OUR SPIRITUAL WORSHIP
Preached on the Occasion of the Installation of the Rev. Jeffrey Garrison
As Pastor of Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church, Skidaway Island, GA
Nov 9, 2014, 4 pm
By Dr. Jeffrey Newlin
Text: Romans 12
- I would like to begin by thanking those of you who are members of Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church. I owe you a great debt, for you have brought one of the best friends that I’ve made in my stewardship ministry closer to me
- twenty-seven years as a Presbyterian Pastor, which concluded with a year-and-a-half as Transitional Pastor for Providence Presbyterian Church, Hilton Head, and six years as Pastor of Reid Memorial Presbyterian Church, Augusta, GA, I became a stewardship consultant with RSI.
- As a pastor I was involved in 3 different capital campaigns in 3 different churches. I loved them, not only because they strengthened the ministries of the churches that I was serving, but because they unified my congregations and deepened the commitment and faith of many church members. I started working as a stewardship consultant in the hope that I might help other churches experience the same sort of spiritual blessing from capital campaigns. And that’s certainly been the case in my work with over 100 congregations, representing 20 denominations.
- I’ve also had the opportunity to work with a great number of highly competent and committed pastors, and Jeff Garrison is one of the finest that I’ve worked with.
- No doubt a lot of my respect for him is due to the fact that we agree on so many matters.
- But it is more than that; He represents the best in the Presbyterian tradition of the scholar/preacher. I have learned much from him, and know that you will as well.
- Most importantly, his scholarship isn’t scholarship for the sake of scholarship; it is scholarship for the sake of the love of God and the service of God.
- Jeff is not only a fine preacher/teacher/writer. He is also a devoted pastor.
- After working on two 3-yr capital campaigns with Jeff, I’ve had the opportunity to share many post-meeting beers with him.
- I’ve always left those meetings feeling better about life. Jeff listened to me, encouraged me, and challenged me , and invited me to do the same thing for him.
- Members of Skadaway Presbyterian Church, I know that you’ll be blessed by Jeff Garrison, and by his lovely wife and daughter, Donna and Caroline; just as I’m sure they’ll be blessed by you.
- All in all, from my perspsective the prospects look very good for a long, happy relationship between Jeff Garrison and you as pastor and people.
II. Not that your relationship will always be easy.
- I don’t have to tell you that we live in a world that is very confused about where we should be going, as individuals and as a society, and what we should do to get there.
- “Being true to oneself” has become so sacred, that people are losing the ability to “be true to anyone else besides themselves.” All values have become relative, other than tolerance. We’ve all suffered from this, but the greatest casualties of all are our children.
- And it’s not only the world that is confused about where we should be going and what we should do to get there, the church is confused as well.
- The most obvious of example of this in our denomination is the heated debate over homosexuality. People of great faith are on both sides of the issue, Christian crusaders are on both sides of the issue, each firmly believing that this is a decisive issue testing the very life and purpose of the church, yet both sides can’t be right. How can we survive this conflict?
- Then there’s the battlefield of music. Music is supposed to elevate us, inspire us, and unite us, but in congregation after congregation it threatens to break us apart. Some people want traditional music with organ. Some people want praise music with guitars and drums. Some people like the old Presbyterian hymnal, some people like the new Presbyterian hymnal, and some don’t like any hymnal at all. How do we get along with each other?
- And apart from these obvious issues, there is the enormous variety of opinions that you find in any congregation. Americans are raised to place a high premium on thinking for themselves. For whatever reason, Presbyterians demonstrate this quality in spades. It’s harder and harder in our churches to find a consensus on anything. Sometimes it seems like you can’t take anything for granted.
- People are beaten up every day by our highly competitive, dog eat dog society. We come to church looking for an oasis of peace. When we come to church and find conflict and argument we lose our patience and get grumpy. The natural pettiness and self-righteousness that is within us all is stirred up. The church’s climate is poisoned, and instead of lifting us up to be better persons, it brings us down.
- This dynamic is well represented by an old episode of the Little House on the Prairie.
- The minister of the church talked to his congregation and told them, “I have just talked with my superior. I told him that I love it here, but there is one thing that we need. We need a church bell.”
- Everyone immediately agreed and decided that they’d take up an offering.
- Olson, the wealthy shopkeeper’s wife, said that that wouldn’t be necessary. She said that she thought they needed a bell like the one in St. Paul, and said that her husband and she would be glad to give it as long as their names were placed on a plaque in the church.
- A member immediately protested, “This is the Lord’s church. He built it and no one else’s name is going to go on it.”
- To which Mrs. Olson responded, “You’re someone to talk. You sleep through church every Sunday.”
- Someone else chimed in, “I don’t think we even need a bell. It would be so heavy that the church would collapse.”
- Before long everyone was arguing and fighting. The next Sunday no one was in church.”
- The story makes us smile, because we recognize too well in it our own patterns of thought and behavior.
- If a church could be vacated in the late 1800’s over a church bell, how much more so today over the issues that divide us.
- Is there any hope for you and your church? Is there any hope for my church and me?
III. Of course there is hope. But it’s not your hope, and it’s not my hope. It is God’s hope.
- You and your new pastor need to firmly plant yourself in this hope at the beginning of your ministry together, and regularly return to it, if you are going to thrive as God intends for you to thrive. In order to help you do this, I propose for your sustained attention the twelfth chapter of Romans.
- The first eleven chapters of Romans are perhaps the most exalted theology in the whole Bible. In them Paul lays out for us the central doctrines of the Christian faith, all revolving around the Gospel proclamation that we sinners are justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
- In the twelfth chapter of Romans, all of this exalted theology suddenly becomes very practical. The rubber hits the road. And if we heed Paul’s advice our rubber will hit the road, and it will stay on the road and won’t swerve off, even when it starts storming.
IV. First Paul says, “I appeal to your therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”
- Long ago the prophets warned Israel that God was not primarily interested in their temple sacrifices. What God really wanted was their obedience.
- Paul tells us the same thing when he tells us that the sacrifice that is most important for us to make is the presenting of our bodies, holy and acceptable to God. That, he tells us, is our spiritual worship, the only worship that really counts.
- What does it mean to live so that we are constantly presenting our bodies to God as something holy and acceptable to him? It means that we’re “walking the talk” that we talk on Sunday mornings. It means that we are constantly striving to be obedient to God above all else. It means that we are constantly striving to please God above all else.
- Now, this may not seem like much to help your congregation find its way through all the conflictual issues of the day and all the squabbles that any congregation is want to have, but it is actually a lot. It’s actually all that we need.
- The key is that all of us are trying to please the same one, God. When you have a congregation full of people, or a denomination of people, genuinely striving to please God above all else, not themselves, there will be a harmony amongst them, no matter how much they differ about specific issues.
- When I’ve done marriage counseling, I’ve usually used the example of a triangle with the couple, and asked them what happens to two points of a triangle when they both try to grow closer to the third point of the triangle?
- “They grow closer together at the same time,” they’ve responded.
- “Right you are,” I’ve replied, “And that is what will happen to both of you as you seek to grow closer to God. As you both strive to grow closer to God, you will grow closer to each other.”
- What happens with marriages happens with congregations and denominations. If we are all genuinely seeking to please God and not ourselves, we will find in each other openness to other positions, and an openness to change, because we will know that our own personal positions are not the last word. We are more concerned about finding out what God wants than finding substantiation for what we want.
V. But how do we know what God wants when there are so many different opinions of what God wants, not only in the world, but in the church as well?
- Paul tells us in the beginning of the twelfth chapter of Romans. After writing that we should present our bodies to God as a holy sacrifice, he writes, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
- If we are to obey God in our bodily actions, in the way we treat other people and conduct our business, our minds must first be transformed so that we can discern what is the will of God.
- And how are our minds transformed so that we can discern the will of God?
- They’re transformed through prayer. They are also transformed through feeding on God’s word. Where can we more find out who God is and what God wants than in God’s holy word?
- At its heart, Presbyterian piety is focused on the Bible. It’s through the disciplined study of the Bible that knowledge of God and God’s will grows. It’s through the devotional use of the Bible that our love of God and God’s goodness grows.
- Now, anyone who spends any amount of time with the Bible knows that it is a difficult book. Its content is richly variegated. Many times it seems to contradict itself. It is very complex. If you think about it, this shouldn’t surprise us that the Bible is complex, for life is complex and God is complex, infinitely complex. The Bible is a book that takes a whole life to learn, and even then, you’re just a beginner in it.
- But many people are not very patient with this kind of rigorous effort. They want their religion simple. If they’re learned a couple of Bible stories they think that they’ve gotten enough.
- Any Presbyterian Church worth its salt will not fall victim to the popular desire for religion lite. It will want its children, young people, and adults to know more than a few Biblical stories. It will want them to be familiar with the book, comfortable in the book, skilled at studying the book, and skilled at praying the book, and all of this will take work and effort.
- So, Jeff and members of the Skidaway Presbyterian Church, I admonish you to study your Bibles together as you seek to discern the will of God, so that your minds might be transformed, and so that your bodily sacrifices might be holy and acceptable to God.
VI. But let’s face it; there are a lot of people studying the Bible very hard who still have a lot of disagreements and conflicts with each other. Isn’t there anything more that can be offered to help us, as we seek to discern the will of God?
- Yes there is. I’d like to say three things more to you today, two from Paul’s 12th chapter, and one that is not in Paul’s 12th
A. The first tip from Paul, “be humble.”
- In Paul’s words, “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”
- And again: “Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.”
- That we should strive to be humble should be obvious to Christians, for by the standard of the wisdom and ways of God we are all novices, we are all beginners.
- This doesn’t mean that we must say that everybody is right and must accept everything as equally true. Paul charges us to strive to know the “will of God.” He assumes that there is a particular will of God on particular issues, and that we should do whatever we can to know it.
- What it means is that we are always aware of the limitations of our own educations and experience, we’re always aware of the rich educations and experiences that others have had, and that we are always eager to learn more from others.
- If all the members of a congregation demonstrate this kind of humility toward one another, they will not only stay together, they will grow together, even though they continue to hold strongly divergent opinions with great passion.
B. Paul second tip for holding together is: “Love one another.”
- That’s easy to do with people that you agree with. (As I’ve told you, your pastor and I agree on many things.) It’s much harder to do with people that you have profound disagreements with.
- So Paul goes on to say: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. … Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought of what is noble in the sight of all….Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
- Whenever we sense any spirit of vengeance within us, towards anyone else, but especially towards a fellow Christian, we must pray that God purify our hearts of it. There is no other way for us to be Christian.
- Once again, this doesn’t mean that we pretend that all ideas are equal, so we don’t have to debate anymore. Paul writes that we are to “hate what is evil, and hold fast to what is good.” He recognizes that not everything is equally valid. There is an absolute difference between good and evil, and as Christians we must strive to love the one and hate the other.
- The key here is that whereas Paul urges us to “hate evil,” he never urges us to “hate evil people.” Instead he says that we are to “love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Bless those who persecute you. Do not repay evil for evil. Never avenge yourselves.”
- Paul knew too well that evil is not something which distinguishes one group of people from another, so that one group of people are evil and one group aren’t. He knew that the division between good and evil runs right through the hearts of all of us.
- A congregation, which remembers this as it seeks to love the good and hate the evil, has every reason to hope that it will stay together and grow together..
C. My final tip for helping a church hold together isn’t from Paul. It comes from Little House on the Prairie.
- While the adult members of the church on Walnut Grove were destroying their church over their argument over the bell, something else was going on.
- There was a deaf, dumb man, named “Tinker,” who made tin toys for the children in the community.
- When Laura commented to her father that, “the deaf man had no children,” her father responded that “all the children of Walnut Grove were his children.”
- One day when Tinker was playing with the children, and they started arguing with each other, he held up two big dolls and pretended that they were fighting with each other. Than he held up two little dolls and pretended that they were fighting with each other.
- The children got the point. They could see in themselves what was happening to their parents. So they eagerly agreed to Tinker’s plan to turn things right.
- Each of the children brought whatever tin they could find around their houses to be melted down into a bell. They even brought their own precious tin toys.
- When the church bell started ringing the next Sunday, the adult members were obviously surprised.
- Many of them came to church for the first time since the conflict started, eager to find out whom to blame.
- Predictably, they started to accuse each other of who gave the bell.
- That’s when the children said, “No, no one of you gave the bell. We gave the bell.”
- The episode ended with one of the men saying to the minister, “Reverend, why don’t you lead us into the church?”
- Everyone followed him, as Tinker kept ringing the bell.
VII. What is the church business that we are involved in really all about?
- It is about our spiritual worship. That’s the only worship that really counts.
- It’s about presenting our bodies as living sacrifices to God.
- It’s about not being conformed to this world, but allowing our minds to be transformed so that we might be able to discern God’s will through our study of the Bible.
- It’s about conducting all of our discussions and debates in the church, no mater how heated, in a spirit of humility and with deep love for each other.
- Any church, which devotes itself to offering God this spiritual worship, will be blessed greatly and will be a great blessing to its community and all those around.