May 2, 2016: “Do We Want to Get Well?”

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

May 2, 2016

John 5:1-18

 

A Scotchman goes into a bar with a broken arm.  Standing at one end, laying his arm in a cast up on the bar, he calls for a shot of Glen Livet to ease his pain.  As the bartender reaches for the bottle, the Scotchman looks down at the other end and sees someone familiar.  “Is that Jesus down there?” he asks the bartender.  “Yep, that’s Jesus,” the bartender confirms.  “Give him a shot, too!”

 

The next man to come in is French.  He’s on crutches, nursing a broken leg.  He asks for a glass of burgundy to help with his pain.  The bartender pours his glass as the Frenchman looks around the bar and sees someone who looks familiar.  “Is that Jesus down at the other end,” he asks?  Yep, that’s Jesus.” “Give him a glass on me,” the Frenchman orders.

 

A little bit later, Billy Bob limps in.  “Give me a tall cool one,” he orders, “to help with my back.”  As the bartender pours him a draft, Billy Bob hooks his thumbs into his suspenders and cases the joint out.  Seeing someone familiar, he calls the bartender over and says, “Say, is that God’s boy down there?”  “Yep, that’s Jesus.”  “Well, give him a cool one on me, okay?”

 

A little bit later, Jesus gets up and heads toward the door.  Pausing as he comes to the Scotchman, he places his hands on his shoulders and thanks him for his kindness and gives him a blessing.  His arm is healed.  Next, he moves over to the Frenchman and does the same.  His leg is better.  As he steps toward the end of the bar, Billy Bob backs up against the bar and shouts, “Don’t you touch me Jesus; I’m drawing disability.”

 

Now before getting upset with me about the joke with Jesus in a bar, remember the type of places that Jesus went and the people with whom he hung out.   Even though this story is made-up, considering the stories we have in the gospel, it’s not farfetched.  Jesus, it appears, enjoyed being around people, even those who were a bit shady and especially those who were in need.  And I wonder if Billy Bob isn’t a direct descendant of the man by the pool in the fifth chapter of John’s gospel.  Does the guy in our gospel reading really want to get well?  And what about us?  Do we want to be made well?

There is a lot in this text I’m about to read.  I’m planning to use it today and next Sunday.  Today, we’ll concentrate on the man who was healed.  Next Sunday, we’ll look at the reaction to this healing.   Read John 5:1-18.

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The universal lament of the human race starts out with a variation of the phrase, “If only I had…”

 

If only I’d caught that fly ball…

If only I’d made that lay-up…

If only I could have gone to a different college…

If only I’d have studied harder…

If only I could have gotten that job…

If only I’d married so and so…

If only I’d spent more time with my children…

 

We’re good at lamenting lost opportunities.  We’re good at enlisting pity from others.  Such was the case with the man at the pool.  “If only I could get into that water, I’d be fine.”  The man has been telling himself that for decades – 38 years he’s laid there beside the pool, hoping to get into the water at just the right moment so that he might be healed.  But sometime in those decades, he lost his desire to get better.  Maybe he even forgot why he was there.  After all, it was a good place to beg.  There were a lot of religious folks there, all going to the temple.  These guys all had a bit of guilt that made them especially generous, so the man was assured of sustenance to live on.  He could live, but his dreams died.  He no longer had hope of getting into the water.  He just sat there, waiting for his next handout.

 

I don’t know what the problem was with the man at the pool. I’m going to give him the benefit of doubt.  At one point in his life, he probably wanted to get better.  When he first started coming to the pool, he had high hopes.  But he got use to his infirmities.  He’d given up hope of ever making it into the water, of ever being healed.  His dreams had all died.  He continued to go to the pool, without any hope of getting better, but in order to beg and to live off the kindness of others.   His dream for normality was replaced with the desire to get by, to eat for another day.  The idea of abundant life was about as foreign to this guy’s psyche as becoming the king of England is to mine.

 

And then Jesus comes along.  Seeing the man lying there, Jesus’ knows right away he’s been there a long time.  Interestingly, we’re not told here, as in some of the other accounts of Jesus’ healing, that Jesus took pity on the man.[1] Instead, Jesus asks, “Do you want to be made well?”  It’s an interesting question.  But even more telling than the question is the man’s answer.  We’d expect a smile to break across his face as he shouts, “heck yeah!”  Instead he mumbles, “No one is here to put me in the pool when the water is stirred.  Nobody is here to help me; I’m not able to be healed.”  Instead of answering Jesus’ questions, he makes excuses for his situation.  “If only I had, if only I could… if only someone would…”

 

Jesus doesn’t have time for excuses.  He commands the man stand up, take his mat, and walk.  Surprisingly, the man does what he’s told!  We’re not told how this happens.  John doesn’t say anything about the man’s faith playing a role in his restore ability to walk.  In fact, from reading this story, it doesn’t sound like the man had any faith at all. [2]   Jesus heals this man.  He isn’t expecting it.  He doesn’t ask for it.  He may not even want to be healed.  He’s a man content to be where he’s at, satisfied to live in his world of shattered dreams and to draw on the pity of others.  He will now have to make it on his own.

 

Later on, Jesus encounters the man later, in the temple.  He tells the guy not to sin because something worse could happen to him.  We’re not exactly sure what this means.  Had the man sinned before he became an invalid?  We don’t know.  Perhaps Jesus knew the condition of the man’s heart: that he wasn’t very grateful and that he took blessings as an entitlement.  Certainly by his actions, as recorded by John, we don’t get any sense he felt his life or even his healing was something for which he should give thanks to God.  But, once again, we can’t be sure.  We’re not given an explanation for this second encounter between the man and Jesus—instead the encounter seems to just allow the man discover who it was that healed him. But what does this former invalid do with this information?  He tattles on Jesus, points the finger at Jesus and blaming him for his breaking the Sabbath.  Talk about a lack of gratitude!

 

Think of this guy as a high school student whose parents lend him a car for a Saturday night date.  Driving fast, trying to impress his girlfriend, blue lights appear in his rearview mirror.  Do you think the police officer is going to be swayed if the kid says, “It’s my dad’s fault; he’s the one who lent me the car?”

 

What does this story have to do with us?  I’d suggest we are a lot like the man in the story in several ways.  First of all, we’re scared of the future God offers us through Jesus Christ.  We’re comfortable with the familiar even though we miss out on abundant life.  Life wasn’t what it was supposed to be for the guy at the pool, but it had become easy.  We often forget this: God doesn’t call us to an easy life.  Our purpose isn’t to take the easy road.  When we stick to our laments: “if only I had…, If only I could have…, If only I would have…” we forget Jesus’ promises.

 

Next, like the man in the story, God often gives us what we need, not what we want.  As I’ve tried to make it clear, I’m not sure this guy wanted to get better.  Sometimes we don’t know what we’re asking for, but God knows and gives us what we need.[3]

 

Finally, like the man who was healed even though he didn’t deserve to get better, Jesus also forgives us, even when we don’t deserve it.  After all, that’s what grace is all about.  God forgives us even though we should be condemned.  Having been forgiven, having been offered a new lease on life (like our friend by the pool), we often lack gratitude.  Remember, we aren’t cheap; we’re precious in God’s eyes for we’ve been brought through the blood of Jesus Christ!  This passage reminds us of the danger we face when we live without gratitude towards God.

 

In Jesus Christ, God forgives us.  God calls us.  God tells us to pick up our mats and walk.  God doesn’t want to hear our excuses.  Instead, God wants us to embrace the lives he gives.  Pick up your mat, stand tall and walk proudly, giving God the glory.  Amen.

[1] See Matthew 20:34 and Luke 7:13.

[2] For examples see John 4:50 and Mark 5:34.

[3] See Matthew 7:10-11.

A Vision for the Church

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

April 17, 2016

Revelation 7:9-17

 

 Take out your Bibles or a pew Bible out and turn the book of Revelation.  It’s in the back of the book.  I want to point something out to you.  Revelation often uses contrasting visions.   Thumb over to the fifth and seventh chapters.  Here, we have grand views of heavenly worship focused on the throne.  In the fifth chapter, we have the words that came from the hymn we just sang.  In the seventh chapter, we hear of a multitude praising God.  Both of these visions are in heaven.   But in between these two chapters, we are on earth as six of the seven seals are opened.  Each seal unleashes troubles upon the world.  That chapter ends with the people of the earth in so much turmoil that they call for the mountains to fall upon them.  “Who is able to stand,” John, the author of Revelation, asks.  But at that point, the vision goes from the trouble on earth to the worship in the heavens.  We’re first told of the 144,000 gathered around the throne.  That’s a lot of people, but not when you consider the numbers of people on earth.  So that vision is followed by one of a greater multitude, more people than anyone can count.  It’s from this passage that our reading this morning comes.  Follow along as I read…   Read Revelation 7:9-17

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I always enjoy checking out churches and listening to other preachers when I travel. In the late 90s, when I was working on a doctorate, I spent long periods of time taking classes at San Francisco Theological Seminary. Being absent from the pulpit for six weeks or so allowed me an opportunity to worship in many different settings. One of the churches I attended was Glide Memorial United Methodist Church.  It’s located on the edge of the Tenderloin, in the Mission District, one of the seediest sections of the City by the Bay. It’s an older church built out of heavy stones and bricks.  I assume it was built right after the great earthquake and fire in 1906, as much of that part of town was devastated. Cecil Williams, an African-American, had been their pastor since the early-60s. He was getting near retirement.  He would retire in 2000.  Several of us knew it might be our only chance to hear him, so we carpooled together and drove over.

We’d been warned to expect crowds and advised to park in a parking deck several blocks away and to walk to the church. This we did. As we got to the church, we were surprised to see a long line of worshippers waiting to get in. They had three services on Sunday morning, all were packed, and those lined up on the sidewalk to get in were waiting for one service to end. We saw that the church had valet parking. Here in this seedy part of the city, young men, mostly African-American, in white gloves were taking the keys of church attendees, many of whom were driving BMWs and Mercedes’, and parking them in adjacent lots.

When the church was cleared from the previous service, they packed us in. I guess this church sat seven or eight hundred people and that there were a few hundred more than that in attendance. As I said, it was an older building, constructed with thick walls so that each stained glass window had about a three foot bench in front of it. In each of the widows, they’d be two or three kids sitting and swinging their feet as if they knew they were at home. The place was packed.

As I looked around, I thought that this wasn’t like any other church I’d ever attended. There were men in suits and women in nice dresses with matching hats and gloves sitting beside folks who were obviously homeless and hadn’t taken a bath in a week. There were women who appeared to be working the street, there were people who looked like they’d been burned out by drugs in the 60s and were barely hanging on.  There were men and women who were obviously gay. And they were sitting by others who appeared to be high priced attorneys or managers within the financial community. Some people were wearing their best, others dressed casually, as if they were headed for a picnic on the beach, and others were dressed as if they’d spent the night behind a dumpster.  Some probably had. In addition to the great collection of folks from all stratus of society, all races were present. Red, yellow, black and white, as the song goes, they were all there.

Worship was lively, with a choir of probably a 100, including many of San Francisco’s finest musicians. There were plenty of “Amens.” There was lots of noise and movement. It was hot inside the building, but no one seemed to mind, everyone seemed to enjoy themselves.

I was with several other “preachers” and afterwards, at lunch, we discussed the sermon.  Most of us were a little disappointed.  Although a charismatic leader, his message paled to the one we’d heard the week before from J. Alfred Smith, a pastor of an African-American Church in the inner city of Oakland. And there were things I disagreed with that he said.  Some of the stands Glide Memorial has made during his tenure, such as working with the Symbionese Liberation Army, have been quite controversial, as you can imagine. But one thing that impressed me, and in this area the pastor was right, was his vision.  The church is to serve those around them.  Glide Memorial is one of the largest agencies serving the needs of the city.  Listen to how Williams describes his congregation’s mission:

 

Being seen as perfect, good or respectable is not my concern.  My concern is to create an open and honest community where it is safe to tell the truth. That is what people of all races and classes want today. Whether they’re executives or homeless people, all people want to know, ‘Who will care about me?[1]

 

Who will care for me?  That question still rings true, nearly two decades later.  This diverse crowd singing and praising God and having fun, seemed to be a glimpse of what heaven is to be all about. Of course, if we were to reach out in such a fashion on Skidaway Island, we’d never have the rainbow of colors found in Glide Memorial.  But what would we look like if we were able to reach out into Chatham County, bring people of different races, economic levels, and backgrounds into our fellowship?  Bringing in new faces will change us, yet isn’t that what Jesus calls us to do, to reach out to others?   To care for one another?  To accept everyone as a sinner loved by Jesus?

John, the author of Revelation, is given this vision of a multitude too large to count. They’re from every nation and tribe. All peoples and languages are represented. They wave palm branches and cry out, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne.” Joining these in their worship are all the angels and elders and these four winged creatures who fall on their faces as they sing praises. When John asks from where these people come, he’s told that they’ve all come through the great tribulation and now live with God in a paradise setting with climate control (there’s no scorching heat), filling food and refreshing drinks (there’s no hunger or thirst), and eternal comfort (God himself wipes away tears).  The tribulation experienced on earth in the sixth chapter of this book is answered in the 7th.   There is a reward for those who endure and this heavenly church is going to be unlike anything we’ve seen on earth.

If one of our purposes as a church is to exhibit God’s kingdom, what can we learn from this passage? First of all, we’re reminded that the church is made up of all people and that not everyone at God’s throne will look like us. If that was the case, heaven would be boring.  And probably most of us, with European backgrounds, wouldn’t be there. Paul could have stopped his preaching in Asia Minor.[2]  But you see, Jesus came to break that mold which taught that God was just interested in one group of people. In the life of Jesus we see that although he reached out to everyone, he was especially concerned for those who were neglected and sidelined. If we want to truly exhibit the kingdom as well as live up to our vision statement to reflect the face of Jesus, we have to be welcoming of everyone.  We have to reach out to all ages as well as find ways to serve those in need, including those who might feel uncomfortable around us or we might feel uncomfortable around them.[3] This vision of John’s is what we’re to shoot for—a church encompassing all of God’s children.

A second vision we have of that kingdom is of God taking care of the needs of his people. Here on earth, we are God’s hands and feet and we demonstrate God’s kingdom when we help others. Whether it is providing food or money for local shelters, Christmas gifts for those who go without, or a comforting presence for someone in grief.  We do all this in Jesus’ name because that’s what he wants us to do.

Now let me turn this around to you. How can you help make this place a community that demonstrates God’s kingdom? How can you help bring a more Christ-like attitude to our fellowship? What role can you play that will further our vision of being a church for all ages? This isn’t something I can do; it’s something that requires all our efforts. If you are committed to Jesus Christ and to this fellowship he’s called you to action.

Think about this for a moment. It might be going out of your way to greet visitors.  If you are healthy, one simple thing might be parking on the far side of our lot in order to free up closer spaces for those who are new to our church as well as those who have physical limitations.  It might be inviting someone who has lost a loved one over the past year to attend service with you, or reaching out to a new family in your neighborhood and inviting them to be your guest at a church service or a meal at our church.  We have a picnic coming up next month.  It would be a nice and informal opportunity to bring in a new neighbor and introduce them to our community.  Or maybe we’re called to the ministry of reconciliation.  It’s our role to build bridges with those who used to be friends but for some reason the friendship ties have been broken. And then, what about us corporately? Many of you are involved in making this community a better place, but what can our church do other than give money?  Is there a way we can become more involved, making a difference in Savannah?  Talk to one another and share your ideas with the elders.  What will we do to “reflect the face of Jesus?”  Amen.

 

 

©2016

[1] Quote from Don Shewey, “SPIRIT WILLING: Glide Memorial Church”

[2] See Acts 16:6ff.

[3] Paul says he becomes all things to all people so some might be saved.  1 Corinthians 9:22.

The Third Easter Scene in Luke

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

April 19, 2016

Luke 24:24-48

 

Things can change in a second.  I was reminded of this lesson on Monday night as I watched Carolina roar back from a 10 point deficit (the largest they’d had in the playoffs).  With less than five seconds left in the game, Marcus Paige hit an incredible three point shot to tie the game.  Things were looking up.  After a time out, a Villanova player quickly brought the ball up court and acted like he was going to drive when he tossed the ball to another player behind him who had a clear shot.  The ball cleared his hand just before the buzzer sounded and swished through the net.  Villanova won.  It was almost the reverse of the situation in the 1982 National Championship game when Michael Jordan shot at the buzzer to give Carolina the win over Georgetown.  Things can change in a second.

My passage this morning is from one of the post resurrection appearances of Jesus in Luke’s gospel.  When Jesus first appears before his disciples, they think he’s a ghost.  Jesus shows otherwise by eating a piece of fish, after which the disciples realize it’s him in the flesh.  I don’t know what it is about the post resurrected Jesus and fish, but both Luke and John tell us about him dining on seafood.[1]  Food plays an important role, for it’s in the sharing of meals the disciples recognize him as Jesus.  After dinner and once they understand who he is, Jesus explains to the disciples how his mission was foretold in the Scriptures.  READ LUKE 24:26-49.

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There is a story of a Scottish man who ran a ferry across a loch in the highlands.  On one of the oars of his boat he’d carved the word “Faith” and on the other he’d carved the word “Works.”  He never said anything about these, but if he was asked about them, he’d demonstrate the need for both but pulling one of the oars out of the water and rowing with the other, which caused the boat to go into a circle in one direction.  Then he would pull in that oar and paddle with the other, causing the boat to circle in the opposite direction.  After the demonstration, he’d began to row with both oars and head straight for the other shore.  No words were needed.  He’d made his point.  I think this was a lesson the disciples learned on Easter Sunday.  When their faith is restored in the living Christ, they are allowed to go out and work for Jesus in ways they’d never imaged.

It’s late in the day on that first Easter.  The disciples gather and discuss the strange reports they’ve heard.  The women have told them about finding the tomb open and speaking with an angel.  And there’s the report from Emmaus, of Jesus appearing to two followers who recognize him only after he breaks bread.  Tension’s high; the disciples are unsure what to do or believe.  Although Luke doesn’t tell us this, John informs us that they were hiding behind locked doors because they are afraid.[2]  The memory of Jesus dying on the cross is fresh in their minds and none of them want to end up that way.

I’m sure most of us have experienced the shock of talking about someone and having such person, at the most inopportune moment, appear.   This is the classic case of such a phenomenon.   It’s supposed to be safe to talk about dead people.  But Jesus changes the rules as he appears in the midst of the disciples, proclaiming peace upon them.  “Peace be with you” was a common greeting amongst the Jews of Jesus’ day.  They were not a group of people who knew a lot of peace.  But the greeting also expresses the hope they held in the coming of God’s kingdom, a kingdom of peace.

At first, the disciples are frightened and I’m willing to bet that we’d also be frightened if we had been there.  Jesus calms them by telling them to look and see, it’s him, in the flesh, with the wounds still showing.   Luke informs us that they are joyful, but still not quite sure.  They don’t know what to make of it, so Jesus eats a piece of poached fish and this helps them understand and see him.  It’s interesting that in many of the post resurrection scenes, it’s only in the sharing of food that Jesus is recognized.  Obviously there’s something special about Jesus for him to conquer the grave, mortals don’t do that, but Jesus is still the same old guy, enjoying food and the company of his followers.  Two of these post-resurrection meals involve fish.  Maybe there’ll be seafood in heaven!  We can only hope!

Jesus uses the occasion to once again share with the disciples how he has fulfilled the Scriptures—that his death and resurrection is a part of the divine plan to reclaim the human race.  This is the third time that Luke has included this information in his reports of the first Easter.  It is first told to the women at the tomb by the stranger, probably a heavenly messenger or angel as we heard on Easter morning.  Next, it was Jesus himself explaining this to the disciples on the road to Emmaus as we heard last week.  Although, if you remember, at the time he was explaining it all, the disciples didn’t recognize him.  Now Jesus is with the disciples.

In the second chapter of John we’re told how Jesus predicted his death and resurrection while there at the temple.  “Tear this temple down and I’ll rebuild it in three days,” he says.[3]  At that point, everyone thought Jesus was referring to Herod’s temple, one they’d been working on for forty-six years.  For a mere man to suggest he could single-handedly rebuild the temple in three days was absurd.  It wasn’t until after his death that the disciples realized he was referring to raising up his own body.

Now, with Jesus back among them, things are a bit clearer.  For those of us who look back on the life of Jesus through the resurrection, we have a harder time understanding how the disciples could have been so confused. However, rising from the grave was (and is) unheard of.  When you’re dead, you’re dead.  They were looking for a different kind of Messiah, one that didn’t go out and get himself killed.  And if he did get himself killed, they’d expect his resurrection to make headline news, not the quiet secret way it happened, him only appearing to believers locked behind closed doors, on rural roads, or on deserted beaches.

The gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection are somewhat unglamorous.  Unlike his birth, there are no choruses of angels filling the sky singing praises.  We’re not told of any magi from afar, bearing gifts.  Jesus doesn’t even take the time to haunt Herod and Pilate and the priests, something I would have done.  Instead, Jesus shows up at the most ordinary of places.  He finds his disciples walking along a road, having dinner, out on the sea after a night of fishing.  Even after the resurrection, he’s humble.  He’s a regular sort of guy whose gentleness extends even to the disciples who ran and hid when he was arrested.  But Jesus doesn’t make them feel bad; instead, he uses this last opportunity to teach them, once again, what’s he has been saying all alone.  This time they get it.

This passage closes with Jesus commissioning his disciples to be his witnesses in the world—starting in Jerusalem and extending out to the far reaches of our planet.  As his witnesses, they and we are to proclaim what we’ve experienced—that Jesus offered himself for our sins and, by the power of God, rose from the dead.  His resurrection, however, links his former life to his new life for his wounds are still evident.  He didn’t have a total make-over.  Instead, he comes back with holes in his hands and feet and side.  Jesus’ humanity is unmistakable, but he’s more than a man for he has conquered the grave.

The gospel writers are clear about one thing.  Jesus’ resurrection wasn’t a just a spiritual event.  He didn’t come back as a ghost, nor as a figment of their imagination.  They don’t buy into the Greek concept that we’re given something eternal from God at birth, something that returns to God at death.  Instead, they believed the grave was it.  And let me tell you, the grave is our final resting place, unless the God who gave us the breath of life intervenes.  This is our Christian hope—that God will intervene.

We don’t know or fully understand how Jesus rose from the grave.  Nor do we understand how we might rise from the grave. If we understood such, we’d be God.  There is a mystery about Jesus—a man who was human and divine, one who gave up his life but is able to rise again.  If Jesus is also God, how did he rise from the grave?  We don’t know?  It’s beyond explanation.  Instead of trying to understand, we trust in him and believe that after our own lives are over, God will also intervene.  Because we have this trust in God, a God who came to us as a man named Jesus, we can have faith and work for a better world to come.  Or, like our Scottish ferryman, we can pull on both oars, so that our journey through life might be straight and true.  Amen.

©2016

[1] See also John 21:13-17.

[2] John 20:19.

[3] John 2:19.

The Passion Movie Review

 

The Passion

A Movie Review by Jeff Garrison

Published in The Hastings Banner

March 2004 

 

936full-the-passion-of-the-christ-poster           Two hours of intense brutality.  Over and over again, rods and whips struck Jesus as the crowd called for vengeance that the Roman soldiers were all too willing to provide.  Watching Mel Gibson’s The Passion was exhausting.  This is a powerful movie that holds your attention even when you want to look away.

Is the movie Biblical?  For the most part, yes.  Gibson sticks close to the Scriptures, drawing from all four of the Gospels.  Since this is a two-hour movie, he inserts scenes that are not found in the New Testament.   These, however, do not detract from the overall story.

Is this movie realistic?  I’m not so sure.  First of all, the beating Jesus received was more than a man could have endured.  When the Roman soldiers flog him, an act that Pilate hopes will satisfy the crowd’s appetite, the soldiers first use whips.  Soon, Jesus falls on the ground and the beatings stop.  Then a bloody Jesus slowly pulls himself upright, allowing the soldiers an opportunity to inflict more pain.  They switch implements, using whips embedded with metal hooks.  Demonstrating their destructive nature, a Roman soldier slaps a table and pulls out a chunk of wood.  Then he and a colleague, with all their strength, utilize these horrible whips on Jesus’ back.  I didn’t count how many lashes Jesus received.  It was certainly more than a mortal could endure, for whips with such hooks would have, after just a few stokes, ripped out a man’s ribs and backbone.   I was left to wonder if the Jesus who suffered in Gibson’s movie wasn’t more divine than human, a belief known as Docetism.  The Docetists de-emphasized the humanity of Jesus, a theology labeled a heresy by the early church.  Traditional Christian understanding is that if Jesus were only divine, his suffering would have little meaning for mortals.

In a strange way, I found myself breathing easier once Jesus was on the cross, knowing that his suffering was soon to be over.  However, in actuality, death on the cross was terrible because it was so slow as the victim struggled to breathe.  Cinematically, such a death would hold less interest because of its lack of action, which is perhaps why Gibson’s emphasized Jesus’ suffering prior to the crucifixion more than the cross itself.   Although I did not find the movie anti-Semitic, I think Gibson could have done a better job of portraying the Jewish priests and the crowd.  The priests appeared to be one-dimensional psychopaths, hardly the type to incite a riot.  If we’re to believe, as the church teaches, that all humanity is responsible for Jesus’ death, a more realistic portrayal of the priests and crowd could have left those watching the movie torn over how we might have responded to the situation.  Instead, I couldn’t help but to be angry with the soldiers who carried out the sentence, with the priest who trumped up the charges, and with the crowd who encouraged Pilate go against his conscience and sentence Jesus to death.

Each year in the streets of San Antonio, thousands of people gather to reenact the events from 2000 years ago.  Someone plays Jesus, carrying the cross, as others in the role of Roman centurions clear the crowds and push Jesus forward with the lash of a whip.  During one such reenactment, a young boy with tears in his eyes broke free from his mother’s hand and charged one of the soldiers, kicking him in the shin while yelling for them to leave his Jesus alone.   Having watched The Passion, I know how the boy felt.

Will people be brought into a relationship with Christ, as we hope, or will the movie continue to desensitize us to violence as other movies have done?   Only time will tell.  The Passion does, however, provide us with a graphic understanding of Jesus’ death.  When Jesus told would be disciples they’d have to pick up their cross and follow him, they knew what it meant.  The Romans employed the cross as a way to maintain control and those living in first century Palestine had witnessed enemies of Rome wither in agony upon the  “awful tree.”  Picking up one’s cross emphasized the price one might have to pay to be a disciple.  The Protestant understanding of the resurrection transforming that “awful tree” into the “wondrous cross” led to a sanitization of the cross by removing Jesus and leaving it bare.  The empty cross reminds us that death is not the final word. Yet, we still need to be reminded of the price our Savior paid and the cost of discipleship.  Here The Passion provides insight.  It’s a powerful movie.  But then, the script with which Gibson worked has had the power to changed lives for 2000 years.  My advice to the squeamish, skip the movie and read the Book.

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The Road to Emmaus

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
April 3, 2016
Luke 24:13-35

I was working for the Boy Scouts of America in the summer of 1984. I had just been promoted to a much larger district in a different council and shortly after I arrived, learned that I would be directing camp. It was an incredible time. Camp Bud Schiele was a wonderful camp in the foothills of the North Carolina Mountains. As director, I held a gathering for scout leaders every morning. We’d talk about what was happening and discuss any problems. It generally lasted about thirty minutes. Afterwards, as I was the new kid on the block, I set aside time to meet one-on-one with the leaders from my district. I’d invite them to my office for a cup of coffee. We’d talk.

One day, I singled out the assistant scoutmaster for the Sherrill’s Ford troop. Sherrill’s Ford is a small town located on the west bank of Lake Norman.  camp bud schieleWe sat down and I started asking him questions such as what he did. He said he was a race car driver. I assumed he was speaking of his hobby. “Oh,” I said, “do you run out at the Hickory Speedway.” I’d known lots of guys into racing, having grown up in the South, and all of them would have been down-right-proud to have raced at Hickory. It wasn’t quite Nascar, but it was far better than the dirt tracks. Most Nascar drivers had started out on dirt tracks and as they made their way up the circuit, would race at places like Hickory, before going to the big show.
As soon as I asked the question, I sensed he was a bit offended. “Well, where do you race?” I asked. He started listing all kinds of exotic places like Quebec and Riverside in the Cam-Am circuit. Now I was the one offended. I was thinking to myself, “Yeah, right, and I’m Richard Petty.” It seemed as if bull excrement was getting deep, so I decided to bail out of the conversation before I had to get a shovel. By the way, this was before the internet and google. A week or so later, I ran into a friend who was into racing and I asked, “Do you know of a race car driver named Elliott Forbes-Robinson?” “Yeah, he’s one of the top Cam-Am drivers in the world…” I felt a little silly and later apologized. At the time, I didn’t realize that Lake Norman was becoming a mecca for those in the racing industry.
It can be embarrassing when we don’t recognize who we are talking to, but that didn’t seem to bother some of the disciples after Jesus’ resurrection. When they realized it was Jesus, it was as if their joy drowned out any embarrassment they felt. Our text today follows up our reading from last Sunday as we continue to look at the Resurrection narratives from Luke’s gospel. Read Luke 24:13-35.
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Now that I’ve started off talking about race car drivers… Do you remember the old TV sitcom, “Home Improvement”? In these shows, Tim, one of the lead characters, would often be given advice from Wilson, his neighbor across the fence in the backyard. Often, but not always, this advance was unsolicited. But in one of the episodes, it was Tim who gave Wilson some advice. Wilson was feeling down and spoke about wanting to move back to the place he first met his deceased wife, because his memories of her were beginning to fade. In a somewhat unusual twist, Tim tells Wilson about hearing a retired race car driver say, “You don’t need an ignition switch to keep the memories alive; just a pit crew.” We’re Jesus’ pit crew and we, along with all the other believers starting with the disciples, are challenged with keeping his memory alive…
It’s still Easter in our text, the afternoon after word began to spread around about Jesus not being in the tomb. People are trying to figure this all out. One of the things that I like about Luke’s retelling of the resurrection is how he gives three different stories about what happened that first Easter Sunday. There is the account of the women and later Peter at the empty tomb early in the morning, which we looked at last week. Then there is the account that happens along to the road to Emmaus, which is today’s story. Finally there is the appearance of Jesus among the disciples at a fish fry which we’ll look at next week. In all three accounts, we learn that what had happened was necessary and foretold by prophets: the Messiah had to suffer, die and would rise again.
In the account we’re looking at today, we join up with two disciples who are walking to Emmaus, a town which according to Luke was about seven miles from Jerusalem. By the way, we’re not sure where Emmaus is located. One of the disciples is identified as Cleopas, and we don’t really know who he is as this is his only mention in Scripture. It’s assumed these two disciples were not part of Jesus’ inner-circle (the twelve) but of a larger group of those who followed Jesus. Perhaps they were two of the seventy disciples Luke mentions in the tenth chapter, who were sent out by Jesus.
On this occasion, they are walking and discussing the events of the past few days when a stranger joins them… This makes sense to me, as I have walked a lot in my life. I recall numerous occasions along the Appalachian Trail where I was talking to someone and a third person comes up behind us and, overhearing what we were talking about, adds their two cents worth. In this case, the stranger is able to open their eyes to what has happened.
Interestingly, they do not recognize Jesus. But they must have been appreciative of this stranger’s words, for they invite him to eat with them in Emmaus. We have the sense here that Jesus is willing to just keep on walking, but when he’s invited to the table, he agrees. This sets up an occasion for him to break bread with the two disciples and it is in that act that their eyes are opened and they recognize him.
The disciples are rewarded of their hospitality, perhaps foreshadowing what would later be written in the Book of Hebrews, “Don’t forgot to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it.” In this case, it’s not just an angel, but he Lord himself.
As they walked to Emmaus, I imagine them lollygagging along. Their heads are down, they’re kicking stones. They’re sad about Jesus and not sure what to think of the rumors they’ve heard. Their slow pace allows this stranger to catch up with them and join in their conversation. Afterwards, after Jesus’ opens their eyes, they run back to Jerusalem. Their pace picks up. They have a purpose. They head back to find the disciples, Jesus’ pit crew, to share their story and to hear the stories of others. This passage reminds us of the importance of sharing our experiences with Jesus. It’s called witnessing and by our witness, others come to understand and perhaps have their own encounters, creating their own memories.
Our passage has obvious implications for communion. It is in sharing of the meal, which was important way of bonding in the ancient world, that they (and we) are able to encounter Jesus. Furthermore, if they had not invited Jesus to eat with them, they might not have experienced his grace. They might have spent the evening and the rest of their lives wondering who it was that opened their minds and helped them recall Jesus’ teachings.
Obviously, the main message that Luke is attempt to convey in his three Easter accounts in this chapter is the understanding that Jesus, in fulfillment of prophecy, had to suffer, die and was resurrected. That’s the core belief for Christians.
But there are some other things that we can learn from this passage. Next, we have to be open to listening to others, as the disciples were open to listening to Jesus even before they knew it was him. Another thing, we need to have the excitement of these two disciples who shared their stories, telling the story of Jesus. By doing so, we serve as his pit crew, which is what discipleship is all about, interpreting our lives in his life. Finally, we have to be willing to invite Jesus into our lives. In the book of Revelation, Jesus tells the church in Laodicea that he’s at the door knocking: “if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat you with you and you with me.”
But we have to invite Jesus; he doesn’t barge in on his own. And not only must we invite him, we must make room for him at the table. When we do, we may experience a truth that is greater than anything we’ve known or could know.
We’re about ready to come to the table in which Jesus invites us. But before you come here, invite Jesus into your hearts. Make room for him in your lives. Accept his presence and love, and live showing us his grace to others. By accepting Christ and reflecting his face to the world, you’ll experience a much deeper life that will continue forever. Amen.

©2016

Easter Sunday 2016

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Easter Sunday 2016

Luke 24:1-12

 

The journey to Easter is exhausting.  A lot has happened since last Sunday.  Seven days that seem like seven ages, each pulling on our emotions as we recall the events that led up to the crucifixion of our Lord on Friday.  And mixed in it all is another terrorist attack, this one in Brussels.  And that was just one set of attacks.  There were terrorist attacks in the Congo, Iraq, Syria, the West Bank, the Philippians, Afghanistan, Mali, Yemen, Burundi, Turkey and Somalia.[1]

We live in an age of anxiety.  We live in an age of worry and fear, but we are Christians, followers of Jesus, who defeated death with death.  But before we can get to this point of celebrating victory, we have to remember there was, between the Friday we call good and this morning, an awful silence.  It all seemed lost.  The disciples had given up and the women took the responsibility for doing what was needed, preparing the body for the grave.  But, as the Psalmist proclaims, weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning.[2]  Thankfully, our fears are not the final word.  Only God’s word is eternal.   Our help is in the name of the Lord![3]  Thanks be to God.   Let’s read today’s passage, and see if we remember this story of joy…

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Then they remembered…  I love that line.  The women remembered.  Perhaps we, too, will remember.  And when we do, rejoice.  Death and the grave is not the final word.

Those of you who attended my lecture, “About the Funeral” heard this story, but I’m going to tell part of it again.  My first encounter with death was that of my great-grandma McKenzie.  I was seven years old and we were living at the time in Petersburg, Virginia.  My great-grandma lived on land that had been in the McKenzie family since the middle of the 18th Century.  She had a stroke in the out in the garden.  My great-grandfather was with her and he had to run to call for help-there were no cell phones in rural Moore County in those days, only party lines.  The help that came was too late.  The next day, kind of like the women in our story, we made our preparations and headed out early for the trip to North Carolina.

1957 great-grandparents McKenzies

My great-grandma is to the left. I’m being held by my great-grandfather. Beside him is my father and grandmother. The other child in the front is my uncle, Larry.

That evening we went to the funeral home in Carthage, the county seat for Moore County.  It was a big old house that looked haunted.  It was a hot humid summer evening.  Out in the yard there were men dressed up, having forgone the overalls of the tobacco fields.  They were all clean and dressed in dark pants, white shirts and narrow ties with a tie clip.  They clustered in groups of two or four, smoking and talking.  Women were sitting on the porch that wrapped around the home.  Mom and dad ushered us up the steps and inside to a dimly lighted room.  My great-grandfather was sitting there with tears in his eyes beside the casket contained the remains of my great-grandmother, his wife for nearly sixty years.

As my father talked to his granddad, my mother ushered us kids up to the casket.  She looked like great-grandma, but then she didn’t.  She was dead.  Mom then did something that I’ll never forget and it was a wonderful gift.  She pointed out my great-grandma’s hands.  They were wrinkled and there were liver spots. The only jewelry was a small wedding band on her ring finger.  Mom asked, “I wonder how many apples those hands peeled?  Do you remember her apple pies?”  Of course we remembered her pies, baked in Jugtown pottery.  That question drew my focus from the lifeless body of my great-grandmother and caused me to remember.

We had lived next to my great-grandparents on Dobb’s Chapel Road before moving from Moore County to Virginia a year and a half earlier.  I had fond memories of running through the woods over to their home and being warned not to stray off the path as my great-grandfather had beehives between the path and the road.  I had seen my great-grandfather harvest honey, wearing a suit that covered his body with a screen over his head and a can that produced smoke to flush the bees while stealing their honey.  Although he was no longer actively farming, they still raised much of their food.  There were gardens and chickens, along with apple and pecan trees around the homestead.  Once, I remember helping my great-grandfather gather the wood he’s split and take inside for the wood burning range in the kitchen.  My great-grandma had two stoves in the kitchen: a wood burning stove and a gas stove.  She preferred the former and on Saturdays, in preparation for Sunday dinner, there would be pies cooling in their pottery pans out on the back porch that had been baked in the wood-fired stove.  The smell was heavenly.

That evening in the funeral home I realized I would never again enjoy her cooking.  There’s something sad about that, but not completely.  For you see, when we remember, we shouldn’t only be caught up in the past.  We should remember, as the preacher proclaimed the next day at the funeral, that our lives are in God’s hand and that we know the future will be bright.

The type of memory the women had at the tomb was one based on nostalgia.  That’s the type of memory Adam probably had when he recalled Paradise and the Garden of Eden after his expulsion.[4]  Nostalgic memory makes us sad.  We can’t go back. The type of memory the women experienced at the grave was different.  It was remembering things to come.  They recalled Jesus’ promises of the future, and although we didn’t know what would happen next, they were reassured of Jesus’ continued presence.

Easter is a time of remembering.  Yes, there is a lot of trouble in this world.  We’ve witnessed another terror attack this week, we’ve buried good friends this month, perhaps you’ve heard the news of another friend who is sick.  Despite it all, and Easter doesn’t deny the heart-aches we experience, Easter is a time to remember that in Jesus Christ, death and evil have been defeated.

Let’s look at our text.  Luke begins this day early in the morning.  It’s dark.  The evening before, after the sun had set which signified the end of the Sabbath, the women gathered spices which were to be used to prepare Jesus’ body for the grave.  They wait until early the next morning to finish this task.  It’s the right thing to do.  There’s a death and something needs to be done with the body and in their culture this includes washing it and putting on spices to cover the odor before wrapping it up and placing it into this final place.  But, we’re told in the third verse, there’s no body.  This perplexed them.

Having no body doesn’t mean Jesus had risen from the dead.  After all, someone could have stolen it.  Perhaps they wanted a body to cut up in order to learn the secrets of how it’s knitted together.  After all, there were not medical text books back then. So stealing the body wasn’t out of the question, but before the women could comprehend that, they encounter angels, heavenly messengers. As the angels informed the shepherds of Jesus’ birth, now they tell of his resurrection.  They recap what’s happened over the past few days, things that Jesus had already told them would happen. He’d be handed over to the authorities, would be crucified, would die and then on the third day would rise.  Before the cross, this made no sense.  Now they remember!

Leaving the tomb, forgetting all about the spices, they find the eleven remaining disciples and tell them.  But the disciples don’t believe.  “It must be an idle tale,” they think.  I don’t think it’s because the witnesses are women that the disciples dismiss their story—they wouldn’t have believed anyone.[5]  They’d seen people die on the cross.  You don’t survive such an experience; you’re a lot worse for the wear.

But Peter isn’t so sure.  Peter, the rock upon whom Jesus will build his church,[6] runs to the tomb and he, like the women, is amazed.  I am sure Peter remembered a lot that morning, at the moment he stuck his head into the tomb.  He remember not only Christ’s words and promises, but also his own failing having denied his Lord three times the night before the crucifixion.  Yet, such failing is quickly forgotten when one considers the hope that has come through the empty tomb.  Such failings are washed away with Jesus’ blood.  And now Jesus is back, as Peter will later experience.  As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?”[7] Paul goes on to say, we have victory over death through our Lord Jesus Christ.

What does all this mean to us?  The gospel, the good news, is that we worship a God who has control over life and death, a God who has the world in his hands.  Yes, we are waiting for the kingdom to be fully realized, but we know it’s coming.  We don’t have to worry for we are forgiven and freed from guilt and sin.  We’re not to worry for we are freed to live eternally, with Christ.

Georgia’s own, Ferrol Sams, a physician turned author, has a short story about the agape love between himself, a Georgian family physician, and a neurologist from Lebanon who worked at Emory.   The story takes the form of a letter to the man’s children.  He tells about a trip their father took them on, in the 80s, to Lebanon so that their grandfather could meet and hold his grandchildren.  Sams had tried to talk his friend out of the journey, saying that his “Carolina wife” and kids would not be safe. At the time the country was torn apart in a terrible Civil War.  But he insisted on going.  Sams then tells the man’s children in this letter that he frequently prayed during those three weeks, but that he did not worry.  Attempting to impart his faith on these children, he went on to add, “I prayed but I did not worry, since there is absolutely no logic of a Christian doing both.”[8]  He remembered!

And how about you?  Do you remember?  When you are deep in trouble, do you remember?  When someone disappoints you, do you remember?  When your friends betray you, do you remember?  When it seems your body is falling apart, do you remember?  When your dreams die, do you remember?  When the world is crashing in all around us and threatening to overwhelm us, do you remember?  Do we remember?

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shalt not want… Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.[9]  Remember and believe.   Remember and trust the Lord.  Amen.

©2016

[1] Source:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_terrorist_incidents,_January%E2%80%93June_2016

[2] Psalm 30:5

[3] Psalm 124:8

[4] Inspiration from this thought came from a line used by Wendell Berry in Remembering: A Novel (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1988), 24.

[5] Fred B. Craddock, Luke: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 283.

[6] Matthew 16:18

[7] 1 Corinthians 15:55.

[8]Ferrol Sams, The Widow’s Mite and Other Stories (New York: Penguin, 1987), 121.

[9] Psalm 23 is attributed to David.

Kirkin’ o’ the Tartan Service to celebrate Scottish Heritage

DSC_0206 (2)On Sunday, April 10, 2016, Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church will celebrate Scottish heritage with a Kirkin’ o’ the Tartans service.  This colorful and festive service will include the flying of dozens of tartans throughout the Sanctuary along with a procession of tartans that will be led by a Beadle (a lay assistant to the Pastor) carrying the Bible and a bagpipe.  This year’s Beadle will be William Foster.  The service will begin at 10 AM.  The sermon will be preached by the pastor, the Reverend Dr. C. Jeffrey Garrison, a descendant of the MacKenzies who settled in the upper Cape Fear region of North Carolina in the mid-18th Century.  The service will include Scottish prayers.  Everyone is welcomed.

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

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Sanctuary for 2015 Kirkin

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

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Piper at 2015 Kirkin’

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

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

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Palm Sunday 2016: Humility is essential for leadership

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Philippians 2:1-11

March 20, 2016

Palm Sunday

 

Today is Palm Sunday.  The title of the day causes us to recall the pomp and circumstance of Jesus entering Jerusalem as a victorious king.  Yet, there are subtle questions raised with this celebration.  Jesus isn’t riding a handsome stallion, worthy of leading an army into battle.  One that rises up on two legs as the commander orders his troops to charge. Nor does Jesus ride an elephant as did Hannibal’s army, capable of travelling miles and miles with heavy equipment.  Nor does Jesus ride a fleet-footed camel known to make long treks quietly across the desert, allowing his mount to sneak up on his enemy.  Instead, Jesus comes into town riding a lowly donkey, like a lonely prospector.  Yet the crowds greet him with cheers and palm branches.  Are they serious or just acting a part?  Maybe they are looking for entertainment?  After all, before the week is over, the crowds will be calling for Jesus’ crucifixion.  And what about us?  Are we serious about our worship of Jesus?  And will we be willing to stick with him when the going gets tough?  Or will we join the crowd and cry out for his death?

Today’s text for the sermon comes from Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  Read Philippians 2:1-11.

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Timothy Keller, in his book Counterfeit God’s writes:  “One of the ironies of sin is that when human beings try to become more than human beings, to be as gods, they fall to become lower than human beings.  To be your own God and live for your own glory and power leads to the most bestial and cruel kind of behavior.  Pride makes you a predator, not a person.”[1]

That’s a pretty strong statement…  “Pride makes you a predator.”  Yet, we encourage our children to be proud, we are proud of our schools, our team, our community, our race, our ethnicity, our country, even our churches.  In school we went to pep-rallies in which pride would be instilled.  As adults, we go to tailgate parties to beef-up the pride before a big game, or to political rally where there is a lot of flag waving and speeches calling on our pride.

In scripture, we’re told that pride comes before the fall.  We’ve seen examples of that of the past couple of days as the NCAA finals get underway.  In Scripture, Lucifer’s pride was so great that he fell from heaven.[2]  But is all pride bad?  It is obvious, I believe, that there can be good which comes from pride.  Taking pride in oneself encourages us to strive to be better, as an individual or within a community.  Where is the line that we cross that makes pride so dangerous?  Certainly, with pride, like a lot of things, too much of a good thing is not only dangerous but destructive.

Of all his letters, Paul correspondence with the Philippians is one of his warmest.  You get the sense Paul has close connections with this church that he had founded in his first European excursion.[3]  Reading this letter, you come away with the idea the Philippians also had a good relationship with Paul.  After all, Paul was in prison when he received a visitor from the Christians in Philippi, who came with a gift.[4]  Paul is writing this letter to thank them and to impart some wisdom about how they are to live the Christian life—especially how they can rejoice in all things.  Considering Paul’s condition, being in chains, such advice carries weight! Unlike some of his other letters (especially to Corinth), the church in Philippi appears to be in relatively good shape.  People are mostly getting alone, but that doesn’t mean there is no dissension.  In the fourth chapter, Paul lifts out two individuals specifically to whom he admonishes.[5]  Once again, we see there are no perfect churches.  But in the New Testament, the church in Philippi is better than most.

The second chapter, from where our reading began, focuses on this unity that Paul encourages all his churches to maintain.  The focus for Paul is always, not on ourselves and what we need, but on the needs of others.  However, on a simple reading of the opening of this passage, we might think that Paul is saying one thing and doing another.  Paul concludes the first sentence (in the second verse) with the plea “make my joy complete.”  It’s as if Paul is saying, “be nice to one another, it’ll make me happy.”  Mom’s say that to kids: “Play nice, it’ll make me happy.”  What it really means is that mom will have some peace.

But Paul isn’t really concerned for his own happiness here.  As one commentator writes, Paul was completely identified both with Christ and the church that his joy was not to be his alone…”[6]  “Think about others, those who are around you,” Paul says.  This is good advice for marriages, for people in business, and for anyone living in a community.  If we can get everyone focusing outwardly, on others, the world would be so much better.  The joy won’t only be Paul’s but that of Christ and his church!

You’ve probably heard the story of the management professor in a university giving his students a final exam.  The students spent hours cramming for the exam, trying to review all the theories they’d learned throughout the term.  They were all anxious when they got to their seats and the professor handed out the exams.  When the order was given, they opened the exam and found one question, “What is the name of the woman who cleans this building?”  They were stunned, shocked, and most failed the exam.  But they learned an important lesson.  Our success in life depends on others and, as Paul says, we are to honor them.  “In humility regard others as better than yourselves!  Don’t look out for your own interests, but to the interests of others!”

Paul then, beginning in verse 5, lifts up Christ as the supreme example.  In verses 6 through 11, he recites what may be the first Christian hymn.  These verses contain important Christological and theological insights, yet Paul doesn’t cite it in order to provide doctrinal proofs.  His motive is ethical.[7]  Jesus spoke of the last being first, and those who want to save their lives will lose them, but those who lose their life for Christ’s sake with save them.[8]  Likewise, Paul emphasizes that the surest way up is to step down, the way to gain is to give up.[9]

There are three movements in the Christ-hymn that correspond to the life of Jesus Christ: pre-existence, existence, and post-existence.[10]  In verse 6, we are reminded of Christ’s divine nature, in the form of God.  But this wasn’t something that Christ exploited for he willingly humbled himself down to our level.  Actually Christ goes even lower than our level.  He becomes a slave.  At this time, the idea of a god becoming a king or emperor or Caesar wasn’t far-fetched.  But the idea that a god would come as a regular Joe was crazy.   Christ, however, takes on the lowest of roles, that of a slave, and is willing even to die with and like a criminal.  That’s not what people considered “god-like” in the first century.  Yet, it is because of Christ’s willingness to be so humbled, according to Paul, that death wasn’t the final word for Christ or for us.  Instead, he was lifted up to glory and when the kingdom is fully fulfilled, everyone will give him glory.  A three-fold movement: Christ leaving his divine throne in order to be with us.  Christ dying and because of his faithfulness being raised.  Therefore, Christ will reign through eternity.

On the day we recall the events of the first Palm Sunday, we remember how the crowds became all excited upon Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.  They were praising him, but they were doing it either out of fun or because they were thinking that Jesus was going to be something else—an earthly ruler to challenge the Romans.  They wanted him to be an earthly king.  The honor that Jesus received on that road into Jerusalem was the façade of true power.  True power comes from the hard-fought ways of death and the resurrection.  Verse 8 emphasizes that Jesus’ death was real and total and horrific: “death—even death on a cross.”  Jesus surrenders and faces the uncertainty of death, like all of us will, eventually.  But in verse nine there is a shift, as God the Father steps in not only to raise Jesus, but to exalt him.

There is an old hymn that goes, “All to Jesus, I surrender all.”  Jesus paves the way by surrendering it all for us!  A life of faith is one of surrendering to Christ.

John Calvin, writing on this passage, notes there are two clauses here.  In the first, Paul “persuades us to imitate Christ, because this is the rule of life: in the second, he invites us to it, as being the road by which we attain true glory.”[11]  There is something paradoxical about all this—being humbled and obtaining glory—but that is what our faith is about.

Remember, although Paul provides insight into Christ’s nature, he’s writing to encourage the Philippians to live in a way that will produce a Christ-like community.  It’s in such a community that Jesus’ message flourishes and we’re enabled to live out our calling to be disciples.  Again, as we find throughout the Scriptures, the message boils down to “it ain’t about us.”  The Christian life isn’t to be about us—it is to be about others.  And the Christian message isn’t about us—it’s about God.  A God who has power over death as we witness in Jesus Christ, who died and who lives.

Back to the Keller quote that I began with.  If we live as if we are a god (with a little g), we will be disappointed for that is not the way of the real God, the creator of the world, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  If we want to live like the real God, we must serve and remember that humility is a virtue, not a liability.  And for my question earlier about the limits of pride, anytime it we become more important than anyone else, we’re skating on thin ice.

So live your lives of faith by following Jesus’ example.  Go into the Jerusalems of your lives, where people may at one moment praise you and the next stab you in the back.  Go into such settings, wishing no one ill and encouraging everyone, trusting the present and the future to an all-powerful God who holds all things in his hand.  Amen.

[1]Timothy Keller, Counterfeit God’s: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power and the Only Hope that Matters, (New York: Dutton, 2009), 121.

[2] Proverbs 16:18 and Isaiah 14:12-13.

[3] Acts 16:6-15.

[4] Philippians 4:18

[5] Philippians 4:2-3

[6] See Philippians 1:7, 8.  Fred B. Craddock, Philippians: Interpretation, A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985), 36.

[7] Gerald F. Hawthorne, Philippians: Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 43), (Waco, TX: Word Publishing, 1983), 79.

[8] Last/first:  Matthew 19:20, 20:8, 20:16; Mark 9:35, 10:31; Luke 13:30.  Save life/losing: Matthew 16:25; Mark 8:35, Luke 9:24.

[9] Hawthrone, 95.

[10] Craddock, 40.

[11] John Calvin, Commentary on Philippians 2:5.  T. H. L. Parker, translator.

Barbecue, North Carolina Politics and Memories of Ron

An article about barbecue and North Carolina politics in the New York Times today got me thinking about Ron Carroll, who hired me to work for the Boy Scouts in early 1981.  Ron died in 2006, ten years this month.  This is a collection of memories I wrote about Ron.  To reach the NYT article, click here.

 

With our plates overloaded with bron carrollarbecue, cole slaw, baked beans and hushpuppies, Ron and I went searching for empty seats at the makeshift tables that filled Clarkton’s tobacco warehouse. It was a month or so after market, but the sweet smell of Brightleaf Tobacco lingered. We nudged our way to a couple empty seats. Ron turned to the man and his wife sitting next to them and asked if these seats were available.

“Ya’ll good Democrats, aren’t you?” the man asked in a strong southern dialect.

“Hell yeah, wouldn’t vote no other way,” Ron shot back.

I about dropped my plate as I knew Ron had never voted for a Democrat in his life.

It was homecoming day for Jimmy Green, North Carolina’s Lieutenant Governor. Green had just been acquitted of some kind of corruption charge. I was a young district scout executive and since many of Green’s supporters were also scout volunteers, they’d arranged from him to give a sizable gift to our camp and I was there to be a part of presenting him a plaque in front of his friends and neighbors on this day of celebration. Ron was my boss, the council executive, and I had told him about the program and he asked if he could tag along. Waiting for the program to began, we ate our barbeque and drank glasses of ice tea. Ron, with his Mississippi accent, fit right in.

Ron was a salesman, and a good one. He’d recruited me to work for the Boy Scouts, taking a significant pay cut when I left the bakery. He was also a good teacher and mentor and to this day I am indebted to him. Under Ron’s tutelage, I learned to run successful fundraising campaigns which not only raised money, but empowered people to feel a part of the organization. Although on this day in Clarkton, we were honoring someone who’d given a large gift to the scouting program, Ron continually emphasized to his staff that we go after every gift, regardless of size. Emphasizing the importance of grass root gifts, Ron told and retold the story of Big Jim Folsom, a populist governor from Alabama in the mid-20th Century. Whenever Folsom spoke, he passed the hat and encouraged people to put in what they could. “Even if all you have is some change,” Folsom would quip, “that’s fine; every gift is important and we will use your gifts to fight for you.” Folsom’s advisors questioned this policy, reminding him he had plenty of fat-cats backing him and didn’t need to nickel and dime the poor folk, but Folsom knew better. “People make their commitment with money,” he told them, “and if they give me a quarter, I don’t have to worry when the next candidate who comes around seeking their support; they’ve already sealed their commitment to me.

The last time I saw Ron, I asked him about Folsom. We talked for a few minutes about the former governor. Ron, who had later in his career worked with many in Clinton’s administration, told me that Bill Clinton could have learned from Folsom’s straightforward approach. According to Ron, Big Jim had once been caught going into a hotel room with a beautiful young woman who wasn’t his wife. He admitted to his constituents that he’d made a mistake, but went on to say that his opponents were out to get him and that girl had been the bait they’d used and anytime they use bait that appealing, they’re going to catch Big Jim.

“Ron,” I said, “Monica wasn’t that good looking and furthermore, I don’t think Willie was set up.”

Ron laughed and told me another story. A rumor had circulated that Folsom was known to have cocktails with the Kennedy clan. “That’s a damn lie,” Folsom retorted. “Everyone knows I don’t drink cocktails, I drink my whiskey straight, just like you folks.”

Although Ron had learned the skills of motivating people from a populist governor who was also a racist, Ron worked hard to overcome the prejudices instilled in those of us who grew up in the South. That last day I’d spent with Ron, I reminded him of an incident that occurred one day, not long after I’d started working with the Boy Scouts. Ron and I made a call on a Baptist pastor in Evergreen, a small community in Columbus County which did not have a scout troop at this time. Several parents and kids in the community, most of whom were black, had requested that a unit be started. We just needed to find a chartering organization. We had pleasant chat with this pastor, but he insisted that although he’d love to see a scout program, his deacons would have a fit if black boys were running around in their church. I started to argue about this being an unchristian attitude, but Ron cut me off. He was nice and polite and told the pastor that if things changed, to contact us. We quickly left, but as we drove away, Ron muttered, “That lying son-of-a-bitch.”  “Don’t you believe he really wanted the troop,” I asked. Ron said that he felt the pastor and the deacons were of the same mind. Then I asked why he didn’t want to confront the man.  He said that there was no way we were going to change his mind.  It was better to leave, letting him think better of us than we did of him.

Ron chuckled, as I recalled the incident that had happened nearly a quarter century earlier. He wasn’t doing very well, having had numerous surgeries and bouts of chemotherapy in an attempt to fight an aggressive brain cancer. His face was bloated from the drugs and he’d often forget what he was saying. I spent half a day with him while his wife ran errands. At about 11 AM, Ron insisted we have ice cream. An hour later, he decided we needed a sandwich and a beer. Ron was the only boss I had in my life who would treat his staff to drinks at lunch! We talked about working together in the early 80s and what had happened to the two of us since. Ron had risen in the scouting ranks to become the Scout Executive in Washington, DC, where he rubbed shoulders with many of those in government—Republicans and Democrats. He had done well, until his health forced to take a medical retirement, after which he moved back to Wilmington. Although we always exchanged Christmas cards, I had only seen him a couple of times in the 20 years since he’d been my boss. Ron talked about how he hoped to have a chance to write his memoirs before he died. That chance never came. In another two months, Ron would be dead.cape fear council 1981 Cape Fear Council staff (~1982).  Back row from left:  John Cabeza (Laurinburg), Ron Carroll (Council Executive), Ray Franks (Wilmington), Andy McKay (Camp Director),  ? (Lumberton), Me (in Whiteville, at this time I had hair and no beard).  I don’t remember all those in the office.  The red head with a uniform is Theresa Smith, the woman with a uniform and neckerchief is Pam Jeffers (she would later marry Ron) and the  woman in pink that is hiding me is Ms. Lillian.

Worshiping Jesus

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church 

John 12:1-8

March 13, 2016

 

There is a Peanut’s comic strip where Charlie Brown approaches Lucy about the problem of world hunger.  Lucy shrugs her shoulder in implied indifference.  Charlie Brown then goes to other friends and asks them their thoughts on world hunger.  He receives essentially the same reply.  Finally, Charlie Brown explodes and yells at his friends, “I least I feel guilty about it.[1]

“At least I feel guilty about it.”  Guilt can be a great motivator and perhaps parents are its best practitioners and worse offenders.  When I was a kid, my parents would say, “Eat your green beans, don’t you care about the starving children in China?”  I did and would have gladly given them my green beans.

There is another Peanut comic strip that illustrates how parents are masters of motivation by guilt.  Linus is eating lunch on the playground.  As he opens the bag packed by his mom, he finds a letter.  It reads:

 

Dear Son, I hope you enjoy and also appreciate the lunch I made for you today.  Did you have a nice morning?  Did you volunteer in class as I suggested?  Teachers are always impressed by students who volunteer.  It is a sure way to better grades.  Remember, better grades now will mean a better college later on.  Did you eat your carrots?  Proper nutrition is essential to good sight.  Are you sitting in the sun?  I hope so for a little is good as long as you don’t overdo it.  Perhaps ten minutes a day this time of the year is just about right…

At this point in his letter, Charlie Brown comes over and joins Linus on his bench.  “What’s for lunch, Linus?” he asks.  “Carrots, Peanut Butter and Guilt!”[2]

Guilt is a productive yet terrible motivator.  If you’re feeling guilty about the poor and need an excuse to relieve your conscience, Jesus gives you one in our morning reading.  “You will always have the poor with you,” he says.  I’ve heard people use this passage as a way to justify doing nothing about poverty.      However, Jesus was and still is concerned about the poor.  In the parable of the judgment of the nations, when Jesus speaks of separating the sheep and goats, he informs us we better be concerned about those who are in need.[3] Let’s go to the Scriptures and see what this text is all about. Read John 12:1-8

###

 

Why does Jesus dismiss Judas’ suggestion that the perfume be sold and given to the poor?  Why does he, the one who fed the multitudes, say something as crass as “You’ll always have the poor with you?”

Jesus, I believe, in this text is speaking about his upcoming crucifixion and not making any statement about God’s desire that there always be poor people.  If anything else was intended, he was affirming the truth of human sinfulness.  Jesus was paraphrasing a passage from Deuteronomy where the fact that there will always be those in need is tied to the need for Israel to always be generous.[4]

Let’s look at the characters in our story and see what we might learn.  First of all, there is Lazarus.  He and his sisters have invited Jesus (and we presume his disciples), over for a home cooked meal.  Lazarus doesn’t say much in this story.  He’s fresh out of the grave.  He’s probably still in a bit of daze.  He wonders what he missed out on during those days he was in the tomb.  The stench of death may even still linger a bit. Although Lazarus doesn’t participate in the dialogue, his presence is noteworthy for in John’s gospel his “resurrection” is the event that precipitates the authorities’ decision to have Jesus killed.

As long as Jesus was wandering around in Galilee, he was safe.  But when he enters Bethany, having heard of Lazarus’ illness, Jesus moves closer to Jerusalem, to the power center of the Jewish religion.  His disciples have warned him of impending trouble, but Jesus brushes off their concern.[5]  Then, to make matters worse, Jesus finds Lazarus dead.  Instead of quietly consoling the family, Jesus raises Lazarus from the grave.  When the word of Lazarus’ resurrection is received by the Jewish leaders, they call a meeting of council.  Their decision is that Jesus must go.[6]

The little dinner party at Lazarus’ home may have been to celebrate his return to the living and to thank Jesus for his role in the miracle.  Martha takes her familiar place in the kitchen, preparing the meal.  Unlike the other meal Jesus had with the sisters, Martha doesn’t complain about her work and Mary’s inattention to the task at hand.[7]  Obviously, she his glad for her brother’s return and does what she does best to honor Jesus.  While Martha cooks, Mary goes out and finds the Avon lady and purchases a bottle of wonderful perfume.  This is the good stuff, made from pure nard imported from Northern India, no artificial ingredients in this ointment.[8]  She, too, is thankful for her brother’s return and wants to do what she can to honor Jesus.

Mary comes into their home and to everyone’s surprise, pours out the perfume on Jesus’ feet, not exactly the behavior you’d except from a proper woman of Palestine.  The fragrance fills the room.  John uses our senses in retelling this story and the reader of the gospel is immediately reminded of a contrasting smell at Lazarus’ tomb. [9]  There, it was the stench of death.  Now, it’s the fragrance of heaven.

Following the anointing of Jesus, in what is one of the more sensual scenes in Scripture; Mary knells down in front of Jesus and soaks up the excess perfume with her hair.  I’m sure for a week or so, everyone knew what she’d done.  That scent would have lingered in her hair!

John only mentions one disciple being present, although the others may have also been present.  Judas, however, is the one who participates in the dialogue.  When Mary comes in and begins to pour the perfume on Jesus’ feet and then to wipe them with her hair, he has had enough.  Perhaps he’s jealous.  Perhaps the fragrance bothers his allergies.  But more likely Mary’s tenderness hardens his heart even more.  He shames Mary for wasting an expensive bottle of perfume, one that cost a year’s wages for a laborer. Had Mary been concerned about the poor, she could have sold the bottle and taken care of a working class family for a whole year!

Of course, John doesn’t let us get sucked into accepting Judas’ logic.  Right away he provides an editorial comment that shows Judas’ true intention.  Judas doesn’t really care about the poor.  In fact, Judas has been the stealing from the fund that was used to take care of those in need.  Perhaps Judas felt if he had been given those 300 coins, he could replace what he’d stolen and no one would have known.  Or maybe he just wanted more.  Whatever was his reason, Judas attempts to motivate Mary out of guilt.  He shames her in front of Jesus in an attempt to get Mary to respond in a way that he feels appropriate.

What is this passage about?  On one level it gives us a clue about what’s going to happen to Jesus.  Mary’s anointing of Jesus foretells his death.  Furthermore, Jesus himself announces that he’s not going to be around much longer and that what Mary did was an act of noble worship.  I think the passage has more to do with worship than with just being a sign of Jesus’ impending death.

As humans, we have a need to worship.  God created us with this need and hopes that when we realize all he’s done for us, we will, as Isaiah says, “declare his praise.”[10] Although God has given us this need, he doesn’t force us to worship him.  So quite often we inappropriately express our need to worship.  This is idolatry, a substitution of a god of our own making for the God that is the creator of all things seen and unseen.

As I said, this passage is really about worship.  As Christians, we are to offer our best to God and one of the primary means we do this is in worship.  In a way, worship is a performance; yet, quite often we are performing for the wrong audience.  Sometimes I come to worship hoping to impress you with my words and jokes, just as I’m sure musicians sometimes perform for your pleasure.  However, that’s now what this is about.  True worship is not directed at those of you in the pews.  Sorry to inform you, but you’re not that important!  True worship involves all of us: the preacher, the musicians, the ushers and you, the congregation.  All of us are in this grand drama of offering our best to God.  Instead of the one at the pulpit being an actor, we’re all actors and God is the audience.  At our best, the preacher and the musicians are prompters or stage directors.  We help focus the attention on God.  We come to worship out of gratitude for what God has done for us.  We offer God our best, just as Mary came to Jesus with a limited edition bottle of perfume.  She offered her best to her friend and Savior and we’re to do the same.

Now back to guilt.  We shouldn’t feel guilty about offering God our best because we can’t out give God.  And God doesn’t want us to try.  To do so would be to attempt to usurp God, which is idolatry.  Instead, when we realize what God has done for us and respond out of gratitude, the burden of guilt is lifted. Guilt has no place in worship or in a Christian service.  God doesn’t want us to offer or our best in worship or to give to the poor out of guilt. That would make us resentful of God and of those who are in need of our help.  Instead, we need to respond to God out of appreciation for what God, in Jesus Christ, has already done for us.  Mary’s gift of perfume and Martha’s wonderful home-cooked meal are examples of graciously responding to the love of Jesus Christ.

“How will we respond to the love of Jesus Christ?”  This is an important question. Take some time to ponder it this week.  How will you respond to the love Christ?  Amen.

 

©2016

 

[1] As told by Andrew Purves, The Search for Compassion: Spirituality and Ministry (Louisville: WJKP, 1989), 17.

[2] See Abraham J. Twerski, MD, When Do the Good Things Start (NY: Topper Books, 1987), 62.

[3] Matthew 25:31-46.

[4] See Deuteronomy 15:11 and Gerard Sloyan, John: Interpretation, A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: JKP, 1988), 153.

[5] John 11:7

[6] John 11:45-54.

[7] Luke 10:38-42.

[8] Nard came from the root and spike (hair stem) of a plant known as “spikenard” which grew in the mountains of Northern India.  See Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII (New York: Doubleday, 1966), 448, n.3

[9] Cf: Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 702.

[10] Isaiah 43:21

Times of Transition

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church 

March 6, 2016

Joshua 5:8-12

  Our passage today comes at the point when Israel has entered the Promised Land.    It’s a time when Israel recalls who they are and to whom they belong.  It’s a transition, an occasion for religious rituals and feasts.  The fifth chapter of Joshua begins with the circumcision of the men, resuming a practice that had not happened during the wilderness.  Then they celebrate Passover.

Interestingly, there are six major Passover celebrations in the Hebrew Scriptures.  The first is in Egypt, right before they left.  The second is a year later, at Sinai, with the giving of the law.  This is the third celebration.  The fourth and fifth celebrations come with King Hezekiah and Josiah as they try to reform Israel.  The sixth celebration is at the rebuilding of the temple after the Babylonian exile.  Each of these events marks a significant point in Israel’s history.[1]  If you want to play with numbers, the number seven in Scripture is holy.  The seventh Passover could be inferred to be Jesus’ Passover, his sacrificial death as we recall with the Lord’s Supper which we’ll celebrate this morning.

As I’ve said, our morning text comes at a time of transition, the ending of the Exodus and the entry into the Promised Land. There will be no turning back.  God has led them this far, now they are having to do something for themselves. The manna from heaven has come to an end.  The must focus on the future into which God is calling them.  Read Joshua 5:8-12

###

 

All of us go through transitions—as individuals and as communities.   One day we’re happy in school and the next we’re working 9 to 5 (or 11 to 7 in my case, for when I finished college I went straight onto the night shift).  One day we’re enjoying the fruits of our mom’s table and the next we’re eating burnt toast and running eggs prepared with our own hands.  One day we’re going to work and the next we’re retired and trying to figure it out.  One day I’m fit and healthy and the next I snap my quad tendon.  Life is full of changes: always has been, always will be.

The Hebrew people are going through a significant transition.  After 400 years of slavery and 40 years of wandering in the desert, they have finally entered the land promised to Abraham and his descendants.  Now that they’ve come home, two things happen.  They are weaned from God’s daily providence of substance and one again required, as we’re told in the third chapter of Genesis, to make a living from the sweat of their brow.[2]  The second change is that they are able to freely institute religious rituals without being harassed by their masters or prohibited from doing due to their wandering in the desert.  This transition is marked by the reinstitution of circumcision and the celebration of Passover.

Today, the church in America and the Western World is facing changes.  We are having to relearn what it means to be a follower of Jesus in a new and radically different world from which we’ve known.  We have to learn how to share Jesus in a new way that will reach a new generation that approaches life differently than us.  We, too, are facing transitions.

You remember, I’m sure, the story of how Israel got to where she’s at in our reading.  After the Hebrew people were free from slavery, having crossed through the sea that closed up and drowned the pursing Egyptian army, they realized they were in a precarious position.  Yes, they’re free, but how are they to feed a nation in a barren wilderness?  Food’s scarce.  In Egypt they’d filled their stomach on grains and meat but in the desert, the pickings are slim.  There aren’t that many mountain goats and fried cactus for dinner doesn’t go over very well.  There’s this small problem of having toothpicks hidden in the entrée.

But God isn’t going to lose his redeemed people, those who had been purchased for a price in Egypt, so he provides for their nourishment.  There is this bread like substance called manna that falls upon the ground from the heavens.   In the mornings they gather enough for that day, but if they try to hoard any extra, it spoils.  It’s not a commodity to be saved and traded with others.  The only day they can “collect” an extra measure is the day before the Sabbath, when they need enough for two days.[3]

It doesn’t take them long to get tired of eating only manna, so God provides quails for meat.[4]  And so, for forty years, their diet consisted of manna and quail, provided through an ultra-efficient food delivery system, fresh right outside their tents every morning.  Life isn’t hard and they get used to it.

But all good things must come to an end and so it is with the manna and quail.   Upon entering the Promised Land, the Hebrew people hold a Passover feast and from then on work for their daily bread.  God’s ultimate welfare system is replaced and everyone is required to follow a plow or chop weeds.  God provides, but God also wants us to grow to where we can take responsibility and do our part in working within creation.

I’m sure some of you have read Erich Fromm’s, The Art of Loving.  The book may sound somewhat risqué, but I assure you that it’s not a how-to manual of what should happen in the bedroom.  It’s a philosophical treatise on “love.”  Fromm draws from scripture as he writes about “motherly love.”  God creates the world and humanity.  Within the world God provides our basic needs, but God goes further and declares, “It is good.”  This corresponds with “motherly love” by providing for our needs and helping us to experience the joy of life.  With the Promised Land, flowing with milk and honey, we have additional signs of motherly love—milk to nourish and honey to remind us of the sweetness of life.  Yet, motherly love is built on inequality.  The infant child is totally dependent on the mother.  Motherly love has to grow and change as the child grows.  If the child is to become a completely separate human being and able to express love to others, the mother can’t continue to provide for all of his or her needs.  In addition to motherly love, Fromm speaks of brotherly and erotic love which, unlike motherly love, exists in its finest form between equals.[5]

God provided for the Israelites in the wilderness in a very special way.  But the free food wasn’t to continue.  For once God provides them with a homeland, they’re required to participate with God as co-creators as they toil to raise their food.  Of course, God doesn’t lead them into the land and abandon them, just as God doesn’t abandon us.  God remains at their side.  Having protected and provided for them during the wilderness, they can now fulfill the role which God had destined for them.

God desires that we mature, that we get to a point that we can be responsible and take care of ourselves and fully participate with him in the role assigned to us.  When God carries us, as he did with the Hebrew children in the Exodus, we learn we are to depend on God.  When God leads us to a new place where we can be productive, we shouldn’t forget that lesson but instead give God thanks for giving us the means to take care of ourselves.

Those of us here at Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church have seen evidence of God providing and being with us.   We have this wonderful facility upon which there is no debt!  This place provides a home for a Christian preschool, the only one on the island and currently it is filled.  We need to do something about that. Right now, there are no open slots in any of the classrooms!  We also provide a home for the Boy Scouts, and I hope some of you picked up a Boston Butt that they smoked this weekend.  Because we are debt-free, we are able to contribute generously in our mission giving and a group from our church has just come back from a hands-on mission in Guatemala.  I hope you have had a chance to read our annual report so that you could see for yourself some of the exciting things happening at SIPC.

But God doesn’t call us to rest upon our laurels.  How might we use what God has given us to continue being a partner with God as we carry out His mission in our community?  We’re fast approaching the Easter season, a time of rebirth that occurs during the spring when the flowers are in bloom and the trees are budding out.  Pray that we, as a congregation, might also experience a rebirth.  Pray that we might enjoy a revival in our community as we bring people to Christ and then send them out into the world to make it a better place.  Our calling is to drawn in people to where they experience Christ, then to send them out to participate in God’s on-going mission.

In a few moments, God will nourish us in this table.  What does God nourish us to do?  At the table, we’re to be filled with the Spirit as we are reminded of Christ’s presence in our lives that gives us the power to live in this world.  This table is a reminder that we inherit blessings from the past, but we live our blessings into the future.  Amen.

 

 

©2016

[1] E. John Hamlin, Joshua: Inheriting the Land (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 36-37.  Text for the other five celebrations in the Old Testament:  Exodus 12:27-29, Numbers 9:5, 2 Chronicles 30, 2 Kings 23:21-23, Ezra 6:19-20

[2] Genesis 3:19.

[3] See Exodus 16 and Numbers 11.

[4] Exodus 16:13 and Numbers 11:31

[5] Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving (1956, Harper&Row, Perennial Library, 1974), 41-44.

Sing a New Song!

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

February 28, 2016

Isaiah 42:10-17

 

I’ve been working on puzzles a lot lately.  When living in Michigan, we put a lot of puzzles together.  This was generally a winter activity and they were often assembled on a table in front of the fireplace.  There is something about puzzles that suck you in.  Once you get the border completed, you start off slow, a piece here and there.   Then, soon a section comes together quickly, but then the hunting for pieces slows down a bit.  After a long periods where things go fast then slow, you finally get down to the last 50 or so pieces.  Then it goes very fast, as if it’s a race till completion.

Perhaps we could understand our life with God as a puzzle.  At times, we struggle to find the next piece.  But we’re in God’s hand.  We trust all the pieces are there.  We keep plugging along, knowing that the best ahead of us.  Actually when things look overwhelming, such as when there are a 1000 pieces dumped out on a table, that’s when God does his best work.  And maybe, instead of us seeing ourselves as the one putting the puzzle together with God’s help, we are the puzzles and God is wonderfully putting us together.  Just a thought…

Today, we’re going to dig into the book of Isaiah.  The middle section of Isaiah, which begins with Chapter 39 and often called “Second Isaiah” deals with punishment and pardon. This is the sweet and sour section of Isaiah.  The Hebrew people are punished by Babylon, yet even as the walls of Jerusalem are breached and the people led off into captivity, they’re reminded of God’s faithfulness.  God won’t forget them.  A remnant will return to Zion.  God is still with them and their sons and their daughters will experience God’s grace.  Today, I’ll read from Isaiah 42.  It begins with a hymn.  You can almost hear the people singing this ancient psalm.  Then, beginning in verse 13, the hymn is followed by a poem that reflects what God is doing.  Read Isaiah 42:10-17.

###

I’ve heard it said that rock and roll is the “sound track of our lives,” (or maybe it’s just my generation’s life).  But there may be a point to this.  Many songs take me immediately back to a particular time or place.  Although it isn’t rock and roll, I seldom sing, “Holy, Holy, Holy” without thinking about being beside my granddaddy at Culdee Presbyterian Church.  Like me, he couldn’t sing a lick, but boy did he belt it out.  When I hear the Rolling Stones “Satisfaction,” come on the radio, its 1966 and I am back in my Uncle Larry’s bedroom and he’s dancing around like Keith Richards, using a broom as a guitar.  When Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4” comes on the radio, I’m riding in the backseat of my parent’s car as we head to Atlanta for the first time, in 1970.  We’re excited about Six Flags and a Braves game.  Barbara Streisand singing “The Way We Were” takes me back to high school.  The Pretender’s “Back on the Chain Gang” takes me to a rural highway in Bladen County and I’m on a way to meet a group of Scout leaders.  And if I listen to Enya, the Irish singing with a haunting voice, I’m driving over a pass in the Sierras where I first heard her music.  How about you?  Does music have a power to take you to a place you’ve been?  Sometimes it’s a good place, with good memories.  Other tunes might take us to a place we’d rather not recall. Then we need a new song!

Sing to the Lord a new song.  Even though I’m not known for my musical talent, I love this call.  Sing to the Lord a new song.  It’s a call we find not just in Isaiah, but also in the Book of Psalms.[1]   By the way, this particular genre used here by Isaiah is a psalm or a hymn (the psalms were Israel’s hymns). The call is for a new excitement for God and what God is doing in the world.  Our God is a God of creation and his on-going effort to create a people who are devoted to his mission in the world calls for a new song.  There’s excitement in the air.

But is there really excitement?  After all, things haven’t looked this bad for the Hebrew people since they were slaves in Egypt.  The northern kingdoms had fallen a century or so beforehand, and now the southern kingdoms along with the cherished city of Jerusalem have been destroyed.  Like today, many people weren’t up for new music.  Believe me, it’s an age-old problem.  Whenever we have a new song in worship, I’m likely to get a comment or two.  Why can’t we sing the old hymns?  The music wars are nothing new.

We like to hold on to the past, but at this time in Israel’s history, there are some who aren’t even open to singing.  “How could we sing a new song in a foreign land?” they ask in Psalm 137.  There was little excitement for singing, yet Isaiah comes on the scene encouraging everyone to “Sing!”  Music is to fill the world—from the coastlands to the deserts to the mountains—as everyone is called to praise God.

At this low point in the history of God’s people, there is a call for singing.  So much of our faith is counter-culture.  Paul, in chains, writes to the Philippians, “Rejoice in the Lord always.”[2] And to the church in Thessalonica, he says, “pray without ceasing, giving thanks in all circumstances.”[3]  But, let’s face it, we don’t always have such excitement, especially not when our lives are in turmoil.

“The Gospel is bad news before it is good news,” writes Frederick Beuchner.  “It is the news that [we’re] sinners…  That’s tragedy!  But it is also the news that [we] are loved anyway, cherished, forgiven, bleeding to be sure, but also bled for…[4]

Today, when many question the church’s relevance and whether or not we will have a future, singing a new song may sound to some as a crazy idea.  Let’s stick with the old tried and true songs, but they don’t seem to be working, either…  Yet, as bad as things may seem now, it was worse in Isaiah’s time.  Israel was not only defeated, but many of citizens were dragged off in exile.  Without a temple and without a homeland, they had no hope.  They could have just as easily been erased from human history, yet it is at such a dark period that the call goes out, “Sing a new song to the Lord, his praise from the end of the earth!”

And then there was that dark day after the crucifixion, when no one was singing.  But the next morning, the birds were up before dawn and before long the disciples were giving God thanks.  God seems to relish in surprising us.  That’s the message of the cross.  The temple leadership and the Romans in Jerusalem, along with the disciples and his followers, were certain on Friday evening that Jesus had been done in.  He was buried; that was the end of it.  But it wasn’t.  Nor was exile the end of Israel.  In fact, the Jewish faith grew stronger in exile and after they returned, they became even more devout.  They no longer were tempted as they had been to worship idols of their neighbors.  They’d learned their lesson.

When we remember God’s work in ages past, we are reminded of what God can do in the present and future.  Singing God’s praise reminds us of the hope we have in Jesus Christ, and how his death and resurrection is just one example of God turning things around, of taking what appeared to be lost and creating a victory to be savored.  Singing is counter-cultural, but we need to do it because we have hope not in what we can do, but in what God is doing.  We need to be calling all earth to praise God and realize that we’re not in this all alone.

Yesterday morning, the elders and members of the mission committee and some of the Saturday Men’s Bible Study, had the opportunity to meet Hunter Farrell, the director of World Missions for the Presbyterian Church.  Hunter, who started his mission work as a 22 year old in the Congo, told about how Christian Congolese families (and there are a couple of million Presbyterians in that country) gather in the evening and talk about how they have experience God throughout the day.  Then they say their prayers and go to bed.

We don’t do things like that, which is a shame, for we have lost some of our ability to perceive what God might be up to in our lives.   You know, we might not see God’s work in our own lives, but someone else might. That’s why such sharing is important.  This is a hymn of praise from a people who, despite the suffering, still believes that God is active in their lives.  They actively look for signs of God’s work.  Remember how I said last week, “what’s important is not my mission or even the church’s mission but God’s mission?”[5]  They want to see what God is doing so they can participate and experience God firsthand.

Our passage transitions from a hymn of praise to a poem about God’s work in the world.  “The Lord goes forth like a soldier,” it begins in verse 13.  Throughout scripture, God is often depicted as a warrior.[6] In verse 14, the text slips from a hymn about God to God speaking.  God is no longer holding his peace, but cries out like a woman in labor.  This contrasts with the previous image of God as a warrior.  We think of warriors bringing death, as with the Babylonian army.  But here God gives life.  God appears to battle nature, making the mountains and hill level and the waters that have hinder transportation become manageable and easy to cross.  Then, in verse 16, we have an image of God leading the blind down a road they do not know.  But God guides and turns the darkness into light, the rough places into level ground.  Those who have gone out into exile and think they have no hope will learn otherwise, when God leads them home on an easier path.

However, where there is redemption, there is also judgment. Not all of God’s people have remained faithful.  Some have succumb to the gods of Babylon and others gods, whom they believed were more powerful.  They will not experience redemption, they will be put to shame when they realize the impotence of the stone or metal in which they have trusted.

I started out talking about music as the soundtrack of our lives.  But we’re not called by God into the past but the future.  Maybe that is why we’re called to sing a new song in our praise of God.  Furthermore, many songs have the ability to make us smile, to change our attitude.  Think about Paul McCarthy’s “Silly Love Song.”  It was a new song in the mid-70s, making a shift from his past with the Beatles.

 

You’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs, but I look around me and I see it isn’t so.  Some people wanna fill the world with silly love songs.  And what’s wrong with that?

 

Doesn’t  that  make you smile… that’s what the new song we’re to be singing should do.  We’re to look forward to a future with God.  Even when we are burdened down with troubles and grief, we’re to have hope that love might one day reign, that one day we might, as the old gospel favorite goes, “exchange our cross for a crown.”[7]  A new song that lifts up with God is doing in our lives and in our world is what we need.  For only God can bring us out of the darkness and into the light of Jesus.  Let’s be open to new songs of what God is doing.   Amen.

 

©2016

[1] See Psalms 96 & 98.

[2] Philippians 4:4.

[3] 1 Thessalonians 5:17-18.

[4] Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy & Fairy Tale (HarpersSanFrancisco, 1977), 7.

[5] I was referring to a comment by  Alan Hirsch, as quoted by Stephen M. Franklin in a blog post titled, “The Mission has a Church” at the Pittsburgh Seminary Blog:  http://www.pts.edu/blog/pittsburgh-mission-conference/

[6] Deuteronomy 10:17, Zephaniah 3:17, Psalm 24:8, 78:65, Exodus 15:3

[7] The line is from “The Old Rugged Cross”

The Stars are the Limit

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

February 21, 2016

Genesis 15

 

Friday evening and Saturday was the Presbytery’s “Leadership Development” Conference.  This year’s keynote speaker was Michael Jenkin’s, the president of Louisville Theological Seminary.  After one of his lectures, he was asked about being Christian in a society where a lot of “self-proclaimed Christians” don’t act like it.  His response:  “Our message as Presbyterians is to show the world that one does not need to be mean or stupid to follow Jesus.”  I like that.  It’s reflecting the face of Jesus!

Our Annual Meeting is two weeks away.  Next Friday and Saturday, we will have a Session retreat.  It’s time again to look ahead, to get our bearings, to explore and dream about where God wants to involve the Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church in his mission.  Too often we think about our mission, or the church’s mission.  But both are putting the subject in the wrong place.  It’s not our mission nor the church’s, but God’s.[1]  God can do some incredible things through us.

It all started in a desert, back in what used to be called the “Near East” with a man named Abram.  Abram, like a lot of us, was getting on up in years, yet the best was still ahead!  As long as there is life, we can still accomplish things, as our own Lucy Barrett reminded us as she published her first book, Salad Days in the Golden Years, on her 90th birthday.  By the way, if you haven’t read Lucy’s book, I recommend it.  It’s delightful!

Now let’s listen to what happened to another man way past social security age…  Our text comes after Abram led his men against a group of kings who had kidnapped his nephew, Lot.  Abram’s men defeated the kings and rescued Lot, quite a feat for an old guy.   Read Genesis 15:1-18a

###

 

Our passage starts with God appearing to Abram in a vision, telling him that familiar first line we hear from heavenly beings throughout scripture, “Don’t be afraid.” Of course, the appearance of God should be enough to make any of us afraid, but in Abram’s case, there’s an ironic twist.  Here’s a guy who’s just defeated a much larger force on the battlefield.  Abram is not just a sheepherder, he’s a warrior.  And God tells him, “Don’t be afraid.”   The time for fear is over, his enemies are defeated!  Then God continues, saying, “I’m your shield.”  Maybe God doesn’t want Abram to let all this commando stuff, of his leading a group of men who rout a much larger army, go to his head.  Following up on the fourteenth chapter, it’s as if God is saying: “Don’t depend on your military skill, don’t depend on your equipment; don’t depend on your men; depend on me.”   And then God makes a promise.

Abram is now bold enough to complain to God.  “Great,” he says.  “I’m an old man and without an heir, what’s good is this when I have no one to give it to?”  In those days, one of the customs for those without a male heir was for the patriarch of the family to adopt a male slave.  The slave, as an adopted son, would then be in charge of seeing to it that the man and woman of the house would be cared for in their old age and who would, upon their death, receive freedom and his adopted father’s property.[2]  It seems Abram has this in mind when he mentions Eliezer as his heir.  But God isn’t finished with Abram.  God invites him to step outside and look up into the heavens.  In the desert, at night, the sky is brilliant.  “Abram,” God asks, “Can you count the stars?  If so, you can count your descendants!  You’ll have a big family.”  Abram believes and God reckons him righteous.  God is willing to bless those who believe.

Growing up, I spent many nights on Masonboro Island, a nine mile long strip of sand that so narrow that it has never been developed.  Most of these nights were in the fall, when the bluefish were running.  In the day, we’d be in the surf fishing, but at night, we tend to bait fish, casting our rods into surf and sitting in lounge chairs as we wait for the big one to come and sample the fillet of mullet that’s speared on a stainless steel hook.

When the fishing was slow, there was a lot of time to look up at the heavens and in the fall you’re treated to a show.  All the bright winter constellations rise, one after another:  Taurus, the bull whose bright horns are visible; Pleiades, the seven sisters, a tight cluster of stars; Orion, the great hunter who is identified with his bright belt and sword; Canis Major, Orion’s dog, which boasts the brightest star in the sky.  Being out there with the stars overhead, you feel a thousand miles from anything even though you could see the lights of the piers and water towers on Wrightsville and Carolina Beach and those on the Loran towers at Snow’s Cut.  Although I may have felt a thousand miles away, I never felt alone for I had a sense of God’s presence that existed not only with me but throughout the cosmos.  The God who invited Abram to look into the sky and to consider the possibilities was with me.

“Reality-check” is a two-word concept often used to kill great dreams, dreams that may have been realized if only attempted.  To call for a reality-check is often akin to sticking a needle into a balloon.  Just when great ideas are being generated, someone comes along and tells you why it can’t be done and you lose faith and sure enough, the naysayer is then proven right.  Abram didn’t need another reality-check.  He’d done that himself and, as anyone would have told him, he was washed up. He was old; he wasn’t going to have any children.  He didn’t need so-called friends to tell him this.  He knew it.  Instead of a “reality-check,” Abram really needed a “God-check.”  God turned Abram’s eyes to the skies and saying, “Count ‘em, if you can.”   Like Abram, we sometimes need our horizons expanded.  Certainly, the God of creation, who set the stars in the universe, is more powerful than us.

You know, we worship and serve an awesome God.  Yet, we tend to put everything on our own shoulders, thinking we must carry the burden.  We have a hard time trusting God, but when we step out of our comfort zones and decide to follow a hunch, God can surprise us in incredible ways.  In my e-newsletter this week, I linked to article by Craig Barnes, president of Princeton Theological Seminary.  Craig was writing about the “anxiety” in the church.  All over, people are worried, anxious, about what will happen to the church.  Are we going out of business?  Certainly, there is evidence for it in the Europe and North America, all the while the greatest revival ever is ongoing in the southern hemisphere.  Listen to what Barnes wrote:

When I was working through my way through a graduate program in the history of Christianity, I became convinced that there is no rational explanation for the church’s survival over the past 2,000 years—there were many compelling political, intellectual, and social reasons for it to have gone out of business long ago. And none of those threats were ever as dangerous to the church as it was to itself. We’ve always been our own worst enemy when we fail to live out of the gospel we proclaim. But still the church perseveres.  The only possible explanation for the church’s survival is that Jesus Christ chose to use it to continue his mission of bringing the kingdom of God to earth.

 

It’s not about us, it’s about God and when we trust God, and ignore the “it can’t be done” voices that surround us all the time, incredible things can happen!

Let me tell you a story.  When I first went to Utah, the executive presbyter was a man named Ken Tracy—a great man who was very compassionate and who helped match me to that congregation.  They were small and struggling and had great dreams.  But after I was there about two years and we came to presbytery with our proposal for a new church, Ken was one who called for a reality check.  “You’ll never do it,” he said.  “It’s beyond the ability of that congregation.”  Luckily (it really wasn’t luck, it was providence), we prevailed and sold presbytery on the idea.  Shortly after that, Ken was called to Alaska.  But his father was in St. George, a town that shared a daily newspaper with Cedar City, and he’d send Ken clippings from the newspaper about what was happening in Presbyterian Churches in Southern Utah.  The week we dedicated the new building, Ken called me to congratulate us and to say he was happy to report that he had been wrong.

Understand this, it wasn’t because of any great thing I did or that anyone in the congregation did, although a gallant effort was made by all involved.  God wanted that church built and saw to it that we had the resources.  Yes, at times we had to struggle; at times we worried about running out of money and having to put the project on hold.  Our new home wasn’t presented to us on a silver platter.  But we held to the vision and, despite the naysayers (and Ken wasn’t the only one), the building was built and the congregation moved to a new site and continues to flourish.

After Abram believed, God established the covenant through what, to us, appears to be a bizarre ritual.  There was the sacrifice of a heifer, a goat and ram, along with a dove and pigeon.  The large animals he split in two and he watched over them to keep the vultures away.  A covenant is an ancient form of a contract.  Scholars suggest that what probably happened is that the two parties would split an animal and then together walk between the split halves to signify their covenant or contract.  The split animals also served as a warning (or as a curse) as to the consequences to breaking a covenant.[3]  Of course, that’s speculation and we don’t fully understand all these bizarre rituals, except that they implied a covenant, this bond, between God and Abram.

Interestingly, after Abram believed and when he set forth to seal the covenant, he then learned more details about the future and the land.  God was going to take time to fulfill everything.  There would be a period when his descendants would be slaves; when this nation promised to him would labor under a foreign power.  We’re not told here that it’s Egypt, but those of us living on this side of the story know that.  In other words, the fulfillment of the promise won’t necessarily be easy for Abram’s descendants.

As for us, for our understanding of the passage and implication for our lives, we should remember a few things.  First of all, we have a God that is in change and in control of the future.  This means we can give up some of our attempts at being in control and trust God to take care of those things over which we have no control.  If we are willing to trust God’s providential care, we will be a lot happier and also less anxious.  Secondly, this passage reminds us that with God, the future is not limited to human comprehension.  God is not bound by human limitation.  Finally, this passage reminds us that just because God is with us, we will not necessarily have an easy time.  In fact, we may have a rough go of it and face many challenges as we strive to fulfill the visions and dreams we have.  But the rewards are also great.

Let me close by asking you some questions to ponder this week.  What things have gone undone because we have failed to trust God?  What dreams have we killed with our reality checks?  What could we do, if we trusted God and grasped at the possibilities?   Look up to the stars and dream. Amen.

 

©2016

[1][1] The quote is from Alan Hirsch, as quoted by Stephen M. Franklin  in a blog post titled, “The Mission has a Church” at the Pittsburgh Seminary Blog:  http://www.pts.edu/blog/pittsburgh-mission-conference/

[2] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: Interpretation, a Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1980), 143.

[3] Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis, revised edition (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1972), 186-7.

Lucy Barrett’s new book

Lucy Barrett, Salad Days in the Golden Years: Introducing Virginia and Matilda (Cleveland downloadTN: Penman Publishing, 2015), 182 page

This is a delightful novel written by a member of the church and a resident of Skidaway Island.  This past year, Lucy turned 90 and celebrated by publishing her first book.  Salad Days in the Golden Years is a delightful book about Virginia, who decides she is not going to live with her only child, but is going to move to a Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC).  There, she meets Matilda and the two of them become a dynamic duo—catching criminals, planning weddings, and seeking their own late-life lovers.  Virginia is a bit naïve, having moved to the facility as a widow, having been married to the same man for over fifty years.  She was used to having people (her husband, then her son) make decisions for her.  But she wants to be independent and slowly learns how to accomplish this.  Matilda tests her, as she is the type that likes to run the lives of others, but Virginia learns how they might be friends but without Matilda’s control.  Barrett weaves in a number of other characters including a young waitress at the CCRC whose boyfriend is shot.  This sets the scene for Virginia and Matilda to catch a fugitive.  In the background, with connections primarily through letters and voice mail, is her son’s family along with the trust fund manager.  As a mother-in-law, Virginia she has questions about her daughter-in-law who doesn’t like to cook, but is able to keep them to herself by moving to Magnolia Village.  Yet, Virginia is fearful of what would happen to her grandchildren if Pot Tarts were no longer manufactured.  By the end of the story, Virginia is content with her new life and even has a new boyfriend.  Another couple there is married and he has discovered he has a grandson.  Virginia’s own son has accepted that his mother can care for herself, while Virginia understands more about how his family is a bit different, but also works.  Although there are no “happy ever-after” stories in life, at last those at Magnolia Village will make the most of the journey.  This is a well-told story and I recommend it.

A Valentine’s Day sermon: God is Love

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

February 14, 2016

1 John 4:7-21

 

 

We’re going to dig into a passage from 1st John this Valentine’s Day, where we learn that love has nothing to do with cupid.  Love is grounded is in God.  It comes from God. Because God loved us, we’re to love one another.  We show that love by caring for others. If we can do this, which sounds so easy but is so hard, the world will be a much better place. Read 1 John 4:7-21.

###

 

Doesn’t this sound nice? Because God is love and because God loves us, we should love one another and be happy. It sounds too wonderful, so wonderful we contemplate if such love within a community is even attainable. It certainly isn’t possible if all we got to work with are a bunch of folks like us. Let’s face it; do we uphold these ideals from John? Do we really love one another?  Think about this a minute.  Not just our spouse, and our families.  And not just those sitting around us in church, who look and act like us.  Do we love all people? And if we say yes, do we show it?  This is a hard question that religious communities need to ask themselves. It’s my opinion, an opinion supported with Scripture, that it’s impossible for us to live in the manner John encourages us to live.  To be able to live this way, we have a lot of help. It can’t just be us folk trying to love one another; we got to have God in the center of things.  We have to be powered by God’s spirit.  After all, love is of God. And with God at the center, all things are possible.  But that’s not because of our efforts.  That’s because of God’s presence.

There is a widely held belief among Biblical scholars that there was a Johannine community, a group of people who congregated around the Apostle John, the beloved disciple. Within this community, both the gospel of John and epistles were written and distributed. Supporting this theory are the many common themes between John’s gospel and the three letters. Both emphasize God’s love for the world being so great that he sent his only Son. That’s John 3:16; but it is also said, in different words, three times in this passage. John must have attended one of those communication classes that suggest if you want to get a point across, you tell your audience three times—“tell ‘em what you’re going to say, tell ‘em, and then tell ‘em what you’ve told him.”

John encourages, actually demands, that we love one another because God loves us. The Greek word used here for love is agape, which we looked at a couple of weeks ago.  It’s not the romantic love that sends big boxes of chocolate and writes mushy cards.  This is the type of love manifested in caring for one another. John instructs his community to show these caring traits to one another. He could just as easily say, “Model your life after Jesus.”

If the community John was writing to had taken John’s advice, they could have created a utopia. But that was not the case. We know there was great discord within the community. In fact, in the second chapter of this epistle, where John warns of the antichrists, we learn the community has split.  John calls those who have left antichrists, using the plural, implying there are many who are opposed to Jesus Christ.[1] We’re not really sure the reasons for this split, but we have a good idea. Some scholars speculate that the split grew out of a difference in Christology—their beliefs concerning Christ—and that the group who left emphasized the divinity of Christ and denied his humanity.[2]

Whatever the reason, it appears that when John instructs us on love, he’s referring to those of us who are within the Christian community. Look around; we’re to love those we’re sitting with. “But, what about those on the outside of the faith,” we might ask? Well, we’re supposed to love them also. There are plenty of Scriptural references telling us to love our neighbors and Jesus extends our neighbors to include not just the folk living next door.[3] We can’t take John’s situation and use it to deny love for those who are not within the walls of the church. Instead, I think John spends his energies here, focusing on our love for one another within the community, because he knows that if we can’t love one another within these walls, we can’t love God nor can we love those who are outside the faith. In other words, we have to pull the log out of our own eyes first and embrace those we’re close to before we can suggest to the world that we give each other a big hug. [4]

One of the traits a church needs in order to assimilate new members is to be, at its core, a warm and caring community.[5]  Who wants to be with folks who bicker and fight?  In other words, we as the church live by the message we proclaim. Isn’t this what John is saying? We need to care for each other. And when you think about it, when we live up to this goal, we become attractive to those on the outside.  By the way, this congregation is good at caring for one another as I’ve witnessed recently with my injury, but also seen in how you reach out to others in who are in need within our community.  Keep up the good work!

You know, caring for others requires an investment. We have to risk in the hopes we’ll get something in return. But if we don’t risk, we won’t get any return.

One of my favorite Georgia authors is Ferrol Sams, a physician who published his first book after retirement.  I’ve read all seven of his eight books. In a book of short stories, he tells of an old man interviewed by a group of high school students. At one point in the interview, the old man says, “It seems to me that nowadays a heap of folks have taken up ‘no deposit, no return’ as a creed… If you don’t put much into a relationship to start off with, then it’s no dilemma whatsoever to throw that relationship on the garbage heap when you’ve done with it. Use them up and throw them away.”[6]

The world may have adopted the “no deposit, no return” creed, but the church will be destroyed if we adopt the same. (This creed may also destroy the world, but that’s for another sermon.) The church will be destroyed because, at the core, we come together because we’re loved by God and called by Jesus Christ. When we turn our backs on our calling from God, we cut ourselves off from the source of life.

John’s message is simple: God is love. God loves us. Because of God’s love for us we should love one another. And if we don’t love one another, we can’t really love God. Got that? It’s a simple message, but it has the potential to have a profound impact upon our community as well as upon the larger world in which we live. It’s a small idea, loving others because God loves us, but an idea that has life-changing and world-changing consequences.

I’m going to tell you a story, adapted from Hermann Hesse’s fairy tale, Augustus.

A young woman gave birth to her first child just a month after her husband had died in a tragic accident. She was from a caring and loving church. They were all concerned about her and they threw a great shower, providing her with all she’d need to care for his child.  She named the boy Victor, after her deceased husband. After the shower, when all the guests had gone, Doc Burns, an eccentric old man who lived nearby, and who wasn’t really a doctor, stopped by. He said that he, too, had a gift for the young boy. But his gift was unique; he would grant the mother one wish for her son. The woman was to tell him of her wish before the son’s baptism the next Sunday. All that week the woman pondered.  Finally, on the morning of the baptism, she decided to ask that all might love her son. Doc Burns granted the wish.

Everyone loved Victor as he grew up. All the children wanted to play with him; all the adults thought he was the most perfect child. Even when Victor responded to others with scorn and contempt, they still loved him. He graduated from high school and went on to a respected college, all the while living a life of ease. He was the life of the party. He drove a big car and wore fancy clothes. After college, he never worked very hard. “I collect horses, dogs and women,” he often bragged. There were no pleasures he didn’t indulge in, and no vice he didn’t practice. Yet, everyone raved about him and the women couldn’t leave him alone. All the while his heart grew empty and his soul sicker. He became disgusted.  He was tired of living.

One night Victor had had enough. He went home and prepared to commit suicide. But before he could raise the glass of poison to his lips, Doc Burns stopped by. He was even older now and moved slower. Victor demanded to be left alone, but the good old man flopped himself down into a chair and began to talk. He confessed he was a part of the reason Victor was so miserable.  He told him about his mother’s wish that her son be loved by all. “It was a foolish wish,” Doc Burns admitted. “Suppose I offer you another wish, make it anything you want and I will fulfill it.  But be careful, the good Doc warned, for wishes have a way of coming true.

Victor didn’t think that Doc could give him anything that he didn’t already have, but the old man encouraged him to think about what truly made him happy. After much pondering, Victor said he wished for the old magic to be taken away and instead of being loved by everyone, he wished he could love everyone in the world. “That’s a good wish,” Doc Burns nodded in agreement, “it’ll bring you happiness.”

But Victor didn’t find happiness right away. Instead, without his great charm, he found friends disserting him, others retaliated for his past wrongs. He was even thrown into jail for a few months and when he was released, he was penniless, sick and alone. He returned to his childhood home where he nursed his ailing mother, returning the love she’d once given him. He also took a job as a janitor in a school, where he not only cleaned the floors but loved the children. Finally he met a young widow and married her, giving her and her children the love they needed. Poor in money, Victor became one of the richest men in the world. For he discovered that it is in loving, not in being loved, life can be lived to its fullness.[7]

Francis of Assisi taught: “it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in loving that we are loved.” Go out and love the world!  And remember, being loved isn’t nearly as important as loving others. Amen.
©2016

[1] 1 John 2:18

[2] For information on the Johannine community and its split see Dr. Eung Chun Park, “Rooted and Grounded in Love: Bible Study.” (Louisville: Presbyterian Church USA, 2001), 13-15.

[3] Luke 10:25-37

[4] Matthew 7:5, Luke 6:42

[5] Roy Oswald and Speed Leas, The Inviting Church; A Study of New Member Assimilation (Alban Institute, 1987), 25-26.

[6] Ferrol Sams, Epiphany, (New York: Penguin Books, 1994), 212.

[7] William R. White in Stories for Telling: A Treasury for Christian Storytellers (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1986), 37-41.

Boy Scout Sunday: The Call of Jeremiah

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church 

Jeremiah 1:4-10

February 7, 2016

 

 

          I want to draw your attention to a quote at the top of the bulletin from Eugene Peterson.  You may know Peterson from The Message translation of Scripture.  In his memoir, The Pastor, he tells of his call to the ministry.  It started in his father’s butcher shop in Montana.  There, he learned important lessons from his father, which he applied to his view of the church once he became a Presbyterian minister.  Peterson envisions the church as a place “where we greet one another in Jesus Christ and where dignity is conferred.”[1]  I like his vision.  It means all of us have a calling to bring about this community.  We lift up one another.  We bestow dignity.

Speaking of calls, we’re looking at the call of Jeremiah in today.  Jeremiah’s call, dated by the kings of Israel, occurred around 627 BC.[2]  This was a turbulent time in history as the Assyrian empire was coming to an end as Babylon and its rivial Egypt gained power. Israel is caught in the middle. Jeremiah’s call is a lot like the call of Moses and Isaiah in that God calls a person to do something that they don’t think they’re capable or worthy of doing.  In his case, he’s young.  He’s probably younger than many of the Boy Scouts here today.   Read Jeremiah 1:4-10.

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Frederick Buechner wrote a lovely book titled Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who. It’s a biographical dictionary with brief yet humorous biographies on most characters from the Bible.  This is how he starts Jeremiah’s entry:

 

The word jeremiad means a doleful and thunderous denunciation, and its derivation is no mystery.  There was nothing in need of denunciation that Jeremiah didn’t denounce.  He denounced the king and the clergy.  He denounced recreational sex and extramarital jamborees.  He denounced the rich for exploiting the poor, and he denounced the poor for deserving no better.  He denounced the way that Israel followed after every new god…

 

He even denounced God for saddling him with the job of trying to reform such a pack of hyenas, degenerate ninnies.  ‘You deceived me,’ he said, shaking his fist.  You are ‘like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail,” and God took it…  But the people didn’t…[3]

 

Jeremiah’s call was a burden. His role was to bring a message of judgment, something never popular.  In Jeremiah’s case, it got him in all kinds of trouble.  He was despised; he was thrown in jail and dropped in a cistern.  Luckily there was no water in cistern, but he couldn’t get out until an Ethiopian took pity on him.[4]  After many of the Israelites were hauled away to Babylon in exile, Jeremiah went with those who sought refuge in Egypt.  Legend has it they got tired of listening to his rant and stoned him to death.[5]  Whoever came up with the saying “no good deed goes unpunished” could have been thinking of Jeremiah’s life.

Think about this.  By our standards, Jeremiah was a failure.  People didn’t heed his voice; they didn’t listen to his warnings.  Instead, they saw to it that Jeremiah was abused.  Why?  Jeremiah was a whistleblower.  You know, whistleblowers are often abused, whether it is in private industry or government.  They are condemned for their lack of loyalty even though their loyalty is often to a higher principle.  Jeremiah highlighted the sin of the people.  They didn’t want to hear it any more than you don’t want to hear it.  But what’s important is that Jeremiah remained faithful to God.  Even though the people didn’t want to hear him, he kept preaching because he knew he had to answer to a higher power.

The reason Jeremiah endured is because he was so sure of his calling by God to be a prophet in a time when Israel struggled.  God’s call came early. Jeremiah is told God knew him all along, even before he was conceived.  He was born to be a prophet.  And his words are still being heard.  2600 years later, Jeremiah is still being read.  Being faithful brings results, but it often takes time for the results to be realized.

There is comfort when you think about God knowing us before we were born, before we were even a twinkle in our parents’ eyes.  This means God has plans for us.  Yes, that includes you scouts!  Few of us are called to be a prophet on the magnitude of Jeremiah (who some suggests was Israel’s greatest prophet), but God does have a plan for our lives.  From Jeremiah, we learn the importance of basing our life on Godly principles.  We ground ourselves not in what we think is important, but what God wants us to do.

However, many of us are like Jeremiah in his response to God’s call.  Or maybe it’s Moses we’re like, who made a similar case as why he shouldn’t be called by God.[6]  Or maybe like Isaiah who wondered if his calling by a holy God was to be his doom as he was a sinner.[7]  We often question God’s motives.  “I don’t know how to speak,” Jeremiah said, “I’m just a kid.”  Have you ever said anything like that?

  • “I don’t know enough to teach Sunday School.”
  • “I don’t know enough about music to join the choir.”
  • “I’m not strong enough to stand up to the troop bully and demand that he treat every boy better.”
  • “I’m too shy or too timid to get involved and to speak up for what’s right.”
  • “I’m too scared to reach out to people who are different from me.”
  • “Who am I to go on a mission trip?”

 

God has granted us all gifts and opportunities to make this world a better place.  It’s just that we also have plenty of excuses.  Understand this!  If God wants us to do something, we will be given the necessary skills.  We need to trust the Lord!

It’s generally thought that Jeremiah, like Samuel,[8] was really young when he was called. God tells the boy Jeremiah he’ll have the necessary words; he just needs to be bold and trust God.  Although Jeremiah is called early in life, it appears he’s an adult by the time God used him in a major way.  His work begins in earnest in 605 BC, twenty years or so after his call.[9]  There’s time to be prepared.

I remember well a dream I had the spring before I began seminary.  I was questioning what I was about to do.  Should I quit a job, sell a house and move to a strange city to go back to school.   During this time I was restless and had some strange dreams.  In one that I remember, I heard a voice and felt sure it was coming from God.  The voice told me to go to seminary and not to worry for I’d know what I was to do when I had finished school.  It answered a concern I had and that voice in that dream gave me the strength to make the break I needed to make and go back to school.

Jeremiah is also told not to be afraid. I’m sure he found himself wondering about this when he sat in a dirty jail cell or was stuck in the mud at the bottom of that cistern.  I am reminded of my childhood hero, Alfred E. Neuman, and his iconic line, “What, me worry?”  In case you don’t remember Neuman, he was a comic character for Mad Magazine.   It is only when we know we’re working on God’s side, even if we fail by human standards, that we can take comfort when told not to worry.  Jesus tells us not to worry about those who can kill the body, but not soul.[10]

After responding to Jeremiah’s excuses, God places a hand on Jeremiah’s mouth, kind of like the seraph touching Isaiah’s mouth with a coal from God’s altar to cleanse it,[11] and tells the prophet that his words are now in Jeremiah’s mouth.  And then Jeremiah is sent out with God’s power to do the work of the Lord.

We’re not told how this call came about.  Unlike Isaiah, Jeremiah doesn’t see God’s throne.  Unlike Moses, he doesn’t have a burning bush.  But somehow he hears God’s call.  Although at first he tries to weasel out of it, he accepts his lot and goes forth to do God’s work.  This comforting, for God’s call isn’t always dramatic.  Sometimes it is more subtle.  Furthermore, like Jeremiah, it’s okay to question God.  Actually, I think it is a part of the discerning process, for as we question we learn and are given encouragement that we’ll need if we find ourselves in the bottom of a cistern.  Hopefully that’s not a literal cistern, but lots of us have been there metaphorically.

What do we learn from Jeremiah’s call?  First, it’s not about us.  It’s about God who calls us to do his work!

What is God calling us to do or to be?  I can’t answer this question for you.  That’s between you and God.  But remember we’re all called to live as disciples of Jesus Christ.  God not only calls us individually but also calls us collectively, as his people, to certain tasks.  I believe our collective call is to live into the vision of the church as illustrated by Eugene Peterson at the top of the bulletin. God’s calling us to create a place void of labeling, a place without gossip and a place where tit-for-tat exchanges are absent.  God’s call is for us to create a safe place for people with questions.  God’s call is for us to create place where dignity is conferred on all people.  Don’t you want to be a part of this journey?  One of the Great Ends of the Church is to exhibit God’s kingdom to the world.[12]  What might we, as individuals, do to live into such a call?  What might we, as the church, do to bring about such a vision?  What can you do to make this world a better place?  Amen.

 

©2016

[1] Eugene Peterson, The Pastor: A Memoir (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 40.  The full quote:  [A] Congregation is composed of people, who, upon entering a church, leave behind what people on the street name or call them.  A church can never be reduced to a place where goods and services are exchanged.  It must never be a place where a person is labeled.  It can never be a place where gossip is perpetuated.  Before anything else, it is a place where a person is named and greeted, whether implicitly or explicitly, in Jesus’ name.  A place where dignity is conferred.

[2] Jack R. Lundbom, “Jeremiah,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992) Volume III, 686.

[3] Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (New York: Harper and Row, 1979), 59-60.  Quote from Jeremiah 15:18

[4] Jeremiah 37:15, 38:6-13,

[5] Beuchner, 61.  Other legends have it that he lived out his days and died peacefully.

[6] Moses challenges God’s call numerous times.  See Exodus 3:11, 3:13, 4:1, and 4:10

[7] Isaiah 6:5

[8] 1 Samuel 3.

[9] Lundbom, III. 687.

[10] Matthew 10:28

[11] Isaiah 6:6

[12] Presbyterian Church USA, Book of Order, F-1.0304.

Paul’s Hymn of Love

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

January 24, 2016

1 Corinthians 12:31-14:1

 

It’s good to be back up here this week.  Thanks to everyone who pitched in last week as I was recovering from surgery.  I would like to especially thank our Youth and Family Ministry Director Matthew Zold, who did an incredible job in the pulpit, stepping in at the last minute to preach his first sermon.  We’re blessed with Matthew’s presence and I hope you will get to know him and some of you even volunteer to help him build a program for our children and youth.  Today, my sermon text follows the text I preached on two weeks ago, from First Corinthians.

The Greeks had a rich vocabulary for love.  There was eros: passionate love.  It could be romantic or even religious (as in the love of the gods).  Then there was phileo: brotherly love.  This word forms the root for Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love.  But the New Testament writers chose another word to describe Christian love: agape.  In its original usage, the word meant “inclining toward something.”  It came to be seen as the highest level of love.  It’s universal in that it reaches out to others.  It directs believers to love everyone and the model for this kind of love is our Savior.  Because Jesus loved us, we’re to love one another.   When we are filled with the Spirit, this agape love flows out from us.[1]

My text this morning is Paul’s hymn of love.  You may be surprised to learn that this well-known passage sits in the middle of the section of 1st Corinthians that deals with worship.  Yet, it’s often heard at weddings.  But it really has nothing to do with romantic love, even though it contains some good advice for newly married couples (along with the rest of us).  Throughout this letter, Paul tries to unite the Corinthians in purpose.  It’s hard because they are a diverse and divided congregation.  They should, at least, be united in worship.  They all owe allegiance to the same God revealed in Jesus Christ.  They should be one body praising the One Lord, Jesus Christ, but they’re not.  A worship war is among the many issues dividing this congregation.  From Christ they should learn how to relate to one another and the key here is love, agape love, the kind of love that gives itself for the benefit of the other.

Now let’s get a bit technical.  Most of you probably know that the chapters and verses in scripture weren’t added until long after the Bible was written.  Here, we see a problem with the verse placement, for this entire passage includes the last verse of Chapter 12 as well as the first part of the first verse of Chapter 14.  These verses, at the beginning and the end, form a link to this passage from the previous and the next passage.[2]  Read 1 Corinthians 12:31-14:1.

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The view from Sundance Pass in the heart of the Beartooth Mountains of Montana was incredible. As a group of us traversed one last snowfield and finished the climb, we surprised a family of bighorn sheep. Seemingly defying gravity, they dropped over the edge of the cliff.  The next time we saw them they were on a distant knob, a good distance away.  The saddle between Mount Lockart and Silver Peak where the pass is located was mostly grass covered, broken up with a few boulders and in the shady areas, snow.  In all directions, the mountains rose around us with steep and rugged flanks that dropped off into the valleys below.  We could look almost straight down to our campsite at the tree line, beside September Morn Lake, 2000 feet below us.  The name, September Morn, is almost as beautiful as the lake!  The only sound was the wind.  It howled so that to talk to one another we had to yell.  It was an amazing place.  A group of us continued on from the pass, heading north up Silver Peak, where we had lunch and even more incredible views before dropping back down to camp.

Climbing a mountain is hard work (impossible in my current condition), but it can also be very rewarding.   Paul uses such a metaphor throughout this passage.  It begins in 12:31, where after listing some of the gifts within the church, he encourages the Corinthians to strive for a greater gift.  This can also be translated as a “higher gift.”  The second sentence in that verse, where Paul promises to show the Corinthians an even more excellent way, can also be translated as “let me show you the high route” or “the mountain pass.”

Paul begins with images of a higher, better way.  Perhaps those Corinthians who had journeyed to Athens overland, as Paul had done, could identify with his opening remarks here, for the passage between the two cities was steep and dangerous.  Paul continues to extol the virtue of this agape love as it relates to the mountains in verse two where he recalls Jesus’ teachings on faith—if you have the faith of a mustard seed you can move mountains.[3]  Verse eight in the New Revised Standard Version reads “Love never ends.” Others translate as “Love never fails.”  However, the Greek could also be translated as “Love never falls.”

Again, Paul draws our attention to the higher way; the higher we go the more dangerous the fall.  Paul reaches the pinnacle of this thought in verse 13, “the highest of these is love.”  At the end of the passage, in Chapter 14, verse 1, Paul tells the Corinthians to “run” (or, as it is translated in here, to pursue) after love.  This may also hint at the mountains for the Corinthians would train for their games by running up the steep slopes.[4]

For Paul, love is the highest, the greatest gift. It’s not that the other gifts of the Spirit are unimportant; they have a role in building up the church.  But the other gifts of the spirit, such as prophesy or preaching, important as they are, are not eternal.  Only love, faith and hope are eternal.  You know, all the work that I and countless other preachers have put into the art and craft of proclaiming the gospel is only good here; it isn’t going to be much good when we are all awestruck in the presence of the Lord.  No one is going to want to listen to us preachers when they are in God’s presence!

Of our earthly gifts, the only ones we will take with us when we leave this life are faith, hope and love.  Jesus tells us to store our treasure in heaven.[5]  When we have filled ourselves with love, as Paul shows here, we are doing that!

After Paul makes the case for love being the ultimate gift of the Spirit, the one we should focus on, he then gives characteristics of love.  It is patient and kind. You know, it’s easy to see the faults of others—especially when you live and work and play with them—that’s why we have to be patient with each other and allow enough time for love to work. Ann Lamott, a wonderful writer whose book Traveling Mercies I highly recommend, talks about families being the training ground for forgiveness.[6]  Remember, a family doesn’t have to be just biological.  The church is also a family and within such a fellowship, we need to be patient with one another, willing to forgive.  Likewise, we should be kind.  Nobody likes a sourpuss.  “Do to others as you would have them do unto you,” Jesus teaches.[7]  Who among us wouldn’t want to be treated with kindness?  If we want to receive kindness, we should give kindness.

To put this in the words of the slightly unorthodox theologians, The Beatles, “the love you take is equal to the love you make.” That may not be exactly what that other Paul (Paul McCarthy) had in mind when he penned the words for the Abbey Road album, but you get the idea.[8]

In addition to listing the positive attributes of love, Paul provides a list of things contrary to love: envy, boastfulness, and arrogance.  It’s hard to love someone when we are jealous; it’s easy for us to forget that life, even life within the church, is not a competitive sport. Love isn’t about building up our egos; instead; it seeks to build up others.  Love isn’t boastful.  You don’t brag about yourself; you don’t need to, for those who truly care for us will do so regardless of what we accomplish in life.  Love isn’t arrogant.  We’re not to think too highly of ourselves or to be egotistical.  Instead, we love others as equals.

Next, Paul returns to the superiority of love over other gifts as he emphasizes its eternal nature.  Love never ends.  Even though we change, growing from childhood into adulthood, from a cooing infant to a responsible adult,[9] going from this life to the next, love remains constant.  Certainly, we are not yet able to perfectly love, but we continue to try because God has loved us first and promises, as Paul reminds us in Romans, there is nothing that can separate us from his love.[10]  God loves us and empowers us to love one another.

Faith, hope and love abide, Paul says.  They all continue to exist, but of the three, love is the greatest.  So, now that we understand the importance of love, how do we apply this to our lives?

George Whitefield, the great 18th Century revivalist who spent time in Savannah, began a sermon on this passage saying that “nothing is more valuable and commendable than charity (which is how the King James Version translates agape love), yet not one duty is less practiced.”[11]  The cynic in me immediately thinks, “Things haven’t changed much.”  But isn’t it time for a change?  What would happen if we started loving the way that Paul encouraged the Corinthians to love?   I don’t know, but we should find out.

Ask yourself, does your life reflect the self-giving love of Christ?  And since it’s no big deal to be nice to those people we like,[12] what will you do this week to show such love to someone you don’t particularly like?  Reflecting the face of Jesus is about showing his love. Amen.

[1]Kenneth E, Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians  (Downers Grove, IVP, 2011), 349-352

[2] Bailey, 353-355

[3] Matthew 17:20 (see also Matthew 21:21)

[4] Bailey, 357-358.

[5] Matthew 6:19-20, 19:21.

[6] Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (New York: Anchor Books, 1999), 219

[7] Luke 6:31.

[8] This comes from “The End,” the closing track on the Abbey Road album.  It is attributed to John Lennon and Paul McCarthy.  According to Wikipedia, in an interview before his death, Lennon credited McCarthy with these lyrics.

[9] See Eugene Peterson’s The Message paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 13:11

[10] Romans 8:38

[11] George Whitefield, ‘The Great Duty of Charity Recommended,” Sermon 47, 1 Corinthians 13:8.  Found at http://www.swartzentrover.com/cotor/e-books/holiness/Whitfield/Sermons/SGW_47.htm

[12] Matthew 5:46

Matthew Zold’s Sermon

“Giving Garlands”

Luke 4:14-21

Matthew Zold

January 24, 2016: Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners. He has sent me to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion – to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of the oil of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of the mantle of a faint spirit. 

On New Year’s Day 2015, a young man named Matthew was arrested. Matthew was diagnosed with manic-depressive disorder three years earlier, he was bi-polar.  As the police restrained him, his girlfriend (who allegedly was the one who called the police) appeared on the scene and stated that he needed to take his medication and be taken to the hospital. The police did not listen however, and took him into custody. Because Matthew did not receive his medication, out of fear and panic he continued to react violently and thus the police also responded violently. Video that came out in October shows Matthew being held down in a chair as he is tased in his groin, and later in his genitalia. No less than 2 hours into the year of 2015, Matthew Ajibade was found dead in his jail cell.  When I saw the video in October, I could not think for the rest of the day.  Not only did Matthew and I share the same name, but he would have been 22 years old if he were still living, just as I am 22.  Matthew was in college at the time, just I was also in college in 2015.  Neither of us were originally from the United States, Matthew was from Nigeria and I am originally from Canada.  But the thing that hit me the hardest, that was a psychological punch to the stomach, was that Matthew at the time of his arrest and death, was living in Savannah.  I started to think about what it would have been like if I went into a panic and my girlfriend tried to save me, and she failed. I started to think about my parents who I left the month earlier to move to my new job, and what their reaction would be if they got a call in the middle of the night that their son was arrested and died in custody. In the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Gardner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, and countless others, it was easy for me to distance myself from those events, to make them abstract. But when I heard about a 22 year old man named Matthew living in Savannah who was tortured and killed in police custody, for a brief moment, I too could not breathe.  It hit too close to home. I began to ask “where is the justice in this?  Where is God’s justice in this?”

Jesus’ first ever public teaching in his ministry comes from a reading of the prophet Isaiah.  Several of the words Jesus recites in this reading allude to the ancient Hebrew practice of Jubilee, found in the book of Leviticus.  This Levitical law functions around the concept of Sabbath rest and worship, and serves as a divine spring cleaning.  During Jubilee which occurred every seven years, farmers would allow the land to go fallow for the entire year, meaning they would till the soil but not keep it. Whatever was grown in the fields was free for taking by anyone who came across it.  Any debts that were incurred would be forgiven, and slaves were released.  Every seventh Jubilee there was a massive festival called the Jubilee of Jubilees, in which if anyone was slighted in the previous six Jubilees, justice and grace was to be had in the seventh one.  Jubilee is a time of making even the playing field. One might say that it is a time of making crooked paths straight, a time of leveling the hills and raising the valleys. A time of removing obstacles.  Jubilee ensures that those who are in front don’t get too far ahead, and those who are in the back don’t get left behind. Jubilee is a divine insurance of justice.

God is not only love, God is just. It is out of God’s love that we find justice, and it is in God’s justice that we find love.  This means that God’s justice is not blind but rather biased, it’s colored, it is for those that got slighted every Jubilee and those who got left behind.  It is for the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captives, the prisoners. The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth explains God’s justice, writing “God always takes his stand unconditionally and passionately on this side alone:  against the lofty and on behalf of the lowly; against those who enjoy right and privilege and on behalf of those who are denied it and deprived of it.”[1]  Shirley Guthrie, Professor Emeritus from Columbia Theological Seminary, continues this thought writing “God’s justice (and true human justice) is openly on the side of those who are poor, weak, threatened, and excluded.  God’s (and truly human) justice gives people not what they deserve but what they needIt is justice that gives rights to those who have no rights. [God takes up the cause of the] poor and oppressed against the proud, comfortable, and secure who hold their privileged position at the expense of others.”[2]  How do we know this is true? Because God in all of God’s greatness took the form of and slipped into the skin of the person we know as Jesus, a man who in solidarity with the marginal and oppressed ate with sinners, tax collectors and prostitutes, he forgave sins, he returned sight to the blind, he exorcised demons from the possessed, and was executed and died a criminal’s death.  The very God becoming very human in Jesus Christ is a symbol and sign that God knows our human experiences, no matter how dark. When one of our family members dies before his or her time, God is angry too. When we are denied a job we were qualified for or rejected from a school we should have gotten into, God is confused too. When a friend finds out he or she has cancer, God is scared too.  When the Ajibade family found out their son and loved one is dead, God mourned and continues to mourn, too.  God in Jesus Christ experienced injustice first-hand, whether ministering to the marginal, or being persecuted himself.  But this means that God knows the importance of why injustices must be made right.  And as we know, the cross is not the final word. Even though Jesus was killed by state power, he was resurrected by heavenly power.

The resurrection was a grand act of resisting the man made evils in our world and aims to remind us that no matter what darkness overcomes our lives and the lives of all God’s children, God will always have the final word.  James Cone, who teaches systematic theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, writes about Dr. Martin Luther King’s understanding of resisting evil in his book God of the Oppressed. Cone writes “King was right about the redemptive character of the suffering that arises out of resistance to evil.  When one resists evil, suffering is an inevitable consequence of that resistance.  To avoid suffering is to avoid resistance, and that leaves evil unchallenged.  King challenged the power structures of evil.  That was why he was killed.  King’s suffering, and that of freedom fighters around the world, is redemptive when, like Jesus’ cross, it inspires us to resist evil, knowing that suffering is the consequence.  To resist evil is to participate in God’s redemption of the world.”[3]

Justice, is the act of resisting evil. It is the act of looking face first into the Hells that God’s children face each and every day and says that these horrible acts cannot abide in God’s just love, whether they are refugees from Syria looking for a place to rest their heads, homeless veterans suffering from PTSD and can’t find the help they need, children and families forced to drink contaminated water around the world and in our own country, and families mourning the loss of their sons and daughters killed unfairly before their time.  Living out God’s justice means that we act on behalf of God’s love for all people, and we cannot stand by as other humans created in the image of God are having that image stripped from them.  We will not turn a blind eye because an injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere.  Justice ultimately brings hope.  It gives a voice to the voiceless. It gives opportunities to the unprivileged.  It gives a garland instead of ashes.  The prophet Micah stated that we as people of God are meant to do three things: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.  It is something we do.

Giving garlands is something we as Christians do and never stop doing. But these acts of justice can be found even on the small scale, it can be found in love.  This small scale model reminds me of a story told by Dr. Rodger Nishioka, the Benton Family professor of Christian Education at Columbia Theological Seminary.  Scott is a 17 year old rising junior in high school when he moves from Michigan down to Louisville, Kentucky. Scott’s mom Anna found out her husband was having an affair so they arranged a hasty divorce, Anna found a job in Louisville, and Scott moves with her.  Scott left behind a girlfriend whom he loved, he was supposed to start on the varsity basketball team after working his way up through junior varsity, he was on the youth council in his presbytery.  He was mad. He was angry at his dad for his actions, angry at his mom for moving so far away, angry at God for all of this happening.  There were conversations from Anna that Scott was borderline depressed.  During a session meeting there was a prayer concern raised for Scott’s well-being. Janet, a short elderly woman, about the size of Mrs. Bunny Ludtke, said that she would pray for Scott.  She didn’t know what he looked like because he would always sneak out during the benediction, so that next Sunday he was pointed out to Janet. So when the benediction was pronounced Scott darted quickly but Janet darted quicker. She caught him in the narthex and backed him up against the wall and said “Scotty! My name is Janet I’m an elder here, boy you are handsome, I wanted to say I’m praying for you every day and I love you and I’m glad you’re here.” She hugged his waist – remember she’s very short and Scott was tall, about 6’6” – and Scott says “Thanks lady” and walks off. The next week as the benediction is pronounced Scott darts out again but goes a different route, but Janet catches him again! She backs him up against the wall and says “Scotty! Do you remember me? My name is Janet and I’m an elder here. Boy you are handsome. I wanted to say I love you and I’m glad you’re here and I’m praying for you every day.” Once again Scott says “Thanks lady” and walks off.  Scott got better at this running away game. But because he always went to church with his mom he would have to wait until she would get done, so he would just sit in his car. So if Janet missed him, she would walk out to the car and knock on the window and say “Scotty get out of the car so I can hug you!” He would unfold his massive frame as she would hug his waist, her cheek flat against his belt buckle, saying “I’m praying for you every day, I love you, I think you’re handsome, I’m glad you’re here.”  A year later Scott and Anna were driving home from church and Scott realized he never got his hug from the weird old lady. Janet was in the hospital with three blood clots in her left leg. Scott asked his mom if he could go see her. So they turn around and go to the hospital to see Janet. Scott darts down the hall and there he sees little old Janet hooked up in her hospital bed. She says “Scotty! I just finished praying for you. What are you doing here…did you come to see me?” Rodger Nishioka finishes telling the story in this way.  “Then this handsome young man shoves this gorgeous lady over on her bed and he sits down, and he takes his basketball sized arm wingspan and he wraps them around her head and he rests his chin on top of her head of beautiful grey hair. He whispers ‘how you doin miss Janet?’ And she begins to cry. And she said ‘Oh sweetheart, I’m a little afraid. I haven’t been in a hospital since I birthed my babies years ago. Doctors don’t know what’s going on, and I’m a little afraid.’ Scott said ‘Oh ma’am you’re gonna be OK.’ Janet said ‘honey that’s sweet but I’m not so sure.’ And Scott said ‘Oh no ma’am you’re gonna be OK.’ And Janet said ‘that’s sweet but…’ And Scott said ‘No ma’am, you’re gonna be OK I know it.’ And Janet said ‘Sweetheart how do you know that?’ And Scott said ‘You’re gonna be OK because I’ve been praying for you for every day for almost a year.’ Janet said ‘but I’ve been praying for you, why have you been praying for me?’ And Scott said ‘Don’t you see ma’am? Because you are saving my life.’ His mom burst out into tears because she knew at that moment that her son was going to live.”[4]  Brothers and sisters, just as Christ was filled with the Spirit sending good news to the oppressed, may we too do the same thing. May we, in the footsteps of Lord and savior, comfort those who are mourning, mend the brokenhearted, give hope to the hopeless. Hope and justice are not passive, they are active.  May we do hope and justice this day and every day.  May we participate in God’s redemption of the world. Amen.

 

 

[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1956). 386.

[2] Shirley C. Guthrie Jr., Christian Doctrine (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994). 107-108.

[3] James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1997). xviii

[4] “One Adult Making a Difference for Youth” Youtube. Accessed January 19, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ko6WM_7Ha2Q.

John Calvin on Education and Refugees

300px-John-Calvin

John Calvin, 1509-1554

I was asked to speak at an ecumenical service over the Martin Luther King weekend titled “Voices of Justice and Mercy” and was asked to briefly reflect (5-6 minutes) on what we might learn from someone in our church’s tradition concerning “justice and mercy.”  This is my talk…

When I bring up the name of Calvin, all kinds of imagines probably pop into your head: blue jeans, perfume, a snotty kid in the comics, a football player.  However, if I say, John Calvin, what kind of images come to mind?  Many of you, I am sure, have imagine a stern theologian with an unkempt beard, a harsh pastor, and a man without joy.  Others will blame him for the developing of the concept of predestination, forgetting that Calvin never said anything new of the topic, drawing his thoughts from the writings of Augustine and the Apostle Paul.   Sadly, John Calvin has been mostly known from the works of followers or through the comments of his critics.  As Marilynne Robinson, a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and essayist, notes in an essay on Calvin that most people have some sense that Calvinism was an important religious movement with ties to capitalism, but what we know about Calvin, the man, is a parody of history. [1]

Let me tell you a bit about John Calvin.  First of all, like our Savior and the Holy Family in Egypt, and a host of people before and afterwards, he was a refugee.  The events of the early 16th Century in Europe created lots of refugees.  There were refugees fleeing Muslim armies in Eastern Europe.  But there were also refugees from all over Europe: Protestants fleeing areas controlled by Roman Catholics and Catholics fleeing areas controlled by Protestants.  Jews fleeing the inquisition in Spain.  Calvin was one of many.

Calvin had been trained in the classics.  His first book was a commentary on the Roman philosopher Seneca.  He was a Frenchman who converted to the Protestant faith in the early 1530s and immediately found himself a wanted man.  France was always hostile toward Protestants as the world witnessed later in the 16th Century with the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.  Surrounded by hostility, Calvin headed to German to study under Luther and other Protestant teachers.  Along the way stopped overnight in the Swiss city of Geneva. There, he was persuaded by the William Farel to stay in the city and help in its reformation.   With the exception of a few years, Calvin would spend the rest of his life in Geneva.

Unlike the parody of Calvin that has been instilled in the modern mind, he was far from being a sourpuss theologian.  He was joyous, despite suffering grief.  He loved his wife dearly and was heartbroken to have no children to survive infancy.  Her death was also a blow.  Yet, he was known to by friends to be witty and joyous.  Certainly, compared to our standards, 16th Century Geneva was a dreary place.  Even though there were miscarriages of justice in the city, it was a source of enlightenment during the 16th Century.  The auto-de-fes of the Spanish inquisition, the chaining together of the poor, and driving them from the city as happened in Paris, and the witchcraft mania that affected much of Europe during this era were mostly absent in Geneva.

Although he had been trained as a scholar, Calvin’s belief was that theology must have practical implications.  The purpose of theology and Bible Study was to inform our lives on how we should live in a manner that would bring glory to God.  At the heart of his theology is a focus on an Almighty and All-loving God from whom our blessings flow.   Our lives are to be lived out reflecting God’s goodness and mercy.  This includes giving to the poor, taking care of the needy, and through our honest and hard work, glorifying our Creator.  Calvin’s arranged the church in Geneva in a fashion that allowed laypeople to be involved with clergy in decisions of the church.  He also organized Deacons who cared of those in need and visited those in hospitals.

The population of Geneva in middle of the 16th Century mushroomed with refugees and Calvin and the church sought ways to handle this influx.  Yes, even like today, there was controversy over how to handle the refugees, but Calvin insisted they be merciful toward them.  A hospital was established for refugees, and Calvin organized an academy where refugees were educated.  Many of these would become second and third generation Reformation leaders, such as John Knox who led the Reformation in Scotland, creating the Presbyterian Church.  Interestingly, this school’s was tuition free (as was all education for the poor of Geneva).

Because of the effort of those like John Calvin, Presbyterian and Reform Churches have always been at the forefront of educational efforts, pushing in the 19th Century for universal public schools and establishing way more colleges and universities than our numbers would suggest.  Education is still important.  Sadly, we have forgotten Calvin’s role in working on behalf of immigrants.  I wonder how he might respond to the refugee crisis today.  I am sure he’d encourage us to be compassionate in our response, and to do whatever we do for the glory of God who, throughout the Old Testament continually lifts up the orphan, widow, and the foreigners in our midst for special care.

To God be the glory.  Amen.

[1] Marilynne Robinson, The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (New York: Picador, 1998), 206

Spiritual Gifts and the Body of Christ

Jeff Garrison

First Presbyterian Church 

January 17, 2016

1 Corinthians 12:4-19

 

Throughout Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he frequently uses the metaphor of the body.  He writes about our individual bodies as temples for the Holy Spirit, but quickly moves from that point to the church, the body of Christ in the world.  In the twelfth chapter, he brings his discussion of the body as a metaphor for the church to the forefront as he writes about Spiritual gifts.  It is Paul’s longest homily within the Epistle.  Today, as I preach before you with crutches and a leg that don’t work, I stand as a living example of what Paul says about the importance of all parts of the body.  Read 1 Corinthians 12:4-19.

###

 

A couple of years ago, I visited Hartwick Pines State Park, which is just north of the Au Sable River in Michigan.  The place is unique in that it is, as far as I know, the last strand of virgin white pine in the lower peninsula of Michigan. At one time, these trees covered much of the state, but in the 19th Century they were mostly cut for timber.  A lot of the logs and lumber were hauled across Lake Michigan to help build and then, after the great fire supposedly started by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, rebuild Chicago.  By the early 20th Century, most of the pines were gone (and the loggers then headed south and started sawing on our own longleaf pines).

I grew up in longleaf pine country, a tree that once boasted over 93 million acres of forest in the southeast, but today only a few millions acres remain.   A few years before visiting Hartwick Pines, I’d read a natural history of the longleaf and was surprised by how few acres remain since they were the tree  I grew up playing under in the backyards of my childhood.  While visiting Hartwick Pines, I struck up a conversation from the ranger and learned about the similarity of the white and longleaf pines.  Neither grow particularly well on their own or in mass plantings.  For this reason, as they’ve been harvested, they are often replaced with other types of pine, like red pine or slash pine in Michigan and loblolly pine down south.  Those pines grow better in plantations.

Under a canopy of trees, when an older tree dies, a younger white pine will shoot up toward the sky, dropping its limbs as it grows, until it is above the canopy where its branches will spread out and add to the canopy’s cover.  I love how these trees tower over the others, something that is easy to see from the water’s edge, where a white pine will stand ten or so feet taller than the surrounding trees.  These mature white pines are valuable timber because as they drop their branches, the wood becomes less knotty.  However, when the tree grows by itself, out from under the canopy, it spreads out wide with long branches that are susceptible to breaking off in ice storms and then to insect attacks.  Such trees are also less valuable as lumber.  But in a forest with multiple types of trees, they flourish while supporting other trees that grew under their canopy.

In listening to the ranger, I immediately began to think of ways these trees can serve as metaphors for our lives.  We are not, after all, lone rangers.  We benefit from the community of which we are a part, and we need one another.   Like the tree, by ourselves we are not as valuable and more prone to problems, such as the tree breaking up in an ice storm.  But within the community our potential is much greater and there is safety.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “A self-sufficient human being is subhuman…  God has made us so that we will need each other.”[1]  In that way, we’re a lot like trees.  As with everything else in God’s glorious creation, we’re interconnected.

Paul begins this section with a discussion of spiritual gifts.  These are not gifts for personal gain or even personal spiritual enrichment.  They are for the common good.  You may have remembered Paul saying: “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful.”[2]  Here, in reference to the Spiritual gifts, Paul uses the noun form of the same word he used back in the 6th chapter which could be translated not only as helpful but “contributing to the common good.”[3]

So these spiritual gifts—wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment and tongues—are not for the individual, but for the community.  The blessings we have in this life are not just for us, individually—that would be a selfish misunderstanding of the gospel.  We are blessed by God with gifts and talents but we must not hoard them, but use them for the benefit of all.

Now, this section of 1st Corinthians focuses on worship and the gifts Paul highlights here all have to do with strengthening the worship of the community.[4] But one gift is not better than another. Paul insists on their equality and on the fact that they all come from the same Spirit.  Whatever gift’s you’re given, use them for the glory of the God through building up the body of Christ.

To emphasize his point, the building up of the body of Christ, Paul follows the gifts of the Spirit with the analogy of the body: there are many members, but all are part of the same body.  Paul is trying to bring the Corinthian congregation—which consists of people from a variety of backgrounds—Jew and Gentile,, slave and free—together by reminding them of the common source of their unity, God’s Spirit.  Furthermore, Paul wants them to understand that their differences make them strong and whole.  Besides, if we were all the same, it would be a boring world.  Yet, there is this human tendency we have to keep people who are different from us at a distance.

The body represents a human community made up of all types of members.  Paul suggests that we all have different roles but we’re connected to one another and only when we are united and working together, will we fulfill God’s plan for us.  Kind of like me, if I want to walk normally, I need two legs that work together.  Otherwise, I limp along with a crutch.

Interestingly, Paul starts with the foot.  The foot in the Middle Eastern mind is dirty.  Even today, in Islamic countries, to point the soles of one’s feet toward someone is considered an offense and something to be avoided.  In 2011, when Egyptians rioted against Mubarak, President of Egypt at the time, one of the things the crowd did was to take off their shoes and shake the heels of their shoes toward him as a sign of contempt.  The words for foot and shoe are considered obscene in such a culture and must be used carefully to avoid offense.[5]

By starting with the foot, Paul begins with the “least-of-these” and lifts them up as worthy members of the community.  Those reading this letter in the ancient world would have quickly understood his point.  Slaves and women and others on the outside may have had little value in the larger society of the day, but according to Paul, they are an essential part of the Christian community.  The Spirit has given them essential gifts.  They have a role to play.  Within the church “everyone participates, each serves and all belong.”[6]  Furthermore, such acceptance into the community should make those within this group be grateful, just as everyone should feel gratitude for having been grafted into the body of Christ.

Paul shows the illogical view that many of us have of thinking higher of ourselves than others.  We need one another and everyone should be grateful for everyone else.  Because every one of us brings something unique to the community, when we look down on others, we risk diminishing ourselves and the community.  Everyone within God’s kingdom must be grateful of everyone else, partly because none of us can do everything by ourselves (as is being painfully brought to my attention in my current state).

A friend of mine wrote a book about his canoe journey down the Charles River in Eastern Massachusetts.  The river flows out through Boston harbor.  It’s not a long river and wouldn’t have been a very long book, except that he used his days on the water to ponder and share what was on his mind.  He had been bothered by the negativity within the environmental community and was wondering how we might develop a new environmental ethic.  To say that the world is being ruined and we must do something quickly can be overwhelming and leaves most of us paralyzed.  The solution the author proposed is that before people take on burdens of the environmental crisis, they experience the joy and the awe of nature.  His idea is only that which we love and that which has brought us joy can give us the strength to engage in the larger issues that are seemingly overwhelming.[7] Now, he wasn’t necessarily writing from a spiritual or a Christian perspective (although his sister is an ordained hospital chaplain), but I think he’s on to something.

When we feel the joy of having been endowed by God’s Spirit and grafted into the body of Christ, we should then want to respond in gratitude.  Gratitude, it’s the first principle of Christian stewardship.  It’s the first principle of a Christian life.  It helps us value all parts of the body that makes up the church.

Friends, if we are to be the body of Christ, we must embrace one another and realize that everyone here brings something unique to the table.  We need to value one another, encourage one another, pray for one another, and listen to one another.  If we do this, the body of Christ will be strengthened.  And if we embrace everyone, remembering that we are all sinners dependent on God’s grace in Jesus Christ, we will create a community so appealing others will want to join us as we strive together to bring God glory and, with the help of the Holy Spirit and those spiritual gifts endowed to us, further God’s kingdom.  Amen.

©2015

[1] Kenneth E. Bailey, Paul through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians (Downers Grove, IL: IVP 2011), 344.

[2] 1 Corinthians 6:12.

[3] Bailey, 336.

[4] I’m using Kenneth Bailey’s outline of First Corinthians which divide the main body of the Epistle into five essays:  1. Unity and the Cross (1:10-4:19).  2. Sexuality: men and women and the human family (4:17-7:40).  3. Christian and Pagan: freedom and responsibility (8:11-11:1).  4. Worship: Men and women in the church (11:2-14:40.  5. Resurrection (15:1-58)

[5] Bailey, 341.

[6] Bailey, 342.

[7] Davud Gesser, My Green Manifesto: Down the Charles River in Pursuit of a New Environmentalism (Milkweed, 2011), especially see 132-133.

God’s promises and baptism

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

January 10, 2016

Isaiah 43:1-7

 

Today, in the church’s calendar, is the Baptism of the Lord.  It’s a date to remember that Jesus, in solidarity with us, was baptized by John the Baptist.  This is also a day to think about our baptisms.  Baptism is not just the rite one undergoes to join the church; it is a sacrament.  Sacraments are defined in the Westminster Confession of Faith as “holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace.” They have been instituted by God to represent Christ and his benefits, to confirm our faith in Christ, and to distinguish members of the church.  However, the sacrament itself doesn’t have any power outside of the work of the Holy Spirit.[1]  Our baptism points to the atoning work Christ has done for us and the ongoing work of the Spirit in our lives.

We’re going to look at a passage from Isaiah for today’s sermon, the opening verses of the 43rd Chapter.  Let me put this in context.  Starting with chapter 40, this section of Isaiah is often referred to as a Book of Consolation. Scholars generally divide Isaiah into three different books with each addressing a different time in Israel’s history.  The first 39 chapters form one unit—as Isaiah speaks of Israel’s pending judgment by the Assyrians.   The next section focuses on the Babylonian exile and the last section looks to the future.  But things are not as clear-cut as you’d think for in the opening chapters, while there is a lot about judgment, there are also passages of consolation.  And within the “Book of Consolation,” there are passages about judgment such as Chapter 42.

In the chapter just before where I’ll begin my reading, Isaiah calls his people blind and deaf.  They do not realize what they’ve done and now they’ve become plunder as the Babylonian army has destroyed Jerusalem and its people are sent into exile.  However, the prophet reminds them that Babylon wasn’t the real source of their trouble.  Their problem is with idolatry and an unwillingness to follow God’s way.  Therefore, God hands them over to be looted and plundered.  Pretty harsh, right?  But as we begin with the 43rd chapter, we’re see a different side of God.  This is a beautiful passage that shows the tenderness of God.  Like a parent, God can both be loving and a disciplinarian.   Read Isaiah 43:1-7.

###

 

I don’t remember my baptism, but I know I was baptized on Easter Sunday, just three months after my birth, at the old Culdee Presbyterian Church.  At the time, we worshipped in a small white-clapboard church-building in the Sandhills of North Carolina.  The Reverend Thomas Young officiated.  He was busy that day, as there was a slew of us baby boomers being baptized.  Like me, I am sure many of you do not remember your baptism, although there are others of us, who come from traditions that baptize those who are older, do have memories.  Regardless, what is important is not the act itself, or the way the act was carried out (whether sprinkled or dunked) but what the act signifies.

Baptism is the sign, the initiation rite, into which we enter the church.  But it is not what happens during baptism that is important, the amount of water that is used or how it is administered.  What’s important is what God has done for us through Jesus Christ.  Baptism does not save us; only Christ can do that.  Baptism shows that we trust Christ and his death and resurrection…  It is therefore something to be treasured and stands as a sign to the world of where we place our faith.

Our passage today, from the 43rd Chapter of Isaiah, opens with verses that remind us of our baptism.  We have been created by God and because of that, we are not to be afraid.  Remember now, the Hebrew people are in (or going to be heading into) exile. They have every reason to be afraid.  But they are being reassured that, because God is with them, they should be bold and put fear aside. We are called to trust the God who redeems, the God who calls us by name, the God who goes beside us when we pass through the “waters.”  Here, in Isaiah, centuries before Jesus’ birth, provides an example of the incarnation, of God being with us.  God the Creator sticks with his people even when they are being punished.  We are not abandoned!

God, through Isaiah, goes on to tell Israel that his presence will be there, not only through the waters, but also through the fire.  Regardless of what calamity we face, a flood or fire, we can be sure of God’s presence.  We can hold on to this promise.  Obviously, God won’t keep such calamities from our lives.  After all, the Hebrew people heard this oracle of salvation as they were in exile. But God assures them that although he arranged for them to be chastised, he was not going to leave them in some foreign country.  They are still his people.  Likewise, for those of us on this side of the resurrection, God through Jesus Christ, has adopted us as children and promises his presence despite whatever challenges we face.

Additionally, as we see in Verse 3, God is willing to go to great lengths to ransom his people, including offering up Israel’s old oppressor, Egypt along with other rich kingdoms of Northern Africa.  I don’t think this has to do with God having anything against these people; instead, God shows just how far he’s willing to go to free Israel.  These countries are remote, showing just how far the God of creation would go to free his people.[2] God’s willingness to go to great lengths to redeem his people is later demonstrated in the sending of the Son, Jesus Christ.

This boasting leads to the climax of the passage in verse 4, where God speaks of his people as precious in his sight and expresses his love for them.  I’ll return to this verse in a minute.  First, let me give a brief overview of the ending of the passage.

The final three verses somewhat mirror the first three, as God again reassures Israel of his presence.  God promises to bring back the offspring of the people of exile.  This promise isn’t going to benefit those sent to exile; it’s for their descendants.  They will again be led home by God.  The passage then closes, as it opened, with a reassurance that God knows the name of his people and that he created him for his glory.

Let’s go back to the heart of his passage. In verse 4, God expresses love for the Hebrew people in a very intimate way.  It sounds as something that could be taken from messages passed back and forth by young lovers:  “you are precious, you are honored, and I love you.”  Now remember, as I’ve pointed out, just what was going on with the Hebrew people when this was penned.  They have been defeated by Babylon.  Like so many other people and nations, they are being sent into exile.  This policy of Babylon, sending defeated peoples into exile, strengthen their position by mixing up the nations they conquered.  But most of the other defeated people who had been sent to Babylon disappeared from the annals of history, but not Israel.

Even though Israel was a small insignificant nation when compared to the other world powers of the era, God chose them and assigned them an important task.  Eventually, it would be to this group of people that Jesus came.  One commentator suggests that this is one of the best passages for the support of God’s election[3] (or to use that “P” word favored by the Apostle Paul, predestination).  God chose this defeated and humbled nation to enter into the world as a child bringing hope and offering a new chance through Jesus Christ.  God, it appears, loves the underdog!

What should we learn from this passage?  Although this passage isn’t directly about baptism, as we heard earlier in our reading from Luke’s gospel, the imagery is there.  Knowing us by name and being with us as we pass through the waters brings baptism to the forefront of our imaginations.  It used to be that at baptism, the child was given his name, a reminder that the child belonged to God, the one who knows him or her by name.  We should hold on tightly to the promises made by God to us through baptism, knowing that there is nothing that can separate us from God’s love and that although there will be trials and tribulations in our lives, God promises to be with us.  In the end, it isn’t what we do that’s important, it’s what God does for us.

There was a man who died and arrived before the Pearly Gates and started to strut right on into heaven when St. Peter stopped him.

“Hold on Partner,” Peter said.  “Where do you think you’re going?  You can’t just waltz in here, we got procedures.  I need to know how many points you have.”

“Points?” the man cried.  “What do you mean by points?”

“You have to have at least 100 points to get in,” Peter said.

“Well, how do I get points?” the man asked.

“By doing good things in your life,” Peter replied.  “What kind of good things did you do?”

The man thought for a moment and said, “I was a member of the Presbyterian Church for sixty years.”

“That’s good,” Peter said with a smile, “that’s worth a point.”

“And I was an elder for nearly twenty years.”

“Another point.”

“And I taught the Middle School Sunday School class for years, even though the kids drove me nuts.”

“Not the best attitude,” Peter noted, “but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.  That’s another point, you only need 97 more.

“I once brought a meal for a man who was hungry.”  “96 more,” Peter said.

The man started scratching his head, thinking harder and harder but nothing was coming to his mind.  Then he said, “I was married for fifty years and never cheated on my wife.”

“Well, that’s expected, Peter said, but I’ll give you a point anyway, 95 to go.

The man thought harder and harder.  Sweat beaded down his brow, for he felt as if he was about to blow the most important test of his life.  Finally, he sighed and said, “I give up, if I’m to get in here, it’ll only be by God’s grace.”

Peter smiled and said, “That’s worth 95 points.”

Take comfort in the knowledge that God promises to be with us and that our salvation is in his hands and not our own.  Yes, we will have troubles in this life, but the God who created us, who knows us by name, will be there with us, and for that we can give thanks even in the face of adversity.  Amen.

 

©2016

[1] Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XXVII (Book of Order, 6.149 and 6.151)

[2] John L. McKenzie, Second Isaiah (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1968), 50.

[3] Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66 (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969), 118.

The Incarnation

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

January 3, 2016

John 1:1-18

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the better known Christian martyrs of the 20th Century, was killed by the Nazi’s days before the end of World War II.  Bonhoeffer spent most of his final two years in a Nazi prison, during which time some of his writings were smuggled out, including a poem titled “Christians and Pagans.”  Let me read it; there are three short sections:

 

Men go to God when they are sore bestead,

Pray to him for succor, for his peace, for bread,

For mercy for them sick, sinning, or dead;

All men do so, Christian and unbelieving.

 

Men go to God when he is sore bestead,

Find him poor and scorned, without shelter or bread,

Whelmed under weight of the wicked, the weak, the dead;

Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving.

 

God goes to every man when sore bestead,

Feeds body and spirit with his bread;

For Christians, pagans alike he hangs dead,

And both alike forgiving.[1]

 

Consider how Bonhoeffer structures this poem.  Christians are the ones standing by God in his hour of need.  As Matthew’s gospel informs us, this is what we do when we commit an act of kindness to “the least of these.”[2] But the heart of the poem is in the final verse; God comes to us when we are suffering.  God with us; it’s the incarnation; it’s what Christmas is all about.  Our passage on this the second and last week of Christmas is from the prelude to the Gospel of John.  READ JOHN 1:1-18

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Unlike Matthew and Luke, John’s gospel doesn’t give us the standard eyewitness account of the birth of our Savior.  John isn’t interested in mangers, stars, shepherds, angels, or wise men.  John begins his gospel with a theological or, more correctly, a Christological statement.  His words draw our minds back to Genesis, back to the creation.  Jesus Christ, the word of God, was present at the beginning.  Jesus Christ is responsible for life, and that life emits light to a darkened world.

Think back to Genesis 1, the story of the world’s creation.  Interestingly, the first act of creation was light.  On the first day, God brought light into the chaos and then separated light and darkness.  If you study that story, it’s interesting that the sun, that great heavenly body that gives us light during the daytime, is primarily reduced to a clock.  The sun isn’t created until the fourth day!  Genesis, like John’s gospel, opens with a theological statement, reminding us that life and light is from God – not from the sun.

This is exciting, but there is also a problem.  There’s darkness in the world.  Even though Jesus came into the world, and even though the world came into being through Him, the world does not know Him.  Through this darkness, the world is not even sure of its origin.  The world is lost.  Yet, piercing the darkness is the light of Christ.  And those who come to this light can be reborn a child of God, as John discusses in the third chapter.

By linking Jesus to the eternal word, John begins by emphasizing the co-existence of Christ and the Father, a unity responsible for creation and life.  As to the details of how all this came about, we’re not privy.  Genesis points to God as the creator, and John picks up that theme.  The problem that has occurred between Genesis 1 and John’s gospel is that sin established itself in the world, thereby keeping people from seeing God as the creator.  Sin creates the darkness that engulfs the world.

To put John’s esoteric language into equally esoteric theological wordage, we can no longer know the saving grace of God through Natural Theology.   Natural Theology is what we know about God without appealing to faith or revelation; in other words, what we can know about God from reason and experience.   John Calvin, early in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, discusses this; which he labels “natural endowment.”  Calvin understands there are some things we can know about God; however, we can’t discover the saving grace of God on our own.[3]  That knowledge is only available through revelation and Jesus Christ is the revelation of God.  Because the world has been corrupted, our ability to know God from our surroundings has been diminished, and we must wait for God to reveal himself to us.  This revelation, the incarnation, is necessary for us to experience salvation.

There was a boy to whom Santa gave a train on Christmas.  On that Christmas morning his house, like many of ours, looked like a disaster had struck.  Tossed across the floor were boxes and wrapping paper and bows, ribbons, and of course new toys.  But the boy was most interested in the train and loved racing it around and around, as fast as it would go.  But then, in the confusion, his younger sister kicked a discarded box on the tracks and the train crashed into it, creating a massive derailment.

Bending over the train, this young budding engineer kept trying to get the cars back on the tracks, but he couldn’t get the wheels to seat properly.  Finally, his father realized what was happening.  “You know, you can’t do that standing up above it,” he said.  “You have to get down beside it.”  The father then laid down beside the tracks with his son, and proceeded to show him how to seat the train back on the tracks.

This is a way we can think about the incarnation, the coming of God to us as a child.  The human race has been derailed by sin.  We need to be put back on the right track in life. But it can’t be done from above – God has to come down beside us in order to put us back on track.  And that’s what God does in Jesus Christ.

It all seems so harmless: God loving the world and coming into it to save it.  It seems like we should just rejoice and receive Christ with open arms, and be like the shepherds or wise men.  Yet, even there with the wise men, we learn of the opposition from Herod.[4]  Here in John’s gospel, we see this opposition manifest itself as darkness.  We know, looking back on the story from our perspective that the opposition will eventually lead to the crucifixion of the Messiah.

The world that we live in is in rebellion.  Our world doesn’t want to hear the message, which is why it was so easy to crucify Christ.  This hasn’t changed in the centuries and millenniums since Jesus’ resurrection and ascension into heaven.  For some reason, we find the light of Christ painful.  For some strange reason we prefer darkness.  Sin has such a shaming effect on us that we avoid light, lest we be shown for who we really are.  We prefer to live with lies rather than in the truth. We forget we can only find true freedom in the light, allowing God through Jesus Christ to point out our shortcomings, so that we might confess and repent.  We should rejoice that God hasn’t given up on us.  We should be thankful our God continues to reach out into a world that rebels against its Creator.

Ponder this morning what difference it make that God entered human history?  (This could make a good topic of conversation while enjoying coffee and fellowship afterwards.  Certainly, those of you who are Michigan State fans would prefer to discuss this than the Cotton Bowl!)

God’s coming gives meaning to life.  Without God, life itself would have no meaning and philosophically, we’d all be nihilists.[5]  But there is something inside of us, that which Calvin called Natural Endowment, which informs us there is something greater.  There is something beyond ourselves that demands our worship and reverence.  We have this desire to reach out and grasp it, which gets us into trouble because we can’t be God.  We tried, that’s the meaning behind the story of eating the forbidden fruit.[6]  We wanted to be like God, and as a result found ourselves even further away from the divine.  But all is not lost.  Even though we can’t fully grasp the glory and majesty of God, our Creator makes it easy for us by coming to us in a way we’ll understand.

What difference does it make?  If you believe, it makes all the difference in the world.  We have a God who cares and loves us.  And, as we come into God’s light, we too are called to care and love the world.  Life is not meaningless, for we are loved and we are to love.  Life is not hopeless for we have a God whose majesty engulfs the world, yet who understands the trials and tribulations we face daily because he’s been here.

As this Christmas season comes to a close, remember that life doesn’t have to be meaningless.  We can know God and of his love, and through God know that we are valued and loved and therefore should value and show love to others.  God has made himself known to us!  This week, though your kindness and gentleness, spread God’s love to those around you.  Reflect the face of Jesus to the world, it’ll make a difference in someone’s life.  Amen.

 

©2016

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Prayers from Prison (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1978), 26.

[2] Matthew 25:40.

[3] See John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.III.1 and 1.IV.1-4.

[4] Matthew 2:1-18.

[5] A philosophical belief that traditional values and beliefs are unfounded and that existence is senseless and useless.  It denies objective truth.  Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary.

[6] Genesis 3.

Christmas Eve homily 2015

Christmas eveJeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Christmas Eve 2015

Luke 2:1-20 (verse 19)

 

 

Growing up, I never felt like our Christmas tree was the real thing.  Yeah, it was a live tree; we’d never go for the artificial variety.  But it was a store bought tree, purchased from the Optimist Club, which was logical since they supported the local Little League program.

On the night we put up the tree, we’d all wait patiently—or maybe not so patiently—for Dad to come home from work.  When he arrived, we’d pile in the car and drive to the lot on Oleander Drive.  It was a makeshift operation, some bare bulbs hanging from wires overhead illuminating the lot.  Trees were laid up against wires ran between poles.  We’d go through the lot looking at 100s of them.  None ever seem perfect.  It was hard to get all of us to agree.  After 15 minutes of this fruitless exercise, my parents would assume authority and pick out a tree.  Dad would pay for it and then tie it to the top of our car for the ride home.

In some ways, it’s odd that my dad purchased a tree instead of finding a place to cut one.  He’s the type of man who never brought anything he could make, and that included our tree stand.  Had the bomb dropped on our house, something kids worried about in the 60s, I’m sure Dad’s tree stand would have been the only thing to survive.  I was in Middle School before I could pick it up.  It was constructed from a 3 foot by 3 foot square piece of 3/8-inch plate steel with a four inch steel tube welded to it.  That tube was where the trunk went and on the top were bolts to hold the tree in place.  It was hard to get water into the tube, so after the first year, he drilled a bunch of holes in the side of the tube and then welded a shorter six inch pipe over it, where we poured water that would seep into the trunk.  This tree stand was so solid that the tree’s trunk would have broken before it would have toppled.  As a child, I wondered why we didn’t have one of those red stands with green legs like all other families.  As an adult, before moving to an artificial tree, I found myself wishing for Dad’s old stand.  The tree in that stand would have survived kids, dogs, cats, and rowdy guests, all of which have been known to topple a tree my living room.

My grandparents still lived on a farm and never had a store bought tree.  For me, they had a real tree—an Eastern Cedar—thick and full and fragrant compared to the scrawny firs the Optimist Club imported from Canada.  My mother, obviously trying to console us, said firs were better because you had more room between branches on which to hang ornaments.  She was trying to convince herself, I’m sure, for she knew that a tree had to be picked out and cut by one’s own hands in order to be authentic.

Of all the trees I’ve seen in my life, the one that stands out as the ideal tree was the one my Grandmother and Grandfather Faircloth had for Christmas 1966.  It was a full, well-shaped cedar my grandfather had cut near the stream that ran behind his tobacco barn.  Although I didn’t witness the harvesting of this tree, I imagine him, sitting on top of his orange Allis Chambers tractor, with the tree tied behind the seat, hauling it back home.  This tree took up a quarter of their living room and its scent filled their home.  Grandma decorated it simply: white lights, red bulbs and silver icicles.  And, of course, there were presents underneath along with boxes of nuts and fruit.

They gave me a Kodak Instamatic Camera, that year, the kind that used the drop-in 126-film cartridges and those square disposable flashes that mounted on top.  It was the closest thing to a foolproof camera ever built and I got good use out of it.  It’d be nearly another decade before I replaced it with a 35 millimeter.  My grandfather did not feel good that Christmas, but after some coaxing, I got him to come outside so I could take a picture of him and my grandmother in front of the house.  Even though I lost this picture years ago, I can still visualize the snapshot in my mind.  Grandma and Granddad stood in front of their porch, by one of the large holly bushes that framed their steps.  My slender grandmother, a bit taller than her husband, has her arm around him.  They’re both smiling.  Granddad sports his usual crew cut.  In the picture, my grandparents are a bit off-center and crooked, for the camera wasn’t as foolproof as Kodak led everyone to believe.  But the image was sharp.  It still is.

My granddad never raised another crop of tobacco. Although I don’t know for sure, he may have never even driven his tractor again, for early that January, his heart gave out.  That’s why the memory is so vivid.

I’m sure my Christmas memories are fairly normal.  You probably have similar ones—some are good, and others are of Christmases that didn’t live up to expectation, or even those sad Christmases in which we lost loved ones.  There’s nothing wrong with a normal Christmas, for if you look at the birth narrative in Luke’s gospel, that’s what the first one was all about.  It was business as usual.  You have a young couple doing their civic duty, registering for the census, and the shepherds working the graveyard shift.  Even birth itself is fairly normal. It’s something we’ve all experienced.  It’s into this ordinary world that God enters.  That alone is good news.  God appears in an ordinary world, in an ordinary life, like ours.  We don’t have to do anything special to experience God.  The Almighty can find us waiting in line to meet a government bureaucrat or while working the nightshift.  God can find us where we are, that’s one of the messages of Christmas.

The Good Book tells us that after the shepherds left the Baby Jesus, rejoicing and praising God, Mary pondered in her heart all the things she’d heard and experienced.  The late Raymond Brown, a well-known scholar who wrote the most detailed commentary on the birth narratives of the Gospels, says the word “pondered” literally means “thrown side by side.”[1]  Mary brought together in her heart all the events occurring in Bethlehem and during her pregnancy and juggled them around in an attempt to understand.  There must have been a variety of emotions of which we can only speculate.  How much of her Son’s future did she really understand?  Possibly not much.  It would be thirty years before Jesus’ ministry would begin.  And even after he started his ministry, there may have been times Mary and her family tried to talk Jesus out of it.[2]  But then, the birth of any child is miraculous to the mother, so maybe Mary just thought this was normal, and as the years went by forgot about the angels and the prophecies concerning her son.

Mary is important to the story, not only because she is the mother of our Savior.  Mary’s the only person mentioned in the gospels whose presence bridge the life of Jesus.  She gives birth, she’s at the cross with her heart heavy with sorry, probably still pondering and wondering, and on the first day of the week is there to experience the resurrection.[3]

Ever since that first Christmas some 2000 years ago in the small town of Bethlehem, the day has been one in which we ponder its meaning while creating our own memories.  The picture etched in my mind of me photographing my grandparents reminds me of the family from which I sprung, a family who saw to it that I had a chance to know the Christ-child as someone more just a reason to receive gifts.  Those trees I remember from my childhood, whose roots historically are pagan, have become a symbol for the life Christ brought into the world, the greatest gift we can receive.  The impossibility of finding the perfect tree, a task so daunting for my family, always seemed so silly afterwards for even imperfect ones become perfect when decorated.  And God works the same miracles in us, taking what is weak and imperfect and using it to carry out his mission in the world. And if I wanted to stretch it, I could even point to my Dad’s Christmas tree stand as a metaphor for the solid foundation we all need in our lives!  The memories of Christmas that stay with me are not of receiving gifts.  It is the assurance of being loved, by parents and grandparents, and ultimately by God.

Tonight, as you leave here, ponder what this all means. I suppose for most of us, our fondest Christmas memories are as children or when we had children of our own.  In a profound way, Christmas is about children for children represent worlds of possibilities.  The birth of a child in Bethlehem, the joy of a child tearing into wrapped presents and then hugging a parent, the twinkle of candlelight in our eyes as we sing Silent Night help us what it’s all about.  And when we hear those words from Jesus’ adult ministry, that unless we come as a child, we will never enter the kingdom of God,[4] we can think about how we viewed things as a child.  Perhaps this is what we should be pondering as we once again recall and celebrate God’s entry into our world.  How might we become child-like and accept our Savior into our heart?  Amen.

[1]Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 406.

[2] In John 7:5, we see that Jesus’ brothers did not believe in him.  Was this the reason his brothers and Mary were trying to see Jesus in Matthew 12:46 and Mark 3:31?

[3] Not only was Mary present at the death, she’s listed as being present with the early church.  See Acts 1:14.

[4] Luke 18:17.

Mission and Benevolence Moment for Mission

gifts

Angel Tree gifts under the tree

Good Morning

I have the privilege to sit on the Mission and Benevolence Committee.

In the past 6 weeks we have asked the congregation for a great deal of support.  First we asked you to help with the Santa Claus Express to support the Presbyterian Homes here in Georgia.  Well you did that wonderfully with PJ’s, Robes, and Sweaters. Sweat shirts, toiletries, lap blankets and much more.  Four Santa bags full,

Then came the Angel tree.  75 angels were snatched from the tree and gifts came in for Union Mission, Pin Point and Safe Shelter.  At the Advent dinner men’s socks were filled with deodorant, soap, tooth paste and a tooth brush for Inner City Night Shelter.  When they were delivered, it was reported they had never had that before.  They will give those out on Christmas.  I was asked to deliver the leftover food to Safe Shelter.  Bob and I gathered the food and the items left in our donation box for the delivery.  We arrived and rang the door bell.  One of the staff came to the door and I told her we had some donations.  We’d need a cart.  Loading up the cart she asked if we needed a receipt.  I informed her was from Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church.  She stopped and looked at me and said “You do a lot for us”.  I replied that it was a very generous church.  She then asked if we were doing anything for the families for Christmas.  I told her we had 25 teenagers we were giving gift cards.  Her jaw dropped and said thank you.

Years ago I was reminded that to whom much is given, much is expected.  You, we, as a church have responded to that responsibility.

Well done good and faithful servants.

Carolyn Ernest

The Moravian Love Feast and Savannah

The Moravian Love Feast and Savannah

Jeff Garrison

Published in The Skinnie, December 19, 2014, edited for 2015

lovefeast

A Love Feast is a service of song, scripture, and prayer.  During the worship service, the dieners (German for servers), serve the congregation a light meal usually consisting of a hot cross bun and a mug of sweetened coffee, tea or some other warm drink.  The feast has its roots in the Agape Meals of the early church.  In the Book of Acts, the New Testament church is described as a community that not only worshipped together but made every meal a joyful celebration as they praised God.  Over time, the church stopped using the love feast and emphasized communion, a meal in which the elements are more symbolic. Communion, also known as the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper, is a sacrament that is celebrated only by those who are a part of the Christian community.  The Love Feast is not a sacrament and therefore can be celebrated by everyone and is appropriate for ecumenical and interfaith gatherings.  It is a time of joy as the hosts share with their guests.

 

The Love Feast, as it is known today, originated with the Moravians, a small Protestant sect whose roots can be traced back to the Czech reformer, John Hus.   Hus was burned at the stake in Prague in 1415, over a hundred years before Luther began to reform the church in Germany.  In 1457, some who had followed Hus joined together to form the Unitas Fratrum or the Unity of Brethren, which is still the official name of the Church.   The members frequently experienced persecution. Early in the 18th Century, the remnants of the sect found sanctuary on Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf’s estate in Saxony (Germany).  Zinzendorf had food from his manor brought to the starving refugees, who ate while praying and singing.  This experience grew into frequent celebrations that became known as Love Feasts, a distinguishing feature within Moravian worship.

 

Moravians, seeking new places to live, joined with Oglethorpe’s mission to Georgia in 1735.  It was in Savannah that they celebrated their first Love Feast in the New World.  The church has always been open to cooperate with other denominations and these feasts were open to everyone, not just to the members of the Moravian Church.  John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement who was an Anglican priest in Savannah at the time, participated in a Love Feast in Savannah.  He was moved by the service and suggested its observance to his followers.  Through 19th Century, Love Feasts were regularly celebrated in Methodist Churches.

 

For a number of reasons the Moravian colony failed in Georgia.  Chief among them was the church’s pacifistic stance at a time when Georgia was fearful of a Spanish attacks.  Other reasons included the sect’s desire to evangelize Native Americans and their work upon slaves in South Carolina, internal disputes, and problems with other denominations.  In 1745, the Moravian remnant in Savannah moved to Pennsylvania where they would buy a track of land upon which the city of Bethlehem was founded.   At approximately the same time, another group of Moravians settled in North Carolina, forming several towns including Salem (now Winston Salem).

 

Although Love Feasts can be celebrated anytime, the Christmas Eve candlelight service is a highlight of the year.  Moravians were big proponents of the Christmas holiday long before the holiday was regularly celebrated in America in the early 19th Century.  Moravians have provided music for the holiday and even named the main town Bethlehem, after the birthplace of Christ.   The multi-pointed lighted stars that are seen hanging on porches throughout the holiday originated within the church during the 19th Century.  These “Moravian Stars,” burning bright during the dark season of the year, signals the coming of the Messiah.

 

Early on, the Moravians incorporated the Love Feast with their “Christmas Candlelight services.”  The highlight of the service was the closing, when, with joyous singing, the congregation raised their candles in praise and celebration of Christ’s birth.

 

Ray Burke, a Moravian pastor from Clemmons Moravian Church in North Carolina, describes the Christmas Eve Candlelight Love Feast as a service designed to engage all of our senses.  “We hear the marvelous music and familiar words of scripture that tell of God’s coming.  We smell the warm, rich coffee and beeswax candles.  We taste the coffee and semi-sweet buns.  We touch the cups, the buns, the candles, and the hands of our brothers and sisters in Christ as we greet each other in worship.  We see the joy, the excitement.  But there is more…even beyond the engagement of all our senses, lies that mysterious communion of our spirits with the very Spirit of God.”

 

This year, the Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church will bring this tradition back to Savannah as they celebrate a Christmas Candlelight Love Feast on Christmas Eve (Thursday, December 24) at 9 PM.   Unlike a Communion Service, which is open to baptized believers, this Love Feast is open to everyone.  The congregation will provide this experience as a gift to the residents of Skidaway Island and Savannah and invites everyone to join them in this special holiday celebration.  Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church is located at 50 Diamond Causeway.  For questions, call 598-0151 or check out the church’s website: www.skidawaypres.org.

 

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Remembering the Future: Mary and Elizabeth’s Songs

Slide1 Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

December 20, 2015

Luke 1:39-56

 

 

Spring mornings in the Appalachian Mountains are special.  Just before dawn, an hour or so before the sun rises, birds began to sing.  It can be quite annoying if you’re trying to sleep and there is a bobwhite quail or a whip-o-will close by.  Whip-o-wills are the worst.  They’ve been known to chant their tunes at all hours of the night.  But songbirds wait until an hour or so before dawn to begin their music.  If you get over your need for sleep, you can lay in your sleeping bag and enjoy the concert as the winged choir members anticipate grand things for the upcoming day.  Together, they form a choir praising their creator.  Winter has passed and summer, the season in which they do not have to worry about food and the cold, is just around the corner. Eggs will hatch; there’ll be new life.  It’s as if the birds are singing in thanksgiving.

Luke’s gSlide2ospel opens like the birds of Appalachia in the predawn hours of spring.  Everyone sings.  We’ll almost everyone, old Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, was at a loss for words.  But we can bet his heart was singing.  Joining in his song is his pregnant wife, Elizabeth, and Mary, pregnant with Jesus.  And after Jesus’ birth, angels join the chorus for they all understand that a new day is dawning, God’s promise is about to be fulfilled.

Over the past month in my sermons, I have referred to Advent as a time of “remembering the future.”  We saw this with John the Baptist.  John was the last of the prophets of the old age as he points the way to Jesus, the one who ushers in a new age.[1]  Everyone is excited for what is about to occur.  Today, our Scripture consists of two songs, Elizabeth’s and Mary’s.  Each give thanks to God for what is about to happen.  Read Luke 1:39-56.

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I have a confession to make.  I like to be in control.  Didn’t come as a surprise, did it?  I like to know what I’m doing and where I’m going and how I’m going to get there.  I don’t like things I can’t control, which is probably why I don’t get excited over cars.  I’m not impressed with how much horsepower is packed under the hood or the size of the tires.  I just want the contraption to get me where I’m going.

You see, with a car, you can be whizzing down the interstate at midnight with everything in order—cruise control set just a hair above the speed limit, the vehicle’s interior climate comfortable, and just the right tune blaring from the stereo, when all of a sudden a water pump breaks.  You’re sitting in the middle of nowhere and reminded once again that you’re not in control.  Some little mechanical gadget that can only be found in an auto-parts store three counties away shatters any allusion of control.  Moments before you were happy and content, now you’re cranky and angry.  Know the feeling?  (That said, I hope none of you have any car problems if you’re travelling for the holidays.)

The desire for control is something instilled into our culture.  We pull ourselves up by our bootlaces.  We take care of ourselves, or at least we are under the mistaken belief that we take care of ourselves.  But we didn’t build the car.  Nor did we build the highway, or refine the oil to make the car run.  We should keep in mind that we always depend on others and ultimately, we depend on God.  We need to get this control fantasy out of our heads.  We need to accept ourselves for who we are.  When we try to make ourselves out to be more than we are, we create an idol out of the self and set ourselves up for a fall.  The higher we elevate ourselves, the further we fall.[2]

Yet, control is a desire we all share.  But it is dangerous because it is incompatible with our faith in God.  We desire to be rich, famous, powerful, popular, the type of individual that is in control of his or her surroundings.  But it’s a myth.  As Christians, our desires should center on pleasing and fulfilling God’s will.  If you question this, consider Mary, the women whom God chose to work through to bring about salvation to the world.

Mary wasn’t rich or famous or powerful or popular.  According to worldly standards, she was the most unlikely candidate to be the mother of Jesus, the mother of God.  She was young and unmarried, probably poor, from a second rate town in an obscure corner of the world.  As far as we know, she had no education and there was no royalty within her blood.  She didn’t seek fame.  Instead, she was absolutely dependent.  She was dependent upon her father to find her a husband and then would be dependent upon him to provide for her and her children.  Later in life, she’d be dependent upon her children to take care of her.  She had no control over her life.  Absolutely none.  She was just a poor women, like 1000s of other poor women, in a dirt-poor town in an obscure providence of the Roman Empire.  She was just like 1000s of other women, except she was chosen to bear the Son of God.  It almost sounds like a fairy tale story, does it?  Except that Mary never inherits a castle.  Her story goes downhill.  She gives birth to her son in a stable, the family flees to Egypt where they live as political refugees, and three decades later she’s there by the cross watching her son die.[3]  She is a woman of sorrow, but despite this her song is one of the most beautiful found in scripture as she praises God for what he had done and is doing.

Mary realizes her position.  She’s a lowly servant and any honor she has is due to God’s action within her life.  Everything is God’s doing, not hers.  She is not the cause of redemption; she’s just a vessel God using to bring the Savior into the world.  Mary isn’t going around boasting of her accomplishments and lining up book deals; she isn’t saying, “look at me, I’m the mother of God.”  Instead, as Luke tells us at the end of the Christmas narrative, Mary ponders all that happens in her heart.[4]  She’s the model of true humility.  Her praise and her life are directed toward God.

Mary’s song gives us an insight into how God operates.  God chose her, an unlikely candidate, to be Jesus’ mother.  God lifts up the lowly while pronouncing judgment upon the powerful—upon those who think they are in control.  We Americans should take notice.  God’s blessings are given to those who understand they have no control in their lives; God’s blessings are for those who, in their humble state, fear the Lord.  At the same time, those who are not willing to acknowledge God’s sovereignty will not find salvation in Jesus Christ.  They’re too busy looking out for themselves and pretending their own resources will save them, they don’t realize they need a Savior.

Have you ever wondered why the poor appear to be special in Scripture?  Think of the verses: Blessed are the poor.”[5]  “It’s easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than a rich man to get into heaven.”[6]  Why is it easier for the poor to accept Christ and find salvation?  The poor are dependent.  Those without money must depend upon others for food.  Those without capital must depend upon others for jobs.  And this doesn’t just go for the economically poor.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”[7]  Those who are depressed must depend upon others to cheer them up. The poor are dependent on others, they are not in control, and those who acknowledge their dependence have an easier time accepting God’s grace.

All of us need to learn to depend upon God and, by doing so, we need to make Mary’s song our own.  Can we prescribe all our praise to God?  (Or, do we want to save a little for ourselves?)  Can we acknowledge God’s power and sovereignty in this world?  (Or, do we believe in our individual grandeur?)

Mary is in no position to help herself, yet she so totally trust God and sings his praises.  Mary accepts God’s call and gives God thanks for being chosen, which is why her song is remembered.

Mary’s song provides us a model of a prayer of thanksgiving.  If Mary, a woman of sorrow, can sing such a song, if the songbirds who struggle day after day for food and survival can sing such praise, why can’t we?  In all we do, we need to see how God is working in our lives and then give thanks.  We need to take Paul seriously when he says that we’re to be praying without ceasing.[8]   And our prayers need to mostly be prayers of thanksgiving, as we praise God for all that he has done for us.  When we search our lives for God’s blessings and realize just how blessed we are, we are humbled and made even more dependent upon the loving arms of the Almighty God.

During this festive season, don’t forget to give thanks.  Take time to count your blessings.  What has God given you to be thankful for?  First off, he’s given your life; God’s given you a chance.  Secondly, you’re redeemed in Jesus Christ.  That’s a lot!  And what has God done for our church for which we should be thankful.  He’s given us a rich heritage, a church that has served this community for nearly forty years, a congregation that’s free of debt and consists of faithful people who long to make a difference in the lives of others.  We’re a congregation of hard workers—just look at the various projects done in just the past few weeks: a totally redone library, new landscaping, beautiful decorations for the season, a new carillon bells to sing out to our community, and tons of gifts generously given for those less fortunate in our community.  We’re not perfect; for that we’ll have to wait for the Second Advent. We are blessed to be a part of Jesus’ family and such a community as this.

Of course, as the news reminds us daily, we live in a world of violence.  But so did Mary and Elizabeth.  They lived in a world where those who disagreed with the occupying army were crucified and where Roman soldiers enforced the will of Caesar by spear and sword.  And yet, they both praised God for what was happening.  Both knew what God had done in the past and understood that a new age was dawning.  Even John, in his mother’s womb, knew and was excited about what God was doing.  Today, we can be cynical, when considering the violence and injustice in our world.  Or we can realize the message of the cross, which is that violence and evil may have their day, but they are not the final answer.  Be thankful, for the powers of death could not overcome God’s love for the world.  Be thankful, for Jesus will return and establish his rule and every knee will bow in reverence and God will live among us in such an intimate way that he’ll wipe our tears from our cheeks.[9]

I encourage you in your prayers to be like Mary. Remember what God has done and what God is doing!  Paul tells us to rejoice always.  When we regularly give thanks to God, we’ll find that we live differently.  Our lives will be more positive.  We’ll be like the songbirds on a spring morning, reflecting Jesus’ face to a hurting world.  Come, Lord Jesus, Come!  Amen.

 

 

©2015

[1] Fred B. Craddock, Luke: Interpretation, A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: JKP, 1990), 29.

[2] See Isaiah 14:12-14 and Luke 10:18

[3] See John 19:26.

[4] Luke 2:19

[5] Luke 6:20

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

[7] Matthew 5:3

[8] 1 Thessalonians 5:17.

[9] Romans 14:11, Philippians 2:10, Isaiah 25:8, and Romans 21:4

John’s teaching

Slide1JEFF GARRISON

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

December 13, 2015

Third Sunday of Advent

Luke 3:7-20

 

Old Testament reading from Zephaniah was a song of joy, a song sung by those who experienced God’s saving love.  Israel rejoices and sings.  God is in their midst.  Salvation has come!  It’s a passage that speaks of the joy of Emmanuel—God with us—a prophecy fulfilled in Jesus Christ.  That’s remembering the past!  But this Advent, and this year we’re remembering the future as we are reminded once again, that not only has Christ’s come, he’s coming again.  We need to be ready.

Again this week, we’re dealing with John the Baptist, who preaches a harsh sermon.  God’s judgment is at hand!  John’s message when compared to Zephaniah’s create the sweet and sour of God’s word.  Like sweet and sour sauce, the richness of tastes comes by combining both flavors.  God’s ways are good for salvation yet they are linked to judgment.  However, listen to what John says, once he gets the people’s attention. I think you’ll then be surprised at what he says.  READ LUKE 3:8-18

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Francis Thompson depicted Jesus as the Hound of Heaven in his epic poem by the same name…  We, of course, are the ones portrayed in the poem as being chased by the hound and out of fear, we run as fast as we can.

 

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;

I felt Him, down the arches of the years;

I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways

Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears

I hid from Him…

 

But the hound pursues.  He doesn’t give up the chase; when he finally overtakes us, we find it’s the not the deranged dog we’ve feared.[1]  Jesus is a loving hound, who chases us down because he cares about us.  The Hound of Heaven is the type of dog that would jump all over us and lick us and be happy to be in our presence.  At the risk of being blasphemous, the hound of heaven is a dog like our mutt, Triscuit, for those of you who have meet him.

But if Jesus is the loving hound of heaven, John the Baptist is the junkyard dog.[2]  Wild and furious, John stands in our way.  Interestingly, in all four gospels, before we get to the life of Jesus, we have to go through John.  We have to endure John’s preaching and hear about the vipers, wrath and unquenchable fire. We want to get to the stable, where we feel safe and can see baby Jesus lying in a manger.  We want to bring gifts for the child, to sit at the feet of a gentle Savior and draw in his words, but before we can get there, we have to deal with this wild lunatic.  The junkyard dog snaps at our heels, shouting repent, repent, for judgment is at hand.

John wasn’t a preacher that spoke gently.  He wasn’t known for his golden tongue and mild-manner ways.  When the crowds came, he shouted at them, “You brood of vipers.”  That’s not how most church growth consultants suggest we preachers address our flock.  Yet, they came.  People came from all around.  Somehow the word got out and people were intrigued and they made their way to where John was holding a camp meeting.  Why, what drew them?  Perhaps they needed an honest assessment of themselves.  Or more likely, they knew what John said was true, that deep down they were lost and in order to find the way to salvation, they had to be honest to themselves and to God.

Consider this: If we think things are okay, we have no need for a Savior.  But when things aren’t looking quite right, when we know we’re in over our heads, then a Savior is welcome.  John prepares these folks for Jesus’ arrival, getting them to understanding that just being children of Abraham isn’t enough, they need something more.   It’s no longer the “good old boy system” where you get special treatment ‘cause your daddy or uncle is so and so.

Although John has some rather unusual tactics and he preaches judgment as harsh as any fire and brimstone Puritan, his message really isn’t that tough.  He gets their attention by harshly pointing out their sin, and teaching that couldn’t depend on the faith of their ancestors.  Once they are attentive, John demands they behave in a particular way.   By then, they know they have not been living up to God standards for John doesn’t command anything that’s not set out in the law.

What John does is to get his audience’s attention, convict them of their sins, and lead them to the point that they themselves asks, “What should we do?” This question forms the centerpiece of this passage about John’s ministry.  What should we do?  It’s asked three times in these few verses!  First the crowd asks the question.   “What should we do?”  And John says, “Be generous.”  Next we’re told that the tax collectors come and ask what to do.  Did you get Luke’s irony here?  In the New Revised Standard version, the phrase reads, “even tax collectors came.”  It’s as if no one was expecting them to come, but the come and they ask what they should do.  Luke sets the stage here for an event that will come later.  In the 19th chapter, he’ll tells us the story of Zacchaeus, the wee-little tax-collector who meets Jesus and doesn’t have to ask what to do.[3]  Instead, he gave half his possessions away and promised not only to give what he had defrauded people, but four times what he’d taken.  Had Zacchaeus heard John’s sermon?  Perhaps more surprisingly than the tax collectors are the soldiers who make their way to John’s revival meeting.  It must have been surprising to have these thugs of Imperial Rome in the pews.

John encourages the people to be generous, to be honest, to be good, to be content, and to -be nice…  There’s nothing really radical about what’s he calling people to do!  As one scholar on this passage wrote, “Much of what it means to follow Christ into better ways of living seems so mundane.”  He goes on to note that mundane comes from the Latin word for world, and suggestion that John 3:16 could also be translated as “God loves the mundane that sent his Son.”[4]  Reflecting the face of Jesus isn’t about making a being on a grandstand, it’s what we do in the mundane encounters of life.

If you think about it, John supports the rights of soldiers and tax collectors to do their job as long as they don’t use their position to extort money from others.  These two professions were hated in Palestine because they worked for Rome, but that doesn’t bother John as long as they are honest.  And it must not have bothered those who listened to him because we are told they are rather excited about what he’s saying.  They flock to him, seeking his baptism.  Then they leave, intending to live a better life, to be ready for the coming of the Messiah.

John comes to prepare the way and because of his message people expect something great to happen.  The greater the demands, the greater the expectation. As the church, we need to remember that.  The people of Israel now expect great things; after John, they are ready for Jesus.  But are we?  Ponder that question…

Of course, there are those who didn’t want to hear John’s message.  There are always those who don’t want to play nice.  One in particular is Herod, the puppet ruler for Rome, who is one of history’s rotten characters.  Herod can’t stand the truth.  In a classic example of shooting the messenger, he has John jailed and later beheaded.  But it was too late, John has already spoken, the Savior is on his way, and soon Herod will only exist as a footnote in history.

It’s interesting to me that John is able to pull off his message.  After all he preaches to the chosen people, those who feel they are God’s hand-picked handiwork to be a light to the world.  He’s telling those who feel secure because they have a covenant with God that they’d better shape up.  Yet, they should have known that God would have expected more of them since they are special, since they’ve been given the law.

Will Rogers may be the closest thing we’ve had in America to John the Baptist.  Roger’s didn’t pull any punches when attacking “sacred cows.”  Like John, Rogers challenged society to live up the values they espouse and to change oneself before changing others.  Pointing out the inconsistency in this nation of Christians, he once asked:

What degree of egotism is it that makes a nation or a religious organization think theirs is the very thing for the Chinese or the Zulus?  Why, we can’t even Christianize our legislators!

 

On another occasion he said that we have “the missionary business turned around.  We’re the ones that need converting.”[5]

He’s got a point.  We need to be converted, and now is the time.  Before we head off to Bethlehem, we need to realize our need for a Savior.  Before we enter the stable, we need to get our act together so we can anticipate what our God can do for us as opposed to what it is we can do for ourselves.  We need to be shaken out of our comfort zones, to be confronted by John’s wrath, so that we too will seek out and clean up those places in our lives that are inconsistent with the gospel.

As harsh as we might think John came across, his preaching wasn’t void of good news.  Yes, John points to the ax at the tree not bearing fruit and he talks about the fire burning the chaff.  But trees that have been pruned bear more fruit and though the chaff is burned, the kernels of wheat are saved.  John’s message encourages the Israelites (and us) to bare more fruit.  And in order to be fruitful, we have to put away those obstacles, those sins, which keep us from having a healthy relationship with God.

Before rushing off to the manger to worship the Christ Child, pause long enough to hear John’s warning.  His bark may sound mean, but it’s a loving warning.  Repent and prepare a place in your hearts to receive the Messiah.  Live so that your faith in a loving Savior is shown in a gentle life that is lived honestly and filled with kindness.   Amen.

 

©2015

[1] Francis Thompson, The Hound of Heaven (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, nd).

[2] Idea from a sermon titled “A Cure for Despair” where John was portrayed as a Doberman pinscher.  See Barbara Brown Taylor, God in Pain: Sermons on Suffering (Nashville: Abingdon, 1998), 22ff.

[3] Luke 19:1-10

[4] Scott Hoezee, “Remembering the Future” in Reformed Worship #57 (September 2000), 9.

      [5] The Best of Will Rogers, Bryan Sterling, editor (New York: MJF Books, 1979), 194.

Remember the Future: Repent

Slide1

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Luke 3:1-6

December 6, 2015

 

Christ has come and Christ will come again.  This truth of the Christian faith is why on our Advent journey in which we remember the future (Christ’s coming), we find we must deal with that crazy man out in the wilderness, John the Baptist.  We’re going to spend two weeks with John, today and next Sunday.  John kind of reminds me John Brown, the fiery abolitionist, for neither of the two minced words.  John called it as they saw it, yet people were drawn to him.  It’s an interesting phenomenon that we still see—one who makes outrageous demands yet is still able to draw a crowd.  What’s that all about?  Perhaps it has to do with us knowing that, deep down, that is something rotten in us and we need to change.  John tells us to be ready, for one is coming who can help us make such changes.

Our reading today begins, through, not in the land by the Jordan in which John ministered, but in the halls of power as Luke tells us who was in charge in Rome and the various providences around Palestine and at the temple.  The halls of power stand in contrast to the voice crying in the wilderness.  Read Luke 3:1-6.

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Slide7

Many of you, I’m sure have been to Las Vegas.  It’s a city that never sleeps.  If you are up at 4 AM, which you might be if you have just arrived due to the 3 hour time change, you can find the casinos still bright with the bells of slot machines ringing.  Deserts are usually dry, dark and sparsely populated places.  But Las Vegas is a city that defies the desert.  You’ll find magnificent fountains splashing water.  When I lived in Southern Utah and would drive to Las Vegas at night, it was always a sight to see as you traveled through the darkness with bright stars overhead, only to crest a ridge about twenty miles outside of Vegas and there before you was a valley lighted up Christmas regardless of the season.  And the crowds…

In contrast, deserts are quiet places, with the only sound being the wind blowing through a barren canyon or rattling dry yucca pods.  In Vegas the sound of a carnival fills the air, especially downtown and along the strip.  If you get out of Vegas, just twenty or so miles, you’re in a different world.  One of my favorite places to hike, on the times I was there in the winter, were the canyons that dissect the Black Canyon of the Colorado River basin south of Hoover Dam.  These waterways were mostly dry (and because of danger of flash floods you’d better stay out of them when rain is forecasted).  Deep inside one, you’d be more likely to come upon a desert bighorn sheep or a rattlesnake than another person (some of you can give thanks that I have taken photos of desert bighorns and not of snakes while hiking there).  For those like me, who sometimes need a break for the commotion of a place like Vegas, these canyons provide opportunities for solitude.  It’s hard to believe, when you are in such an isolated place that hundreds of thousands of folks are rushing around life just a dozen miles or so away, by the way the crow flies.

Luke, in our reading today, provides us with a similar contrast, as he shifts our focus from the busy places of politics to the wilderness.  This gospel writer is a stickler the details, providing us a historical settings, a who’s who of both the political and religious world. Slide12

If I was to write the history of my ministry, using Luke’s model, I might tell the story of my ordination in Ellicottville New York in this manner:  George H. W. Bush was in the White House, Mario Cuomo was the governor of New York, Price H. Gwynn III was the moderator of the Presbyterian General Assembly and the Reverend Eunice Poethig was executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Western New York.

By beginning with all the bigwigs of Rome and Jerusalem, which Luke inserts here as he also does in chapter two with the birth of Jesus,[1] we’re surprised to learn that God’s word doesn’t come to the city or to those in power.  Instead, it comes through a strange fire-breathing prophet living out in the Jordan River wilderness.  And his message is one of expectation, as he draws upon the ancient prophet Isaiah, emphasizing God’s on-going work of salvation.[2]  I like how Eugene Peterson translates John’s preaching in The Message:

Thunder in the desert!

Prepare God’s arrival!

Make the road smooth and straight!

Every ditch will be filled in,

every bump smoothed out

the detours straightened out

all the ruts paved over.

Everyone will be there to see

The parade of God’s salvation

There are some that think this passage draws from an ancient practice of clearing a path for a royal procession.  If a king traveled through his territories, there would be those who went ahead to smooth out the road so that the king could travel comfortably and speedily.[3]

It’s interesting to contemplate this passage in light of the never ending political season we’re in.  A friend, commenting on how Luke throws in the politics of the era into our text, wrote: “In the rarified circles of society where the Caesars dwell, folks don’t like to admit they have problems.  Politics is about solving other people’s problems, not about admitting to your own.”  To such people, who “live on the mountaintop, such a call to repent is frightening,” for they are to be made low.  But to those “living in the low lying margins of life, this great equalization, the mountains lowered as the valleys rise, is good news.”[4]   In a way, this appears to be just another example of that hard-to-comprehend truth found throughout Jesus’ teachings that the last will be first.  We must always remember that God’s ways are not our ways!  God loves the world and is looking out for everyone, especially those who are often overlooked

Slide15

John’s message is that God, through Jesus Christ, is coming and people better get ready!  To the Jewish listener of John in the first century, the thought of encountering God face-to-face was terrifying.  They knew their own sinfulness, and that when compared to God’s holiness, it would lead to their demise.  So it was imperative that people prepare themselves by confessing their sins, just as we do early in every worship service.  Confession and repentance is necessary if we want to be able to stand before God without fear.

We all get that Advent is a season of preparation.  Many of us have begun decorating our homes with trees and lights.  The smells of sweets baking and cider mulling fill our homes.  Our homes seem warmer and brighter this season even as the weather is cooler and the nights longer.  Getting ready for Christmas, in this way, runs counter to the season.  We prepare with optimism, reminding ourselves of a change that’s coming, longer and warmer days.  But our preparations, the ones that are really needed, have nothing to do with us creating a home that could be featured in Southern Living.  We need to prepare our souls…

The preparation for Christ’s coming, whether it was his first coming, his second coming at the end of history, or just preparing to celebrate Christmas, must involve self-examinations.  Are our paths straight?  Are their bumps on the roads of our lives?  Are their mountains that we face or valleys we must cross?  What John wants us to do is to examine ourselves so that we might see what is keeping us from being in full-communion with God.   John’s role, by being out in the wilderness, is to drawn our attention away from the busyness of life and to refocus us on what is important.[5]  What crooked ways do we need to straighten, what obstacles do we need to have removed?

Now obviously, by ourselves, we can’t move mountains, but God can and if there is something like a metaphorical mountain that is blocking us from God, we need to confess and call out for help, trusting that God will hear our cries and respond with compassion.

Slide18

This Advent season, take some time to go into the wilderness, at least metaphorically, and explore the rough places in your lives and see what might need to be done to make room for the coming of God, the coming of a Savior.  Are there dark places in your heart which needs to be brought to light and confessed to God in repentance?  Are their obstacles that keep you from accepting the gentle loving ways of Christ that need to be removed so that you can be filled with joy?

Before falling asleep at night, take time to examine your life using Jesus as an example and confess those sins that you realize, and in the spirit of the season, go out and apologize to those whom you may have harmed or offended.  And finally, repent too of those sins you may not uncover and need God’s help in weeding out from your heart.  Prepare, for not only has Christ come, he is coming again.  Are we ready to meet him?  Amen.

©2015

[1] Luke 2:1-2.

[2] Fred B. Craddock, Luke: Interpretation, A Bible-Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: JKP, 1990), 47.

[3] “To You Is The Song: The 2015 Advent Devotional” published by The Fellowship Community (Louisville, KY), 12.

[4] Scott Hoezee, “Remembering the Future,” Reformed Worship Vo. 57 (September 2000), 7.

[5] Norval Geldenhuys, The Gospel of Luke: The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983), 137.

Thoughts following Mr. Rogers’ death

Jeff Garrison

Published in an op-ed column in The Spectrum (St. George, UT) 

April 11, 2003

“Daddy, are you sad Mr. Rogers died?”  My five-year-old daughter, with a reassuring voice, played the role of a good neighbor as she expressed concern for my emotional well being.

Daddies don’t need to earn the admiration of their daughters.  That aside, I discovered it was worth a few extra points to let my daughter know Mr. Rogers, like me, was a Presbyterian minister and that we had both graduated from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.  In her eyes, that made Mr. Rogers a personal friend of mine even though we attended the institution decades apart.  We may not have been friends, but we were residents of the same neighborhood.

To many, Mr. Rogers seemed old fashion.  His trademark cardigan sweaters and slippers were often targets of ridicule.  But if image ever bothered Mr. Rogers, he didn’t let it show.  He reached his audience with his simple caring ways.  His show offered children, including my daughter, relief.  Their worlds are often chaotic.  In contrast, Mr. Rogers would walk slowly onto the set, replacing his jacket with a sweater.  He always hung his jacket in the closet.  His entrance provided a welcome change of pace for kids use to parents coming in, throwing their jacket on the back of a chair and collapsing in the recliner.  Rogers’ meticulous ways demonstrated a safe and orderly world where adults have time for children and treat them as if they are important.

In times like this, when we are bombarded with images of death and destruction, when terrorists long to destroy much of what we value, and when a virus has people afraid of traveling, our children need to be reassured that we are there for them.  Even though we cannot control of the future, they need to know that we have their best interest at heart.

In the carefully choreographed world of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, children learn there is an alternative to the madness they see around them.  His messages were simple, clear and honest.  Because of this, children trusted this man with his zip-up sweaters to safely explore with them, who they are and how they relate to one another.  From him they learned that honesty and friendship are important and came to understand that their neighborhood is far and wide.  Rogers’ taught that in order to “feel the fullness of life,” we must have “a sense that we belong to our planet” and “that we belong in other people’s lives.”  We all need to know “that we are loved, lovable, and capable of loving.”

When Jesus was asked, “who is my neighbor?” he surprised his audience by telling the story of the Good Samaritan.  A neighbor is someone who cares.  A neighbor is someone who takes our best interest to heart.  In this world filled with fear and conflict, we need a few more Mr. Rogers asking us, “won’t you be, won’t you please, please won’t you be my neighbor?”  “Yes,” I told my daughter, “I’m sad about Mr. Rogers’ death.”  We’re all going to miss him.

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Sermon on November 29, 2015

My thanks to Andy Lohn who delivered this sermon on Sunday as I was in North Carolina with my father who had emergency surgery.

 

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church 

Luke 21:25-36

November 29, 2015

 

 

Today we begin our Advent journey: four weeks of preparation for Christmas.  This year’s Advent them is “Remembering the Future.  Advent is about waiting and during this season we recall the centuries the Israelites spent waiting for a Messiah.  It is also a season in which we are reminded that we, too, wait the return of the Messiah at the end of history.  We wait in hope of what is to be.  During Advent, we remember the future as we celebrate Christ’s coming and his return.

We’re exploring a passage from Luke’s gospel today, from the 21st chapter.  Let me give you some context.  Jesus is finishing up his earthly ministry in Jerusalem.  This passage falls between Palm Sunday, when Jesus entered Jerusalem, and Good Friday, when he was crucified.  Jesus and the disciples are on the grounds of the temple.  The chapter opens with Jesus pointing out to the disciples the “widow giving her mite” to the temple treasury.  Then he begins to speak about the temple’s forthcoming destruction.  This would have been a shock for the structure was strong and had been built over the previous four decades, but approximately 30 years later when Rome puts down the Jewish Rebellion, the Empire destroys both Jerusalem and the temple.  After telling about the upcoming destruction, Jesus speaks of his return.

Our passage is an example of apocalyptic literature.  It’s futuristic and pessimistic. The themes of apocalyptic writing, which in Scripture is found mostly in the Book of Daniel and Revelation, focus on the evil of the world and how the world must be destroyed before God can reign in righteousness.  Such writings often use descriptions of supernatural events to announce God’s final victory, and that’s what we have in this passage.  Read Luke 21:25-36.

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People are always thinking now is the time; the end is at hand.  Today, the sign currently used as proof is ISIS or whatever name those fanatics who are bent on bringing about a global war between the West and Islam are called today.  But they stand in a long line of failed apocalyptic doomsday bearers.  A Cold War turning hot was one image of the end, Nazism and the fascist movements of the first half of the 20th Century, the Russian Revolution, the Great War, the American Civil War, the economic depression in the late 1830s, all the way back to the Norman invasion of England in 1066.  Interestingly, it seems that when you are on the losing side, you are more prone to see events that run counter to what you’d like to be pointing to the end of the world.  In addition to political events, natural events such as volcanoes blowing their tops and comets in the sky have foretold the end.  And then there are the artificial events such as dates, which only have the meaning that we assign them, but that said certainly the turn of the last two millennia (the year 1000 and 2000) brought out the doomsayers.

A few years ago, the Mayan apocalypse was all big news.  I remember there was a Chevrolet Truck advertisement that was featured in the Superbowl.  The world as we know had crumbled and everything was destroyed.  Then, from beneath the rumble, there were the starting of engines and out pops Chevy trucks.  These guys who were friends all meet up and congratulate themselves for making it through.  Then someone asked about a friend and they all hang their heads and someone mumbles, “Don’t you remember, he drove a Ford.”  The apocalypse also sells…

Nothing lasts forever; even the earth and sky will pass away, Jesus tells us.  Only his words will survive.  Or to put it another way, only God is eternal.

But when will these things happen?  When you think about it, there are signs all around us.  Global warming, superstorms in the Pacific, heavy rains in some parts of the world and drought in others, and war that starts in the Middle East and spreads around the globe.  Are the things Jesus spoke of in this chapter happening?  Some will say yes, but as we’ve seen, that’s nothing new.  And is Jesus, who in other places is adamant that we not worry about the tomorrow[1] and that no one but the Father in Heaven knows when the world will end,[2] trying to give us a clue here?  I don’t think so.

Whenever things start to go bad, people begin predicting the world’s demise.  But so far, the world muddles along.  Barry McGuire sang about “The Eve of Destruction” in 1965 and with minor tweaks to the lyrics, the song would be just as relevant in 2015 as it was then:

The eastern world it is exploding

Violence flarin’, bullets loadin’

Your old enough to kill but not for votin’

You don’t believe in war but what’s that gun you’re totin’?

And even the Jordan River has bodies floatin.

 

But you tell me

Over and over and over again my friend

Ah, you don’t believe

We’re on the eve of destruction. 

 

Prophets come and go, but so far the world hasn’t ended. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen, it will, but as for when, we have no idea.

No, I don’t think Jesus wants us to worry about whether or not today will be the day.  After all, earlier in the chapter, Jesus warned the disciples not to run after those prophets who claim that the time is near.[3]  Instead, I think this passage is more pastoral.  How are we to live our lives in the middle of chaos?  Jesus begins with the cosmos (the heavens and the earth), then moves to the changing of the seasons, and concludes with words that speak to our hearts.  We’re to live knowing that things are in God’s hands and are under control.  So it doesn’t matter if the world ends today or a thousand years from today.  What matters is that God, who has a lot more power and compassion than us, has things under control.  We’re not left to fend for ourselves, but to take hope in the power of a loving God.

Let me tell you about a guy in my previous church.  When I was in Hastings, I became a friend of Bob, the mayor of the town and was privileged to help to encourage him to come back to church.  He’d been away since he went off to war in the mid-60s after high school.  Once he came back, he sat in the same seat in the back of the church and was there every Sunday that he could make it.  Bob was struggling with cancer; it eventually took his life back in 2012.  But before then, I think Bob did more ministering to me than I was ever able to do for him.  Now this might sound like a role-reversal, for it was Bob who was struggling with cancer and I was there to try to help him make sense of things and to remind him of God’s presence despite evidence to the contrary.  But as Bob began to accept what was going to happen, he told me on several occasions that although he desperately wanted to live and there was more stuff he wanted to do in our community, it no longer mattered because whatever happened, he was going to be okay.  “If I beat cancer, great!” he said.  “But if I don’t beat it, that’s alright too for I’ll be in Jesus’ hands.”  What an incredible testimony, yet Bob is not alone, I’ve heard others share similar feelings when death was near.

Bob had the kind of faith Jesus encourages in this passage.  Do not worry about these things—and at some point in our lives all of us will have such signs—instead live in the hope that the signs mean your redemption is near.  Only someone assured of his or her faith can have that kind of trust.

People have often tried to interpret when the end will be based on Jesus’ words, but that’s a misinterpretation of what our Savior taught.  Jesus taught us to not to worry about tomorrow, not to fear the end, but to live for today.

Yet people misuse apocalyptic texts within scripture to incite fear.  But that’s not the purpose of these texts; Jesus is not trying to make us afraid but to assure us when things look bad.  I remember a professor from seminary speaking about hell-fire sermons and I think the same warning should be made about preaching on apocalyptic texts.  He said that if we dangle the souls of our congregation over the fires of hell, we may cause more fear than salvation and may wind up hating evil more than we love good and the end result is not disciples who follow Jesus, but good haters who miss a lot of Jesus’ message.

Jesus tells us in this passage that when we see things happen which we can’t explain, we should raise our heads because our redemption is drawing near.  He doesn’t say to be afraid.  Of course, Jesus doesn’t exactly say when these things will happen, only that it will be getting closer!  Time marches on.

By being alert, but not being overly concerned, our hearts won’t be weighed down.  We accept today as a gift from God and rejoice in it, but we also realize that tomorrow will be a gift of God, whether the earth continues or dissolves and we’re called into account before the throne.  But we’re not to worry about that, we’re to be concerned for today and that we’re doing what we can to bring God glory in the presence, doing what we can do to reflect the face of Jesus to the world.

Let me ask one final question.  Take the question home with you and ponder it over the next week.  If God does come back today or in the next week, how do you want God to find you?  Do you want to be seen doing the work of a disciple, or living in fear of the future?   I think you know the answer.  Amen.

 

©2015

[1][1] Matthew 6:31-36

[2] Mark 13:32

[3] Luke 21:8

Sacred Harp Christmas at Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

An edited copy of this article appeared in The Skinnie’s November 27th issue.

The Sacred Harp Tradition on Skidaway Island

Jeff Garrison

Geje Pinion leading

Gene Pinion leading a song (notice how is left arm is in motion to the beat)

It is a joy to be in the presence of Sacred Harp singing.  The voices blend together as the music rises and fills the room.  The leader of a song stands in the middle of the singers, a songbook in his left hand as his right hand rocks back and forth to the beat of the music.  There are no instruments.  They are not needed; the sacred harp is the human voice.  Before singing the verses, they sing the notes and the blending of sounds seem foreign, as if they are singing a multitude of languages.  One unsure of what’s happening might think they stumbled upon worshippers speaking in tongues.  But then, after having learned the melody, they begin with the first verse such as this one, Canaan’s Land, one of the favorites of those who sing from this tradition:

O for a breeze of heav’nly love to waft my soul away. Listening, one feels the pull of heaven.

Sacred Harp music is not a performance. The singers are not a choir.  Instead, they come together in community to enjoy the musical experience as their voices mix together and rise to heaven.  Perhaps they are performing; not for those in the room but for God, in the essence of true worship.  As Gene Pinion, one of the leaders of the Savannah Sacred Harp group expresses, “our singing combines the beauty of poetry with the raw emotion of the human voice.  Freed from the conventions of ‘art’ we singers enjoy unrestrained musical communion with one another and the Divine.”

There are four sections of voices that all face inward in a closed square: women singing altos and men bass, with a combination of the sexes populating the tenor and treble sections.  Those observing from outside the square may not experience the joy of the singers, but are amazed at the power of their voices and can’t help but to be blessed by the simple beauty of combined voices.  Most of this music is sung away from human eyes, but in the movie, “Cold Mountain,” one can observe such singing following the announcement that secession had been declared and war was inevitable.

On Saturday, December 5, at 2 PM, the Savannah Sacred Harp Singers are holding a “Lessons and Carols Service” at the Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church.  This is an opportunity to witness such music as we prepare for the upcoming Christmas season.  For those interested, you can come an hour earlier and the group will make room for you in the square and help you learn and enjoy the music.

Sacred Harp singing grew out of the distinctly American tradition of shape-note music.  This style of music developed in New England in the late 18th Century, but moved south in the early 19th Century, where it found a home in the rural setting.  In the 19th and early 20th Century, music teachers would travel the South, gathering students to teach them this unique and simple method of singing.   In addition to these teachers, a publishing industry grew up around the music.  In 1844, Benjamin Franklin White and E. J. King, two Georgians, published The Sacred Harp: The Best Collection of Sacred Songs, Hymns, Odes, and Anthems Ever Offered the Singing Public for General Use.  Most singers are more modest than the title suggests, but the text remains as a standard within the tradition.

In time, the popularity of shape-note music declined as modern music theory was introduced.  This was especially true in urban areas, where more affluent churches could afford organs and choir directors, who joked about their “square-headed” country cousins.  But the music never really died out.  Although it was never linked to a particular denomination, some groups like the Primitive Baptist and the Church of Christ (who sings a cappella and shuns musical instruments) continued to draw upon this tradition.  The music was accessible and, for many rural churches which might have a preacher only once or twice a month, the vacant churches became places where people would gather to sing on the Sundays they were without a preacher.

There are some secular songs within the Sacred Harp tradition, but most of the music is religious and the singing is often held at churches.  John Etheridge, a life-long lover of Sacred Harp music and former president of the B. F. White Sacred Harp Book Company suggested that while such singing is not religion, “it is a religious experience.”  Joe Dempsey, a Washington D. C. journalist who explored the tradition in the South, was so astonished by the music that he suggested if you could “get enough people singing weird harmonies at the top of their voices, you can start feeling a little sorry for the devil.”

With fewer churches holding to the Shape Note/Sacred Harp tradition in the American South, groups of singers began to gather on a regular basis to sing for the joy of the music and to keep the tradition alive.  On Saturday and Sunday, all over the South but especially in Georgia and Alabama, singers drive for hours to gather with groups such as the one that meets at Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church, just to have the opportunity to participate.   A recent convert to this musical style is Pastor Jason Talsness, of Messiah Lutheran Church on Skidaway Island, who appreciates these “uniquely American tunes and harmonies that articulate the Christian faith as well as the human condition.”

Like music written with modern techniques, shape note melodies are written on the traditional five-line staves, but each note has a shape that represents the tone (fa, sol, la, mi).  Often, this type of singing is called fasola, referring to the tones used in the music.  The tradition is mostly handed down, as one generation passes it along to another.  Although the traveling singing schools died out a century ago, there is still a week-long singing school held in conjunction with the National Sacred Harp Singing Convention that is held annually in Birmingham, Alabama.

The groups who gather to sing Sacred Harp music are highly democratic, selecting their own leaders and allowing everyone a chance to participate in leading the singing.  Many singers descend from a Scots-Irish lineage who settled much of the South.  They are independent and wary of outside control, whether ecclesiastical or political.  This independent and stubborn streak has probably kept the music around for so long, as they hold on to the past in a world that is always changing.  Others may consider them a little odd, as church musicians at city churches did once they installed a piano, harmonium, or an organ.  But those devoted to the music enjoy one another’s company.  Many of the singing events include dinner on the grounds or other fellowship opportunities that keep the community strong and close-knit.  But they are always willing to open up the square and make room for more singers.   The Savannah Sacred Harp Group invites those interested in exploring and enjoying this unique tradition to join them.

###

“Counterfeit Gods” by Timothy Keller

Keller Counterfeit Gods
Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters (New York: Dutton, 2009), 210 pages

Idolatry is not just a failure to obey God, it is a setting of the whole heart on something beside God. (171)

Idolatry is prevalent in our world, our communities, our churches and our individual lives. As Keller points out over and over, idols are not necessarily bad things. In fact, they are seldom bad. They are generally good things (family, sex, money, success, and even religion), but when we look to them to “satisfy our deepest needs and hopes,” they fail us. They become a counterfeit god. (xvii, 103). I found this to be a powerful and challenging book. It was published following our recent financial melt-down, written by a pastor whose church on Manhattan draws many of the investment bankers that were at the forefront of the crisis.

Using Biblical stories as illustrations, Keller attempts to expose the idolatry of our lives. For idolatry of the family, he draws on the story of Abraham and how the old man pinned his hope for a legacy on Isaac, essentially making his son into an idol. For sex, he explores the story of Jacob’s courtship with Rachel and Leah. For money and greed, he looks at the call of Zacchaeus. For success, he looks at Naaman, the leper, who question Elijah’s method of healing. For success, he looks at Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of clay feet. His examination of how “correct religion” can become an idol leads him into the story of Jonah. And finally, he looks at how we need to replace our idols with God by exploring Jacob’s wrestling.

There are two levels to our idolatry according to Keller. We all have surface idols that mask our deeper idols. These surface idols are mostly good things, but they become idols because we place our ultimate trust in them as we strive to satisfy our deeper longings for power, approval, comfort or control. (64) We can fight against the surface idols, but new ones will pop up unless we address our deeper needs, which can only be handled by replacing such idols with a total trust in God.

Keller confronts our worship of success. He even challenges how some place total trust in “the free market.” “The gods of moralistic religion,” he proposes,” favors the successful.” It could be argued that such folks are attempting to earn their salvation. But the God of the Bible comes down to earth to accomplish our salvation and give us grace. (44) Later in the book he writes that the “Biblical story of salvation assaults our worship of success at every point.” (94) He challenges Adam Smith’s theory of capitalism for “deifying” the invisible hand of the market which, “when given free reign, automatically drives behavior toward that which is most beneficial for society, apart from any God or moral code.” He ponders, in light of the financial crisis, if the same dissatisfaction that occurred with socialism a generation earlier might also occur with capitalism. (105-106)

Keller also challenges our political and philosophical ideals, especially those that we place above our faith in God. Straddling the political fence and refusing to place himself on the right or left, as a Republican or Democrat, he observes that a fallout of us making idols out of our philosophy/politics may be the reason why when on group loses and election there is often an extreme reaction.

“When either party wins an election, a certain percentage of the losing side talks openly about leaving the country. They become agitated and fearful for the future. They have put the kind of hope in their political leaders that once was reserved for God and the work of the gospel. When their political leaders are out of power, they experience a death. They believe that if their polices and people are not in power, everything will fall apart. They refuse to admit how much agreement they actually have with the other party, and instead focus on the points of disagreement. The points of contention overshadow everything else, and a poisonous environment is created. (99)

The author closes with an Epilogue where he discusses the discerning and replacing our idols. To discern our idols, Keller suggests we contemplate where our imagination goes when we’re daydreaming, where we spend our money, or where we really place our hope and salvation instead of where we profess to place it, or where we find our uncontrolled emotions unleashed. (167-9) To handle our idols, we have to do more than repent, they have to be replaced with God. I found this last part of the book to be the weakest, with just a few pages of suggestions, drawing heavily from the opening of Colossians 3. He calls for us to rejoice and repent together and to practice the spiritual disciplines as a way to invite God to replace our idolatrous desires. His final comment is an admission that this is not a onetime program, but a lifelong quest for as soon as we think we’re got our idols removed, we’ll discover deeper places within our psyche to clean out.

This book has given me much to think about. We can all benefit from what he says about the difficult to discern our own greed (52) and on how we worship success and our political ideals. Only one did I get excited about a “theological error,” and I feel pretty certain it was more from carelessness in language than in what Keller actually believes. On page 162, Keller speaks of when our “Lord appeared as a man” on Calvary, which sounds to me a lot like the Docetism heresy. Docetism held that Jesus’ humanity was an illusion. However, Keller concludes the sentence saying that Jesus “because truly weak to save us,” which sounds as if Jesus’ humanity wasn’t just an illusion.

 
I recommend this book and am grateful to Mr. Keller and Dutton Publishing for providing extensive notes and a detailed bibliograhy.

A Psalm of Thanksgiving

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Psalm 65

November 22, 2015

 

Come Thursday, we’re going to all be stuffing ourselves with turkey, ham, sweet potatoes, yeast rolls, pecan pie, and other goodies.  One of my favorite dishes that my mother always fixed was blueberry casserole, blueberries in Jell-O with pecans and topped with a frosting, it was delicious.  If anyone is serving that, this week, can you save me a slice?  We celebrate Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday of the month, but for Christians, every day should be a day of thanksgiving.  God has given us so much that we should be in continual joy and humbly showing our gratitude.

Our Scripture for today is the 65th Psalm, a song of praise and thanksgiving.  It is the perfect Psalm for what Thanksgiving is all about.  In it, the Hebrew congregation stands at the temple, before God, in gratitude, awe, and joy.[1]  One biblical scholar imagines this setting for the Psalm.  A drought had come upon the land, the crops were wilting and it was looking as if famine was going to be a reality.  But before it was too late, the rains came and the crop was spared, and after the harvest the people gathered in the temple to fulfill the vows they’d made to God when they were praying for salvation.[2]

God is the focal point of this Psalm which can be divided into three sections, so as I read it, I would encourage you to consider what each section says about our relationship to the Almighty.  The first four verses focus on the gifts of grace that are experienced in the temple.  Verses five to eight sings praises for the God of the earth whose salvation is experienced at creation and in history.  The final five verses gives thanks for the fertility of the land; the hills and the dirt itself seem to rise up in praise of God, much like Paul forecasts in the 8th chapter of Romans where he speaks about “Creation itself longing for the revealing of God’s glory.[3]  Let’s go to God’s word and read Psalm 65.

###

 

As we come to this Thanksgiving week, I am sure that we all have plenty to do and our minds are burdened.  Some of us are worried about what we are going to cook and how it will come out.  Should we have Irish or sweet potatoes?  Will the Turkey be juicy and tender or have the consistency of shoe leather?  Will we have the time to bake all the pies and how can we bake a pie when the turkey has commandeered the oven?  Others of us are worried about family members traveling or getting early bargains on Christmas shopping—all of these are first world troubles.

At times, when life is rushed, we become overwhelmed and may even offer a pray, asking God for the strength and the ability to get everything done…  But let me ask you this, when the dishes are cleared and the pumpkin pie served, and we take a deep breath as we sip coffee and talk around the table, do we then give thanks to God for getting us through it all?  That’s kind of like what Israel is doing in our text today—we give thanks for making it through the holiday feast and they gave God thanks for a harvest that once looked questionable but in the end was abundant.

The Christian life is to be one of Thanksgiving.  We look back and we see what God has done for us—whether it is enriching us materially or saving us from our sinfulness—God has blessed us and we need to express thanksgiving continually!

Everything about this reading focuses, not on us, but on God.  At the beginning of the Psalm, we’re called to praise God who answers prayers.  Then, immediately following, in verse 3, we are reminded that when we are overwhelmed with iniquity and sin, it is God who forgives us.   The Psalmist knows that as mere mortals, we are unable to save ourselves in such times; we need divine pardon.

This Psalm is structured like our worship.  We come into worship with praise and thanksgiving, but as we praise God from whom all blessings flow, we are immediately drawn to our knees in the realization of our own short-comings.  As Paul says, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”[4]  So our praise and our confession come together at the beginning.  Once we confess and experience the freedom of forgiveness, we are freed to listen and learn from God’s eternal word.  Those who have experienced such freedom, we learn in verse 4, are happy and content because they are in God’s presence.

The second part of this Psalm begins in verse 5, with a focus on prayers that have been answered in the past and on creation.  Not only has Israel recently felt God’s blessings as the famine was averted, she recalls back in her history to her salvation, bringing to mind the Exodus, when God freed his people from Egyptian slavery.   But God’s power is even greater than what was witnesses in Egypt and the Wilderness.  God’s hope extends to the ends of the earth. God’s hand created the mighty mountains and his power can calm a roaring sea, as we recall Jesus’ calming the waters.[5]  Sunrises and sunsets, we see in verse 8, are occasions for us to shout with joy.  Whenever we experience such grandeur, we should give God thanks.

In verse 9, the third part of the Psalm begins, as the Psalmist returns back to the harvest that God has given, by watering the ground.  Had the rains not come, the hillsides would have been barren and brown.  Had the rains come as a torrent, the hillside would have eroded and the seed washed away.  But thanks to the soft rains, they are now turning golden with the harvest.  The grain wagons return from the fields, overloaded, and the sheep find abundant grazing, allowing them to fatten up.  The Good Lord has given all that is needed for the people to have an abundance of food and everyone rejoices.

According to the Psalm, God has been busy.  Now let me ask you this:  “What’s missing in this passage?”  Think about it for a moment as I tell you a story.

When I was around eight years old, my dad took my brother and me to see a movie.  My family was in its Virginia exile period then, the three years we lived in Petersburg, Virginia instead of North Carolina.  The time we lived there, from 1963-1966, was a hundred after the terrible nine-month siege that occurred in Petersburg at the end of the Civil War.  The war was still alive in our minds when dad took us to see Shenandoah.  It starred Jimmy Stewart as Charlie Anderson, a farmer in the Shenandoah Valley during that awful war.  Charlie tries unsuccessfully to keep his family out of the conflict.  It is a movie with a strong religious message.  At the beginning, Charlie Anderson is a bit of a cynic.  When his family gathers around the table, he sits at the head and says grace:

 

Lord, we cleared this land.  We plowed it, sowed it, and harvested it.  We cooked the harvest.  It wouldn’t be here and we wouldn’t be eatin’ it if we hadn’t done it all ourselves.  We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel.  But we thank you just the same for this food we’re about to eat.  Amen.

            Too often, we’re like Charlie Anderson and that’s what I was getting at when I asked what was missing from the Psalm.  The Psalmist knows better than to take credit. We’re called to participate with God in his creation, but we tend to give ourselves more credit than we give God for our blessings.  Interestingly, at the end of the movie, after the tragedy they’ve endured, the family gathers in church and is there reunited with his lost son.  When they gather at the table, Charlie is no longer able to pray that way.  When things are going well, it’s hard for us to see the hand of providence in our lives.  We’re not as good as those whom the Psalmist writes about, who prayed for better days and, after experiencing salvation, remembered and gave thanks.

“Give credit where credit is due,” is used so often that it is almost a cliché, but there’s truth in it.  Several years ago, I read Marshall Goldsmith’s book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.  Have any of you in business or management read it?  The book was written for successful people who, surprisingly (at least to themselves), reach a pinnacle then begin to experience failure.  Goldsmith was not writing as theologian, but a business guru, yet at least four of his twenty “transactional flaws” could be seen in Charlie Anderson’s early character flaw and, if one observed the rule as set forth by the 65th Psalm, could be avoided.  The four flaws are: failing to give proper recognition, claiming credit that we don’t deserve, and failing to express gratitude, and an excessive need to be ‘me.’”[6]  Have we ever committed these flaws?  I confess that I have violated them all and strive (with God’s help) to do better.

This week, because of the holiday, most of us will remember to give God thanks for all the blessings we enjoy.  But why stop on Thursday? Let’s continue giving thanks the following week and the one after that, and after that.  Keep giving thanks until it becomes a habit, for as people who have been saved by Jesus Christ, we should remember Paul’s words to rejoice in the Lord always.[7]   As we rejoice, we give thanks, we should also remember those who are less fortunate and out of our blessings, help them so that they too may be thankful.  Amen.

©2015

[1] James L. Mays, Psalms: Interpretation: A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994), 219.

[2] Artur Weiser, The Psalms: A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962), 461.

[3] Romans 8:19.

[4] Romans 3:23.

[5] Mark 4:35-41.

[6] Marshall Goldsmith, What God You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful, (New York: Hyperion, 2007), 40-41.

[7] Philippians 4:4.

Consecration Sermon by the Reverend Ed Ayers

TAKING HOLD OF LIFE THAT IS REALLY LIFE”

Stewardship Consecration Sunday

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

November 15, 2015

Rev. Ashton Edwin (“Ed”) Ayers, Jr.

 

1st Timothy 6:6-19

——————————-

It is an honor and a blessing for me to be with you.  I have enjoyed seeing some old friends on Tuesday evening with some of your leaders and this morning.  It has been a joy renewing the old friendships but also to continue ongoing ones.  One of those in particular is with your pastor, Jeff Garrison, whom I have come to know and appreciate though our work in Savannah Presbytery.

The most significant reason that I am glad to be here is that this is a day of renewal.  Certainly, there is a focus on stewardship and a financial commitment to God’s work here.  But, even more, it is an opportunity for total renewal and dedication as disciples of Jesus Christ.

 

Key for Today

A key for this day and what we are about can be found in our scripture text for today.  It is from the First Epistle to Timothy.  First and Second Timothy – along with Titus – are referred to as the “Pastoral Epistles” for they were written with a deep pastoral concern for a young pastor, Timothy.  The writer, whom most believe to be the Apostle Paul, has confidence in young Timothy; but, he seems to feel that Timothy might need some guidance and support in order for his ministry to be successful.  One reason for this is some of the false teaching being presented.  Therefore, the words of admonition here are certainly for pastors, elders, and leaders in the church.  Yet, they are for the congregation – then and now.  They are words for all Christians, those who not only bear the name of Christ but who are charged to bear not only the name of Jesus Christ but characteristics of Christ.  All of these, then, working toward the goal of purity and holiness in all of life.

 

Money Matters

One of the most significant areas this letter addresses is that of “Money Matters.”  For instance, a most familiar statement in this chapter is that “we bring nothing into this life and we take nothing out of this life.”  Or, as one of the most generous Christian friends I’ve ever known put it: “I’ve never seen a baby born that was fully clothed and I have never seen a U-Haul trailer behind a funeral hearse.”   God knew us before we were born and God receives those who have faith in Him once we leave this life.  In the meantime, what have in this life is temporary and fleeting; but, to be used for God’s glory.

A second famous and significant statement is that “The love of money is the root of al evil.”   There is much confusion about this verse.  The most common misconception is the misquoting of this verse in saying Money is the root of all evil.”  That is incorrect.  Money is not a bad thing, an evil thing.  In fact, money is a good thing and the church needs money as much as you and I need money in our home lives.  It is when the balance of understanding about money becomes eschewed and money becomes the goal of life rather than a tool in life.  It changes our attitude in a myriad of ways.

For example, I heard a story attributed to Billy Graham long before I entered ministry which has proven itself over 35 years of ministry.  As the story goes, a carnival came to a small town and had in its sideshow a strong man demonstration.  The huge man would lift stunning weights, he would rip phone books in half, bend things, breaking things and put on an astonishing display of human strength.  For his final presentation he would take a fresh orange in one hand and squeeze juice from it until it was nearly pulverized.  The side show barker would then exclaim: “I have $500 for any person who can come up and squeeze even one more drop out of this orange.  Everyone stood back except for one small gentleman who began to move toward the front of the crowd.  He was frail, weak looking, and extremely pail.  But he accepted the challenge and after a few seconds of squeezing he produce almost a half a cup of juice.  The barker was astounded and could hardly believe his eyes.  “No one has ever done that,” he declared.  “How in the world did you do that?”   “Quite simple” replied the slight old man.  “You see, for the last 40 years I have been a Church Treasurer!!”

             I see you have a good understanding of this silly joke as it touches a familiar but painful truth.  Stewardship Season, as it is most commonly known, is viewed as the church, the pastor, or in this case a guest preacher coming and trying to squeeze all the money possible out of the church members.  Let me be very clear.  That is the farthest thing from the truth.  Neither your session nor pastor, and certainly not I, are here to put the squeeze on you in any way.  For this day is not about any type of external manipulation.  It is solely about an internal inspiration: God calling each of you to a renewed participation in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.

 

Consecration

             Our purpose may be best understood in the title of this day: Consecration Sunday.  We talk about stewardship at this time of year in many ways: commitment, dedication, pledges, etc.  This day, however, is referred to as CONSECRATION SUNDAY.  It certainly involves a financial commitment, a promise, a pledge dedicated to the work of the church in God’s mission.  Yet, that is only a portion of consecration as I understand it.  Consecration involves a complete life devotion.  Giving our all in a renewal of our faith and commitment to Jesus Christ.  My favorite definition of consecration sums it up well for me and hopefully for you.

“Consecration is radical devotion or setting apart of anything to the worship or service of God.”

 As simply as I can put it, Consecration Sunday is about giving all that we have and all that we are in praise and honor of the God who, in Jesus Christ has given us His all.

 

Stewardship

To understand consecration also helps us understand the meaning and understanding of STEWARDSHIP, which also has much misunderstanding.  The misunderstanding stems from the belief and practice that stewardship is synonymous with “money”.  The truth is, it has to do with so much more than money.  It also includes how we handle and deal with money.  Something many Christian institutions simply do not grasp.

As a primary example, too many of our Christian institutions view stewardship as simply a matter of EXPENSE MANAGEMENT.   Those exact words may not be used in the way the process is spoken of and certainly not in the way the process is viewed conceptually.  But, more often than not, it is exactly the way the concept is worked out and practiced in the ongoing, day to day work.

I would suggest to you today that far more than Expense Management, the accurate understanding of stewardship is found in INVESTMENT MANAGEMENT.  This, by far, is the greater Biblical understanding of stewardship.  As directly as I can state it, Biblical stewardship is defined as

“the effective investment of all that has been placed in our trust as Christians in order to bring the

greatest return for the Master.”  Or, to put it in Jesus’ terms, it is foundationally a matter of “loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and our neighbors as ourselves.”  Or, considering our text for today:  being ”Ready to share … by taking hold of the life that is really life.”  That is the fullness of  Stewardship Consecration.

 

 

Tithe / Percentage Giving

 Today, on this Stewardship Consecration Sunday, the encouraging challenge is to present a tithe to God or a percentage increase in giving for God’s work in 2016.  Incidentally, the “tithe” seems to be most often viewed as the ultimate goal in our giving.  In essence, it is more the beginning point in Biblical history.  It is the “First Fruits” given but with many, many more giving opportunities to follow.

 

Today we come to consecrate ourselves; to come as close as possible to a total and complete commitment to Jesus Christ and the work of His Kingdom.  Those who are “ready to share”, as we read in Timothy, understand this.   It is a radical devotion to be a part of doing good, to be rich in good works, to be generous in the sharing of the work and wonder of Jesus Christ.  For those who are “in Christ” as Paul puts it elsewhere in his Corinthians letter, those who are “new creations in Christ”, there is a beloved understanding of this.  For those who do not know Christ, it is something totally different all together

 

For example, to use another reference from Billy Graham who spoke of two of the greatest indicators of the focus in our lives and what is important can be found in two theological documents:

our CHECKBOOKS and our CALENDARS.

 

By way of example let me share something of those with an opposite view of consecrated stewardship.  I asked Jeff if he had purchased a particular item for Halloween; an item for his dog.  I have a dog also whom I love dearly; but, neither Jeff nor I purchased a Halloween costume for our dogs.  Still, there were many in this country who did.  In fact, Americans bought Halloween costumes for their pets this year to the tune of $350 million dollars!!

In another area of spending, you may know the name Curt Cobain, a member of the rock and roll band Nirvana and a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  At an auction last week, one of Curt Cobain’s sweaters was sold.  It was a ratty green cardigan sweater, faded, dirty, missing a button and a burn hole in the front of it.  The winning bid was a mere $137,000.00.   A very different kind of stewardship wouldn’t you say?

 

Another item was a prescription bottle (an empty one) with a prescription for Valium given to Elvis Presley with the ominous instructions: “Take only as prescribed.”  The bottle sold for $6,500.00!

 

Stewardship is about the life lived by those who are Christian, disciples of Jesus Christ, witnesses for Him.  It is part of our witness as well as our service as followers of Christ.  I have said on many occasions and still believe it that if we are associated with the name of Christ as His followers, everything we do, everything we say, everything we don’t say or don’t do is a witness to what we believe.  We are in essence billboards for our faith in the Son of God.  Stewardship is essential to that witness.  Those who are not “in Christ” simply do not understand.

 

Let me share a definition of stewardship that has proven itself over and over during my ministry.  It is not original with me but it has become a standard.  That definition is this:STEWARDSHIP is what a person does with his or her intellect, abilities, achievements,social status, time, energy and finances once that person has said: “Yes, Lord, I believe!”

 

My feeling, which goes along with that definition, is that if someone has given their heart, soul, mind and strength to Jesus Christ, no one has to ask them to give.  We simply need to remind them of what God is calling us to do in order to serve Him.  With that thought in mind, let me close this morning with two, possibly three, reminders about our task, who we are as Christians and what we do as consecrated stewards.

 

Skidaway Presbyterian Church

My first reminder is about who you are; you, the faithful congregation of Skidaway Presbyterian Church.  I have known you and known of your ministry for over 10 years as a member of Savannah Presbytery.  If you want a vivid reminder of ministry, care and giving, I would encourage you to simply look around this room.  It is filled with people who love the Lord and who love and care for each other.  Many of you know the ministry of those in this room.  Many of you have known the blessing of caring for others in this congregation and in giving … as the song we sang with children states it … You ended up having more when you gave that ministry away.  I have seen it in getting to know your pastor, Jeff Garrison, as one committed to serving Christ by carrying on this great ministry within this congregation and outside these walls.  A consecrated stewardship assures this ministry will continue.

 

Also, if you would allow me a personal moment, I have also known myself the care and ministry of this congregation.  There are people in this congregation – some of whom are now in glory – who have blessed me with consecrated stewardship of God’s love and grace.  Many of you may not even be aware of that as it is simply what you do.  But, I am deeply grateful and thank you for it.

 

Corporate, Connectional Ministry

Another reminder has to do with the work of this congregation and your support of and participation in the work of the greater church.  Today we are shocked and we mourn with the people of Paris, concerning the godless attacks on the people there.  We wonder what we can do, how we can help?  We feel frustrated at not being able to provide some type of hands on ministry.  What we can do, however, is the work of ministry right where we are.  We can give and participate to the work of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace; and, as we are consecrated to his ministry it radiates, expands from where we are.  That is our consecrated ministry of the stewardship of all that we are and have.

 

I would share just one example.  One of my responsibilities in Savannah Presbytery is that of I am the leader of the Discipleship Renewal and Transformation Team.  DRT for short … which makes me a “Dirt Leader”.  One of the joys that falls under our responsibility and oversight is that of what our denomination now terms “1001 New Worshiping Communities.”   They are communities which serve Jesus Christ and are reaching out to people whom our established congregations are not reaching: the homeless, downtrodden, addicts, and many others in need of the good news of Jesus Christ.

 

One of those communities in our presbytery is a community in Brunswick which has been named “Crosswalk”.  It is led by Rev. Tripp McKinnon who works half time as the pastor at the Altama Presbyterian Church and the other half as the pastor of this new worshiping community.  A vivid example of consecrated stewardship happened there not long ago.  The “Crosswalk” group, ministering to a family near them who was in desperate need, took clothes for the children of a young mother.  The clothes they took fit the children.  However, they also took some larger sizes in order for the children to have clothes to grow into.

 

In a short time they went back to check on the family to see how things were going for them.  The mother was deeply grateful; but, she told them that she had given the larger clothes to another needy family.  The reason for doing that, as the mother put it, was that they were so blessed.  But, they had never been able to do something for someone else.  Remember Jesus’ words, “It is more blessed to give than to received.”  This young mother and children were blessed in both directions.  That is a life that is grasping real life and ready to share.  This and many more ministries are made possible, in large part, by the consecrated stewardship efforts of congregations like you.

 

Your Hear Is Where Treasure Is

One final thing I would share with you about the reason for committing to a consecrated stewardship.  Jesus Christ made a very pointed statement when he said:  “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  Those who treasure Christ and the relationship with him are the ones who understand this concept.  They are the ones “ready to share”.  The ones who understand that stewardship consecration is about a financial promise.  Yet, they know it is also about a renewal of one’s heart’s focus; a consecration of your percentage gift to God.  But, it is also an opportunity to rededicate our lives to the treasure that is the abundant, eternal life as disciples of Jesus Christ.

 

In the area of treasure I would ask you this.  Have you ever wondered what God in Jesus Christ treasures?  If you look around again you will see the treasure of God.  Even more specifically, I would ask you to think back to the first time after you awoke this morning that you went to the mirror.  (For me, this becomes a little more difficult to face as I get older!)  But remembering the person you see in the mirror is to remember the treasure of God.  You and the body of Christ, his church, are treasured in God’s heart not only as his beloved children.  You are treasured as his servants and as his consecrated stewards.

 

Today, our love and treasure are offered to God in response to God’s unconditional, everlasting love for us.  Today, we renew our consecration to God as his children and as his consecrated stewards.

 

 

In the name of God; the Father, Son and Holy Spirit . . .

Our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.  Amen.

 

A Pastoral Prayer during a time of mourning

Pastoral Prayer for November 15, 2015

Jeff Garrison

Almighty God, you tell us not to be afraid, but once again we gathered in fear as we hear happening around our world.  Once again, we gather with a realization that things are out of our control, or at least our control.  Once again we gather overwhelmed with bad news.  This morning we pray for the people of Paris that lived through a night of terror with multiple attacks within the city, for those who grieve over the deaths of friends and loved ones and for wounded and battling for life.   We pray for the people of Baghdad, for the family that loss nineteen from a bombing at a funeral and for those affected by another roadside bomb in that country that killed another half dozen.  And we pray for the lives destroyed by an attack in Beirut that killed forty people.  We pray for those in Egypt and Yemen and other areas of the globe where such attacks have occurred.  The numbers affected are astonishing and the heartbreaks add up as we cry out with heavy hearts, “How long, O Lord?  How Long?”   In the midst of these atrocities, help us to trust in you, to do our part to make this world a better place for all your children, and to turn our prayers of lament into prayers of longing as we pray, “Come Lord Jesus, come soon!”

Yet, in the whirlwind that blows around us, we are thankful that this time we have been spared, that we have comfortable lives in a beautiful part of your creation surrounded by supportive family and friends.  We thank you for the abundance that you have shared with us, for the skills and talents with which we have been endowed, and for the lives that we enjoy.  But mostly, we thank you for Jesus Christ, his atoning death and glorious resurrection and the hope we have of living eternally with him.  In the meantime, show us how to use your gifts in a manner that will glorify the name of our Lord and will further his kingdom.  Make us peacemakers in a world of trouble, agents of forgiveness amongst the calls of revenge and creators of hope among those whose lives appear hopeless.  May we be faithful throughout this life and when we are called to our eternal home, may we hear you said, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” for that is what we are, your servants.

On this day in which the international news dominates our lives, we pray for those close to home…  For our members and friends who need your healing, for those who are lost who need your direction, for those in grief who need your consoling, and for those in harm’s way who need your protection.  Be with those in prison, those living in poverty and struggling in homelessness and help us, as your arms and legs on the earth, to respond with compassion and love.  We offer this prayer in the name of our Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The Gift

Jesus needlepoint by grandma

 

The Gift

By Jeff Garrison

 

I was helping my grandmother pack up to move from her Moore County home when she called me into her bedroom. “Can you remove that picture over my bed?” she asked. As long as I can remember, the needlepoint of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, hung over her bed. Jesus is surrounded by sheep. In the crook of his right arm is a lamb and his left hand holds a shepherd’s crook. Behind Jesus are hills with a small village of square shaped houses. There are a trees and some flowers and a few clouds overhead. As I took it down, she asked me to take it out of its frame. I did and handed it to her. She pulled back the fabric so that I could see the needlepoint was done on a cloth flour sack. “We had to make do with whatever we had,” she told me, telling me about seeing this painting of Jesus and then creating this needlepoint. It was in the 30s. The Depression was going strong and she was a teenager. In 1954, according to the date on the frame in which she mounted the needlepoint, she hung it over her bed. “I always liked having Jesus above me,” she said with a grin, “but I want you to have him.” Since then, “Jesus, the Good Shepherd,” has been hanging in my home.

That same evening, Lionel and Polly stopped by to say goodbye to my Grandma.  I remembered them from my childhood when attending Culdee Presbyterian with my grandparents. As they visited, I listened in to part of the conversation between Polly and my grandmother. “Helen, do you remember all those Chicken and Dumpling dinners we fixed for the men in the church?” My grandmother laughed and said, “I don’t think any of them ever went away hungry. It was a bittersweet evening for everyone knew that this was probably the last time they’d see each other in this life.

The next day, my Uncle Larry drove my grandmother three hours away to an assisted living facility near his home.  For the first few years, Larry would bring her back home on occasion for a few days, generally for Culdee’s homecoming. My grandmother is by far the longest tenured member of this congregation, having joined the church at the very young age of eight.  As a young girl, she met with the Elders of the church and testified about her faith in Jesus and they received her into the church’s membership years before her peers. In time, it became harder for her to make the trip. It has been a quite a few years since she’s been back to Moore County.

My grandmother has given me so much during my life. I can still taste her persimmon pudding as she always had a pan waiting when I would visit. On a rack in my bedroom are two quilts made by her hands. My dining room hutch is filled with china she gave me when I was ordained. She felt a minister needed to be equipped to entertain. But my favorite gift, which hangs by the front door, is the needlepoint of Jesus. This picture serves as a reminder of another gift she shared to all, the gift of faith.

Commissioning of Barnabas and Paul

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Acts 13:1-12

November 8, 2015

 

 

Barring unforeseen circumstances, this will be the last sermon I will preach on Acts this year. It’s been a long journey as we’ve watched the early church grow from a small group hiding in Jerusalem to significant movement reaching into the Gentile world. Sometime next year, I will return to the book and we can start traveling all over much of the known ancient world with the Apostle Paul. Until that time, we’ll be exploring other parts of God’s word.

Today, in our text, we come to the place in the story where Paul takes point. From here on out, the story is about what God is doing through Paul. We must always remember, this is not a story about Paul but about what God is doing. God uses Paul and Barnabas and others to fulfill his mission. It used to be common to speak about “the mission of the church,” but that is incorrect. It would be more correct to speak of “the mission of God.”

As followers of Jesus, we don’t work in a vacuum nor are we freelancers out on our own. We are to be doing God’s work in the world and in today’s text we see an incredible example of this.

Two things that I find interesting about Acts, which we’ll see here, are the number of individuals and locations mentioned. Although Peter was in the forefront in the first half of the book and Paul eclipses him in the second half, neither of them did much “free-lance work.” They almost always had a side-kick. Jesus starts this when he sent the disciples out two-by-two.[1] A lot of the names in Acts are of people we know little or nothing about, but the preservation of their names remind us that this movement isn’t the work of just one or two individuals. The church has been equipped by all kinds of people. It’s not just the pastor or the pastor and elders that are important. All of you have a role to play and the excessive dropping of names in Acts emphasizes this.

The mention of the places (somewhere I read that there are over 40 cities referred to in Acts) shows the movement of God’s Spirit throughout the first century world as the church spreads. We are reminded that we are not on own here in this building, but that in addition to the power of God, we are a part of a church that spreads the globe!

Another thing to look for in our reading this morning is the causal slip from Saul to Paul. While he was dealing with the Jewish population, he was known by his Hebrew name, “Saul.” But as he is sent out to the Gentiles, he goes by his Roman name, Paul.   Let us now listen for our text of the morning. Read Acts 13:1-12

###

 

Do you remember the childhood rhyme with movements which I am sure most of us sang in Vacation Bible School or Sunday School when we were younger. It goes like this: “This is the church, this is the steeple, turn it over and see all the people…. Church really isn’t a place, with or without steeples, it’s the people and we gather in a place for prayer and worship and are then sent out into the world to live as disciples. The task of being the church belongs to us all. There are no solitary Christians.

Last week in my e-newsletter, I featured a diagram I’d seen. I hope you saw it and are reading my e-news as I try to put some things into each issue that helps us know what it means to reflect the face of Jesus to the world. I can’t take credit for this diagram and am not sure who created it, but it reminds us that we don’t just go to church, but we are the church! We don’t come here to pick up our weekly dose of religion. Instead, being the church means we leave worship to live out our discipleship in the world. When you get home this afternoon, ask yourself, “What have I done for Jesus this week?” Or more importantly, what will I do for Jesus in this coming week?

 

There are two things we learn about the church in our opening verses of this text. First of all, the church isn’t led by just the pastor. There are prophets and teachers and they are from all over the map. Barnabas, whom we’ve already met, who was from Cyprus.[2] Simeon called Niger, who may have been from Africa. Lucius is from Cyrene. Another dude works in Herod’s court. And Saul, who is listed last, almost as if he was an afterthought, whom we learned back in the 11th chapter that Barabbas had fetched from Tarsus to help him work with the Christian community in Antioch. Lots of leaders and committed disciples makes for a good and strong church.

Secondly, we see that this is a Christian community that worships together. One of the most important things we do is worship! This sets us apart from Kiwanis and the Red Cross and other organizations that do good deeds. We worship Almighty God and that’s important. Notice that it is in worship—not in some kind of planning meeting—that the church is moved to send out missionaries.

It is important to understand that the sending out of Saul and Barnabas isn’t the church’s idea; this idea comes from God through worship. What we do here is important and we need to take it seriously for we are to be listening for God to speak. That’s what happened in Antioch.

But you know what, I bet there were people in the Antioch Church saying, “Hold on, we can’t let them go. They’re our best preachers, they’re the glue that holds the church together. Who is going to make the coffee, unlock the doors, mow the grass or shovel the snow when they’re gone?” As humans, we are pronged to self-centered tendencies. We think about ourselves first, but in worship where we focus not on the self but on God (it’s not what I’m getting but about what I’m offering God), visions of something greater can arise.

I am sure there were those who wanted to keep Saul and Barnabas in Antioch, but the Spirit was so strong within the group that they realized God was doing something new… So in verse 3, we learn that after fasting and prayer, they laid hands of Barnabas and Saul, just as we do in the ordination of elders.

In verse 4, a shift changes as the two newly minted missionaries are sent out on what will become known as Paul’s first missionary journey. The two travel together, leaving the continent for Cyprus where it appears they were joined by John. Notice the detail, the names of towns mentioned, that Luke throws into the narrative. They travel to Seleucia where there was a port and from there they sail to Salamis, a port on Cyprus and then they began to hit the synagogues. It is important to remember that at this time, Christians didn’t see themselves apart from the Jewish faith. Since there were Jews all over the Mediterranean and Paul and Barnabas were Jews, it was natural for them to seek out the synagogues. The three of them travel across Cyprus, preaching and telling the good news.

At Paphos they encounter a false prophet (we’re given both of his names: Bar-Jesus and Elymas) and an official named Sergius Paulus. This government official was interested in their message but Bar-Jesus, the false prophet, was doing everything he could to keep the man from learning about Jesus. Perhaps he was fearful he might lose his standing with one of authority, as we have already seen and will see later in the book of Acts that those in the magic trades were fearful of the rise of Christianity.

At this point, Saul begins to be referred to as Paul and he rebukes the man. The government official knew that he was blind but wanted to see and ironically, the magician who opposed Paul’s message finds himself temporarily blind. This reversal of fortune for the magician helps convince the proconsul of the power of God.

One of the things we learn at the end of the reading, and we’ve seen this many more times in Acts, is that when there is successful evangelism, the work of the Evil One quickly follows… Nothing worthwhile is easy and that goes for building a church. There will always be those in opposition to what God wants us to be doing. Often, there is a self-interest involved: the magician who loses a prestige and a client, or as well find out later in Acts, the silversmiths in Ephesus who fear losing their market for small replicas of idols.[3] There are always those who will challenge what God is doing through the church. But we are not to live by the word of naysayers, but by faith. By faith, the church in Antioch knew that they had something that other people needed so they were willing to take a risk and to send out missionaries… What are we willing to risk to further God’s work in the world?

You know, the mission field is at our door. There is suffering all around us, even within our mist. The church is to be there to speak God’s word of hope, of peace, of joy, and of love. We’re there to feed the hungry (which we do through the missions we support) as well as to ministry to those with abundance yet suffering from a different type of hunger. Our Stephen Ministries is an example of this! We are there to offer a glass of cold water to one who is thirst but also to offer hope and eternal water to one who is lost. We are there to visit those in prison (as John Vergoz is doing today) but also to visit those whose lives are imprisoned by bars of their own makings and are in need of hope. As a church we are to be a beacon of light to the world and each and every one of us have opportunities to do this when we encounter people in our daily lives.

Next Sunday is consecration Sunday and I hope you will be here to help us celebrate and to eat a good meal together in fellowship. I hope you have been praying the prayer we’ve said the last two weeks—asking what God wants to do through us. Listen for the Lord. If God is behind us, as we see here in Acts, and there will be challenges, but God is going to see that things work out in a way that will further his work in the world. Are we listening? Are we ready? Amen.

 

©2015

[1] Luke 10:1

[2] Acts 4:36

[3] Acts 19:23ff.

David’s Prayer

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

1 Chronicles 17:16-27

November 1, 2015

 

Today, I’m going to be talking about prayer and I would like to point out one thing done in Washington this week that I found encouraging. Don’t take this as a political endorsement, but as an example of how things should be. In addressing the House of Representatives after being elected Speaker, Paul Ryan asked this of the body: “Let’s pray for each other: Republicans for Democrats, and Democrats for Republicans. And I don’t mean pray for a conversion. Pray for a deeper understanding.”[1] Although today I’m talking about prayer in relationship to stewardship, I don’t think you can get much better advice on prayer than that. We pray for understanding. We don’t pray to get our way. We pray for God’s will to be fulfilled.

Today, for the first time in since early May, we won’t be reading from the Book of Acts. Next Sunday, I’ll conclude my series on the first part of Acts as I preach on Paul’s commission. Today, I want us to go back into the Old Testament. King David had just come up with a bright idea. He was living in a fancy palace and the Ark of the Covenant, the visual reminder of God’s presence, was camped out in a tent. David thought it was time to change this arrangement and speaks to Nathan, a prophet and advisor, about his plans for a temple. Nathan agrees that this is a good idea, but that night he hears God telling him otherwise. The temple will not be built by David. So Nathan now has the unpleasant tasks to go back to the king and encourage him to change plans. David was a powerful man and could have done away with his advisor and gone on with the building of a temple, but he doesn’t. Instead, he listens, and then goes to God in prayer. I’ll base my sermon on this prayer. Read 1 Chronicles 17:16-27

###

 

 

You probably all know that I love trains… I enjoy riding them and watching them but also enjoy learning about them. There is a company, RailEx, that’s taking an invocative approach to ship produce from the West Coast to the Eastern Markets. With hubs in California and Washington, they package up railcars for eastern markets and then make a unit train, much like you see with coal trains, which is delivered to their eastern warehouses in New York and Jacksonville, Florida. The trains run across Union Pacific and CSX tracks. These “Fresh Express” trains, because the trains are going to one destination, avoid the “hump yards” which delay shipments and where fragile produce can be harmed as cars bump into one another. Also, each car is able to be monitored for temperature compatible with the produce in such a car. Several times a week, trains of 55 reefers cars leave each western transit warehouse for an eastern distribution warehouse.

I have always like the metaphor of a railroad for the church and am certainly not the first to use it. It is a common metaphor as heard in gospel music for over a century with tunes like “The Gospel Train,” “Life is Like a Mountain Railroad,” and “This Train is bound for Glory.”   Long haul shipments is a good way to look at our role as disciples. The church is the train that is heading to glory, and we are the crew. But just like the engineers and conductors on one of the Fresh Express trains, our ride is limited. Railroad employees can only work so long, then they’re required to turn over the throttle as they take a break. Another engineer and conductor will take the train a little further down the line. We, too, have our stretch of track in which we’re to run and then turn over the throttle to a new generation. My question to us is this: “Are we doing the best we can to make sure that the next generation has what they need to successfully complete their run?”

David provides us with a model of how to be a disciple. The focus is not on us and on our needs, it is on God, our Creator, and what God wants from us. Too often we think we have to be overachievers: to have the biggest church, nicest facilities, largest youth group, but what is really important is that we do what we are called to do in a way that will reflect God’s love and grace. In a world overcome by numbers and accomplishments, we have to remember we’re following the shepherd who abandon the flock of 99 for the one, the teacher who proclaims that the first is going to be last.[2]

Although God did not allow David to build a temple (that honor would go to his son, Solomon), God promised great things for his descendants. David is humbled. As one commentator suggests, this is not a prayer of thanksgiving, but one of reconciliation.[3] David accepts his insignificant position in relationship to the creator, but he’s thankful for the promises that God has made to him. And then, David says essentially, “You’ve promised all this, make it so!” David has acquiesced to God’s will, accepting that he won’t be building the temple, but takes hope in promises God has made to him.[4] We don’t always get our way, but we need to realize that God wants the best for us.

In verse 23, David returns to talking about the building of a house, which he has envisioned earlier in the chapter, but there is a significant change. Instead of David building God a house, God promises to build David a house. Of course, this is not a house of stone and wood and adorned with gold and jewels. What’s being spoken of is a metaphorical house. This house, unlike those built with human hands, will last forever.   David thought he could do something great for God, now he finds that God is going to do something greater for him. He learns through his encounter the old saying, “We can’t out-give God.”

God has already given us more than we can imagine. We are blessed to have been born at a time in which there is much that we don’t have to fear because of medical successes. I recently saw an advertisement encouraging parents to vaccinate their children. It listed the various deaths and illnesses from all kinds of aliments from polo to small pox to mumps and chicken pox. Instead of having hundreds and even thousands of deaths and tens and hundreds of thousands children ill with each with these diseases, at the most, only a handful today contract or die from them.

We have been blessed to have been born in a part of the world in which we have both freedom and economic opportunity. If we’d been born in Africa, few of us would be here. Most of us would probably be living within sight of our parents’ home and if we did move on, there is a good chance it would be because we are a refugee, fleeing with our families to a new location of relative safety.   And none of us look like we’ve had to worry much about from where our next meal is coming.

We have been blessed to have the luxury to take time to enjoy a sunrise or sunset, to see a movie, to enjoy a good meal and many of the finer things in life that we take for granted but that many in the world would see as luxuries.

And finally, we have been blessed to be able to hear of the love of Jesus Christ, to have safe places to worship and to learn, study and to be in fellowship with one another.

As David learned, we can never out-give God. We should humbly accept that, along with accepting that God through Jesus Christ calls us to live in a manner that will further the kingdom and help those in need.   We must always remember that Jesus tells us that to those much is given, much is required.[5]

We have been very blessed; we should be a blessing to others! Our congregation is on a new tack. We now have a young new director of Youth and Family Ministries, over the past year we have had some incredible worship experiences, and this is a very generous congregation that supports a large number of missions. A new spirit seems to be rising. Let’s keep focused on God and his work, and we’ll be blessed and continue to be a blessing!

Last week I asked you to add this petition to your prayers from now through Consecration Sunday:

 

Loving God, we thank you for what you’ve done in Jesus Christ. We bow before you in humility and ask you to show us how we can further your work at Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church, in the community and throughout the world. Amen.

 

When we come before God in such a manner, like Speaker Ryan’s request for a prayer in the House of Representatives, we open ourselves up to be led by a God who can out-give us any day of the week. As you think about what kind of commitment you might make to God for use in our church’s ministry and mission, remember what God has given you and be humbled. Amen.

 

©2015

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/wp/2015/10/29/paul-ryan-set-to-be-elected-62nd-house-speaker/

[2] Luke 15:1-7; Matthew 19:30, 20:8, and 20:16; Mark 9:39 and 10:31; Luke 13:30

[3] Sara Japhet, I & II Chronicles: A Commentary (Louisville: Westminster, 1993), 336.

[4] Ibid, 336-337.

[5] Luke 12:48

Peter’s Great Escape

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Acts 12:6-24

October 24, 2015

 

Two weeks ago, before heading off to my class reunion, I ended with a downer in Scripture. Herod had James killed and Peter thrown into prison and held him with a sinister plan to have him killed after the Passover. Herod realized the death of James had pleased the crowd. His poll numbers had increased. As a good politician, he could only imagine what a bump he’d get from Peter’s death. But we know, having worked our way through this book, that Herod is not the one in charge of this story (nor is James or Peter or any other mortal). God is in change.

However, the twelfth chapter of Acts begins with Herod seemingly in charge, but then there is a series of comic adventures that almost sounds like a Keystone Cop episode in which Peter is freed from prison. The chapter ends with a demise of Herod. There is a two-fold message here: God will work with those who are faithful to bring about his purposes and God does not tolerate usurpers and imitators, as Herod learns the hard way. I will begin reading with verse 5 and will read from The Message translation as it best captures some of the humor that is found in this story.   Read Acts 12:6-24

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Halloween is coming up this week. It’s a good time to explore fear. Have you ever been afraid?

I was five the first time I went trick-or-treating. We lived out in the country at that time and the first stop was at Bunches, a grocery store in Eastwood, where we were given an apple. It seemed to be a good deal, to dress up and take a bag up to a door and say “trick-or-treat” and come away with goodies. You can get away with such things as a kid. As an adult, you’d be guilty of extortion, but as a kid, you’re cute. After Bunches, we went over to my grandparents and were joined by my grandma and my Uncle Larry. Together we went into town to see what kind of goodies we might collect. Larry, who is six years older, took my brother and me door-to-door while my Grandmother and Mother followed along in the car.

All was going along splendidly until we came up to an old big house. The house itself looked spooky, but we were with Larry and were not afraid. He rang the doorbell. We could hear the shuffling of feet and the door slowly squeaked open and we found ourselves standing in front of three grinning witches. These women were dressed in black and wore strange hats. My brother and I, leaving Larry behind as a morsel for their cauldron, raced no time in dropping our bags and running back to the car, shouting the alarm: “witches, witches.”

Mom met us before we got to the car. “You need to apologize to those women,” she said, as she grabbed our wrists and dragged us back up to the porch. We kept squirming and fighting to get away. “They’re not witches,” Mom kept saying, but we’d heard the stories of Hansel and Gretel and others who had been tricked by such evil women. Eventually, shaking in our shoes, we did apologize and learned they were not witches, but nuns wearing habits. Of course, at the time this didn’t make any sense to this five year old. “Nun” was the dessert you got when you didn’t clean your plate and habits was something usually modified by the word “bad.” We were developing a few of them… The nuns accepted our reluctant apology and laughed as they gave us each a handful of candy as our fear waned.

One of messages woven throughout scripture is the command not to be afraid:

  • Moses tells Israel at the end of his life: “Be strong and courageous… for the Lord your God goes with you, he will never leave you nor forsake you.[1]
  • In the Psalms we are told over and over again not fear, even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. We do not fear for God is our light and salvation, for God is with us.[2]
  • Angels told Mary and Joseph and the shepherds not to be afraid.[3]
  • Jesus tells us not to worry about what we eat or drink or wear… for by worrying we will not add one hour to our lives. And that we should not be afraid of those who can kill be body but should fear the one who can destroy both the body and soul in hell.[4]
  • In Hebrews, we’re reminded that because God will never leave us, we can say with confidence, “the Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.”[5]

 

Sadly, though, we are often afraid.   Fear sells. Politicians of all strips use fear to motivate us to vote for them. Ad agencies use fear to buy products that will protect us. Parents use fear to keep their kids in line and children use the fear of a crappy nursing home to motivate parents… Fear is all around us, even when we have never had things as good as we do now.

But when I look at our passage of scripture for today, it doesn’t appear those in the early church were afraid. Even though they had reasons to be afraid with bounties on their head; they had faith and trusted God. I don’t think any of us have faced a crowd with rocks, as Stephen had done; faced the sword of an executioner as James did; or spent time in jail waiting for death at the hands of Herod’s henchmen as Peter was doing at the beginning of our reading. If there was ever a time for fear in the church, it was in the first century, but the early Christians weren’t afraid. They knew God was with them and trusted the Lord. Yes, some of them died, but more and more came to experience the love of God as shown through Jesus Christ and the world was changed! If we could only so trust God today, imagine what God might do through us.

Our passage starts with Peter in prison and we get the sense that his demise is at hand. When the sun rises, Herod plans to make an example of Peter, but God has other plans. I find it interesting that Peter sleeps like a baby. If I was in Peter’s situation, I’d be restless and, as far as the chains would allow, would be pacing in the cell. The angel has to wake Peter and then has to tell him what to do: get up, fasten your belt, put on your sandals, wrap your cloak around you, and follow me. Peter follows in a stupor-like state, thinking he’s dreaming. It is only when he leaves the jail through the open gate, passing the guards who are asleep, that Peter realizes this is no dream; it’s actually happening. When they are safely outside of the prison, the angel leaves and Peter heads over to John’s mother’s house.

Luke, the author of this story, obviously has a sense of humor and expects us to laugh at all that’s happening. The heavy gate of the jail couldn’t hold Peter, but now he can’t get through the gate at the house where the disciples and believers have gathered to pray. Rhoda, the servant, is so excited to hear Peter’s voice that she forgets to let him inside, so Peter continues to knock on the door while she tries to convince everyone that Peter is outside. All she had to do was to let him in, but they don’t believe her. The knocking continues.  Finally, someone opens the door and there’s great rejoicing. However, Peter is still a wanted man, so he heads off to an unnamed place while Herod has the guards executed. Again, we’re reminded of Herod’s power and how he misuses it.

Let me say a bit about this Herod, Herod Agrippa. There are several Herods in scripture. This guy is the grandson of Herod the Great, the one who killed the innocent boys around Bethlehem when Jesus was born. Agrippa ruled from 37 to 44 in the Christian era. He obviously has some of the same vanity of his grandfather and certainly liked his power, even though he wasn’t as powerful as his grandfather. He did not control as much territory as some of it was controlled by his cousin.

After telling about how Herod treated those guarding Peter, the author of Acts breaks from the story of the church to tell us about Herod’s death. This seems to be disconnected with the episode about Peter as it deals with other enemies of Herod, but Luke wants us to know what happens to tyrants. Herod’s enemies are in need of his aid so they play on his vanity. Herod is puffed with such praise, especially when they refer to him as a god. As a Jew (he was at least partly Jewish), Herod should have known the first commandments prohibits having anything before God, including oneself, but he likes hearing people call him god and in this praise, is struck down by an angel, dies, and is eaten by worms. “You shall have no other god before me,” God told Moses through the commandments, but Herod liked the idea of people seeing him as divine.

Interestingly, the story of Herod’s death is collaborated in other ancient texts. Josephus tells of it in greater detail, saying that the sun reflected off his silver armor in a way that he was praised by the crowd for being a god. Basking in this praise, he receives an omen indicating his imminent death.[6]

There are two things I’d like you to take from this passage. First of all, we have a Savior and his name is Jesus and whenever we are looking for someone to help us be better, we should be careful. You want a better church, make room for God to work in your lives and in the life of the congregation. Don’t look for a savior as in the right pastor or the right elders or in the right staff person. We already have a Savior! You want a more fulfilling life. Don’t think you can have it by replacing your spouse with one who will be a savior. We already have a Savior and they will only disappoint us. You want a better country, don’t look to an individual politician or political party to be a savior. They, too, are mortal and will sooner or later disappoint us. We’re to look to God and as individuals, be open to being used by God for his work in the world. God works through individuals in human organizations to bring glory to himself and to further God’s kingdom, but God doesn’t like it when people think too highly of themselves. Humility is a virtue and it was unfortunate for Herod that he never learned the lesson.

The second things we learn is that when we, like the early church, trust God and spend time in prayer and lifting up one another, there is no end to what God might do. The early church was poor and powerless, but Peter walks out of jail like it’s nothing. God wasn’t done with Peter. God was with the church and that’s still true today. But we have to trust that God is with us. We have to move beyond a fear of what will happen in the future. God is in control. God desires salvation brought to the entire would. We need to accept this, believe it, and act in faith. The future of the church isn’t dependent on what I do or what you do, it’s dependent upon the power of the God of creation, the God of new life in Jesus Christ.

We’re coming up on Consecration Sunday, a day we recommit ourselves as followers of Jesus. Over the next few weeks, I encourage you to include in your prayers a petition asking God to show you how you might be used to further God’s work in our church, our community and in the world. Let us pray together. Please repeat after me:

 

Loving God, we thank you for what you’ve done in Jesus Christ. We bow before you in humility and ask you to show us how we can further your work at Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church, in the community and throughout the world. Amen.

 

©2015

[1] Deuteronomy 31:6

[2] Psalm 23:4, 27::1, 118:6

[3] Luke 1:30, Matthew 1:20, Luke 2:10.

[4] Matthew 6:25, 27; 10:28.

[5] Hebrews 13:5-6

[6] Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews 17.168-170. Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Acts (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 186-187

The Gospel in Antioch

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Acts 11:19-12:5

October 11, 2015

 

 

We continue our journey with the Apostles in Acts. There will only be two more sermons in this series. After Paul is commissioned (which happens at the beginning of Chapter 13), I will take a break from Acts. Perhaps we’ll come back and follow Paul around the Roman Empire and complete this book after Easter.

The focus of Acts changes greatly in our text as we are taken into Antioch, one of the great cities of the ancient world. It was the third largest city in the Roman Empire (after Rome and Alexandria). From now on, Antioch will become more prominent than Jerusalem and soon, Paul will eclipse the other Apostles as Luke continues to tell his story with the focus on the church moving throughout the known world.

In the early Church, Antioch and Alexandria became two of the great Christian centers and the faith thrived in both for centuries. The city is in what is known today as Syria, a little southeast of the city of Aleppo, which has been in the news a lot recently. There are still Christians there and they need our prayers and for us to speak out on their behalf.

Let me tell you a bit about Antioch. First of all, it was a common name for a city in the ancient world. There were many such cities created during the Hellenistic period following the conquest by Alexander the Great. And to make it even more confusing, two such cities play prominent roles in the New Testament, this city in Syria and another in what is south central Turkey.

This Antioch was a cosmopolitan city built along the banks of the Orontes River. Its location connected it to trade routes into Persia and on to the East. It was one of the ends of what would later be known as the Silk Road and they have even found Chinese pottery in the ruins at Antioch. There was a strong Jewish community there but also Romans, Greeks and Persians. During the New Testament era, a main thoroughfare cut through the city, lined with palaces, shops, temples and baths. The city was built in a beautiful location, but also on an active geological site with frequent earthquakes. The instability of the ground and the city’s conquest by Muslim armies led to its downfall.[1]

Let’s read about the early church as it continues spreading across the ancient world. Charles Dicken description of Paris at the beginning of the Tale of Two Cities could apply here: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

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It was the best of times. The church is growing, it’s spreading out throughout the empire; gentiles are becoming believers…

It was the worst of times. Persecution is driving Jewish Christians from their homes. There’s already been one martyr, Stephen, and now we hear of another, James the Brother of John. And the Apostle Peter is behind bars.

As I reflected on this passage this week and wondered what I was to say about it, I thought back to a favorite book of mine by Craig Barnes, When God Interrupts. Barnes begins his book with a discussion of losing our lives and finding them (remember, Jesus said something strangely similar). We can only leave behind a life that is “gone forever,” Barnes writes, by believing “in the ongoing creativity of God, who brings light and beauty to the dark chaos of our losses in life.”[2]

Although our experiences can make things seem like it is the worst of times, those can also be the times when we grow closer to God, learn to depend on our Heavenly Father, and to feel his presence which can also make such occasions the best of times. Do we choose to believe this?

Essentially, this is what’s happening in the First Century. Endings occur as new beginnings sprout. Paul heads out to persecute Christians, and he’s converted and sent on a mission. Others flee their homes in fear of their lives, but end up taking the gospel of Jesus to new communities. All these people are having their lives thrown into chaos. This isn’t something you’d ask for. But it works out because our God who, at creation, ruled over the chaos of the waters and brought about calm and a new world, ruled over the chaos of the lives of the early believers and used their displacement and witness to spread the message. God can also use us in a way that will bring him glory.

Let’s look at our text. As I hope you remember from last week, the eleventh chapter begins with a pow-wow in Jerusalem where Peter has been called up before the Council to explain his hobnobbing with Gentiles. At first, those back in Jerusalem are skeptical, but they come around to understanding that God is doing something new and exciting. That section ends with those in Jerusalem giving thanks to God because they understand that the grace of Jesus Christ extends to everyone. Luke, our author, follows this up with a reminder of how people have been scattered over the known world because of persecution. But this is not a bad thing, because their testimony results in converts among Jews of the diaspora. However, that’s changing, as we see in Antioch. The first batch of believers were Jews, and more will come to accept Jesus as the gospel continues to spread, but in Antioch, the first widespread conversion of Gentiles occurs.

There is a method to this madness. Just as Pentecost occurred when Jerusalem was having a festival and Jews from all over the empire were present, the evangelistic breakout in Antioch, a city that connects the eastern world to the Mediterranean, allows people from all over to hear the gospel and then to take the good news back to their homes.

Of course, those in Jerusalem are skeptical and want to be sure that what’s happening is of God. They send Barnabas. We met him back in chapter four where he sold a field and gave the money to the Apostles. Although Jewish and a Levite, a background that allows him to serve as a priest in the temple, he was also a native of Cyprus. This mixed background allows him blend in with those who do not know Jewish history and customs. He finds an active group of Gentiles praising God in Antioch and he joins them in their praise.

Barnabas must have realized something special is happening and that he needs some help, for he goes off to find Saul (the guy who will soon be known as Paul) so he can bring him to Antioch. This city will become a launching pad for Paul and Barnabas as they use the city as a base for their missionary journeys. The city is also important for it is there that followers of Jesus are given the name Christian, a name that we all claim.

To show the faithfulness of the Gentile believers, Luke tells us about a prophecy of an upcoming famine and that these Gentiles respond to the news by sending money to those suffering in Judea. What the text doesn’t say is that many of those suffering would have been Jewish Christians. Like Barnabas, the faithful in Antioch, respond to their newly discovered grace by making a significant offering to help others. Barnabas sold his land to benefit the poor and the Christians in Antioch give to a famine relief effort for those whom they do not know.

Again, as we’ve seen throughout the book of Acts, good deeds are often followed by persecution. Our reading ends with James, the brother of John, being killed by Herod while Peter is thrown into prison. God sees to it that good things are happening, but the Devil is trying his best to get his due by persecuting those who believe.

We see in our text that although God is still directing what’s happening, there is a need for a response by those who believe. Such a response results in Christians, who live up to their name, telling their story to others and giving to the welfare of those in need. God directs, but we are the actors, the ones who give and participate in the scene in which we find ourselves.

Today is ministry Sunday and I want to encourage you to find a way to be involved in strengthening our ministry at Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church. As followers of Jesus, we are to join with others by supporting mission and ministry opportunities with our gifts of money and time, skills and prayers. Take a few minutes today to talk to those involved in the ministries of our church and if you don’t already have a place or feel yourself being led to another ministry, seek out ways that you can become involved. God’s involvement in the church did not end in Acts 28. It continues on, even today. At times we may feel the church is not effective or that we are persecuted and are not able to do what we’d like. That’s nothing new! Look at the church in the first century and consider what they were able to do, empowered by God’s Spirit, in a much more difficult time. Imagine how much more God can do through us. Believe in God, trust in Jesus, and join with one another as we work for a better world. Amen.

[1] Frederick Norris, “Antioch of Syria,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary (Doubleday, 1992), I, 265-268

[2] Craig Barnes, When God Interrupts: Finding New Life through Unwanted Change (Dower’s Grove, IL: IVP, 1996), 13. See also Matthew 16:25 and Luke 17:33.

Peter gets called on the carpet for God’s new idea!

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

October 4, 2015

Acts 11:1-18

 

 

Greenwood MS

We’re continuing to work through the first half of the book of Acts today, looking at the aftermath of Peter and Cornelius’ encounter in Caesarea.  Peter is called before the Council in Jerusalem to answer for his actions.  This is a passage with a lot of hope, not in what the institutional church is doing, but with what God is doing.  The church in its infancy has already developed the bureaucracy to impede progress.  Some things never change.  We see this today with local church leaders and in denominations.  But our hope is not in the bureaucracy or the institution, but in God who is able to work around it to bring about his purposes.   Part of what I’m reading today is a repeat of what you heard in the last chapter, so I am going to read today from The Message translation.  Hopefully, you’ll hear it in a fresh way.  Read Acts 11:1-18.

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          Shortly after Christmas 2005, I took a group of men and college students to New Orleans to help with the clean-up from Hurricane Katrina.  We took the train out of Battle Creek to Chicago and then boarded the City of New Orleans, the train made famous in Steve Goodman’s song that became a hit for Arlo Guthrie.  It’s the overnight run from the Windy City to the Gulf Coast.  It’s dark as we pull out of Chicago and the next morning, I’m up early.  We’re in Greenwood, Mississippi, where they change crews and service the engine.  Since we have a fifteen minute stop, I take a walk along the platform by the station. There I meet an older African-American named Bo.  We get to talking and I learn he has a joint that serves barbecue, just across the street from the station.  He gives me his business card and suggests I try it on the way back.  It sounds good…

On the return trip, I call him about ten miles or so out of Greenwood and order a bunch of plates of ribs.  When the train stops, I run over to pick up the order. Stepping into the joint, I’m a bit taken back as I’m the only white guy.  There are probably a dozen men in the place, a couple playing pool and the rest eating and drinking.  One guy looks up from his beer and asks, “You’re going to Chicago, why the “Stiller’s hat?”  Bo then calls me back into the kitchen where he’s packing a box of plates.  I pay him and run back to train.  As we pull out of the station, we enjoy some good eatin’.   Although I tend to prefer Eastern North Carolina style barbecue, those ribs are some of the best I’ve ever gnawed.

For those of us from the South (or who now live in the South) and appreciate real barbecue, Peter’s vision is good news!  We can now pig-out!  But it’s more than that!  Peter’s vision opens the way for Gentiles, like most of us, to pour into the church.

God enjoys surprising us by doing new things, which shouldn’t shock us.  After all, our God is the God of creation.  Just marvel at the beauty that’s around us. But God doesn’t limit himself to creating, for through Jesus Christ, God recreates.  God is doing something new as he works toward the reconciliation of the world in Jesus Christ. However, new things are never easy.  “We ain’t done it that way before,” is too often heard.  In my e-newsletter, which will come out tomorrow, there is an article I’d like you to read from a church consultant on the 9 essential requirements for church revitalization.  You know what the number one item is?  It’s the rejection of the status quo.[1]  In other words, “We never done it that way” is banned from their vocabulary.

The Apostles and those in the Church Council back in Jerusalem think they have it all figured out.  “The gospel is for us, for people like us, good Jews.”  They weren’t really interested in spreading the good news beyond the children of Abraham.  But God surprises Peter, then the council, as they discover that God’s grace doesn’t exclusively belong to them.  All humanity will make up the new heaven and earth for which we long.[2]  Of course, this means we have to give up our past ideals and accept all the people whom God makes righteous.  Notice, I didn’t say all the righteous, for that would be a mighty small group.  Instead, God calls those made righteous through Jesus Christ.  They’ll fill the streets of the New Jerusalem and the pews here on earth if we can just put aside prejudices and pettiness, accept Jesus as Lord, and not hinder the work of God.

Our reading from Acts begins with Peter being called before the leaders of the church in Jerusalem.  As I’ve pointed out in Acts, few good deeds go unpunished!  Peter has shared the gospel with Cornelius and baptized him and his family and friends and now he’s being called on the carpet.  Those back in Jerusalem who are responsible for the purity of the church are upset.  They can’t believe what they are hearing.  Peter, one their own, is hanging out with Gentiles; he’s even baptized some of them. “Peter,” they ask him, “why are you galloping around and eating with the uncircumcised?”  The tone of the question in verse 3 has obviously implications: “Peter, you shouldn’t be doing this.”

Peter explains by telling of his vision which we first read about in Chapter 10.  There was a lowering of the sheet from heaven with all kinds of animals that were considered unclean.  Peter, who was famished, was told to take and kill and eat whatever he’d like.  He could have some oysters, some pork rind, some smoked Boston butts…  But Peter held to the old dietary laws and, as we read two weeks ago, responds, “No, nothing profane has ever crossed these lips.”  Maybe Peter, who had denied Christ three times the night before his death, thinks this is a test.[3]  But the vision repeats itself three times, the same number as his denials, making him understand that something new is happening as it is pounded into his head that “what God has made clean must not be called profane.”

This is a freeing experience.  It means that I could gnaw the ribs that evening on the northbound City of New Orleans, getting barbecue sauce on my fingers and in my beard, as I enjoyed those tasty ribs with a conscience a lot cleaner than my shirt was when I was done.

However, this vision and the aftermath, the welcoming of Gentiles into the church, wasn’t seen as a freeing experience 2,000 years ago.  The status quo, with which they were comfortable, is being challenged!  Neither Peter nor the Council want this change.  They’re happy with plain diets of roast mutton, fish and beef…  And they sure don’t want to sit down with those dirty Gentiles and share a meal!  They want to stay out of places like Bo’s Bar and Grill.  But this is the whole point with what God is doing here.  God is changing customs and culture.  Yes, a whole world of food is open to them, but also the kingdom is now open to others.

It’s significant that this event happens in Caesarea, a fairly new city built by Herod the Great to serve as a port for his corner of the Roman kingdom.  It was a city occupied mostly by Romans and named for their Emperor, whom they worshipped as a god.  The city was built like a Roman city, with pagan temples and a coliseum.[4]  Herod, who was part Jewish, had to appease both the Romans and the Jews in order to keep his position.  He was a master politician!  Talk about pork barrel politics: he had the Jewish temple rebuilt in Jerusalem for the Jews and this city built for the conquerors, the Romans.

As I am trying to impress, this passage has less to do with dietary rules than with opening the Gospel to all people, even those formerly considered “unclean.”  This is all God’s doing for as Peter preaches in Caesarea and people are filled with the Spirit.  Peter can’t fill them with the Spirit, that’s God’s action and this becomes the clincher.  God is doing something new and Peter and the Council has to accept it.

Have you heard the saying, “Be careful if you invite Jesus into your home because he brings his friends with him.”  The Council realizes that if they are going to participate in this New Creation which Jesus is bringing about, they are going to have to get used to not having control over who receives an invitation to the party.

This whole section, which begins back in Chapter 10, God is the one at work, behind the scenes, as he has been throughout the book we know as “Acts of the Apostles.”  As I’ve said all along, it should have been named the Acts of God through the Apostles.  For all that is happening is the result, not of the Apostles planning and action, but of God directing and setting the stage.

Jack Haberer, a Presbyterian pastor now in Naples, Florida and one of the former leaders of the Presbyterian Coalition, used this passage in his book, GodViews.  Jack calls Caesarea the Ellis Island for Gentile Christians.[5]  It’s because of the event at Caesarea that the Apostles accept that the gospel is for all people, like those of us with European backgrounds along with Asians, Africans, Native Americans and Aborigine people.  For most of the human race, Caesarea is our point of inclusion into God’s story.   And now it’s our turn, to be a part of God’s embrace of the globe in a way that will reflect the face of God as seen in Jesus Christ to the world.

As we come to this table this morning, remember the table includes believers from the around the globe, including Indian and South Asian, from where our bread this morning comes.  But ponder this question.  Who is not represented at this table?  For they, too, need to be invited.  How can you be a part of this grand adventure, inviting others to the table?  Come next week, and in our Ministry Fair, sign up for your part in doing God’s work and sharing God’s love to the world.  Amen.

[1] See: http://www.malphursgroup.com/9-vital-components-of-church-revitalization/

[2] Revelation 7:9.

[3] See John 18:15-27

[4] Robert L. Hohleflder, “Caesarea,” Anchor Bible Dictionary, Volume 1, page 799.

[5] Jack Haberer, GodViews: The Convictions that Drive Us and Divide Us  (Louisville: Geneva, 2001), 3.

A mission to India

On October 4th,  Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church will celebrate Jeff’s 25th anniversary of ordination.  Following the service on Sunday morning, there will be a special reception in Liston Hall and that evening there will be a community dinner, along with entertainment, in honor of Jeff.    Our Church has traditionally given a Love Offering to mark occasions of significance for our pastor.  Jeff has asked that this Love Offering be applied to the building of a school in North India, where Pastor Chandan Kumar Sah has been working to both share the gospel and to better the lives of those living in this impoverished area of India.  This is a project supported by the Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship, an organization that works to reach those who have not heard about Jesus Christ.  Jeff’s friend, the Reverend Cody Watson, is in charge of their South Asia missions, which include India.

chandan baptizing jpeg

Pastor Chandan baptizing a young woman

Pastor Chandan Kumar Sah heard the gospel for the first time in 1992.  In 1997, he organized a ministry, registered it with the Bihar government, and began planting churches.  At first, it was a slow start.  By 2008, they had planted only five house churches with a total of 56 believers.   However in 2009, he planted an additional six house churches, and things began to take off.  In 2010, he started “Empower Believers Network.  Today, his ministry has started 224 house churches with over 2000 believers.  All are self- sustaining.  Encouraging the work of others entrepreneurial Christians in Bipar, four elementary schools have been started with over 300 students.  His goal is to increase the number of students to over 1000 and to expand schools through the 12th grade.  This Love Offering will go toward building a school in this region.  In this part of India, using local labor and materials, a 3000 square foot school can be built for $20,000!

India school in Patna

Indian school in Patna celebrating Independence Day

Literacy in the Bihar and Jehanabad districts of India is very low, especially in the rural areas.  The region hasn’t benefited from the recent economic boom of India.   PFF and its partner ministries have a successful history of growing schools in these areas, along with empowering the local people with skills which allow them to work and to generate income.  While building a better life for themselves, they support the growth of the church and its efforts to engage with the community for educational and social transformation.  The teachers in the schools are also “disciple makers” as they share their faith with the students.

India Pramila teachers

Teachers in Pramila

 

Pan India, his trust in the ministry of Cody Watson, and his belief that “churches like ours, working in partnership with local congregations in underdeveloped areas of the world, can make a big difference in the lives of others.”  This is one more way to show the face of Jesus to the world.India 1

Peter preaches in Cornelius’ home

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

September 27, 2015

Acts 10:23-48a

 

20150927 Peter & Cornelius 2Today, we’re in the middle of a large section in Acts that deals with the conversion of Gentiles.  If you remember, last week we looked at God’s Spirit working through visions to bring together Cornelius, a Roman centurion and Peter, an Apostle.  This week, we’re looking at the encounter between the two; next week, we’ll explore the fallout that occurs.  In Acts as in life, it seems most every good deed results in some kind of trauma for the faithful!

Last week, I emphasized how this is a chapter about conversions.  Not only is Cornelius and his family converted, but so is Peter.  As I said then, conversion is not necessarily a once in a lifetime event.  Yes, Peter had already accepted Christ as the Messiah, but his acceptance was limited.  Peter is now converted to a larger view of Christ, a Messiah who came, to borrow a phrase from the Orthodox Communion liturgy, “for the life of the world.”  What about us? What about you?  Do we need another conversion?  Does God need to open our eyes to what he’s doing in this world?

Let’s think for a moment about what conversion means.  In our Americanized version of the gospel, you often hear someone speak of  “gettin’ saved,” as if it’s a very private and personal experience between God and the individual and has little ramification for others.  I suggest this is seldom the case.   Conversion is an act of God. It’s not something we do.  It’s not something we “get” as if we’re shopping at a department store.  It is offered to us by a gracious God and we respond by repenting, changing our ways, and accepting God’s offer.  The act of conversion involves God drawing us closer to him, not only for our salvation, but to also involve us in God’s mission within the world.  When we’re converted, we’re given a call, a job, something to do with furthering the kingdom. Conversion is never just about us!

Today’s message is based on the text where we read about Peter traveling to and then preaching in Cornelius’ home.  This is a significant passage, for it is the first time Peter goes out of his way to preach the gospel to a Gentile.  He’s never even been in a Gentile’s home.  We get a sense he’s not overly excited at the prospect, but God has summoned him.  He goes and he preaches and God’s Spirit moves.  Cornelius and household accept Christ and then are filled with the Holy Spirit, which makes Peter realize they need to be baptized. Listen to God’s word…  READ ACTS 10:34-48.

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It has been an incredible week as we have watched Pope Francis visit America.  Francis took his papal name from Francis of Assisi, a man who lived humbly but had and continues to have great influence eight centuries later.  The Pope lives up to his namesake.  We have seen photos of Francis with the President and Congress and those with great wealth and immense power.  Yet, he also makes time to reach out to children, the disabled, and the poor and continually reminds us to live up to the ideals that have made our nation great.

A couple places in today’s text reminds me of Francis’ visit.  First, is when Peter is introduced to Cornelius and the Roman officer bows in respect and Peter lifts him up, reminding him that he’s only mortal.  We’re all mortal.  The power we hold doesn’t come from us but from God who, as Peter begins his sermon in verse 34, “shows no partiality.” This wasn’t a new concept, by the way.  In the Old Testament, in reference to the poor, we learn that God shows no partiality, but here it is interrupted by Peter to extend to the Gentiles.[1]

“The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it,” the 24th Psalm proclaims.  After his vision, Peter now understands a bit more about what God is up to with the church, as it spreads across the world.

As I emphasized last week, the tenth chapter of the book of Acts is a pivotal point in Luke’s story of the New Testament Church.  In this chapter we witness the gospel breaking out from its exclusively Jewish domain and spreading to the Gentiles.  It’s hard for us to image such an earth shattering change. Centuries of racial prejudice amongst the Jews are swept away with Peter’s conversion.[2] The Jews stuck with their own people; they didn’t associate with Gentiles; in fact they didn’t associate with anyone who wasn’t pure-blooded.  But the new covenant offered through Jesus Christ breaks such limitations.  Peter now realizes this new covenant means God is pushing the boundaries outward.

God has used the visions of Peter and Cornelius to bring Jew and Gentile together.  We learn in verse 28, Peter had never been inside of a Gentile’s home, and he wouldn’t have been inside this one had God not pounded this revelation into his head three times!

Let me go back to that remarkable comment that Peter makes at the beginning of his sermon: “God shows no partiality.” This isn’t something he wouldn’t have said earlier in his life.  Remember the hard time the disciples gave Jesus when he had a conversation with the Samaritan woman, who wasn’t even a full-blooded Gentile.[3]  What a change for a person who had never associated with someone outside of his own ethnic group…   Peter experiences, first hand, that Jesus wasn’t kidding, he wasn’t speaking metaphorically, when he told the disciples to spread the message and make disciples to the ends of the earth.

I am sure most of us have had experiences where we have learned to accept others who may look or act differently than us, but are deep down just like us.  I remember such an encounter when I was in the 9th grade.  This was the year racial tension peaked in Wilmington.  I was in the Order of the Arrow, a Boy Scout fraternity for “honored campers.”  Those of us who had become a part of this group, having been elected by our troop and then passing an ordeal, were set apart.  There was a district wide camping trip at Cowpens Landing along the Northeast Cape Fear for those of us in the Order of the Arrow—or OA as it was called.  It was a cold winter weekend.  David, another guy in my troop who was also in OA, and I decided we’d each bring a tent so we could have plenty of room.  But another member of the OA, Charles, who was two years older than me, didn’t have a tent.  One of the adult leaders came to me and asked if he could stay in mine.  Charles was black.  At first, I was taken back, but then we were supposed to be brothers and honored campers and I said, “Of course.”  That night, as we crawled into our sleeping bags trying to get warm, we talked. I realized, he’s not that much different from me.  I later became friends with Wayne, his brother, who was my age.  In a few weeks when my graduating class has a reunion, I’ll see Wayne and will ask about his brother.

Peter’s sermon is rather simple.  He begins with a quick overview of the events that had happened in Palestine.  He tells about John’s baptism, Jesus’ anointing with the Holy Spirit and some of the good deeds to which Peter was a witness… Then he tells them about Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Peter makes a strong comparison here between human action, “hanging Jesus on a tree,” and God’s action, “raising Jesus on the third day.”  The human action was shameful; God’s action was honorable…  “For God so loved the world,” as John’s gospel tells us…

Furthermore, Peter goes to great length to impress upon Cornelius and family that Jesus wasn’t raised as some ghostly spirit, for he ate and drank with those who witnessed the miracle of Easter.

Serving as bookends in this sermon (although Peter does not use this terms as bookends weren’t needed in an era without bound books) is the appeal to accept Jesus as one’s Lord and Savior.  In verse 36, Peter reminds Cornelius and his gathered guests about God sending a message to the people of Israel that forgiveness is available through Jesus Christ who is also Lord of all… Peace, the Hebrew concept of Shalom, or what we might call wholeness, is available from Christ.  But Jesus Christ is not only a Savior, offering us forgiveness; he is also to be our Lord, the one whom we follow.

The other bookend is found in verses 42 and 43.  Here we’re told that Jesus Christ will be our judge, a responsibility of a Lord.  But not only is He Lord, he’s also the one through whom forgiveness comes.  Put the two together and you have Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior.  Our forgiveness depends upon him, and our salvation depends upon him and him alone.

The Holy Spirit bursting in on Cornelius’ household follows this wonderful news from Peter and they’re filled with the Spirit. This event serves as proof to Peter and his Jewish companions that God is working not only among the Jews but also among the Gentiles.  Normally, in Acts, being filled with the Holy Spirit is something that happens after baptism, but not here.[4]  Peter takes this as a sign that the wind of God’s Spirit is blowing in a new direction and baptizes this Roman soldier and his household.[5]  Of course, this act, as we’ll see next week, gets Peter into a bit of hot water and he’s called to answer before the Council in Jerusalem.  But Peter isn’t working for the Council.  Like the Blues Brothers, he is on a mission from God![6]

What can we learn from this story?  When God is on a mission, God will use surprising people to bring about a change!  I am sure when Cornelius was sent to Palestine, as part of the conquering army, he had no idea a simple fisherman from Galilee would change his and his family’s life.  Just as I am sure that Peter, when he dropped his nets to follow Jesus, had no idea he’d one day be hobnobbing with a high-ranking Roman soldier.  When we allow God into our lives, God can use us in fantastic ways beyond our imagination to bring about a positive change to the world.

Where might God be calling you to make a difference as a part of Christ’s body in the world? You know, that’s part of our job, our purpose as disciples and as the church.  In two weeks, we’ll have a ministry fair here at Skidaway Island.  This will be a time in which we will encourage everyone to become involved in one aspect of our church’s mission and ministry.  Become involved with what we do in worship, our Christian education programs including Youth and Preschool, helping to maintain our facilities, our mission and benevolence efforts, our communication, fellowship and discipleship teams. This is also a time where, if you have been involved in one area and would like to change, you can do that.  Over the next two weeks, spend some time in prayer and meditation, asking God where you might make a difference in our congregation, in our community, and in the world.  Amen.

 

©2015

[1] Beverley Roberts Gaventa, Acts (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 169.  See Deuteronomy 10:17.

[2] F. F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts: NICNT (Eerdmans, 1996 reprint), 224.

[3] John 4:27

[4] Gaventa, 172.

[5] William Willimon, Acts: Interpretation, a Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (1986, Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010), 99.

[6] Line from Elwood in the 1980 movie, “The Blues Brothers.”

Cornelius and Peter’s Visions

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

September 20, 2015

Acts 10:1-23

 

We’ve come to the pinnacle of Acts.[1]  As I have discussed again and again over the past few months, the book we know as “Acts of the Apostles” is really about the Acts of God through the Apostles.  Those expanding circles Jesus laid out at the beginning of this book—taking the gospel to Jerusalem, then Samaria, then to the ends of the world[2]—is fulfilled as God leads the Apostles further and further from Jerusalem.  In the past few chapters, we’ve seen an Ethiopian saved, which was a major feat for the Apostles who wouldn’t have had anything to do with such a man beforehand.  He was not a Jew.  The barrier between Jew and Gentile is breaking down.

A few weeks ago I read a novel by a local Savannah writer, Lance Levens, titled Tietam Cane.  The story is set in the early 1960s.  Tietam is a young boy, whose name derives from Antietam, the bloodiest battle of the Civil War.  He’s being raised by a bigoted grandfather who has him living out the Civil War.  His teacher describes him as a “brainwashed, violence-prone, arrogant little demon.” One of his aunts, hoping to intervene, takes Tietam to visit an African-American woman who lends him a book of poetry written by her grandmother, who was a slave.  These poems plant a seed in Tietam, which allows him to reconsidering what he has accepted as the “truth.”[3] Likewise, as we will see in our text today, seeds are planted in Peter’s and Cornelius’ mind through visions that allow them to change their world-view.

Here, in the 10th chapter of Acts, the holes in the barriers that insulate Jewish Christians from the Gentiles are thrown wide open as God works on both sides of the equation to bring Jew and Gentile together.  What happens here, in these verses lays the groundwork for what Paul proclaims to the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek but all are one in Christ Jesus.”[4]  Our theme today is reconciliation.  We are looking at the first half of the 10th chapter of Acts.  (Verses 1-23)

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It’s 1805.  European Americans have barely crossed the Allegheny and Appalachian Mountains. A preacher from the Boston Missionary Society makes his way into Western New York to evangelize the white settlers who have been moving from New England into this fringe of the frontier.  After preaching to the white settlers, he visits one of the many Indian villages in the region, members of the Six Nation Iroquois Confederacy, where he preaches to the Natives.  Afterwards, the Great Seneca Chief Red Jacket speaks and his words recorded:

 

Brother, we are told that you have been preaching to the white people in this place.  These people are our neighbors.  We are acquainted with them.  We will wait a little while, and see what effect your preaching has upon them.  If we find it does them good, makes them honest and less disposed to cheat Indians, we will consider again what you have to say.[5]

 

At this point, Red Jacket and several other Senecas walked over to shake hands with the evangelist, but he refused.  Feeling as if he had been rejected, the evangelist said there could be no fellowship between the religion of God and the devil.

I wonder how many times in the history of the Christian Church we’ve missed the chance to share the gospel because of barriers we’re erected, prejudices we hold, or intolerance we allow to go unchecked? The Good News is that God often steps in and helps change our misguided direction as we see in our reading today.  Our story is about God removing those barriers and bringing together two unlikely friends: Peter and Cornelius.  God is involved here, on both sides, to make sure things don’t get screwed up because if it had been left up to Peter, the good Jew, he’d never entered Cornelius’ home (as we’ll see him doing next week).

There are three main characters in this passage: Peter, Cornelius and God.  God’s role is behind the scene but it’s crucial as these two mortals are pulled together in a way that both of them are converted.  Notice, I said both are converted.  You may think that Peter didn’t need conversion but that’s not the case.  In fact, he’s been converted over and over again since he answered Jesus’ call on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.   To convert means to change direction, to realign ourselves to the mind of Christ.  Yes, to some extent, Peter did this but he also has to do it again and again as he learns what it mean to follow our Savior.[6]

Conversion is often more than a one-time experience!  Each conversion is expressed by a new understanding of what God wants for our lives and for how God would like the world to be ordered.  The bringing together of Peter and Cornelius involves a change for both parties.  Cornelius hears the gospel for the first time and opens himself up to accept Christ.  Peter experiences the gospel in a new way.  Through this experience he comes to understand that the gospel of Jesus Christ is not only intended for Jews.  “Jesus came to save sinners,” as Paul would later proclaim, not just sinners of a particular stripe.[7]

Think of this impact upon Peter.  There’s some radical stuff going on here.  He’s never eaten pork.  He’s never enjoyed beef stroganoff (you know those dietary laws not only prevented one from eating pork and shellfish, but also from eating beef cooked in milk).  Not only did he maintain a kosher diet, he has spent a lifetime of shunning Gentiles. The Jews felt superior to others and his tradition taught him to avoid non-Jews (and even Jews who were less than faithful).  Peter’s visit with Cornelius is earth shattering for the First Century.  It would be kind of like the Prime Minister of Israel eating with the king of Saudi Arabia or the supreme leader of Iran.

Peter is changed.  His vision shows him God can make clean what is unclean—which should be good news for us!  His visit to Cornelius’ home convinces him that the Gospel is not just for the Jews (and maybe a select group of non-believers like the Ethiopian guy), but for everyone.  Peter is beginning to grasps, although he will have some more growing to do, that Jesus meant it when he told them to take the gospel to the ends of the earth.

We need to understand what kind of change this was for Peter and for first century Jews.  With our modern minds, we might think, “What’s the danger of enjoying a barbecue sandwich?”  “What’s wrong not completely observing the Sabbath, with eating with a Gentile?” Because Christianity, even though we have our struggles, is the dominate religion in the Western World, such small concessions seem inconsequential to us, but to a minority religion, as Judaism was in the first century, breaking such taboos threatened the survival of the faith.[8] These rules provided their identity. Peter’s vision, we’re told, had to be repeated three times.  It took that long for God to get through his thick head.  What’s happening here is something beyond the scope of what Peter can imagine.  If God is behind something, we shouldn’t worry about things like survival for that’s in God’s hands and we are not in control.

Cornelius is also changed by his encounter from Peter.  We’ll learn more about this next week.  He becomes a Christian.  We’re told he has been seeking to know God better, that he’s a God-fearer, which was a term to describe Gentles who were learning about the Jewish faith and had accepted some of their teachings.  Like a devout Jew, Cornelius prays regularly and practices acts of charity.  He’s now ready to hear the good news, to experience the gospel, and to be baptized as a sign of his belief.

Peter and Cornelius need each other.  Cornelius needs someone to share with him the Good News and there are people like that today, who may or may not have heard about Jesus but don’t know what difference Jesus can make in their lives.  Remember my opening story about Red Jacket!  If the gospel’s fruits are not showing, why would anyone believe us?  Peter also needs Cornelius in order to grasp God’s grand vision of reconciliation of a troubled world.  Our faith is not just about us being forgiven and given a ticket to heaven—it is about reconcilation.

In a way, our story today is just a small scene in a larger drama God’s grand design of reconciling heaven and earth, of doing away with the bondage of sin that separates us not only from God but from one another.  God is like a matchmaker who drops hints to a boy about a girl, suggesting that she likes him, and then hints to the girl about the boy’s interest.

Those of us who believe and who strive to follow Jesus are called to play a role in this grand drama of reconciliation.  God uses us to carry out his plan just as he used Peter to share the good news with Cornelius.   We are ambassadors of a different kingdom.  We are here to break down barriers that separate us from one another.   We are here to seek peace between all people, for we are all created in God’s image and are all loved by our Heavenly Father.

As followers of Jesus, we are to exhibit a new order, God’s kingdom, to the world.[9]  We do this by speaking the truth about the gospel, challenging those who would exclude others from Christian charity, and by living as best as possible in harmony with one another.  It may seem an overwhelming challenge to live in such a manner, but remember that we don’t depend on our own power, but on the power of God who brought together Peter and Cornelius as just one act in an ongoing drama to reconcile the world through Jesus Christ.[10]  Amen.

As we ponder this, let us stand and read together from one of our confessional statements, “The Confession of 1967,” what it is we believe about reconciliation:

Confession of Faith concerning God’s work of reconciliation

(adapted from the Confession of 1967)

God’s redeeming work in Jesus Christ embraces our lives: social and cultural, economic and political, scientific and technological, individual and corporate. It includes our natural environment even though exploited and despoiled by sin. It is the will of God that his purpose for human life shall be fulfilled under the rule of Christ and all evil be banished from his creation.

Biblical visions and images of the rule of Christ such as a heavenly city, a father’s house, a new heaven and earth, a marriage feast, and an unending day culminate in the image of the kingdom. The kingdom represents the triumph of God over all that resists his will and disrupts his creation. Already God’s reign is present as a ferment in the world, stirring hope in men and preparing the world to receive its ultimate judgment and redemption.

With an urgency born of this hope we, the church, applies ourselves to present tasks and strive for a better world. We do not identify limited progress with the kingdom of God on earth, nor do we despair in the face of disappointment and defeat. In steadfast hope, we looks beyond all partial achievement to the final triumph of God.

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or think, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

 

 

©2015

[1] Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Acts (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 162 and William H. Willimon, Acts: Interpretation, A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (1984, Louisville: WJKP, 2010), 93.

[2] Acts 1:8

[3] Lance Levens, Tietam Cane ((Fireshippress, 2013).  Quote from page 121/

[4] Galatians 3:28.

[5] American Indian Literature: An Anthology, Alan R. Velie, ed. (Norman, OK: University of Oklahama, 1979), 139.

[6] Peter was converted when Jesus called him.  Other examples of his conversions include the time he told Jesus that he couldn’t allow himself to die, and when he told Jesus he couldn’t wash his feet, and again when he betrayed his Savior.

[7] 1 Timothy 1:15.

[8] Willimon, 96.

[9] See the sixth “Great Ends of the Church.”  Presbyterian Church (USA), Book of Order, F-1.0304

[10] Presbyterian Church, USA, Book of Confessions, “Confession of 1967”, Part Three, 9:56

A Walk in the Woods

a walk in the woods
A Walk in the Woods
 (2015, 1 hour and 44 minutes)

With the storms we’ve been having, Donna and I decided to go to the movies on Labor Day to see “A Walk in the Woods.”  After all, I’ve hiked the trail and read and laughed through the book.  Although I enjoyed the book, I always felt a little superior to Bill Bryson,  for he only hiked some 800 miles of the trail and I have done the whole thing.  But Byrson is a talented writer who can make most any mundane thing funny.  In the book and in the movie, Bryson decides to hike the trail after moving back to the United States from Great Britain.  In the book, if I remember correctly, he and his English wife decides to move back in other to allow their children a chance to experience both countries.  Bryson was in his 40s at the time.  In the movie, a much older Bryson (played by Redford at 79) has older children and grandchildren.  In both the book and the movie, he has a hard time finding a hiking partner.  In the movie, he calls a former acquaintance whom he discovers is dead.  His wife reminded him that his wife had shared that news in their Christmas card, which allows Redford the line that went something like: “I guess that’s why she seem miffed when I called him.”  Much of the humor in the movie were similar one-liners.

me at in MA

Writing post cards in Massachusetts

Bryson finds a partner in Katz (played by Nick Notle), whom he had traveled in Europe after high school.  He hadn’t seen Katz since and when he gets off the plane, Bryson can’t believe his eyes.  Katz is not only out-of-shape, but looks half-dead.  Katz is a gloomy but likable character who tells Bryson’s family some less than favorable stories about their dad, implying that he picked up a STD while they were traveling in Europe.  There is a sad scene while Katz is staying at Bryson’s home before they begin the hike.  Alone, Katz reviews all the various certificates and awards that his friend has received in his life.  It’s evidence of a life-well lived, which stands in contrast to Katz’s life of booze and drugs and women.  Later, on the trail, Katz seems surprised that Bryson has been faithfully married for forty years and then jokes that he’s been with more married women than Bryson.
On the trail, the two of them are constantly passed by younger hikers who all seem in shape (and way too clean to be backpacking, but this is a movie). There is Mary Ellen, a bubbly woman who has an answer for everything and drives the two of them crazy.  I remember such characters on the trail and ways we tried to dump them by either hiking fast or taking a short day and allowing them to get ahead.  There were also the “gear Nazis” who scrutinized packs, boots and other equipment.   Bryson and Katz experiences a snow storm but no other inclement weather (they hiked the whole time with long pants and flannel shirts, which in the month of May would have been too much clothing on most days for even then it can get hot in the Southern Appalachians).  There were no rain and thunderstorms (and no sweating on hot days).  I remember hiking in thunderstorms with other hikers.  We’d spread out so that if one of us was struck, the other could to attempt to resuscitate.   It would have been nice to have had a thunderstorm on the screen, for about half way through the movie, I could hear the rumble of thunder from outside and for a few minutes the rain poured down so loud so that we heard it inside the theater.  I was reminded I was better off at the movies than on outside.

Although Katz is seen as a womanizer (a trait that seems to be in conflict with his looks), we learn that he had given up alcohol.  He admits how much he enjoys drinking (the smell, the taste, how it makes you feel) but that he knows if he takes a drink, it will be all over.  After a rough life, he is now living alone eating TV dinners.The movie is rated R which is mostly for language which the two of them use frequently as a way to express frustration at their troubles. There are also a lots of sexual innuendos.  The one bear scene was weird (there were many more bear stories in the book).  The movie picked up some of the hikers routines such as relieving oneself in the woods (which the book spent too much time describing) and doing laundry in town (yes, I have done laundry wearing only rain gear).  At the laundromat, Katz encounters a flirty and very over-weight married woman, which necessitates the two of them slipping out of town before an angry husband kills Katz.  Laughing it off afterwards, Katz asks Bryson, “What is the chance that the only two people in the world who would go to bed with that woman be in the same town at the same time?”  Much of the humor is sophomoric in that manner.

AT at Katadhin

At the end of the trail, Mt. Katahdin, Maine

The movie ends with the two of them deciding to give up their quest and go back home.  They realize they don’t have to walk the entire trail for they have nothing to prove to anyone.   I agree with most of the critics that the movie doesn’t do justice to Bill Bryson’s book.  However, there is a value in the movie version.  We see the rewards of Bryson’s faithfulness and well-lived life.  Also, even though we understand that Katz’s wasted much of his life, we can cheer him on that he’s finally gotten it somewhat together (at least the alcohol, he still can’t help hitting on any woman who happens by).   The two help each other (Bryson, at one point, decides not to have a drink in front of Katz as not to tempt him).  If you can get beyond the language (which at times is over the top), the two lives in this movie create a classic “morality-tale” showing the value of virtue.

Miracles: Aeneas and Tabitha

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway island Presbyterian Church

Acts 9:36-43

September 13, 2015

 

 

Today, as we continue working through the book known as Acts of the Apostles, we’re going to read about two individuals, Aeneas and Tabitha.  Both experience a blessing from God delivered through Peter. The first man, Aeneas, we don’t know much about.  We don’t even know if he was a believer, only that he’s paralyzed and been bedridden for eight years.  Peter, calling on the name of Jesus, commands him to get up and make up his bed and he does.  This miracle draws more people into the church.

The second is Tabitha, a pillar of the church in Joppa.  We know more about her.  When she dies, everyone grieves.  But then along comes Peter and we have an account of him raising her from the dead.  Tabitha wasn’t raised because she was a good person or even because those widows in Joppa needed her. In fact, we don’t know what she did afterwards. We don’t know if she continued helping those widows. She could have spent her remaining time on earth in stunned silence, for all we know…  But we do know that sooner or later, she again died and there was once again grieving by those left behind.  This miracle had nothing to do with her, her work or the need of the community; this miracle was only to demonstrate God’s power.  READ ACTS 9:32-43.

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I know a few of you have seen the movie that recently came out, “A Walk in the Woods.”  Let me tell you another story from my “walk in the woods” of over twenty-five years ago. It was mid-July. I set out alone this morning, hiking as the day was just breaking.  The trail ran alongside the Housatonic River in Connecticut. The air was heavy and filled with the rich scent of honeysuckle. Fog blanketed the river, but I knew it wouldn’t last. The day was going to be hot and humid, and I wanted to get in as many miles as possible before the heat became unbearable. When I began to get into the swing of hiking, after working out the soreness in my muscles, I lengthened my stride and by sunrise was making pretty good time.  I was looking forward to having breakfast at Cornwall Bridge.  The rising sun backlighted the trees along the east bank of the river, its rays bouncing across the water. Everything turned golden. While taking this in, a herd of deer, ten or twelve, broke out of the forest in front of me, jumped down the embankment into the water.  They forded the river with graceful leaps and then climbed the bank on the far side and disappeared into the woods.  I stood in awe of the deer and of God’s creation. It was a spiritual moment, a moment of joy, a blessing to be savored.

Deer and antelope and other such animals appear so graceful in nature that taking time to observe them can often be a mystical experience.  (The exception to this is when they are pigging out on our shrubby and flowers.)  “Now, what does the gracefulness of such animals have to do with our reading from Acts, you might be asking yourself? I have this image of Tabitha as an exhibit of grace. Her name, in Greek, was Dorcas which was a small gazelle, an animal related to the deer.[1]

In scripture, in the Song of Solomon as we heard read earlier, gazelles are a metaphor for the gracefulness of a lover.[2] It’s is a fitting metaphor. From her name and what we know about her, we can assume Tabitha was a graceful and loving woman. She obviously was a woman of some means and talent. She used her wealth and God-given ability to make clothing for widows—those who were most needy in the ancient world where there was no social security or pension plans. We can also assume Tabitha’s generosity extended beyond the local church since a distinction is made in the text between the saints and widows who gathered at her death.

Tabitha was a disciple. That is, she placed her faith in Jesus Christ and lived out her faith, doing her best to follow the example set by her Master.  And like Christ, her generosity was not limited to those who were followers or pious law abiders. A true follower of Jesus will help someone regardless of who they are. Tabitha must have been a pillar of the church in Joppa. From the very beginning, women have played an important role in the church, providing stability and keeping the church focused on what it’s to be about. We can almost imagine a church council meeting in Joppa—the men arguing about something important like how to fix the roof. In the heat of the discussion, Tabitha reminds them that the church is not a building and there are mission concerns they also need to address. Tabitha reminds them of what was important.

Consequently, when Tabitha dies, there’s lamenting. The church loses a true saint and all the faithful gather. Widows come sporting the tunics made by Tabitha. They’ve lost a friend and a supporter. Her death is mourned. Everyone is sad.

Now since Peter was nearby, some ten miles away in Lydda, where he had just participated in the healing of a man, they send for him. We are not told if they were expecting Peter to raise Tabitha from the dead.  Maybe they just wanted an Apostle to speak at the funeral. The raising of the dead, according to Scripture, was not a major focus of the early church and it was only a very small part of Jesus’ ministry.[3]  The focus of the church is not bringing the dead back to life (in this world), where they will die again, but to bring people into a new life that will continue on after the resurrection. But in this incident, Peter comes and raises Tabitha and people rejoice and many, we’re told, are saved.

There are, as you can imagine, some problems with how we interpret and deal with this passage. Instead of asking ourselves why Tabitha was raised from the dead, why not ask why she died in the first place. I’m sure all the faithful in Joppa were praying for her. Were their prayers less effective than Peter’s? Why was Peter able to strut into the room, kick out the mourners and kneel by the bed, pray and then say “Tabitha, get up” and have her respond? Why did Peter’s prayers, after the fact, work better than those offered at Tabitha’s bedside when she was breathing her last?  To be honest, I don’t know.

Roy and Velma were an elderly couple in the church I served in Utah.  Roy was a sheepherder and had been born in Utah shortly after the turn of the 20th Century.  When I arrived in Utah, he was 93 and still riding a horse.  It was a privilege to know them and I was honored to officiate at both of their funerals.  Visiting them early in my ministry there, Velma told me their story.  She was from California.  Roy had originally married Vera, Velma’s identical twin sister, but Vera died young.  Roy was left with two very small children and several thousand head of sheep to tend.  Velma had also been married, but was divorced and had a couple of children of her own and so Roy proposed and they married and Velma raised all the kids.  Roy and Velma had been married way over 50 years when I met them…

When Velma would tell the story, she’d always smile when she got to the part about coming home with Roy to Cedar City.  She said the first day she was there, the mailman came to the door and just about had a heart attack thinking her sister had come back to life.  I joked with Velma, telling her if she’d played the role of her sister, the Presbyterians would have been able to convert the whole city.  Think about the power and the prestige that would have given the church… But that’s not the purpose of the church and we really don’t have the power to save, anyway.  That belongs to God.

Perhaps this is why the early church didn’t go into the resuscitation business.  The power and prestige would have been too much and the faithful would have forgotten what they were to be about.  The church isn’t to brag about its abilities, for truly what we have comes only by the grace of God.

As the church, we have to be careful with how we use and interpret the power God has given us. We can humbly use it for the building up of the kingdom, or we can abuse the power and make a joke out of it and ourselves.  We’re not to focus on reclaiming those who have died, for that’s God’s work.  Instead we’re to work with Jesus, reclaiming those who are alive, yet dead. Afterwards, when the people of Joppa saw Tabitha in the marketplace, they believed in the power of God through Jesus Christ to forgive sins and to offer life. Tabitha’s resurrection was for them was a sign of God’s power.

What is it that we can take from this story of Tabitha?  First of all, I wonder if we look at miracles the wrong way.  Maybe miracles are not for the person who benefits from them, but for those who witness them.  Think of the witness to God’s power made through Aeneas jumping up and making his bed or Tabitha crawling out of the casket.  Secondly, when God answers our prayers, we should be humbled even more because we know we couldn’t have done it on our own.  We have to depend upon his power.  We see the humility in this story from Peter, who after raising Tabitha, assumes a humbled existence.

Think of this for a moment.  Peter could have capitalized on his miracle.  After all, he did what the doctors were unable to do.  He could have stayed in a fancy home overlooking the water and with servants seeing to his every need.  Instead, he stayed with a tanner, a man with a nasty job.  A tanner was one of the lowest positions in society.  The work stunk and since he mostly likely worked out of his home, his house stunk.  Dealing with dead carcasses was looked down on by law-abiding Jews.  Yet, Peter stayed there with Simon the Tanner.  He humbly did God’s work and didn’t claim any glory for himself.  This passage does not show us how to resuscitate the dead….  Instead, it reminds us of God’s power in life and death and gives us two role models: Tabitha’s gracefulness and Peter’s humility.

I wonder what Tabitha did with the rest of her life?  We don’t know, but we can imagine. But what we need to remember is that most of us won’t have a second chance like her, to continue on doing good deeds.  Therefore, we should examine our lives and ask ourselves, “Are we who we want to be?” Or more important, “Are we who God would want us to be?”  Another question, “Will the ‘saints and town folks’ praise us at our death?”  “Will we be known for kindness?  Will our good deeds follow us after our death, as promised in Revelation?[4]   Most likely we’re not going to get the chance to crawl out of a casket like Tabitha, but we do have a chance to change our lives and live gracefully like her in the future.

Tabitha is an example not only for women, but for all of us.  So take a moment today and think about Tabitha and how she was regarded by those in Joppa…  Sooner or later, we’re all going to be gone.  After we leave this life, what will people say?  What might we change to have the reputation of Tabitha?  Amen.

 

©2015

[1] There are two types of Gazelles in the Holy Lands.  Gazella dorcas are small, only about 2 feet tall.  Gazella subgutturosa are larger, about four feet in height.  Anchor Bible Dictionary entry under Zoology

[2] See Song of Solomon 2:9, 4:5, 7:3 and 8:14

[3] We have three stories of Jesus raising the dead:  Jarius’ daughter (Matthew 9:18-25, Mark 5:35-39, Luke 8:41-55), Widow’s son (Luke 7:12-15) and Lazarus (John 11:1-44).  In addition, when Jesus set out the 12, among a number of other powers, he gave them the commission to raise the dead (Matthew 10:8)

[4] Revelation 14:13.

Conversion of Paul, Part 3

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church 

Acts 9:19b-30

September 6. 2015

 

A few years ago at Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Writing Conference, I attended a seminar led by Barbara Nicolosi, a screen writer from Hollywood.  She spoke about being a Christian in an industry in which our faith is often shunned or ridiculed. Yet, as she reminded us, even there people need to know the love of Jesus.  It seems everyone in Hollywood has a slew of addictions: drugs, alcohol, sex, food, you name it.  Although there is great wealth, there is also great unhappiness.  Destructive behaviors are prevalent; yet, in the midst of this is a great spiritual hunger.  She tells about those who know of her faith who will begin a conversation by saying something like: “I need to get my act together and become a Christian.”  She laughs and says she wants to respond sarcastically, “Oh, like we all have it together.”

We don’t have it all together and when we pretend we do, we do a disservice to the faith.  As a church or as individuals, we don’t have all the answers.  Never had, never will!  Yes, we have Jesus and his love and grace holds us together.  However, the church isn’t to be a place of answers but a place where people who are hurting can ask honest questions.  As followers of Jesus, we don’t offer pat answers.  Instead, we offer a relationship: a friendship with the only one who can make a difference in our lives, a friendship with the one who can lead us through the valley of the shadow of death,[1] a friendship with the one who was able to take Paul, a blood thirst zealot and change him into the greatest missionary ever.

Today, I’ll complete our look at Paul’s conversion in the ninth chapter of Acts.  I’ve broken the narrative into three parts.  The first week, we looked at Jesus encountering Saul (as he was then known) on the Damascus Way.  Last week, we saw Saul’s dependence on other Christians, those like Ananias, who helped him regain his sight.  Today, we’re going to look at the consequences of Saul’s conversion.  You’d think everyone would be happy he’s doing God’s work and he’d be blessed for it, but that’s not the case.  Saul’s conversion upsets the apple cart.  The followers of Jesus don’t trust him and the Jews think he’s a traitor.  Doing the right thing doesn’t always lead to rewards, as we see here at the end of this narrative.  Read Acts 9:19b-30.

###

 

We should do what is right because it is right, not because we think we’ll be rewarded.   One of the great myths within our society is the belief that hard work will automatically result in blessings.  That if you work hard and do right and keep your nose clean, you’ll do well in life.  Unfortunately, it’s a popular theme (even in many churches), but it’s a position we don’t find a lot of support for in Scripture.[2]  Instead, the Bible gives us example and example of those who have done what is right, good and noble and paid heavily for their deeds.  Think of Elijah, fleeing into the desert.[3]  Think of Stephen, being stoned to death.[4]  In a way, the Apostle Paul is just one in a string of examples of people being “punished” for doing what is right.  And, of course, the ultimate example is Jesus on the cross.

Part of the problem with this myth of being rewarded for good behavior is that the focus is on us.  It’s all about me, a message that we are bombarded with over and over again in our world.  Advertisements are based on us deserving some reward (as if we can go out a buy happiness).  Too often, we see salvation in the same way; it’s just another trophy to be placed on the mantel, right next to our diplomas and perfect attendance certificates.  But we got it all backwards.

Martin Luther, at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, came to understand that “Salvation is no longer the goal of life but rather its foundation,”[5] We don’t do good in order to earn salvation; we do good because it is right and is a result of our thankfulness to God, the one whom we owe allegiance for all that we are and have.

In our passage today, we see that Saul is rejected three times.  Once he’s finally been accepted by the believers in Damascus, he then makes the Jews there so mad that they are out to kill him.  They see Saul as a threat; he was supposed to be defending the Jewish faith against this talk about Jesus and now he’s preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ.  So Saul’s former allies, those who were his friends and colleagues, are now his enemies.  If you think about it, I think you will agree that the reaction of the Jews is normal. In politics, when someone breaks ranks and thinks for themselves, what happens?  They’re attacked.  The same thing happens in the schoolyard.  Someone befriends an unpopular kid, what happens?  They’re immediately ostracized by former friends…

How many of you have read Pat Conroy?  He’s got a big birthday celebration up in Beaufort next month and for the price of admission you can be invited.[6]  Many of Conroy’s characters do what is right even when it means they’ll be ostracized.  In The Prince of Tides, Tom Wingo tells the story of the first black student in his high school in South Carolina and how the young man didn’t exactly receive a warm welcome.  Tom’s sister, Savannah, was the one who broke ranks and sat beside the new student, causing a ruckus.  All of a sudden, she was seen as a traitor.  The same thing happened to the “Toad” in South of Broad. Doing right doesn’t always make us popular.

What happens to Saul is not unusual; the human tendency is to challenge anyone who questions the status quo.  Yet, Saul is called by his Savior to share a message and, as long as he has breath, he isn’t going to let anything stop him from fulfilling his mission.  Even later in his life, when he’s in chains, he’s still praising the Lord![7]

In our passage today, we find Saul saved from a plot to kill him by being lowered down from a window in the city’s wall. Those who are trying to get to him are watching the gates, so the faithful in Damascus come up with this nifty plan to safely allow Saul to escape and head back to Jerusalem.  It’s a story we’ve heard before, for the spies sent into Jericho were saved by Rahab by fleeing through a window and down the walls of that city.[8]

Of course, Saul comes to Jerusalem and isn’t exactly received with open arms.  The Christians there remember how he was so gun-ho to have them all arrested and, for good reason, don’t trust Saul.  They’re wondering if this is a trick to betray them.  As in Damascus, an individual steps forward and takes a chance on Saul.  In Damascus, it was Ananias, whom God spoke to in a dream.  Now it’s Barnabas, who befriends Saul.  Ananias and Barnabas play a role in seeing to it that Jesus’ plan for Saul to become a great missionary is carried out.  God works through normal and ordinary people, like you and me.  We never know when God might use us to encourage or support the next Saul.

Of course, it isn’t just the Christians in Jerusalem that are fearful of Saul.  The Jews in city are now looking at Saul, as those in Damascus did, as a traitor.  We’re also told that the Hellenists are having problems with Saul.  Hellenists are Greek speaking Jews, a group that Saul himself is a member.  They too are trying to get Saul in their gunsights, so the believers in Jerusalem help slip him out of town.  Saul heads to Caesarea, where he takes off in a ship bound for his hometown of Tarsus.  In a couple of chapters, Saul will return to the story.[9]

What do we learn from Saul’s conversion?  Certainly, as I’ve tried to reiterate throughout this message, being rewarded for doing the right thing isn’t always the case.  Had Saul wanted earthly rewards, he should have kept to his original plan, not looked into the bright light, and persecuted the Christians in Damascus.  He’d been lifted up as a hero in Jerusalem, but of course, his term as a hero would have been short lived.  Furthermore, as Jesus reminds, we’re not to save up treasurers for this life.[10]  Are we willing to do what is right regardless of any rewards or punishments we may experience?

A second thing we learn from Saul is that following the crowd is not a good way to decide on one’s direction.  Through his conversion, Saul made many enemies. It takes guts (and in Saul’s case, divine intervention) to stand up against the prevailing attitudes and stand for what is right.   And such stances quite often will cause us harm in the short-run. Many people don’t appreciate those who challenge long-held beliefs and the position held by the majority. But as Saul shows us, what’s important isn’t what he wanted, but what his Lord needed.  He took the unpopular position and suffered for it.  Would we?

A third lesson we should learn is that although it is a risk to stand beside one who is fighting for what is right, it takes folks like Barnabas, who play a minor but important role in the divine plan.  We don’t do it all by ourselves.  Without someone making an assist, there wouldn’t be a superstar.  Sometimes we are required to take a risk and stand up for someone who is going against popular opinion?  Are we willing?

Finally, remember this life of ours is ultimately not about us.  We are followers of Jesus and the most important thing is that our lives reflect his.  The question we need to constantly ask ourselves is “Are we reflecting the face of Jesus?  Amen.

 

©2015

 

[1] Psalm 23.

[2] The one exception are some of the writings in Proverbs, yet other books of wisdom like Job support the idea that rewards are not always given for right behavior.  As Jesus says, it rains on the just and unjust.  (Matthew 5:45).

[3] 1 Kings 19.

[4] Acts 7:54-60.

[5] Quote on Luther from Carter Lindberg, The European Reformation, as quoted by Charles Partee, The Theology of John Calvin (Louisville: Westminster, 2009 ), 91.

[6] http://www.sc.edu/uscpress/microsites/conroy70/schedule.html.

[7] Examples of Paul rejoicing in chains or under guard: Acts 16:16ff, Philippians 1:12ff,

[8] Joshua 2:15

[9] Saul will make a brief appearance at the end of chapter 11 (Acts 11:25).  Beginning in Chapter 13, Saul, who becomes known as Paul, dominates the rest of Acts.

[10] Matthew 6:19-20

The Conversion of Paul, Part 2

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Acts 9:10-19a

August 30, 2015

 

 

The late British New Testament scholar F. F. Bruce declared that “no single event, apart from the Christ-event itself, has proved so determinant for the course of Christian history as the conversion and commissioning of Paul.”[1]  Paul’s dramatic conversion, his missionary activity and his writings, have influenced the church more than any other Apostle and any theologian who came later.   For some reason unbeknownst to his followers, Jesus picked Paul to get the word out to the Gentile world and Paul fulfilled his purpose.  Today, as we continue to work through Acts, we’ll take a second look at Paul’s conversion.  Last week, we looked at Jesus meeting Saul, as he was known then, along the Damascus Road.  Saul had no choice but to follow Christ.  Although his conversion was instant, Saul found he needed the help of others, as we see in this passage.  Likewise, in our walk of discipleship, we need both Jesus and believing friends at our side.

If you remember, Saul is on his way to Damascus.  He’s not far from town when he encounters Jesus in a blinding light.  His companions take him on into Damascus, which is perhaps the oldest continually inhabited city in the world.  Some scholars consider Damascus as a code for a “place of exile.”[2] Obviously, there are those in the city who’d fled persecution and who are in exile, but in another way, we all live in exile during this life.  For Saul, Damascus is just the beginning; he’ll end up taking the message all the way to Rome.

In the book of Acts, it appears that as soon as Saul’s sight is restored, he begins preaching in the synagogues in Damascus.  Luke may have shortened the story a bit, leaving out a part that Paul tells us in Galatians, where he went to the desert of Arabia, after encountering Christ, preparing himself for what was to come.[3]  We get the essential details down, but Paul’s desert journey is also important for it reminds us of the need for preparation to fulfill God’s call.  Also, in our preparation for ministry (whether lay or ordained) we need the help of mentors such as Ananias, who helped Paul.  Read Acts 9:10-19a.

###

 We’re not in this life alone.  We have God and we have one another, and to have a good life and to fulfill our purpose, we need both. There’s not much we can do by ourselves.  As the old saying goes, “no man is an island.”[4]  Think for a minute, this morning, about those people who have encouraged you in your Christian walk.  None of us has taken this walk by ourselves.

camp sign

The entrance to camp

It’s amazing who God sends into our lives to nudge us along the way.  As you know, before seminary I was working for the Boy Scouts and my last position with them was in Hickory, North Carolina.   I got to know two Lutheran pastors who were very involved in the scouting organization.  The first was Reverend Jim Bruce.  At the first camporee our district held, Jim had a heart-attack.  Things were going well at the camporee, with the volunteers in control, so I followed the ambulance to the hospital, called his wife and met her and their daughter, who was about three or four, at the hospital.  I spent time with the two of them in the hospital and when he was out of surgery, the hospital staff did not want the daughter to go in, so I ended up babysitting this girl in the hospital lounge for another hour.  Jim turned out to be fine and the next time we ran into each other, he thanked me for caring for his family and then asked, “Why aren’t you a pastor?”  He had no idea I was struggling with that decision.

A few months later, Reverend Dunn, spent a week as a chaplain at Camp Bud Schiele, where I was the director for the summer.  At the end of the week, after we’d had a lot of theological discussions and even more laughs, he asked me when I was going to answer the call.  Although interested in theology, I had not confided in him that I was pondering seminary which is where, a year and a half later, I found myself.  God sends people in our direction to help us make decisions and to teach us what the Christian life is to be about.

Back in the early 70s, a Catholic Priest and Philosopher, Ivan Illych, issued a challenge to the modern world with a book titled Deschooling Society.[5]  I remember reading the book in the early 80s and thinking, “wow, if this could only be implemented.”  If I’m remembering right (it has been more than 30 years since I read it and somewhere along the way I lend out my copy and it never returned), the thrust of the book is that as one learns, one teaches.  Education becomes the responsibility for everyone—older students in school teach younger ones and so forth.  Actually, this is the way our Christian walk is supposed to work. You experience, you learn and then you share or witness.  We’re all to be students and teachers at the same time.  As we learn and share with one another, we also care and show God’s love.

In our passage for today, we see that even after Saul has had his great conversion experience, he has to depend upon others.  And God, who’d set this whole thing up, made sure that there was someone to help Saul.  It was Ananias, who in a vision was told to go to Saul.  Now, put yourself in Ananias’ shoes.  You’re told to go see this guy who has been talk trash about you, who would like to see you strung up or at least locked up.  Ananias, as would any normal person, objects.   He knows Saul’s plans.  Going to see Saul is a little like crawling into a lion’s cage.  But God convinces Ananias.  When God calls Ananias, he answers with that old response that we find throughout the Bible, “Here I am, Lord.”  And God tells him that Saul is his chosen instrument.[6]  The calling of Saul is God’s decision, so Ananias visits Saul, lays his hands upon him and his sight is restored.  Saul is then baptized and received into the church.  Ananias who had referred to Paul’s evil deeds in verse 13 has a change in heart.  In verse 17, he calls Saul as a “brother.”

There are three points from this passage that I want us to understand.  First of all, God’s ways are not our ways.  Who would have picked Saul for such an assignment?  This guy was out to get the church!  For Ananias to go to him would be like one of us being called on to visit the Great Leader of North Korea or the head of Isis.  For good reasons, Saul was feared by the early Christians.  He was willing to do anything to wipe out this sect that he saw as a black eye on his Jewish faith.  But God’s ways are different from ours; God changes Saul’s heart so that he’s transformed from the persecutor to the persecuted.

Secondly, when God calls someone, God provides so that they have what they need to fulfill their calling.  Walking by faith means that we have to trust God more than ourselves.  When I went into seminary, I didn’t want to become a preacher.  This idea of having something to say each week in front of a congregation was daunting.  I couldn’t do that…  But, over time, God worked on me and by the time I graduated, I had changed. No longer was I feeling called into some kind of administrative position, but to the pulpit.  God will make sure we have the tools we need to do his work, so if you have a feeling that you should share your faith or take a new role within the church, don’t worry too much about your abilities.  Pray and ask God if that’s what you’re supposed to do.  If it is, God will provide you the insight you need to share with others.

By the way, this isn’t just for us as individuals.  When God calls a group of people—a church—to a particular mission or ministry, they have to trust that God will give them what is needed for its completion.  Both churches that I served as pastor of who built a new campus had to step out in faith.  When God leads us to take such a risk, God can bless us beyond our imaginations!  Believe that!  Live it!

And finally, my third point, although salvation is God’s doing, we need other people of faith around us.  The Christian walk isn’t about being the Lone Ranger.  We need teachers and mentors…  We learn from others but we are also teachers and mentors to others.  Jesus calls us into a community of faith, into a church, where we find not only nourishment but also the opportunity to nourish others.  The church isn’t a one way street.  You can’t just come and take and leave.  If you’re going to get the full benefit, if you’re going to live in the kingdom, you have to also be willing to share, to give of yourself through doing jobs like teaching a Bible Study or mentoring students or helping out with the youth, caring for those in need, providing snacks and leadership and a building and grounds…

Today, think about those people in your lives who have made a difference with your walk with Christ.  If you can, if they are still around, thank them for their faithfulness.  They may not even remember, even so, it is good for us to acknowledge the role others have played in our lives.  Unfortunately, after checking with a friend whom I worked with in scouting who went on to become a Lutheran pastor, I learned both Reverends Bruce and Dunn have died.  I can only give thanks to God for their role in my discernment and be available for God to use me in a similar way in the life of another.

Sooner or later, all of us will have a chance to help another.  When that opportunity comes, are we willing to be the Ananias on the spot?  The Christian faith is about learning and sharing and caring all while being led by God.  Through our efforts, God can do some incredible things.  May we all do our part and may God’s blessings flow forth.  Amen.

 

©2015

[1] F. F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1977), 75.

[2] Bruce, 76-78.

[3] Galatians 1:16-17

[4] From a poem by John Donne

[5] Ivan Illych, Deschooling Society, 1971.

[6] William H. Willimon, Acts (1988, Louisville: WJKP, 2010), 76.

The Conversion of Paul (Part 1)

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church 

Acts 9:1-9

August 23, 2015

 

As we continue working through the first half of Acts, we come to a pivotal point, the conversion of Saul, who became Paul, the greatest missionary of our faith. Things have been building up to this point, as we’ve seen Saul supporting the crowd’s murder of Stephen and then participating in the persecution of Christians. But Saul does a 180, going from persecuting Christians to being persecuted!  But this isn’t Saul’s decision; God through Jesus Christ has the starring role in this drama.  Read Acts 9:1-9

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It’s late summer and the pennant race is on.  The Central Division of both leagues is where all the action is at and at times over the past couple weeks, the top three teams of that division in the National League, (the Cardinals, Pirates and Cubs) would been in first place if they were in any other division of their league!  Thinking about baseball, let me share with you the top ten reasons for quitting baseball which I shared in my e-newsletter this past week.  For those of you who missed them, here they are:

  1. Every time I went to the ball park, they asked for money
  2. The people I sat next to didn’t seem friendly
  3. The seats were hard and uncomfortable
  4. The coach never called on me
  5. The game went into extra innings and I was late getting home
  6. The umpire made decisions I didn’t agree with
  7. The organist played numbers I’d never heard before and it wasn’t my type of music
  8. I suspect that I was sitting next to hypocrites. They came to see their friends and talked throughout the nine innings
  9. I was taken to too many games when I was growing up
  10. It seems they scheduled the games when I always wanted to do other things

 

If the Cubs or Pirates go on to win the World Series, some people might take it as a sign from God…  Joking aside, many people think they need a sign from God before they believe or act on what God wants them to do, but why?  The really obvious signs from God, even in Scripture, are few and far between.  Not many of us have the opportunity Saul to see his Lord, face to face.  The signs we get from God are more subtle (often they are more visible to those around us rather than to us, which is why having friends in the faith is important).  I don’t know why Saul was so lucky to have such an unmistakable sign, maybe it was because he had such a hard head and this was the only way for Jesus to get his attention.

Let’s consider the life of Saul for a moment.  He has it all planned out.  He’s a man destined to do great things, having studied under a top rabbi in Jerusalem.  It’s like having a Harvard education.  Not only does he keep the law, he’s a captain for his local neighborhood watch association.  With a top-rate education and a squeaky-clean record; he’s set to go far.  So when a group of intruders, known as the Way, began to create a disturbance within Judaism, Saul steps up to protect his childhood faith.  Paul doesn’t say he’s going to arrest Christians…  The earliest name for the church was “The Way.”  Jesus’ early followers didn’t have any buildings or anything else to tack a name onto.  They were on the “way,” down the path of the Master.

From what we learn in Acts, there appears to have been an intense effort by Jewish leaders to rid Judaism of this heretical sect.  Since the Roman conquerors gave Jewish leaders the responsibility of maintaining order within their faith, they used their power to squash “The Way.”  Things got hot for Christians in Jerusalem, so many of Jesus’ followers fled.  Since the High Priest had authority over Jews in other territories, Saul was able to receive a letter granting him the right to arrest those Jewish Christians in Damascus.  Saul was like Dog, the bounty hunter guy on the old cable TV program, except that he didn’t have as much ink as that was prohibited in Jewish law.[1]  As a bounty-hunter, he planned to round up the followers of The Way, chain them all together (even the women, we’re told) and drag them back to Jerusalem for trial.

It’s interesting that Saul was going after men and women.  Generally, in first century Palestine, and especially within the religious debates of the day, women didn’t matter much.  The fact that Luke, the author of Acts, notes that Paul was out to arrest both sexes’ shows the power and prestige women had in the early church.[2]  We know women were helping finance Jesus’ ministry.[3]  Women were there at the crucifixion, they were the ones that stuck around when most of the disciples had fled.[4]  They were present at the open tomb and at many of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances.[5]  They were there in the Upper Room at the coming of the Spirit on Pentecost.[6]   Some of the women who had fled to Damascus may have been following Jesus since Galilee.   I know some think Paul hated women.  I don’t think that’s the case, but even if this was so, that’s not why he’s after them. Saul knows that women are some of Jesus’ most effective evangelists[7] and as a pious Jew; he feels they need to be stopped with the same force applied to the men who are following Jesus.

As I’ve tried to make it clear earlier, Saul has it all worked out.    He’s going to make a name for himself while strengthening the Jewish faith by removing heretics.  He’s out to purify the faith.  He’s a zealot!  He has a marvelous plan, but the best laid plans are often thwarted by God.

For a moment, put yourselves in Saul’s shoes.  You set out to persecute the followers of Jesus and then meet Jesus, face-to-face.  This guy whom everyone knew was dead (after all, he’d been hung on a cross), and there he is in a blinding light, speaking to you…  Yeah, there’d been talk about Jesus coming back to life, but from Saul’s and the High Priests’ perspectives, such talk was only from those deluded enough to have followed Jesus in the first place.  Such idle talk was easily dismissed.  Jesus is gone, Saul thought.  It’s pretty safe to say some nasty things about someone no longer here…  Like Dog the bounty-hunter, we can imagine the trash talk Saul did as he makes his way to Damascus.

Ever been in such a situation?  Doing something dumb like talking about the bully in your class…  Going on about how you’re going to whip him, only to discover he’s listening in on your conversation? This is kind of what happened to Saul.  Except that Jesus is no classroom bully; he’s the Lord of the Universe. Surprisingly, Jesus isn’t mad at Saul, just disappointed.

Jesus does the seemingly impossible.  Instead of pounding Paul’s head into the pavement for mistreating his followers, he converts him.  Jesus isn’t out for revenge; he wants to change people, to soften hearts.  For a hard-headed man like Saul, Jesus allows him no way out.  Saul has no choice but to accept Jesus and to dedicate the rest of his life to spreading the good news.

Saul goes from being a persecutor of the faith to one who is persecuted for the faith.  He goes from being one of the feared enemies of the early church to its all-time greatest missionary.

There are a few things I’d like us to understand about Saul and his conversion experience.  First of all, Saul’s experience is unique.  If we’re expecting to see Christ in a blinding light or, like Moses, to encounter God in a burning bush, I’m afraid we’ll be disappointed.  I won’t rule it out, but such events seem to be few and far between.  Although I’ve known a few who have had extraordinary experiences, most of us will come to know Christ in more ordinary ways.  Most often, God works through very common events and uses very ordinary people, like you and me, to share his message.  I suppose Saul was just too hardheaded and would not have been open to the message of Jesus without some miraculous encounter.  But most conversions do not take place in a flash.  Most conversions occur because people are humbled to know what God has done for them.  Most conversions occur (to use one of Paul’s later analogies) because God planted a seed through one witness and someone later came along and watered it.[8]

The second point I want to make is that Saul’s conversion resulted in a great deal of humility in a very proud man.  From what we know about Saul’s life before conversion, he had a big head.  He’d studied law in the Ivy League of the day and kept the law to the letter.  He fasted; he sacrificed; he gave alms to the poor.  If anyone is going to get into heaven by earthly deeds, Saul’s the one.  But after meeting Jesus, Saul realizes the futility of his efforts and, from then on, credits everything he does to Jesus Christ.[9]  His pride is tempered.

We need to use Saul as a model for our lives.  We need to be as humble as the converted Saul.  We need to realize we are in need of a Savior, that we can’t save ourselves, and that we have a Savior in Jesus Christ.

Another point about conversions that I’d like for us to understand, which we see in Saul’s story, is that conversion does not mean that we’re made-over in the ways we often think of it.  Being born-again is a metaphor; when God created us, he gave us what we needed.  Conversion, or transformation, involves us accepting who God made us to be and using what God has given us to fulfill our purpose in the world.[10]  Saul’s conversion didn’t make him smarter or stronger or take away his ailments…  Paul talks about that “thorn-in-his-side.”[11]  I’m sure he’d like God to have taken away that thorn, whatever ailment it was, but God didn’t.  And it’s like that with us; God doesn’t completely clean the slate, we still have a past, but we are rerouted to a more promising future.

For a final point that I’d like to make, I want us to reconsider the reasons I listed at the beginning of the sermon for quitting baseball.  I’m sure you understood it was a parody of the many reasons people give for not attending church.  Unfortunately, too many people see worship as entertainment, which is what makes the joke both funny and sad.  For if entertainment is what people expect at church or in worship, they’ve missed the point.  The story of Saul’s conversion speaks to this.  Paul, the Latin name for Saul, the name that he’s best known as, didn’t establish churches all over Asia-minor and Europe because it was fun.  It wasn’t fun; he was hounded and imprisoned and beaten.[12]  Paul’s preaching must not have been too great as we know people fell asleep in his sermons (as some of you may do in mine).[13]  Paul did his missionary work because he was committed to his Savior.  He knew the truth was in Jesus Christ and wanted to share Jesus’ message with others.

Don’t go out this week looking for Jesus to appear to you in a sunburst of blinding light.  Go out and look for Jesus in the ordinary.  And if you experience Jesus, don’t think of yourself as special.  Be humble, like Paul, for it means that the burden of being your own savior is lifted.  Don’t think Jesus is going to completely remake you, like you see happening to a house one of those reality TV programs.  Jesus loves you just as you are.  He may not like all you do, but he loves you.  Just be open for Jesus to meet you where you are and then for him to use you for his purposes.  Remember it’s not about us, it’s about him.  Amen.

 

©2015

[1] Leviticus 19:28

[2] N. T. Wright, Surprised by Scripture (HarperCollins, 2014), 71.

[3] Luke 8:1-3

[4] Matthew 27:55, Mark 15:40, Luke 23:27 and 23:29; John 19:25-27

[5] Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1, Luke 24:5, John 20:1

[6] Acts 1:14

[7] As for a woman who was a most successful evangelist, see the woman at the well in John 4

[8] 1 Corinthians 3:5-9

[9] 1 Corinthians 2:2

[10] For more on this, see John Ortberg, The Me I Want to Be: Becoming God’s Best Version of You (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010).

[11] 2 Corinthians 12:7

[12] As an example, see Acts 16:16-24

[13] Acts 20:9

“Beam me up, Scotty”

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

August 16, 2015

Acts 8:26-40

 

star trek         I grew up on the first generation of Star Trek, which seems a bit dated now.  The special effects were somewhat cheesy, but back in the day, it was exciting to see the crew “transponded” down onto an unexplored planet or, when things got out of hand, back up to the safety of the Enterprise as it continued to go where no one had gone before.  “Beam me up, Scotty,” was a well-used line.  Scotty was the engineer who operated the transponder and was responsible for those who were being sent out on a mission.  Those being sent seemed to “atomize” before our eyes as they disappeared and then reappeared somewhere else.

What does this have to do with our text for today, you’re probably wondering.  Last week, as you may remember, Philip was preaching in Samaria.  The gospel, Jesus told the disciples before his ascension, was to be shared in Jerusalem, then Samaria, then to the ends of the earth.  Last week, it was Samaria.  Today, as we continue our exploration of Acts, we see Philip being moved around by God’s Spirit, as Scotty might have deployed those off the Enterprise.  First, he’s on the road south, heading toward the wilderness and on to Egypt and the not-yet-fully-discovered continent of Africa.  After that mission, he’s up north, heading toward Caesarea… In all of this, the gospel is spreading to a far corner of the world.  This passage is the first of a series of conversions that result in fulfilling what Jesus called them to do. Of course, that mandate to take the gospel to the ends of the world still applies to us.  Read Acts 8:26-40

###

 

Jesus came to save sinners.  We often hear these words of Paul from 1st Timothy echoed in our Assurance of Pardon after confessing our sins.[1]  Jesus came to save sinners. Our passage this morning emphasizes this role of our Savior.  Here, the good news is experienced by someone first century Judaism would have considered beyond redemption. Worse even than a sinner, he was a foreigner to be avoided and a eunuch who, like a leper, was considered unclean.

Now we don’t know if this Ethiopian eunuch was a bad guy, and the evidence we have within the text suggests that he wasn’t for he was seeking God.  He’d made a long trek up the Nile and across the wilderness to worship, to seek truth.  Only those who have a desire for God would have gone on such a pilgrimage.  Of course, being good and bad has nothing to do with our need for God in our lives.  We all need God which is why Jesus came.

It is interesting that this Ethiopian eunuch would have gone to Jerusalem to worship.  As a eunuch, he was in the service of a queen, and may have had some official business in Jerusalem, but we don’t know.  Several of you have asked me if I had been watching the NBC TV program, “AD” which portrays the development of the early church with a lot of details filled in.  I saw one episode, which happened to be the one in which the Ethiopian was driven out of Jerusalem, at the threat of death, because the Romans feared an Ethiopian/Zionist alliance.  As he leaves Jerusalem, traveling through Gaza, the wheel comes off his chariot and Philip happens along the way and not only does he interpret Isaiah for the Ethiopian, he repairs his chariot.[2]  Of course, they’re trying to make a story that plays better on the big screen by providing a few additional details.  According to the text, we’re just told that the Ethiopian was in Jerusalem to worship—all the rest of the story as told by NBC was made-up.

I find it interesting that the Ethiopian went to Jerusalem to worship.  Was he a proselyte?  Or, was he what at the time was known as a “God-fearer,” one who studied the Hebrew Scriptures but was not yet circumcised, a rite that would have been impossible for this man.[3]  Many of the commentators on this passage play down the man as a eunuch, stressing instead his official positions.  He was an important man. After all, he had a chariot (Israel wasn’t filled with ‘two-chariot homes” in those days).  He also had the ability to travel far away and as an African, he would have been seen as someone exotic.  Finally, he held a responsible position, the Queen’s treasurer.  That said, the fact he was a eunuch would have kept him from becoming a proselyte to the Jewish faith and would have barred from ever entering the temple.  But in this encounter with Philip, he finds acceptance.  Whatever happened during his time in Jerusalem, he now understands the gospel.  Interestingly, he came to Jerusalem to worship, but didn’t discover God by himself.  It’s on his way home that God finds him.  Ultimately, our conversion into the faith is grounded not in our search for the truth, but God searching us out and using other believers to help us understand.   Remember what I’ve said all along, “Acts of the Apostles” should really be titled “Acts of God through the Apostles.”

Even the Scriptures do not help this man to fully encounter God.  It takes someone else, Philip the Evangelist (although maybe he should be called Philip the Runner as we can imagine him sprinting alongside the chariot, talking about what Isaiah meant).  Philip, at the Spirit’s request, heads down the Gaza road.  Philip, who’s preaching has been very effective in Samaria, leaves a place where good fruit is being harvested in order to go into a wilderness area with no one around.  Often, God’s ways seems strange for us humans.

The New Revised Standard version says he was sent south to the Gaza, but a footnote suggests this can also be translated as “at noon” he goes to the Gaza…”  Who, in their right mind, would set out on a journey in a barren waterless land at noon?   It would be unbearably hot.  Furthermore, he’s sent to run alongside the Ethiopian’s chariot.  This isn’t Philip’s idea.  God has called him to this task.[4]

As Philip hears the man read Isaiah, he asks him about it and is invited up into the chariot, where an out-of-breath Philip lays out what God is doing through Jesus Christ.  The next miraculous event is that they happen along a pool or water—something that isn’t common in the Gaza—and the Ethiopian asks to be baptized.  Philip baptizes him and when the Ethiopian comes up from the water, Philip disappears just as Spock and Captain Kirk would disappear from a distant planet, leaving behind the inhabitants to wonder.  But the Ethiopian isn’t worried, he’s happy.  He understands and he goes on his way, praising God.  Perhaps, but don’t know for sure,  he was the one who took  the gospel south of Egypt for we know that early in Christian history, the gospel flourished there and there is still a strong Coptic Church in Ethiopia to this day.

What can we take away from this text?  You know, Christians are not made in a vacuum.  One can’t just pick up this book we love (the Bible), and begin to read and experience the fullness of a Christian life.  The Ethiopian was reading it, but couldn’t understand.  Think about how you learned of the faith…  There was someone or mostly likely “someones” who helped you grown in understanding that lead first to your acceptance of Jesus and later to deepen your walk of faith.  It could have been a parent, a Sunday School teacher, youth leader, camp counselor, or friend.  God uses people, believers, to help us understand, to help us interpret and apply the word to our lives.

Let me tell you a story.  Back in the early 1980s, after a painful breakup, I went through a period where I stay away from church for a while.  I was working for the Boy Scouts at the time and one day, I received a call from Bob Eplee (one of the district scout leaders).  He said he and Junebug (another leader) wanted to talk to me.  I assumed it was about scouting and met them for breakfast one morning with my notebook in hand.  They told me to put it away and said, “We’re not here for that.  We think it’s time for you to come back to church.”  In a way, I believe, they were sent by God and pulled me back in.

We have all had people in our lives that have shown us how to live as a follower of Jesus.  For such people, we should be thankful and we should remember that we, too, need to be attuned to what the Spirit is telling us.  With that thought, let me give you an assignment:  Who is it that we might be called to reach out to and to help them in their walk of faith?  Consider those who may have strayed and need an encouraging word and an invitation to come back.  Think about those who are struggling and need a hopeful word.  Ponder those you know who are seeking meaning in their lives.  Make a list of such people, write them down, pray about them, and see if God’s Spirit doesn’t open up a way for you to reach out, offering a helpful word or an encouraging comment.

God’s Spirit worked through Philip to bring the Gospel to the Ethiopian.  God’s Spirit worked through Bob and Junebug to remind me what I was missing.  God’s Spirit is still working in our world…  Are we listening?  Amen.

[1] 1 Timothy 1:15.

[2] For a summary of this episode, see:  http://www.nbc.com/ad-the-bible-continues/episode-guide/season-1/rise-up/111/2388571

[3] See Deuteronomy 23:1

[4] See Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Acts (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 141-142; and William H. Willimon, Acts (1983: Lousiville: Westminister/JKP, 2010), 71-72.

Somethings money can’t buy…

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church 

Acts 8:3-24

August 9, 2015

 

 

Last Sunday, we explored the passage of Stephen’s martyrdom.  The blood of martyrs often fertilize the soil for church grown and as disturbing as reports of Christians martyrs—in Syria and Iraq, in Egypt and Iran, among other places—we should pray their lives are not given in vain.  May God will use their witness to soften the hearts of those who persecute and, thereby, led them into an encounter with the risen Jesus Christ.

If you remember, Stephen was the first listed in the group of seven men chosen to help the Apostles… The aftermath of Stephen’s death is that many Christians fled Jerusalem, concerned for their lives.  But they couldn’t help but to tell others along the way about Jesus and pretty soon the church was spreading around the world.  Stephen’s death led to the growth of the church.

Today, we’re looking at the second individual in that list of those assigned the task of helping the Apostles.   Philip was listed right after Stephen.  He’s in Samaria and has an interesting and somewhat funny encounter there.  Read Acts 8:4-24:

###

 

 

I know I’ve told some of you about this… One of the strangest phone calls I’ve had as a pastor—and I’ve had plenty of them—came a month or two into my ministry in Utah.  It was a Monday morning and the call was from a woman who’d visited our church twice.  She introduced herself and I vaguely remembered having spoken to her and her husband the day before.  Then she asked: “How much would it cost for us to join your church?”  I was a bit taken aback by this question and tried to explain that there was no cost, that people are to give freely from there hearts.  I went on to say that I’d love to sit down and talk to her and her husband about joining and asked her if she was a member of another church.  She wasn’t.  So I said she’d have to join by making a profession of faith and, if she had not been baptized, I’d be glad to talk to her about baptism.  There was quietness on the other end of the phone… “Oh,” she finally said, “I don’t want to convert.  I just want to join your church.”  At this point, my head was spinning.

It turns out she was Jewish.  They were fairly new in the community, having moved from California.  As often happened, as soon as they moved into the community, their Mormon neighbors started hounding them.  At this time, about 95% of the population was Mormon, so there were plenty of folks to do the hounding.  The couple decided they needed to find a place to attend church, as a way to get their neighbors off their back.  The closest synagogue then, was in Las Vegas, 175 miles away, so they decided to give us a try.  They felt comfortable in our fellowship and wanted to be a part of it, but were not ready to convert.   She never did convert, although she regularly attended and participated in the fellowship till she moved out-of-state.  We were blessed with her presence and hopefully she was, too.  You never know when seeds planted will bear fruit which is why we, as a fellowship, should always extend hospitality.

By the way, when I told this story to the Session of the Church in Utah, one of the more business-oriented Elders told me that I should have answered her question about cost with the amount of the deficit we were forecasting for the budget that year…  He was joking, I think.

“There are some things money can’t buy,” as MasterCard frequently reminds us in their very successful commercial.  Of course, they want us to lock in on the second part of their mantra, “for everything else there’s MasterCard,” but we’re not going there.  We know, by experience, there are things not for sale, regardless of how much money we might bring to the table. Good health is one of them.  Certainly, if we have enough money, we can hedge our bets by having the best doctors and eating healthy, but there are times it’s not enough.  When it comes to the end, our lives are not in our hands, but in God’s.  Another thing we can’t buy is love; we can try by paying another person to love us, but there’s a word for such a transaction and we won’t find love.   As we learn from the Songs of Solomon, attempting to buy love is foolishness and should be scorned.[1]  Likewise, we can’t buy grace nor can we buy spiritual gifts.  Such gifts are freely given by a benevolent God.  Certainly, we can invest in such gifts with our time and effort and the gifts may become stronger, but the gifts themselves must be given.  Grace allows us to accept in faith God’s forgiveness; spiritual gifts allow us to respond to grace in a way that helps do God’s work in the world.

Simon, we’re told, was a magician.  Think of him as the Wizard of Oz, behind a curtain or screen, pulling levers and astonishing people.  The crowds are amazed with his tricks; he develops quite a following.  Simon doesn’t seem to have demonic powers, like the slave girl whom Paul and Silas encountered in Philippi.[2]  With Simon, we don’t have such indication.  The girl in Philippi recognized who’d sent Paul, and as demon’s do, was filled with fear and trembling.[3]  Instead, Simon’s abilities appear limited to the more traditional magic skills which essentially pulls the wool over his audience’s eyes, dazzling folks with his abilities and giving them a good show for their money.[4]

Simon must have been good at his craft as people referred to him as having the power of God and called him Great, but one day, that changed.  Philip showed up in Samaria, preaching about Jesus.  Many people believed; even Simon believed and was baptized.  Simon recognized that someone else was better at magic than he, or so he thinks.  Then Peter and John come down to Samaria and they pray and lay hands on those in Samaria who’d been baptized and there is a Pentecost event as the Samarians are filled with the Holy Spirit.  Seeing this, Simon decides he wants such power and approaches the Peter and John with his wallet out, offering to buy their power.  Simon wants to be able to do, on demand, what Peter and John have done.[5]  Only they didn’t do anything, it was God working through them.  Simon may have gotten into his racket by paying another magician to teach him the magic arts, so he hopes he can convince the Apostles to do the same.  He’ll pay them some money, they’ll teach him their tricks, and he’ll go on the road and make more money.

Simon may be a little surprised at the harshness of Peter’s words, who essentially tell him that he and his money can go to hell.  It’s interesting that Peter—who, if you remember was rebuked harshly by Jesus when he told the disciple, “Get behind me, Satan”—is the one who rebukes Simon.  But the rebuke seems to work, for Simon is now scared of what he’s done and asks that the Apostles pray for him.  Hopefully, Simon’s desire for repentance has more to do with his quest for the truth than in receiving a get-out-of-jail free card.

Scripture leaves us hanging, without knowing what happened to Simon.   Did he truly repent?  Did he receive the gifts and was he able to use them for God’s glory or did he go back to his old ways?  We don’t know.[6]

There are two things wrong with Simon’s request.  First of all, as I’ve talked about already, God’s gifts are not for sale.  From our point of view, it doesn’t make sense that one could even think they are for sale.  After all, as the Psalmist proclaims, “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.”[7] Given that, to think that we could buy God’s favor is the height of arrogance, for what do we have that God needs for which he doesn’t already hold title?

But there is another problem with Simon’s request that’s even more problematic and that’s the reason behind it.  Simon, I believe, was looking for another trick for his magic show.  He wanted a new way to bring in the dough, to sell himself to the crowds.  Not only was he mistaken to think we can buy such powers, his desire to use them for self-promotion is also wrong.  Using what God gives us to build up the kingdom for personal gain or profit is at best poor stewardship, or at worst diabolical behavior.

Now, let me ask a question.  Are there ways in which we act like Simon?  Do we ever think that by giving to the church or through our good works and deeds that we are earning God’s favor?  If so, we’re like Simon.  Yes, we’re to support the mission and ministry of the church, but not out of an “I’ll scratch your back, God, if you scratch mine” mentality.  We’re to respond to God’s grace, which comes before any of our actions, out of a thankfulness for a grace-filled God.  We can’t buy God’s favor!  Another question:  Do we ever seek church positions or even church fellowship because of its prestige or because it might help us in our businesses or in other endeavors?  I know it happens and we can hope that some good comes out of people joining for the wrong reasons and hopefully they do get their motives right.

I don’t know if it’s true and it may be just a fanciful tale, but I’ve heard this story several times but never seen it officially cited.  When Dwight Eisenhower was getting ready to run for the Presidency, it was suggested he join a church.  Although he considered himself a believer, in his years of running around the world leading armies, he’d never joined a Christian fellowship.  If I remember correctly, he also had to decide on a political party…  As for a church, his advisors suggested he join either an Episcopal or a Presbyterian Church.  Checking them both out, he chose us, according to the tale, because he didn’t have to kneel.  If the story is true, it’s certainly not the right reason to join a church.  That said, Eisenhower did become a faithful member of the Presbyterian Church and in his latter years was very active with the congregation in Palm Springs, California.  Sometimes God uses strange ways to get our attention, to bring us to the gospel.  That’s what may have happened with Ike and with the woman in Utah and maybe even Simon.

Simon’s story reminds us to get our hearts right with God.   We can’t buy God’s gifts and we’re to use such gifts for God’s purposes, not our own.  We’re to seek to align ourselves with God and with his mission in the world, not to appropriate God for our own wants and desires.  In all that we do, may God be glorified.  Amen.

©2015

[1] Song of Solomon 8:7

[2] Acts 16:16-24.

[3] James 2:9

[4] See Bob Deffinbaugh, “Simon and Simon (Acts 8:1-25) on Bible.org

[5] F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts: The new International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 183.

[6] There has been much speculation as to what happened to him.  In several of the Apocryphal books that didn’t make it into scripture we get a more fuller account of him, but ones that don’t fit the account in Acts and we written much later than Acts.  See Johannes Munck, Acts of the Apostles: The Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967), 74.

[7] Psalm 24:1

An Altar in the World (book review)

Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (New York: Harper Collins, 2009), 216 pages.

 

Where do we encounter the divine? Have we created a false dichotomy, partitioning God off into a corner, away from our daily lives? Do we try to contain God in a building or to a day of the week in order to keep God private and separated from our lives? In An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us that just because we categorize things into the sacred and secular, God doesn’t. God created the world good and thereby we can encounter the divine anywhere, especially in the ordinary. “Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars,” she proclaims (15). This book is sprinkled with examples of how we might wake up to the divine. Taylor looks at things we do every day: waking up, walking around, getting lost, encountering others, going to work, saying yes and no, experiencing pain, and finally to being present to God in prayer.

Barbara Brown Taylor is an Episcopal priest. For twenty years she served in the parish and for the past two decades taught at Piedmont College in north Georgia. Although she writes out of her Christian convictions, Taylor draws from theologians, those in the pews, as well as from other traditions: Jewish, Buddhist and Muslim. She writes this book for both those inside the church who need to see God’s presence in all of life as well as those who are outside the church, but who seek to be spiritual and need to see the blessings of experiencing the divine in other people. I recommend this book to both the religious and those who think of themselves as irreligious!  Where will we encounter the divine?

Here are a few of my favorite quotes:
“Do we build God a house so that we can choose when to go see God? Do we build God a house in lieu of having God stay at ours?” (9)

“I am a guest here, charged with serving other guests-even those who present themselves as my enemies.” (13)

The practice of paying attention is as simple as looking twice at people and things you might just as easily ignore.” (33)

“Deep suffering makes theologians of us all.” (42)

“’Solviture Ambulando,’ wrote Augustine of Hippo…. It is solved by walking.” (61)

“The Desert Fathers, a group of early Christians whose practice of community did not include a coffee hour… the deeper reason they needed one another was to save them from the temptation of believing in their own self-sufficiency.” (88, 90)

“Sometimes that is all another person needs to know that she has been seen…” (95)

“The point is to find something that feeds your sense of purpose and to be willing to look low for that purpose as well as high” (120)

“‘God is not found in the soul by adding anything but by subtracting.’ -Meister Eckhart” (121)

“No one who is not in pain is allowed to give advice to someone who is. The only reliable wisdom about pain comes from the mouth of those who suffer it.” (169)

“Anyone who recognizes the sacramental value of a homegrown tomato sandwich can be my spiritual director.” (178)

“To say I love God but I do not pray much is like saying I love life but I do not breathe much.”” (176)

“I think it is a big mistake to perpetuate the illusion that only certain people can bless things.” (193)

The Church as a sailboat

This is my thoughts on Sailboat Church: Helping Your Church Rethink Its Mission and Practice by Joan Gray  (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2014).

sailboat chruchIn Sailboat Church, Joan Gray uses a sailboat as a metaphor for what a Spirit-filled Church should be.  When the winds fill the sails, the boat moves forward across the water gracefully.  Of course, there are those times in which we have to wait for the wind, just as we have to wait for God.  But we’re called to a life of faithfulness and trust, not just to mark off so many miles.  While in the doldrums, the crew of a sailboat prepares itself as it looks for evidence of wind across the waters.  And when the wind rises, the boat will move much faster than a rowboat, Gray’s other metaphor for churches.  The sailboat church depends on God’s Spirit, the rowboat church depends on the hard work of the members who often burn out from the toil.  Gray mentions another kind of boat, the luxury yacht that seldom leaves the dock, but she doesn’t focus on such boats, concentrating instead on the sailboat and rowboat metaphors.  As she notes, just as a boat is designed to move across the waters, a church is designed to move forward and be involved in God’s mission, not to be a haven for parties while moored.  As Christians, we are called to sail.  This requires us to take a risk and to depend on the wind, which in ancient languages happens to have the same root meaning as “Spirit.”

I picked up this book because I had my own thoughts of using sailing as a metaphor for church life. Having served as a pastor for over a quarter-century, I have, too often, experienced frustration at the institution and felt as if the church was an ocean liner with a broken rudder and I was on the stern with a canoe paddle trying to direct its course.  I’m sure Gray would call me out for such “rowboat mentality” and she would have a point.   As I began to sail more regularly, I have pondered the relationship between sailing and the church.  I picked up Gray’s book, thinking that she might have also been thinking the same thoughts, but that’s not exactly the case.  Gray doesn’t go into the technical details of sailing; instead she focuses on the church and compares it to a sailboat or a rowboat.

In sailing, as in the church, there are often forces opposing the direction in which you hope to go.  In the church, this may be the values of the larger society, but in sailing it is wind and/or current.  It is impossible to sail directly into the wind and as it is nearly impossible to move a congregation directly into the headwinds of the culture in which a church exists.  But in sailing, one can move forward, against the wind, through a series of tacks.  In fact, the boat is designed to move even faster upwind, as it sails at “close-haul” (at an angle just off the wind).  Here, the wind sweeps through the canvas, giving the boat lift.  As the sails tighten, the boat heels to leeward (leaning in the wind) but is held upright by the counter force of the keel, allowing the energy of the wind to be harnessed as the boat is lifted forward across the water.   Because of the dynamics involved, a boat can sail faster in this manner than if it was sailing downwind.

Of course, if the direction you want to go is a runningdead into the wind, a close-haul course won’t take you there.  To move in a direction upwind, the crew has to perform a series of tacks, in which the boat zigzags upwind.  The sailor at the helm begins by announcing his intentions, “Prepare to tack.”  The crew responds by taking hold of the sheets (or lines that control the sails) in order to be ready to quickly release them.  When all are ready, the sailor at the helm shouts, “Tacking” or “Ready-about,” to alert the crew followed by “hard-a-lee” as the tiller is pulled downwind, which turns the boat into the wind.  As he does this, the crew releases the sheets on the jib and brings them in on the opposite side.  Once this turn is complete, the boat is sailing on the opposite tack or side of the wind.   A series of such turns allows a boat to make its way upwind.

There are several lessons from tacking that also apply to leading a church through change.  First of all, everyone has to have a clear understanding of the goal, the direction into which they are ultimately heading.  If some want to jibe the boat around and head downwind, while others want to go off to the right or left on a reach, the crew actions may resemble a comedy of errors or worse.  There needs to be an understanding in which direction the boat is heading.  Communication is important.  Even if everyone agrees on the overall goal, they need to know what is happening and when.  The “directions” need to be clearly given, otherwise people will be confused and may do things that keep the organization from making a clean tack.

There are other times the tack is not as clean as you’d hoped.  Perhaps someone misunderstood a command, a sheet or line became tangled and was hard to release, the wind shifted as you were making the tack, or the sailor at the helm tried to make a smaller adjustment with the tiller instead of the significant commitment required in a tack.  A tack requires the boat to make an approximate 80-90 degree change of course, but in a world where people don’t like change, it is tempting to only make a small adjustment.  The result of such actions is that the boat goes “into irons,” in other words the boat is pointed directly into the wind and unable to make headway.  At this point, the person at the helm has to reverse course and return to the original tack, allowing the boat to obtain enough speed so that the maneuver can be tried again.    Likewise, with a church, sometimes only small corrective steps are taken instead of bold new directions, leaving the church in a position where it isn’t moving forward and where, as with a crew on a boat, people blame everyone and everything else for the problem.  As with the boat, it is important that the blame game stop and corrective steps taken so that forward progress can resume as the sails fill with wind.

Sailing gracefully is an art, as is ministry.  It requires skill, good communication, a common understanding of the objectives, and a willingness to show grace when things don’t go like you plan so that the organization can quickly resume a course toward its goal of sharing Jesus’ love, showing his grace, and making disciples who can come aboard and help sail into a new future.   As congregations, we need to be ready for when God sends us the wind, so we might hoist our sails. It also helps and we should be confident for we serve a Lord who commands even the wind and the sea! (Mark 4:41).

Stephen’s Death

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

August 2, 2015

Acts 6:8-15, 7:51-60

 

Last week, as we learned the Apostles could not do everything by themselves.  Like us, they were human so they began a process to select others to carry part of the load.  They selected seven men who were essentially Deacons, who served the widows of the community. The seven were assigned to see that food was equally distributed to the widows and included Stephen. Today, we learn that Stephen did not restrict his activities to waiting on tables. In addition, he also proclaimed the gospel in a powerful way through signs and wonders.  This caused a group of people to conspire against him.  Up to this point, the opposition against the church seems to have been coming from the Jewish hierarchy who felt their grip on the situation threaten.   Jews, especially Jews who were from different parts of the Empire, having come to Jerusalem to worship, were often drawn into the church.  But we’re going to see here that wasn’t always the case as it appears the opposition to Stephen came from those who lived outside of Israel’s historic boundaries.  This is a long passage and I’m not going to read it all.  Instead, I’ll read the introduction (Acts 6:8-15), then say a little bit about the situation Stephen is in and his defense.  Then I’ll read the ending of the story.

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How do we defend ourselves against a gross miscarriage of justice?  Here, you have a group who trumps up charges against a man who performed some great signs and wonders among the people.  In other words, it’s not just the Apostles who are doing wonders for the gospel.  Stephen joins their ranks, which is threatening to some.  A conspiracy rises up against him and when they find they can’t argue with what’s he’s doing, they conspire to charge him with blasphemy, a crime punishable by death.  The cards are stacked.  I’m sure his angelic face just enrages the crowds even more.  It’s as if he knows what’s going to happen; perhaps he’s seen it before with Jesus, if not he certainly knew what happened.  But he is comforted with Jesus’ presence.  How would we defend yourselves in such a situation?

Stephen could have tried to explain his behavior, but he doesn’t.  He could have recanted his beliefs, but he doesn’t. He could have pleaded guilty by insanity or confusion, but he doesn’t. He could have even begged for his life, but he doesn’t.   Instead of taking the opportunity to defend himself, he uses this occasion to witness to the God who, throughout the centuries, has reached out to the Hebrew people.   When we live in the manner of the gospel, God can use us in powerful ways as witnesses to Jesus Christ.

I did not read Stephen’s defense, which takes up much of chapter 7, but let me tell you some of what he says and encourage you to read it this afternoon.  Stephen refers back to the life of Abraham, telling about how Abram’s faith in God lead him out of Mesopotamia and how, through Abraham great-grandson Joseph, his descendents ended up in Egypt where they eventually became slaves.  Stephen’s epic speech continues with Moses and his difficulty in getting the Hebrew people to listen to him, and on and on again.  He recounts how Israel continues to turn away from God.  Now, let’s understand one thing, Stephen’s speech doesn’t provide any new information—it’s a litany the priests could have recited.  They know the story; it’s the twist that Stephen puts on the end that gets him in hot water.  Stephen links Israel’s past unfaithfulness with their current inability to accept Jesus Christ.  He goes all the way back to how Joseph was mistreated by his brothers, and how Moses was rejected, showing a pattern of how Israel never wanted to hear the messages God was sending.  He also challenges their beliefs concerning the temple, reminding them that God doesn’t need a place to reside, for heaven is God’s throne and the earth is God’s footstool.[1]  Let’s now hear the rest of the story…  I’ll pick up reading at the end of Stephen’s defense.  Read Acts 7:51-8:1a)

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Stephen’s strategy would have caused an attorney to pull out his or her hair.  He ends his defense by going on the offense and accuses his accusers, those with power to judge him, of being a “stiff-necked people.”  “You’ve killed the prophets and now you’ve killed the righteous-one, the Messiah,” he charges in his defense.  The priests don’t want to hear this, nor do the crowd.  In fact, we’re told the crowd ground their teeth at Stephen.  Imagine how this appeared to Stephen, the crowd like rabid dogs with their anger flaring circling in for the kill.  But Stephen calmly looks up and sees a vision of Jesus, the Son of Man, standing at the right hand of God…  As he speaks of his wondrous vision, they refuse to listen and haul him out of the city where he’s stoned.  In contrast to the crowd’s anger, as the stones begin to fly, Stephen appeals, not for mercy for himself, but that Jesus might look merciful upon his tormentors.

Dying while praying for your enemy requires a trust in Almighty God, faith in the righteous work of Jesus Christ, and the presence of the Holy Spirit. Stephen doesn’t fight back.  He looks up to heaven, sees a vision, and is strengthen in his beliefs.  He accepts his fate, trusting in his Lord.  That’s martyrdom—the laying down of one’s life while desiring the best for your oppressors.

There is a problem with this passage, in light of Jesus’ execution.  Why did the priests have to go to the Roman authorities in order to have Jesus sentenced to death? Why is there no recorded involvement of the Romans in Stephen’s stoning?  There are several possible reasons, though we’re really not sure.  One possibility is that Luke, the author of Acts, forgot to include this little detail, not thinking it important.  But this is unlikely, for the Romans tended not to approve on mob actions.  Another suggestion is that this event occurred during the period of time between Pilate’s departure and before his replacement—a time when there were no Roman governors in Palestine.  This also is unlikely for Pilate served in Palestine until 36 A.D., and most scholars think Stephen was stoned before then.

From our text, it appears Stephen’s demise was a spur of the moment action.  With Jesus, there had been a plan to have him killed.  That was also the case with Stephen, but things happened differently.  Jesus, if you remember, stood quietly as the charges were made.  Stephen, on the other hand, gives a testimony that pushes the crowd over the edge and they decide to take things in their own hands and not wait for the Roman’s to act.  If this is the case, the Romans were probably willing to look away and let the crowd silence a perceived troublemaker.[2]

As troubling as it is to think about Stephen’s death, and he’s the first recorded Christian martyr, this passage provides us a wonderful vision of the risen Lord.  Stephen sees Jesus standing to the right of God.  Standing was the posture of a witness—and here you have Jesus standing, witnessing what they are doing to one of his disciples.[3]   I have this image of Jesus standing there, one hand tapping God the Father on the shoulder while the other hand points down at the resulting riot.  Jesus watches and is both horrified and proud of Stephen as he gives his life for the faith.

Stephen’s death provides the catalyst to push believers out of Jerusalem and to allow the gospel to begin its growth in Samaria and to the ends of the earth.  Luke, in telling about Stephen’s death, introduces us to another character who is going to become even more important to the early church, Saul, who’d become known as the Apostle Paul.  The late F. F. Bruce, a British New Testament scholar, suggests that Paul may have been Luke’s source for this story, the one who recalled Stephen’s calm angelic face when he stood facing his accusers and his prayer for forgiveness for his persecutors as the stones rain down.[4]

What can we learn from this passage?  Hopefully none of us are being called to be martyrs, but it does happen.  In one of the lounges at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, over a fireplace, hangs a near life-sized portrait of Don McClure, a former student who was killed in 1977 while serving as a Presbyterian missionaries to Ethiopia.[5]  It hangs as a reminder that gospel work can be dangerous.  We have seen other more recent examples with the killing of Christians by ISIS and other radical Muslin groups.  Should this happen to us, we should have comfort in the knowledge of Jesus’ presence as a witness.  Jesus presence is always with us, to encourage us when things are challenging and as followers of him, we should realize that God can take even horrific events and use them for good.

The story of Stephen’s martyrdom reminds us that we should all be able to comfortably give our testimony, to be able to tell others, including our persecutors and our enemies, what it is that we believe and why.  We need to have confidence in our message.  Our witness may even help open up others to the truth of Jesus Christ.  Like Paul, it might take a while and another intervention from God, but this was the start that set him out on the road to Damascus.

How would you describe what God is doing in the world today through Jesus Christ?  Think about it. Sure, there are a lot of bad things happening.  Do you think God is watching?  Do you think God might be up to something more spectacular?  Trust God, always.  Amen.

 

©2015

[1] Acts 7:49  (Stephen was quoting from Isaiah 66:1)

[2] F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 169-170

[3] Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Acts (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 131.

[4] Bruce, 172.

[5] McClure’s son-in-law and one of my professors at Pittsburgh, Charles Parte, wrote a biography of McClure titled Adventures in Africa (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990).

Sharing the Work Load

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

July 26, 2015

Acts 6:1-7

 

Last week, I was on study leave and stayed at my grandmother’s home in Pinehurst while I read and did planning for the upcoming year.  On Sunday, I attended church at Culdee Presbyterian, the church of my Scottish ancestors.  The preacher, whom I’d not met before, preached from the Prodigal son.  I liked the way he pulled us into the story, saying that some of us use our gifts for the kingdom (like the older son) and others use them selfishly (like the younger son), but sooner or later, like both, we fall into sin and have to depend on the mercy of our gracious Father in heaven.  Something to think about…

After the service, I spent some time wandering around in the cemetery there, where several generations of my kinfolk have been laid to rest.  In pondering that, and while reading a book about funerals, I wrote a blog post for which there will be a link to in my weekly newsletter.  I encourage you to read it and am curious about your own thoughts and experiences on death and grieving.  How we handle the dead, just as how we deal with those who are different from us (as we’re going to see today), says something about our lives in Christ.

Today, we’re back in the book of Acts.  As we’ve gone through this important look at the life of the early church, I hope you understand the tensions felt in the early church are still with us.  There were times the church’s fellowship was described as idyllic and other times, they struggle.  We’ve seen that there were days when the church grew exponentially and others when people were reluctant to join.  There were periods of peace and then there were periods of persecution.  There were times when people did what was expected and times when people sinned and threatened the foundation of the church.  There were times when things went smoothly and times they had to overcome great obstacles.  Today, there is another obstacle, from within, that threatens the life of the early church.  Let’s see what it is and how the Apostles handled the challenge.  Read Acts 6:1-7

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I am sure that you know this:  “How do you eat an elephant?”   (One bite at a time.)

Certainly it would take us a while to consume an elephant but haven’t we all been involved in something akin to that, in which the task before us seemed overwhelming?   The task of building the church and spreading it through the world was enough to overwhelm anyone, including the Apostles.  Where do you start?  Of course, it is impossible and as I’ve said a number of times, “Acts of the Apostles” really should have been titled, “Acts of God through the Apostles.”  As humans, we’re are finite, we have our limitations, but when God works through us and we use the talents given to us, amazing things can happen. We need to believe this!

In our reading today we see how a simple thing threatens to pull the early church apart.  Variations of this situation still plague the church 2000 years later.  One group within the community feels that another group is receiving favorable treatment or that they are being slighted.  As a pastor, I’ve been where the Apostles are at many times.  One group feels you spend too much time with another and are ignoring them…  You feel torn apart.   One of the issues the church always has to deal with is that ultimately church isn’t about us.  As N. T. Wright says, “[T]he message ought never to be simply about ‘me and my salvation.’  It ought to be about God and God’s kingdom.”[1]  That said, there are real issues here and they need to be addressed.

There have been a lot made about just who the “Hellenists” were.  The church, at this stage, is still in Jerusalem.  It hasn’t yet broken out and begun spreading across the world, so it is unlikely the Hellenist are full-blooded Greeks (as their name implies).  Most likely, they are Jews, but who have lived out of Israel.  We know that after Babylon, you had pockets of Jews all over the Mediterranean world.  Approximately 200 years before Christ, the Hebrew Scriptures (our Old Testament) was translated into Greek so these people would be able to read their Bibles.  So their primary language is Greek, even though they are Jewish, which is why Luke make the distinction between them and the “Hebrews.”  The latter would have been those who have lived their lives in Israel and spoke, by this point in history, Aramaic.[2]

There seems to be something in human nature that causes us to look out for our own kind and to ignore others.  But Jesus came for everyone so this type of behavior (although common) is especially problematic within the church.  The Greek-speaking Jewish Christians are feeling that the Hebrew or Aramaic-speaking Jewish Christians are not taking the same kind of care for their widows as they are they are their own.  Such feelings can split a congregation apart, so something has to be done to preserve the peace and unity of the fellowship.

In verse two, we see that the 12 Apostles jump right on this issue and call together the whole community.  They say something that I wish Luke would have omitted from this book:  “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables…”  This sounds as if the Apostles think that they are too important and shouldn’t have to wait on tables in order to make sure that everyone gets fed an equally.  Understanding this passage this way goes against Jesus’ example.  As Luke showed in his gospel, Jesus was not above serving others and calls on his followers to become servants.[3]

What appears to be happening here is that the church has grown to where it is beyond the ability of the Apostles to take care of every detail.   They are like Moses, who you may remember, became overwhelmed and had to have help.[4]  It is not that one type of work is more or less important than another, but that they were called to a particular task and others within the fellowship also needs to be helping out.  Membership comes with responsibility and no one within the church should be responsible for everything.  But everyone should be responsible for something.  Work is to be share.  There is something that every one of you can do to build up the kingdom (that’s what we’re to be about), but none of us can do it all.

I remember from my time in seminary when I had an opportunity to meet one of the leaders of World Vision.  This man had a heart for the poorest of the poor in the world, and you could see it in come through his message as he told stories about the work of this mission.  After his presentation, there was time for questions and I began to roll my eyes as fellow students tried to pin him down on their favorite topics.  A conservative student brought up abortion and more liberal students asked about women pastors and gay rights. (Remember what I said earlier.  Let me expand it a bit, the gospel isn’t about us and OUR agendas).  This man wisely saw what was up (he’d been through these minefields before) and said something very wise: “God called me to help the poor.  These other issues are very important, but they are not my issues and I have to trust that God has called others to address them, just as he called me.”  I learned something that day. We can’t do it all, we have to discern where we can be most useful, where God is calling.

The community to whom the Apostles were addressing realized the wisdom of what was being proposed and they quickly recommended a number of men to serve in the task of assuring that all the widows were cared for.  The list starts out with Stephen, who we will soon learn became the first Christian martyr.  Following him was Philip, who took the Gospel to an Ethiopian who became the first African Christian.  The other five we don’t anything about, except that the last one is said to be a proselyte from Antioch.  This means he wasn’t Jewish, he’d converted then became a Christian.  Since he is from Antioch, we are left to wonder if he was a part of that vibrant early church there.[5]

The Apostles have these men come forward and they pray over them as they lay hands upon them.  The act of laying hands on those called to a particular service has ancient roots, having been done early in Israel’s history[6] and on up to the present day.  We did this last January with new Elders.  Interestingly, the original text is a bit ambiguous as to whether it was the Apostles or all the community who laid hands on the seven.  It could be read either way, and as we see here, the selection process involved both the Apostles and the congregation.[7]  Both groups are important in fulfilling this task.  It takes everyone.

Our reading ends with a report that after this potential conflict was aborted, more people are drawn into the ranks of disciples including a number of priests.  When a problem is handled appropriately, it open up new channels for people to be drawn into the fellowship.  The early church continues to grow!

Will Willimon, in his commentary on Acts, reminds us of a couple things we should learn from this text.  First, the needs of the community often require rather mundane task to be completed, such as waiting on tables.  But these tasks are important and honorable as are all jobs within God’s kingdom.  Actually, as we’ve seen, several of these men who were called to “wait on tables” went on to do important things for the kingdom.   Secondly, the leadership doesn’t come from above, but from within the church.  You all are needed and are being called to do a particular tasks that is important for God’s kingdom to expand.  Finally, the present form of our ordained leadership evolved from need of the community, as we see here in this story.  There was a need and the leadership and people got together to work out a solution.[8]

Tyler Wigg-Stevenson was involved in some very important peacemaking work that was becoming overwhelming.  At this point, God heard God say: “The world is not yours, not to save or to damn.  Only serve the one whose it is.”[9]  We’re not called to be heroes.  We’re called to do our part and to be faithful.  Where in the Kingdom is God calling you?  Where might you be of use?  Pray about it for there is something that each and every one of you can do to strengthen God’s work in the world.  Amen.

 

©2015

[1]N. T. Wright, Surprised by Scripture (HarperCollins, 2014), 40.

[2] Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Acts (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 111-113.

[3] Luke 22:24-27

[4] Exodus 18.

[5] Antioch was where the term “Christian” was first used.  See Acts 11:19-26.

[6] Numbers 27:18-23

[7] Gaventa, 115,

[8] William H. Willimon, Acts: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (1988, Louisville, JKP, 2010), 59.

[9] Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, The World is Not Ours to Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2013), 18.

The Good Funeral (and a personal memory)

the good funeralOne of the books I read while on Study Leave was Thomas Long and Thomas Lynch’s The Good Funeral: Death, Grief, and the Community of Care.  I read this at my grandma’s house and on Sunday, while there, I did what I have always done when here in Moore County, attend church at Culdee.  Afterwards, my daughter and I spent some time walking around the cemetery.  The tombstones, dating back into the 19th Century, bring back many memories.  I’ve been in the cemetery for the funerals of a grandfather, two sets of great-grandparents, and a few great aunts and uncles.  There are those whom I never knew who are buried there, such as my great-great grandparents and an aunt that died from leukemia when she was three.  As a young teenager, I helped my grandmother clean up the cemetery, but my first memory of the cemetery was from when I was eight years old.  We left Moore County when I was six and was living in Virginia, but when the call of death came, we headed home…  When I die, having lived all over this nation, I have always imagined my cremains coming home to rest on this sandy ridge between the Little River and Nick’s Creek, while awaiting the resurrection.

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My brother, sister and I stood by the casket that held my great-grandma, Callie McKenzie.  Behind us stood our mom, hovering over like an angel as she wrapped the three of us in her arms.  We gazed at the body which everyone said looked so much like her, but it didn’t.  Bodies never look life-like and great-grandma’s was no different.  Mom pointed to her hands.  They were wrinkled and covered with brown liver spots.  She reminded us of all the strawberries she’d picked, the tomatoes she’d raised, the apples she’d peeled and the corn she’d shucked.  When I was younger, we lived next door and sometimes on Sunday afternoon, after church, we’d all gather with our extended family in her backyard, under the pecan trees.  The boundaries of her lawn were marked by the back porch, a dirt road over beyond the well, a corncrib in the back, and a smokehouse and woodpile on the far side, just in front of the canebrake.  Tables were set out and we’d have lunch, followed by a slice of pie that she’d baked Saturday evening in her wood burning range.  She had a gas range, but preferred the wood burning one.  “We’ll never taste another of those pies,” Mom sadly reminded us.

After a few minutes, Mom shuffled us out on the porch of the funeral home in Carthage, into the warm humid air of a July evening, telling us to behave as she went back in with the adults.  Much later, well after dark, we drove to my Dad’s parent’s home, where we stayed the night.  It was unnervingly quiet without grandma and granddaddy and Uncle Larry.  There were no ice cream and Pepsi floats before bed, as was my granddaddy’s habit, for they were all in Florida enjoying a vacation and unaware of our presence or even of my grandma’s terrible loss.  In this day before cell phones and computers, it was nearly impossible to find someone on short-notice.  My dad had called the highway patrols in Florida and the states in between with a description of the car, in the hopes they could find my grandma.  In the heat of July, my great-granddaddy decided it was best to go ahead with the funeral on the third day.  My grandma arrived home a day later and a few years ago, with grandma then well into her nineties, she spoke of how upsetting it was not to be present, not to be able to see her mother before her body was lowered into the hole by Culdee Presbyterian Church.

My great-grandma was in her early 70s, which now doesn’t seem so old.   She was out in the fields, by her son’s pond, picking strawberries, or so I’d remembered.  But that must not be right, for strawberries in this part of the country are harvested long before the heat of July.  Maybe it was blackberries or some vegetable she and my great-granddaddy were gathering when she had a stroke.  Granddaddy who was five years older, ran back home to call for help.  But it was too late.

culdee

The cemetery at Culdee

We were living in Virginia then.  My Dad loaded up the car and we drove south, in time to make the visitation at the funeral home in Carthage.  The next day the funeral was held at Culdee.  We sat up front with the family, a couple rows back from my great-granddaddy, who sat on the first row, a bit in shock.  The casket was up front, below the pulpit.  Afterwards, with three men on each side, the box containing the lifeless body of one who had dedicated a lifetime to her family and her church, was carried out into the adjacent cemetery where Mr. Fitch, the preacher, said a few final words of scripture, reminding us of our hope in the resurrection, as the casket was lowered into sandy soil watered with tears.  There was probably a big dinner afterwards, but I don’t remember.   My main memories fifty years later are of my great-grandma’s hands, the dinners on the back lawn, and how happy she was to see us whenever we walked through the woods from our house to hers when we lived next door.

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Long and Lynch, in The Good Funeral, remind us that taking care of the dead is something instilled in our humanity.  We have to deal with the body whether it is to be buried, burned or disposed at sea.  We also have to deal with our own grief, for the loss affects not just the deceased and those close (their spouse or children), but the whole community.  So the community comes together to remember, to take care of the body in an honorable way, and to offer up the life that is no more to God.  We honor the dead for to do anything else would strike a blow at our own humanity.

Click here to listen to Thomas Lynch discuss the book, The Good Funeral.

 

A Christian response to today’s racism debates

These are some beginning thoughts I have concerning the debates going on in our country regarding the Confederate battle flag, racism, and a book to be released today that I have not yet read!

I am glad that the flag on the South Carolina state capitol lawn is finally removed.  There has been a lot of debate about the meaning of the flag and whether it is flown in honor of those who fought for the Confederacy or is a symbol of an evil institution.  Certainly, both are true.  Most who fought for the South never owned slaves.  As in all wars, overwhelmingly, it is the poor who march off and die.  Likewise, had it not been for slavery, the war would have never come about.  Sure, there were other issues, but they were all linked back to the institution of slavery.  As a Southerner, I had ancestors who fought under that flag, and I don’t want them vilified.  Yes, many who fought under the flag went on to do good things, but I can also image how that flag would make me feel if I had ancestors who had been slaves.

As Christians, what should our response be to this debate?  The Apostle Paul, writing to the Corinthians, deals with an issue that seems to have little effect on us (whether or not to eat meat offered to idols), yet it may provide insight into a Christian response to the flag controversy.  In the 8th chapter of 1st Corinthians, Paul reminded his readers that eating such meat wasn’t a bad thing because there is no other god and the true God created it all.  However, if we eat such meat and it caused a problem for some, then we should refrain.  Not because it is wrong, but because it might cause someone weak in the faith to falter.  Knowing my brothers and sisters of African-descent have experienced the negative side of the flag should be enough to keep me from wanting to show it.   As Jesus said, “do unto others…”

Today, Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird is being released.  I wasn’t offered an advance copy, so what I know about the book is only what others have reported, but there is an uproar over the fact that Atticus Finch is seen in the new novel which is set in the 1950s as a segregationist.   Some readers are disappointed.  But I wonder if maybe the new novel will flesh out his character more and make him like the rest of us.  No one is perfect.  We certainly have seen many idols shattered.  Think of Bill Cosby, or Bill Clinton (or those who led his impeachment and it was later discovered had skeletons in their own closets).  People who are put or put themselves on pedestals are often knocked off because none of us can live up to the hype.  Pride goes before the fall, the Good Book tells us…  The Reformed doctrine of Total Depravity plays out as true over and over again.  Even religious leaders who had done good and great things for their communities and for the world are often discovered to have clay feet.  John Calvin not only open Scriptures for our understanding, he provided aid to those who were refugees in the 16th Century, yet did not intervene to save Servetus from the stake.  Martin Luther, who helped kick off the Reformation, was also anti-Semitic in his later writings. Martin Luther King, Jr, who helped bring needed change to America also had his struggles with infidelity.  Getting back to Atticus, maybe the question to ponder is why he did what is right in To Kill a Mockingbird while harboring racist sentiments.  All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, Paul writes, yet as individuals, despite our failures, we can do some amazing and wonderful things.  And that’s to be celebrated!

Trust and Obey (there is no other way)

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Acts 5:12-42

July 12, 2015

 

In the Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain works in this kernel of truth: “Often the less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it.” We’ll see this play out in today’s reading as the Jewish leaders want to maintain the status quo and, despite evidence of a change coming, do everything they can to hinder the challenges presented by Jesus’ disciples.

Our reading is a long one, as we are looking at the last thirty verses in Acts 5, so I am going to summarize the first few verses and then break the passage into two readings.   If you remember, last week we discussed Ananias and Sapphira, the two who lied to God and died.  This created much fear within the community as people realized their lives were not only threatened with judgement from the Jewish leadership but, if they were unfaithful, by God Almighty.  In verse 13, we learn that although the Apostles are held at high esteem, there are those reluctant to join because they are afraid.  But the faithful carry on the work of Jesus, bringing the sick to Peter.  There is even a belief that Peter’s shadow is enough to bring about healing, such was the people’s faith in the work and teachings of the Apostles.  Much good is being done, but there’s change in the wind and those in power are scared and are quick to act.  I will pick up my reading in verse 17 and I’ll read on to verse 33. When I finish this reading, you might want to keep your Bibles open as we’ll come back and pick up the rest of this chapter later.

###

 

 

Let’s recall another movie this week: Groundhog Day.  It’s a classic that not only you can watch over and over again, but you watch it over and over in the same sitting.  The film creatively has Bill Murray as Phil Conners, a TV reporter from Pittsburgh, reliving the same day (Groundhog Day) in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.  This happens dozens of times and he is the only one who realizes it.  Phil becomes cynical and takes advantage of what he knows is going to happen for personal benefit, only to find himself back where he started from when the alarms goes off on what should be February 3.  But it’s not, it is once again, February 2, Groundhog Day.  Eventually he gets it and uses his knowledge for the good of others and is able to win the heart of Rita, his producer, played by the beautiful Andie MacDowell.

It seems what happens here, as in the movie Groundhog Day, is a repeat to what has already happened, with a few additional twists.  The Apostles perform some good deeds and the powers that be become angry and fearful of what’s happening and arrests them. [1]  We’ve seen this scene before.  Yet, they can’t keep Peter and John from testifying to the power of the resurrection.  Heck, they can’t even keep them in jail, for they are mysteriously released and, instead of fleeing, are back in the temple preaching.  It’s almost as if this is a scene from an old keystone cops movie.[2]  Imagine the surprise of the guards as they look into their cells and find them missing, but then hear them preaching in the temple.

They are rearrested (although it appears they go willingly) and taken back to the Council where they are ask why they have disobeyed the order for them not to talk about this man.  Interestingly, the High Priest avoids to use of Jesus’ name.  They respond, “We must obey God rather than human authority.”  This response, by the way, is very similar to that which Socrates gave to those in Athens when he was on trial.  His comments didn’t make the Athenians very happy and they came back with a death sentence[3] and soon, in Acts, we’re going to see that there are those who will lose their lives because of their testimony to Jesus Christ.

Would we be so brave as to stand up as for what God wants instead of falling in line with popular opinion and what those in leadership demand or expect?  When the numbers line up against you, what would you do?

This is a story that has been around the internet many times that I am sure is not true, but it illustrates an important point.  A couple of masked gunmen come into a church during worship and, pointing their automatic weapons to the congregation, say they’re going to shoot anyone who believes this nonsense.  People begin to deny their faith and when allowed, rush to the streets.  Only a handful remain.  Then the gunmen drop their weapons, remove their masks, and say to the pastor, “Okay, we’ve gotten rid of the hypocrites.”  What would we do in such a situation? Would you be shaking in the sanctuary, afraid but secure in your faith?  Or would you be running down the street?

Many people today think this might be where our society is heading, to a place where we will be persecuted for our faith, but before we worry too much, I think we should realize that it has always been tough to stand up for the gospel.  This isn’t anything new; those white pastors who stood up for civil rights, especially before the late 1960s were often condemned and in some cases physically threaten.  Yet, history was on their side, even though many suffered greatly for their convictions.

Our allegiance first and foremost is to Jesus Christ and our citizenship is in the Kingdom of God.  We must remember that the Kingdom is not the status quo.  We’re not yet in Paradise.  We long for God’s Kingdom to be fulfilled and until that day, we need to stand with the one whom we claim as King of all Kings.

Peter and the Apostles’ response to the Jewish Council, telling them that they must first obey God and then reminding them that Jesus was resurrected and is calling Israel to repentance and offering forgiveness.  This is too much.  The Council sees themselves as being in the right and not having any need to repent or to be forgiven.  Peter’s accusation enrages them.  After all, he’s a fisherman.  Who’s he to be speaking in such a manner to those in leadership?  They want to kill ‘em.  Déjà vu all over.  They wanted to kill Jesus, and they eventually did.  Eventually, most of the Apostles will be martyred, too.  But the spilling of their blood is like pouring out fertilizer, for the church continues to grow and to become even stronger.

I want us to return to the text and read one response.  Let me also point out that so far in Acts, we’ve mainly been hearing from Sadducees, a political and theological party in Israel who did not believe in the resurrection.  Another position in Israel was that of the Pharisees, who also had problems with Jesus but they did believe in the resurrection.  Now we hear from one Pharisee, Gamaliel.

Read Acts 5:33-42

###

 

There is a lot of wisdom in what Gamaliel says.  Although we seek God’s will, we don’t always have a clear idea of where God is going.  After all, we’re called to walk in faith.  In John’s gospel, we told God’s Spirit is like the wind, it comes, it goes, but is mysterious.[4]  The problem with the Jewish Council is that they are so sure they are right and that they have the ability to maintain control.  When God moves, we need to understand that we are not in control.  We’re along for the ride.  Of course, they are sure that God isn’t behind what the Apostles are doing and thereby justified their treatment of the Apostles as something necessary in order to keep the peace.  They are people who don’t like change, but the winds of change from God is blowing and their attempts to hold it back is not going to be successful.

Gamaliel’s suggestion is a wise one.  If God isn’t behind a movement, it’ll ultimately unravel.  He cites two examples of zealots who, along with their followers, have come and gone.  But, as he also reminds them, if God is behind this movement, they don’t want to stand in the way.   It appears that the Council only took part of this advice.  They have the Apostles flogged and let them go and they resume what they have been doing, preaching and teaching and proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah.

As I said earlier in this study, the “Acts of the Apostles” is really a book about the acts of God, which is what we learn from Gamaliel’s prediction.  If God is not behind this, sooner or later the movement will falter.[5]

We often forget we worship an Almighty God.  We think we have to give God a hand, that we have to be God’s army, but we forget that even if we fail to do what God wants us to do, that God can raise up someone else (even stones, as Jesus told his challengers on Palm Sunday), to do his work.  Sometimes, too, we are be like the Council and want to judge and even retaliate against those we see as enemies of God.  But, you know, we got to be careful.  Are they God’s enemies or our own enemies?  There’s a difference!  Furthermore, God also teaches, going back to the Old Testament, that vengeance belong to him, not us.[6]

When the disciples leave the Council on this day, they do something amazing.  They rejoice that they are worthy enough to suffer dishonor for Jesus.  How many of us, having been whipped, would rejoice?  Yet, this attitude sets the stage for more people to be drawn into the community that, as we’ll see in the next few chapters, is about to bust out of Jerusalem and spread across the Roman Empire.

There are two things you need to take away from this section of Scripture: Obey and trust God.  As the Apostles tell the Council, we must obey God, and as Gamaliel suggests, we must let God be God and not stand in the way.  Obey and trust, or with the old hymn, reverse the two: “Trust and obey.”  Trust and obey, for there is no other way to be happy in Jesus but to trust and obey.”[7]  Amen.

 

©2015

[1] In chapters 3-4, Peter heals a lame man and as he teaches is arrested and the next day brought before the Council.

[2] William H. Willimon, Acts (2008, Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2010), 56

[3] Plato, Apology.  See also, Beverly Roberts Gaventa, The Acts of the Apostles (Nashville: Abingdon, 2004), 109.

[4] John 3:8

[5] Gaventa, 110.

[6] Isaiah 63:4,  Deuteronomy 32:35,  Psalm  94:1.  For a New Testament reference see Romans 12;10

[7] Refrain from John Sammis’ hymn, “Trust and Obey.”

Three Days in the Okefenokee

me john cork photo

That’s me, photo by John Cork

Last March, I took a week vacation primarily to officiate at my niece’s wedding in North Carolina.  But before heading to the Old North State, I (along with 8 other men) headed to the Okefenokee for a two-night, three-day adventure.  This article on our trip appears in this week’s TWATL (Vol XXXII, #48, July 5-11, 2014).  For those of you not from around here, the TWATL is an independent magazine that stands for “This Week at the Landings.”  This is not a specifically religious article, but one about enjoying God’s wonderful creation.  I have posted it here with many more photos (the print version had only three photos).

Presentation1We couldn’t see them, but they were there, all around us as we paddled through the narrow water trail from Floyd’s Island back to the Suwanee River.  At times, their bellowing made what’s left of my hair stand on end.  Other times, what seemed to be a soft purr rose from just inside the thick vegetation.  They were all around and obviously enjoying themselves, but I only saw one alligator that morning and it quickly submerged when it saw me.  Hidden from our eyes, the swamp seemed filled with the voices of their erotic spring mating rituals.  I paddled into several of the watery prairies in hope of catching a glimpse of a bull gator lifting its head and bellowing, but was never blessed by such an experience.  I was left with the haunting memories of the sounds of gators courting.

2 gators

Two gators sunning in the afternoon

It was our second day in the Okefenokee.  There were nine of us.  Seven were from The Landings, plus a friend from St. Simons and my father from North Carolina.  We’d started the morning before at the Stephen Douglas State Park near Fargo, Georgia with seven kayaks and a canoe.  We paddled upstream.  It was an overcast day and we’d only saw a couple of gators.  But in places the air was populated with butterflies dotting around, enjoying the nectar of spring flowers.

cabin

Floyd’s Cabin

Our destination was Floyd’s island, one of the few places of high ground in the swamp.  The island is named for an army officer who led a group of soldiers through the swamp during the Seminole Wars in the early 19th Century. At the campsite is a cabin built in the 1920s by a “Swamper.”  Most of the group decided to bunk inside the cabin.  I and another guy decided we would prefer our hammocks.  The newer jungle-type hammocks are much more comfortable than the older types.  They also have the advantage of being pitched away from the sounds of snoring and the swamp rats known to inhabit the cabin.

hammock

My hammock

We arrived at Floyd’s Island a little after 4 PM, in time for cocktails before a dinner of chili. A fire was built in the pit and we spent the evening talking but everyone was tired and by 9:30, everyone had gone to bed.  I slept soundly until 3 AM, when an owl that sounded as if he was right above my hammock began to hoot.  The owl was followed by a couple of whip-o-wills that continued on their cries until daylight.  The sleep I obtained the last half of the night was in short segments.  At little before 7, I got up and put on a pot of coffee to perk.   Slowly everyone rose and we had oatmeal for breakfast.  Before heading out, we explored a bit of the island.

canoeOur second day of paddling, our longest, was ten miles long as we headed back down the Suwanee to Mixon’s Hammock.  Although only a few alligators were seen in the morning, the sun came out in the afternoon and soon we were seeing gators everywhere, sunning themselves and taking a nap after their morning dallies.

 

Mixon’s Hammock is a small strip of high ground in the southwest section of the park.  We set up camp, enjoyed cocktails and then had dinner.  A fire was placed in the metal hearth and we sat around talking, swatting bugs, and sharing stories.  A few minutes after heading to bed, as I was still up and reading with a head lamp in my hammock, the rains came.  It seemed to rain throughout the night, but much of it was probably just water dripping off of leaves.  The rain didn’t stop an owl from coming into the campsite, probably in search of mice in search of bits of food we’d dropped.  We all stayed fairly dry.  The sound of rain on a tarp is soothing and I slept well.

near sill

Last morning, nearing the sill

Our last morning was wet and cool.  After coffee and breakfast, we packed up and continued paddling the Suwanee through a section known as the narrows where the river winds back and forth.  At places, we could catch the scent of honeysuckle growing on the banks.  After the narrows, the river widens and we saw a number of larger birds, egrets and iris, a variety of ducks and a pileated woodpecker working on a dead tree.   On the southwest boundary of the swamp, there is a sill that controls the flow of the river.  Here, after passing a few fisherman, we arrived at the takeout.  It was time to head back to civilization.  In our three days, we had paddled 24 miles and seen some incredible sights.

paddling along sill

paddling along the sill, near the take-out

Acts 4:23-5:11 Gratitude and Honesty

Jeff Garrison  

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Acts 4:23-5:11

July 5, 2015

 

I am grateful for Rachel who preached for me while I was on vacation and to Allan who brought us the good news last Sunday, right after my return.  Today, we’re going back to the book of Acts (and it is going to take us till October to work through the first sixteen chapters).  The focus of Luke’s history of the church is still in Jerusalem.  We have experienced the mystery of God working through this small group of Jesus’ followers, their growth in number, their ability to bring about miracles, and the first whiff of persecution as Peter and John are hauled before the Jewish council.  Even though there is lurking danger, the picture of the church in the first four chapters of Acts is idyllic.  People are generous, they get along with one another and are seen as such loving people that other can’t help but to want to join and to experience their joy.

Listen to this quote from Donald Posterski, who writes about the appeal of such a vision:

 

In a world gripped by greed, generosity is beautiful.  It is like the sun breaking through the clouds on a dismal rainy day.  Generosity breeds generosity.  Whether the gift is money, time, thoughtfulness, a bouquet of flowers, a special candlelight meal, and a crafted word sent out on a piece of plain paper or an elaborate card–generosity lifts the level of life to what God intends for his creation.

 

“Generosity lifts the level of life to what God intends…”  We have a generous God and as followers of Jesus, we’re to follow suit, living in a gracious and loving manner.  That’s what made the early church so powerful.  But this doesn’t please everyone, for there is a lurking enemy.  Unable to destroy the church leadership before the Jewish council, Satan now works inside the church, using deceit as a way to undermine the fellowship.[1]

My passage this morning begins with another wonderful view of the early church and then ends with one of the fearful things in scripture, judgment.  Read Acts 4:32-5:11.

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A few weeks ago I talked about one of my favorite all-time movies, The Blues Brothers.  Today, I want to share another of my favorite movies, “The Gods’ Must Be Crazy.”  Anyone seen it?  It was produced in South Africa in 1980 and became available in the United States on video in the mid-80s.  The film has grown into a cult classic.

The movie is about a tribe of people in Africa who lived without any connection to the larger world.  The way the movie begins, you think you’re watching a documentary about this tribe.  It’s an ideal world in which they live, with enough food for everyone.  They believe the gods look after them and they share everything and enjoy one another’s company.  It’s as if they have never left Eden, everything is in perfect harmony.  But then, one day, a brush pilot is flying overhead, drinking a bottle of Coca-Cola.  Downing it, he tosses it out of the airplane and it lands in a sandy area in the midst of this village and they immediately assume the gods have sent them a gift.

In time, the bottle becomes valuable as members of the tribe find more and more usages for it.  It is a tool to hammer and pound.  The glass can be used to concentrate the sun’s rays and start a fire in dry grass.  Water can be held in the bottle and one can blow across the top to create music.  But there’s a problem.  There is only one coke bottle and it’s in constant use.  Suddenly, strife develops within the community as they begin to fight over the bottle.  Soon, this behavior takes over other areas of their lives and they begin to hoard goods and not share.  Realizing their tranquility is threatened, the tribe’s elders decide that this gift should be returned to the gods.  They elect one young man to take the bottle to the edge of the earth and to throw it back to the gods…  The rest of the movie is about his journey and it gets even crazier as he runs into an absent minded scientist, a lovely school teacher, and a gang of revolutionaries.

A generous society has appeal.  We are told this was one of the characteristics that made the early church so attractive, that people would seek out the fellowship of the church while knowing they could be martyred for their faith.  For the second time in his story of the church, Luke describes a community in harmony.[2]  But, unfortunately, the church since this era has lost its luster.  The tarnishing of our reputation began in Jerusalem and it came from the inside the church, as we see in today’s reading.

The story of Ananias and Sapphira seems harsh and unbelievable.  It is preceded by the example of Joseph or Barnabas, who was Jewish, a Levite, but also a foreigner as he was from Cypress.  His incredible act of generosity is lifted up in Scripture.   He sells a field and he gives the money to the Apostles to be used for those in need.  We’re told there are others who also did this, too, but with only one example, we are left to wonder how widespread it was (or how many early Christians even had the property to sell).

But then, after lifting up Joseph as an example, Luke gives a counter-example as we learn about two members of the fellowship.  Now, we don’t know what was going on in their heads, but it appears that maybe they saw others, like Joseph, make generous gifts to the church.  Perhaps they wanted to be seen in a good light, as generous, so they, too, decide to sell some property.  You know, good deeds often inspire other good deeds, but they want to be seen for their good deeds without paying the price.  “See how generous we are, we’re going to sell the lower 40 of our farm and give it to the church,” they might have said.  But instead of going through with what they say they are going to do, they give only a portion and hide the fact that they keep part of the profits for themselves.  “No one will know,” they assume.

We can fool others, but we cannot fool God and that’s what happens here.  The Spirit enlightens Peter to what’s happening and as Ananias makes his gift, Peter confronts him.  Although Peter invokes Satan’s name in Ananias’ deceit, this is not a case of the “Devil made him do it.”  Ananias is responsible for his attempt to lie to the Holy Spirit.  We can fool others, but not God!  Furthermore, we learn from Peter that this isn’t some of kind of forced sale of property for inclusion into the church.  The sin of Ananias is not that he gave back only a portion of the proceeds of the sale.   His sin was that he lied and acted like it was a bigger deal that it was.   He thought his little indiscretion would be swept under the rug and no one would know anything different.

The couple’s sin has to do with declaring that they were giving the proceeds to the Apostles, and hiding the fact that they did not follow through.  The Greek verb translated as “kept back” (in verse 3), is a word often used in relationship to the misappropriation of funds.  In other words, what they had given no longer belonged to them, therefore they are guilty of theft.[3]

With Sapphira, Peter gives her a chance to confess.  She doesn’t yet know what’s happened to her husband and so when Peter tells her the amount given and asks if this is what the property was sold for, she sticks to their story.  “Yeah, that’s right,” she says.  The Peter tells her what happened to her husband and she, too, drops over dead.  We might think of it this way, “giving to the church is a serious matter,” but that’s not really the concern here.  The concern is with their honesty toward God.  “We might be able to fool some of the people some of the time, but we can never fool God.”

To have a community like the early church in Jerusalem, people need to be honest not only with one another, but to God.  Satan thought he could corrupt the church with dishonesty, but God’s Spirit insures the church is protected.  Today, we are often causal about our relationship to the Almighty, but this passage reminds us that when it comes to our relationship to God, we are dealing with something beyond us and need handle this relationship with awe and fear.  “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” we learn from the Old Testament.[4]

When you talk to God in your prayers or confess your sins to God, be honest.  God already knows what you are going to say, what you are thinking.  In this way, God is like an all-knowing parent who wants their children to take responsibility for their actions.  If the parent is good, the child will get off a lot easier if he or she is honest about what they’ve done.  It’s the same way with God.  Be honest, even if you are struggling and not doing what you know you should be doing.  Then, God like a good parent, can help redirect your way.  Amen.

 

©2015

[1] Jack Stotts, The Message of Acts (The Bible Speaks Today), quote provided by a friend:  “”, as soon as the Spirit came upon the church, Satan launched a ferocious counter-attack…Having failed to destroy the church from outside, he attempted through Ananias and Sapphira to insinuate evil into its interior life, and so ruin the Christian fellowship.”

[2] See Luke 2:43-47

[3] Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Acts (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 102.

[4] Proverbs 1:7, 9:10 and Psalms 111:10

Our Accountability as a Christian, Elder Allan Pulaski

allan

Allan Pulaski

Accountability as a Christian
June 28, 2015
Allan Pulaski

 

 

 

 The construction of a baseball:

  • 2 pieces of leather cut in a figure 8. Generally only from a Midwest Holstein
  • 369 yards of Wool Yarn and Cotton Yarn
  • 108 double stitches (216 single)
  • 88” of red waxed thread
  • 1 ball is used an average of 5-7 pitches per game
  • 600,000 baseballs used per season
  • They are only handmade.

 

How does this relate to us as People of the Christian Faith?  Like the creation of a Baseball, there are many facets that must all work together to create an end product, that can be used by many.  Christ uses many teachings and people, both past and present, to create His game ball.  Like a baseball, Christians cannot be produced from an automated source.  We are created from a solid core “our faith” in God, The Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.  Our faith is wrapped in the teachings of the Old and New Testament of the Bible.  Our church and our church family provide an outlying cover so that we may gain strength and seek shelter from the “hits” we take in life.  And last the love and forgiveness of Jesus binds us all together so that we are one, molded by the hands of God to do His work, share His love and provide hope to those who have lost all hope.

Over the past five years Ed Durham and I have had the pleasure of coaching a young group of boys as a baseball team.  At times I am not sure if we are not the two students actually!  Teaching the boys the fundamental aspects of the game is beyond hitting, fielding and running.  It is evolved into understanding the different situations, the decision making process, and controlling emotions – the mental element of the game.

Proverbs 27:17 – As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.

Tim Tebow story as a quarterback for the Denver Broncos….

Mental sharpness comes from being around good people.  A meeting of the minds can help people see their ideas with new clarity, refine them, and shape them into brilliant insights.  This requires discussion with partners who can challenge one another and stimulate thoughts.  Two friends who bring their ideas together can help each other become sharper.

Story of the Stewardship Committee of 2006

We as congregation need to remain open to new ideas.  We can no longer expect to attract new people just like us.  Together, not apart, is the way we will grow and become stronger.

In the game of baseball every player wants to hit the ball and reach base.  However there are times that the player must make a sacrifice for the betterment of the team.  Jesus dying on the Cross for our sins is our sacrifice.

We as a congregation of Christians are no different than a baseball team in our thinking or approach.  We, too, need to make sacrifices.  An example that may be sensitive but is tangible and real in this very church could be items ranging from visitor cards to music selection.  It can be unnerving to hear me use these two examples but that is the intent.  Are each of us receptive to be the player who makes the sacrifice play for the betterment of the team?  Are we constructive in our criticism?  Ridicule should not be tolerated.  We will all experience a down time or a “slump”.  We will all subject ourselves to sin.

Jeremiah 17:10 – I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward a man according to his conduct, according to what his deeds deserve.

God makes it clear why we sin – it’s a matter of the heart.  It’s human nature all the way back to Adam & Eve/Cain & Abel.  We can yield to the temptation or we can ask God to help us resist temptation when it comes.  There is a right way and wrong way to do any task.  Whether at work, school or play we should strive to be honest in all our dealings.  Getting a promotion, passing an exam or gaining prestige unjustly will never bring God’s blessing or lasting happiness.

When a family member, friend or stranger is in their “slump”, one of the primary ways of helping is providing support.  As Christians we extend the reinforcement and assurance of God’s grace, love and hope.

Passages of Galatians 6:9-10 & Romans 5:1-5

Imagine in a baseball game with the team down by 5 runs and a coach needs to encourage the kids with positive attitudes to step up.  Whether as a teammate or a Christian, your decision to fight or quit is contagious.   No one wants to be around a negative person.  Be positive, provide encouragement and be constructive in dialogue.

Thessalonians 5:11 – Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.

As we near the end of game you are hot, tired, your legs ache, your throat burns and your whole body cries out for you to stop.  This is when friends and fans are most valuable.  Their encouragement helps you push through the pain to the finish line.  In the same way Christians are to encourage one another.  A word of encouragement offered at the right moment can be the difference between finishing well and collapsing along the way.  Look around you.  Be sensitive to other’s needs for encouragement and offer supportive words or actions.

We are a TEAM.  We are a Family.  We are Believers in Jesus Christ, our LORD & SAVIOR.  Let us lead by example.  My last thought for you is this….  We constantly coach our players to want the ball hit to you, be in a ready position and to know what you are going to do with the ball.  Do you want the ball hit to you?  And, if so, are you prepared?

I am thankful for this opportunity this morning and am appreciative of your love and support.  There is an old saying that “where there is a will, there is a  way”.  I believe before you can get to the “will” you have to get to the “want to”.  The “want to” is Jesus holding you and I accountable as a player on his Team.God Bless all of us and God Bless America…. Amen!

Worship in New York City

We were in New York last Sunday morning, I decided to check out Madison Avenue Baptist Church.  The pastor is Susan Sparks and I’d read her book, Laughing Your Way to Grace: Reclaiming the Spiritual Power of Humor.  Anyone who has been a corporate lawyer and a stand-comic prior to becoming a Baptist preacher seemed worthy to check-out.  On top of all that, she’s from North Carolina.  We hopped off the subway and took it down to Madison Ave and then walked a few more blocks over to the church, which was built in the 1850s.  Over time, buildings have been constructed on both sides and on top of the old church.  Stepping though the heavy wooden doors, I was surprised to find the sanctuary so small.  If it had been packed, which it wasn’t, there would only have been space for maybe 150 people (maybe 250 if the church was packed like a subway in during rush hour).  I didn’t count, but would guess that there were 60-70 folks present.  Despite the number in attendance, the worship was excellent (both music and preaching).  With their extensive web presence, they certainly have an impact far beyond those in the pews.

madison ave baptist

The chancel at Madison Avenue Baptist Church (iphone photo)

The Sunday I attended worship at MABC was “social media Sunday.”  When the service opened, an associate pastor suggested that the church shouldn’t be afraid of social media, but should use it in a way to bring about positive change in the world.  Up front and in the corner was a screen with a scrolling Twitter feed.  Everyone was encouraged to take out their phones and tweet.  I have a twitter account, however I never loaded the app on my new phone (my “new” phone is nearly a year old which shows my interest in Twitter).  Not to be undone, the ushers also handed out cards for those who are not tech-savvy to write out tweets to be posted online.  As the service continued, tweets popped up giving praise for the music (the small choir was incredible) and pointing out key points of the message.

Susan’s sermon was based on Daniel 3 (the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the furnace) and she had an Iranian man read the scripture.  He joked that the reason he was asked to read the text was so that we’d get the correct pronunciation of the Persian names.  When he finished the reading, he noted Nebuchadnezzar’s belief that Babylon would reign forever and told us how the site of Babylon is now mostly a sand pile, having been destroyed by the Romans.  Then he lifted his Bible and noted that the hopes of political leaders will all be washed away, for only God’s word is eternal.  It was a very effective testimony.  Susan’s message was well crafted and centered around verse 17, in which the Hebrew men say to the Babylonian King, “God may deliver us but even if he doesn’t, we’re going to still believe.”  She then put her audience into each of the characters in the story (the three men, the King, and the “angel” seen walking around in the furnace with the three men) and suggested what we can learn from each point of view.  From the three men, we learn faithfulness.  From the king, we learn we learn how to admit we’re wrong and to change.  From the angel within the furnace, we learn to be God’s presence when God’s children are in peril.  She ended her homily tying the text to the recent atrocity in Charleston.

Redeemer PC

Entrance to Redeemer’s Church Center (iPhone photo)

In the evening, we attended a jazz worship service at Redeemer Presbyterian Church ministry center on the West Side.  Timothy Keller is the pastor of this large church which has services three sites on Manhattan.  I have read a number of Keller’s books and was hoping he’d be the preacher.  He wasn’t.   The preaching was done by an associate pastor.  His message, “The Nature of Glory,” was based on Jesus’ prayer (John 17).  Although I didn’t time the sermon, it felt long and seemed to be a little rambling.  I felt as if he was trying to impress us with the number of quotes he used in the sermon (C. S. Lewis, John Piper, Anne Lamott and Cornelius Plantinga are the ones I recall, and there were couple others).  In comparing the messages, my wife remarked that Sparks said twice as much in half the time.  The music, however, was incredible.

The jazz group leading worship consisted of a drummer, someone playing a large bass, a man on trumpet, another on a guitar and someone on the piano.  The singing was primarily done by a female vocalist who was backed up by another associate pastor.  Their sound was crisp and clear.  The service began with an instrumental version of Gershwin’s “Summertime.”  Although it’s not a “religious” piece, it set the stage for the service which was on the first day of summer. Most of the congregational singing were traditional hymns, but they were jazzed up.  With the exception of the vocalists, the musicians remained seated and didn’t draw attention to themselves, creating a wonderful sense of worship.  It wasn’t about them, it was about God.  The music made the service very moving and was the highlight of the evening.

Another surprise about Redeemer was the age and number of worshipers.  There were several hundred worshipers at the 5 PM worship service and there were several hundred more waiting for us to leave the sanctuary so they could enter for the 6:30 PM service.  The congregation was young, including many students, a high percentage of whom were Asian.

On Father’s Day and the first day of summer in New York, I attended two different churches from different traditions and found them both to be glorifying God in new and distinctively different ways.

A Father’s Day Post

dad2

Dad fishing in Masonboro Inlet, south of Wrightsville Beach

Some people think I am crazy about fishing, but that’s not the case. I enjoy fishing, but I mostly enjoy being outdoors. My father, however, is crazy about fishing. Most of what he taught me about life came through the lens of this sport.

We moved near the coast when I was nine years old. My parents had always wanted to live near the ocean and when my father got an opportunity to transfer to the area, he jumped at it. We kids weren’t so sure, leaving friends behind and all, but it turned out to be a pretty good place to grow up.

My father quickly learned the art of fishing for flounder and taught my brother and me. We spent hours on rising tide, fishing for flounder at Masonboro Inlet. Although such fishing isn’t as graceful as using a fly rod, it requires at least as much skill. Dad showed us how to tie our own rigging, using an 18 inch piece of light wire with a triple hook on one end and a one ounce torpedo sinker on the other. The rigging was attached to the line of a lightweight spinning rod. A live minnow, which we generally caught with throw nets (another acquired skill I never completely mastered), was hooked through the lips. Walking in knee deep water armed with a spinning rod we’d cast the line out into the depths, searching for holes where a flounder might hang out. The line was slowly retrieved, the weight keeping the minnow near the bottom where flounders hid. We careful felt for tell-tell bumps on our lines, indicating a flounder taking the bait. When that happened, we’d loosen the drag and give the flounder about a minute to take the minnow into its mouth, then yank the line in order to set the hook. If we prematurely yanked the line, we’d pull the minnow out of the mouth of the flounder. From such fishing, we learned patience. Hurrying only caused you to miss fish.

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

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

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

Cabbage Inlet Creek, Masonboro Island

Cabbage Inlet Creek, Masonboro Island

For years my father continued to use that old Jon-boat, keeping the motor in tip-top shape. The motor still runs; my nephew uses it today on a boat he built in his high school shop class. Dad waited till he could afford a larger boat, a very utilitarian fishing boat. Then, as he was getting ready to retire, he purchased an even larger boat that allows him to run out to the edge of the Gulf Stream in his search for bigger fish. His patience has paid off.

Patience and don’t sweat the stuff you can’t change were two lessons Dad instilled in me while out on or by the water. Happy Father’s Day, Dad!

Acts 4:1-22, “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished”

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Acts 4:1-22

June 14, 2015

 

We all know the saying, “No good deed goes unpunished.” That’s what happens to Peter and John.  If you remember from last week, they go to the temple for prayers and as they enter find a man who has never walked.  The man asks for alms and having nothing to give, they give him what they have, the ability to call upon Jesus who heals the man.  People are amazed when they see this guy leaping around. This sets up an opportunity for Peter to give his second sermon that’s recorded in Acts.  Peter, with the guy who’d been healed holding on to his sleeve, addresses a crowd that has gathered around them on a patio or porch off to the side of the temple.  We heard all that last week.

Today, as we continue our journey through the Book of Acts, we learn what happens next.  Peter’s sermon is cut short when the temple authorities show up.  They thought they had done away with all this talk about Jesus when they conspired to have him nailed to the cross.  But now they learn that Jesus’ followers are continuing his ministry and this is upsetting to those in power.  Read Acts 4:1-22

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One of my all-time favorite movies is the Blues Brothers.  I’m sure many of you have seen it.  Jake, who has just been released from prison, joins up with his brother Elwood and the rest of their band as they strive to make enough money to pay off a tax lien on the orphanage where they’d grown up.  They finally get it together and have a large hall filled with paying guests anxious to hear the “Blues Brothers” and their hopping band.  But they are not the only ones who are there to meet the Blues Brothers.  Also in the crowd is another band, from whom they stole a gig, Jake’s ex-fiancé who is carrying a grudge of having been left at the altar, and a score of law enforcement officers.  The latter have guns, night sticks and handcuffs, and have blocked every entrance to the hall.  Jake and Elwood sends the crowd into a frenzy, forcing the police to stoically wait for an opportunity to pounce.  But it doesn’t happen that way, for Jake and Elwood escape through a tunnel that runs under the stage and, after a high speed chase across the state of Illinois, are only arrested after they have paid the orphanage’s taxes.

Now think about Peter and John in our story today.  Peter is in the middle of his sermon as the temple authorities along with the Sadducees, much like officers in the Blues Brothers, file onto the porch and cover every exit.  Of course, they don’t wait for the sermon to be over.  With the place secured, the Captain of the Temple and his henchmen step forward and arrest the two Apostles.  As it is at the end of the working day and who has time for bail (besides, we know they were out of cash when they’d been asked for alms), so the authorities toss Peter and John into jail.  But if they think they have done away with this Jesus’ menace, they are mistaken as Luke tells us that 5,000 people believe their message.  And it appears that they believe despite the messengers being under arrest.

The church is growing at an astonishing rate.  Because God is behind it, there is nothing the authorities can do to stop it.  But that doesn’t mean they don’t try.  After all, the devil doesn’t have to go after those who are bad…  But those who are a threat, like Peter and John, are singled out and persecuted.  No good deed goes unpunished.

The next day Peter and John along with the man who was healed are brought before the temple authorities for questioning.  They want to know how this man was healed, by what power or name they asked.  They set themselves up for an answer they won’t like.  Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, begin to speak and tells them the man was healed by Jesus…  but he doesn’t stop there, going on to make the point that Jesus was the one that they had crucified, but whom God has raised from the dead.  Then, to emphasize this point, he quotes a Psalm, the stone rejected by the builder has become the cornerstone.”[1]  He ends his defense by declaring that salvation can be from no other source.

The image Luke draws for us with his words in verse 13 is humorous.  Peter and John are bold, yet it is evident that they do not belong to the learned guild of those who are in authority over the temple.  They are fishermen.

Not knowing what to say to these two disciples and the healed man who is before them, they do what most good lawyers do (at least the good lawyers in courtroom dramas on TV), they call for a recess and gather in private to discuss the matter.  Since there is nothing they can come up with to punish Peter and John (and people would revolt if they punished someone who had helped one in such a need), they decide they’ll let them go but tell them to stop talking about Jesus!

Calling the Apostles back before them, they order Peter and John not to speak or teach about Jesus. Peter and John respond, essentially asking them who is in charge and saying that they can’t stop talking about what they’ve seen and heard.  The authorities let them go with a warning, but they go out praising God.  At the end of Chapter 4, we learn that the man healed at the beginning of Chapter 3, who had never walked in his life, is over 40 years old.  This guy who is leaping around isn’t, for this era, a young man.

It is interesting that nothing has been resolved.  If the powers that be thought this would end the teachings of Jesus, they were mistaken.

There are two things I want you to take from this passage.  First of all, it is a classic example of what happens when those who are in power are threatened.  The Jewish leaders felt threatened by Jesus.  Now they could have welcomed him and we could imagine how different the world might be, but that wasn’t what happened.  They stuck to what they felt was right, unwilling to look at what was happening before their eyes.

Are we not like that?  This is church, after all, and sometimes it is hard to get a church to change its ways of doing things.  I know, I have been the one designated to help lead change.  The best illustration that I’ve came up with in my last pastorate to describe this work is that trying to change a church is like steering a battleship with a canoe paddle.  It takes a while for the momentum to build up and the ship begins to turn.  Organizations fear change, but we need to remember that change is natural.

We change as we grow up and then as we grow older.  Technology changes, music changes, communication styles change, leadership changes, it’s natural.  So let’s not fear change.

Jesus gave the church its marching orders 2000 years ago.[2]  We are to make disciples.  And for all that time, the message remains the same, but the means to carry it out changes.  There were times people would sit for two, three or even four hour sermons (you’re thinking about your poor bottoms and I’m thinking about the poor preacher).  But that’s changed.  What do we need to change around here to reach people for Jesus Christ?  How can we be more effective?  What might we as individuals need to sacrifice in order to draw in new disciples?

Recently I was talking with some of our staff and this phrase came to me.  “Mission drives all that we do.”  We are here, not to maintain the status quo, but to be about God’s mission.  That was a lesson the authorities in Jerusalem didn’t understand in our reading today.

The second thing I want you to take from this passage is an understanding that when things are going in the right direction, there will be opposition.  From my experience, this seems to be the norm instead of the exception.  It seems as if Satan or the forces of evil don’t like things that are moving forward for good.

When there is excitement in the air and the spirit seems to be moving a congregation forward, it always seems that a wrench is tossed into the gears and things begin to flounder for a while.  What’s important when we face such challenges is that we not give up, or even let up.  We continue in faith, praying and encouraging one another.  There are those who don’t like the idea of change who will immediately jump up and say, “I told you so.”  If they have their way, the church’s movement in the right direction will stall.  If that had been allowed to happen 2000 years ago, the message would have never made it out of Jerusalem.  Because this is a God movement, it succeed.  As Jesus told the authorities on Palm Sunday, if the crowds didn’t shout, God would raise up stones to shout.[3]  If we don’t do God’s work, someone else will.

When I began this series on Acts, I told you it was about a journey.  As the church, we’re still on that journey.  William Easum, a church consultant, wrote a book a number of years ago titled, Sacred Cows make Gourmet Burgers.[4]  You know what a sacred cow is, don’t you?  It’s a program or a thing that’s holding us back but because someone has a vested interest—like the temple authorities in today’s reading.  Nobody is to challenge a sacred cow and it continues to drag the church down. With that in mind, we need to ask ourselves a few questions.  What is it that we need to be doing in our worship to attract new people?  How should we configure and utilize our buildings to make Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church appear open and welcoming to our community?  What groups of people on Skidaway Island or even across the bridge could benefit from our missionary outreach?  You see, it ain’t about us, it’s about reaching out and thereby, as Peter and John did when they left the temple, glorify God.  Amen.

 

©2015

[1] Psalm 118:22.

[2] Acts 1:8

[3] Luke 19:40

[4] William M. Easum, Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Burgers: Ministry Anytime, Anywhere, by Anyone (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995).

Blessing of the Fleet 2015

The Blessing of the Fleet 2015

 Prayer of Thanksgiving, Blessings, and Petitions

Almighty God, at the beginning of creation, your Spirit hovered over the deep.  You separated the waters from the land, set the sun and the stars on their courses across the sky, and called forth every creature.  The seas as well as the lands and the air above were filled with life.  When we consider the works of your creation: the majesty of a pelican fishing in the ocean, the gracefulness of a porpoise playing in the inlet, the beauty of the sun rising above the marsh on a misty morning, we stand in awe.  You are, as the Psalmist proclaimed, our refuge and strength.  Your providence provides for all our needs and your presence is a comfort when the waters roar and foam.  We know the stories of your Son, Jesus the Christ, whose voice was able to calm the storm and the hearts of the disciples.  Therefore, we trust you and pray your continued presence with us.

Gracious Lord, we give thanks for all those who work at and play upon the seas.  We acknowledge our need for the food and products which come from these waters, for the need for goods to be transported across them, and the joy of all who find solace upon them.  Yet, we acknowledge the danger that lurks upon the waters, the storms that move across the surface with winds, dangerous waves, and lightning that makes the wet sky appear angry.  Give us a clear mind to make responsible decisions and keep us safe when we go out upon the deep.

Loving God, we pray for those who work upon the docks, who serve us with a smile. Keep them safe as they work with dangerous equipment and are often hurried in their attempts to respond quickly to our needs.  Bless their work, their machinery and their skill, that boating might be a safe sport for us all to enjoy.

God of the oceans, bless all seafarers as they fulfill their duties and face the dangers of their calling: the sailors and officers of the United States Navy, our Coast Guard and its Auxiliary, wildlife officers, those in the Army Corp of Engineers and their contractors who maintain the channels and markers, the men and women who make their lives from fishing and with shipping as well as those who provide services dockside and in harbors.  Grand them your strength and protection and keep them in the hours of special need.

We ask for your blessings to be upon the boats and all who sail them, along with the dockhands here at the Landing Marina and the Delegal Creek Marina.  Protect us from the dangers of wind and waves and the perils of the deep and help us to relax and be at peace when we sail upon the waters.  We realize that our boats are small and the ocean is large and from our exposed vantage point help us to appreciate the majesty of your creation.  Grant us incredible sunrises and sunsets, mysterious cloud formations, enough wind to propel those who depend upon sails to gracefully navigate, and when we are on the waters at night, more stars than we can count.

We pray this in the name of the one who called the fisherman, the great helmsman of all times, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

 

 

Acts 3: the Journey Begins

As we continue to work our way through the Book of Acts, I’ll begin my reading today with the 3rd Chapter.  If you remember, last week we look at the end of the second chapter, where we had an idyllic vision of the early church.  It was a close-knit community that worshipped and shared together.  However, Jesus’ command was for them to spread the message.  It’s not enough for them (or us) to be a comfortable church isolated from the world.[1]  Jesus wants the message to get out.  In Acts 3, starting in Jerusalem, we witness the Apostles’ first taking the message into town.  They start with Jerusalem on their way to Samaria and the ends of the earth, fulfilling the command Jesus gave at his ascension.[2]  In Chapter 2, the church is empowered with the Spirit and a revival occurs at its doorstep.  In Chapter 3, the outward movement begins with Peter and John heading to the temple to prayer.  Listen:  Read Acts 3:1-10.

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There is a story about Thomas Aquinas visiting Pope Innocent II.  When he arrives in Rome, his holiness is busy counting a large sum of money.  Thomas is taken into the Vatican treasury with the Pope and others responsible for the money.  He’s greeted warmly and then the Pope says, “You see, Thomas, the Church can no longer say, ‘I have no silver and gold.’”  “True, Holy Father,” said Thomas as he looks around in amazement, “and neither can she say, “Stand up and walk.”[3]

Too often we think the answer to our problems is having the resources at hand, but if that’s our attitude, we better have put life jackets on before we try to walk on water.  God wants us to be bold and to trust his Spirit!

We’re told that Peter and John headed to the temple at the appropriate hour to pray.  At this point, they are still observant Jews and we know from antiquity that twice a day, in the early morning and at the ninth hour (3 PM for us), sacrifices were made in the temple that were accompanied by a prayer service. They entered one of the gates, possibly the gate between the Court of the Gentiles and the Court of the Women, which was fashioned out of polished bronze and so spectacular that it was considered more valuable than the gates which were overlaid with silver and gold.  By this gate they spot a lame beggar.[4]

Friends or family of this man, who’d been lame all his life, would take him daily to the temple where he could beg for enough money to purchase food and the necessities for life.  The lame man asked Peter and John for alms.  In such a situation, in a time with no social safety net, giving alms was an expectation of their faith.  If you had the means, it was an obligation.  But they don’t have any money with them.

Perhaps it is because they have been amazed themselves over the recent events that they give the man what they have, faith.  They calling on Jesus to raise him up so that he might walk.  He jumps up, and then not only does he walk, he leaps, for joy no doubt, as he makes his way into the temple where he praises God.   The amazement spreads when those who had seen this man beg by the gate for years, unable to walk, now jumping for joy.  This creates an opportunity for Peter and he seizes upon it as we’ll see in the second half of this Chapter.  Read Acts 3:11-26.

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The scene shifts from inside the temple to a porch or patio, large enough for a crowd, as Peter preaches his second sermon recorded in Acts.  It must have been a sight, the formerly lame man clinging to Peter’s arm as he speaks.  In his first sermon, on Pentecost, Peter began by dispelling a myth going around.  “Men of Jerusalem, these men are not drunk,” he proclaimed in the Second Chapter, verse 14-15.  In this instance, it seems that some must have through that the man’s healing was a result of Peter and John’s power or piety.  They’ve gone from drunks to goody two-shoes in the eyes of the people.

But don’t we sometimes think this way?  That someone’s blessings is because they are so good, that God must be smiling on them?  However, that’s a dangerous way of thinking for two reasons.  First of all, Scripture tells us that God brings rain on the fields of the just and the unjust.[5]  Secondly, such thoughts led us to question the unfortunate and makes it easier for us to say, “They had it coming.”  We should know from Scripture that even the righteous can and will suffer.  Peter reframes the situation, recalling on the traditional Jewish liturgy[6] (The God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the God of our ancestors), as he interprets what God is doing through Jesus’ death and resurrection.  As we see throughout this book, God is the actor, the one who is bringing about a new world order. [7]

I remember hearing Craig Barnes, who is now the President of Princeton Theological Seminary, preach.  Some of you have read one or more of his books in Sunday School classes.  In the sermon, he cited someone of authority who made the statement that there were really on three sermons.  Barnes, who was a pastor at the time, said he’d shared this tidbit of knowledge with his Session.  One of his Elders humbled him by asking, “When are you going to get around to the other two?”  Barnes may be in good company because it seems that Peter only had one sermon—showing what God is doing in Jesus Christ and linking that to God’s mission in the past through Israel while looking forward to the day foretold by God to Abraham, when his family will become a blessing to all people.

As in the Pentecost sermon, Peter convicts the crowd of their implication in Jesus’ death.  Peter uses a series of escalating verbs to increase the tension of his message.  “You handed over, you rejected, and you killed.[8]   But then Peter lets them off a bit, noting that they acted in ignorance, that they didn’t know what they were doing.  In doing so, they fulfilled the Scriptures.  Then, like he did earlier, Peter calls on them to repent and turn to God who is doing something amazing.  He returns to the Jesus and points out how he is the fulfillment of what has been promised the prophets.

What can we learn from this passage, this healing and this sermon from Peter?  First of all, I think Peter illustrates how the church should operate.  First and foremost, we are to be concerned with those, like the lame man, who cannot help themselves and when we have the ability, we’re to offer help.  Yes, we provide a message of hope, but we also do what we can to alleviate suffering.  What might you do this week to assist in reducing suffering of a friend, family member, neighbor or stranger?

Secondly, and maybe even more important, we are not to limit ourselves to what we have on hand. We are to live by faith.  Now, we probably won’t become healers today, although there are places in the world, especially on the mission field, that that seems to happen.  But even if such healing doesn’t happen, we are not to limit ourselves or our goals of helping others to that which we can do by ourselves.  We have God on our side.  We have the church and all of you on our side.  That’s an incredible resource.  We’ve been blessed with God’s Spirit and filled with His love; there is no stopping what we might accomplish through Jesus Christ.  Do we have such faith?  Do we believe that with Christ, we can accomplish far more than we can do on our own?

Finally, we’re to give God credit for all that we are able to do in the name of Jesus.  Let’s face it, without God’s providence, our breaths would draw short.  God provides us with a bountiful world.  God has given us life in a rich and blessed land.  God has instilled talents in each of us.  These can be used for making a life and for giving back in a gracious response to the author of life, the one who gives us hope for life everlasting in Jesus Christ.

In summary:  1. Help where you can, 2. don’t limit yourself, and 3. give thanks.  Amen.

[1]William H. Willimon, Acts: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Louisville, John Knox Press, 1988), 43.

[2] Acts 1:8

[3] Story credited to   by F. F. Bruce, Acts: The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 84.

[4] F. F. Bruce, 83.  Bruce draws upon the writings of Josephus.  See especially note 7.

[5] Matthew 5:45.

[6] Bruce, 87.

[7] See the quote at the top of the bulletin from Darrell L. Bock, The Theology of Luke and Acts (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 95.

[8] Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Acts (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 86.

How, Then, Shall We Live?

how then shall we liveWayne Muller, How, Then, Shall We Live?  Four Simple Questions that Reveal the Beauty and Meaning of Our Lives (New York: Bantam Books, 1996), 289 pages.

 

Wayne Muller is an ordained minister (he doesn’t give a denomination), a psychotherapist and the founder of “Bread for the Journey,” a ministry in Northern New Mexico.  In this book he addresses four basic questions: “Who Am I? What do I love?  How shall I live knowing that I will die?  What is my gift to the family of the earth?”  Muller draws upon his experiences in working with people (especially the poor, those with AIDS, and those in his clinical practice) and a vast knowledge of Christian, Jewish, Chinese, Buddhist and Native American spirituality.   Each section of the book provides numerous stories and quotes as well as exercises to help the reader come to his or her own answer to the question.   Early in the book, he tells a story from the Buddha in which he equates a story with a raft.  It’s not to be carried as baggage, but to be used to help you get to the other side of a river.  Like with a raft, once the lesson is learned, a story is to be let go.  (36-7)

Each section has numerous stories that vary in length from half a page to a few pages.  Although the stories focus on the same topic, they don’t necessarily flow together.   This allows the book to be read as a devotional, a few pages at a time.   The strength of the book is in the diversity of stories from around the world.  If any areas are underrepresented, it would be Islamic and Hindu authors (although he does quote the Sufi poet Rumi and a Hindu holy man).  This book is a storehouse of knowledge.  For Christians that may have a problem with so many references to non-Christian sources, I would remind them of the doctrine of “Common Grace.”  Muller doesn’t offer clichés as answers to his questions.  Instead, he encourages us to struggle with the questions ourselves.   This is the second book by Muller I’ve read. The first was Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest.  I recommend them both.

Quotes:

“Within the sorrow, there is grace.  When we come close to those things that break us down, we touch those things that also break us open.  And in breaking open, we uncover our true nature.”  (26)

“For many of us, the hardest thing to accept is the way our life has gone.   We didn’t have the family we hoped for…  I have to accept that I will be who I am and make some peace with it. It is a little sad, and yet I also feel some relief.”  (62)

“Our own true nature is not something extraordinary; in fact, it is quite ordinary, an inevitable proportion of our daily life.”  (64)

“The spiritual life is not a process of addition, but rather of subtraction.”  (99)

“When you use all your strength to fight your death, you are losing all the energy you have left to live.” (167)

“We mistakenly believe that if we accept our deaths, we will begin to die.   Curiously, the reverse is true: When we accept we are already dying we are set free to live.” (168)

“Love, serve, and remember”  -Indian guru Neem Karoli Baba (197)

“To attain knowledge, add things every day.  To attain wisdom, remove things every day.”  -Tao Te Ching (209)

“When our days are complicated and fast, things get lost.  All too often it can be precious things that get lost—a sunset, a walk, a gentle word, an opportunity to be kind…” (211)

“Gratefulness arises naturally from this fertile balance of honoring both our sorrow and our joy.  We name our sorrows so that we can bring care and attention to our wounds, so that we may heal.  At the same time we give thanks for the innumerable gifts and blessings bestowed upon us daily, lest we forget how rich we are.”  (221)

“Gratefulness slows time.”  -222

“Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are.  When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.”  -Lao Tzu (224)

“Your lamp was lit from another lamp.  All God wants is your gratitude for that.” –Rumi (227)

“’Love,’ wrote Jean Vanier, ‘doesn’t mean doing extraordinary or heroic things.  It means knowing how to do ordinary things with tenderness.’” (239)

“Real joy is to be found in the balance between giving and taking.  Like breathing, we must both inhale and exhale.”  (266)

“As the bee takes the essence of the flower and flies without destroying its beauty and perfume, so wander in this life.”  -The Buddha (273)

Our work with ourselves can be an invaluable gift to those who are in need of strong and faithful company.” (274)

 

The World of the Salt Marsh (A Book Review)

CharlesSalt marsh Seabrook, The World of the Salt Marsh: Appreciating and Protecting the Tidal Marshes of the Southeastern Atlantic Coast (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2013), 397 pages including an index and notes

The salt marsh is an amazing landscape that is often overlooked or taken for granted.  Per square foot, it is one of the most productive areas on our planet and serves many functions: protecting the inland areas from storms, providing recycling and cleansing services to the water, and serving as a nursery for the oceans.  And everything must work together.  When the balance is lost, the marsh suffers and in the long term we suffer.

I picked up this book in an attempt to learn more about my new home.  Although I grew up near the marsh in North Carolina, I never really studied it.  Seabrook, a science reporter with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is a native of Saint John’s Island in South Carolina (one of the historic African-American island communities–the Gullah-Geechee culture–that is found in the islands along the Southeast Coast).  In these pages, he does a wonderful job of sharing the history and culture of those who live along the marsh; informing us of the animals that depend on this terrain; explaining the science, geology and hydrology that makes the marsh work, and presenting the problems facing the salt marsh.  Seabrook’s area of study is the South Atlantic Blight (the shoreline from Cape Hatteras to Cape Canaveral).

Seabrook explains the complexity of the marsh.  Twice a day, tides move in and out, flushing the marsh with water and sea life only to withdraw it six hours later in which marsh gives some of its riches back to the ocean.  This cycle helps both marsh and the ocean, but it is more complicated because fresh water is continually introduced from the land.  All of this, mixed in with grass and snails, oysters and crabs, fish and animals, works together to efficiently produce biomass and to cleanse out harmful elements that might destroy the marsh or the oceans.

Seabrook shows, through examples, how little changes can cause major problems.  The building of a tidal gate in Savannah, designed to help keep the shipping channels deeper, increased the salinity in the Savannah wetlands which had been a fresh water preserve.  The aftermath was dead cypress and the end of wonderful stripe bass fishing as neither the tree nor fish could take to the increase salinity. Other developments, such as the Diamond Causeway (which I drive over several times a week), reduced the salinity in the upper marsh and had an adverse impact on oysters and crabs which was one of the reasons for the closing of a packing factory in Pinpoint.  Another problem is the development along the estuaries that feed into the marsh.  As trees and natural vegetation is replaced with concrete, asphalt, houses, along with the draining that is needed for golf courses and parking lots, the amount of fresh water (often tainted from oils) going into the marsh causes adversity for salt water species, especially the important grass in salt water marshes.  Contaminates such as mercury are even more harmful as he shows in an example of a polluter in the Brunswick, Georgia.  When the plant was finally shut down, the owners and managers all received prison sentences for their role in flushing large amounts of mercury into the river that has affect the animal life not only around Brunswick but up and down the coastline.

Much of what Seabrook writes about is loss.  Turtles that die in nets, shrimping that is having a harder time competing with factory farms in other parts of the world, native cultures (or at least native for the last 400 years) who are being forced out by developments.  But he also speaks of hope.   There have been odd groups that have come together to protect the marsh and as we learn how valuable the marsh is, more people see the importance of protecting it.  I hope people read this book and realize what a valuable asset the marsh is and truly appreciate it as more than just a beautiful place from which to observe the rising or the setting of the sun.

One range of numbers that Seabrook mentions several places and which has me pondering my impact of living in this area is 10-15%.  It appears that when hard surfaces covers more than 10-15% of the land feeding the estuaries that feed the marsh, damage occurs to the saline balance (as well as an increase in pollutants).  With the increase in development and the sprawl that is occurring all over the country, but especially in the Southeast, in many places we have surpassed the threshold and need to be very careful less the marsh disappears and we become more exposed and lose an important source of food.  Another fact that stuck with me is how special this area is, in the center of the Atlantic Blight, with some of the highest tides in the world.  Tides here average nearly nine feet which are a lot more than what I was used to where I grew up a couple hundred miles north.

Yes, I recommend this book!  However, I will note for my readers who are in the Carolinas or Florida, that Seabrook primarily focuses on the marsh in Georgia and the southern half of the South Carolina coast (south of Charleston).  I would have liked to have learned more about the issues going on further north (there is the issue of deepening the Cape Fear River) and in Florida (where development had a head start over the areas concentrated on within this book).

Acts 2:37-47

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Acts 2:37-47

May 31, 2015

 

On the church calendar, today is Trinity Sunday.  I’m not really preaching on the mystery of the Trinity except that in our story we see all three persons of the Trinity (Father, Son and Spirit) in fellowship and reaching out to those who responds to Peter’s great sermon following the events of Pentecost.  Peter lays out what God is doing for us through Jesus Christ and as foretold through the Hebrew Bible.  Let me recall a comic strip for you…

Do you recall the strip, B. C.?  A while ago, on Good Friday, there was a strip showing two ants, obviously in love, sitting on a board…  One of the ants asks:  “Do you love me enough to die for me, Jake?”  “Sure, Honey,” the other ant responds.  Then she asks, “Do you love me enough to die for me if I wasn’t even born yet?”  Jake, the other ant, responds, “That’s asking a lot from a guy, ain’t it?”  “Some guys,” the first ant sighs.  The final frame of the strip is a wide angle shot and you realize the board upon which the ants are sitting while having their conversation is the beam of the cross.[1]

It’s hard to imagine a love for others so strong that someone would die for those not yet born (or for those who hate and despise the one giving up his life), yet that’s what God does for us through Jesus on the cross. He came to us as a babe born in a stall with animals to parents who would so become refugees.  He lived his life doing good and showing God’s love for the world…  And when the world had enough of him, he was crucified and buried in a borrowed tomb.

But the story doesn’t end there for we all know that he overcame the grave and lives even today… On that first Pentecost, Peter preaches a sermon, telling the crowd about how Jesus continues to live and is now at the right hand of God the Father.  This was a shock to the crowd whom Peter accuses of helping to crucify our Lord and Messiah.[2]

As we continue our look through the Book of Acts, I’ll begin my reading today with the 37th verse of the 2nd Chapter.

###

 

 

In his sermon on that first Pentecost, Peter doesn’t mince his words.  He points out to the crowd the role they played in crucifying the Messiah, a troubling charge as we see in the opening verse of this passage.  They are horrified at thought of what they had done and they interrupt Peter’s sermon to ask what they should do.  Their request sounds like a desperate plea from someone who worries that it might be too late.

Peter, like John the Baptist at the beginning of Luke’s gospel, tells them that they must repent and be baptized.  Repentance is something Luke is serious about.  One half of the references to repentance in the New Testament are found in either Luke’s gospel or in Acts.  Conversion or salvation involves change.  Repentance, in the way Luke uses the word, is akin to its Hebrew meaning.  It means, literally, to turn around, to go in a different direction. [3]

Luke’s account here has Peter issuing this call followed by a promise to those whom God calls that their sins may be forgiven and they will receive the Holy Spirit.  Then, again in the style of John the Baptist, Peter cries out to his listeners: “save yourselves from this corrupt generation.”  Although “save yourself” is one way of translating this, in light of Luke’s usage of the term it might be better translated as “receive salvation.”  Luke does not buy into the idea we can save ourselves.[4]  That’s God’s job.

After hearing Peter’s sermon, 3,000 people accept his message and receive baptism.  3,000 people at one event!  That’s far more lives changed in one day than Christ changed in three years of ministry.  This event fulfills Jesus’ prophecy that the disciples will be doing even greater works than him.[5]  Of course, they are fortified with the Holy Spirit.

But notice, Luke doesn’t dwell on the large number of conversions.  Today, counting things is how we evaluate our effectiveness.  We’d think Luke would be ecstatic about the number.  And I am sure he was, but he doesn’t brag about it, but moves on because he understands there is something more important than the individual, it’s building God’s kingdom.  We’ve lost this urgency to build up the church.  Starting in the early 19th Century, especially with the revivals of Finney and other revivalist in mid-19th century on through the modern era, there has been over-emphasis on numbers.  The focus is on individual salvation.  But Luke doesn’t dwell on this; he’s more concerned with how salvation of the individual plays out within the community’s fellowship and worship.[6]

Let me explain what I mean.  I have done some work on a long-forgotten but in his day a well-known revivalist, the Reverend A. B. Earle.  He was one of the leading revivalists in the 1858-59 Awakening in the Northeast and during the Civil War led large citywide revivals in Great Britain.  Following the war, he was invited by the ministerial union of San Francisco to work on the West Coast and he spent nine months of 1866 and 67 preaching in California, Oregon and Nevada.  He kept good notes of the number of conversions in each town.  He encouraged that those converted become involved in a local church.  A few months after he was gone, the Congregational pastor in Petaluma, California asked around of other pastors and discovered that nearly all those who had joined their churches during A. B. Earle’s revivals had stopped participating.[7]

As important as the individual is and the change within the individual’s life, what’s more important is how we live out our Christian life within this community, the church.  We’re called to exhibit God’s kingdom to the world.[8]  One commentator on Acts notes that Luke’s shift from individual conversions to the role of the community here is purposeful.  Luke’s main concern is the establishment of the church through which God’s kingdom is advanced.  You can’t have Lone Ranger Christians.  For us to fulfill our discipleship, we must be in a community.

At the risk of bragging, let me tell you a story.  Three weeks ago in Pittsburgh, the Cardinals were in town to play the Pirates.  The Cards are leading the Central Division of the National League and anytime the Pirates can beat them, they can move up a game.   On this afternoon, things were looking good for the Cards.  They had a man on second and another on third and no outs.  The next player at bat hit a high line drive.  It appeared to be going in the gap between centerfield and right field.  Both base runners took big leads as they waited for the ball to drop.  Then, miraculously, Neil Walker, the Pirate second baseman, learned how to fly.  He snatched the ball out of the air and then fired it to the third basemen who tagged out the runner and then threw the ball back to the shortstop now covering second.  It was a thing of beauty, a triple play.  And even better, the Pirates went on to beat the Cards and they won two of the three games of the series.

Although Walker made an incredible play, he couldn’t have done it by himself.  He needed the third baseman and the shortstop and let’s not forget the other teammates who moved into position just in case there was an overthrown ball.

The church is like a baseball team.  There is not a lot we can do as individuals, but working together and focused on God’s will and not our own desires, while inspired by the Holy Spirit, we can accomplish great things.  But it takes everyone and the focus has to be on what God wants and needs us to do.  We’re not to glorify ourselves.  “Thy will be done,” we pray, but do we mean it?

Luke tells us in verse 42, that these new converts “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”  They listened to the teaching about Jesus, they enjoyed one another’s company sharing meals, and they prayed together.  Luke goes on to tells us that everyone was in awe of this community because of what they were doing.  Yes, there was some miraculous deeds done by the Apostles, but just as important there were some generous actions that were just as miraculous taken by these new converts.

Our passage ends with a description of this community in which sharing—time, food, money, talents—is paramount and goes together with worship and the praise of Almighty God.  This community is so inviting that it keeps drawing in new people, new converts.

What can we take from this passage?  What might we learn from it?  As I’ve said, too often in our culture, the needs of individuals are often lifted up over the needs of the community.  But in the community as described in Acts, such a concept would be foreign, even idolatrous.  The community in Acts, as described at the end of Chapter 2, is reflecting Jesus’ face to the world, which can best be done by the church working and praying and serving together.  And we’re told in the last verse that this community had the goodwill of all the people.  Why not, who wouldn’t want to be a part of such a fellowship.

I’m looking forward to our picnic this evening and pray that in breaking bread together, we can capture a bit of the true nature of the church as it was in the days after Pentecost. Let’s show Jesus’ face, let’s be the community illustrated in this passage.  Amen.

©2015

[1] B.C. (14 April 1995).

[2] Acts 2:14-36 (especially verses 35-36).

[3] Darrell L. Bock, A Theology of Luke and Acts (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 262.

[4] Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Acts (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 80-81.

[5]John 14:12,  F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts (Grand Rapids: Eerdamns, 1986), 79.

[6] Gaventa, 81.

[7] Charles Jeffrey Garrison, “Bringing in Sheaves: The Western Revivals of the Reverend A. B. Earle, 1866-1867” American Baptist Quarterly XXV, 3 (Fall 2006), 257.

[8] One of the Great Ends of the Presbyterian Church is the “exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the World.”  Presbyterian Church USA, The Book of Order, F-0304.

Pentecost 2015

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

May 24, 2015

Pentecost Sunday:  Acts 2:1-16

 

 

When I was in seminary, Ken, a fellow student from Japan, found America’s “alternative newspapers” worthy of his attention.  I am speaking of the papers found next to the grocery store checkouts—stellar pieces of journalistic excellence such as the National Inquirer.  If there was something in an issue he felt we should know, he would inform us.  One such article was about a pastor who spontaneously combusted in the pulpit.  As we were studying to become preachers, this was something worth noting and became a big joke among those of us who lived on the 3rd Floor of Fisher Hall.

It was during this time that I somehow obtained the honor of being the first student of our class to preach at chapel.  The morning of chapel, a fellow student went into the hall and “borrowed” fire extinguishers from the walls by the doors and placed one on each side of the pulpit, just in case.  This was done with no explanation and most people didn’t notice until I was half way through the sermon…  On about the fourth pew back sat my fellow classmates from 3rd Floor Fisher.  I notice one of them pointing to the fire extinguishers and poking the guy beside him and this continued down the line.

As I waxed eloquently about some deep theological point of eternal significance, and much of the audience struggled to stay awake, this one row began to laugh uncontrollably.  I buried my head in my notes, knowing that I ever looked up it would be over.  Most of those present that morning never got the joke, they just wondered what the fire extinguishers were doing by the pulpit and assumed everyone from 3rd Floor Fisher was rude.

Another story.  When I lived in Whiteville, North Carolina, a few miles out of town was a little white church down by the intersection of two rural roads.  There were never more than a half-dozen cars in its parking lot on Sunday mornings when I passed it heading to church. I never stopped.  I wish I had, but there was something about its name that made me reluctant, yet curious…  The name, painted in red on an old board and nailed to a pine tree out by the road went something like this: “Fire-baptized Fundamentalist, Primitive Free-will Baptist Church.”

What is it about fire that both incites our imagination and also causes fear?  Fire is used in worship—from the candles on our table to Israel’s sacrifices.  It is also a sign of God’s presence from the burning bush to the cloud leading Israel across the desert, on to Elijah’s triumph over the prophets of Baal and the visions of Isaiah and John of God’s throne with the flaming altars.  And then there is Pentecost, and God pouring out his Spirit as with tongues of fire…  Fire is the perfect metaphor for the Spirit, because it is hard to control and dangerous, but desperately needed.  Doesn’t that sound like God’s Spirit?  Today, as we continue working our way through Acts, let us listen to what happened on this day…  Read Acts 2:1-16

###

 

What a difference a day makes?  Think about how one day can seemingly change the world.  September 11th: we’ll never forget it.  November 22nd: the day Kennedy was shot. December 7th: the Day of Infamy. October 29th: the crash of the stock market. August 4th: the beginning of World War I.  All these are days in which the world seemed to stand still for a moment and, once passed, we found ourselves in a new era.

Included right up there with Easter, the day of resurrection; Good Friday, the Day of Atonement for Christians; and Christmas, the day we celebrate the birth of our Savior, the day of Pentecost is such a defining moment for the church.  On this day the church was given a jump-start; on this day the church became a living and growing entity.  Pentecost is our birthday although in a way it is just the last major event that began with the crucifixion.  In a way, the Resurrection, Ascension and Pentecost are all a part of the same movement.[1]  God is at work undoing the powers of sin and establishing an eternal reign.

This morning, let’s consider three truths of Pentecost.  First: God is the primary actor.  God takes the initiative and without whom, our efforts are in vain.  Second, there is a link between the Old and New Covenants.  The festival represents the giving of the law, and on Pentecost, the Spirit comes writing the law into the hearts of men and women, fulfilling Jeremiah’s prophecy.[2] Finally, God’s action on Pentecost reminds us the true nature of the church is multicultural.  The separation of people that occurred after the Tower of Babel has been undone.  God has called us all back together with a common language, the language of grace, and with a common focus, Jesus Christ.

First, let’s start with the story and consider the role God plays.  As dawn broke on this day in question, there were a handful of believers, 120 or so.  From this small beginning, the Christian faith now claims approximately 1/3 of the world’s population.

As most of you know, this past year I went through training to become a firefighter.  One of the many videos that was recommended we watched showed the development of a fire.  Silent Night was playing in the background.  What started as a small spark with a frayed electrical cord in the tree had, before the song ended, consumed the entire room.  At first, it was just a spark, then it smoldered as it built up gases that filled the room and soon combusted and, in less than 3 minutes, everything was blazing.  Fire can be unpredictable and can builds exponentially.  Fire can destroy and purify.

That’s what happened to these “tongues of flames” that fell upon the small group of believers who’d gathered on Pentecost.  Filled with God’s Spirit, they went out setting the world on fire.  When the morning began, they sat around not knowing what to do.  They had been given a mission, Jesus was pretty specific before his departure that they’re to take the gospel to the ends of the earth.  But they are like a car with no gas.  They have a purpose, but no energy.  So they wait.  They wait knowing Jesus has promised his Spirit.   They wait not knowing what to expect.  They wait in the morning calm, wondering…

This motley collection of men and women are not the type of people you’d think could change the world.  And they don’t change the world.  That’s part of the point of the story.  God’s the primary actor here.  Or, another way of looking at it, God is the playwright and the director.  Without God’s intervention, nothing would have happened.  And the same is true in our lives, when we encounter the gospel.  God can use us all; we don’t have to be sophisticated or multi-talented.  The primary skill needed is faithfulness and trust in the power of God.   If God is for us, no one can stand against us.  If God is against us, well, then we’re in trouble…

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

The two flames on our Presbyterian cross represent the two covenants—the Old and the New Testament.  The flame of the Old Testament was the giving of the law on Sinai.  The other flame represents the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, or the fulfillment of the prophecy from Jeremiah that God will write the law onto the hearts of believers.

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

The final aspect of Pentecost I want us to consider is how this event serves as a model for God’s intention for the world.  Consider the group who’d gathered on this morning.  They were all Jews.  Yet first century Judaism was more multi-cultural than they were.  Most of the group were from Galilee, a territory to the north of Jerusalem.   They gather, a homogeneous lot, without an idea as to what would happen.  Soon a violent wind destroys the morning calm.  Luke describes the coming of the Spirit as a gale blowing into the house where they’d gathered.  Picture the curtains blowing, the dishes rattling in the cupboards.  They are frightened, for the afternoon breezes are hours away.  “What’s going on,” they wonder?  Luke goes on to say that the wind was like tongues of fire; like a wildfire that gains momentum consuming all that’s around.  And those who had gathered begin to speak, in all different kinds of languages.

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

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

The story of Pentecost is really about the power of the gospel.  God’s power is beyond anything we can ever imagine.  God can create a community from a diverse group; God can bring together enemies, people who are culturally different; people who don’t even speak the same language.  Pentecost is about the power of the gospel to heal rifts within society.  Pentecost also reminds us of God’s true intention for his coming kingdom?  Are we ready for such a world?  Are we ready to experience God’s power?  If so, pray for the Spirit to fill your lives and the life of our fellowship.  And be ready!  Amen.

 

©2015

[1] William H. Willimon, Acts: Intrepretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), 28.

[2] Jeremiah 31:33.

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

Tossing dice

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

 Acts 1:12-26

May 17, 2015

 

Before I get into my sermon today, I want us to do something.  I would like everyone who has plans to travel this summer to stand up.  I know many of you are heading to cooler climates, some like the Gandelots have already left.  But if you plan to head up north for a few months or just be on the road for a day or two this summer, please stand and let me offer a prayer for traveling mercies:

Lord Jesus, you and your disciples were constantly traveling around Galilee, the surrounding providences and to Jerusalem.  Today, thanks to technology, we can travel great distances easily and sometimes we assume we have everything under control and then a tire goes flat or our luggage is lost or we come down with an illness.  O God, we pray for your mercies to be upon those who are traveling and who are away this summer.  While in transient and at other locations, help us to see your presence in the wonders of your creation.  When we face roadblocks, give us patience.  When we encounter difficulties, guide us through the troubles with your Holy Spirit.  And when it is time for us to return home, give us safe travels and a joyful reunion.  This we pray in your name.  Amen.

 

The Acts of the Apostles, which we’ll be working through for the next several months, is a book about an incredible journey of the gospel going out to the ends of the world.  But in our reading today, we have lull before the furry of travels by the Apostles as they wait for the Holy Spirit.  Read Acts 1:12-26.

###

 

My mother would probably never forgive me for saying this (so we’ll keep it between you and me), but her great virtue had a flipside vice.  Her virtue was that she always thinking about how others felt and one of the greatest sins in her eyes was to say or do something that was hurtful to another person.  From my mom, I learned empathy firsthand and it’s a wonderful gift.  On the other hand, not only did she worry about other people’s feelings, she spent too much time worrying about what people thought of her and tried to instill this concern in her children. This brings me to a game night at the church of my childhood…

I was probably 13 or maybe 14 and we’d had a potluck dinner at church.  Afterwards there was a friendly game of charades.  Someone was acting out something, and our goal was to guess what they were doing.  He or she (I don’t remember who) bent over and pretended to throw something on the floor.  My brother, who is a year younger than me but obviously, at this young age, more worldly, shouted out “playing craps.”  It wasn’t the right answer, but everyone laughed except for my mom.  I laughed although I had no idea of what crabs, or shooting dice, meant.  The answer, I believe, was marbles.

On the drive home (my father must not have been with us that evening), mom lectured us about her embarrassment.  “Everyone is going to think we’re a household of gamblers,” she said.  I can assure you, we weren’t.  Had I been a bit more sophisticated in my Bible knowledge at that time, I might have pulled out this passage in defense of my brother.   “See mom, throwing dice is in the Good Book.”  I doubt that would have helped any more than throwing kerosene on a fire.

This week, in our passage, we are waiting.  Jesus has ascended into the heavens and the promised Spirit has yet to descend upon the disciples to give them the power to take the gospel to the ends of the known world within a generation.   If you look at the beginning of our reading, you’ll see that the disciples have returned to the Jerusalem, to the “Upper Room.”  Perhaps this was the place where they had enjoyed the Passover with Jesus or maybe the room in which they gathered when they heard the rumors that Jesus was alive and then were surprised with his presence amongst them.

In that room, they all bunk together.  Luke uses the same list of disciples here as he did in the fifth chapter of his gospel, with the exception of omitting Judas the betrayer and shuffling the names, moving Peter to the forefront, perhaps indicating the prominent role he’ll play in the early church.[1]   Also in the group, we’re told that there was Mary, the mother of Jesus, and other women followers. Also in the group were Jesus’ brothers.  That Upper Room must have either been large or it was crowded.  We’re told they devoted themselves to prayer.  We’re not told what they were praying, but I has suspicion that one of their petitions had to do with upgraded accommodations.

Next, we’re told that Peter addresses all the believers (there were 120 of them).  He reinterprets what Judas did in light of scripture.  Instead of him ranting on about what kind of lowlife would betray a friend, as Judas had done and so had Peter, Peter points to the positive side, saying that what Judas did fulfilled scripture.  It doesn’t get Judas off the hook for his actions, but it does show how God can take the misdeeds of a wayward humanity and bring about good.  Peter is providing this insight as a way to encourage them to make a decision on someone to replace Judas.  The need for 12 apostles appear also to be a human need to fulfill the kingdom. Twelve is a significant number going back to the tribes of Israel, the number of disciples chosen by Jesus, and then moving forward to the various uses of the number in Revelation: the twelve candlesticks, the twelve elders and so on…

Before Luke gets to the decision about a replacement for Judas, he tells us what happened to the disciple they’re replacing.  All the Gospel speak of Judas as a betrayer, but only Matthew and Luke (here in Acts) tells us what happened to him after Jesus’ death.  Both speak of his death (in Matthew, he hangs himself and Luke tells us he fell down and busted open).  Both accounts speak of the property purchased with his silver payment (the property known as the Field of Blood).  As with his death, there are some differences in how the field came into Judas’ possession, but they both have the same name of the place.  Matthew tells us it was a place used to bury foreigners and Luke doesn’t contradict this by saying it became a desolate place and there was nothing living there.[2]   As for reconciling the differences, I’m not sure it is possible or necessary, but at the risk of being too gory, one ancient theologian attempting to reconcile these stories by suggesting that the rope cut through Judas’ neck and he fell to the ground and busted open.[3]

After a description of Judas’ demise, Peter continues on with the need for another apostle.  He sets out criteria:  they must have been around since the time John was baptizing and they must be a witness of Jesus’ resurrection.  There are two names who meet the criteria: Joseph, called Barsabbas, who is also known as Justin.  This guy must have been in a witness protection program or invading the IRS to have been known by so many aliases.  The other is Matthias, of whom we know nothing.  They pray, then they casts lots, and Matthias is chosen.

Now, before we begin to worry about the wisdom of selecting church leaders in this manner, which I would not suggest, we should remember two things.  The candidates had to meet the criteria for office and the disciples prayed and although it appears the choice was left to chance, they had put the choice into God’s hands.  Interestingly, however, we never from either of the two candidates again, but then the same can be said for most of the disciples.  We’ll just hear about a few of the Apostles in the next dozen chapters, after which God raises up another Apostle, “Paul.”  Paul will take center stage for the last half of the book.

What we can take from this passage and use in our lives to help us to be better disciples.  Certainly, according to Peter’s criteria, the days of the Apostles were over upon the deaths of those who had been with Jesus from baptism to resurrection.  But that’s okay because the promised Spirit will take over in the next chapter and lead the church forward.  We could deal with the gory parts of the passage and suggest that if we come across ill-gotten gain, we should use it to meet a need that wouldn’t benefit us directly, such as providing a burial location for foreigners…  But that, too, is kind of stretching it.  So let me suggest this…

How do we make a decision when we have two equally viable choices before us?  From what we’re told, Matthias and What’s-his-names were both equally qualified.  There are times when we have two good options and we have to decide between them.  It might be going to college and we have two good schools with nearly equal scholarship offers on the table.  It might between two possible spouses.  It might be between two jobs or two locations or you’re moving to a new location and you got to pick out between two similar houses live in or two worshipping communities to join.  Too often we have this idea that matches are made in heaven, that there is only one right answer, and that we have be super diligent and spiritual in order to make the right decision.  Sadly, such emphasis on the right decision leaves us feeling that other options would be a failure and we’d be somehow eternally doomed.  It’s as if we’re a rat in a maze and there is only one combination of turns that will lead us to the cheese.  But that’s not the way God works.

Where we have two equally qualified choices before us and when we have prayed over the decision, when we have gone to God for direction and realize that both options are equally viable, we should accept that regardless of which decision we make, God will be with us and working through us.  Instead of focusing on “getting it just right,” we need to step back and accept that regardless of what we do, God is in charge and if God allows us the freedom to decide for ourselves, we should be thankful (and give thanks) and move forward trusting that we will continue to be blessed as we live into God’s future.  And when we take a wrong turn, we ask forgiveness and move toward the right path.

The early church was known as “The Way.” We are on a journey (we are on The Way) and there will be many possibilities ahead in our personal lives as well as in our corporate lives.  “It’s not so much what you do,” said the Greek philosopher Epictetus when speaking on happiness.  “It’s how you do it.”[4]  Likewise, as disciples of Jesus, it might not be the path we take that’s important, but how we travel that path.  Ask yourselves, do you glorify God in your journeys?  Do you travel reflecting Jesus’ face?  Amen.

 

©2015

[1] Cf, Luke 6:14-16

[2] See Matthew 27:3-10.

[3] Bede, Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles 1.18b, as quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Acts (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2006), 16-17.

[4] Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred (New York, MJF Books, 1998), 92.

Acts: The Start of a Grand Adventure

mother's day

My Mother and Father, 1959

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

May 10, 2015

Acts 1:1-11

 

We’re setting off on a new tack this morning, as we work our way through the book of Acts.  The official title given to this book is The Acts of the Apostles, but it’s really about the acts of God through the Apostles.  Today, on the Sunday before Accession Day, the day in the church’s calendar in which we recall Jesus’ leaving the disciples behind, we’re looking at the opening of this book.  Unfortunately, the way Scripture is laid out, you miss the natural connection with the Gospel of Luke and Acts.  Both are written by Luke, addressed to same person, Theophilius (a name that literally means lover or beloved of God).  In the Gospel of Luke, we have the story of Jesus and in the book of Acts, we have the story of the church.  As we’re going to see, its one grand adventure, which is what church should be, a grand adventure directed by God.[1]  Let me tell you a story…

In early January, before school resumed for the winter term of my senior year in college, my brother and I drove my parents and my younger brother to the airport.  It took both of our cars for they each had two large suitcases and two carry-on.  Airlines were more lenient in those days and besides, they were moving to Japan and the rest of their stuff, which was traveling by ship, would take two or three months to arrive.

It was a morning of mixed emotions and because we were there much earlier than we needed to be, there was plenty of time for expressing such feelings.   Mom, especially, wasn’t quite sure what they were getting themselves into and was reluctant to go.  This might have been the hardest thing she ever did, leaving us behind.  My father and younger brother (who had just turned 12), were excited about the grand adventure upon which they were embarking.  After an hour of nervous goodbyes, the three of them walked out and boarded a Piedmont Airlines plane for the first leg of their journey.  My brother and I waited until the plane was in the air and then returned home, a little sad as our world was changing, but we got over it as we prepared for our next semester in college.

When we think of people heading off on a journey and the mixed emotions of excitement and sadness that goes with the departure, it is the one who is departing whom we expect will have the grand adventure.  And that was true for my parents, but not completely, for the four years they were in Japan, my brother and had many of our own adventures.  My mother was sad about leaving and afterwards would even say that she still had regrets because when she returned from Japan we were done with college and spread out geographically.  Things would never be the same… They never are. It would have been that way regardless of had they stayed home or moved overseas.  Sadly, she no longer remembers her adventures and is unable to talk on the phone.   So for her, I’ll wish all you moms (and those who have or have had mothers, a Happy Mother’s Day.

Now let’s go back in time, to learn about another group of folks sending off their best friend, the Lord Jesus.  Read Acts 1:1-11

###

 

One of the most interesting southern revivalists during the 19th century was Sam Jones.  He’s from Cartersville, up in the hills of northeast Georgia.  “Golden Rule” Jones, as he was also called, was known for his humor.  One unique aspect of Jones’ revivals was “quittin’ meetings.”  The new converts would publicly confess their vices: cussing, drinking (Jones was a teetotaler), smoking, gossiping, running around, and so forth.  Once they confessed, they promised to quit. This was a 100 years before the “just say no” campaigns and I’m not sure they had any better track record back then than today, but that’s not my point.

At one of these meetings, “Golden Rule” Jones asked a convert what she planned to quit.  “I ain’t been doing nothing,” she said, “and I’m going to quit doing that too.”[2]   I expect there are many people in her category. She’s right, you know.  Disciples are created to “do.”  We’ve been created for mission and that’s what the books of Acts is about.  At his ascension, Jesus commissions the disciples with a task and all disciples that come later are given that same task.  We’re not here to worry about when the kingdom is going to be fulfilled or anything else, where here to be Jesus’ witnesses!  As I’ve said, we’re created for mission!

          Now, this doesn’t mean that we’re all going to be sent to the Sudan or to China or onto the foreign mission field.  Yes, there are those who are called to such places and one of the ways we fulfill our calling is to help support them.  But even those of us who never have such an opportunity to serve in an exotic place are called to do mission wherever we find ourselves.  You see, our mission is to be sent to and love those who do not know Jesus Christ.  This involves telling people about Jesus and caring for them.  We don’t have to go very far to find people in need of hearing a message of hope.  The mission field begins at our doorstep.

I’ve heard it said “the Christian faith is more about doing than about being.”  Doing is in a large part being a Christian.  Of course, our salvation does not depend upon our doing.  If it did, that would mean we would have to earn it and we’d all be in a heap of trouble.  It’s kind of hard for us mere mortals to impress God with our capabilities!

Our salvation is secured by Jesus and what he did for us.  Instead of working to achieve righteousness, we are righteousness because of him.  We do good because God, through Jesus Christ, has already done more than enough for us.  Out of gratitude and thanksgiving, we give back a portion of our blessings and this doesn’t just mean giving money when we pass the plates.  That’s important, but a disciple must also give hope to those who do not know Christ: that’s our mission!

In 1988, Nike came out with has become one of the most recognized corporate slogan in the world during a very successful marketing campaigns.  Do you remember the slogan that went with their swish logo?  It was….  “JUST DO IT!”   There are a number of books written about this slogan.  People have even credited it for helping them break addictions, encouraging them to move out of abusive relationships, to start businesses and, of course, to buy sneakers.[3]

JUST DO IT!  This brings us back to the disciples in our scripture reading who are just standing there looking up into the sky.  In a cloud, Jesus departs.  He’s no longer there to be seen, yet the disciples still gaze into the heavens.  Then, two men in white robes appear; we’re reminded of the men in dazzling clothes who met the women at Jesus’ empty tomb.[4]  Were they angels?  The text doesn’t really say.  But they bring a heavenly message, asking, “What are you doing looking up into the heavens?”  Of course, they know good and well what the disciples are doing.  Jesus has gone away and they are so stunned they keep looking for him.  This question, “what are you looking up there?” is a humorous reminder that the disciples have work to do as soon as they receive the Spirit.  Jesus left them with a big mission.  They need to get ready, yet they just stand and look into the sky…

Someday I feel like that.  I want to just lie on my back and look up at the sky.  But since I’m not an astronomer nor an air traffic controller, I don’t often have that luxury.

Next, the two men tell the disciples that Jesus, who was taken up in the clouds, will come again in the same way as they saw him go up…  If I had the power to rewrite scripture, I might leave this last thought out.  Unfortunately, too many people get hung up on the idea that Jesus will come again in the sky and miss the meaning of this encounter with these two men.  That first rhetorical question, “what are you looking at?” is a reminder that Jesus left them with a job to do and right before he left Jesus told them not to worry about when he’s to return.  Instead, until he does return, we’re to be his witnesses.  The disciples were to start where they were at, in Jerusalem, then moving into the seedy neighborhoods of Samaria and then on to the ends of the world.  What are you looking at could be interpreted as “Didn’t you understand what Jesus told you?  Get to it, JUST DO IT!”

Now let’s consider this: If our belief in Jesus Christ doesn’t lead us to act, aren’t we really just looking up in the sky?  Perhaps we need to incorporate Nike’s slogan into our lives…. JUST DO IT.  Of course, by itself the slogan is “empty and narcissistic,”[5] morally indifferent and hollow.  “Hearing these words, we are given no distinction between feeding the hungry and having an affair; between teaching Sunday school and robbing a bank.  But we know better because we’ve been created for more, we’ve been created for mission!

Tony Campolo tells about being a college professor and having students asking him to help them identify what God’s want them to do with their lives. He said that he can’t answer that question, but that there is a more important question: “What is Jesus calling us to do today?”  “This is the day the Lord has made.  What does God want me to do?  What does God want me to achieve today?”[6]

When those two men remind the disciples they have a job to do, the disciples don’t need to ask for directions.  They had been with Jesus for three years.  They had heard our Savior’s commandments: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.[7]  They had learned from our Savior’s parables: “O Lord, when we did we see you hungry and offer food, thirsty and offer drink?” Jesus answered, “When you did it to the least of these…”[8]  And they had seen our Savior teach by example:  Going to Lazarus when it wasn’t safe for him to go near Jerusalem, talking to the Samaritan woman at the well, forgiving the woman caught in adultery, and calling the children to come to him.[9]

JUST DO IT, we’re told… but what are we to do?  Just reach out to someone hurting, just challenge a hateful comment, just confront destruction, just offer a word of encouragement, just share the gospel with someone seeking, just give out a cup of cold water, just seek to live more like Jesus.  Just do it!  Amen.

 

©2015

[1] Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Acts, (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 66.

[2] Doug Adams, Humor in the American Pulpit from George Whitfield to Henry Ward Beecher (Austin, TX: The Sharing Company, 1975), 71.  Story of the “quittin meetings” from Leonard Sweet in Soul Cafe (April 1995).  See also Kathleen Minnix, Laughter in the Amen Corner: The Life of Evangelist Sam Jones (Athens, GA: Univ of GA Press, 1993).

[3] Sweet, Soul Cafe.  Donald Katz, Just Do It (New York: Random House, 1994).

[4] Luke 24:4

[5]Sweet, Soul Cafe, 2.

[6] Tony Compoloo, “Becoming What God Intended You to Be,” Thirty Good Minutes, Program 4715 (January 25, 2004).  See www.30goodminutes.org

[7] Matthew 22:37-39, Mark 12:30-31, Luke 10:27-2

[8] Matthew 25:45

[9] John 11ff, John 4:4ff, John 8:3ff, Matthew 19:14

Worship: The Sacraments

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church 

First Corinthians 11:17-34

May 3, 2015

 

This week, as we continue to look at how worship helps us reflect Jesus’ face to the world, we’re considering the sacraments and specifically, communion.  As Protestants, we have two sacraments: baptism and communion also known as the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper.   The sacraments are holy ordinances, instituted by Christ which are outward and visible signs of what Christ has done for us, internally and spiritually.[1] Before Christ, the Jewish people had two such sacraments or rites: circumcision and the Passover.[2]  One is the initiation into the community, the other is an on-going reminder of what God has done.  Baptism and communion form the same functions.

The sacraments, taken together with the Word, read and proclaimed, are the two main ways in which we experience God in worship.  We speak of the word and the sacrament.  Both are important.

You see this in our sanctuary with the pulpit representing the Word, the table reminding us of communion and the font as a reminder of baptism.  In baptism, we signify our being adopted into the Christian family, at the table we are nourished by Christ and reminded that we are a part of his family in which he is at the head.  And at the pulpit, we learn about God’s Word.  We come to learn and experience Christ so that we might take his word out into the world and live accordingly.   We come and experience and then go out to reflect Christ’s face to the world.

Today’s sermon is from First Corinthians, where Paul chides those in Corinth for their manners at the Lord’s Table.  Read 1 Corinthians 11:17-34

###

 

I have this vision of a communion service in first century Corinth.  Everyone brings their own food as they gathered on the day of resurrection, the first day of the week.  After singing a few hymns and listening to a sermon or maybe reading a letter from Paul or Apollos or another teacher, they share in the Lord’s Supper.  But unlike our Communion Service, they had a regular meal consisting of all the major food groups and more liquid refreshments than necessary.  And everyone brings their own food and they gather around picnic baskets in various parts of the hall.

Over in corner to our right are the Smuckers.  The pastor joins them, feeling feels privileged to have been invited!  The Smuckers live in the big house, up on the hill, overlooking the Aeagan Sea, where they observe a wonderful sunrise every morning and in the afternoon, when the sun is hot, are treated to nice off-shore breezes.  They subscribe to Bon Appetite and other magazines of fine dining and have come well-prepared for the communion meal.  Lamb chops: after first marinating them in wine, olive oil, rosemary and garlic, a servant has grilled them to perfection.  In their basket are bowls of German potato salad, fresh bread, Asparagus slathered with butter.  And their wine isn’t that cheap Greek junk; it’s imported from the south of Gaul (a land we know as France).  They’ve come with a fancy table cloth, use linen napkins and crystal goblets and set up a layout that looks like a picture from the magazine.  And I almost forgot: they’ve got dessert waiting…  Pecan pie (with Georgia pecans!  It doesn’t quite go with the lamp chops and fine wine, but it tastes so good.  Besides who’s watching calories?  Rumor has it that the communion meal is free from such worries.

Over on the left hand side of the hall is an average family, the Garrisons.  They live in a modest house and are eating hot dogs today.  Since this is a special occasion, they’re not just any old dog; these are thick and juicy Ball Park Franks, served up on a steamed bum and with sauerkraut and fancy mustard.  After all, this ain’t no ordinary lunch.  This is the Lord’s Supper.  For drinks, there’s a pitcher of iced tea and a couple of bottles of Sweetwater IPA.  A bag of chips, a jar of pickles, and a tin of brownies complete their meal.

Now, in the back of the hall are the poor members of the congregation.  They all live down in the market district, where the smell of fish penetrates everything including their clothes.  Their homes aren’t much, generally just a shack.  And they don’t have much to eat.  Someone brought a bit of bread the Smuckers had given to the food pantry a few days earlier. They scrape off the mold before they divide it up.  Someone else has brought fish, yesterday’s catch that didn’t sell in the market.  For greens, there is a dandelion salad garnished with raw leeks they’ve dug up in the hills.  The leeks help cover up the smell of fish.  For a drink, there are a few Mason jars of lukewarm water.

These people don’t feel like they belong, but they’ve heard stories about Jesus and his love of all people, including the poor and the sinner. They believe in Jesus; he gives them hope! But they can’t help but feel that others in church are looking down on them…

Now, I’m not sure if this was exactly how communion was celebrated.  It’s my take based on my interpretation of Paul’s letter.  Another commentator suggests they served a common meal, but because they started early in the evening, before the poor got off work, those whose lives were more leisurely ate all the food while those who labored for others for a living got the crumbs at the end and went home hungry.[3]  Either way, however the Lord’s Supper was celebrated in Corinth, when word reached Paul, he was incensed.  This is a meal that is to bring believers together, not to separate us.

If you’ve read First Corinthians, you’ll know Paul has a temper.  In this letter, we see him upset with the Corinthians for tolerating horrific sins and for disorderly worship.  Paul’s reaction here isn’t anything new.  He’s not going to tolerate the Corinthians making a mockery out of the Lord’s Supper.

Paul places the most important point in the middle of his argument: the Institution of the Lord’s Supper.[4]  This section starts with Paul’s criticism of the Corinthians: some eat their fill while others go hungry… some leave thirsty while other stagger home drunk.  Then, after reciting the words of institution, Paul reminds the Corinthians of the seriousness of the meal and the responsibility required of those who partake of communion, warning them that to take communion recklessly could be dangerous to their health.

It appears as if Paul has dual ideas for the use of the word “body.”  The primary use of this word in communion reminds us of its Christological meaning.  The bread is the body of Christ which reminds us that Christ offered up his body as atonement for our sin.  Therefore, this meal is not something to be taken lightly as it reminds us of our only hope in life and death.  So we come to the table seriously contemplating to whom we belong.

But for Paul, the term body also applies to the church (the body of Christ).  In the next chapter, Paul goes into more detail about this aspect of the body, but in the communion service, the reference to the body can also be relational.  After all, Jesus took the bread, which he linked to his body and shared it with the disciples.  Kenneth Bailey in his work on First Corinthians recalls a traditional Middle Eastern custom used to express friendship, where the host would take bread and dip it and give it to his guest saying “Eat this for my sake.”[5]  See the parallel?

Today, Christians around the world eat at this table.  Not only are we to be fortified by “Christ’s body broken for us,” we’re also to be united in Christ’s body in the world.  Therefore, as Paul points out, this celebration is too important to mock it as some had done in Corinth.  Instead, this table is a sign of unity of all who follow Christ.

We could blame the Corinthians for causing communion to change from a joyous feast to the ritualized sharing of crumbs and thimble-sized glasses of juice or wine.   Alasdair Heron, a Scottish theologian who wrote a major work on the Lord’s Supper noted that Paul’s treatment of the abuses at Corinth lead to the separation that became well-established by the 2nd Century, between agape or fellowship meals (like what we had on Christmas Eve) and the more symbolic celebration of the Lord’s Supper.[6]  Both meals, I think, are important.  When we break bread together, we come together to share not only our food but also our presence.  We are a part of the body of Christ, and we can’t be cut off from one another unless we want to be cut off from the body that gives us life.[7]

When we come to this table, we come as equals and we come needy.  What is provided here in our midst can’t be supplied from our pantries at home.  We come because Jesus calls us and he feeds us.  Without him, we would be nothing.  With him, we have life, life eternal.   So examine yourselves, confess your sin and failings to God (for he already knows them) and then come and celebrate with an open heart.  And afterwards, having been spiritually fed by our Lord, go out in his name to feed others whether it be with food or by your time or with your encouragement.  Leave here asking yourselves how you might reflect Jesus’ face to the world during the upcoming week.  Amen.

 

©2015

[1] Presbyterian Church, USA, “Westminster Larger Catechism”, Book of Confession, 7.272-273, Questions 162, 163.

[2] Presbyterian Church, USA, “The Scots Confession,” Book of Confession, 3.21, Chapter XX1

[3] Kenneth E. Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians (Downers Grove, IL: IVP 2011), 318-319, 322.

[4] Paul, throughout Corinthians, uses this rhetorical method of sandwiching his more important point in the middle of his argument.  See Bailey, 316.

[5] Bailey 320.

[6] Alasdair I. C. Heron, Table and Tradition: Toward an Ecumenical Understanding of the Eucharist (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983), 39-40.

[7] John 15:5.

Worship: Learning to Give God Credit

 

April 26, 2015

Psalm 34:1-14

 

In a documentary titled Mother Teresa, a priest who had known her since she was young noted this misconception about Teresa.  Most people think she went to Calcutta and was so moved by the conditions of the poor that she had to do something.  The priest then says “that was not it!”  Instead, “she knew the love of Jesus and it was specifically because of that love that she responded.”  As another writer says of Teresa, “Worship changed her.”[1]  Because she knew what God had done for her in Jesus Christ, she felt called to show mercy to others.

Last week, I talked about us coming into the presence of God in worship and how we should respond in praise, confession and a willingness to hear and do God’s work.  Today, I want us to look a little deeper into how the worship of an Almighty God changes us.  When we come into God’s presence and learn from God’s story, our world and worldview changes.  No longer should we be concern with “the self.”  Now our vision is godly; we’re to look at the world through God’s eyes and respond in a manner that furthers God’s kingdom and that will bring God all glory.  Today’s passage comes from Psalm 34.

###

 

 

According to the subscript, David wrote this Psalm before becoming king.  Saul is king of Israel and he’s after David.  In his flight, David is captured by the Philistines, Israel’s age-old enemies.  David is then taken to the King of Gath.  Fearful of what might happen, David acts as if he’s crazy by clawing at the doors and letting spit run down his beard.  The king, seeing David in such a condition, chastises his servants.  “Do you not see this man is mad?” he asks.  “Why did you bring him to me?”  The king of Gath must have had a sense of humor for he then asks, “Do I lack for madmen?”  David’s trickery is successful.  He is released.  If you’re interested in the story, you can find it in 1st Samuel, chapter 21.[2]

This is a Psalm of Thanksgiving to God for having delivered David from trouble.  But it doesn’t just apply to David.  In fact, any of us who have felt God’s salvation might pray this Psalm as a way to give thanks for what we’ve experienced.

Let’s think of the Psalm in the context that it’s set in Scripture.  David is fleeing Saul but he’s not exactly in the presence of friends.  He’s got to come up with a plan to get away for he represents a threat not just to Saul but to other kings around Israel.   And he comes up with a “crazy” idea.  He’ll act insane.

You know, David could have claimed responsibility for his deliverance.  Why didn’t he?  After all, he was the one who thought up the stunt.  If God had been the deliverer, why wasn’t there bolts of lightning or flames of fire?  To have someone act crazy seems a little wimpy for God.  In fact, if you go back to the 1st Samuel account, you won’t find God being mentioned as intervening in this situation.  Instead, this passage was probably a folk story that gave ancient Israel a good laugh at the cunningness of their great king, David.  These are the stories that helped endear David to the Hebrew people.  But David, the Psalmist, knows who butters his toast.  He points to God.

This speaks well of David’s character, his crediting God for his salvation instead of claiming responsibility himself.  Despite his faults, David recognizes that all his blessings are from God.  That’s why he is remembered as a great king and able to survive Bathsheba-gate and other scandals of his administration.

There are two parts to the part of the Psalm I read this morning.  In the first seven verses, the Psalmist recalls God’s good deeds.  In verse two, he proclaims God’s good news to the humbled, verse four to the fearful, and verse six to the poor.  This section ends with the Psalmist envisioning the angel of the Lord on sentry duty, camped around those who fear the Lord, saving them from their troubles.  God is good; the Psalmist knows this!  God wants what is best for us and for all his creation.

The second part of this Psalm concerns itself with our response to the goodness we’ve experienced from God.  Reformed theology—the theology of the Presbyterian Church—taking its cue from scripture, has always maintained that God’s grace comes before human response.  In other words, we don’t buy grace, we can’t bribe God for it, and we don’t keep God’s law just so God will be good to us.  God has already proven his concern for his people as the Hebrew people experienced over and over again.  We, too, have experienced this love through Jesus Christ.  After reciting his experience with God’s grace in the first seven verses, the Psalmist invites us to experience it.  “Taste and see that the Lord is good,” he proclaims.  “Come, O children, and I will teach you to fear the lord.”  “Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit; depart from evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it.”  Having encountered the divine, the Psalmist invites us not only to experience God but also to change our lives to reflect God’s righteousness.  First there’s God’s grace, then our response!

How many of you have seen the Robert Devall movie, The Apostle?  It came out 15 or so years.  In it, Devall plays the character of Sonny, a Pentecostal-holiness preacher who, in a fit of rage, takes a baseball bat to his associate pastor, who is having an affair with his wife.  Not only is the guy his wife’s lover, he’s also gaining the loyalty of Sonny’s kids.  The man dies and Sonny flees, settling in rural Louisiana where he takes on a new identity as Apostle E. F.  Teaming up with a retired African-American pastor, the two set out to rebuild an old church building and to establish a new congregation.

Soon, with an old school bus and the remodeled church building, Sonny is back in the preaching business.  His first Sunday is a bit slow, but slowly he fills the building and soon the congregation is hopping.  Although the style of worship is foreign to traditional Presbyterian worship, there is little doubt that God is present and that Sonny believes in what he’s doing.  Even when the law finally catches up with him following an evening service, Sonny is calm.  Asking the officer for some time, he takes off his watch and jewelry and gives them to a man in the church and asks him to hock the items and use the money to keep the ministry going.  In the final scene of the movie, Sonny and a group of fellow prisoners are working in a chain-gang.  As they work in a ditch with swing blades, Sonny recites a litany of God’s goodness and his fellow prisoners respond with praise.

As humans, we have our share of shortcomings and failures.  Sonny had more than his share, including murder, yet in the movie Devall was able to show God working through his character such as when he stands down a bulldozer driven by a local bigot who planned to destroy the church where Sonny was preaching because of the interracial makeup of its members.  With confidence, Sonny was able to confront this guy and soon, the bigoted man is on his knees praying.  The movie shows God using Sonny, a broken and guilty man, just as Scripture shows us God using David, despite his shortcomings.

Robert Devall, in an interview after the release of “The Apostle” was asked about why he would display bad side, the weaknesses of the preacher.  He said:

 

“[W]e either accept weaknesses in good people or we have to tear pages out of the bible. I would have to rip the Psalms out of the bible and never read them again. Because no one less than the greatest king of Israel, King David, the author of the Psalms, sent a man out to die in battle so that he could sleep with his wife. And that was a far more evil thing than anything Sonny would ever, ever do.”[3]

 

As humans, we have our good and our bad sides.  We can be petty and needy, especially when we focus on ourselves.  If David had wanted to claim responsibility for his escape from the Philistines, he could have and no one would have thought twice, but God wouldn’t have received the glory and ultimately, that’s what is important.  We need to get the focus off us and onto God—that is what worship is all about.

If we want true joy in our lives, we need to bask not in what we’ve done but in what God has done.  If we want to truly reflect Jesus to the world, we can’t focus on ourselves.  David knew his success belonged to God and was able to rejoice, not in what he could do, but in what God was doing.  And David invites us to experience God, to “taste and see that the Lord is good.”  Will we take up on his offer?  Will we allow worship to change us so that we might live not for ourselves, but for our Lord Jesus Christ?  May his name be honored in our lives.  Amen.

 

©2015

[1] Mark Labberton, The Dangerous Act of Worship: Living God’s Call to Justice (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2007), 77.

[2] 1 Samuel 21:10-15.

[3] Bill Blizah & Ronald Burke, “The Apostle: An interview with Robert Devall, Journal of Religion and Film, Vol. 2, #1 (April 1998).  See  https://www.unomaha.edu/jrf/apostle.INTERVIEW.htm

Coming into God’s Presence

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Isaiah 6:1-8

April 19, 2015

 

The need to worship is something instilled in us.  Whether or not we’re Christian, whether or not we’re religious, all of us have a desire to find meaning in something larger than ourselves.  That “something” becomes the object of our worship.  The “atheistic Communist,” whom we used to so fear, had a belief in a dialectical materialistic philosophy that they saw giving rise and power to the proletariat in order to create a new state—essentially this new state was one that was worshipped.  Even the most apathetic couch potato, who never darkens the door of the church, may worship a football team, NASCAR driver, or movie star.  Even the narcissistic believe they are larger and more important than they really are and worship this inflated ego that has no relationship to reality.  We all look for meaning; it’s just that a lot of us try to find that meaning in the wrong places and end up restless and disappointed.

“I can’t get no satisfaction,” Mick Jagger first sang a half-century ago and for many the words still remain true.  More often than not, in this consumer age in which we live, that which touts to be the answer is disappointing.  So we try something new.  We’ve heard the claim “new and improved” so many times and for so many trivial items that advertisers have to continually up the ante to seduce us.  Christopher Lasch, in the Culture of Narcissism, describes consumers (and let’s face it, we’re all consumers), as “perpetually unsatisfied, restless, anxious and bored.”  We’re educated by advertising and by the culture that consumption is “the answer to the age-old discontents of loneliness, sickness, weariness, lack of sexual satisfaction, the malaise of boring and meaningless jobs and the feeling of futility and fatigue.”  But consumption can never fill the voids of our lives and it only masks our restlessness. [1]  We can’t get no satisfaction.  Soon, we’re back wanting more.  Like a junkie, we want another fix.

This isn’t anything new; it’s an age-old problem.  Augustine, writing 17 centuries ago, noted that our hearts are restless until they come to rest in God.[2]  Today, in my second sermon on how worship can help us to reflect Jesus’ face to the world, I want us to think about what it means to encounter the living God and to find the satisfaction we desire.  My passage for the morning will be Isaiah 6:1-8.

###

 

 

Our scripture for this morning, Isaiah’s call, is an example of what should happen in worship.  In this passage, Isaiah encounters God in all his holiness and majesty.  This occurs the same year that King Uzziah died, which gives us a timetable for the event, but also contrasts the transient nature of earthly kings and powers to the eternal nature of the King to whom our allegiance belongs.  Uzziah is dead; his throne is empty.  But Isaiah witnesses a greater throne and king.  Yet, Isaiah has a problem; he’s seen the real King and prevailing wisdom has it that for a mortal to see God would bring on certain death.  Our sinful state leaves us vulnerable before God’s holiness.  Isaiah knows he’s in deep sneakers as he cries, “Woe is me; I am lost, I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips and I have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.”

But all is not lost.  One of the seraphs before the throne takes a coal from the altar, flies down and presses it to Isaiah’s lips, proclaiming that his sins are forgiven.  At this point, Isaiah can now hear the call of God, asking who will go and take a message to the people, and Isaiah pipes up and says, “Here I am, Lord, send me.”

If you would go on and read the rest of this chapter, you’d realize the job Isaiah volunteered for wasn’t a coveted one.  He was to speak judgement to his people.  Sometimes it’s that way with us; when we accept God’s calling, often it is to do things we would rather not do.  Jesus makes this point clear to people when he informs the disciple that when he was young, he went where he wanted, but when he was old, he’d be taken where he does not want to go.[3]  Authentic worship isn’t about us; it’s about God.  Ultimately, it isn’t about how we feel, but what God wants us to do.

What can we learn about coming into God’s presence and worship from Isaiah?  First of all, we see that true worship, worship that encounters the holy, is dangerous.  It’s playing with dynamite!  There’s a power greater than ourselves present here, and if we tap into it, we will have little control over where it will lead.  It’s a fearful thing to fall into the hands of an Almighty God, the Puritans professed.  But with the disciples, we have to acknowledge, “Where else can we go to find the words of eternal life.”[4]  So we stick around, even though it’s scary.  Like Isaiah, we stick around and find that worship is also redemptive.  Where else can we go to find forgiveness, to be offered a new chance, to have our guilt erased and set free to start over?  And then, like Isaiah, we find that not only are we forgiven, we’re forgiven so that we can hear God’s word, so that we can hear that call from the Almighty to fulfill God’s purpose in our lives.  Ultimately, worship is to be life-changing.  Coming into the presence of God does that!  The sanctuary, the place wherever we worship, isn’t an escape from the world, but a place to equip us to go back into the world to fulfill our roles as disciples of the living Lord.

Understand that worship is something that needs to be done throughout the week, but it also important that we come together as a community to worship.  As Jesus says, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I will be there.”[5]

Think about what we do here and how it relates to Isaiah’s experience.  We come into God’s presence, we realize God’s holiness and our lack of it, and we are forgiven and then sent back into the world to further God’s work.  That’s the cycle that goes on Sunday after Sunday in a Reformed service of worship.  The Call to Worship and the Opening Hymn of Praise reminds us that this a sacred place and time.  The prayers of confession, both those spoke corporately and privately, remind us that we are in need of forgiveness.  Corporately, we’re reminded us that as a people, we are guilty.  The private prayers of confession spoken to God silently in our hearts, remind us that as individuals, we are guilty.  The Assurance of Pardon reminds us of the forgiveness offered through Jesus Christ, that frees us up to hear God’s word and to go back out into the world.  I know some churches don’t use a time of confession, but they’re missing the meat of the gospel.  We stand in need of forgiveness and through Jesus Christ, God stands willing to offer forgiveness.

How might we make the most out of our time for worship on Sunday morning?  First of all, begin your preparation for worship early.  Go to bed at a reasonable hour on Saturday night so that you are well rested.  As I discussed last week, the Jews begin their Sabbath at sundown and that’s not a bad habit for us Christians.  Prepare for Sunday morning on Saturday, whether it is setting out clothes to wear or preparing food.  This will assure that Sunday mornings are not hectic.  Then, when you wake up, you can easily get ready for worship and perhaps even have some time to go to God in prayer or to spend some time in God’s word.

Next, when you come to worship, come with a holy expectancy.  Come, expecting that you will encounter God.  Now, not every Sunday is a mountaintop experience.[6]  In fact, few are going to be mountaintop experiences and if we strive for that, we’re probably focusing on what we want and not what God wants.  But that said, if we don’t expect anything out of worship, we’re probably not going to receiving anything.  What would happen if just ten of fifteen of you came expecting God to show up?  It could be dangerous; it could be glorious!

Next, arrive early.  Here, do as I say not as I’ve been known to do.  When I am not preaching, I’m not known for arriving too early (you can ask my wife or daughter).  But if you are here five, ten or fifteen minutes early, you have time to focus on God, to calm your hearts, to put away distractions.  Spend this time making a mental note of that which to thank God or of the deeds you stand in need of confessing.  Look around and see people who are in need and offer intercessory prayer.  Lift up the preacher (I need all the help I can get) along with the Elder of the Week and the choir and those involved in the children sermon or drama, along with our ushers and greeters.  Pray for those who might be new in our fellowship.  Read through the bulletin, internalizing the prayers so that they can become your prayers.  Look over the scriptures so that you might receive more out of the sermon.

While in worship, learn to absorb distractions.  We’re all human here.  I am going to make some mistakes (as I did last week when, on auto-pilot, I left out a line in the Apostles’ Creed).   Others are also going to make mistakes.  Instead of fussing and fuming over it, pray silently for them, that God might bless them.  Focus your energy on what is positive, not on what can be negative and destructive.  Embrace worship as a sacrifice, as your sacrifice, to God.  Remember, what happens here “isn’t about you!”  It’s about God!  Keep focused on that which is important.

And finally, when you leave worship, go out to live your life as an heir to the kingdom, listening and obeying God’s word throughout the week.  In so doing, you’re whole life will be more worshipful and you’ll be continually praising God.

We’re all to be worshippers.  In worship, our restlessness finds peace in the heart of God.  In worship, we move from the position of the guilty one, “Woe is me!” to the response of a confident disciple, “Here I am, Lord.  Send me.”  Amen.

 

©2015

[1] See Marva J. Dawn, Reaching Out without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for this Urgent Time (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 64-65.

[2] Augustine, Confessions, 1:1.

[3] John 21:18.

[4] John 6:68

[5] Matthew 18:20.

[6] Even the disciples found that they couldn’t stay on the mountaintop.  Life is to be lived in the valleys and on the plains, where people are at.  See Matthew 17:1-13, Mark 9:2-8 and Luke 9:28-36.

Worship and the time we have…

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

April 12, 2015

Genesis 1:14-18, 1:26-2:3

 

Over the next five weeks, I want us to think about how worship can assist us in being better disciples.  How might worship help us reflect Jesus’ face to the world?  This series of sermons will correspond to a class I’ll begin teaching starting this Wednesday (at 7 PM). In these sessions, we’ll explore in depth what I am trying to convey in my sermons.

We worship a God of order.  The first thing God does in the opening of Scripture, is to bring order to chaos.  The earth was a formless void in which wind blew upon the waters and all was dark.  God begins by creating light and separating it from the dark, and then creating the sky and then separating the land from the sea.  In the first three days, the earth takes shapes.  Now this isn’t to say that God does this in our understanding of a 24 hour day in which the earth spins around.  There is a deeper meaning to be learned.  Besides, God’s time is not our own, as the Psalmist reminds us when he proclaims that a thousand years in God’s eyes are like a day to us.[1]

We live by calendars and watches (or iPhones, which combine the two).  We’re all incredibility busy, but that’s not something unusual for humanity.  We learn early on that if we want something done, we best do it ourselves and in such we work hard, which is good but we risk making an idol out of ourselves when we achieve.  Therefore, it is good to have reminders to pause and worship.  The church has a calendar which strives to remind us of what God has done and we’ll talk more about that in my Wednesday night study. Today, I’m going to focus on our daily and weekly schedules and the need for regular prayer and for observing the Sabbath. These two things will enhance our worship of God.

When we carve out space with the time we’re granted in order that we might focus on God, we bring a different order to our lives.  We realize our dependence on our Creator and our own limitations.  When our lives are ordered in a holy way, we align ourselves with God’s purposes.  Order reprioritizes our lives.  We’re important to God, as we’ll see in our morning reading, but we’re not the center of the universe.  Today, I want us to look at the ending of the first account of creation as found in Genesis 1.  I’ll begin reading with verse 14.

###

 

I’ve always marked time by the sky, at least since I was a Boy Scout and became interested in the constellations and their movements.   Growing up, I’d spend nights in the fall fishing on Masonboro Island with my dad.  This nine mile long uninhabited island can be quite dark, especially when the moon is not up, providing a wonderful vista to watch the winter   constellations rise on the horizon.  As the hours in the evening passed, the stars would rise higher.  By the time I was in high school, I had come to associate the rising of Tarsus, the Pleiades, and Orion with fall.  The later in the season it was, the earlier in the evening they’d rise, so by winter they’d be up in the sky as soon as it was dark.  As we’re now in the spring, you can watch them setting in the west shortly after the last of the day’s light has drained from the sky.  It won’t be long and they’ll all disappear in the evening sky, only to return in the fall.

Having lived and camped in the arid west, where you can sleep on the ground without a tent and bug net and not be rained upon or driven crazy by bugs, I used to make a game of guessing what time it was by how far the constellations had moved from when I first fell asleep.  When I’d check my watch, I’d generally be close, within an hour.  While doing this, I often thought about how the ancient people kept track of time by the heavens.  Not only was the heavens their clock, it was also their calendar.  When certain stars appeared on the horizon early in the evening, they’d know it was time to plant their crops or that the rainy season was approaching.

We’re told in the Book of Ecclesiastes that God has instilled in us a sense of time—past, presence and future—and has made everything for a particular time in our lives.  We can’t know what God’s up to, but according to this Old Testament book, we’re to enjoy what God has given us while we stand in humbled awe before our Creator.[2]  Today, think about the cycles of time and how we worship God.

The early Christians had their prayers at dawn and sunset, the latter known as vesper or evening song.  The monastic movement within the early Christian Church divided up the day into “hours” and the night into “watches” as a way to help them fulfill Paul’s command to pray without ceasing.[3]  Kathleen Norris, a Presbyterian lay pastor and author, spent two sabbatical periods of her life living in monastic setting in which she set her day by the canonical hours.  Reflecting on her experience she wrote:

“In our culture, time can seem like an enemy: it chews us up and spits us out with appalling ease.  But the monastic perspective welcomes time as a gift from God, and seeks to put it to good use rather than allowing us to be used by it.”[4]

 

Perhaps we need to look at how we allow time to control our lives and reorder our time so that it might inform our spiritual lives.

The Bible opens with a story of time, as God brings order into the chaos.  Everything has its place–earth and water, light and dark, sun and moon…  Interestingly, light is created on day one, the sun and the moon are placed in the sky on day four.  What’s going on with this?  God isn’t telling us how the cosmos was created; God is making a theological point.  True light comes from God, as we read in the first chapter of John’s gospel.[5]  There were those in the ancient world who worshipped the sun and sought meaning from the stars, but the God of creation dethrones such fake deities.  The sun, moon and stars become a calendar instead of a god.  The opening chapter of Genesis is filled with theology that helps us understand the nature of God and our role within God’s creation.

The next thing I want you to understand about this reading is how the day is organized.  We’re told over and over again that there was evening and then morning, then the first day (or the fourth of the fifth).  In other words, as we learn from our Jewish friends, our days don’t begin with the ringing of the alarm clock and the scuttle to get somewhere on time, but with the setting of the sun.  God invites us to begin our days in rest, not labor!  Slaves labor to earn rest, but that’s not a part of God’s gracious plan for us.  Each day begins with the rest necessary for us to sustain life.

But there is another rest that we’re old of in these verses, one that comes at the end of the week, the Sabbath rest.  But before we get to that, we come upon God’s creative activities of the sixth day and are reminded that God has been busy long before we came on the scene.  We didn’t inherit a formless void of earth.  Instead, God created the earth and then brought us into it to be his partner in maintaining it as we enjoy its benefits.  According to Genesis 1:29 and 30, we shouldn’t be going hungry because God has taken care of our needs.

Then, after finishing the work of Creation, God takes a break.  When we observe this Sabbath rest, we are emulating God.  Daily rest is granted so that we might be renewed for work, for God created us in that way.  But the Sabbath is a gift.  It’s a chance to unhook for the pressures of life and step back from all that we’re doing and acknowledge our dependence on God.[6]

How many of you have seen the movie “Fiddler on the Roof”?  If you haven’t, you should; it’s a beautiful film.  Tevye, a milkman in Czarist Russia, is a devote Jew.  At the end of the week, he greets the Sabbath at sundown, playing his violin.  It’s a special day, a special time.  By observing the Sabbath religiously, he has fostered a deep relationship with God, often talking to God as he delivers milk to the village.  If we can instill within our routines time (to reflect, to mediate, to pray, and to enjoy the Sabbath), we’ll be brought closer to God.  Tevye, in the movie, is able to find strength to get through some very difficult times including persecution, because of how, participating in this godly ritual, he’s been brought closer to the Almighty.

If time, as illustrated in the setting and rising of the sun, the positions of the stars and the moon, has been placed into order by God, it’s sacred.  It’s a gift!  As one’s who acknowledges the source of this gift, we should give thanks to the Creator by hallowing out a portion of time to focus on the relationship we’re called to have with God through Jesus Christ.

Now Jesus, as we heard in our New Testament reading, warns us against doing this in a legalistic way.[7]  We don’t observe the Sabbath as a way of earning salvation.  Instead, the day is provided for our benefit, as a way that we can grow closer to our Heavenly Father.  Jesus grants us the freedom to observe the Sabbath for the right reasons.

We could all benefit of taking a day off, a day to stop and just enjoy. Furthermore, as Jesus shows us countless times in his life, when he went off alone to pray,[8] we need to take time during our days to pray and to be at one with our Father.  Through Christ, we’re called into a relationship with God and as we know from our relationships on earth, they require a commitment, they require time…

The first way that worship should help us reflect Jesus’ face is to remind us that time is sacred and that our lives need to be reprioritize so we can connect with God in order that we might reflect the face of God’s Son.  Some of you are already doing this, but if you’re not, I encourage you to take a day a week to enjoy life and then to carve out of the other hours you’re given moments to connect daily with God.  At the very least, pray that God gives you strength during the day when you wake, give God thanks for that which you have when you eat, and surrender your burdens to God at night when you go to sleep.  Such simple gestures reminds us of what’s important and orients our lives in a manner that will bring God glory.  Amen.

©2015

[1] Psalm 90:4.

[2] Ecclesiastes 3:11-14

[3] 1 Thessalonians 5:17.  See C. W. Dugmore, “Canonical Hours” in The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1986).

[4] Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996),  xix.

[5] John 1:4-5.

[6] Mark Labberton, The Dangerous Act of Worship: Living God’s Call to Justice (Dower’s Grove, IL: IVP, 2007), 106.

[7] Mark 2:23-28.

[8] Examples:  Matthew 14:23, 26:36-35; Mark 1:35, 6:46, 14:32, 14:36; Luke 5:16, 6:12, 9:18, 9:28-29.

Easter Sunday 2015

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The sanctuary prepared for Easter with brass bells and plenty of flowers!

 

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Easter Sunday 2015

John 20:19-29

 

 

What a contrast today is to that first Easter.  We worship in an open building with signs drawing attention and encouraging others to visit.  We’re told in John’s gospel that the disciples, on the first Easter, were hiding.  We’re told the doors were locked out of a fear of the authorities.  I doubt too many of us are afraid today, at least not here in America, even though we know it can be dangerous to be a Christian in some parts of the world as we’ve witnessed this week with the atrocities in Kenya.  Our prayers need to be with our brothers and sisters there and wherever people live in fear due to their beliefs.

Our passage this morning is from the 20th Chapter of John’s gospel.  At sunrise, we looked at the opening verses.  Now we’ll explore the events later that day and what happens on the next Sunday when Thomas encounters the risen Lord.   Read John 20:19-29.

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It is evening of the first Easter…  The disciples gather in secret, behind locked doors.  Fright and fatigue show on their faces.  The past week has taken its toll… They’d been at the top of their game, marching triumphantly into Jerusalem.  But after the palm branches dropped onto the street, things went sour fast.  Jesus, their leader, their friend, there reason for being, was arrested, executed, and buried…  Out of fear, the disciples scattered.  Saturday, the Sabbath, was spent in fear.  As business resumes on the first day of the week, rumors begin to spread about Jesus being alive.  As impossible as it may seem, some claim to have seen Jesus.  So the disciples begin seeking out each other.  This motley collection of fishermen, tax collectors and such from Galilee don’t know what to do.  What should they make of the stories? “Can the women who were there at the tomb be right?  Can Jesus be alive, or is this just an idle tale?”[1]

And then suddenly, as the sun sinks in the West, Jesus appears.  We’re not told how he gets through the locked doors, but there he is in the middle of the gathered disciples, holding up his hands, greeting his friends, saying: “Peace be with you.”  What a sight!  The nail holes are evident.  His side is ripped where the Roman spear pierced.  The fatigue on their faces disappear, but the fright remains, as they gaze upon their Lord, their Master, their friend.

Again Jesus says: “Peace be with you,” only this time he continues, telling them that just as he was sent by the Father, he’s sending them out into the world.  Then, reminiscence of God blowing breath into the nostrils of the clay figure there in the Garden, giving life to Adam, Jesus blows upon the disciples.[2]  And they receive the Holy Spirit and become a new living community—a community with the power to offer forgiveness.

A week later, the disciples are again in the house… again, it’s the first day of the week, Sunday, the day after the Jewish Sabbath, the day that will in time become the primary day that most Christians worship.  Again the doors are locked.  The shades are probably still pulled…  On the roof a disciple may be on lookout; they fear of the authorities.  So much for Jesus’ command to go out into the world…  It’s been a week since they’ve seen the resurrected Christ, with his wounds still visible, yet they’re still hiding, still afraid for their lives, still afraid to go out into the world…  Then Jesus reappears.

Thomas, who has not yet seen Jesus, is also present.  Thomas is an empiricist.  He wants to see, to sense, to touch, before he commits himself to something.  Knowing this, Jesus invites Thomas to place his finger in his wounds…  “Don’t doubt, believe!” Jesus says.  In awe Thomas cries out, “My Lord and my God!”

Thomas’ cry, “My Lord and my God,” represents the climax of John’s Gospel.  Thomas’ acknowledgment is more than Jesus just being the Messiah.  Thomas realizes Jesus is also God.  By confessing Jesus to be God, Thomas goes beyond all other confessions of the disciples up to this point.[3]  Though a doubter at first, Thomas becomes the first disciple to recognize Jesus as more than a teacher or a leader sent by God.  Jesus is God.  Furthermore, Thomas’ proclamation is a political statement.  Roman emperors were addressed as “Our lord and god.”  Here, Thomas confesses who truly is Lord and God, and it ain’t Caesar or any one else to whom we might be lured into professing allegiance.[4]   By calling Jesus Lord, Thomas asserts Jesus is worthy to obey.  By calling Jesus God, Thomas declares that Jesus should be worshipped, as we’re doing today.

What can we make out of these post-resurrection appearances of Jesus?  I would like to offer a few suggestions by observing Jesus, the disciples and Thomas and ending with some implications for us as disciples and the church today.  Let’s start with Jesus…  Having overcome the grave, he appears to the disciples.  He’s alive, yet John makes it clear that his wounds still fresh.  In Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells the disciples that he’s not a ghost.[5]  John, by recalling Jesus’ wounds, makes the same point.  Here is Jesus, in the flesh.

I’d like us to ponder why it’s important to have Jesus’ wounds still visible.  “It’s such a comfort to know that Jesus’ wounds remain visible in his risen body,” one woman said.  “Our wounds are not taken away, but become sources of hope to others.”[6]  We’ve all been wounded.  Some of us have had physical wounds, broken bones and the sort, but unless they’re really severe, they generally heal.  It’s the other wounds that seem to linger on.  Broken promises and broken relationships; failure to achieve or obtain adoration; things we’ve done that has disappoint others or ourselves.  We’ve all been wounded in these ways.  And you know, Jesus never says he’ll take all of our problems away or that we’ll be free of such wounds.  Instead he says we’re okay, even with our wounds, because we belong to him.  We don’t have to worry about what other people think, what’s important is that we believe in him.

Let me assure you that you’ll still have failures and setbacks, even after you come to know Christ.  But that’s ok because the mystery of our faith is that in our weaknesses we become strong.  It is in those areas of our lives where we have pain and hurt that we learn to depend on God.  Our wounds become our schooling in applied theology.   If we have no pain, we’ll have a hard time even perceiving our need for God.  Ultimately, Jesus’ wounds remind us that God can take what was painful and make us even stronger.

Now let’s look at the disciples.  On the day of Jesus’ resurrection they are hiding…  They don’t know what to make of the stories about Jesus’ reappearance.  What would we do if in their shoes?  I doubt we’d be any different.  It takes an encounter with the Risen Lord to get them to believe.  But I’m not sure they were ready for Jesus and certainly not for his marching orders, for Jesus tells them he’s sending them into the world to carry on his mission…

A week later the disciples still haven’t gotten out into the world.  They are still hiding in the same house.  They are still afraid they’ll lose their lives; they are still afraid that they, like Jesus, might end up on a cross…

Sometimes we are like the disciples.  We believe.  We know what is right.  We may even know what God wants us to do…  but we need to be prodded.   The disciples were comfortable hiding in that room and sometimes we’re comfortable hiding.  But we have been called to share our faith with others, to offer hope to a broken world, and to share God’s love.  That can only happen when we leave the comfort of our cubbyholes.  As Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount, we must let our light shine.[7]  To live as a disciple is to live in the world while pointing to Jesus as the source of our lives…

Now let’s look at Thomas’ reaction.  Thomas has gotten a bad rap over the years…  He’s called Doubting Thomas, as if his doubt is something unique.  It isn’t…  All the disciples have their doubts.[8]   To be honest, I’ve had my share of doubts and, if honest, you’ll admit it’s the same with you.  Doubting doesn’t make Thomas unique; what makes him unique is his confession that Jesus is God.

God is beyond human proof.  When and how God is revealed to us is up to God.  Our doubts force us to depend upon the faith that God grants.  And as we learn to trust that faith, we become even stronger.

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

Furthermore, as a community of believers, we’re empowered to forgive sins.  That’s quite a task.  You know, there are a lot of good things that the church does in the community that other groups can also do, and in some cases these groups can even do it better than the church.  But there is one thing that no other group can do—government can’t do it, civic clubs can’t do it, political parties can’t do it—and that’s forgive sins.  Only God can forgive sins, the Pharisee’s in Jesus’ day charged.[9]  And they were right.  But Jesus is God and thereby has the power to forgive sins, a power he grants to the church.  This unique community in which Jesus calls us needs to be, first and foremost, a place of forgiveness.  That’s the challenge we have, as a church, to be a community of grace, a community of mercy.  If we live up to this challenge, we’ll not only be blessed, we’ll be a blessing to others.  Amen.

 

©2015

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

[2] See Genesis 2:7.

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

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

[5] Luke 24:36-43.

    [6]Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Road to Daybreak (1988).  As quoted in Sowing the Seeds of Hope, Presbyterian Stewardship emphasis material.

[7] Matthew 5:15-16.

[8] See Matthew 28:17; Luke 24:11, 25, 37, 41; Mark 16:14.  Gerald Sloyan, John: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox, 1988), 227.

[9] Mark 2:7, Luke 5:21.  As for God forgiving sin, see Exodus 34:6-7; Isaiah 43:25, 44:22.

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus!”

Jeff Garrison

First Presbyterian Church

March 22, 2015

John 12:20-26

 

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Image from http://www.atcunion.org/blog/files/0cd447caee0c7396988c0850231e44cb-197.html

This morning we’re going to explore a passage in the 12th Chapter of John’s gospel.  This incident occurs just a few days before Jesus’ crucifixion.   The situation in Jerusalem is tense.  In the preceding chapter, Jesus raised Lazarus from the grave.  Paradoxically, in John’s gospel, this life-giving miracle is the final straw for the Jewish leaders.  They are thinking that the only way to stop Jesus is to kill him.  In the verse right before where I will begin reading, a new urgency can be heard within their voices as they complain about how everyone is going after Jesus. Providing life to one leads to the death of another—that’s a way of understanding the gospel!

It’s almost as if John is trying to legitimize the leader’s fear by then telling us a group of Greeks are coming to meet Jesus.  Jesus is popular!   But instead of building on his popularity, Jesus tells a parable that implies the seriousness of following him.   Listen.  READ JOHN 12:20-26.

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I like the way this passage starts off.  “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  If I was stronger, I’d turn this pulpit around and show you the plaque on the inside that reads, “Sir, we would see Jesus,” which is the King James translation of this passage.[1]  Hopefully, at times, Jesus is experienced in our worship (as well as in our lives).

Here, we have some Greeks, outsiders, seeking Jesus!  A shift has occurred.  The magnitude of Jesus’ ministry, which won’t be fully understood until after his death and resurrection, is foreshadowed.  Jesus had primarily worked with the Jews.  Now these Greeks seek Jesus.  There are disagreements among scholars if these “Greeks” were Greek-speaking Jews, Jewish proselytes, or Gentiles.[2]  Since they’re in Jerusalem right before the Passover, it seems that they must be Jewish; or, they are at least considering adopting Jewish practices and becoming a proselyte, but John doesn’t say one way or another.  Regardless of their background, John uses them to foreshadow Jesus’ larger purpose—salvation for the entire world.

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus,” they ask.  Jesus draws people to himself, which he still does today, but we’re not told if they ever got a chance to see Jesus.  The question is asked of Philip—a disciple with a Greek name, which may be the reason he’s singled out.  In the stories of Philip, it seems he can’t do anything by himself.  Instead of answering, he runs off finds Andrew and the two of them take the request to Jesus. [3] But John doesn’t tell us if Jesus granted them an audience.  Instead, John notes Jesus’ shift in conversation, as he talks about what’s going to happen.

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”  Now that John has shown that interest in Jesus extends beyond those living in Judah, Galilee and Samaria, Jesus focuses on what is about to unfold.  “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”  I’m sure this was sweet music to the disciples’ ears.  They’ve been wondering when Jesus was going to usher in his kingdom.   They’ve had visions of Jesus sitting up on David’s throne and them all around him in positions of power and glory.  But Jesus doesn’t stop at the glory, he continues on with a disturbing parable.  “Unless the wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains only a kernel, but in dying it can grow into a plant which bears fruit.”  Jesus isn’t just hinting around, he is saying clearly that he must die.  The Pharisees are going to get their wish.  As Jesus peaks in popularity, his life and ministry on earth comes to an end.

Let’s consider this parable.  Farming was tough back in Jesus’ day.  There were no Co-ops or Farm Supply Stores where you could buy seed.  Instead, you kept a portion of your previous harvest as seed so you would have something to plant during the next season.  This means that if you had a poor harvest and, as the winter continued, your supply of wheat would dwindle and you’d have to make a hard decision.  Do you eat all your wheat or do you tighten up your belt and go with less so that you will have seed enough for another crop?  Consider your thoughts as you, on an empty stomach, sowed the seeds into the ground.  It took faith to be a farmer back then, just as it does today, to bury seeds knowing they’ll die but in the hopes they’ll sprout.

Some of the disciples listening to Jesus’ parable had probably experienced such situations.  They knew the value of planting, of letting the seed die in the hopes that God would give it new life and an abundant harvest.  Here Jesus is talking about himself, about his death, but he quickly shifts to talk not just about himself but also about his followers.

“Those who love their life will lose it and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  Whoever serves me must follow me…”  This idea of losing our lives or losing ourselves for Jesus isn’t too appealing, but there is something to it because this saying from Jesus is recorded in all four of the gospels.[4]

There are a couple of things in this passage that I want us to consider this morning.  First of all, Jesus wants to make sure that his disciples, and his followers who come thereafter, know that he came to die, and that in dying he was doing something very counter-intuitive.  Through his death, through being lifted up (if you’d read ahead to verse 33), Jesus draws all people to himself.  Like the seed that dies in the ground as it sprouts new growth, Jesus knows his sacrifice will reap an incredible harvest.

Jesus’ message is “I love you enough to die for you.”  In this way, Jesus is like a good parent who will do anything and everything to save the children.  It is something instilled in mothers throughout the animal kingdom.  I have seen it when paddling on a river and come near to the nests of ducks and one bird takes off, limping, as if to lead us from the nest.  The bird keeps moving away from the nest until we are far away and then, flying normally, circles back.  I’ve also seen this behavior when hiking—a grouse will wobble away from the nest staying just out-of-reach, until you are a safe distant from the nest, then flies off normally and circles back to the nest.  Both birds are making themselves more vulnerable in order to save their young.  Likewise, Jesus is there for us and not only is he willing to die for us, he does!

Jesus sacrifices for us, but he also calls on us to sacrifice for others.  It is not just about Jesus’ sacrifice, but our willingness to work on behalf of others.  If we follow Jesus, we must as he said in another place, “Pick up our cross daily.”[5]  The Spiritual life is about being in tune with the needs of others.  We have to be willing to sacrifice, to let go of things that we hold dear but which hinder our walk with Jesus.  If we want to enjoy a life with Christ, we got to give up a life of sinful ways.  You can’t be hating folks and be a Christ follower.  You can’t be dishonest and be considered a Christ follower.  I’m not saying we have to be perfect.  Certainly we’ll all slip up, but when we do, we confess and repent and continue on, devoting ourselves to change and continue striving to be better.

But this passage isn’t just about the sins we’re to give up; it acknowledges that a life following Jesus has cost which can be quite high—it can cost as much as our own lives.  Yet, our focus can’t be on what we’ll lose, but on what we –and more appropriately—what our Master will gain in the harvest.

We always have to give up something to acquire something else, that’s a principle of economics.  You can’t have it all, you can’t have your cake and eat it too, so you make an economic decision to sacrifice one thing for another.  If you’re a kid and you have a dollar burning in your pocket, you have to decide if you’re going to spend it on an ice cream cone that’s been tempting you, or if you will invest the dollar for when you go to college.  One satisfies an immediate need, the other a long-term need.  Unfortunately, in our society, immediate gratification generally wins. But not in the gospel!  Long-term gratification takes precedent.  Consider Jesus’ words about storing up our treasures in heaven where we don’t have to fear thieves and where they will not rust.[6]

What is it that Jesus is calling us to give up for him?   A lot of what is being taught in this passage has to do with death, but I hope you can see a linkage between this parable and Jesus’ teachings on stewardship.  In the parable of the talents, in which those who were rewarded had invested all they had, the ones who were rewarded did not hedge their bets.[7]  They had faith.  Jesus calls us to be faithful and willing to invest in the building up of his kingdom.  As an individual, that may mean being willing to give sacrificially to Christ’s work in our church and in his missions in the world.  Or it may mean you give up a pleasurable vacation and volunteer to go on a mission trip.  As a congregation it may mean us doing something we’re uncomfortable with, perhaps adjusting the style or the time of worship in order to make room to receive new disciples.  It may mean compromising so that we all benefit and our programs are strengthen.  It may mean we are forced out of our comfortable zone and go out into the world to help others.  “Unless a seed falls to the earth and dies,” we’re told.

I want to go back to that opening question in our text, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus?”  How would we respond to such a request?  Although we cannot take them physically to Jesus, hopefully they will witness Jesus in our lives and in the life of his community, the church.  For we are his body in the world and when we follow him, he can be seen through our lives.  As Jesus reminds us in the Parable of the Judgment of the Nations, when we show kindness, we serve him.  But you know what; Jesus doesn’t want us to wait for that question.  Instead, he wants us to share him, to show his love, with others.  Jesus wants us to reflect his face—Jesus’ face—onto a hurting world.  What are we willing to give us, to sacrifice, for him?  Amen.

 

©2015

[1]This isn’t the only pulpit with this as Frederick Dale Bruner points out in his commentary, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 712.

[2] Brown thinks they are Greek proselytes.  See Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, Anchor Bible Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 1966), 466.  Sloyan thinks they’re Greek speaking Jews living outside Israel’s borders.  Gerald Sloyan, John: Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox, 1988),155.

[3] When Philip was called to follow Jesus, he went and got Nathanael to go with him.  John 1:43ff.

[4] See Matthew 10:39, Mark 8:35, Luke 17:33.

[5] Luke 9:23

[6] Matthew 6:19-21.

[7] Matthew 25:13-20

St. Patrick’s Day prayer and a funny cartoon about the Trinity

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day (and my first St. Patrick’s in Savannah–while I avoid the downtown area), here is a prayer from Brother Patrick.  I used a portion of this in my benediction on Sunday.  Thanks Nadar Awad for sharing this prayer with me.

I bind to myself today

The strong virtue of the Invocation of the Trinity:I believe the Trinity in the Unity,The Creator of the Universe.

 

I bind to myself today
The virtue of the Incarnation of Christ with His Baptism,The virtue of His crucifixion with His burial, The virtue of His Resurrection with His Ascension,The virtue of His coming on the Judgment Day

 

I bind to myself today
In the hope of resurrection unto reward,In prayers of Patriarchs,
In predictions of Prophets,
In preaching of Apostles,
In faith of Confessors,
In deeds of righteous men

 

I bind to myself today
God’s Power to guide me,
God’s Might to uphold me,
God’s Wisdom to teach me,
God’s Eye to watch over me,
God’s Ear to hear me,
God’s Word to give me speech,
God’s Hand to guide me,
God’s Way to lie before me,
God’s Shield to shelter me,
God’s Host to secure me,
Against the snares of demons,
Against the seductions of vices,
Against the lusts of nature,
Against everyone who meditates injury to me,Whether far or near, Whether few or with many.

 

Christ, protect me today Against every poison, against burning,Against drowning, against death-wound,That I may receive abundant reward.

Christ with me, Christ before me,Christ behind me, Christ within me,Christ beneath me, Christ above me,Christ at my right, Christ at my left,Christ in the fort, Christ in the chariot seat, Christ in the deck, Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks to me,Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me.

Below is a humorous cartoon where Patrick explains the Trinity (I used this once in worship when I was in Michigan)

 

John 3:14-21

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

March 15, 2015

John 3:14-21

Spring is around us as trees are budding forth as azaleas bloom.  The show of color is a reminder of the new life offered through Jesus Christ.  But before we can embrace the new, we must let go of the old which is what Lent is all about.

Today, we’re looking at the second half of Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus as found in John 3.  It contains that verse we all know—John 3:16—which is the gospel encapsulated in a single sentence.  I once heard it described in terms of superlatives:

  • The greatest subject ever: God
  • The greatest extend ever: So
  • The greatest affection ever: Loved
  • The greatest object ever: The cosmos
  • The greatest gift ever: His one and only Son
  • The greatest opportunity ever: Whoever believes
  • The greatest commitment ever: Entrusting oneself to Him
  • The greatest rescue ever: From destruction
  • The greatest promise ever: Everlasting life[1]

 

In these verses, as in much of John’s gospel, our Savior speaks of light and darkness, of grace and judgment.  If we believe in Christ, we must leave the darkness behind and come into his light.  But that’s easier said than done, for shame holds us back.  Shame hinders our will.  READ John 3:14-21.

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None of us like to admit guilt.  Nor do we like to be caught doing something wrong.  It’s a part of the human condition, going all the way back to the garden where Adam and Eve, after biting into that juicy piece of fruit, hid from God.  Or they tried to hide… Sooner or later our transgressions come to light.  We can’t run forever!  We end up like a kid, having raided the cookie jar, standing before our mom denying our deed with melted chocolate chips on our hands and crumbs in the corners of our mouths.  We get caught.  Maybe we’ll get away with our misdeeds for a while, maybe we’ll even go a lifetime without being caught, but the big guy knows.  Sooner or later, we must come clean.

In the meantime, we worry and fret over being caught.  We cover our tracks the best of our ability, but we’re never able to pull it off perfectly.  When I was in the ninth grade, I participated in a serious prank the last day of school before the Christmas vacation.  A couple of us decided our school needed a white Christmas and finding old test papers, we covered the front lawn with paper.  I don’t remember anything that happened during those two weeks off; I don’t even remember what I got for Christmas.  My only memory of that vacation is worry—being afraid that when my Christmas vacation was over, it would be extended for me to the great displeasure of my parents.  Mike (one of my co-conspirators) and I rode the school bus back to school that early January like two men on death row.  But we got off easy.  It seemed everyone had forgotten about the prank.  Worry, it turned out, was our penance.  But I still remember the knot in my stomach as I rode the bus back to school knowing I’d done wrong.

Garrison Keillor captures the fear of getting caught doing wrong in a humorous account in his first bestseller, Lake Wobegon Days.  The story is about a boy who is a member of a fundamentalist church.  One night, he goes out drinking with a Catholic girl…  They were driving home at night down the Old Post Road.  They’d had two whiskey sours each, on her fake ID.  When he topped a hill driving way too fast, he notices a pair of tail lights directly in front of him.  It was Brother Louie, driving his usual 30 miles per hour.  He slams on brakes, swerves, and then hits the gas to pass him…  But as he swerves, Louie’s neon red license plate holder catches his attention.  “The wages of sin is death,” the top side read.   “Romans 6:23,” was below the plate.  “It was like a flashbulb exploding my face,” he recalled.  His date thought he was a wonderful driver and had saved her life, but he knew the truth and assumed God saved him from his sin (drinking and lusting over a Catholic girl) because God had something important for Brother Louie to do.[2]

Have you ever been there?  Thinking God spared your life because it was the only way someone else would be safe?  There’s enough guilt in the world to go around and it causes us to think less of ourselves that we should.  For the truth is, as we read in this passage today, “God loves the world.”  This love implies a supreme act, its love shown in action.[3]   Secondly, this love is for the whole world, not just for believers.  The word translated here, as “world,” is cosmos, which implies all there is to the created order.  This is no selective love shown to just a few.  This is an all-encompassing love manifested in action.  My paraphrasing this passage, trying to capture the intent here, goes like this:  “God shows his love to the cosmos (think Star Trek) by giving His Son.”

All of us have done things for which we’re ashamed.  That’s okay.  As I’ve said, that’s part of the human condition, going back to the beginning.  We’re disobedient, we rebel, and then we feel guilty and want to go hide.  There are two important things to understand.  Our shame shows our need for grace and, secondly, God’s love still extends to us.  God provides a way for us to escape the helplessness that Nicodemus felt when Jesus told him, earlier in this chapter, that he’d have to be born again.  When Old Nick heard that, he thought he might as well throw in the towel.  But as we learned in that passage, Jesus isn’t talking about something that Nicodemus does, he’s talking about what God does for us.  God sends His Son.

This is good news; however, there is a warning linked to the good.  Jesus does not come to condemn the world, we’re told in verse 17.  He comes to save it.  But what about those who don’t want to be saved, what about those who don’t want to admit that they’ve got problems only God can solve?

I think this passage might be best understood in light of the events at the Garden when our ancestors first violated God’s order.  “Eat of this tree and you will die,” they were told.   And like a kid being told not to play in the puddle or with an electrical outlet, they went right to it and the shadow of their curse hangs over humanity today.  Call it original sin.  As a race, we’ve fallen from God’s grace.  We’re condemned!  That’s a given.  That’s already happened.  Jesus doesn’t come into the world to bring further condemnation; he comes to save.

Think metaphorically of the human race sailing on the Titanic.  It’s struck ice and is listing badly.  Jesus is a purser, calling folks to get into the lifeboats, but as we know from that maritime disaster, the first set of lifeboats go away nearly empty.  Most people put their faith in the supposedly unsinkable ship.

You may have faith in your own ability to save yourselves, or you may just be afraid of what might be exposed if you come into the light, either way your ego keeps you from experiencing the fullness of life as God intends.  And sooner or later, judgment day comes; sooner or later, our pride and misdeeds will be brought to light.  What then?

Graham Greene’s wonderful novel, A Burnt-out Case, is the story of Querry, an architect, who has built great cathedrals but yet doesn’t believe in God.  Tired of all the praise and glamour, he runs away to a Leper Colony in the Congo, “into the heart of darkness” (to quote another English author).   It seems appropriate, with our text from John, to have someone running away from God with the hopes of hiding in the jungle.  Of course, no jungle is dark enough for God of the cosmos, and even there Querry is hunted down.  He befriends one of the lepers, feeling a kinship with one whose flesh has rotted away.  Querry believes his soul has also experienced such rot.  Yet he finds enough of his old self that he’s able to build the one building that satisfies him—a simple hospital, nothing elaborate.

The book ends with Querry’s death.  We’re left with an uncertainty as to whether or not Querry experienced salvation.   In the last chapter there’s a discussion between a doctor and one of the priests who works at the colony.  They cannot decide if his soul has been “cured.”  But as the priest notes, “he learned to laugh and to serve others.”  And then he quotes the medieval mystic Pascal, “a man who starts looking for God has already found him.”[4]

Although we may love the darkness, we can’t run forever.  Yes, we can try…  But sooner or later the truth comes out.  The sooner we stop running and open ourselves up to the grace God offers through Jesus Christ, the happier we’ll be.   There is no need to carry around the shame and the guilt of sin, for God through his Son, provides an alternative.  We can get over our guilt.  We can put away the burden of sin and shame and embrace a new life as a disciple of Jesus—the life of a believer in the one who is the author of all life.

Our passage today is part of a longer section.  It starts with Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night.  And Jesus tells the Pharisee that he’ll need to be born again—which leaves Nicodemus speechless, for he can see no way he can make this happen.  But that’s just the point.  He can’t.  We can’t.  But God can.  And God cares for this messed up world so much, he’s willing to give it all, to give his Son, so that through him we can find forgiveness and acceptance and be able to put away the burdens we’ve carried, and live life eternally in his presence.  Don’t be afraid, that’s the message for all of us here.  Don’t be afraid of the light—it’s the only hope we have.

Our passage begins with Jesus recalling a strange healing ritual God had Moses perform in the desert—gazing upon an object they feared—a bronze serpent.  Those who were able to face their fears were able to be healed of the snakes’ poisonousness bite.  Don’t ask me how it worked, but it’s the same way with our sin.  We don’t like it, but as long as we let our fear keep it from the light, we will never get better.  We need to face our fears and one of our greatest fears is our shame being brought to light.  But it is the only way to salvation, the admission that we can’t save ourselves and must surrender all to the God of Creation who showed us his love in Jesus Christ.  This week, when you experience the glorious sunlight of spring in Savannah, think about what sins you need to bring to God’s light in order to be healed.  Amen.

 

©2015

[1] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 201.

[2] Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon Days (New York: Penguin, 1985), 140.

[3] See Raymond Brown, The Gospel of John I-XII: The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1966), 133.

[4] Graham Green, A Burnt-out Case (New York: Viking, 1961), 247.

Jesus Cleanses the Temple

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

March 8, 2015

John 2:13-25

The second chapter of John’s gospel has two stories.  In the first, Jesus is the life of the party as he turns water into wine.  In the second story, from where my sermon will come, Jesus breaks up a party.[1]  It’s Jesus’ first confrontation as recorded by John with the religious leaders of the day.  The season of Lent is about us preparing ourselves to accept (or rededicate) our lives to Jesus.  Let’s hear what John says and think about what we might learn… Read John 2:13-25.

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I love this story (at least on one level).  Jesus, like Rambo or some superhero, his righteousness burning, cleanses the temple.  This story is most appealing when I’m angry; I justify myself as I’m reminded that Jesus, too, got angry.   But, on another level, I wonder if that’s not an excuse for my own bad behavior.

John tells us that this occurred during the Passover.  I should point out a few things about this story which appears in all four of the gospels.[2]  As you probably know, many of the stories in the gospels appear only in two or three.  But all have the account of Jesus cleansing the temple.[3]  But there are slight differences in John’s retelling from the others.  He places the story early in his biography of Jesus, and makes it his first big encounter with the religious leaders of the day, where the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, place the story toward the end of Jesus’ life.  In those gospels, the story becomes one of the reasons why the Jewish officials are so adamant that Jesus must be put to death.[4]

I’m not going to try to come to some kind of harmonization of the four Gospels based on the events found here, but I think we should look at John’s Gospel, and see why he placed this story where he did, and why he includes his particular details, which are somewhat different than the other gospels.  First of all, John tells us that this is at Passover.  In John’s gospel the Passover is recounted three times, whereas in the other gospels they only mention the Passover feast during the time of the Last Supper.  This is how we come up with the notion of Jesus having three years of ministry.[5]

Jesus and his disciples had headed south to Jerusalem.  The text says they “went up to Jerusalem,” but that refers to Jerusalem being up in the hills.  They are on a religious pilgrimage and desire to celebrate the Passover in the Holy City.  When they arrive at the temple, there at the outer court, the Court of the Gentiles, Jesus finds a shopping mall. John includes a little more detail here than the other gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke do not mention sheep and cattle being sold at the temple, only the dove sellers along with the money changers.

The reason for this selling is that many of those who have come to the temple are like Jesus and the disciples.  They have traveled great distances, coming from Galilee, and in some cases coming from other areas of the Mediterranean in order to be at Jerusalem during the time of the Passover.  While there, they would like to be able to offer a sacrifice in the temple.  But, if you travel a long distance, it’s kind of hard to bring along your own sacrifice, especially since the sacrifice needs to be unblemished.  So, they bring money, hoping to purchase a suitable sacrifice locally.  Seeing this as an opportunity, merchants stepped in to fill the need.  (And, no doubt, gouge the tourist.)

The other group of people, the money changers, are there because you are required to pay a temple tax when you enter to pray.  The tax covers the temple operation and salaries, but the tax itself must be paid with a special coin.  You couldn’t pay it with the regular currency the Romans used because those coins had the image or the seal of Caesar imprinted on them.  This leads to the story in Luke’s Gospel where the religious leaders are attempting to trap Jesus by offering him a coin and asking him about it.  “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s, Jesus replied.[6]   This whole topic comes upon the offense the Jews took of coins with Caesars head on them.

The money changers also perform an important role in the eyes of the Jews, making sure that the money used to pay the temple tax is appropriate, and isn’t money considered idolatrous for having Caesar’s face on it.

But this buying and selling within the temple grounds disturb Jesus.  He throws a fit, telling them to take all their stuff out of there, and to stop making his father’s house a marketplace.  By the way, Jesus doesn’t say that the buying of animals or the change of money is wrong—it’s just that it’s being done in the wrong location.  They’ve taken over the Court of the Gentiles as if gentiles don’t matter.  It’s all about location and the temple is to be for worship.[7]

John tells us Jesus made a whip of cords, and with it he drives the animals and moneychangers out.  To my knowledge this is the first ever recorded “running of the bulls.”  Some scholars suggests the reason Jesus makes a whip out of cords is that any other kind of weapon, like sticks, would have been prohibited in the temple area.[8]  These cords laying around were probably used to lead the animals into the temple and once sacrificed, the cords weren’t needed anymore.  So Jesus fashions them into a whip, not a dangerous whip, but one that gets his point across as he chases everyone out.

Of course, this upsets the religious leaders.  They immediately ask Jesus, “Why are you doing this?  What sign can you show for doing this?”  In other words, who gives Jesus this authority?  Who says he can come onto the temple grounds and crash their party?  Jesus’ reply is interesting. “Destroy the temple,” he says, “and in three days I will raise it up.”  They respond that the temple has been under construction for 46 years, and in fact, it’s going to be several more decades before the temple is completed (it will only be completed a few years before the Romans destroy it for the final time.)  So they look at Jesus with amazement and disbelief.

Yet, we’re told there were many who believe in Jesus because of what he does and the signs he provides. The primary sign here, I assume, is the force he uses driving out the money changers and those selling sacrifices.  People feel that he has authority.  But then, we’re told Jesus does not entrust himself to them, because he knows all people, and needs no one to testify about anyone, because he himself knows what is in everyone.  So here, early on, John is reminding us of the divine nature of Jesus Christ.

In the tenth chapter of John’s Gospel, John portrays Jesus as the Good Shepherd.  And, of course, there is the 23rd Psalm, where God is seen in this pastoral vision as the Good Shepherd, who leads the sheep to grassy meadows, or takes them to places where the water is still, so they might have a drink.  But the Good Shepherd, who is also one who will lay down his life for the sheep, will vigorously defend the herd from any kind of attack or wild animal.  I think the second vision of a shepherd defending the sheep helps us understand what Jesus is doing here as he cleanses the temple.

Jesus is concerned with our worship, and that our worship be focused on God, and not be done as a way to enrich ourselves.  In an essay reflecting on Jesus’ righteous indignation, John Bell of the Iona Community suggests that ‘to do nothing, to remind calm in the face of this iniquity, would be to condone the discriminatory practices.”[9]

We need to understand the nature of worship John is driving at in his gospel.  If you go to the fourth chapter, where Jesus speaks to the Samaritan woman at the well, you may recall that Jesus tells her there will come a time when worship will not be centered at the temple, or at another mountain in Samaria where the Samaritans worshipped.[10]  Worship is to occur everywhere.  As followers of Jesus, our whole lives are to be acts of worship.  We give thanks to God, for he has given us everything we have.  In this way, this passage is about stewardship, how we use what God has given us.  Are we good stewards with that which God has given to us?  Do we use our resources, our talents, our gifts in ways pleasing to God and thereby glorify God?  Or do we, like the folks in the story, try to hedge God’s gifts and create a bounty for ourselves?

When we are selfish and only use our talents and resources for our own benefit, and corrupt worship for financial gain, we are in danger of facing the wrath that Jesus shows here at the temple.  We break the commandments, for we create ourselves and what we do into our own little god.  We worship ourselves above God the Father in Heaven.

Believing in Jesus Christ is more than just making a statement of faith.  It’s more than just going through confirmation class, and standing up and saying Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior.  It also involves following Him and living our lives in a manner which is pleasing to Him, and which will glorify God.  The pastoral vision of Jesus as a Good Shepherd contains both functions of the position.  It’s not just leading the lost lamb back to the flock, but caring for the flock and protecting the honor of the herd’s owner.  If Jesus was just the gentle shepherd, why would He have been crucified?  Or to put it bluntly as Christian author Philip Yancy does in his book The Jesus I Never Knew, what government would execute Mr. Rogers or Captain Kangaroo?[11]

I hope you get my point here.  A shepherd can’t always be a nice guy.  A shepherd has to protect the sheep and may become violent in order to do this.  Like a shepherd having to deal with wild animals and thieves, Jesus leads us through a world that is troubling and violent.  As a shepherd, he’s willing to go to bat for his sheep, even to the point of laying down his life in order to protect the lambs.

As a member of Jesus’ flock, we should take comfort in our Lord’s anger.  Yes, sometimes it might be disconcerting to us, but in the long-run, only such a God can keep us safe from the wolves looking to devour us, while protecting the holiness of God.  As a member of his flock, this should be comforting to us, but it is also a warning.

Don’t use this passage to justify your anger.  Instead, use it as a reminder that because our Lord’s love for us is great, his anger will burn against anything that threatens our eternal safety. Amen.

 

©2015

[1] Drawing from the internet.  To the best of my ability, the original sourc ise:  Jesus Clears the Temple – from “The Book of Books in Pictures”, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Verlag von Georg Wigand, Liepzig: 1908

[2] Matthew 21:12-17, Mark 11:15-19, Luke 19:45-48.

[3] Other stories in all four gospels include the baptism, the feeding of the multitude, the entry into Jerusalem, the washing of the disciple’s feet, the supper, the betrayal, crucifixion and resurrection.

[4] In John’s gospel, the catalysis that leads to Jesus’ death is the raising of Lazarus.  See John 11:45-52.

[5] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 143.

[6] Luke 20:25.

[7] Bruner, 143-144.

[8] Raymond Brown says that whips were not allowed (he actually suggested Jesus might have instead used the rushes used for animal bedding instead of cords).  See Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John, I-XII (New York: Doubleday, 1966), 115.

[9] John Bell, 10 Things They Never Told Me About Jesus (Chicago: GIA Publications, 2009), 116.

[10] John 4:21.

[11] Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 15.

Colbert’s Confession of Faith

I found this video interesting, especially how Stephen Colbert recalls Peter’s profession of Jesus as the Messiah followed by his human frailness as an example of our struggles (and which goes with my sermon of last Sunday).  While I agree that Peter was the leader chosen by Christ for the early church, I don’t agree with him being the first Pope as that concept wasn’t established until later.  None the less, I commend this video and how Colbert expresses his faith to you.

Second Sunday in Lent 2015

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

March 1, 2015

Mark 8:27-38

 

We didn’t talk about Lent last week as we were busy with the Kirkin’ o’ the Tartans.  Thanks to everyone who made that service special.   Today is the second Sunday of Lent.  This is a season set aside in the ancient church for preparation for Easter, especially preparation for those who were considering baptism and joining the faith.   In time, Lent has become a season of repentance as we confess our unworthiness of and thankfulness for God’s grace.  My passage this morning is from the 8th Chapter of Mark.  It reminds us that we can easily mess up and that God’s ways are not our ways.  Read Mark 8:27-38

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We all wanna be like Jesus, right?  We’re in church so I expect your answer is in the affirmative.  But do we really want to be like Jesus?  And if we’re sincere, do we have what it takes?  Peter must have thought he had what it took.  After all, he’s the one who hits the nail on the head, boldly proclaiming that Jesus is the Messiah.  This is the climax of Mark’s gospel.  Peter reveals Jesus’ true identity and if you look at the gospel as a whole, you’ll see that the story quickly shifts.

The first half of Mark’s gospel is about Jesus’ preaching and teaching, his healings and exorcisms as he travels the countryside.  Anticipation builds as to just who this guy is that is known as the “Son of Man?”  Jesus has a purpose and maybe he’s afraid if the word gets out too soon, he won’t get things done.  So Jesus tells the disciples not to say anything about him being the Messiah and then he changes subject.  From this point on in Mark’s gospel, Jesus focuses on his upcoming passion, his suffering and death.  Peter, however, doesn’t want to hear any of this.  Jesus’ talk shatters his image of the Messiah.

You know, Spring Training is now underway, so it’s time to talk baseball.  Did any of you see the movie, Eight Men Out?  It’s been out a while and was about the 1919 Chicago White Sox, a team dubbed as the Black Soxs for throwing the World Series.  One of the most memorable movements in the movie is of a kid about ten years old.  The scandal has just broken and the kid runs up to Shoeless Joe Jackson, one of the best all time players of the game who, when he first started playing, was so poor that he played barefooted.  At this point in the movie, he’s about to be banned from baseball for good.  The kid runs up to his hero and pulls on his pants, crying, “Say it ain’t so, Joe!  Say it ain’t so.”

It’s hard when our hero turns out differently than we expect.  Yet, that is often what happens which is why it seems that people in high places often fall from grace, because they cannot live up to their own expectations.  Jesus, however, is perfect.  It’s just that he sets a new standard, one that Peter doesn’t expect.  Peter has grand visions for the Messiah, the one who will restore Israel to her rightful place of prominence.  He wants Jesus to be a tough Super-hero.  When Jesus talks about his upcoming death, Peter is just like that little kid, “Say it ain’t so, Jesus!  Say it ain’t so.”

Jesus then does something that catches everyone off guard.  Turning to Peter, he rebukes him, “Get behind me, Satan.”  In a matter of minutes, Peter has gone from being on Cloud Nine to having his parade rained out.  Jesus calls Peter, the guy who has been beside Jesus for some time, Satan.  Jesus goes on to show Peter his fault.  The Rock, as his name implies, is thinking like any other man.  Peter’s thought process is no different than yours and mine and other humans.  Jesus’ plans don’t make sense to our way of thinking.  We understand power.  Like Peter, we could understand if Jesus picked up a sword and lead a campaign again the Romans.  But that’s not what happens.  God’s ways are not our ways.  With God, the weak and the meek inherit the earth. [1] Face it, that’s not the way things generally work out on our planet.

Like Peter, we understand an arm’s race; we understand the power of money and guns, tanks and ships, politics and coalitions.  Like Peter, we’d all be there saying to Jesus, “Say it ain’t so!”  Like Peter, we’d be rebuked.  We’d hear Jesus’ words, “Get behind me, Satan.”  Yes, like Peter, our hero won’t measure up to our standard, but more importantly we won’t measure up to his.

At least Peter’s rebuke was in a semi-private setting (just the disciples).  After these words, Jesus calls the crowd over and continues to teach.  “If you want to be my followers,” he says, “you’re going to have to pick up your cross.”  I envision those following Jesus being a troubled by what they are hearing.  These are the hardcore supporters, who have followed Jesus to Caesarea Philippi, a good hike from where Jesus has been teaching.  These are the Jesus’ groupies who’ve taken off work to follow Jesus for a few days and now they’re in a town named after the Roman Emperor (who they hope to overthrow). Hearing Jesus talk some kind of nonsense about picking up a cross, I’m sure, caused some of them to say, I’m out of here.”  They knew what it meant to pick up a cross; they’d seen those who had taken up arms again Rome wither on the cross.

Of course, we’ve sanitized the cross to the point that it is safe to wear around our necks.  We have crosses on the lapels of coats.  We put crosses on the windows and bumpers.

Will Campbell, who refers to himself as a bootleg preacher (he’s an ordained Southern Baptist), has harshly criticized the church in America for teaching essentially, “Pick up you cross and relax.”[2]  We don’t know what it means to pick up our cross today.  A decade ago, Mel Gipson tried to get us to consider it in his movie, The Passion of the Christ, but did it stick?

When Jesus says, “Pick up your cross,” he is providing a vivid analogy to something those gathered around him knew all too well.  Rome freely employed the cross as a way to terrorize slaves and citizens of conquered lands.  The cross was the ultimate deterrent—you challenge Rome and you pay dearly.  Those Galileans following Jesus had seen it in action.  They lived in a brutal world.  When Jesus began to talk about crosses, they didn’t have any romantic allusions to some fashion accessory.

Jesus then continues by giving one of his paradoxical proverbs:  “Those who want to save their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it.”  Like “the last being first,”[3] this proverb makes no sense to the economy of the world.  But God’s economy is different.  Winning isn’t what counts the most; its faithfulness, faithfulness to the one who was willing to give his life for the life of the world.

What’s most important?  Where are our commitments?  Are we committed first and foremost to our Savior Jesus Christ?    Now, this passage implies martyrdom, which isn’t an option any of us would willingly choose.  Yet, when we accept Christ’s call, according to Paul, we’re called to allow our old selves to die as we receive new life in Christ.[4]  In a spiritual sense, we all die as we leave our past behind and seek to become more Christ-like.

Is Christ calling us to face martyrdom as this passage is sometimes interpreted?  We don’t think about martyrs much anymore, or at least we didn’t until ISIS started their atrocities such as murdering the Egyptian Coptic Christians two weeks ago.

Brian Blount, a New Testament scholar and now the President of Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, has spent a lot of time working with the gospel of Mark.  Brian suggests that martyrdom isn’t exactly what our Lord is calling us to.  Instead, he’s calling us to be his followers or to join him on “the way.”  This way has already been outlined in Jesus’ teachings.  It’s the way of healing, of confronting the demons of the world, of being merciful and proclaiming God’s kingdom.  All disciples are called to share in this work.  We’re to follow Jesus, doing what he commands, which doesn’t necessarily mean death by the cross (even though it’s always a remote possibility, as some of the disciples experienced).  After all, we’ve aligned ourselves with Christ and in doing so we’ve shunned the values of the world.[5]  This can be threatening, but the most any worldly power can do is to kill us. However, as disciples, we are not living for today.[6]  We’re living for eternity and in the everlasting realms, the powers on earth are weak.

This understanding of picking up your cross as a call to follow Christ helps us make sense out of Jesus’ rebuke of Peter.  “Get behind me, Satan,” is a command for Peter to take his rightful place as a follower.  Instead, Peter tempts Christ to deviate from his mission.  As a tempter, Peter does the work of Satan, hence the reference

In light of being followers of Christ, do you recall the old bumper sticker that read, “God is my copilot?”  It’s wrong.  God, through Christ, is to be our pilot and navigator.  We can be the flight attendants.

Do we want to be like Jesus?  Then we must be willing to follow him.  Following requires commitment.  We dedicate ourselves to something bigger than us.  We put away our worldly ways of thinking.  Like Peter, we must conform our mind to the mind of Christ.  We can’t try to change Christ mind to reflect our values.  We have to be willing to put Jesus and his kingdom ahead of our own little kingdoms.  Do we wanna be like Jesus?  It is a difficult road; it’s the way of the cross.  Amen.

 

©2015

[1] Matthew 5:5

[2] Will D. Campbell, Souls among Lions (Louisville; Westminster/John Knox press, 1999), 37.

[3] Matthew 20:16.

[4] Romans 6:1-6.

[5] Brian K. Blount, Go Preach!  Mark’s Kingdom Message and the Black Church Today (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1998).  See especially Chapter 9.

[6] Matthew 10:18, Luke 12:4.

A Story of a Cross

This past Sunday I was asked if there was a story behind the silver cross I normally wear in worship over my robe.  Well, yes, there is.

meAs I was preparing to head to seminary in Pittsburgh, I accepted a part time job at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Butler, Pennsylvania.  I was hired for this position over the phone, after being interviewed by the Pastor, Steve Hamilton, and an Elder.  Jean Henderson, who was the placement and field education director at the seminary (and who had also been interim at Covenant) had given them my name.  We had a pleasant chat.  Not having a map close by, I had no idea where Butler was at so I asked.  I will never forget Steve’s response.  “It’s just a nice 30 minute drive through the country up Route 8.”  (The second time I drove it, I counted, in the 32 miles from the seminary to the church, 48 stoplights.  Obviously, we had different views of country drives).   Despite the drive, it was a wonderful experience.  Steve was a good mentor and the congregation was encouraging.

In a way, the members of Covenant are the reason I decided to go into pastoral ministry.  When I entered seminary, I had no idea what I was doing except that I was answering a call from God to go to seminary.  I assumed I would graduate and continue in similar work to what I had been doing, perhaps becoming a church capital campaign fundraiser.  From the beginning, people in the congregation at Covenant would say, “you need to go into the pastoral ministry.”  But I thought I would never have enough to say to sustain a lifetime of preaching.  Through their encouragement, I began to think about pastoral ministry and during the summer between my first and second year of seminary, when I set out to complete the Appalachian Trail, I found myself thinking more and more about the pastoral ministry.  When I decided to take an internship year, I accepted a position in Virginia City where, as student pastor, where I had full responsibility for the congregation’s preaching and pastoral care.  That became my trial by fire.

I have many good memories of working at Covenant, especially with the youth.  We did ski trips at Seven Springs as well as cross-country skiing closer to home, camped out in a cabin in Cook Forest, toured the Pittsburgh Zoo, held Superbowl parties, baked bread overnight on a Saturday and sold it to the congregation as a mission fundraiser, held a congregational “Valentine’s Day Dance,” exploring the “Underground Railroad” room under the building, and celebrated the congregation’s 175th Anniversary.  At the end of my first year, the congregation gave me a robe which I wore for over ten years, only replacing it when I earned a doctorate and the congregation I served at the time gave me a new robe with chevrons.  But it was my last year at Covenant that they really surprised me.

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The cross on a stand in my bookcase

One June 4, 1988, after my semester was over, we took the youth to Cedar Point, a large amusement park on Lake Erie in Northwestern Ohio.  We left the church before dawn, all huddled into a rented van that Steve and I took turns driving.   After a day of riding roller coasters and enjoying one other’s company, we drove home, arriving well after midnight.  I think I got six hours of sleep before crawling out of bed and preaching.  During that worship service, I was surprised by the gift from the congregation.  The Andersons, members of the church, had a son who own a jewelry store and was a silversmith.  They had him design a one-of-a-kind Celtic cross.  I wore the cross that Sunday and have worn it almost every time since then that I have been in the pulpit.

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Nevada Jack

I was showered with many gifts that day including two others that I remember and still cherish.  Steve gave me the journal that I wrote in during my year in Nevada as a student pastor.  And the Johnston family, who had two children in the youth program, gave me a teddy bear that I would name Nevada Jack.  Nevada Jack has made many appearances at children sermons over the years.  Around his neck is a neckerchief that reads:  “Jeff ‘Y’all’ Garrison, May the Lord be with you, Love, David, Jody, Heather and Noah Johnston.”

When I look at the cross or scan through my journal notes or see Nevada Jack sitting on the bookcase, I am reminded of what wonderful people that have helped guide me along the way.

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Sr. High Youth, winter 1986-7

Youth Group at a YMCA Overnight Retreat Winter 1987-1988

 

 

 

Kirkin’ o’ the Tartans Service, February 22, 2015

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Ephesians 2:11-22

February 22, 2015

knox

John Knox, 1513-1572

For the past two months, I have tried to hit on some of the key tenets of the Presbyterian Church while linking these topics with theologians who were instrumental within our Reformed Tradition.  Today, my topic is going to be the church and since we are celebrating the Kirkin today, we’re borrowing prayers and liturgy from the Scottish Reformer, John Knox.  Of all the well-known Reformers, Knox perhaps suffered the most, spending a year and a half as a galley slave in a French navy vessel after the French intervened into the Scottish troubles on behalf of the Roman Church.  He was also one of the most fervent Reforms as can be seen in his prayers (I’ve toned down some of them).

In the Kirkin’, those of us of Scottish descent (and I’m from the MacKenzie clan) honor our extended family.  But more important than this family is the larger family to which we all belong, the family of God.  Knox, who during a period of exile from Scotland studied under John Calvin, insisted that the true Church could be found whether the word was rightly proclaimed, sacraments rightly administered, and discipline maintained according to Scripture.  This three-fold marks of the church adds one to Calvin’s, who only insisted on the first two marks for the true church.[1]  But the “marks of the true church” need to be held up against Scripture.   Listen to how Paul describes the Christian community and how we are connected first to God and then to one another. Read Ephesians 2:11-22.

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What’s God’s vision?  That’s the most important question we, as disciples of Jesus, should be asking… What ultimately matters isn’t what we want; it’s what God wants.  Our passage this morning provides a clear outline of God’s vision—the mending of a broken world through Jesus Christ.

In an article titled “Living the Vision of God,” Dallas Willard tells a story that illustrates what it means to be committed to the Almighty God and not a substitute:

When you go to Assisi, you will find many people who talk a great deal about St. Francis, many monuments to him, and many businesses thriving by selling memorabilia of him.  But you will not find anyone who carries in himself the fire that Francis carried.  No doubt many fine folks are there, but they do not have the character of Francis, nor do they do the deeds of Francis, nor have his effects.[2]

 

He goes on to write about how Francis stayed focused to the vision of God.  There was a fire within him that caused him to challenge the church of the age as he worked to help the poor and to bring people together in Jesus Christ.  Willard’s point in his short essay is that we often become involved in the good works or in mission of the church and forget the vision of God.  Everything we do here at Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church, as well as in multitude of other congregations around the globe, needs to be grounded in God’s vision.

In verse 19, Paul lays out God’s vision.  We’re no longer strangers and aliens, but citizens and saints and members of the household of God.  Then Paul describes God’s vision as a building project.  But it’s not a project where all the material is delivered from a lumber yard and deposited in neat piles accessible to the carpenters: the 2x4’s here, the 2x6’s there, the sheeting over yonder…  Instead, the materials needed for this building are scattered and isolated, estranged and cut-off from each other.  So God starts with the cornerstone, which is Christ.  Then he sets the foundation: the apostles and prophets.  With a strong base with which to begin, the structure can begin to rise up using material that has to be brought together from afar until at last there is a spiritual dwelling place for God.  This spiritual dwelling place is the church; the place where those of us who have accepted what Christ has done for them can be at home.

Charles Hodge, a professor at Princeton and probably the greatest American theologian of the 19th Century, in commenting on this passage makes this claim:  “To be alien from the church, therefore, is to be an alien from God.  It is to be without Christ and without hope.”[3]  John Knox, the principle author of the Scots Confession, a part of which we’ll say together in a few minutes, says that without of the Kirk (the church) we won’t have eternal life.[4]

The doctrine of the church is important.  What Hodge and Knox insists is that it’s impossible to be a Christian outside of a community. Jesus was always calling people together. We are not Lone Rangers.

Next Sunday, we’ll celebrate the Lord’s Supper.  The imagery of the table around which we gather with Christ as the host is just a follow-up on what happens throughout the Gospels, people coming together and being in fellowship.  If you remember the stories of Jesus, you may be surprised by who sits at the table: a sinner, to the sinner’s right is a tax collectors, across the table is a prostitute, and then there are a few religious leaders, the disciples, along with a mother-in-law or two, and other family members.[5]  Jesus calls us together, out of our brokenness, where we are united and made whole through him and through the fellowship with others.

Paul begins our text recalling the conditions of the Christians in Ephesus before their conversion.  It appears most of the congregation were Gentile converts to the faith.[6]  They were aliens from Israel, cut off from the faith and without hope.  But Christ changes that!  The dividing wall between the Jews and the Gentiles is removed.  Remember, at the crucifixion the veil at the temple that separated the worshippers from the Holy of Holies split, signaling the barriers to God are removed.[7] God comes to us in Jesus Christ, even though we are sinful, so that we might all be reconciled to God.  As Paul says in verse 15, there is no longer two, but one new humanity.  We may come under different tartans, but inside these walls, we are all the same.  All who accept and believe in Jesus are given new passports.  We’re now citizens of God’s kingdom; we are now members of God’s household.

Elsewhere in the letter, Paul speaks of our being “adopted” by God.[8]  In the Scots Confess, we’re told that God has chosen from all ages, realms, nations and tongues those who make up his church.[9]  Christians are all part of the same family which is why we’re to be at peace with one another, loving and enjoying each other’s fellowship.  However, this doesn’t mean we don’t also love those who are not believers, for only to love those inside the church would be hypocritical.  Not all people are children of God, for not everyone has been adopted into the family.[10]  But everyone—in and out of the family—is loved by God and created by God in His image.  So, as we strive to imitate our Savior’s example, we love everyone!  However, if we can’t get along with those within the family, how are we going to show those outside the family our love?

Part of the problem of the church today, and I’m talking about the church in general, is that we are so divided and so distrustful of each other.  Liberals or progressives don’t like those who are conservative or more orthodox and neither do those who are conservative like those who are liberal.  In this way, we mirror society!  Sometimes one congregation will hold a grudge against another congregation.  But the divisions aren’t just between congregations and denominations; they can also be between groups of people within a congregation or within a denomination.  Such groups insist on things being their way.  They insist that they are right.  Where is the humility displayed by Jesus?  We’re supposed to be a family; look around and remember to love everyone!

A few years ago, Dan Kimball, a pastor who has done a lot of work with the “emerging generation,” published a book titled, They Like Jesus But Not the Church.[11]  When you think about how the church sometimes behaves, it is easy to see why they don’t want to be a part of it.  But Jesus doesn’t call us into the church to be contentious or to feel self-righteous.  We’re called into this community to love one another and to show the world another way of living.

One of the “Great Ends” of the Presbyterian Church states, we’re to exhibit “the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.”[12]  How are we doing at exhibiting God’s kingdom?  In another place in foundations of our church’s polity, the church is described as “a community of love, where sin is forgiven, reconciliation is accomplished, and the dividing walls of hostility are torn down.”[13]  When the church lives into its ideals, we will create a place where people will be drawn to us.  As the old folk song goes, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

God loves us and has called us together so that we might love one another.  Will we?  Ask yourself, “what will ‘I’ do this week to show love to those who are around me?”  May we, in the mighty name of Jesus Christ, make our part of the world a better place.   Amen.

©2015

[1] For Knox’s take on the church see Presbyterian Church, USA, Book of Confessions 3.25  (The Scots Confession, Chapter XXV).  For Calvin, see John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559 ed), V.1.9.  The Foundations of Presbyterian Polity in the opening of the Presbyterian Church Book of Order follows the three-fold marks of the church (F-1.0303)

[2] Dallas Willard, “Living in the Vision of God,” http://www.dwillard.org/articles/artview.asp?artID=96

[3] Charles Hodge, Commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians (1857, reprinted Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 124.

[4] Presbyterian Church USA, Book of Confession, 3.16  (Chapter XVI, The Kirk).

[5] For example see Luke 8:39, 14, 15:1-2, 19:5

[6] Ralph P. Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon: Interpretation: A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1991), 32.

[7] Matthew 27:51, Mark 15:38 and Luke 23:45

[8] Ephesians 1:5.  Paul also speaks of adoption in other letters.  See Galatians 4:5, Romans 8:5, 23.

[9] Presbyterian Church USA, Book of Confessions 3.16 (The Scots Confession, Chapter XVI, “The Kirk)

[10] Rick Warren, What On Earth Am I Here For? (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2012), 120.

[11] Dan Kimball, They Like Jesus But Not the Church: Insights from Emerging Generations (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007).

[12] Presbyterian Church (USA), Book of Order, F-10304

[13] Ibid, F-1.0301

Boy Scout Sunday

The Boy Scout BadgeJeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church


Boy Scout Sunday: Psalm 8  


February 8, 2014

 My love for being outdoors was kindled during my years as a Boy Scout.  Our troop would often camp in Holly Shelter Swamp along the Northeast Cape Fear River.  Down below the bluff on which we camped was a dirt parking lot for a boat ramp.  On Saturday evening, after the sun set and dinner was done and dishes washed, we would gather in the empty parking lot for a giant game of capture the flag followed by a bonfire.  In the winter, with clear skies and no electric lights for miles, the stars were brilliant.  Some nights, our scoutmaster would tell us a scary story but other nights he’d talk about the mythology behind some of the constellations.  We would look up at the sky in awe, and I still do.  On Thursday evening, about nine, Orion was high overhead, Tarsus (the Bull) along with Pleiades (the Seven Sisters), were beginning their descent toward the western horizon as Canis Major (with the Dog Star) rising higher in the east.  Looking up, I felt as if I am among old friends.

Psalm 8 is attributed to David, the Shepherd King. I can imagine him, on the nights he spent out in the fields with the sheep, looking up in awe of God’s handiwork.  The sky, especially on a crisp clear night, is amazing.  And he pens these words…   Read Psalm 8

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Do any of you Boy Scouts like Dennis the Menace?  He was one of my heroes when I was in Scouts and my uncle, who was like an older brother to me, would pass along his old comic books and I would laugh and laugh as I devoured them.  I remember in one strip, Dennis the Menace tells his friend Joey he prayed at night because the rates are lower.  (I hate to have to explain this joke, but it’s probably one only those of you over 25 who understand… you see, before cell phones and changes in telephone services, it was once much cheaper to call at night.  That’s a history lesson for the Scouts!).

Part of what makes Dennis so endearing is his honesty. “It’s cheaper to pray at night,” the five-year old reasoned, picking up I’m sure on a reference from his parents that long-distance calls are cheaper at night than daytime. And why shouldn’t prayer be the same way? There may even be an underlying truth to his comment. I expect if you took a survey of people who pray regularly, you’ll find that with the exception of mealtime, most people pray at night, while horizontal in their beds. I know I do.  It’s the time of day to put our worries aside and prayer is one way for us to do this.

If you are praying at night, continue! But if you are only praying at night, think about what this says about how important God is in your life. As I once heard it said, “Prayer is not a part-time occupation for Christians.” If we want an intimate relationship with God, we have to do our part to stay connected as well as to understand what God requires of us.

Since Christmas, I have been talking about distinctions which make us Presbyterian and a part of the church known as the Reformed Tradition.  One of the things we in the Reformed Tradition highlight is the importance of stewardship.[1]  Now, too often people only think of stewardship as giving money to the church, but as I’ll say over and over again, that is only a very small part of what it means.

Stewardship is an acknowledgement that all we are and all we have and the entire domain in which we live belongs to God.  As stewards, God has placed us on earth and expects us use the gifts given to make the world a better place.  We are called by God, we are saved through the death of Jesus, for the purpose of carrying out God’s will.[2]  Therefore, all of us, not just these guys in uniform at the front, are to be doing good turns daily! We’re to be God’s stewards of that which God provides, making the world a better place even as we wait for paradise to be restored as we heard in our first reading this morning.[3]

Today, we’re spending time with a passage that’ll help us understand our role as God’s stewards in the world.  God creates a world that over and over again is proclaimed “good.”[4] And God, the Almighty one, the “Maker of Heaven and Earth,” gives us dominion over this world. We’re heirs of God’s creation and his creative ability. Unfortunately, too often we take this for granted. But it’s not always been that way. Listen to what Eugene Peterson, the translator of The Message, a Presbyterian minister and theologian has to say about how Israel used the Psalms.

The Psalms were prayed by people who understood that God had everything to do with them. God, not their feelings, was the center. God, not their souls, was the issue. God, not the meaning of life, was critical. Feelings, souls and meanings were not excluded—they are very much in evidence—but they are not the reason of the prayers.[5]

 The Psalms are prayers and hymns of Israel, a people who, in their best, drew their meaning from this unique relationship they had with the Creator. They were a people who didn’t consider prayer a long distant phone call, for they knew God was present. Likewise, God is present with us. We don’t pray just because we’re in the mood; we don’t pray just because we need something; we don’t pray just because we want to go to heaven—that’s all self-centered stuff—we pray because we acknowledge God as source of all life and from there know that if we’re to be happy, content, and fulfilled in this life, we must ground ourselves in a relationship with our Creator and Redeemer.

The author of the Eighth Psalm is amazed when he contemplates God. Think about him lying on a hill there in Judea watching sheep. As night descends, he looks up into the sky. Stars begin to pop out and he makes out images—the dipper. If it’s winter, he sees Orion, the hunter; if it’s summer, there on the southern horizon, he watches the Scorpion. He looks in awe at the planets. In amazement, he gazes upon the waning moon and is in awe at a streaking meteor. Taking all this in, he’s humbled to think about vastness of the universe and that God, who created is all, is still concerned with a mortals like him, with mortals like you and me.

Some may look at the sky and be overwhelmed and feel so insignificant, but the Psalmist takes a different tack.  As one Old Testament scholar writes, when it comes to God, we don’t worry about what we don’t know about galaxies and electrons, instead we proclaim who it is we trust.[6]

The Psalmist thinks about how God created us. “We are created a little lower than God,” he writes. Indeed, we are created in God’s image; we’ve been given a huge legacy.  Just as God has control and dominion over the universe, we have dominion over our world. The Psalmist recognizes human power, but it’s a power within the context of God. As humans, we relate to the world around us like God relate to us; in other words, God cares for us and we should care for the part of God’s creation we’re given dominion over. Our power is a gift from God. Having dominion doesn’t mean we’re absolute monarchs; rather we’re benevolent kings over creation, ruling for the benefit of all creation.[7]

After the Psalmist elevates the human to a creature given special power and responsibility from God, he returns to his original words: “O Lord, Our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth.” Everything within the Psalmist life is centered and ordered on his relationship to God. If he wants to boast on his achievements, he must, as Paul suggests, “boast in the Lord.”[8]

You know when we consider the wonders of the universe and then consider how God is closely involved with all our lives; we should realize the nature of our relationship to God. When God is revealed in Scripture, we find that our own understanding of self is linked to God. There is no revelation of God without it also throwing light on the nature of humanity.[9] Looking at God, we learn who we are—the power we have as well as our limitations—so that we can see how we should live in order to maximize our lives. Looking at God, we should stand in awe, but with joy in our hearts. God is good and has entrusted us with a world that provides for our needs, a place where we can live fruitful and fulfilled lives; but it’s an awesome responsibility for we are to be good stewards of the gifts God has given.

Let me tell you a story… Once there was a good king who ruled wisely and was loved by all the people of his kingdom. He only had daughters, four of them, and he loved them as well. One day he called his daughters together and told them he was leaving on a long journey. “I wish to learn about God,” he said. “I’m putting you in charge.” They didn’t want him to go, but the King said he’d pray for them and they’d do well. He also told them he had a gift for each of them. They each stepped forward and he placed a grain of rice in each of their hands, telling them it was his wish for them to learn the meaning of the rule.

The oldest daughter immediately went into her room and tired a long golden thread around the rice and placed it in a crystal box. Every day she would look at it. The second daughter also went to her room and placed the grain of rice in a wooden box and put the box in a secure spot under her mattress. The third daughter, the pragmatic one (there always one of them), noticed her grain of rice was no different than all the others. She threw it away, figuring she could always replace it. The youngest daughter took her grain of rice to her room. She thought about it for a week or two, for a month or so. Then finally, she understood.

Several years passed before their father, the king, returned from his pilgrimage. As the oldest daughter saw her father coming down the road, she rushed out to greet him, showing him the grain of rice he had given her. “Very good,” the king said. Then the second daughter ran forth and presented her grain to her father and again the king said, “Very good,” he said again. As the first two daughters were heading out to greet the father, the third ran into the kitchen and fetched a grain of rice. She too presented it to him and again he said, “Very good.”

Finally, the youngest daughter stepped forward and told her father that she did not have the grain of rice he’d given her. “What did you do with it,” her father asked?” “Father,” she said, “I thought about the meaning of the rice for a long time. Finally, I realized that it was nothing but a seed, and then I discovered the meaning. So I planted it (obviously this was a grain of rice that hadn’t been bleached or shucked) and it grew and from that I harvested many seeds and replanted them and now I have enough rice to feed our kingdom.” She then led her father, the king, to where he could see the results. Surrounding the castle were acres and acres of rice.

The king took off his crown and placed it on his youngest daughter’s head saying, “You have learned the meaning of the rule.”[10]

To paraphrase the Psalmist: “God has given us dominion over the works of his hands; God has placed all things under our feet….” Jesus tells us, “The kingdom of God is like a seed…”[11] Standing in awe of God doesn’t mean we’re caught like a deer in the headlights. We worship an awesome God; a God who made us just a little lower than himself, and because of this we have incredible potential to be a positive force for good in the world.

Do you accept the potential God has given you? Will you accept your responsibility to be a good steward of all that God has given you?  Will you do your good turn daily?  Amen.

 

©2015 

[1] Presbyterian Church USA, Book of Order, F-2.05

[2] Ephesians 2:10, Titus 3:6-9

[3] See Revelation 21 & 22.

[4] Genesis 1:31

[5] Eugene Peterson, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), 14.

[6] James L. Mays, “What is a Human Being?  Reflections on Psalm 8,” Theology Today 50: #4 (January 1993), 517.

[7] Cf: Mays, 518.

[8] 1 Corinthians 1:31, 2 Corinthians 10:17; Galatians 6:14.

[9] Artur Weiser, Psalms: Old Testament Library, Herbert Hartwell, translator, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), 142-143.  In the opening chapter of The Institute of Christian Religion (1559 edition), John Calvin writes:  “man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him (God) to scrutinize himself.” (Calvin, Institutes, I.1.2)

[10] William R. White, Stories for Telling (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1986), 71-73.

[11] Matthew 13:31.

Presbyterian and Reformed: The Problem of Sin: Idolatry

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Deuteronomy 5:1-10

February 1, 2015

 

A salty old sailor who sat through a sermon at the Seaman’s mission on the Ten Commandments was visibly shaken.  “What’s the matter,” another asked.  “Well,” he said pondering, “at least I ain’t made no graven images.”

Such is the attitude of many of us today.  In these modern times, the second commandment gets a bit overlooked.  The days of manufacturing idols of out metals, wood or clay are all gone, or so we suppose.  We’re more sophisticated, or so we think.  We don’t believe God resides within an idol and therefore think we are safe from breaking this commandment, but are we?

Today, as I’ve been doing since Christmas, I am looking at key tenets of what makes us a part of the Presbyterian Church and the Reformed Tradition.  Taking sin seriously is one of the tenets.  When it comes to sin, I am sorry to disappoint you, but we are all guilty.  For us, sin finds its root in idolatry-the substituting of something for God.  Sometimes we place ourselves in the position of God (and if it’s not us, it’s our spouse, parents, children, jobs, country, or even the institutional church).  As good as these other things may be (and they can be very good) they are not an acceptable substitute.

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Ulrich (Huldrych) Zwingli 1484-1431

As I have done so far in this series, I am linking our topic to a theologian.  Today, we’ve prayed prayers used by Urich Zwingli, who was the first to reform the churches in Zurich.   Zwingli was probably the most radical of the first generation reformers.  He strove to get rid of anything that might be construed an idol, which led to a purging of the churches in Zurich.  He also had pretty strong beliefs concerning the Lord’s Supper, which separates him from both Luther and Calvin.  He was also a brilliant man, but he died early, in his 40s, in battle.  With such a short life, he did not have the time to produce the massive volumes of written material as did Calvin and Luther.   Our text today will be from Deuteronomy 5:1-10

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In this passage from the beginning of the Ten Commandments, we’re provided three reasons we’re to have no other gods before the One True God.  First of all, it’s the Lord who gives this commandment.   “I am the Lord,” the sixth verse begins. What’s implied here is that God, as Creator, rightful holds the title for the earth. “The world and they who dwell therein” belong to God, the Psalmist proclaims.[1]

Who is this God?  The Confessions of the Presbyterian Church bring together many of the attributes of God found in Scripture.  We speak of God as “a Spirit, infinite in being, glory, blessedness and perfection.”  God is “all-sufficient, eternal, unchangeable, incomprehensible, all present, almighty, all knowing, most wise, most holy, most just, most merciful and gracious, long-suffering and abundant in goodness and truth.”[2]

When we think about God, it is easy for us to be overwhelmed.  As mere creatures, God is beyond our imaginations.  It is easy when contemplating God to give up and resign ourselves never to be able to fully understand God and therefore drop our quest to know God.  But God, as he lays out his commandments, encourages us.  We’re reminded that not only is he Lord, he’s also our God.   “I am the Lord, your God,” he says in verse seven.  Not only is God the all-powerful creator, who rightfully claims ownership of Creation, he is also “our God.”  God takes the initiative to come to us, to enter into a relationship with us, to be personally involved with us.

The second reason given to us to encourage our compliance with the first commandments is that God led our ancestors out of Egypt.   Our God, the Creator of all, heard the cries of the Hebrew people as they labored, building pyramids and other sorts of monuments for the rulers of Egypt.  Today we marvel over their work.  We shouldn’t forget that the construction of these ancient wonders was done by the backbreaking labor of an enslaved people.  But God heard their prayers.  Over the sound of cracking whips, God heard their cries, just as he hears ours.  Through the leadership of Moses and a host of special effects, God rescued his people.  God is not a distant Creator, uninterested in what goes on in the world.  Our God listens and responds.

The third reason given for our obeying this commandment is that we were brought out of the house of slavery.  In the wilderness, as Moses recalled the Commandments, he was referring to Egypt and the 400 year period of slavery.  But let’s take a bit of liberty with its original meaning and see if we can come up with a meaning for us today.  The Exodus event provides a model of how God rescues his people.  It’s an archetype.  We can understand this commandment personally.  We obey because we’ve experienced release from bondage, whatever the form of slavery it might have been.  Has God helped you kick the smoking habit, beat drugs, get control over alcohol abuse, recover from an accident, a job loss or a divorce, or regain self-esteem?  Regardless of what it was, if God helps us regain control, we owe him enough not to break this commandment.

Having no other gods mean we let God be God and we trust and depend upon him.  God is the giver of life.  We need to remember this for whenever we put something between God, and us, we find our lifeline compromised.  If you have difficulty breathing and are on oxygen, you want to be careful not to stand on the tubing between you and the oxygen tank.  Otherwise, you won’t get the air you need and might pass out or even die.  It’s the same way with God.  God’s will is for us to draw our life from him and to live abundantly.  We don’t want to cut off our supply of his life-giving breath, but we do this anytime we place something between God and us.

The first commandment excludes all other gods.  The second commandment forbids any physical representation of either another god or the one true God.  At the time the commandments were given, this was a radical departure from the norm.  In the Near East, the use of art to depict deities was ubiquitous.  Everyone was doing it.  Everyone was into idols.  Israel stood alone and offered a new way of looking at God.  God is holy and therefore not to be depicted in artwork.  This doesn’t mean that art is bad.  Instead of knowing God through art, God is to be known through our experiences with him.  This is why the Exodus event becomes so important for the Hebrew people.  It is in this deliverance they encountered the living God, whose reality can be described, and then only partially, with language.[3]

God, in the Second Commandment, goes to great lengths to stress the importance of not having idols: God insists that idols cannot be in any form, whether it comes from the heavens, the earth or the waters.  Birds, animals and fish are all off limits.  God is the creator, not the creature.  God is the artist, not the subject of art.  God doesn’t want to be objectified, for if we can objectify God, we can handle him, and ours is a God that’s too hot to handle.

Why does God get so upset over idols?  I certainly don’t think God is threatened by our misguided actions.  God has power over all other make-believe gods, as shown by Elijah with the priests of Baal.[4]  There is no danger of God losing his position to one of our idols.  Instead of God taking this personally and being upset, God is actually concerned for our well-being. As a component of our created being, there is a restlessness, a longing, an emptiness within us which we try to fill.  God created us this way so that we might see the need to have him fill our restless desire to worship something beyond ourselves.  But God wants us to come freely, which means that we will also be tempted to create our own substitute for God.  All of us have this desire for fulfillment; idolatry is when we try to satisfy it with something that is less than God.[5]

Idols are impotent; they are without power and they give us nothing.  Idols rob us of the power we have within ourselves and from God through the Holy Spirit.[6]  Our idolatry has gotten more sophisticated; we’ve long given up on the golden calf and little miniature statues of Artemis that were dear to the Ephesians.[7]  But are we putting our trust in God, or in something else?

Surely this commandment means that we are not to depict God in any creaturely way.  But as Christians, we acknowledge that 1400 years after the commandments were given, God came to us as a man.  In other words, God himself chose to relate to us in a way we can understand.  It’s interesting that we’re not given a physical description of Jesus in the New Testament.  The mystery of what God looks like continues!  Instead, we’re told that we will meet him when we reach out to someone in need and that we’ll feel his presence when two or more are gathered in his name.[8]  God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ means we should not worship a picture, even if we had one of Jesus. However, the incarnation gives us a better understanding of the nature of the God we worship and adore.  Through Christ, we can have a more personal relationship with God, which is what God wants and we need.  Think of it this way, you can’t have a relationship with a piece of art; you can only have such a relationship with the living God.

Worship the Lord with all your heart and mind, body and soul.  Amen.

 

©2015

[1] Psalm 98:7, KJV.

[2] Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 7.

[3] Duane L. Christensen, Deuteronomy 1:1-21:9, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001), 114.

[4] 1 Kings 18:20-40

[5] cf, Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing: The Search for A Christian Spirituality (NY: Doubleday, 1999), 3-5.

[6] Joy Davidman, Smoke on the Mountain: An Interpretation of the Ten Commandments in terms of today (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1963), 38-39.

[7] Acts 19:23ff.

[8] See Matthew 18:20, 25:40.

Review of “The Theology of John Calvin”

Charles Partee, The Theology of John Calvin (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2008), 345 pages

theology of john calvinThe Theology of John Calvin is a fitting magnus opus for Charles Partee, who devoted a lifetime to studying and understanding the work of the Reformer. This book is a great addition to the literature on Calvin’s theology as well as the debates that have surrounded the 16th Century Reformer since his first edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion was published in 1536. Partee’s knowledge of Calvin’s writings as well as the writings of Calvin’s proponents and opponents provides the strength to this work. This vast knowledge is also the book weakness. To get to Partee’s understanding of John Calvin, one has to wade through page after page of debate around various interpretations of the Reformer. Although this is an important work, this is not a book that I would recommend for one unfamiliar with the issues surrounding Calvin. To fully appreciate this book, one needs to have some understanding of the major issues of the Reformation as well as many of the theological debates of the past five centuries.

 

Partee begins his study with “three introductory conclusions” in which he identifies the opponents of Calvin (who often argue with a caricature of the reformer), the proponents of Calvin and, as he labels them, the misponents (those who think they are arguing for Calvin but have made wrong assumptions about the Reformer). As Partee points out neither Calvin nor Luther were philosophical theologians, but many of their followers were. (14) The theologians who followed both Reformers, with their philosophical insight, often create a haze over the original Reformers’ work. Partee finds agreement with Holmes Ralston (John Calvin Verses the Westminster Confession), who credits Calvin with rescuing him from the Calvinists. (17) For this to happen, one has to read and understand John Calvin and not just look at what the Reformers who followed Calvin had to say about him.

 

After his introductory chapter, Partee follows the outline that John Calvin used in the Institutes of the Christian Religion. Here, as he does throughout the book, Partee notes the disagreements over various interpretations of Calvin on this point. Many have followed the idea put forth by Benjamin Warfield that the Institutes are based on the four articles of the Apostles’ Creed. Others, such as Edward Dowey suggest the structure to be based on a two-fold knowledge of God (God the Creator and Redeemer). More recently, Philip Butin has suggested the Institutes follow a Trinitarian structure. The fourth interpretation of the structure, one that Partee uses throughout this study, emphasizes “union with Christ,” and sees the structure being divided into two parts: God for Us (Books 1 & 2, God the Creator and God the Redeemer) and God with Us (Books 3 & 4, The Faithful Person(s) and The Faithful Community). (40)

 

Going into a review of the various sections of Calvin’s study as outlined by Partee is beyond the scope of this review. But a few general comments are necessary here. Throughout the book, Partee argues that the writings of John Calvin are more Biblical than theological and that the Reformer is more confessional than logical or argumentative. Partee also argues that “union with Christ” is the center of Calvin’s theology. He deals with issues like election and predestination, but reminds his readers that although Calvin’s opponents (and some of his proponents) try to make this the core of his theology, it’s not. Surely, Calvin believed and wrote about predestination, but it was not the center of his theology. The topic isn’t even broached until well into the Institutes. This changed in later Reformed doctrines such as the Westminster Confession which moved the doctrine of election to the 3rd article and placed Jesus Christ as the 8th article. (243) Predestination, for Calvin, was taught because it’s Biblical. Furthermore, Calvin sees the doctrine as a comfort to the elect, who know that they can’t screw up their election if it is in God’s hands. Furthermore, the doctrine should create humility in the believer (you can’t brag about your salvation if it is God’s doing).

 

Not only does Partee have a wealth of information about theological debates, he is also well versed in the classics and sprinkles this work with quotes by the likes of John Bunyan, John Milton, William Shakespeare and Herman Melville.

 

For those with knowledge of Calvin and the theological issues of the 16th Century, I recommend this book. For others, I would recommend starting with Francois Wendel’sCalvin: The Origin and Development of His Religious Thought. As a disclaimer, I should note that a quarter of a century or so ago, I studied under Charles Partee and found him to be a wonderful and fascinating professor.

Augustine and the Doctrine of Election

                

augustine

Augustine of Hippo

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

January 25, 2015

Romans 8:18-30

 

I am continuing my review of the theology that makes us Presbyterian and a part of that great body within Christ’s church known as the Reformed Tradition.  Today, the topic is election and no, I am not talking about going to the polls, those sickening TV commercials, or even politics.  I am talking about the only election that manners in eternity: God voting for us.  Election is another name for predestination—the theology that maintains God’s control over our salvation.  As one set of theologians writes, “In prosperity and in adversity, God is for us, in us, and with us.  This conviction is not a deduction to be demonstrated to a skeptic, but a mystery to be experienced by the faithful.”[1]  This doctrine is a source of our comfort as followers of Christ who says to the disciples, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.”[2]

As I have done with this series so far, I am going to attach a theologian to this doctrine and that is Augustine.[3]  Augustine lived in North Africa in the late fourth and early fifth century. He’s considered the most influential theologian from the early church; therefore, it’s important we know something about him.  His father was a pagan, but his mother was a Christian. He was an academic early in life, who loved women and liked to party.  Much to his mother’s dismay, he kept a mistress.  During the first thirty years of his life, he certainly didn’t appear to be on the road to sainthood.  But that changed!

Augustine had a mother who continually prayed for him.  Any of you who are mothers who wonder if your prayers for your children do any good, this is an example from which you can draw inspiration.  Thanks to his mom’s prayers along with the work of Ambrose, another leading figure in the early church, and most importantly the work of the Holy Spirit, Augustine was converted.  At the age of thirty, he put aside his wild ways and focused his attention on the church, resigning his professorship so he could concentrate on serving his Savior.

During Augustine’s ministry, the Roman world which had held together for centuries, collapsed.  The church found itself being attacked by left-over pagans, who blamed this chaos on Rome abandoning the gods of old.  The church also found itself attacked internally.  Like Calvin’s Geneva, many Romans flooded North Africa as refugees. Among these refugees was the English theologian Pelagius.  Pelagius, whose writings have not survived so we must reconstruct his views by how his opponents viewed him, questioned the doctrine of Original Sin and held that the human race could, by its God-given will, accept Christ, make the necessary changes, and be saved.  So Augustine had two battles—one with those outside the church and one with a sect within the church.  In his answer to Pelagius, he expands upon the doctrine of election (or predestination), a doctrine from which he borrows heavily from Pauline thought.

Today’s sermon will be taken from the eighth chapter of Romans.  Paul begins discussing our suffering, how it is not comparable to our future glory.  Then he discusses the hope and longing for the unfolding of God’s kingdom, and how all creation is anxiously waiting.  It seems strange that creation yearns, but we must remember that in Genesis, Adam’s fall did not just affect humanity, the rest of creation was also impacted.  If there is any question to this, we just have to look to the mess we humans have made out of the environment.  But we don’t have to depend on ourselves, God’s Spirit has been promised to help us in our weakness.  Paul concludes, reminding us that we can trust in God because all things will come together for the good.

This is an interesting passage.  Paul moves from talking about suffering, creation’s longing for rebirth, and predestination….  Paul continues, in this chapter after our reading, reminding us that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ.  This is a comforting passage.  Ultimately, for Augustine and Calvin, election or predestination is a doctrine of comfort.  Read Romans 8:18-30

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Two of my favorite theologians are Frank and Ernest (from the comic strips).  Ernest asks Frank if he believed in fate.  “Sure,” Frank says, “I’d hate to think I turned out like this because of something I had control over!”

In the last 200 years, predestination has taken a bad rap.  Some equate predestination to fate, but it isn’t exactly the same.  Predestination is a part of Christian Theology which says that God is all powerful and is in control of the world and because of this, God knows what will happen and is working to bring out good in all things.  Of course this type of thought doesn’t seem to allow much room for “free will.”  And we, especially us Americans, like to think of ourselves as free…  We only need to look from a Biblical perspective to see what freedom does for us.  It only gets us deeper into sin.  So, if we are to have any chance at salvation, God has to be in control…  God, not us, is the author of salvation.

One analogy that attempts to explain this imagines the world as one giant supermarket—a huge Publix!  We’re all inside shopping and are freed to pick the items that we can reach and place them into our carts.  Some of these items are good for us like spinach and celery.  We are also able to pick up things that aren’t so good like highly processed foods loaded with sugars and fats.  But God is with us and guides us and, when we’re not looking, is also adding things to our cart that which his way up on the top shelves, where we can’t reach, things like salvation.  We think we’re in control, but are we really?[4]

We Presbyterians have often been characterized as believing in an elitist form of predestination.  I believe this is generally because most people perceive this doctrine on the same level as Frank in the comic strip that I referred to earlier.  They see predestination, our fate, as a crutch.  If I am predestined to be saved, I don’t have to worry about anything and if I am not predestined, then I cannot do anything to change my fate anyway…  This maybe how the average person understands this doctrine, but that’s not totally correct.

Our Confessions challenge such thinking as foolish, for we are to teach everyone God’s word in the hope that they might repent.[5]  That is part of our calling as a Christian.  The doctrine of predestination is a doctrine of comfort for those who are saved, yet still suffer.  It is not a doctrine designed to lead people to Christ. To perceive predestination only in the area of salvation is to misunderstand it.

Before I go too far, I would like to clear up one basic misunderstandings concerning predestination.  This is not only a “Presbyterian” doctrine, regardless of what the followers of Wesley might say.  The concept was clearly presented by Augustine, in the early church and his writings influenced both Calvin and Luther, but all three were deeply inspired by Scripture.  Paul writes that we have been “chosen before the foundations of the world”, and that “from the beginning, God has chosen us to be saved.”[6]  In the Old Testament, Jeremiah is told by the Lord that before he was formed in the womb, God knew him![7]

I do not believe you can have a theology which takes sin and the power and providence of God seriously without having some kind of doctrine of election.  However, this is a part of the counsel of God and we will never fully understand it. As with much with God, it is a mystery.[8]  But it is also a hopeful concept which is firmly grounded in our belief that God is at work in the world to bring things around for the best.

At the risk of over simplifying, I will summarize our theology into four basic parts:  First, we are sinners.  Paul made an extended effort in Romans to emphasize this.[9]   Second, God still loves us as shown in the life of Jesus.  (God did not throw up his hands and say, “you’re on your own.”)  Third, God’s Spirit gives us the power to respond to this love and frees us from our bondage to sin.  And finally, we respond to God’s love with praise, worship, and dedication of our lives to God’s purpose.

If you followed this, you will see that our salvation is God’s doing.  Once we accept God’s love, once we accept Jesus as Lord, we then respond by working to bring God further glory within our lives.  Works and ethics, for a Christian, are a response to God.  They are not an attempt to earn God’s favor, for God has already freely loved us.  Predestination then, is not something terrible.  Instead it is a comforting mystery.  We know God is working things out for the best and we do not need to control.

Paul, in this section of his Roman’s letter, ties predestination with human suffering and misery.  Paul does not diminish the suffering which Christians and every human being experiences in life.  We suffer from illness and accidents, from broken hearts and back-stabbing friends, and from other people prejudices and our own missed opportunities.  Life can be painful, and Paul does not deny it.   Instead he points out that all of creation is longing for the fulfillment of God’s promise.  Creation, which was cursed along with Adam, Eve and the snake, longs for the new day when decay will be no more.[10]

All creation and humanity share in the hope.  They share together in their quest for a better world, one that we c