastures in order to keep them, too. Despite this, the purely white animals gave birth to stripped and spotted animals and soon Jacob’s herd had increased beyond what anyone thought possible.  God was with Jacob.

But success comes with challenges, as we will see in today’s reading from Genesis 31, the first 21 verses.

###

One of the ugliest periods in history of my hometown, Wilmington, North Carolina, occurred in 1898.  North Carolina came out of the Reconstruction in a way that was different than most Southern States. In the 1890s, African-Americans still had the right to vote. In Wilmington, which was the largest city in the state at the time, there were African-American aldermen, policemen, and firemen. There was a black-owned newspaper that was read all over the South. Its editor, Alexander Manly, a Presbyterian no less, published an editorial that was a response to charge that white women had to fear black men.  Manly suggested such fear went the other way, too.  He pointed out that his mother had been a slave and his father was a former governor.  Bringing this to light was dangerous. People began to complain that Manly was getting to be “too high strung, bold and saucy.”[1]  In other words, he was becoming “too uppity.”

Politically, the establishment was feeling threatened for in the 1890s there was a joining together of forces between white yeomen farmers and laborers and African Americans. The older order was being pushed out. Words became more heated as they begin to play the race card to hold their position. Shortly after the election of 1898, things exploded. White bands attacked and burned the black newspaper but the black community didn’t roll over and play dead. Many of them fought back with squirrel guns and whatever weapons they could find. The white mob, having drawn resources from the National Guard armory including Gatling guns which had just returned from the Spanish American war, out gunned them. The riot became a bloody massacre and in the aftermath, North Carolina followed the rest of the South into the Jim Crow era.[2] An opportunity was lost! It says something that this history wasn’t taught when I was in school.

           It’s a human tendency based on our fallen state for us to look down upon those whom we think are below us. But just because it’s a tendency doesn’t mean it’s the Christian thing to do. When someone we think should be below us experiences a blessing or doing better than us, we feel betrayed. It’s as if Satan is poking our conscience: “Look at them, they’re not as good as you!” We respond with snide or cutting remarks. Some may even respond with hostile or violent actions as happened in 1898. It’s still going on, today, as we saw in Charlottesville.  It’s been going on for a long time. We see this tendency in today’s text.

            God blessed Jacob and now the sons of Laban feel slighted. They forgot or ignored their dad taking advantage of this foreigner, cheating him over and over again. Laban did everything he could to swindle Jacob, yet Jacob prospers. Perhaps it was because of Jacob prospering despite how he’d been treated that made it worse in the eyes of Laban’s sons.  Don’t they have a right enjoy all of their father’s estate?

In the middle of our text, Jacob recalls a dream in which God promises to bless him even while Laban is out to cheat him.  And God informs Jacob it’s time for him to leave. But Jacob didn’t need a dream to know this. Looking around at what was happening, Jacob easily realized it was time for him and his family to be moving on. Even his wives acknowledge this. Scripture tells us that a man must leave his parents and be united with his wife (the same goes for the woman).[3] Leah and Rachel realize their father has taken advantage of their husband and so they encourage Jacob to leave. Jacob is ready and starts packing.

To go back to the sitcom analogy, the text sets us up for the next show. We’re told that while Laban is out shearing sheep and Jacob is packing up the station wagon, Rachel steals her father’s household gods. She takes his idols. The seed of the next week’s confrontation is planted.

         This text shows us two things.  First of all, as I have already pointed out, it demonstrates how we tend to look questionably upon those whom we think should be below us, yet more prosperous. We don’t like it when the immigrant does better than the native (unless we happen to be the immigrant). We feel uncomfortable when another country grows rich and challenges our standing in the world. Instead of rejoicing in their blessings, we complain and bicker and do what we can to curtail their progress, just like Laban’s sons. The second thing this text shows us is that we, even when we are being blessed by God, are not totally innocent nor satisfied. We can be like Rachel, who steals her father’s gods.

One of the things that we need to understand as Christians is that our problems do not always belong to someone else. We can’t just blame the heathens. As Paul notes, “All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.”[4] This is why humility is such a necessary Christian virtue. We are blessed not because of our work, but because God has blessed us. There are others who work hard and are not blessed, or work hard and then lose everything to a hurricane or some other natural disaster, to civil unrest, or war, or an untimely illness.

Furthermore, we are not good just because we have kept the Ten Commandments. We are good only because God through Jesus Christ has forgiven us and made us righteous. We often take too much credit for our own situation.

          I think all of us agree that we are living in a time of turmoil. We might not all agree as to the cause, and that’s okay. In the aftermath of Charlottesville, I’m going to risk addressing this. I realize this may seem to be a bit of leap from our text, but not really. As Christians, we need to set a standard of decency and not act as if we’re the sons of Laban. We shouldn’t look down on others, nor think that we’re entitled to more than them.

We need to understand that just because someone doesn’t look like us or have different customs from us doesn’t make them bad. We need to be willing to confess not only our sins but the sins of our ancestors. I know the idea of original sin isn’t very popular these days, but it is a core part of our belief.[5]  We, the human race, have been corrupted by sin and bare responsibility for it. We should be honest and admit that because of the color of our skin, many of us enjoy benefits that others don’t enjoy. Also, because of the sins of our ancestors, many of us enjoy benefits that others don’t.  When we try to whitewash our past, we are not being honest.

Now, I am not suggesting that we need to wipe out every Civil War monument. But we should be honest and acknowledge the core issues that led to the war, including slavery. It was wrong. We should admit there were no saints, on either side, in that war. We should acknowledge the suffering of those who were in slavery and the benefit they provided for their owners (and their owner’s descendants).  And we should also acknowledge that many of those who went off to war had no choice in the manner. Like my relatives, many were poor farmers during the antebellum period and they remained that way during reconstruction and afterwards.  Zebulon Vance, who became governor of North Carolina may have been the first to acknowledge that it was a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.[6] That’s true of many wars. So instead of becoming so defensive, let’s encourage an honest discussion over such monuments while making sure that all sides of the story is told.  This means that other stories need to be highlighted.  Other monuments will need to be installed.  In information depicted on older monuments should be changed to reflect the good and bad past deeds of those depicted.

And for us as individuals, we need to do what we can to bridge gaps between ourselves and others. We are the ones who need to foster friendship with those who look and think differently than us—those from another race or ethnic group, those with different religious or political views. We need to listen without being defensive.

          A few years ago, I read a couple of Marshall Goldsmith’s books. He’s an executive coach and leadership guru, who writes about helping successful people become more successful.  In his book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, he points out how the world has changed and how leaders need to be changing with it.  He offers twenty suggestions of things we need to do differently. Many of his suggestions fall into the category of “not being the sons of Laban” and the realization that our actions are not always honorable.

Goldsmith encourages his readers to seek honest feedback, to apology, to listen to others, and to give thanks.  He reminds us that just because we were born on third base doesn’t mean we’ve hit a triple. He forces us to acknowledge that anger is rarely someone else’s fault. He suggests a question we all need to be asking (and listening to the answer) to the question, “how can I do better?”[7]

        As I said, we are in a time of turmoil. It’s frightening. But with turmoil comes change. And change can be for the good or for the bad. Change means we have an opportunity.  Do we want to be the sons of Laban? Or do we want to rejoice in the blessings shown Jacob and his family? Do we want live with the guilt and fear of taking what’s not ours, as Rachel did?  Or do we want to be satisfied with what God gives us?

As followers of Jesus, it’s up to us to bring positive changes to our community and to the world.  It’s up to us to make the future better for all people. And perhaps the best way to start such a journey is to be honest with ourselves and willing to listen to others. Yes, change is frightening. But it is also an opportunity.  Let’s make the best of it.  Amen.

 

 

©2017

[1] Richard Yarborough, “Violence, Manhood, and Black Heroism,” in Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and Its Legacy (Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 1998), 238.

[2] For more on the 1898 riot, see David S. Cecelski and Timothy B. Tyson, editors. Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and Its Legacy (Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 1998) and H. Leon Prather, Sr., We Have Taken a City: The Wilmington Racial Massacre and Coup of 1898 (1984, Southport, NC: Dram Tree Book, 2006).

[3] Genesis 2:24.

[4] Romans 3:22 (see also Romans 5:12)

[5] See Scots Confession, chapter 4; and Second Helvetic Confession, chapter 8.

[6] http://www.newsobserver.com/opinion/op-ed/article31123988.html

[7] Marshall Goldsmith, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There (New York: Hyperion, 2007).  See pages 21, 63 and 122 for Goldsmith’s suggestions.

The Heaven’s Showing Forth God’s Glory: An Eclipse Odyssey

 

 

When I first look up at the sun through those funky glasses, it appears as if someone had taken just a nibble out of a cookie.

A door in Springville, Host of SC Frog Jumping Contest

 

Donna and I are in Springfield, South Carolina, a small town south of Columbia. Knowing Savannah is only going to experience a partial (97% of the sun covered) eclipse, it’s time for a road trip. Furthermore, the coast looks to be socked in with clouds.  As the path of totality is passing by just 70 miles north of here, and Interstate 95 promised to be backed up with eclipse watches, we take back roads, heading northwest, hoping to find a place without clouds and within the totality of the event.

Leaving Savannah on Georgia 21, we follow the river northwest, driving among the tractors pulling containers in and out of the port.  At Springville (Georgia, not South Carolina), we turn north on Highway 119 and cross the Savannah River.  A few miles north of the river, 119 merges into US 321 and we head north.  Attempting to work our way both far enough north to be in the path of totality and far enough west to avoid the coastal clouds, we take US 278, driving through pine forest and the occasional field of beans, corn or cotton.  We stop in Barnwell, the gateway to the Savannah River Site (a Department of Energy Nuclear operation) and pick up a quick lunch at Burger King.  Then we continue heading north, taking State Road 37.  After Elko, which is in the path of totality, we start looking for a good place to watch the eclipse.  There are clouds, but also large clear areas in the sky.  We pull into the small town of Springfield.

Southern Railroad used to run through Springfield, but the tracks were no longer there.  Somehow, a caboose had been left behind and the swath of land that once were tracks is now a long park.  The rail beds have been paved over as a walking and bike path and a pavilion was built next to the caboose. We find a shady spot to park, get out of the car and after putting on the solar glasses, take a peak and see that the moon was slowly doing its magic.  Totality is a little over an hour away.  A few others also stop and we all gather in the park in the center of town.

An African American man is there with his wife and children.  We get to talking and I learn he’s from Springfield.  He tells me the train stopped running around fifteen years ago.  Then he points to another park and said we should come back the Saturday before Easter as the town holds a bull frog jumping contest.  I mention Mark Twain’s story, but I’m not sure he even knows whom I’m talking about as he goes on about how far some of the frogs can jump.  He then points west and tells me about a town with a Chitin festival and how the whole town stinks during the festival.  “I think I’ll skip that festival,” I confide. Then he starts telling about another town where there was a poetry festival.  “Really,” I say. “I might be interested in that,” while thinking that this doesn’t look like a hotbed for literary activities.  He continues, describing how folks walk around gnawing on large drumsticks.  I realize he was saying “poultry” and not “poetry.”  “You got to come back,” the guy says.  “All these little towns have festivals.”  The man is proud of his place in the world!

I take another look at the sun and the bite into the cookie is larger.  The cookie monster is busy; or the moon is doing its magic.

We decide to walk around the town, all three blocks, with a desire to see the sights and hopefully find relief from the gnats flying around us under the trees. They are annoying but thankfully are not the biting type.  Most of the businesses are closed.  The diner is only open Thursdays through Saturday.  The pharmacy closed for the eclipse and, in front of the store, had sat a skeleton in a lounge chair.  The bank is open but doesn’t look very busy.  Just off Main Street is a convenient store that seems to be doing a fair amount of business.

 

Looking back at the sun, it appears as if the cookie is half eaten.

When we got back from our walk, we join the group on the pavilion.    The pavilion provides little relief from the gnats and even though the sun was slowly disappearing and it’s noticeably cooker, it’s still warm and when not looking at the sun, the shade helps.   A large cloud begins to make its way toward the sun and we wonder if we should relocate further west, but the cloud seems to vaporize as it got closer to the sun.  We meet some folks from Savannah, a guy who’d driven a motorcycle up this morning from Gainsville, Florida, another couple from Jacksonville.

The next time I look, the cookie is about three quarter’s gone.

The family from Savannah’s dog is noticeable agitated and we discuss if it’s because of the eclipse or because he thinks it’s almost night and he hasn’t yet been fed.  Looking away from the sun, the sky is a darker blue.  The clouds are only seen on the horizon.  I walk down to where there are trees and see hundreds of crescents reflecting through the leaves on the ground.

Watching through the glasses, more and more of the sun disappears.  The cookie metaphor no longer applies. It’s just a thin rim.  If it was a cookie, it would have crumbled.

Folks begin to claim space on the ramp leading up to the pavilion, laying out towels and blankets.  We lie down on the ramp, looking up to get a better view.  Insects begin to sing.  Streetlights turn on.  Cars driving through town have their lights on.

 

Then it happens.  Very quickly the rim of the sun seen through the glasses disappears.  A few specks appear for a moment and then it’s gone.  You can see nothing in the glasses, so I remove them and WOW. 

The corona is visible, flashing out from behind the moon, in a metallic bluish color.  We hold our breath for it is incredibly beautiful.  I don’t even bother trying to take a photo. Looking around, a few stars and planets are visible, but there is not enough time to orient myself as to which is which.  I keep looking back at the dark block crowned with the corona.  Then, way too soon, the sun begins to reappear with just flecks at first.  We put back on our glasses and watch as the rim appears on the opposite side.  We began to clamp and cheer in acknowledgement that we did it, we witnessed the eclipse and it was incredible.

Just after totality

We watch the sun through the glasses for a few minutes, but the excitement is over.  People began packing up and soon everyone is heading home.  As I walk back to the car that’s parked in the shade of trees, I notice the crescents covering the hood and take my last photo of the eclipse.  We decide to take what is quicker way back and head off east toward I-95.  A few minutes after leaving Springfield, clouds have covered the sky.  Twenty minutes later, we’re in a downpour.  When we get to 95, we realize that we made a mistake as the traffic heading south is at a standstill.  We opt for US 17.  We’re back home by 6:30 PM.

 

Praise the Lord!  Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him for the heights!
Prai
se Him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shinning stars!
                -Psalm 148:1, 3

Rain on the drive home

Jacob’s reward (Genesis 30)

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Genesis 30:25-43

August 20, 2017

 

Before getting into the Scriptures for today, I thought I we’d have a little educational session about what we might experience tomorrow afternoon if the clouds stay away.  I’m sure you all know we’re having a near total eclipse.  Drive just 70 miles north and the sun will be completely gone.  In ancient times, before they were understood, eclipses were something to be feared.  If they occurred on a Saturday, church would be packed on a Sunday.  They were thought to be a bad omen, letting people know something evil that was about to happen. Scripture doesn’t help.  The prophet Joel speaks of the sun and moon darkening and the Gospels tells us that during the crucifixion, darkness descended on the land.[1] The darkening of the sun is troubling.

Of course, we know what causes an eclipse.  So enjoy the show tomorrow and stay safe. Having just come back from North Carolina, I can assure you the electronic signs on 95 are already warning people to expect heavy traffic as everyone tries to get into the totality of the moon’s shadow.

        As you can see on this diagram I found on Facebook, there are three kinds of eclipses.  Lunar eclipses are frequent.  This makes sense, for the earth is much larger than the moon so it is easier for the moon to be in the earth’s shadow.  Solar eclipses, like we’ll have tomorrow (and you may have to be in a plane above the clouds to see it), is when the moon is between the sun and its shadow crosses the earth.  With the moon being much smaller, things have to line up just right for the shadow to make it across the face of the earth.  Solar eclipses are much less frequent than lunar ones.

As for the final type of eclipse, when the sun moves between the earth and moon, lets me just say those $3.99 eclipse glasses won’t do you much good.  Also, you might need to stock up on some real strong sunscreen.  Thankfully, we don’t have to worry about it happening, and if it did we’d be home with Jesus earlier than planned.  Regardless, God is with us as we’re going to see in our scripture lesson this morning.

 

We’re still looking at the stories of Jacob. Today and next week we’re going to see him try to free himself from his father-in-law, Laban.  Two weeks ago, we saw how Laban got the best of Jacob, as he had to work twice as long to earn the hand of the girl he loved.  Today we will see how Jacob gets back at Laban.  In between these two events, Jacob is blessed with a host of boys!          Remember what I said two weeks ago.  There’s humor in these stories. Imagine folks telling what Jacob did around a campfire or in their slave huts in Egypt.  They’d laugh at the through of their umpteenth great-granddaddy, the trickster, pulling this stunt off against Laban, who was also a trickster.  Read Genesis 30:25-43.

###

 

“Now that Joseph is born…” our story begins.  Joseph is the wanted child.  Even though Jacob already has a quiver full of boys, which the Psalmist says is a sign of a blessed man, Jacob has been waiting for this one child.  Up until this point, Jacob has had children with his first wife, Leah; with Bilhah, Rachel’s slave; with Zilpah, Leah’s slave.  But the light of his eye, Rachel has yet to conceive.  Now she gives birth and they name the child Joseph.  And as you know, this child will have his own challenges, but he is the one who will save his family.  He is the child of the promise.  Without him, Jacob’s dream of a nation from his descendants will not happen.

With Joseph in diapers, Jacob feels it’s time he head back home. Remember the dream of the stairway to heaven, as Jacob was fleeing his brother’s wrath? Jacob was assured he would return home and now he is ready. So he approaches his father-in-law and asks to be released so that he and his family and their flocks may return home with him.

You got to love Laban.  Hearing this, he goes on about how he’s been blessed because of Jacob. It’s Jacob’s God that is the one who has seen to it that his flocks have multiplied.

Laban response demonstrates a truth I have found in life.  It’s not the main truth of this passage, but kind of a second kernel of truth we can take with us. If you are doing business with someone—say buying a car—and they start talking about God, hold on to your wallet! Those who talk the talk the loudest often don’t walk the walk. Sometimes it’s just a sales pitch.  As Jesus says, be wise as serpents and gentle as doves.[2]  Don’t be fooled by smooth talk! Watch out for the Labans of the world.  And in our own lives, make sure that our actions demonstrate Jesus’ values, and that we show humility before we engage in God talk!

Jacob offers a unique deal to Laban. He’ll take the animals that are stripped or spotted, Laban can have the rest.  This is a great deal for Laban.  After all, the “unblemished animals” would be worth more. Laban jumps on it. “Sounds good,” he says, as he whispers to his sons to round up those spotted and stripped animals, along with the black ones, and move them to distant pastures. He wants them to be far from Jacob’s eyes.  Even while agreeing to this deal, Laban is planning deceit.  Without any spotted animals and without any black sheep, it is highly unlikely the remaining “white sheep” will give birth to spotted or stripped animals.

But Jacob has a trick up his sleeve, too.  He pulls off a magical stunt, having the animals mate in front of stripped sticks.  Obviously, there was some belief that animals who mated in front of such sticks would give birth to animals with strips and spots. And he only mates the strongest of the flock, for there was no need to weaken his flock with the genetics of Laban’s weaker animals. Now, there is no science behind these streaked sticks, although there is science behind breeding strong with the strong. Those listening probably laughed at Jacob fooling Laban, but they also understood that ultimately it was God blessing Jacob by causing the stronger ewes and does to give birth to strong spotted and stripped lambs and kids.

With a new flock, despite Laban’s best attempts to cheat him, Jacob is now set to make his journey back to his homeland and to encounter his brother.  Of course, there will be more encounters with Laban (and Laban’s gods). We’ll look at those over the next two weeks.

This is, at least on the surface, not an overwhelmingly religious text. God is only mentioned twice.  Once by Laban at the beginning, when he attempt to pull a fast one on Jacob.  And then a second time by Jacob, when he acknowledges that it is God that has caused the blessings that have come from his time working for Laban.[3]

        Even though God is only mentioned in passing, God is there, working behind the scenes. God blesses Jacob! God’s blessings often require patience. God teaches by delayed gratification. God doesn’t instantly answer our prayers.  Nor is God a Santa Claus, coming around once a year with goodies if we’ve been good enough. Sometimes it seems as if God is all about delayed gratification. In Jacob’s life, it was twenty years before he had a full family and a strong herd.  Twenty years, that’s a long time to wait, but God works that way. We have to be patient and trust as we go about our lives. God is present throughout the waiting. Maybe it’s because God wants us to appreciate what we have. We don’t always know what’s going on, but we live and walk by faith, trusting the Lord.  Amen.

 

©2017

[1] Joel 2:10, Matthew 27:45, Mark 15:33, Luke 23:44

[2] Matthew 10:16

[3] Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis, revised edition (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), 302.

Jacob Marries, Twice

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Genesis 29

August 6, 2017

 

 

We began our look at Jacob last week, reading about his dream in Genesis 28.  I hope you learned that the Stairway to Heaven existed long before Led Zeppelin came on the scene.  But as I said, the dream itself served only to grab our attention.  What’s important was the Lord speaking to Jacob and the promises made.

As we explore other Jacob stories, we need to remember that these tales are humorous.[1] In the centuries following, those telling the stories around the campfires or in the slave huts of Egypt, would have laughed at Jacob.  Think about him tricking his brother out of his blessing using skins to confuse his blind father, causing the old man to think that it was hairy Esau and not the fair skinned Jacob.  And then there’s old Laban, who we’ll meet today, tricking the trickster.

As we saw last week, Jacob is on a journey, but other than the night of the dream, we’re not given any details. We’re not told of his sore feet, his aching body, the nasty camels or any of that.[2]  Instead, in the chapter after his dream, we find that Jacob has arrived in the land belonging to Laban, his mother’s brother.  He’s there to find a wife. At the beginning of the chapter, he spots a well or cistern.  There’s something about watering holes in the Old Testament that seem to bring couples together.[3]  At this well, there are some shepherds. Jacob asks them about Laban and they point to a woman tending sheep. “She’s Rachel,” they say, “Laban’s youngest daughter.” Jacob is smitten at first sight.  This is who he’ll marry, he hopes.

The shepherds have not yet opened the well, probably because there was an agreement that all those who drew from the well should be present when it is open.  This is to keep everyone honest and not to allow someone to take more than their share of water.[4] As Rachel approaches with her flock, Jacob ignores this tradition.  Like a superhero, he jumps up and pushed off the heavy stone, a task that normally took several of the shepherds.  His adrenaline is pumping.  He wants to impress this girl.

Jacob then kisses Rachel.  As you can imagine, this doesn’t go over very well. We’re not told if he was slapped, but there’s a good probability of it. She then runs and tells her father. John Calvin found Jacob’s actions much too risqué and even suggested that maybe Moses got it wrong when he wrote it down![5] When Rachel tells her father who it was that kissed her, Laban doesn’t grab the shotgun, as we’d expect. Instead, he greets Jacob (whom he’s never met) like a long lost friend. He’s actually his nephew.  This is where our reading begins.  I’ll read Genesis 29:15-30, although we’ll be looking at the entire chapter (so keep your Bibles open).

###

 

I finally got around to watching the Flim-Flam Man this week. It was a film made in 1967, from one of my favorite books which I have referred to several times in sermons. George C. Scott played Mordecai Jones, an infamous con artist who had come to Cape Fear County during the tobacco market.  Mordecai takes up with a guy named Curley, an AWOL soldier.  Curley had decked his loud-mouth Yankee Sargent and decided it was time he and the Army depart ways. This short clip is where they get to know each other…

(show movie clip)

You can’t cheat an honest man?  I’m not sure that’s true, but I do think Mordecai Jones is right in the fact that it’s easier to cheat someone who is looking to cheat you.  Perhaps that’s why Laban was able to take advantage of his son-in-law, Jacob.  As a young man, Jacob had found a way to cheat his brother, twice. He comes to Laban and is willing to work for his daughter’s hand.  He toils for seven years. It doesn’t even seem like work, for he is so focused on Rachel, the love of his life.

At the end of the time, there is a wonderful wedding.  These events often went on for a week. When the night to consummate the marriage arrives, Laban, as the father-of-the-bride, surrounded by all the women at the party, leads the bride in a full veil to the wedding tent.  It’s dark.  There’s been plenty of drinking along with the feasting. Jacob is stuffed and a bit tipsy and doesn’t realize that the veiled woman isn’t his beloved Rachel. But he sobers up quickly the next morning when he wakes up and to find his arm around Leah, who’s lying next to him in bed.

Adding to the humor are the names of the daughters.  Rachel means ewe, and certainly Jacob loved her as if she was his “little lamb.” Although the meaning is debated, it’s probably that Leah is a variation of “cow,” certainly not a very flattering name. As our text reads, she had pretty eyes. And as you know, that’s often a backhanded compliment.[6]

Laban is probably correct in saying that the custom is to marry off the older daughter first.  However, when Jacob asked for Rachel’s hand in marriage, Laban didn’t say no. In fact, he suggested it was better that she be married to someone distantly related than to a foreigner. Even though he’s had seven years to find Leah a husband, he waits and marries her off to an unsuspecting Jacob.

Does he marry Leah to Jacob as a way to protect the honor of his oldest daughter?  If so, it doesn’t really work for she’s now tied to a man who loves her sister.  Does he pull this stunt off to obtain another seven years of labor from Jacob?  Perhaps, but in doing so, he sows the seeds of discord within Jacob’s family.

This deal with the two sisters and who is the oldest is ironic. Jacob had to deal with who was born first growing up.  He and his brother Esau have had their fights. The two of them were twins, but Esau was born first. Therefore, Esau was set to inherit 2/3 of his father’s estate. Jacob would have inherited only a 1/3.  But Jacob tricked his brother, selling him that expensive bowl of soup.  And Jacob wasn’t satisfied there, he also tricked his brother out of the blessing.  The blessing is more important. It had come down from God to Abraham and then Isaac. Jacob had tricked his brother out of his birthright, but now he’s tricked into having to work twice as long for the woman he loves.

At the end of our passage, we see that Jacob is able to marry Rachel.  But we also learn of the roots of jealously taking hold, for Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah.  At this point, Leah is barren.  She has not given birth to any children.  In the verses that follow our reading, we learn that she cries to God and God answers her by giving her a boy. Interestingly, according to the text, God and not Jacob is responsible for the pregnancy.  Yes, Jacob played a role, but God was the director of the scene.

Lead names her son Rueben which means, “Look, a boy.”[7]  Leah, in this way, rubs her blessings into her sister Rachel’s wounds, for the younger and lovelier sister has yet to bear a child.  In fact, it will be sometime before she will give birth.  Before she is able to give birth to Joseph, the child that Jacob loves more than the others and compounds the family jealously issues, she tries what Sarah attempted to do with Abraham.[8]  She offers her husband her servant as a surrogate. Dysfunctional families are nothing new!

This story is well-known and important in the history of Israel, but what does it teach us? It certainly isn’t an endorsement of polygamy, as some have said.  If anything it shows the problems arising from competing loyalty.  Nor does Scripture condone the treachery of Jacob and Laban, but it acknowledges it. We live in a fallen world, and often our actions demonstrate that sin is alive and well. Yet, even with sin rampart, God is listening to prayers. God is moved by the prayers of Leah, that she is given three boys in rapid succession:  Reuben, Simon and Levi.  And later, as we’ll see, God will hear the prayers of Rachel as she gives birth to Joseph, who will rise from his mistreatment by his brothers to save his people. God works in mysterious ways, and is at work through Jacob, so that by the time he goes back to the land of his father, he’ll have established a large family that will become the foundation of the twelve tribes of Israel.

I suppose what we learn from these passage is that you only see God’s hand when looking backwards. Yes, there was plenty of sadness and jealous, but God was never far away, guiding things so that a nation could be formed and from that nation would come a Savior, God’s Son, Jesus Christ. Such insight should give us hope for the future. We might not always know why things happen, but we should still place our trust in God and enjoy life. For as I indicated at the beginning, these stories were told in a humorous way and laughter is always good. Know that God is present with his love and grace.  God answers our prayers and is also able to laugh with our follies. Amen.

 

©2017

[1] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: Interpretation (Atlanta, John Knox Press: 1982), 251.

[2] Frederick Buechner’s novel, Son of Laughter (San Francisco, HarperCollins, 1993) fills in many of these details.  It is fiction. I have been reading this book as a way to get into the Jacob stories.

[3] Abraham’s servant found Isaac’s wife (Jacob’s mother) at a spring.  Genesis 24:13-21.

[4]Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis, revised edition, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1973), 288.

[5] Von Rad, 291.

[6] The meaning of the word translated as “lovely” in the NRSV is disputed.  Some suggest that instead of lovely, it means weak, which would mean that her eyes were not attractive to Middle Eastern men.  See Von Rad, 291.

[7] Von Rad, 294.

[8] See Genesis 16.

Jacob’s Dream


Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

July 30, 2017

Genesis 28:10-22

 

Some people have the idea that all the guys and gals on the Lord’s side are holy, but when you read the Bible you find that’s not the case. God isn’t just God for the good guys.  For God so loved the world, we’re told.[1] God’s grace is wonderful. Yet, we’re still surprised when one known for shady dealings and crooked ways experiences grace. Although there are many such stories in Scripture—remember Zacchaeus and the Prodigal Son?[2]—we think it’s unfair.  They don’t deserve a second or forty-ninth chance.[3] But do we?

One such shady character in Scripture is Jacob.  Remember him?  One of the patriarchs in the Old Testament? We’re going to spend some time with Jacob, starting with his dream of the ladder to heaven.  This occurred right after he’d cheated his brother, Esau, out of a blessing from their father Isaac. Jacob had already cheated Esau out of his birthright, selling his brother an expensive bowl of soup. Now he’s taken even the blessing designed for his brother. Esau is out for blood. It would have been Cain and Abel[4] all over again, except that Jacob, on his mom’s advice, skips town.  [5]This is where our story begins…  READ GENESIS 28:10-22

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         The day had started out rainy.  I was hiking through the New York section of the Appalachian Trail, on my way to Maine.  There was a lot of road walking this day.  After the rain stopped and the clouds parted, walking along the side of a road without any shade was torture.  Hot and humid.  I couldn’t wait for the trail to turn back into the woods. Then, in the early evening, I came upon a restaurant.  I decided instead of a bowl of rice or noodles, I’d have a nice sit-down meal in Air Conditioning.  I longed for a crisp salad and a cold beer.  I had only about half of mile of road walking before the trail turned back in the woods so I stopped. The air conditioning was heavenly.  It was about an hour before dark when I left the establishment.

When I got to where the trail headed out into the woods, I was shocked to find that I was entering Pawling Nature Preserve and for the next 3 or 4 miles, camping wasn’t allowed. This information wasn’t in the guide book. I couldn’t go back, unless I wanted to sleep along the shoulder of the road, so I headed into the woods as light drained from the sky. I decided that, for my own conscience, I wouldn’t “camp.” I’d just sleep. There was no need for a fire or even for my stove, as I’d just eaten. So I went a mile or so into the forest, found a level spot, well off the trail, and rolled out my bivy sack. I put my sleeping bag in it, tied my pack up in the trees, and tried to camouflage my bed roll as much as possible. I brushed my teeth and crawled into my sleeping bag…  Although tired, I did not sleep like a baby. I had all kinds of weird dreams—mostly about rangers waking me up.

I was up well before the sun the next morning, stuffed everything into my pack and headed on. When I got through the preserve, there was another road-walk and just a short bit down the trail, I found a place to stop and fix breakfast. Under a set of oaks was a small creek with a mossy spot to sit. I dropped my pack and then noticed across the street was a cemetery. “The Gate of Heaven” was its name.

“How awesome is this place!” Jacob says.  “This is none other than the house of God, this is the gate of heaven.” And I, too, awoke to find the Gate of Heaven… God is closer to us than we think, whether in Judean Hill Country, the mountains of New York State, or the marsh around Skidaway Island. This world is God’s altar.[6] And yes, I, too, believe that God sometimes speaks to us in dreams as he did with Jacob, although I don’t remember any dreams of angels that night.

Let’s look at Jacob for a minute. As I’ve tried to emphasize, he’s really a jerk.  After ripping off his brother twice, he decides he’d better skip town… He’s in such a hurry that he either forgets or doesn’t have time to pack a bedroll. You’d think that as Jacob fled, his conscience would have bothered him a bit. Furthermore, the place he stops is coincidental.[7] He’s between major episodes in his life, the taking of his brother’s blessing and finding a wife (or wives, as in his case[8]). He only stops because it’s dark.  In this site, between events, when nothing is expected to happen unless Esau catches up with him, God intervenes.

As he flees, Jacob makes his meager bed, probably thinking he’d sleep and be quickly on his way at dawn. We’d think he’d lay awake and worry about the brother he hurt, or at least worry about what would happen to him if his older brother got his hands around his neck… But it’s not that way for Jacob. Instead of tossing and turning all night, he lays down, using a rock for a pillow, and sleeps like a baby.

But he dreams.  Again, we might think that Jacob’s conscience would have been bothering him such that his dream would have been a nightmare, but it wasn’t.  He dreams of a ladder or a stairway which reaches from the earth to the heavens and upon which angels travel up and down.  However, the significance isn’t in the dream. The dream is to grab Jacob’s attention. What’s significant is the Lord’s appearance, giving him the same promise that had been given to his father and grandfather.

In verse 15, Jacob receives a three-fold promise from God.  First of all, the Lord promises to be with him. This is much like the promise that Jesus gives the church (I will be with you always, wherever two or more are gathered[9]). Jacob now knows God is with him. Secondly, the Lord promises to protect Jacob. “I will keep you,” he says.  For a wanted and marked man, such a promise gives hope. Finally, the Lord tells Jacob he will provide a homecoming. For a lost man, on the run, this sounds like good news![10]

Jacob awakes and is afraid. But it’s not because of Esau that he’s sacred.  He knows that One more powerful than him has been present. He knows something astonishing has happened.

That morning (perhaps over coffee), Jacob thinks about the promises God has made to him and reacts by building an altar using the stone which had been his pillow.  Then he vows to God, saying that if God is going to do all this for him, the Lord will be his God and he’ll give a tenth of his income to the Lord.

There are two important lessons from this passage which I hope you take away. God’s love and grace are given freely, without merit; and God’s love demands a response…

          First, God’s love and grace are given freely…  Jacob is a jerk.  What right does he have to claim God’s promise?  None! He wasn’t righteous. When we look at the way he acted toward his brother, we can imagine how he treated others. Yet, even though Jacob is an egocentric pain-in-the-butt, God reaches out in love to him. God gives him a vision of heaven, of angels and of a ladder where angels ascend and descend. In his dream, Jacob sees that heaven is connected to and is concerned for the earth. He now knows that God is going to take care of him.

It may be that way with some of you. At times, we should admit, myself included, that we act like jerks. We hurt people with our actions and words. But that makes God’s offer of forgiveness through Jesus Christ all the more wonderful. Our salvation is not compromised by our past mistakes and dishonesty. Praise be to God for his love is given freely and is not tied to our actions.[11]

Let me say this another way.  If you feel you are not worthy of God’s love, you are right… You’re not.  None of us are…  Jacob certainly wasn’t…  I’m not and, if honest, neither are you.  Yet God reached out to Jacob and, through Jesus Christ, God reaches out to us in love and mercy.  Paul wrote, “All have sinned and come short of God’s glory” and at another time he said: “I am the chief of sinners.”[12] God reached out to Paul and he became a great missionary. God reached out to Jacob and he became a father of a nation.  How is God reaching out to us?

         The second important lesson from this passage is that God’s love demands our response.  After experiencing this wonderful sign of God’s grace, Jacob immediately builds an altar and promises to give God a tenth of his income.  Jacob shows his gratitude by worship and commitment. By the way, notice that he gave back to God only after he experiences God’s grace.  It is only after God told him what he’s going to do that Jacob responds. We don’t give to buy God’s love, for that would be idolatry. We give in response to God’s love, which is shown to us at Bethlehem and even more fully on the cross. How could we ever buy God’s love?  Do we really think we are important enough that God couldn’t get along without us?

Like Jacob, we give to God out of thanksgiving. We give because God gave to us first… Jacob gave a tenth of his income to God because he was thankful. We should tithe, not because we need all the help we can get, but because we are grateful that even in our rebellion, God loves us and sees value in us. You know, Jacob promises to tithe even though his blessing will not be fully realized for many, many generations.  Like Jacob, we, too, must step out in faith, giving God thanks for what we’ve experienced in the past and what grace and mercy we’ll experience in the future.

            When Jacob fled from his brother, he had a dream.  His dream was to inherit all that was his dad’s.  He wanted flocks of sheep, the goats, the tent, the camels and the cooking pots…  But God had another dream for him, one that included a vision of heaven and that, in time, would make him a father of nations. Too often we sell God short. Our dreams aren’t really God’s dreams. Instead of reaching for the sky, we’re satisfied with a bit more stuff. Jacob wanted a larger herd; in the story I began with, I just wanted to get out of that nature preserve without being caught camping. We want, but our dreams and wants are nothing compared to the plans God may have for us. We need to trust God and be surprised by the blessings.

Let me send you out with a question. Do you sometimes settle for your small dreams when God’s dream for you is much larger?   Amen.

 

©2017

[1] John 3:16.

[2] Luke 15:11-32, Luke 19:1-10.

[3] Matthew 18:21-22.

[4] Genesis 4.

[5] Genesis 27:41-45.

[6] See Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (New York: HarperOne, 2009).

[7] Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis, revised edition (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1972), 283.

[8] Jacob the tricksters, is tricked by his father-in-law into marrying the “ugly daughter” and then must work another seven years for him to marry the one he really loved.  Genesis 29:15-30.

[9] Matthew 18:20; 28:20.

[10] Walter Brueggmann, Genesis: Interpretation, A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 244-246

[11] Ephesians 2:8-10.

[12] Romans 3:23; 1 Timothy 1:15

James 5:7-20

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

James 5:7-20

July 23, 2017

 

It’s always bittersweet coming to an end. This is my last sermon from the Epistle of James, at least for a while.  We’ve covered this Epistle thoroughly.  At the conclusion, James continues with his concerns about Christian behavior. Although he doesn’t use this phrase, he wants us to be ready for Jesus’ return. Let’s hear what James has to say.  Read James 5:7-20

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          My mother’s daddy was a farmer. He raised tobacco.  People never talked about growing tobacco.  You grew corn, soybeans and alfalfa.  Tobacco, you raise, much like children. It takes time and patience. Lots of patience. It was hard work that started in the middle of the winter. By February, on a sunny spot on my granddaddy’s farm there’d be hot boxes covered in white cloth spread out on the ground.  From a distance, it looked like snow. Here, tobacco seeds were sown and nursed to life. When the threat of frost was over, granddaddy would transplant the young seedlings into prepared soil for the summer.  For the next few months, granddaddy watched the plants carefully. He died before herbicides became overly popular, and before specialized tractors and machinery came of vogue.  So granddaddy would take his mule, “Hoe Handle,” and run between the rows with a plow, knocking down the weeds.  Then he and a hired hand would come between the plants with a hoe and chop out any weeds still standing.

          As the plants grew, my granddaddy would look at the clouds, hoping for rain which brought more growth, but not hail which could ruin a crop and not too heavy of a rain that would splatter the lower leaves with mud and make them less valuable.  There was always something that could happen.  The leaves were cropped (or picked) and tied to sticks and placed in a heated barn to dry. A slip of a tobacco stick would cause the leaves to fall into the fire and burst into flames.  In a moment, a chuck of his labor, all the drying tobacco along with the barn itself, became premature smoke.  It took care and patience to raise a crop.

          Be patience, James tells us.  And then he follows his advice with an example of a farmer waiting on rain.  A farmer is a useful example for us to understand this passage, for being patient didn’t mean to sit idly around waiting for God to intervene. There’s still stuff to be done while waiting for the rain, especially if we want to have a hope of a harvest.  For the farmer, there were fields to be worked, equipment to be repaired, supplies to be gathered.  As Christians, as James has shown throughout the book, we can’t just rest and depend on our faith.  We, too, have work to do.

Let’s look at James’ message.  If you remember, James ended the fourth and began the fifth chapter with a rant.  In today’s reading he returns to his familiar style, referring to his readers as brothers or siblings.  The “therefore” at the beginning of verse seven implies that James is giving advice of how they should handle the situation we’ve explored last week, where rich landowners were cheating their workers their wages.[1]  Although James had words of judgment for those who abuse their laborers, his primary audience are those who are hurt by such actions. James encourages these workers to be patient and not to be grumbling with one another as they wait for the coming of the Lord.

Although James only specifically mentions Jesus twice in this book, back in the first two chapters, he is writing from a Christian perspective.  He’s anticipating Christ’s return, when things will be make things right. He refers to the rainy cycles in Palestine.  The early rains came in late fall and early winter and provided groundwater for the growth in early spring and the first harvest. The late rains came in late spring and provided a bountiful summer harvest.[2]  Of course, when the rains didn’t come, as in the reference to Elijah, people suffered.

It seems to me that perhaps James’ audience, along with us, are living in that period between the first and second rain.  The first sweet rain was Jesus’ first coming, the second is his return.  James wants his readers to be ready and to wait with expectancy and hope (but not laziness).

In between making the case for patience, James mentions how we don’t need to be grumbling with each other.  He again speaks to his audience as siblings and warns them, and us, that the judge is standing at the door.  The Judge is the Lord, which ties this comment to patiently waiting.  James wants his readers to endure and wait in the hope that God is merciful and compassionate and in the end justice will reign.  To those who might abuse their workers, James might recall (as Paul does) the Old Testament warning: “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord.”[3]

Next, James throws a curve-ball.  “Don’t swear,” he says.  Where does this come from?  It’s as if James had a thought that popped into his head that he wanted to make sure he conveyed. James believes that believers should have such integrity that their word is all that’s needed. Oaths, therefore, are unnecessary.[4]

It seems truth has become so a precious commodity in our day in which, at least some people, think that because they say it’s so, it’s so, as if words “construct reality.”[5]  But as people who place our ultimate allegiance in Jesus, who is the truth, we must be careful that our words are not carelessly used.  They must reflect what is true.  It used to be that one of the highest honors one could have is to be said that your word is your bond. Today, we need to reclaim such emphasis.

         Don’t swear that you’re going to do something, just do it, if it’s a good idea. We need to remember that sometimes when we “swear” we’ll do something, we put ourselves into a bind.   Bede, a 7th Century English mystic, in a sermon on this passage, recalled the oath Herod made to his step-daughter.  You remember, he’d give her whatever she wanted if she danced for him.[6]  And, upon her mother’s advice, she asked for the head of John the Baptist. Having publicly made an oath, Herod felt he had no other choice, even though it was not what he wanted to do.[7]  Bede’s example shows us the danger of us swearing we’re going to do something.  As James emphasizes throughout this Epistle, we must be careful with our words.

James moves next to the topic of prayer.  We pray when we have needs and when we are grateful and thankful.  We pray for others, including having the elders lay hands on the sick and anointing them with oil.  Our prayers are also to be honest with God, who already knows all.  We confess our sins, both to one another and to God.  I know some churches have done away with Prayers of Confession, but it is a fundamental part of worship.  James makes this clear.  By confessing to God and one another, we can experience the forgiveness of sin.

When encouraging us to have patience, James follows his advice with an example of a farmer.  He does the same thing with prayer, following how important prayer is for the righteous, for those who follow the Lord.  Here, James’ example is Elijah, whose prayers brought about drought and later rain.  I’m sure James would agree with John Climacus, a seventh century monk, who said that prayer is a dialogue and union with God, and as such “has the effect of holding the world together.”[8]

Prayer is important, we might think, but very private.  And that’s right, to a certain extent.  However, James shows the importance of not just private prayer but corporate prayer, prayers that we say with others.  As members of the church and followers of our Lord, we should be doing both.  We need to pray for ourselves.  We need to pray for others (if you don’t know where to start, take home your newsletter and go through it during the week, praying for those mentioned).  We need to pray for the leaders of our church and of the world.  And we need to be honest, confessing our sins.

        James conclusion to his letter expresses his hope.  The first century church that James addressed wasn’t perfect.  There were a lot of problems as James and others in the New Testament attest.  People were leaving the church.  James encourages the faithful to reach out to those who are wandering lost, promising them that if they bring them back into the fold, back to Jesus, back into his church, they will not only save the sinner, but will cover a multitude of sins.  There’s been lots of debate as to what this means.  By reaching out and reclaiming a sinner, does this action cover the sinner’s sins or others?  It could be argued either way, but what’s more important here, in the context of the whole paragraph, is the community.[9]  The sinner’s sin is something the community needs to deal with (James has already made the case for the community’s prayers of confession).

In the first letter of Peter, we have a similar saying in which Peter informs us that “love covers a multitude of sin.”[10]  James wants the community to be a loving community, caring for one another.  When we return a sinner to the right path, we are acting in love.  When we pray for one another, we act in love.  And as James has points out, when we help those in need, especially the poor, we act in love.  James doesn’t end his letter with prayer as a way to give us an out for not having to do anything else.  He assumes that along with our prayer, we will reach out and be helpful, whether it is bringing back a sinner into the fellowship or caring for the needs of the poor. Our actions and a prayers must go together as we patiently wait in faith for what God has planned for the future.

         As we’ve been talking about farmers, let me close with this story. A pastor was having dinner with an old farmer.  The farmer began to pray.  “Lord, I hate buttermilk.
The Pastor opened one eye and wondered to himself where this was going. Then the farmer loudly proclaimed, “Lord, I hate lard.”
Now the Pastor was worried.  However, without missing a beat, the farmer prayed on, “And Lord, you know I don’t care much for raw white flour.”
Just as the Pastor was ready to stand and stop everything, the farmer continued, “But Lord, when you mix ‘em all together and bake ‘em up, I do love fresh biscuits.  So, Lord, when things come up we don’t like, when life gets hard, when we just don’t understand what you are sayin’ to us, we just need to relax and wait ‘till you are done mixin’, and probably it will be somethin’ even better than biscuits.[11]  Amen.”

 

©2017

[1] Dan  G. McCartney, James: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2009), 240.

[2] McCartney, 241.

[3] Romans 12:19 and Deuteronomy 32:25.

[4] McCartney, 245.

[5] I’m adapted the phrase “construct reality” from the title of Peter Berger’s The Social Construction of Reality (1966).

[6] Quote from Bede in the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament XI, edited by Gerald Bray (Drower’s Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2000 ), 59.

[7] Matthew 14:1-11.

[8] John Climacus, A Ladder of Divine Ascent as quoted by Kathleen Norris in Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith  (New York: Riverhead Books, 1988), 58.

[9] McCarthney, 262-264.

[10] 1 Peter 4:8.

[11] This story was shared by Dick Higgins and Milo Moore

The future and the dispossessed

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

July 16, 2017

 

Several of you have shared with me how much you like the book of James.  You find his writings practical and helpful. We’ll see if that holds true after today.  One thing about preaching through large sections of scripture is that you’re forced to deal with passages that are difficult, challenging and even boring.  If one only preached from the lectionary or by selecting random passages of Scriptures, such selections would be omitted.[1]  Today we’re looking at such a section of scripture.

In our reading, James, instead of his usual way of offering helpful advice, goes on a rant. As he has been throughout his Epistle, he’s concerned with our behavior and how we treat the poor.  But no longer does he address his audience in a friendly tone, as if they are siblings.  This section has two oracles.[2] James comes down hard on merchants and landowners who focus only on how to make money, while depriving the poor their due.  I’m sure some of James’ audience thought he’d gone from preaching to meddling.  Some of us may feel that way, too, but it’s important we hear what he says. This will be my eighth sermon from this epistle.  I’ll concluded this series next week.  Let’s listen and hear what James says, and be open to what the Spirit might be saying to us today.  

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Although James is still concerned with themes around Christian ethics, especially the care for the poor, his writing style in our reading today is different from the other passages we’ve examined.  Throughout this Epistle, James has referred to his readers as brothers.  But in his section, he does not address his audience as siblings in the Lord.  Instead he now goes on what I call a rant.  His target are two classes of people: merchants and the wealthy landowners.  We’re going to look at both passages together for they share some common traits even though there are different concerns raised.

         The passage concerning merchants addresses those who state boldly what they are going to accomplish.  “I’m going to do this and that…” we might brag.  Now, the idea of goal setting is not what James is addressing here.  Obviously, a merchant or anyone in any other kind of business, must set goals and have a plan of action if they are to successfully operate a profitable business.  Otherwise we are like a boat without a rudder, being blown about haphazardly.  So planning is okay, as long as we realize that we are not in control of the future.  “The world and all that is in it belongs to God,” the Psalmist proclaims,[3] and that includes the future!  We believe, often despite evidence to the contrary, that God is in control. That’s what faith is about. Over and over again, Jesus reminds us of this.  “Do not worry about tomorrow…” and “only the Father knows the day and the hour of his return.”[4]  Part of this life of faith, into which we’re called, is trusting that God has things under control.  And, as we all understand, we never know when we’re going to be hit by a bus.  Has that ever happened to you?

It was a bad day.  Any day that starts out in the dental chair with a dentist whose hands are the size of a catcher’s mitt crammed into your mouth performing a root canal is, by definition, a bad day.  I was driving home from the dentist, on a four lane road, thinking about the stuff I needed to be doing even though the side of my head was numb and I was slurring my words like a drunk…  A stoplight turned red and I stopped.  I looked over at the car beside me and then into the mirror and saw a bus, well behind me.  Nothing seemed out of place. I look back at the light and was thinking I could really use a nap, when all a sudden there was a crash and my seatbelt caught me as everything on the seat of my truck was thrown forward.  When I came too, a second or two later, I noticed that I was no longer next to that car, but was in the middle of an intersection.  I looked behind and that bus was attached to my back bumper.  Ever since then, I have been a weary in making light of being hit by a bus. Thankfully, no one was seriously hurt, but any plans I had for the afternoon was taken up in the emergency room and with one heck of a headache.  I am sure you had similar situations, whether it was an accident. a phone call with troubling news, or a consultation with a physician. It’s amazing how quickly our lives can whirl out of our control.

James doesn’t say we shouldn’t plan for the future. If we don’t plan, nothing will get done. Instead, he suggests we acknowledge that ultimately, God is in control.  Instead of bragging, “I’m going to do so-and-so,” we should couch our proclamations with an acknowledgment that this is what we are planning to do IF GOD LETS US.  You know, when we do this, we are also witnessing (in subtle way) to others our belief in God.

         James, in the tradition of scripture, compares our lives to eternity and reminds us that we are just a mist that appears for a little while.  In Job and in Isaiah, as well as earlier in James, we’re likened to a flower in a meadow, blooming beautifully one day and wilting in the sun the next.[5]  From Proverbs, we’re reminded that we should not boast about tomorrow.[6]  Yes, we are to make the most of our time, but we should also humbly acknowledge our mortality and limitations.

James second oracle is addressed to rich landowners.  He begins addressing them even more harshly, pointing out how nothing in this life can be safely accumulated. Again, as with the merchants, they are anticipating the future.  They’re saving their riches for the last days (or in the last days, as the passage may also be translated).[7] James, living in the first century, believed Jesus’ return was going to be shortly.  But it’s not the problem of savings that James condemns, it’s the methods they’ve used to accumulate their wealth. They’ve defrauded those who labored in their fields, while they have enjoyed the fruits of the land. They’ve cheated those who have worked for them.

You know, we have to be careful for sometimes we admire such people. I remember hearing about a homeowner in Savannah, who had a gate or door built especially for his home, then told the craftsman it wasn’t what he wanted and refused to pay.  Later, the guy brought it as scrap, for pennies on the dollar.  We might think, “Wow, that’s shrewd,” but James reminds us of the coming judgment.  They’re only fattened themselves up for slaughter.  Pretty harsh words!

Again, James isn’t saying anything new.  Over and over again, the Old Testament reminds us to be honest in our business dealings and especially with those who have no power to protect themselves.  Remember the story the Prophet Nathan told King David, when he confronted him concerning his affair with Bathsheba.[8]  There was a poor man who’s sole possession and comfort in life was a little lamb that he treated as a daughter…  And there was a rich man who had a large flock, but when he had guests to entertain, he took the poor man’s lamb…  You remember that story?  King David was rightly incensed.  As King, he was ready to demand the rich man’s head.

We would be incensed, too, but we better be careful. Nathan told this story to get David’s attention. In stealing Bathsheba from Uriah, David was the man.  He was the guilty party. Are we guilty?  It’s complicated in today’s complex world of finance and production. We enjoy cheap prices on clothes and shoes and don’t see the sweatshops. We enjoy coffee and tea and cocoa and don’t see the conditions of the farmers.  We enjoy stuff and don’t see the pollution and the hazardous working conditions that brought those products to us at a low cost.

If you really want to understand the meaning of the 10 Commandments, I suggest reading through each of the commandments in the Westminster Larger Catechism.  You can find them in our Book of Order or online.[9] The eighth commandment simply reads, “Thou shall not steal.” What does that mean.  In the Catechism, we have two long paragraphs, the first telling us the duties required by this commandment and the second outlining what is prohibited.  Of course, theft and robbery are at the top of the list, but then there’s receiving stolen goods, removing property boundaries, being unfaithful in contracts, oppression, extortion, usury, bribery, frivolously lawsuits, hoarding commodities to enhance price (gouging, I think we call that), other unjust ways to take what belongs to our neighbor, unjust enclosures and unlawful depopulation, among others…[10]

          That unjust enclosures and unlawful depopulation charge, which was written into the Catechism in the 17th Century, is an interesting one.  In the Highlands of Scotland, people are still upset over the clearances, which began a century later. You see evidences of this today with lots of ruined stone huts standing out in empty meadows.  The clearances occurred when large tracks of land were given to nobles.  The poor, who were considered squatters even though they’d lived on the land for centuries, were pushed into the cities to labor in factories.  Many even fled to North America, where ironically they participated in pushing the natives off their land…

“Thou shalt not steal covers shoplifting, bank robbery and auto-theft, which are things for which most of us aren’t even tempted.  But it also covers a whole lot more and if we dig into it, we might find things for which we need to confess and repent.  Have we benefited from the demise of others?  Probably!

         Verse six may sound extreme, the taking of another life. Is James referring to Christ’s death or that of a laborer?  We could take this passage either way.  When we sin against Christ, we are as guilty as those who crucified him.  But it could also refer to defrauding a worker.  As in chapter four, where James speaks metaphorically about murder,[11] he is doing the same thing here.  Depriving another the ability to earn their living is understood as being tantamount to murder.[12]

There are two broad points in our passage this morning. We need to remember that God, not us, is in control of the future.  Secondly, we need to be honest in our dealings with others, especially being mindful how we participate in markets that deprive others of the ability to earn and enjoy a living. The first may be easier for us to accomplish, but they’re both important.  How can we live in a manner that will honor the labor of all?  That’s something those of us who enjoy the benefits of abundance must ask ourselves.  Amen.

 

©2017

[1] This passage does not appear in the Revised Common Lection most often used by Presbyterians, nor does it appear in the Lutheran and United Methodist lectionaries.  Part of it does appear in the Roman Catholic and Episcopal lectionaries.

[2] Dan G. McCartney, ‘James: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2009)., 233-234.

[3] Psalm 24:1.  See also Psalm 50:12, 89:11 and 98:7.

[4] Matthew 6:34 and 24:36.

[5] Job 14:2, Isaiah 40:7-8.  James has already mentioned this (1:11) and this comparison is also found in 1 Peter 1:24.

[6] Proverbs 27:1.

[7] This phrase could be translated “for the last days” or “in these last days”  See McCartney, 233.

[8] 2 Samuel 12:1-15.

[9] https://www.pcusa.org/site_media/media/uploads/oga/pdf/boc2014.pdf

[10]Presbyterian Church USA, Book of Confession, Westminster Larger Catechism, Questions 140-141.

[11] James 4:2.

[12] McCarthy 235-236.  Although not scripture, this is clearly seen in the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books.  See Sirach 25-27.

Columba’s Iona (a book review

Rosalind K. Marshall, Columba’s Iona: A New History (Dingwall, Scotland, UK: Sandstone Press, 2014) 210 pages plus 24 color plates, 8 black and white plates, notes, bibliography, and index.

One must make a significant effort to visit Iona.  It’s a small island in the Inner Hebrides, just to the west of the Isle of Mull.  Such a trip usually involves traveling by car, bus or train from Glasgow to Oban, a ferry ride to the Isle of Mull, a long journey on a one lane road across Mull, and then a short ferry ride to Iona.  Leaving Glasgow on an 8 AM train will allow one to arrive on Iona just before dinner.  Despite the remoteness of the island, people have been coming to Iona ever since Columba, an Irish monk, supposedly landed there on Pentecost 563.

Marshall’s book, which was commissioned for the 1450th anniversary of Columba’s landing, provides a quick but well researched overview of the island’s history.  She refuses to just recite traditional accounts and is willing to call into question many of the legends that exist about the island.  Was Columba the first missionary to Scotland?  Did he really have 12 monks with him or was this suggested to link his followers with Jesus’ disciples?  Was the real reason for Columba leaving Ireland a burning desire for evangelism or were there political factors that caused him to seek a new place to build a religious community?  She also raises other questions.  Did the carving of large stone Celtic crosses begin on Iona and then spread to Ireland?  Unfortunately, there is little written history to allow us to understand all this.  What was written, such as a biography of Columba by his disciple Adomnan, included fantastic myths obviously written to enhance the saintly status of the abbot.  According to mythology, Columba even chastised the Loch Ness monster after it had eaten a man (supposedly the monster has since found new sources of food).

There are four distinct periods in Iona’s history.  We don’t know much about the early period, except that the community flourished and became a regional center between Ireland and the Islands off West Scotland.  During this era, Iona wasn’t as isolated as today.  In the 6th Century, sea travel was easier than traveling overland on non-existent roads, and Iona’s location played a role in its prominence.  Even the famed “Book of Kell’s” was produced in Iona.  In its second period, Iona’s location led to its demise as the ancestors of Hagar the Horrible (yes, the guy in the comic strip!) sailed down from Scandinavian countries looking for loot.  Churches and monasteries were favorite targets for their treasures. On several occasions, Viking raiders sacked Iona and many of the monks were killed.  Being exposed to the sea made Iona dangerous and its center of learning, along with its treasures, were moved back to Ireland.  However, a few monks continued to remain on Iona and throughout this time, pilgrims did come to the place where Saint Columba died.  The island also became a favorite burial place for Scottish and even some Scandinavian kings.  The “who’s who” of legend include kings MacBeth and MacDuff, both immortalized by Shakespeare.

After the Viking threat faded, Columba’s old community was replaced with a Benedictine abbey which contained the stone edifice that still stands (although reconstructed).  Just to the south of the abbey was a Augustinian priory.  In the centuries leading up to the Reformation, these two communities, one male and the other female, existed side by side.  The ruins of the nunnery have been shored up and can be viewed today.  In 1560, the Scottish Church reformed and most priests became Protestant ministers.  The communities slowly ceased to exist and in time the roofs collapsed, leaving only ruins.  Yet, people still kept coming to Iona, including many notable ones:  Joseph Banks, a famous naturalist; Dr. Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, Sir Walter Scott and John Keats, all known in the world of English literature; and the composer Felix Mendelssohn.  Although Marshall doesn’t mention it, Robert Lewis Stevenson may have visited Iona.  In Kidnapped, the ship upon which David Balfour has been enslaved rounds Iona before it flounders on the Torran Rocks, south of Mull.  This area was known to Stevenson as his father had built a lighthouse on the rocks.  That lighthouse can be seen at night from the high points on Iona. Throughout this period of time, between the Reformation and the end of the 19th Century, the ruins were owned by the Duke of Argyll.  He allowed a variety of religious denominations to hold worship services in the ruins on the island, but no community existed except for those who farmed or fished there.

The final period for Iona began when the 8th Duke of Argyll sought to protect and restore the ruins.  A staunch Presbyterian, he donated the ruins to the Church of Scotland (a Presbyterian Church) before his death.  The deed was transferred with the stipulation that the site had to be open to worship by all Christian denominations. Marshall does a good job navigating the reader through the political and ecclesiastical minefields as debates were held over how best to handle the properties.  The Great Depression and a series of wars (the Boer War and the two World Wars) complicated matters.  A trust was set up to manage the property and eventually a community was founded by the Rev. George MacLeod, a pacifist Christian Socialist.  The two groups (the trustees and the Iona Community) have not always had the same vision, as Marshall illustrates.  The primary concern of one was restoration.  The other wanted a community that could help build Christian communities.   MacLeod saw Iona as a place to train people to go back into the world to work for peace and for the poor.  He also desired it to be a place where new forms of worship could be tested.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in knowing more about Iona.  It was the most detailed history available at the Iona bookstore.  The book certainly fulfills the needs of the Trust for a 1450th anniversary book, but personally, I would have liked for the book to have been a little more encompassing and include some of the natural history of the island.  Perhaps such a book will be posted at the 1500th anniversary, if I’m around to read it.

 

Rainbow over Mull, seen from the north point on Iona

Thoughts and Actions: James 4:1-12

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

July 9, 2017

James 4:1-12

 

 

        It’s good to be back with you.  Thanks to the hard work of many of you, there is an excitement around here about our upcoming 40th Anniversary.  It’s something to be celebrated especially as we look forward into where God is leading us as a congregation as we move toward our golden anniversary and beyond.

To put this in perspective, the last two Lord’s Day I have worship in Scotland at sites upon which there have been a Christian presence since the sixth century—nearly 1500 years!  One was the Abbey in Iona and the other was Kilmore Church on the Isle of Skye.  Such Christian presence remind us there will be good days and bad.  After all, these were sites that had been plundered by Vikings.  They’d faced other challenges, yet they continued to worship our Eternal God, whose faithfulness is unending. 

Another one of the many religious sites I visited while away still has a few centuries to go to make it to the 1500th year mark.  St. Cultbert’s Parish Church in Edinburgh has a mere 1200 year history.  It’s not as well-known as St. Giles, the Cathedral, but the church is actually much older.  If you’re in the city, you can find the church at the western foot of hill upon which Edinburgh Castle sits.  Sadly, the church wasn’t open the day I was there, but I enjoyed my time loitering around the outside of the building and graveyard.

At the very front of the church, there is a monument built into the front wall of the church that caught my attention.  It was for the Reverend David Dickson who died in 1842.  There was a marble sculpture of him and, I assume, his wife with three of their six children.  Underneath the statues was a plaque bragging on this “accomplished scholar and theologian,” who served the church for 40 years.  That’s a long time but only a drop in the bucket in the history of the church.  The plaque went on to boast how the good minister was “sound in doctrine, earnest in exhortation, in labor unwavering, acute in argument, expert in business, affectionate, generous, affable and accessible to all.”  Reading this, my sarcasm along with my Calvinistic views of sin and depravity kicked in.  I thought to myself: “He couldn’t have been that good. They elevated him up right up next to our Lord.”

I was lead to do more research and realized he must have been accomplished.  After all, he preached at Sir Walter Scott’s funeral.  He also was known for his work amongst the Edinburgh poor.

We may never earn or receive the accolades of Reverend Dickson, but hopefully others will see goodness in us, just as Dickson’s congregation saw such goodness in him.  Such praise should not make us prideful nor should it be lauded upon us, but upon our Lord who forgives us and teaches us how to live lives that are gentle and humble, lives in which we strive for holiness.  That’s what the book of James is all about.  How do we live the Christian life?  How do we strive to be more Christ-like?  To be more holy?

We’re in the fourth chapter today as we continue to work our way through this short book.  Three weeks ago, when I last preached here, James addressed his concerns with how Christians use language and words.  Now he addresses the motives behind our actions.  He’s pretty tough with his audience, for he knows they (and we) are often too willing to embrace the cultural standards of this world instead of the standards set by God.  This is my sixth sermon on this book.  I have two more coming.  Let’s listen to Scripture and see what God’s Spirit has to say to us this morning.  Read James 4:1-12.

###

 

The New Testament Church was far from perfect, as we see over and over again in the Epistles.  I want us to be a church that struggles to be more Christ-like, but as we read the Scriptures, we see that’s nothing new.  It’s always been a struggle. Johnathan Swift, the patron saint of the sarcastic[1], once observed, “We have just enough religion to make us hate one another, but not enough to make us love one another.” We need to work on this!

Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest from North Georgia, writes:

Because we are human, which is to say essentially self-interested, we are always looking for ways to add a little more authority to our causes, to come up with better reasons to fight for what we want…  If we can convince ourselves that God wants it too—even if that means making God in our image so we can deny the image of God in our enemies—then we are free to engage in combative piety.  We are free to harm others not for our own reasons but in the name of God, which allows us to feel holy about doing it instead of just plain bad. [2]

Covetousness and pride are not only sin, according to James, they are sources of conflict.  When we think too much of ourselves, or think too much of what others have, we fuel an internal conflict that often erupts in inappropriate external behaviors.

James is writing to a troubled church.  It’s a church that emphasizes God’s grace so much that they forget about the law.  Disregarding the law is problematic.  For you see, God intends his law be boundaries within which we can enjoy our lives to the fullness.  Within these broad boundaries, as summarized in the 10 commandments, we can live and enjoy life as God intends. But when we move outside these boundaries, we run into trouble.  Not only do we break our relationship with God, we damage relationships with others. It’s important we consider the results of our sin.  And sin is not always overt—such as stealing, lying, killing or adultery.  Just as dangerous are the more hidden sins: coveting that which we don’t have, or taking excessive pride in that which we do have.  These are the kind of sin James is driving at in these verses.  It’s the desire for physical pleasures for our own self-gratification along with those desires for power and honor that drive us to do things that are unbecoming of our calling as a follower of Jesus.[3]

According to James, quarreling, bickering and fighting are symptomatic signs of an inner struggle within our hearts. As with Jesus in the Sermon of the Mount, James calls for a change of heart, a heart transplant so to speak, which will remove the source of our inner conflicts and allow us to live more peacefully with one another. As I’ve said, according to James, sin is not just an observable action; it also resides in our thoughts and in the motives behind our actions. We have to examine ourselves, our motives, and acknowledge to God and ourselves the darkness that resides inside.  Barring this, we’ll find ourselves in constant struggles and disputes and be unable to enjoy our lives and our salvation as God intends.

James is aware of these internal struggles. We want something and commit murder.  James is not talking only about capital murder, the actual taking of a life.  That may occasionally happen, but he’s referring to how we go about destroying another person, much in the same way Jesus links murder and rage in the Sermon on the Mount. [4] We can, through our actions and words, do great harm to another soul, even though we never set out to physically kill them.  This is why James warns us to examine our motives.  He also calls those who struggle in this way adulterers.  Again, he’s not referring just to those who run out on their spouse, although that may be the case at times.  He’s mainly referring to those who run away from God and embrace the standards of the world.  In the Hebrew Scriptures, God often uses adultery and sexual infidelity as examples when he challenges idolaters—when he indicts those who worship false gods.

As Christians, we should trust God, revealed through Jesus Christ. We should experience a certain level of contentment that assures us that whatever happens, God will be with us and will take care of us.  Such a life will be able to resist the temptation to chase after other idols that are present in our world.

James is telling us to clean up our houses and remove any idols that might tempt us to abandon our trust in God and to place it in something less.  First of all, we need to remove those temptations to go after things that are harmful…  But the problem run even deeper.  Our idols might not be, in and of themselves, bad. God created and loves the world, we’re told.  This is a good creation in which we find ourselves and we should take delight in it.  But our ultimate love is not to this creation, as wonderful as it is, but to the one who created it.  We’re to love the Creator.  Our allegiance, our heart, belongs first and foremost to God.

Beginning with verse 7, James renews his call for us to submit to God and to resist the lures of the world and of the evil one.  He calls for honest confession, a willingness to cleanse and to humble ourselves before God. 

Now look at verse 11.  After having called his readers murderers and adulterers and insinuating other bad things, we see he’s not giving up on them.  In verse 11, he returns to calling them brothers and sisters.  As one commentator notes, “Despite his strong rhetoric, he acknowledges them as his siblings in the Lord.”[5]  Therefore, they too, should acknowledge one another within the faith, as he begins to give advice about how we’re to relate to those within God’s covenant.   He reminds them, and us, that we’re not the judge.  That’s God’s job.  And we can be thankful for God is going to be a lot more gracious than we often are with one another. In fact, it is because of God’s grace that we should show such grace to one another.  Do we?  That’s a question we each must ask ourselves.  Amen.

[1] This is my title for Swift, an English author, theologian and parish minister. As far as I know, Swift was never officially given such a title.

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 99.

[3] Dan G. McCartney, James: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2009), 2007.

[4] Matthew 5:21-22.

[5] McCartney, 220.

 

Taming the Tongue

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

June 18, 2017

James 3:1-12

 

Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book Speaking of Sin, tells about a Lebanese Presbyterian classmate of hers in seminary.  This guy threw, what she called, a “theological temper tantrum.” “All you Americans care about is justification!” he howled.  “You love sinning and being forgiven, sinning and being forgiven, but no one seems to want off that hamster wheel.  Have you ever heard of sanctification?  Is anyone interested in learning to sin a little less?”[1]  James would agree.  That’s what his Epistle is all about.

In our reading today, as we continue to work through this book, James is concerned with our language.  We’re all heard that childhood ditty, “Sticks and stones may break my but bones, but words will never harm me.”  And, I’m willing to bet, all of us have been harmed by words.  Words hurt. They break friendships and families and can lead to wars between nations.  I’m sure all of us have felt sucker-punched by what someone said about us at one point or another in our lives.  Words have the potential to bring about great harm.

We’ve all been shocked this week by the shooting at a congressional baseball practice. Such is an example of political rhetoric out of control—something that all sides are doing.  When we carelessly use language about our opponents in a way to gain a political advantage, we take a great risk.  Although such language may be meant metaphorically, the hate builds up in us and in others.  As the pressure increases inside us, sooner or later we may explode and do something irrational.  Or, someone listening may take what’s said literally and act.

Another shocking event this week the court case in Massachusetts of a young woman who had encouraged her boyfriend to commit suicide.  She was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.  Her defense was partially built around him having talked about suicide for some time.  But she had egged him on including telling him, via text message, to get back in the truck as it was filling with carbon monoxide.  One law professor noted that this ruling reminds us that the “behavior we sometimes attribute to odd teenage behavior can actually be so extreme that it’s homicide.[2]

James reminds us that we need to watch our language and control our tongues.  READ JAMES 3:1-12.

Do you get the idea that James thinks we have a problem with our tongues?  Yeah?

An old country church called a new preacher, fresh out of seminary. He was ready to convert the world and was enthusiastically greeted at his new church. They thought he was the best thing since sliced bread. Good looking, smooth talking, graced with manners, he was a sight to behold and all the women loved him and mothered him.  On his first Sunday he preached about the sins of whiskey and old Ida Mae, sitting on the back row, shouted “Amen.”  Next Sunday he got onto the men who ran around with loose women and Ida Mae, sitting on the back row, shouted, “Preach it Brother.”  Then he went on to preach about the sins of not keeping the Sabbath and Ida Mae, sitting on the back row, shouted, “You tell ‘em, Preacher.”  But then he started a sermon about gossip and how loose lips not only sink ships but create conflict in the church and Ida Mae, sitting on the back row, jumped up, shook her first at the preacher, and challenged him saying, “Mister, you’ve just gone from preaching to meddling.”

It is so easy to see the sins of others.  Mark Twain nailed human nature when he proclaimed, “There’s nothing that needs reforming so much as other people’s bad habits.”  Before we start in on other people’s bad habits, we need to confront our own.  Remember, Jesus said to take the log out of our own eyes before we try to remove a speck from the eye of another.[3]  Today we’re looking at a sin of which we’re all guilty.

The Bible is concerned with truth and with the control of our tongues.  One of the commandments is “Thou shall not bear false witness…”  Jesus told his followers at the Sermon on the Mount, “say yes or no, anything more comes from the evil one.”  Many of the Proverbs, as we read earlier, extol the virtue of honesty.[4]  We got to be careful with what we say.  Outright lies are condemned, but so are idle words that create disharmony.

Our passage this morning begins with a concern James has for those who are teachers.  James advises that many should not become teachers because teachers will be judged more severely. James must not have had the problem of recruiting Sunday School teachers!   This isn’t a normal method of advertising for a teacher— reminding them they will be judged more severely.   But I don’t believe James is talking about teaching in general, but about the office of a preacher or a theologian.  However,  don’t think you’re completely off the hook. Remember, in a way we are all teachers.  Have you ever considered this?  Other people learn by what they see us doing.  So don’t let this passage keep you from volunteering to teach Sunday School, Let instruct our lives.

In a way our passage this week is similar to our passage last week.  Last week, James began with a rhetorical question then moved into pairs of examples of good and bad behavior based on the question.  This week, James begins with a strong statement and, again, follows with several pairs of examples of how we might tame the tongue. He compares the tongue to a bit that directs an animal’s movements, then to a rudder of a ship, which, although small, can steer a great vessel.  He also says the tongue is like fire which, although small, can blaze and consume a forest.  Likewise, the tongue, which is certainly one of the smaller members of a body, is able to stain the whole body.  Yes, we can use the tongue, as James suggests, to glorify God, but we can just as easily use it to curse someone.  It’s a tool that can be easily corrupted; it’s an organ that’s hard to tame, so we need to be very careful with our use of language, with our speech.  We need to consider the impact our words have on others.  Do we speak the truth in the love?  Do we use our words to build up the self-esteem of others, or do we use them to tear others down in the mistaken belief we’ll look better?

In a book titled The Peacemaker, Ken Sande outlines the variety of ways we, as Christians, participate in “sinful speech.”[5]  It can simply be the use of reckless words that we unthinkingly throw out when we’re angry or confronted with a challenge.  Proverbs tell us, as we heard earlier, that “reckless words pierce like a sword.”  We are not only to avoid deliberately hurting others, we are also commanded to make an effort not to hurt others in our reckless use of language.
Another area in which an uncontrolled tongue gets us in trouble is with grumbling, complaining and gossiping.  Such negative talk offends people and depresses others, especially when it serves no legitimate purpose.  As Christians, we need to be lifting up one another, not tearing each other down which is what happens when we grumble, complain or pass on gossip.  And we’re all guilty, myself included.

Sometimes, the sinfulness that rolls off our tongues is done purposefully.  Lying, whether a bold-faced one or the misrepresentation of the truth, is an example.  Our system of justice depends upon telling the truth.  Eventually liars have their day in court or they lose prestige and are no longer trusted, but until then liars can create a lot of destruction.  Also in the category is slander, willfully spreading false ideas about another person.  In Second Timothy, we’re told to have nothing to do with such people.[6]

As Christians, we need to be truthful and to control our tongues so our words are used to build up one another, not to tear one another down.  We need to watch what we say.  Remember that other people look to us, as Christians, and from our words and actions they develop an impression on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Jack Kornfield is an author who writes about spirituality from an American Buddhist perspective, yet draws upon a broad theological base, especially from the early Christian mystics.  Although I wish he was Christian, there is much we can learn from him and his perspective.  In discussing how we’re to live into our truth, Kornfield writes:

We live in undeniable connectedness with all life.  Every word we speak, ever action we initiate creates a ripple upon this relationship.  Understanding this connectedness brings a sacredness to each moment.  There is no contact, no perception, no engagement that is inconsequential or insignificant.”[7]

 

Think about our words creating a ripple through all our relationships…  He’s saying, essentially, the same thing that James said.  We must be careful and take responsibility.  What we say and do affects how we’re connected to others.

Every word and every action can be sanctified and used in a godly manner in that we become co-creators with God in the building up of his kingdom.  Likewise, every word and every action can be demonized and used in a destructive manner, which puts us in alliance with that guy we envision with horns and a pitchfork. 

Before you say something that may be damaging, pray about it.  Or before you write a letter in response to an issue that raises your blood pressure, put that letter in a draft file and come back to it in a day or two.  This is the danger of instant messaging.  We speak without thinking or without having all the facts.  When you refrain from sending the letter immediately, you may find some edits you’d like to make.  But if you mail it off, or send it out as a post, it’s too late.  As James says, it’s like setting a forest on fire.  You’re not going to be able to control it.

By the way, I did this just this week.  An issue with a group I’m a member of rose up.  Even though it didn’t directly affect me, I was upset and wrote a letter. Others, too, were making statements in group emails.  But I refrained from sending mine.  It was a good thing.  The letter I’d written sounded real good when I was hot.  But when I thought about it and slept on it, I realized this fire didn’t need any more gasoline.

Put away any letters you write when angry.  Go for a walk or get a night’s sleep.  When you come back, you just might see an edit or two that would be helpful.

Whether writing letters, tweeting, posting blogs, commenting on Facebook, or talking face-to-face, we must seek to build up and not tear down.  Amen.

©2017

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation (Cambridge, MA: Cowley, 2000), 86.

[2] https://1legal.com/woman-is-found-guilty-of-involuntary-manslaughter-for-encouraging-boyfriends-suicide-with-texts/

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

[4] Exodus 20:16, Deuteronomy 5:20, Proverbs 12:17-22, Matthew 5:37.

[5] Ken Sande, The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), 94-97.

[6] 2 Timothy 3:3.

[7] Jack Kornfield and Christina Feldman, Soul Food: Stories to Nourish the Spirit and the Heart (SF: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), 264.

John Knox (A Book Review)

Jane Dawson, John Knox, (New Haven: Yale, 2015), 373 pages, index and notes and 8 pages of illustrations.

John Knox, the Protestant Reformer of Scotland, is often portrayed as a dour masochistic preacher and an opponent of Mary, Queen of Scots. In this new biography of the Scottish Reformer Jane Dawson paints a different view of the man. She begins with a description of Knox having his first child baptized in Geneva, while he was exiled.  It was a happy time of life for a man who was often depressed.  But then, Knox had a rough life.  George Wishart, who led Knox into the Protestant fold, was burned at the stake in St. Andrews, Scotland, only six weeks after Knox’s conversion.  After the first attempt to bring reform failed in Scotland, with Mary Guise reclaiming Catholic control of Scotland, Knox found himself chained to an ore in the galley of a ship.  This was a time of physical suffering from which Knox never fully recovered.  After being freed, Knox went to England where he served as a pastor, but as the Catholics began to roll back some of the early reforms in England, he fled to Europe, where he met with John Calvin in Geneva and Henry Bullinger in Zurich.

Knox was always a bit ornery.  He fought against the prayer book of the Anglican Church, a conflict that would continue to haunt him on the continent especially during his tenure with the English congregation in Frankfurt. While in Geneva, he helped produce the Geneva Bible (an English Bible that was considered so anti-royalty that it encouraged King James to call for another translation), the Psalter, and a book on church discipline.  Knox and Calvin had different views of the church.  Calvin felt the true church needed two “marks”: the preaching of the Word and the sacraments.  Knox added a third mark: discipline.  Knox concern for church discipline and the “cleansing of the church,” reflects his black and white views, but also made him less willing to compromise.  Knox could get overly zealous.  When he first arrived on the continent, both Calvin and Bullinger encouraged him to cool down.

Knox later returned to Scotland, having been invited by royalty who were devoted to the devoted to the Protestant.  He would serve as a chaplain for the Lords of the Congregation during their fight against the Catholic forces in Scotland.  This was a troubling time.  Scotland was involved in a civil war.  There was always a chance that France would come to the aid of Catholics in Scotland.  Knox, having spent time in England, had a vision of a united Protestant island (this would come about long after his death).   It was also an interesting time, as religion was not the only dividing issue. There were even Protestants who support Mary, Queen of Scots.   Knox had his own battles with the English reformation (especially on the Prayer Book and vestments).  The author points out how Knox’s stubbornness kept the Scottish and English Reformations separate.

Another example of Knox stubbornness was his first book, a tract written against female leadership.  John Calvin warned against publishing this tract, suggesting he might come to regret it.  The tract was primarily directed at the Catholic Marys, whom he had battled in Scotland.  But his language against women leadership was so strong Queen Elizabeth (a Protestant) also detested Knox.  It is this tract that normally leads people to consider Knox to be masochistic, but as Dawson points out, Knox got along well with women. He had several who served as advisers.  He also loved both of his wives and was in deep grief following his first wife’s death.

Bouts of depression often haunted Knox.  He was constantly in fear of losing the Reformation in Scotland, a fear that was based on the political reality more than a theological trust in God.   In an era where most sermons were from the New Testament, Knox often preached from the Old Testament.  He saw himself as a modern day Ezekiel.  His favorite book (his anchor) was the Gospel of John and at his death he asked to have the 17th Chapter of John’s Gospel.  Although Knox’s preaching was strong, criticism of sermons bothered him and he took such comments personally.   Later in his life, his voice was so weak that he struggled to preach (often preaching in the chapel instead of the main sanctuary).

In addition to the tons of material available on Knox’s life, Dawson drew upon the papers of Christopher Goodman that have only recently been made available.  Goodman and Knox worked together when they were both exiled on the Continent (working with English speaking congregations in Frankfurt and Geneva) and later in Scotland.  Although Goodman left Scotland for Ireland (Knox even considered joining him there in an evangelical mission), the two remained close the rest of their lives through correspondence.

This book is a great introduction to the life of John Knox and the world in which he lived.  Knox is a complicated man.  There were much to admire in him, as well as stuff to detest.  On a political level, his view of a “united kingdom,” that would eventually come about, was prophetic.  On an ecclesiastical level, his opposition to a prayer book that controlled worship and to clerical garments which he felt were too close to the Roman Catholic Mass has provided Presbyterians with freer forms and styles of worship.  But his strict view of the church and discipline brought a harshness into Presbyterianism that has been hard to shake.

Walking the Talk: James 2:14-26

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

James 2:14-26

June 10, 2017

 

 

  “Prayers never gets grass out de field,” Archibald Rutledge writes quoting from an African American who worked on his plantation in South Carolina in the early 20th Century.  I recently finished reading Gods’ Children, one of Rutledge’s books, at the suggestion of Margaret Reagan. As for this quote, Rutledge notes how it gives validity that faith without works is vain.[1]  Faith without works, that brings us to the Epistle of James…

Today we’re going to look at a key section in James.  This is the part with whichMartin Luther had problems, where he felt James contradicted Paul.[2]  But does James?  That’s a question with which we need to wrestle.  What is the relationship between faith and works?  Let’s find out.  I’m going to read James 2:14-26 from The Message translation, but I want you to follow along.  Use your own Bibles if you have them, or a pew Bibles, or one from your smart phone.  And let’s keep these Bibles open throughout the sermon so you can check what I’m saying.  Listen…

###

 

          I was a young teenager in the early 70s.  Nixon was President.  At the time, the Vietnam War was continuing on and on and on.  Although I would read the newspaper and a few serious magazines like Newsweek, the one magazine that I devoured was MAD.  It seemed to be such a serious time, but MAD found humor everywhere and offered a healthy release to the tensions of the world in which I found myself.  To this day, there are a number of comic panels from MAD that I still vividly remember.  One had to do with a description of various kinds of churches.  When they described the Quakers, they showed a guy looking the dude on a Quaker Oats box and said there were a million Quakers in the United States.  The second panel showed President Nixon and said he was a Quaker. The third panel noted how Quakers don’t believe in war.  The final panel said, “That makes 999,999.”

          In a way, religion is an easy target for comedians.  As Christians, we must admit our own sinfulness. We set the bar high, with Jesus as an example, and we fail to live up to our standard.  But by setting the bar high, we strive and do better.  Yes, we’re all hypocritical at times, but thankfully our salvation doesn’t depend us obtaining a 100% score on our life’s test.  That said, we can’t just throw up our hands and give up or say we just depend on faith and not strive to live better.  Our faith must result in action.  That’s James point here.  Faith results in a change for the better.

Much has been made, especially since Martin Luther, about how our passage today undermines our faith.  Luther, who was so moved by Paul’s writings, especially from Romans and Galatians, felt that James was contradicting Paul.  But that’s not the case.  Paul was concerned about how faith in Christ can make us righteous before God.  Paul insists that we can never be made totally righteous by ourselves.  That’s only done through God in Christ Jesus.  But even Paul goes on to say that we are given faith, which makes us righteous before God, in order that we might do good works![3]  James, who is writing to the faithful, is more concerned about how we live out their lives.  With Christ at the center, there should be a change as to how we act, for we live not for ourselves, but for the Lord.

James begins our reading with a rhetorical question.  “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?”  Although James definitely wants his readers to change their lives, he’s not trying to demean them.  He places himself on their level, calling them brothers and sisters.  James realizes that we all sin, that we’re in need of a Savior, but he wants us to understand that to have true faith, there must be a change in how we live.  James is writing out of love and concern for fellow believers.

Understand this.  “James does not say, ‘If someone has faith but not works!’”  Instead, James says, “If someone says they have faith, or claims to have faith.  In such a case the claim to faith isn’t validated.  Faith is not just talk.  True faith requires action, a change in a life.[4]

You know, when asked, a very high percentage of Americans still say they are Christian.  But are they in church on Sunday?  Are they involved in ministries that help the poor?  Do they watch what they say and make sure their words honor God?  James is concerned for the Christian community (think of attending church).  James is concerned with the care for the poor (think of helping ministries).  And James is also concern with our speech (think of controlling our tongues).  This rhetorical question, “you say have faith but not works,” could be put to Americans who claim to be believers, but don’t walk the talk.  Yet, we must be careful and not think that James’ words only apply to others.  Even those of us who are inside the church struggle to live up to the standard set before us by our Savior, and we’re the ones to whom James is writing.

After asking this rhetorical question, James follows a well-known Greek pattern of dialogue.  He answers objections before they are raised. First, he provides two examples of what he talking about (so-called faith without works), then he gives two examples of those who have faith and how it resulted in action.

In the first example, James speaks of a brother and sister of the faith who is down and out.  They’re hungry and cold and the supposedly Christian passes them by saying Shalom, offering a blessing upon them. What good is the blessing if you had a way to help? Will this build up the faith of the down-and-out brother or sister?  If they’re questioning their faith, they might just decide it’s not worth their time. If we can do something for someone in need, especially someone within the fold, we need to do it. Now granted, there may be times when “tough love” is required, but even then it must be done with respect and in love.

James’ second example is the person who proclaims the truth of God—that there is only one true God—and James reminds us that this isn’t enough for “even demons believe and they shutter.”  This is an example where belief in God should lead us to change, for we don’t want to be a minion of Satan. To have a saving belief in God requires us to strive to be godly.

        James first example of faith causing good works is Abraham’s willingness to offer Isaac up as a sacrifice.[5]  Here, I agree with Luther.  I’m not sure why James used this story.  Why didn’t he use the story of Abraham setting out from Ur when he was an old man?[6]  That story also shows faith resulting in actions and we avoid the problems around the possibility of child sacrifice.

James’ second example is Rahab.[7]  This one causes us to stop and ponder. Rahab was a prostitute. We don’t generally think of prostitutes being “good” or doing “good works.”  But Rahab had faith.  She knew what the Hebrew God was up to, so she hid the spies Joshua had sent into the Promised Land.  By the way, let me point out that from my experience, actions that are a result of faith almost always involve risk!  Rahab, because of her occupation, would be condemned in polite company.  Yet she was justified for her faith and action, and survived the conquest.

Let me reiterate. When James writes about how our faith must result in actions, he is not dealing with the same issues Paul dealt with when he wrote about how through faith we are justified. Paul was writing about how we, as sinners, will be able to stand before God’s judgment throne.  James, on the other hand, writes about how we should live out our faith in this life.

       It is also important for us to understand that James is interested in the well-being of the Christian community.  Too often we think of our faith being private, but such ideas were foreign in the first century.  We tend to individualize everything, but much of scripture is about a people who live faithfully before God.  If our faith is only for our personal benefit, we got a problem.  As one commentator wrote, “If our faith does not benefit others, it will not benefit you either.”[8]  What difference does your faith in Jesus mean to others?  That’s a question that this passage leaves for us to ponder, and it’s a question I hope you take with you to chew on when you leave this morning.  What difference does your faith in Jesus seen by others?

         James wraps up this section of his teaching with a proverb.  Just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.  With that in mind, remember the saying that I opened with?  “Prayers never gets grass out de field.”  Let me close with another parable that says something similar. “If you dug a well, but there was no water in it, what good is that?”[9]  Friends, I hope there’s water in your well, and that you’re willing to share.  Amen.

 

©2017

[1] Archibald Rutledge, God’s Children (1937), Kindle Edition, location 503.

[2] Carol J. Miller, Faith and Works: Galatians and James, Leader’s Guide. (Pittsburgh: Kerygma, 2012), 91.

[3] Ephesians 2:10.

[4] Dan G. McCartney, James: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2009), 155.

[5] Genesis 22:1-14.

[6] Genesis 12:1-4.

[7] Joshua 2:1-14.

[8] McCartney, 157.

[9] McCartney, 156.

A Warning Against Partiality

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

James 2:1-14

June 4, 2017

It’s Pentecost.  Why did God send his Spirit down upon the church like flames of fire?  Was it just to help us get to heaven or did God want us to live in a particularly manner?  James, which we’re currently working through, suggests the latter even though it has eternal implications.  If you’d like to know more about this book, I’d encourage you to come to the Bible study on Wednesday night.  You’ll even be fed a light dinner, which is all most of us need.

       I don’t watch the NBA very often. The league is about to wrap up for the year, which is about time as basketball feels out of place in the summer.  I find great truth in the wisdom of the Rev. Will B. Dunn (a character in Doug Marlette’s Kudzu comic strip) who, when asked what eternity would be like responded, “Like the NBA playoffs, only shorter.”

That said, this week the world of basketball emerged in the regular news cycle when Lebron James’ 21 million dollar mansion in Southern California was vandalized with a racial slur written across the front of the home. In an interview with ESPN, James said this:

[It] just shows that racism will always be a part of the world, part of America, Hate in America, especially for African-Americans, is living every day. It is hidden most days. It is alive every single day… No matter how much money you have, how famous you are, how much people admire you, being black in America is tough.[1]

In writing to the Romans, Paul tells us that God shows no partiality and in his letter to the Galatians, he notes God’s acceptance of all races.[2] James, as he interprets the gospel into what it means when we put it into action through our lives, shows us how we often show partiality and why it’s wrong.  It’s not a gospel value.  Looking down on others—due to their race, their status in society, or any other reason—is wrong.  Let’s hear what James has to say as I read the first thirteen verses of the second chapter.

###

          One of the last Kudzu strips to run, which was after the author’s death, featured the Reverend Will B. Dunn at a funeral.  He’s standing behind a casket.  He expresses sympathy to the family of the deceased who are grieving over the premature death of the one in the casket.  Then he commends the deceased for not only talking the talk, but walking the walk, something James was concerned about as we’ve seen.  But unfortunately, the good Reverend said, “he liked talking the talk on the cell phone while driving.”[3] As we learn from Ecclesiastes, there’s a time and place for everything.[4]  Talk the talk and walk the walk, just don’t talk the talk while driving.

James tells the story of two visitors to church.  One rich, one poor.  Those in the church shows favoritism to the one who was rich, offering him the best seat in the house, while sitting the poor guy on the back row.  Now, 2000 years later, with microphones, central heat and air, that’s changed as the back row has become the preferred seat in the house.  But that’s beside the point.

Notice how both visitors are passive.  They don’t say or do anything; instead it’s the actions of the congregation that James addresses.  Don’t show favoritism, he scolds.

You know, showing favoritism can destroy a family.  If a parent treats one child with contempt, while lavishing favors upon another, that family is headed for trouble.  Parents in such cases create fractures within their family and it’s likely both children will grow up and have problems in life.  Such fractures may even continue to grow and create disharmony for generations.  And the church is a family.  If we treat people differently based on how they dress or look, what kind of job they have, how they speak, or the color of their skin, we’re showing favoritism and risk creating fractures within the church.

James begins this section with a rhetorical question:  “With your acts of favoritism do you really believe in our Lord Jesus Christ?”  He wants his readers to ponder this question.  It’s easy to say, “Yes, we believe in Jesus.”  But do we act like it? This question sets James up for giving an example. You’d think if there was a place we treated people well, it would be during a worship service, but James knows that Christians are not always doing what they’re supposed to do.  We sometimes fall down on the job, favoring one person over another.

Back in the early 70s, when I was in school, the Five Man Electrical Band had a hit titled “Signs”.  The song reminded those of my generation not to be so quick to judge others by their looks, but the last stanza hits those of us in church hard.  Listen:

Play video:  And the sign said, ‘Everyone welcome, come in, kneel down and pray.’  But when they passed around the plate at the end of it all, I didn’t have a penny to pay.  So I got me a pen and a paper and I made up my own little sign.  I said, ‘Thank you Lord for thinkin’ of me, I’m alive and doin’ fine.

The guy in the song is welcomed into church even though he’s uncomfortable not having anything to put into the plate.  But thankfully, he feels accepted by God and that’s what’s important.  Our job is to welcome and love people and help them connect to the Lord.

James bases his teaching on Jesus’ golden rule, “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.”  And Jesus drew upon Moses teachings when he gave this rule.[5]  This isn’t a teaching limited to Christianity or even Judaism.  Many other religions have it. It’s a well-known principle of ethics, but do we live by it?  In James day, I am sure there were still people alive who could remember how Jesus treated everyone with respect and kindness. They recalled how he attended dinners with the affluent and how he also ate with sinners.[6]  Jesus demonstrates this rule in his life.  And the foundation of this rule actually goes back to creation, where God creates us, male and female, in his image.[7]

If we truly believe that we’re all created in the image of God, and if we are sincere in our desire to follow God’s teachings, we must honor and respect everyone.  There can be no exceptions.  Even when people do things we don’t like or that which we disagree with, we have to respect them.  We may not like what they do but we must remember they’re created in God’s image.  Remember, too, Jesus tells us to pray even for our persecutor.[8]  Even when people break God’s law, when they are clearly sinners, we still have to respect them, for we know that we too are sinners.[9]  God’s been gracious to us and for us to imitate God, we too must show grace.  And besides, as Jesus himself makes clear, he came to seek the lost, those in need, those caught in sin, those for whom no one cares.[10]

         As Jesus’ ambassadors in the world, we’re to continue his work by reaching out in his name to all people.  If we only try to reach or relate to those who look like us, we’ll fail to carry out the Great Commission.[11]  Furthermore, if we only reach out to those who are like us, our church will become so homogeneous that we’ll be so boring that none of us will want to be here.

So let’s ask ourselves, are we friendly?  Most of us would say, yes.  Many of our visitors feel that way, too, but then most of them are like us.  Others, who don’t fit in, may feel we’re not friendly. They probably won’t even make it to our front door.  How do we reach them?  Probably outside the church (and outside our comfort zones) as we not only talk about the gospel but through our lives show them the difference Jesus makes.

James draws on Jesus’ frequent analogy about the last being first, along with Gods’ concern in the Old Testament for the poor and marginalized, when he speaks of God’s choosing the poor to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom.[12]  God’s economy works differently than ours. As humans, we look to material things to judge or rate importance, God looks at the heart.  What’s in here (the heart) is what’s important.

          This section ends with James speaking about the law, which reiterates what he’s just said about not showing partiality.  We’re to love our neighbors as ourselves but if we show partiality, we’ve broken that command.  James makes clear that breaking one commandment is the same as breaking them all.  And since we’re all guilty of breaking the law, he encourages us to act like those about to be judged. We’re back to this theme of humility.  We need to remember that at the time of judgment, we’re not sitting in the jury box, we’re at the table for the defense.  But before reaching that table before the judge, we should take heed James words that there will be no mercy for those who do not show mercy.  James’ comment is a lot like that phrase Jesus slipped into the prayer he taught:  forgive our sins as we forgive others.”[13]  If we want to be godlike, we have to show mercy.  If we want to experience mercy, we must be merciful.  And in the end, our hope is in James last phrase, for mercy triumphs over judgment.

Be gentle, be gracious, show mercy, and accept everyone.  Do these things. That’s what James is saying.  Amen.

 

©2017

[1] Quote found on 3 June 2017 at http://heavy.com/sports/2017/06/lebron-james-house-home-what-word-how-much-money-cost-pictures-la-n-word-vandalized-graffiti/

[2] Romans 2:11 and Galatians 3:28.

[3] Dough Marlette, Kudzu, July 24, 2007.  (Marlette died a month earlier in a car accident during a rain storm in Mississippi.  His strip continued to run for a couple of months with panels already completed.

[4] Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.

[5] Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:31, Luke 10:17 and Leviticus 19:18.

[6] Matthew 9:10-13, Mark 2:13-17, Luke 14:1, etc.

[7] Genesis 1:27 and Matthew 5:48.  James draws upon the imitatio Dio.  Dan G. McCartney, James” Baler Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009)136.

[8] Matthew 5:44.

[9] Romans 3:23.

[10] Matthew 9:13, Luke 19:10, etc.

[11] Matthew 28:18-20.

[12] Exodus 22:22; Deuteronomy 10:18, 24:1; etc.  Matthew 19:30, 20:16; Mark 9:35, 10:31; Luke 11;26, 13:30; ect.,

[13] Matthew 5:12.

Be a Doer, Not Just a Hearer

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

James 1:16-27

May 28, 2017

 

 

We’re looking at the second half of the first chapter of the Letter of James this morning.  Last week, in the first half of this chapter, we heard how James called for his readers to endure their trials with joy and to seek wisdom from God.  In the second half, James encourages us to put our words into actions.  It’s not enough to just believe, we must do.  Our faith must result in actions.  There needs to be a change in our lives.  We’re no longer living for ourselves, we’re living for Jesus.

         Let me give you a heads up about James style of writing.  Pretty much everything he discusses in the first chapter is expanded upon in later chapters.  Last week, we saw where he talked about the poor and the rich (which he’ll again mention this week) along with God’s wisdom.  He’ll spend much of the second chapter dealing with how we treat the poor and parts of the third and fourth chapters encouraging his reader to choose God’s wisdom over human wisdom.  Likewise, today he’ll bring up the need to control our tongue.  He’ll come back to that topic in the third chapter.  For those of you who need to hear things more than once in order for it to stick, James obliges.

Today, in our passage, we’re encouraged to be a doer, not just a hearer.  Another title might be, “Living a seven day a week life of faith.”  Faith isn’t just a Sunday morning exercise.  We live our faith out in the world.

          This is the season that many are preparing to take a vacation.  I hope you’re going somewhere fun. But we must never take a vacation from the implications of our faith, just as God, who is faithful, never takes a vacation.  Let’s look at the text.   Take out your Bibles or, for those of you who are really sophisticated, take out your smart phone and open your Bible app and follow along as I read James 1:16-27.

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          Once upon a time, there was a land inhabited only by ducks.  Every Sunday morning, the ducks got up, washed their faces, put on their Sunday best, and waddled off to church.  They waddled through the door of their duck church, proceeded to waddle down the aisle, and to their familiar places in the pews.  The duck minister entered the pulpit and opened the duck Bible to the place where it talked about God’s greatest gift to ducks—wings.  “With wings we can fly.  With wings we can soar like eagles.  With wings we can escape the confines of pens and cages.  With wings we can become free.  With wings we can become all God meant us to be.  So give thanks to God for your wings, and fly!”  All the ducks quacked loudly, “Amen.”  And then all the ducks waddled back home.

The parable of the ducks was written by the Danish Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who addressed his nation, whom he felt was filled with Christian people who didn’t act very Christ-like.[1]   It could have been written by James!  “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers,” he writes.  Live out your faith, every day.  And James shows us how to do that.

Our passage starts with a reminder that every generous act comes from God.  God, as John Calvin was fond of saying, is the fountain of all goodness.  To slightly paraphrase Calvin, from his 1559 Institutes of the Christian Religion:

For until we recognize that we owe everything to God, that we are nourished by his fatherly care, that he is the Author of our every good, that we should seek nothing beyond him—we will never yield him willing service.[2]

 

God, who gave us life also gives us birth by the word of the truth, James writes.  And God wants to show us off as “the crown of his creation”,[3] or as the first-fruits of his creation.  By the way, although James and Paul are often contrasted with one another, here is another place where they are saying the same thing.  Paul also speaks of us (along with Christ) as being the first fruits of the new creation.[4]

         The whole purpose behind James pointing out that all good comes from the Father, which expands to us being the first-fruit of his creatures, is to keep us from being proud.  Can we really brag about being first, if all that is good about us comes from God?  Shouldn’t that temper our pride and help us to remain humble and grateful?  Remember, as the scriptures tell us, pride goes before the fall.[5]

In verse 19 (do you have your Bibles open?), James gives us practical applications of such humility.  Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger.  Or, as is often pointed out, there is a reason we have two ears and one mouth!  Think about it.

          James advice isn’t heeded much in these days of wars of words on social media…  Someone hears something they disagree with and instead of first trying to understand, responds with a tweet or post of venom that poisons the discourse.  As Christians, as followers of the one who is the Truth,[6] we need to be setting an example!  Being right in an argument isn’t nearly as important as showing love and grace, patience and understanding.  If we act like the rest of the world, then we fail to show the values of the eternal kingdom to which we belong.  Remember, we’re to strive to be godly and one of God’s traits in which we’re reminded of throughout the Old Testament is that he’s “slow to anger.”[7]

James tells us in verse 21, to rid ourselves of sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, or as another translation has it, “spoiled virtue and cancerous evil.”[8]  The word for “ridding ourselves” is a Greek word often used by athletics as they shed their robes in order to be more competitive in a contest.[9]  In this same way, we’re to shed that which holds us back, that which fails to build up the kingdom.  We’re in a contest between good and evil.  In God’s realm, it is not the powerful argument that wins the day, but the meek word which, as James says, has the power to save our souls.

        This leads James into his next section where he encourages us to be doers not merely hearers.  He’s already encouraged us to listen, so hearing is important, but if we just hear, what good is that?  Yes, hearing and believing is important, but we can’t stop there.  As Jesus tells us, we must bear fruit.[10]  We’re not to look at a mirror in order to evaluate ourselves, but are to look at God’s law. When we compare ourselves to what God expects of us, we should be humble.  We should be brought to our knees in confession and then work to change our lives so that it better reflects our Lord’s life. We hear God’s word and then we apply it, striving to live humble, gracious and merciful lives, just as our Lord himself was humble, gracious and merciful.

        James then returns back to the tongue, our mouths, and suggests that they need to be bridled, they need to be controlled.  Listen and be slow to speak, as he has already told us.  Then James draws back upon the teachings of Moses and the prophets to emphasize the true meaning of religion—it is to care for orphans and widows “while guarding ourselves from the corruption of the world.”[11]  Or, as the well-known passage from Micah goes, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”[12]

      Now, the ball’s in your court.  Will you waddle out of here and on through life like Kierkegaard’s ducks?  Or will you take to heart what God has done for us in Jesus Christ and live your life accordingly?  Will you honor all others, especially those who are below you in life? You can start with the waiter or waitress at lunch today?  Or with the guys and gals that keep our community looking nice by mowing or clipping and picking up our trash.  Be grateful and thankful for them, bestowing as much honor on them as anyone else.

          Will you pause before blowing up in anger when something doesn’t go as you’d like? Take enough time to consider if your actions are honoring God.  We’re to be a light to the world.[13]  Will you think before you speak, asking yourself if your words bring glory to God the Father?  Or, will you continue to use language in a way to destroy or make someone else look bad?  As followers of Jesus, we’re to set the example!

Will you give God credit for all your blessings, humbling yourself and realizing that you’re not the reason for your blessing?  Will you acknowledge that although you might have worked hard, there was a lot of divine providence that help you succeed?  Will you realize that your blessings have been given to you in order to build up others?

In other words, will you be a doer, and not just a mere hearer of the Word?  Amen.

©2017

[1] This story was told by Stan Mast, in his notes on James 1:17-27.  See http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-17b/?type=lectionary_epistle

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559, Battles translation), 1.2.1.   I changed the passage from third person to first person.

[3] From The Message translation of James 1:18

[4] See Romans 8:23 and 2 Thessalonians 2:13.  See also 1 Corinthians 15:20-23 where Paul speaks of Christ as first fruit and we follow close being.  In Revelation 14:4, the faithful are also called the first fruit.

[5] Proverbs 16:18.

[6] John 14:6.

[7] Exodus 34:6, Numbers 14:!8, Nehemiah 9:17, Psalms 85:15, 103:8 and 148:8, Joel 2:13, Jonah 4:2 and Nahum 1:3.

[8] James 1:21, The Message.

[9] Dan G. McCarthney, James: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2009), 116.

[10] Matthew 7:17-20.

[11] James 1:27, The Message.  See also Exodus 22:22, Deuteronomy 14:28-29, Jeremiah 7:9 as examples of Moses and prophets calling for the care of orphans and widows.

[12] Micah 6:8.

[13] Matthew 5:14.

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

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

James 1:1-15

May 21, 2017

 

 

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

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

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

###

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

©2017

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

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

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

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

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

The Good Shepherd



Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

May 7, 2017

John 10:1-18

 

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

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

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

###

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

©2017

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

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

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

[4] Matthew 18:20.

[5] John 14:6.

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

Psalm 103

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church 

Psalm 103

April 30, 2017

 

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

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

‘You must be a lawyer,’ Johnny mumbled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

©2017

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

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

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

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

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

[6] Exodus 34:6

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

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

A Sermon by Fenton Ludtke

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

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

 

 

Fenton and Bunny Ludtke

THE CARE AND FEEDING OF CHRISTIANITY

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

May 20, 1962

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, hadn’t He told them?

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

Oh yes.

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

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

What did He mean?

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

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

Creative?

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

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

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

There is, however, a different kind of change.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Northminster Presbyterian Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He would introduce Jazz into churches.

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

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

As he stated in “Christian Century”:

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

Professor Wade continues:

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

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

Jazz in our churches? Will it ever happen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should not the voice of today be heard?

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

What do we mean by spiritual change?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you self-conscious about loving God?

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

“I love you.”

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

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

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

How could you forget?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But where to begin? And when? And how?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closing Prayer

Our Father .

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

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

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

(long pause)

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

Kirkin’ 2017: “The Call of God”

 

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church 

Ezekiel 2:1-7

April 23, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you open to God’s call?  Amen.

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

 

 

Excerpts from the Second Helvetic Confession

 

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

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

Pastor: WE ARE ELECTED OR PREDESTINATED IN CHRIST.

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

Pastor: WE ARE ELECTED FOR A DEFINITE PURPOSE.

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

[1] See Ezekiel 33:3ff.

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

[3] Jeremiah 38:6.

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

[5] Acts 9:23-25.

[6] Acts 7:54ff.

[7] Luke 9:23

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

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

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

[11] Revelation 14:13

[12] Dawson, 31-33.

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

The Kirkin’ is just around the corner!

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

 

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

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

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Sanctuary for 2015 Kirkin

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

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Piper at 2015 Kirkin’

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

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

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Easter Sunday 2017

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

John 20:1-18

Easter Sunday 2017

 

 

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

         In addition to those high-caloric gifts, about the time I was in the first grade, there would be another gift that I was pretty sure was chosen by my dad.  The first gift came the Easter after the Christmas I received my first rod and reel, one of those push button Zebco outfits.  In the basket that Easter was a box with a fishing lure, a yellow jitterbug.  This is the type of lure that drives bass n