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 church 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.

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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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