John Calvin on Education and Refugees


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.


[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.



[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



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.



[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


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


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:



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.



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.




[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


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



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.



[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


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.















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


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.


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.


[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.


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.



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.



[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.


[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


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.



             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.



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:



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.



[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.




[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



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.



[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…”




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.


          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:

[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.




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.



[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)



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.




[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.



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.



[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.




[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.


[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.



[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



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.



[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:

[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.


[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

[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.


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)



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.



[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


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.



[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.


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.


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.


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.



[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.


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.


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.



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.



[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 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


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



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.



[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.


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.


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.


“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.


[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.



[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.



[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.



[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

[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.



[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.



[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

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.



[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.


[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


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.



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.



[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



Image from

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.



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.



[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.



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.



[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.



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.



[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



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.



[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.


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.


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.


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


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.



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.


[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,”

[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

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.



[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.


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



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.



[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 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



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 cannot conceive but trust that the pain known here will be removed.[11]  But we are in a transition period in which sin and hurt still prevail…  In order to comfort us in the interim, God’s Spirit is present.  Paul even writes that we cannot pray properly, so the Spirit intercedes on our behalf.   God even helps us to prayer, which is kind of like God dropping goodies into our grocery basket!

When we think of predestination, we should not be concerned with loss of freedom.  Instead, we should focus on our call into God’s kingdom and therefore our response, to glorify God.[12]  We must understanding what God has done in our lives; knowing that even when things seem messed up, God is there beside us; and that the future belongs to God and it will be glorious.

There are two basic things which come out of our theology.  First is a comfort God’s providence.  We know that God is in control and we trust in God’s judgment.  We do not have to worry and work ourselves to death trying to prove to God, and to others, that we are good…  And once we understand that our salvation is grounded in God as revealed in Jesus Christ, we are freed to praise and worship God out of gratitude rather than fear.  And we can reach out and love and serve others, not because we need the extra brownie points to get into heaven, but because God loved us first and has given us the capacity to love others.

What can we take from this passage?  If we are in God’s hands, we’re going to be okay, regardless.  God has the future under control.  Don’t worry about it; instead, accept this gift of grace and then strive to live a life pleasing to God, knowing that the Almighty has got your backside covered.  Yes, there will still be suffering, but that, too, one day, will come to an end.  Until then, we glorify and enjoy God and that which God has given.

Yes, predestination is a Presbyterian doctrine.  But it is not the cornerstone of our beliefs, as some of our critics charge.  Instead, our theology is built upon a belief in an all- powerful and loving God who is in control of the world and of our future.  It is this God who created us and who, through Jesus Christ, promises us new life.  I encourage you to accept this mystery of faith and be at peace.  To God be the glory!  Amen.



[1] Andrew Purves and Charles Partee, Encountering God: Christian Faith in Turbulent Time (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2000),

[2] John 15:16.

[3] For a biography of Augustin, see Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967).  Much of the information about Augustine’s life I refreshed my memory with his entry in The Westminster Dictionary of Church History, Jerald C. Brauer, editor (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971), 72-74.

[4] Partee and Purvis, 110.

[5] See Presbyterian Church USA, Book of Confession, Second Helvetic Confession, 5.057.

[6] Ephesians 1:4; 2 Thessalonians 2:13

[7] Jeremiah 1:5

[8] Presbyterian Church USA, Book of Confessions, Westminster Confession of Faith, 6.021.

[9] Paul uses the first five chapters in Romans to build the case of our sinfulness.

[10] Genesis 3:14–19

[11] Revelation 21:1-4.

[12] Presbyterian Church USA, Book of Confession, Westminster Shorter Catechism, 7.001.

Our Presbyterian and Reformed Heritage, Part 2: Scripture

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

January 11, 2014

2 Timothy 3:10-17




Martin Luther

Before the great awakening of the church in the 16th Century, known as the Protestant Reformation, the Western Church held to multiple sources of authority: the Bible, the church, and tradition.  In time, errors seeped into the church, leading Martin Luther to proclaim that only scripture held ultimate authority and that the pope and church councils may be fallible. This didn’t go over well in some corners.  Luther ideas that began to spread throughout Europe challenged the power of the established church and was booted from the Roman Church.  Unintentionally, Luther began the church that now bears his name, but he also placed his stamp on the entire Protestant Reformation.

Unlike the Swiss Reformers, such as Calvin whom I wove into my sermon last week, Luther didn’t want to leave the Catholic Church.  He actually believed if he could demonstrate to the pope the church’s errors, things would be changed.  But the church, it seems, always resist change and Luther found himself at the head of a new movement.  He thought of himself as an unlikely reformer.

Martin Luther had a troubled soul.  He was so bothered by the fear that he might forget and leave some sin unconfessed and thereby be assigned to perdition.  He drove his superiors’ nuts with his constant need to confess his trivial sins.  In reading the book of Romans, he had an epiphany.  He experienced God’s grace; he developed a faith in God’s goodness as opposed to his own good works; and he understood that scripture, God’s revelation to us, trumped all human authority.  Had Germany been making Volkswagens in those days, there’d be bumper stickers reading:  “Grace alone, Faith alone, and Scripture alone.[1]  In other words, Scripture tells us that we’re saved by God’s grace through faith…  This doesn’t mean that things like tradition or the ordering of the church weren’t important, they were and are, they’re just not authoritative.  Scripture, God’s revelation, is our source for authority.  This concept united the German and Swiss Reformers.

Today, my focus is on the role of Scripture and our passage comes from the Second Letter to Timothy, chapter 3, beginning with verse 10.



When I was a child, I idolized Dennis the Menace.  In one of his cartoons, his Sunday School teacher asks him to name some of things that can be found in the Bible.  Dennis thinks for a minute and then responds: “my baby picture, dried up flowers, an’ a piece of bacon that I’ve been saving.”  I am sure we have all placed important things that we don’t want to lose in the Bible, which in a way shows our reverence to this book even if it isn’t its intended purpose.  We know that such things are safe there!

As a family, we always had such a Bible in the living room, one that probably weighed twenty pounds and was only read on Christmas Eve (there were other Bibles in the house to use for reading).  I remember my mother remarking that we need to dust the Bible just in case the preacher came by…  And then there was that kid who was asked by his mom during a visit by the preacher to bring “that big book that she’s always looking at to her.”  To her horror, her son brought her Sears and Roebuck’s big book.  Of course, it’s been a while since there was a Sears catalog.  To paraphrase Isaiah, “catalogues come, catalogues go, but the Word of God stands forever.”[2]

After the Diet of Worms, which thankfully had nothing to do with dinner but was a meeting of the German princes before whom Martin Luther refused to recant his teachings, Luther was on the fast track to his own barbecue.  In order to save Luther, Fredrick, one of Luther’s supporters, had him “kidnapped” and took him to the Wartburg Castle where he was disguised as a knight and allowed to write.  It was during this time that Luther produced his German translation of scripture, for he felt that the people needed to have access to God’s word in their own tongue.

I am sure that during this period of his life, when the Reformation was young and the danger was real, Luther could identity with Paul when he writes about his persecutions and sufferings?  Paul calls on Timothy to observe his teachings and actions, how he remained steadfast through his suffering, and then credits the Lord for rescuing him.  Like Paul, it seems that early in the Reformation, the more Luther was attacked and the more danger he faced, the more certain he became of his beliefs and the more defiant he was toward those who challenged him.   In Luther’s case, the Lord worked through a German prince to save his life and to allow him the freedom to expand the Reformation by the publication of a Bible in the vernacular, in the common language of the people.  As we are reminded in verse 12, persecution may come to those who desire to live a godly life, yet we are to endure and to remain steadfast in our faith.

In verses 14 and 15, we are informed that Timothy, to whom this letter was addressed, had a similar background to most of us.  He had been brought up in the faith.  He had attended church and Sunday School and the youth group or their equivalent.  He knew the sacred writings.  His training is credited to his mother and grandmother, Eunice and Lois.[3]  We, too, have had others who have instructed us in the Scriptures and to them we should honor and give credit for the gift they’ve given us.

The highlight of this passage is in verse 16 which reminds us that Scripture takes precedent over all human authority including the church.   Even our struggling denomination proclaims this.  The Bible trumps both the Book of Order and the Book of Confessions.  Those other books aren’t sacred.  They are referred to as “subordinate standards,” “subject to the authority of Jesus Christ, the Word of God, as the Scriptures bear witness to him.”[4]  The confessions can help us interpret Scripture, but cannot replace it.

“All scripture is inspired by God,” we’re told in this passage.  Let me unpack this a bit.  For Timothy and his contemporaries in the late first century, scripture was the Hebrew Bible or what we know as the Old Testament.  The New Testament, such as this letter, was in the process of being written.  But in time, the new canon came into being and the church applied this teaching to both the old and the new.  Those of us within the Reformed Tradition see them as equally important.  Both testaments contain revelation of God.

presbyterian seal

Presbyterian Seal

This is the reason most Presbyterians have two candles on the communion table and our seal has two flames beside the cross.  One candle (or flame) is for God’s revelation in the Old Testament as symbolized in the burning bush.  The other candle represents the New Testament and God’s ongoing revelation in Jesus Christ that continues with the Spirit which showed up on Pentecost as flames.   So, when we read all Scripture, we can assume this means the entirety of the Bible.

The second item in this phrase, “inspired by God,” also needs to be explored.  The word “inspired” comes from the Greek and can be literally translated as “breath.”[5]  We read in the creation account of God giving breath to Adam.  God gives us the breath of life.  Likewise, God gives us breath of life by inspiring those who wrote the Scriptures.  Furthermore, through the inward work of God’s Spirit, the Bible is “God’s Word in our hearts.”[6]

This passage concludes with a list of things for which scripture is to be used.  It doesn’t say that the Holy Book is a science textbook.  It doesn’t give us all the answers and is not to be used as a weapon.  It doesn’t give us all the answers.  Instead, Scripture is for teaching us about God and ourselves.[7]  It shows us where we are wrong so that we might realize our path and be brought into God’s grace and even after we have been brought into God’s fold through the forgiveness of our Savior, Scripture helps us along the path toward sanctification—as we strive to live in a manner that will honor and be pleasing to God.  In the end, as we read, as those who belong to God, through the study of scripture, we are equipped to do God’s good works in the world.

The Bible is a gift from God.  In it, we learn about God goodness and love and about our role in God’s world and coming kingdom.  If we are to be truthful to our calling as Christ followers, we must study and struggle with Scripture, praying for God’s Spirit to guide us.  For this reason, I encourage everyone of you to be involved in a Bible study, for the study of this book isn’t something we only do by ourselves late at night, it needs to be done with others who are also seeking out God’s will for their lives.  If you are not in a Bible study, ask yourselves, “why not?”  Seek out one or start a new one.  If you need resources to get started, they will be provided.  Just see me.

There was an old Jewish tradition that whenever a student would begin to study the Scriptures with a rabbi, a bit of honey would be dropped on the student’s tongue to remind him that God’s word is sweet.  It is life!  It’s the sweet life! Embrace it and live it.  Amen.

[1] I am indebted to Jack Rogers in a video on the “Essential Tenets” for this joke.

[2] Isaiah 40:8 (The grass withers, the flowers fade, but the Word of God stands forever.)

[3] 2 Timothy 1:5

[4] Presbyterian Church, USA, Book of Order, F-2.02

[5]J.N.D. Kelly, A Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles: Timothy 1 & 2 and Titus (Hendrickson, 1960), 203

[6] Presbyterian Church, USA, Westminster Confession of Faith, Book of Confession 6.005.

[7] The third question in the Westminster Shorter Catechism asks, “What do the Scriptures principally teach?”  The answer: “Scriptures principally teach what we are to believe concerning God, and what duties God requires of us.”



Our Presbyterian and Reformed Heritage, Part 1


John Calvin 1509-1564

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

January 4, 2014

Isaiah 12


As we enter that gap between the Christmas season and Lent, I will use these Sundays to give you a primer on what it means to be Presbyterians.  We have a rich theological foundation within the movement known as the Reformed Tradition.  This movement began in Switzerland, at approximately the same time as Luther’s Reformation in Germany.  The first city to convert to a Protestant faith was Zurich under the leadership of Urich Zwingli, who’d been preaching about reforming the church since 1516.  The Reformation spread to other cities within the Swiss Confederation, including Geneva which adopted the Protestant faith in 1535 under the leadership of William Farel.  The next year, Farel encouraged John Calvin, a refugee traveling through Geneva, to join him in the work.

In many ways, the Protestant movement has never been the same as Calvin placed his imprint upon it.  Today, I want to introduce you to Calvin and to one of the central focuses of his teachings, the love of a sovereign God.  If you are interested in learning more, I invite you to join me in a Wednesday evening study on Calvin and his legacy.  In order to understand him, we must examine him in light of the 16th Century and get beyond the view of him being a grumpy old man.[1]   He wasn’t!

Calvin’s impact on our world is immense, far beyond theological and biblical studies. At the turn of the 21st Century, one survey identified Calvin as one of the ten top individuals within Western civilization that defined the previous millennium.[2]  His writings, teachings and sermons have influenced not only theology, but government and economics. You see vestiges of Calvin’s thought in the founding of our nation, along with the rise of democracy and capitalism.  In this service in which we draw from Calvin’s worship style, I hope that not only do you learn about him, but why he felt so strongly about his theological convictions which will strengthen our lives as followers of Jesus.

To be fair to Calvin, I should acknowledge he’s probably rolling over in his grave at all the fuss that has been made about him.  Calvin was a very simple man. He was a pastor and a teacher. He didn’t seek publicity, and insisted that upon his death he be buried in an unmarked grave. His wish was granted. But Calvin’s influence is still felt.  Born in France, on July 10, 1509, Calvin fled from his home country due to religious persecution. He ended up in Geneva, where he spent most of his life. Geneva, in the 16th Century, was far ahead of the rest of Europe, politically and economically. Then, as today, it was a banking capital. And, compared to the rest of the continent, it was a relatively tolerant city.[3] (Relative is the operative word—this was the 16th Century, after all.)  Due to the turmoil of the times, Geneva attracted large numbers of refugees from all over Europe. Calvin was one of these refugees.

In Calvin’s ministry, he encouraged the city to take care of the poor.  With so many refugees, there were many poor.  Calvin had the church receive and give out an offering to the poor, a practice he tied to the Lord’s Supper.  In our church, we also do this by bringing offerings of food for local shelters.  Such gifts should remind us that after being nourished by God, we should consider the nourishment of others. But Calvin wasn’t just content to take care of the poor.  He also encouraged everyone to work, including refugees of noble birth, many of whom felt they were above such tasks.[4]  Calvin also turned the medieval usury laws on their head.  He felt it was okay to charge interest if one made a loan to help someone start a business—the person who made the loan should benefit for the success of another.  But he did not think it was okay to take advantage of the poor, loaning to them with high interest rates and forcing them into a subservient position.[5]  I think we can say that Calvin would be quite critical of today’s “pay day loans.”

Education was another focus of both Calvin and the city of Geneva.  The city required children to be educated, and it was provided free to the poor.[6]  Calvin started the Academy, where he taught refugees about the Bible and the Christian life.  When they returned to their homes, they took with them Calvin’s teachings which emphasized the importance of God’s Word.  One such student was John Knox, who led the Reformation in Scotland, from which comes our Presbyterian roots.

Calvin’s worship was grounded in two things: God’s word and prayer.  God’s word was quoted at the beginning and end of worship, and was used throughout.  The Bible was read right before the sermon, which itself is seen as the proclamation of God’s word.  The Bible was also heard through music.  Generally, like the Hebrews before them, the Psalms were put to music.  In addition to God’s word, prayer was important and offered throughout the service—starting with a prayer of confession.  Calvin realized that it was important to come before God with a clean heart; worship began in confession.  The Lord’s Prayer was also important and often repeated three times in the service, a trick I’m not going to try today. [7]

For my sermon this morning, I want us to look at Isaiah 12.  It’s a short chapter which will allow me to draw some conclusions about Calvin’s theology and how it should influence our lives of faith.



The symbol Calvin adopted for himself had a hand offering up a heart and the words around it read, “My heart I offer to you, Lord, promptly and sincerely.”[8]  This symbol reflects Calvin’s faith grounded in a sovereign and loving God.   Isaiah 12 is a Psalm of Thanksgiving.  Israel can rejoice because God’s anger has been turned away.  In the face of such news, offering ourselves to God is an appropriate response.[9]

Verse one tells us that God’s anger has been removed which leads Isaiah in verse two to proclaim God to be his salvation!  There is no longer a need to be afraid.  When we are in bondage to sin, we are cut off from God, and there are plenty of reasons for us to fearful. John Calvin, writing on this passage, speaks of how sin clouds or fogs our mind.  When we are away from God, we are filled with dread.  But when the news of God’s salvation is heard, experienced in the coming of Christ, it’s like the sun burning away the fog; and we can have confidence in God’s mercy.   Drawing upon Colossians 3:15, Calvin continues saying that this confidence should fill our hearts and “banish all fear and dread.”  We are not “free from all distress,” but we have the assurance that in the end we will be victorious.[10]

Calvin is realistic.  Although we have confidence, we still battle sin.  Our hope is that because of God’s love and mercy, we will be successful and reunited with our Savior.  There will be times in our lives when we are distressed.  Those who suggest that the Christian life is free from all troubles don’t know what they are talking about, but we can hold tight to the promises made in Scripture and have assurance and hope.

In the third verse, “with joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation,” we come upon one of the two main metaphors Calvin uses for God.  Calvin sees God as being a Father, and frequently uses the parent metaphor for the Almighty.  The other metaphor that Calvin commonly uses for God is that of the fountain or a well.[11]  This metaphor ties into our baptism; God is the foundation of all goodness.  Isaiah refers to this fountain or well as a place from which we are nourished.  “This is a very beautiful metaphor,” Calvin wrote in his commentary, “for in this life nothing is more necessary than water…  Thus, by this figure of speech…  [Isaiah] declares that everything necessary for supporting life flows to us from the underserved goodness of God.  And since we are empty and destitute of everything good, he appropriately compares the mercy of God to a fountain.”[12]

You know, when you are thirsty, there is nothing better than a good cold drink of water drawn from the depths of the earth.  Wendell Berry’s novel, Nathan Coulter, ends at such a place.  Nathan and his grandpa have been out watching the men work, cutting hay.  As his grandpa is now too old to work the fields, Nathan escorts him back to his home.  As they make their way across fields and pastures, they come upon the spring in a notch in the rock down by the brow of the hill.  The old man sits down and rests and the boy draws a cup of water for his grandpa.  The old man takes the cup and cuddles it in his hand, looking at the spring and commenting that he’d never known it to go dry.  As he drinks from the cup, Nathan thinks of all who’ve drunk from the spring, his father, grandfather and great-grandfather and of those who inhabited the land before them.[13]

Berry’s description of the spring reminds us of why the metaphor of a well (or spring or fountain) is so foundational for John Calvin.  Like the Coulters, we drink from this spring, generation after generation, as we are nurtured by the God of our salvation.  We drink from the same well as Calvin and the believers in the church throughout the ages.  God never changes and when we study scripture, we learn of God’s eternal truths.  When we drink from this well, we will be strengthened and more confident.  This new disposition will embolden us to sing God’s praises and to proclaim his great deeds.

Our chapter ends with Isaiah calling on Israel, who has experienced God’s salvation, to praise God and to tell others—all the earth—about the goodness of the Lord.   And it’s not to be just us praising God as individuals; we’re to draw others into our celebration.  We’re to be a part of a world-wide community that praises the Lord.  Here I think we see the essence of our faith.  When we experience God’s love, we react in joyful obedience.  By the way, worship is a form of work and yes, works are important.  This isn’t because they get God to notice us or because we can earn our salvation. Works are important because they are the consequences of our salvation.  Having been freed from God’s anger, we can rejoice and encourage others to rejoice.  Having experienced the goodness of the Lord, we should also show goodness and mercy to others.

One final thing about Calvin: he encouraged believers to get involved, to be the salt of the earth.[14]  We’re to work for the betterment of others, and in doing so, we praise God.  All of life is worthy of our religious attention.  Once we’ve been freed from the bonds of sin, out of joy, we should praise God and share his love.  That’s the essence of this passage.

The next time you’re thirsty and go for a cold drink of water, pause for a moment and think about how God is like a well that never goes dry, always refreshing us with crisp cold water that quenches our thirst.  And give thanks.  Amen.

[1] See Charles Partee, The Theology of John Calvin (Louisville: Westminster, 2008), especially his opening and concluding chapters.

[2] Richard John Neuhaus, editor, The Second One Thousand Years: Ten People Who Defined a Millennium (Grand Rapids: Eerdman, 2001).

[3] For a discussion of Geneva’s tolerance, see Marilynne Robinson, The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (NY: Picador, 1998), 198.

[4] Alister McGrath, “Calvin and the Christian Calling,”, The Second One Thousand Years: Ten People Who Defined a Millennium,  Richard John Neuhaus, editor (Grand Rapids: Eerdman, 2001), 73.

[5] McGrath, 70.

[6] Robinson, 199.

[7] For information on Calvin’s worship style, see Larry Sibley, “Ten Worship Planning Ideas from John Calvin, Reformed Worship # 92 (June 2009), 34-35.

[8] For a background to this symbol, which is now used as the seal for Calvin College, see

[9] For the setting of this chapter, see Christopher R. Seitz, Interpretation: Isaiah 1-39 (Louisville, KY : John Knox Press, 1993), 111.

[10] John Calvin, Commentary on Isaiah 12:2

[11] See B. A. Gerrish, Grace and Gratitude: The Eucharistic Theology of John Calvin (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 25-28.

[12] John Calvin, Commentary on Isaiah 12:3

[13] Wendell Berry, Nathan Coulter (1960: New York: North Point Press, 1985), 179-180.

[14] McGrath, 75.

First Sunday of Christmas: December 28, 2014

movarian star

Moravian star on our front porch

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

December 28, 2014

Isaiah 64


Jesus was born at an interesting time. Luke provides a historical setting for the birth: Augustus was emperor, Quirinius was governor, and there was a major census being conducted.  It was a time of stability and peace in which the word easily spread throughout the known world.  But it was a fragile peace, maintained by terror and force.

In Simply Jesus, N. T. Wright begins telling Jesus’ story by going into the background of this world.  As an analogy, he draws upon the story of the fishing boat, Andrea Gail.  If  you read the book or seen the movie, you’ll remember she was lost in the North Atlantic during a storm created by the confluence of three weather systems that created The Perfect Storm.

Wright identifies the making of this first century perfect storm into which Jesus was born involving the confluence of the Roman world (which provided the means for the message to get out), the Jewish world (which was longing for a Messiah and hated the Romans) and the sovereign wind of God blowing into the already troubled world and challenges everyone’s (the Romans and the Jews) assumptions.[1]

When we invite God into our midst, we need to be careful.  We need to be ready to have things shaken up.  And that’s what happened when God came to us as a child born in Bethlehem.  Today, I want us to once again go back to that world without Jesus and imagine what life was like in Israel.  My passage today is from the Book of Isaiah, the 64th chapter, in which the prophet cries out for God to intervene.  Would we be so brave?  Read Isaiah 64:



Although Isaiah was centuries before the birth of Jesus, it was already a similar world.  Israel was a small nation, a pawn on an international scene dominated by foreign armies.  It started with the Egyptians, then the Assyrians, Babylonians and would continue on with the Persians, Greeks and finally the Romans.  This world of power was spinning around Israel.  God’s people were dizzy and felt lost and abandoned so that the prophet cries out to God to tear open the heavens and come down.

This is a cry of lament!  Isaiah knows God is near; he’s a devoted worshiper of the Almighty.  He and all Israel know God is not locked up in the heavens, beyond their grasp.  God exists! God listens to their complaints.  Tearing open the heavens is metaphorical language.  God is present!  It’s just that God doesn’t seem to be doing anything.  Israel would like to see some tangible evidence, a reminder, something to boost their faithfulness.  Therefore they call on God to reveal himself in a manner that his presence will be unmistakable: in an earthquake or fire or lightning.  They want God to reveal himself as in the days of old.  Isaiah cries for God to give his contemporaries who feels abandoned an example of his power like God did for Pharaoh. What they’d really like God to do is show up and scares the pants off their enemies.

You know, Isaiah’s request is a familiar one.  We’d all like to witness such power. I’ve been told many times by individuals that if they just had a sign, if they just had more tangible evidence, it’d make all the difference in their lives.  But does it?  After all, the Hebrew children in the wilderness had witnessed God’s power and all its fury with the plagues and the parting of the sea, yet they still continued to turn from God.  The disciples witnessed Jesus’ miracles, yet they still denied him.

There’s just something about us wanting God to step into history and to solve our problems, right here, right now.  We want God to be on our side; we want God to do our bidding; we want to choose God for our team as if we’re in some pick-up basketball game, forgetting that we don’t choose God. God chooses us!  Instead of us trying to lure God over to our team, we should make sure that we’re on his team.

This prayer, or lament, of Isaiah’s can be divided into three parts and if we separate them, we can better understand the prophet’s theology.  The first five verses ask God to act because God has acted in the past. Isaiah knows what God has done for the Hebrew people, they know what God is capable of doing; therefore he bases his request on God’s past history. Asking God to come down is an appeal for God to act in the world—to enter human history on behalf of his people.

You may be in the situation of Isaiah, knowing God but only in the past tense, thinking that God’s action stop with Jesus or the Apostles or maybe with your baptism or confirmation. If so, I invite you to join in Isaiah’s lament and cry out for God to make himself known to us once again.  God is the only one capable of meeting our innermost longings. We cry out to the Almighty, who already knows our needs.  Our cries led us to reevaluate our lives and how we relate to God. This is what happens to Isaiah.

Isaiah, after recalling God’s past grace, reflects on his and his people’s sinfulness. The second part of the petition involves confession. In verses five through seven, Isaiah admits the problems from which they need deliverance are result of their disobedience.[2] They have sinned; they are guilty; they need God to pull them out of the deep and troubling water.

Here again we often find ourselves in the situation of Isaiah.  At such times, we should ask ourselves what we have done to cause God to seem so far away.  Do we turn our backs on our Savior?  Is the problem with us?  Probably so, and we need to confess those sins which drive us away from God’s holiness.  We need to root out our indifferences toward God that cause Him to seem so distant.

The third part of this lament affirms their trust in God while continuing to plea for God’s help.  In a fashion reminiscence of Moses, who shamed God when the Lord wanted to destroy the people after the fashioning of the golden calf, Isaiah reminds God that the Israelites are his people.[3]  “God,” he says, “those destroyed cities are your cities; that ruined temple is your temple.”  God has big shoulders and Isaiah brings his petition before God, dropping his concerns on the Almighty.  Then he waits.  There is nothing more to do but to carry on as we wait for God’s answer.  We wait, trusting in the Lord.

In the fourth verse of this chapter, we are reminded that God’s works for those who wait.  And when we think about it, much of scripture is about God’s people waiting on God to act.  Abraham and Sarah waiting for a child; the Hebrew slaves waiting in bondage; those exiled in Babylon waiting for release; the waiting for the Messiah.  And now it’s our turn to wait for Christ’s return.  At times, at least within the measurement of human history, it seems as if God is slow to act.  Yet, in the meantime, we are to wait faithfully.  Our willingness to wait reflects our trust in the Almighty.

But our culture does not place much value on waiting.  We want things immediately—we desire instant gratification!  Fast food and faster computers, interstate highways and supersonic jets.  Instead of mailing a letter, we zip ‘em off by email, or we shoot a text and expect an almost immediate response.  We don’t make time nor do we have time to wait.  This is even true in religion for we want immediate salvation.  We want to accept Christ and all-of-a-sudden have everything better.  We want to have our spiritual longings filled, immediately!  But it doesn’t work that way.  There is truth in the old cliché, “Anything worthwhile takes time.”

About ten years ago, there was an editorial in Christianity Today about the prevalent culture of cheating.  The author pointed to book by David Callahan titled, The Cheating Culture; Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead.  According to the author of this book, cheating had increased greatly in the final decade of the 20th century.  One study cited found 90% of college graduates saying they’d cheat to get the job they wanted.  The editorial went on to extend Callahan’s thoughts to the spiritual realm and suggested that we cheat even there and that much of evangelical Christianity stands guilty.  “We read one-minute Bibles, pray through five-minute devotions, wander from one conference to another to get five keys to Spiritual success,” he writes.  “We except Spiritual maturity in 40 days of purpose-filled studies…  One of the lies of the world is that we can have instant discipleship….  We think we’re tourist, after instant gratification, forgetting we’re pilgrims in for the long haul to our new heavenly home.”[4]

We’ve just finished four weeks of Advent in which there was a lot of talk about waiting…  During these weeks, we were reminded of the centuries God’s people waiting for the Messiah, even as we wait for his return.  God, through the Psalmist, encourages us to be still (or, we might say, to wait) and know that He is God.[5]   At times, waiting may be our only real option.  We can barge ahead without God and screw everything up, or we can patiently wait for God’s direction.

You know, the ironic thing about this passage is that even while Isaiah calls upon God to come down from the heavens and make himself known, God was there.  God was present.  At the beginning of Chapter 65, God replies: “I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek me.  I said, ‘Here I am, here I am’ to a nation that did not call my name.”  God was present, but Isaiah’s contemporaries were unwilling to seek Him out.  God was working to get Israel out of exile and back to the Promised Land.  God was already forging a new relationship with his people, one that would in time cumulate with the birth of a Savior.

God was present then, amidst the chaos of the world, just as God is present now in a world that is seemingly just as chaotic.  At times, from our point of view, we might not know where God is, but when we look back on where we’ve been, we often realize God has been with us, guiding us along, working through us to bring about his purposes.

Let me clarify one point as we close.  I don’t want you to go away thinking that our waiting on God means no action on our part.  Isaiah wasn’t inactive.  He was proactive, taking his concerns to God and admitting his and his people’s shortcomings and in so doing, opening himself up for God to reveal himself as we see happening in the 65th chapter of Isaiah.

Craig Barnes, who is now the president of Princeton Theological Seminary, says in one of his earlier books, Sacred Thirst, that the point of hope (and I’d say that same applies to waiting) is not just to hold on, it’s to be free so we can seek holiness where we find ourselves.[6]  And isn’t that what Isaiah does?  Externally, his situation doesn’t change, even after God replies in the next chapter. But he’s changed.  He’s changed because having called upon God and reflected upon his sinfulness, he’s now open to encounter God and to know God’s presence.  Knowing God’s presence is ultimately all that matters, for when God is with us, we can undergo any obstacles and face any challenges.  Amen.



[1] N. T. Wright, Simply Jesus” A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters (New York: Harper Collins, 2011), 13-56.

[2] It is interesting that Isaiah began by blaming God (we sinned because you away-verse 5).  But the tone changes as he takes responsibility (you have delivered us into the hands of our iniquity-verse 7).

[3] Exodus 32:11-14. See also Numbers 14:13-17.

[4] “Spiritual Shortcuts,” Christianity Today (January 2005), 27.

[5] Psalm 46:10.

[6] M. Craig Barnes, Sacred Thirst: Meeting God in the Desert of our Longings (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 175.

Christmas Eve Homily 2014

 Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Christmas Eve 2014

Titus 2:11-15

1913 Christmas card

A 1913 Christmas Card


This evening, let’s think about gifts.  This is, after all, the season of giving and we’re bombarded with media encouraging us to give and give more…  Christmas is the driving force behind the retail section of our economy—we’ve come a long ways since that first Christmas when Mary and Joseph, a poor man and his pregnant bride, had to take whatever shelter they could find.

I know most of us enjoy giving and receiving gifts.  I especially like giving a gift so special that, when opened, the eyes of the receiver sparkle.  Some of us, who still have a child’s heart, also enjoy receiving gifts.  There’s nothing more exciting than carefully opening the wrapping paper.  This is a tradition learned from our mothers, or at least I learned it from mine, so that we can reuse the paper.  This was a trait passed down to those of us within the Presbyterian tradition from our Scottish ancestors.  You know what I’m talking about.  Saving the paper to reuse next year…

But when we’ve just about got that special present open, carefully pulling at the tape so as not to tear the paper, you catch a glimpse of something special, something you’ve always wanted but never felt quite right about buying it for yourselves.  Joy rises in your heart.  Frugality is thrown to the wind.  You rip the remaining paper off the present and hold it up high for all to see, then clutch the gift close your chest, chanting thank you, thank you, thank you.

You know, you’ve received a really good gift when its one you can’t repay by the giving of another gift, and when such efforts are not only not required, but are unnecessary and counter productive.  These are the types of gifts parents give their children.  And if you think about it, most of these types of gifts are intangible, you can’t put a price upon them.  But they’re the type of gifts you don’t easily forget.

Thinking back to gifts from my parents, a few stand out.  When I was probably four years old, my dad made a table and a set of chairs for my brother, sister and I.  The table has long vanished, but the wooden chairs, made out of oak, live on.  My parents kept them and have used them for their grandchildren and they’ll probably be around for several more generations.  Somehow, if Dad had gone out and brought plastic chairs, I don’t think I’d remember…  Such chairs would now, and for the next few thousand years, be taking up space in a landfill.

On another occasion, my dad made my brother and me a wooden gun.  All the other kids had received store-brought guns that year.  I was really hoping for a bb gun, but dad didn’t think I was old enough.  One afternoon, a few days after Christmas, dad got a couple pieces of wood and drew out a gun on it, which he cut out into a rough shape with a jig-saw.  Then he had us help him carve and sand the edges, taking a half-moon file and smoothing the trigger guard.  When it was done, the wooden guns were stained so that by the time we were finished, the pair looked real.  Today, they’d probably not be a politically correct gift and might get you shot, but this was another era.

The next time we played army or acted like we were on an African safari, my brother and I totted those guns proudly.   The other kids were envious.  Our guns were not only more durable than the plastic store varieties, they were even more special.  This didn’t come from their dollar value, but because my father had put some of himself into making them.

We’ve all heard the old adage, “it is better to give than to receive.”  I am no longer sure it’s true, for there are some gifts we can only receive and when we graciously accept them, they change our lives.  Such is the greatest gift of all, God’s gift to the world, a Savior.

In our Scripture reading from the short letter to Titus, Paul provides the theological foundation for the ethical advice he’s been giving Titus.   If you read back over this chapter, you’ll see that Paul has instructed Titus on how Christians should conduct themselves.  Now he gives that reason for such behavior.   Paul’s advice flows three ways.  He begins by looking back to the manifestation of God’s grace.  Although Paul never speaks of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, perhaps he has in mind here Jesus’ humble birth, a wonderful display of God’s love.  But he could also be thinking about the way God offered himself for our sins in a death by crucifixion.   God has been exceptionally good to us in the past—which is why we should strive to live noble lives in the present.   And finally, because God has been good to us in the past, we have hope that God’s goodness will continue to be poured out upon us in the future, when Jesus himself will return to receive those whom he has ransomed from sin.   God’s great gift of a Savior is a life-changing gift!  We just have to learn how to gracious accept such gift.

For some of us, tomorrow will be a relaxing day.  Others, especially those homes with young children or where grandchildren are visiting, things will be crazy.  But during the busyness of the day, take enough time to clear your mind, to remove thoughts from the boxes around the tree, and to forget about making the perfect dinner.  Take some time and contemplate on the greatest gift ever offered.  And if you’ve not received this gift, spend a few moments in prayer, opening your heart to God, giving thanks that Jesus came into the world to save us, humbled sinners.

Jesus Christ came to save sinners.  That’s the message of Christmas.  That’s the message of our faith.  Jesus Christ came to save sinners, to save you, to save me.  It’s a life changing gift, if there ever was one, one that we can never replay.  We can only give thanks and rejoice.  Amen.


Advent 4: The Gift of Revelation

christmas 2013

Frozen Cheeries, December 22, 2013

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

December 21, 2014

4th Sunday of Advent

Hebrews 1:1-4



A year ago, on this very Sunday, I did something I had never done in my a quarter century of preaching…  I cancelled church.  Last December was the start of what became an infamous winter up north.  We started the month with heavy snows and cold weather, it just kept coming through mid-April.  Interestingly, however, things warmed up on the Saturday before the fourth Sunday of Advent.  The thermometer inched up above freezing and it started to rain.  It was just miserable—temperature in the mid-30s and pouring rain.   Then, as daylight faded, the rain continued as the temperature inched back below the freezing mark.  This was the making of a disaster.  That evening, we were treated to a better firework display than I’ve ever seen on the fourth of July as the ice on limbs caused them to snap and shorted out power lines, blowing out transformers.  Slowly, various sections of the town and the county went dark.  The roads were too slick to travel and filled with limbs and down lines.

christmas 2013 2

Christmas Eve 2013

The next morning, we along with everyone else in the county, cancelled our worship services.   People fled the area, taking hotel rooms in Grand Rapids and other towns that missed the ice storm.  At the Garrison house, we spent the next day and a half in front of the fireplace and candles burned at night.  When we did get outside, it was to haul debris to the road for pickup, where it remained under a blanket of snow until April.   Thankfully, the power came back on at the church the evening before Christmas Eve.  The church building served as a warming station on Christmas Eve and we were able to have services that night.  However, most of the county was still without power on Christmas Day, some were out for over a week.  It was a Christmas to remember!

Sometime during all this mess of what was last winter, my daughter said she wanted to decorate a palm for our next Christmas tree.  I didn’t realize at the time that she was clairvoyant.  If you drive by our house and see the palm out front decorated, you’ll know why!   She has been too busy with school to get around to it, but she promises as soon as the rain abates…

Today, we’re looking at the fourth “non-tangible” gift we receive at Christmas—the gift of revelation.  Many people think about revelation in relation to the future and especially the end of time, as if it provides a way for us to be clairvoyant of God’s timing.  They forget Jesus’ word that no one knows the day or the hour…[1]  At its core, revelation is about God revealing himself to us.[2]   God is of a different realm and without revelation, we would not about able to know truth about the Almighty.  With the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, born in Bethlehem, God’s revelation is made clear.  In the life of Jesus, we see God and learn what God considers important.  Our text this morning comes from the Book of Hebrews, Chapter 1, verses 1-4.



Our mission statement here at Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church is to nurture Christians who, by their words and actions, reflect the face of Jesus to the world.  In Matthew 25, Jesus tells us that people will experience his ministry through our actions.[3]  This is a big responsibility, and an important one, reflecting the face of Jesus to the world.  But we are equipped to do this because Jesus reflected God’s glory.  Jesus is the complete revelation of God.  Jesus came to show and display divine love.  Jesus came to help us understand who God is and who we are in relationship to God.  Jesus came to cleanse us from sin so that we might come into God’s presence without fear.

Our passage this morning comes from the “Letter to the Hebrews.”  Unlike many of the letters or epistles as they’re also known in the New Testament—those by Paul and Peter, James and John—Hebrews doesn’t appear to be truly a letter.  It has been suggested it might have originally been a sermon,[4] for instead of beginning with the greeting and niceties of a letter, the author starts with the one premise that makes all the difference in the world: God has spoken!  The writer of this sermon reminds his readers that God has been speaking to their ancestors all along, through prophets.  But now God has spoken in an even better way, through a Son.   One of the themes of Hebrews is the superiority of Jesus Christ to both human servants of God (prophets) and divine servants or messages of God (angels).

Historically, the church has spoken of Christ holding three offices: prophet, priest and king.  In all three, Christ surpasses human prophets, human priests and human kings.[5]  Throughout this book, the author goes into great detail to show Christ’s preeminence which he proclaims here at the beginning with a sevenfold confirmation of Jesus superiority:

  1. He is appointed heir of all,
  2. The is the creator of the world,
  3. He is the refection of God’s glory,
  4. He is the exact imprint of God,
  5. He upholds all things by his power,
  6. He purifies our sin and
  7. He sits at God’s right hand.[6]


God, by coming to us in Jesus Christ, is revealing the nature of the divine in a way we can understand.  That’s why Jesus name is more excellent than all other names, as we’re told in verse 4.  Jesus Christ, our prophet, our priest and our king, the one who came to show us God’s glory and to forgive us so that we are freed to be God’s agents in the world.  During this season, we celebrate what happened at the stable in Bethlehem so long ago.  God came into the world and through Jesus showed the world his love.  But the story doesn’t end in Bethlehem or even at Calvary.   With Jesus, now in our hearts, we are to be the ones reflecting his love to the world so that all people might experience the joy of salvation and have hope.

There is a story that has been told before, you may have heard it, about a farmer who was a good man, but he had a hard time accepting the faith.  He was a good man, for you don’t have to have faith to be good.  He allowed his wife to attend church with the kids.  He’d enjoy his Sunday mornings at home, putting around the barn.

One Christmas Eve, his wife tried to get him to attend church with her and the kids, but he refused.  I’ll just sit and read a book and wait for you to return, he said.  When she insisted and wanted to know why he wouldn’t attend, he said it is because the story is nonsense.  “Why would God lower himself to come to earth as a man?” he asked.

The family left, disappointed, as he began to read his book.  Outside it snowing and cold.  The light was draining from the gray sky.  The man was immersed in his book when he heard a thump.  Then another thump.  He looked out the window and saw a flock of birds around the house and realized it they had been flying into the window in an attempt to escape the cold.  “They must have been migrating,” he thought, “and got caught in the storm.”

He was a good man and so he worried about the birds.  Finally he had an idea.  Pulling on his boots and putting on his coat and hat, he went into the storm that was becoming a blizzard.  He made his way over to the barn and opened the door thinking that the birds could seek shelter there.  But none of them would fly in the direction of the open doors.  He tried to shoo them into the barn, but they all scattered.  He went back inside and grabbed some bread and crumbed it up and sprinkled it on the ground.  The birds began to eat, so he made a path toward the barn, but they stopped short of the doors.

He keep trying to think of another way to lure them into the barn…  “Do you want to just sit out here and freeze to death,” he asked the birds in desperation.  “Why don’t you follow me?”  Of course the birds didn’t answer, they sat in the snow, their feathers puffed out for warmth, picking at whatever crumbs were left.  “If only I was a bird,” he said, “I could come among them and guide them into the barn.”

As soon as he said this to himself, the distant church bell began to ring.  He could hear it faintly from across the valley, as he recalled what he had told his wife earlier, how he questioned why God would come to us in the flesh.  Suddenly he understood what Christmas was about, why Christ had to come.  He fell to his knees in the snow and began to pray…

It would be a mistake to see ourselves as the farmer in this story; we’re one of the birds.  As a Christian, we’re the bird that “gets it,” we’re the one that understands the goodness in the farmer’s heart and therefore leads the flock into shelter, allowing others to come to understand the goodness that comes from our Father in heaven.

Will you be that bird leading others to safety?  Christmas is the most natural time to share your faith, to tell the story, to serve as Christ’s servants, to reflect the face of Jesus to the world.  Amen.



[1]Matthew 24:36, Mark 13:32

[2] See the Westminster Confession of Faith (Chapter 1:1 or 6.001) and the Confession of 1967 (Part 1, Section C2 or 9.27) n the Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church USA.

[3] Matthew 25:31-46.

[4] Hugh Montefiore, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), 33.

[5] See the Westminster Larger Catechism, Questions 152-155.

[6] F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 3-8.

“Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”

virginia city 004

C Street during a snowstorm Winter 1988-89


This is a talk I presented to the Skidaway Island Kiwanis Club this morning.

Christmas 1988.  It was the first time that I would not have any family around during the holidays.  It was my first white Christmas.  And it was a holy Christmas.  I was taking a year off from seminary to serve as a student pastor in Virginia City, Nevada, the old mining town made famous by the TV show, Bonanza.

The week leading up to Christmas had been hectic and to top it all, a zephyr had blown in two days before Christmas.  You could see the clouds rolling across the Sierras.  Soon snow was flying.  The gale force wind made the frigid air feel even colder.  I wore heavy sweaters even inside.  By late morning of Christmas Eve, there was enough snow to ski on the streets of Virginia City.  As everything was ready for that evenings’ service, I joined a group of friends skiing down the old railroad grade to Gold Hill.

When I got back, I stopped by the church and helped shovel the snow off the steps.  We turned up the heat inside.  Snow was drifting and the high winds was making travel dangerous.  About an hour before the service, we got word that the steep roads that led into town from Carson City and Reno were both closed. This was a problem for we were having a “Lessons and Carol’s service” and several of our younger readers were from off the mountain.  Howard, our organist, assured me that everything would work out.  He had already been contacted by St. Mary’s of the Mountain, the Catholic Church in town, to see if he could play for their Midnight Mass as their organist wasn’t able to make it in.

It was a great service.  People began to flock in and we reassigned readings.  As the service began, the building creaked and, at times, when the wind was just right, it would seep into the building enough to cause the candles to flicker.  Our worship service closed with candles flickering in the dark as the gathered sang “Silent Night.”

Afterwards, a group of us headed to the Mark Twain, one of the many saloons along C Street.  We had great conversation, waiting till after 11 PM before heading down to St Mary’s in order to support Howard at the Midnight Mass.  When I say, “we went down to the church,” that’s just what we did as Virginia City sits on the eastern flank of Mt. Davidson and every block  you travel you gain or lose significant elevation.

Sometime during the mass, the raging storm blew itself out.  When we stepped out of the church, we were greeted with clear skies.  Crisp cold air billowed from my mouth like a chimney.   I zipped my coat tight, bid my friends a Merry Christmas and then headed home, walking up the hill toward the lighted V, high on Mount Davidson.  It was so cold the snow squeaked under my feet.  The scent of pinion pine burning in woodstoves filled the air.  C Street was nearly deserted.  When I got to B Street, where I lived, I was breathing heavily.  I paused to survey the town.  Lights were still on in a few houses and they stood as cheery refuges from the cold.  But most were dark.  Folks had settled in for a long winter’s nap.  Then I looked up into the dark sky dotted with brilliant stars.  Orion was overhead, followed to the southeast by his faithful dog.  To the north, the Dipper was rising high in the sky.  Although alone, I felt a presence…


C Street on a bright sunny day, Winter 1988-89

Things had worked out that evening.  We had a wonderful worship service at the Presbyterian Church and several of us were blessed with a second worship service at midnight.  Even though my family were thousands of miles away, I was with good friends.  And I felt God’s love, a love that had come into this world in a child.  The hymns and carols of the evening were being replayed in my head, but the one that seemed most appropriate was “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.”  I had experienced something holy that night and a silent awe was a fitting response.

This ancient hymn has its roots in the early church and used as the beginning of the Communion rite in the Orthodox Churches.  In English, we sing the words which recall God’s mystery to Picardy, an old French folk melody.  The music is haunting, as it should be, when we contemplate the incarnation, God coming to us in the flesh.

December 14, 2014, Advent 3

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Third Sunday of Advent

December 14, 2014

First Peter 1:1-5


It’s the third Sunday of Advent and today we’re looking at the third non-tangible gift that we might receive this Christmas—one of the gifts made possible by the coming of Jesus—the gift of hope.

For my text this morning, we’re in First Peter.   Let me give you a bit of background of this letter addressed to a series of churches in the northern area of what we now know as the country of Turkey.  The letter was probably written in the last quarter of the first century.  Peter encourages these churches as they strive to live as Christians in a hostile world.  Although the return address on the letter is Peter’s, there has been some debate among scholars as to whether or not it was written by Peter the fisherman (if so, he certainly had some help with his Greek grammar).  The letter doesn’t go into details of Peter’s life, but instead focuses on the lives of the recipients.[1]

As we listen to these opening verses, think about what it means to be faithful to the one whose birth we celebrate in less than two weeks.  Think about the hope we have in Jesus Christ.  Read 1 Peter 1:1-12.



Let me tell you about a time in my life.  I woke up at precisely 6 A.M. the radio crackled with the Star Spangled Banner.  KSIS was returning to the airways with its 58 watts of power dedicated to covering the Wood River Valley.  During the summer I had come to depend upon the station (the only one I could get) as an alarm clock.  I would leave my radio on at night, as the station went off air at midnight, assured that in the morning I’d be rousted out of bed with patriotic furor.  Normally, I would jump out of bed, dress quickly and head down to the lodge and start a fire in the potbellied stove to knock the chill out of the air.  In the Idaho Mountains, it could be quite chilly in the early morning hours, even during the summer.  But on this day, I was not too quick to jump out of bed. I was fearful of what was ahead.  I laid there, warm under the covers, listening to the Star Spangled Banner, and then the news and the weather.  Although it was in the mid-30s at camp, the temperature in the desert to the south would spike above 100 that afternoon.

It was the day after Labor Day, my last day at a camp in Idaho.  In the kitchen, the cooks were preparing the last meal of the season for the few of us who were still on site.  Over a cup of coffee, we talked and laughed about the summer.  But inside, my stomach churned as I thought about leaving the familiar setting of camp and heading for the unknowns of Nevada.  The year was 1988; I’d taken a break from the seminary classroom to devote a year serving as a student pastor for a church in a small mountain town in Nevada.

As a naive seminarian, Nevada appeared as a den of iniquity.  Saloons and casinos that never closed, gambling and prostitution; I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into.

The following afternoon, after having driven across the desert and up the steep and windy road up to Virginia City, I stopped in front of the rickety white wooden church on C Street.  The doors were locked. For a few moments I stood on the porch, looking down Six-mile Canyon toward a rock formation known as Sugarloaf.  There were plenty of people on the streets, but no one seemed to notice me.  Everyone assumed I was just another tourist.

A couple minutes later, I headed down the boardwalk to the Bucket of Blood, a saloon where I had been instructed to pick up the keys for the church and for the little house where I would be living. I have to admit, it seemed a little odd for my first task being to call on a place named the Bucket of Blood.  The sun was warm and although the peak of the tourist season was over, there were still quite a few tourists on C Street, vying for the slot machines that stood just inside the doors of all the establishments adjacent to the boardwalk.   The noise of the electronic bandits and the smell of the sausage dogs and spilt beer overwhelmed me.  Again, I wondered, “What am I getting myself into?”

It’s hard for me now to think back about how I felt when I first went to Virginia City.  I was nervous.  I didn’t gamble and I’d never been inside a casino.  I’d never lived in a place where, on a given Sunday, only a handful of folks would be in church.  Needless to say, I was nervous, but I have to say things worked out and that year is one of the more memorable years of my life.  That Christmas Eve was a holy event (If you’re interested, I’ll post more about it in my blog later this week.[2]  That’s a teaser!)

Living in Nevada forced me to think hard about what it means to follow Jesus when, many times, being faithful to him means that we have to live differently than the society in which we find ourselves.  As a follower of Jesus, by refusing to go along with certain accepted things, we stick out.  This is the world in which those who followed Jesus in the first century lived, but it is also the world in which we now live.  A few decades ago, two scholars wrote a book titled Resident Alien: Life in the Christian Colony.[3] Their thesis is that the world has changed and as Christians, we’re the outsiders.  So, how do we live as resident aliens?

In the first sentence of Peter’s letter, we learn that its intended recipients are “exiles from the Dispersion.”  Now the Dispersion refers to those Jews who lived, at this time in history, throughout the Mediterranean region.  After Babylon, Jewish enclaves were established through that part of the world and, as we know from early church history, Paul and Peter and other Apostles often found a receptive ear in these communities.  If you think about Paul’s travels in Acts, his first place to visit in a new city, if it had one, was the synagogue.

But Peter isn’t writing to those in the synagogue, instead it is thought he’s writing to those who have been exiled or booted out of the synagogue (The exiled of the Dispersion).  In a religious sense, these are homeless people.  They are a minority to start with, but then they’re not wanted any more at the synagogue.  Because they are followers of Jesus, because they are disciples, they find themselves exiled from the community that was, in a sense, already exiled.

Think about the world in which they lived.  Most of their neighbors worshipped the ancient gods as well as Caesar.  For them, God in the flesh was the emperor in Rome.  If you lived in this world, you were expected to pay homage to the gods and to Caesar with a loophole provided for the Jews.  As the early Christians found themselves no longer a part of the Jewish minority, they had nowhere to go, in a sense they were “twice-exiled.”

But there is good news to these “twice-shunned” believers.  Peter’s language carries overtones of predestination (which by the way, didn’t begin with John Calvin or Augustine, but with the writings of Paul and Peter).  By the way, predestination essentially means that God has things under control and we’re in His hands and apart of his plan.  As much as we like the thought of free-will, the theology of predestination is only popular when things are in turmoil.  It implies an act of faith in the goodness of God despite the troubles of the world.

Peter reminds his readers that they have been chosen and destined by God.  So even though they may feel like out-casts, God is with them.  Furthermore, they’re sanctified by the Spirit and have been sprinkled with the blood of Jesus, the one to whom they are obedient.  Peter, in the very first sentence, packs in the theology: all three members of the Trinity are lifted up as well as God’s gracious sovereignty, Jesus’ atonement and our need for sanctification.

Then, in verse 3, Peter begins to lay out the hope they have in Jesus Christ.  In the Greek, this is all one long run-on sentence, going all the way to verse 12.  Luckily, for us, the translators have broken the sentence up into smaller chunks even though by modern standards they’re still pretty long sentences.  In this super-sentence, Peter acknowledges the trouble his readers are facing, the trials they’re enduring, but he reminds them that their inheritance is intact.   Hold on, be obedient to Jesus, for it is in him that we have hope.   Even though it may not always seem like it, they are being protected by God and their future is bright.

Now, let’s face it, whatever tribulation we face today is nothing when compared to what Christians in the first three centuries faced, or even the challenges faced by many Christians today in other parts of the world.  Yet, we have our own problems and must remember that our first loyalty as a disciple of Jesus is to him, the one in whom we have our hope.  We’re to live in this world filled with values that run counter to the gospel.  But we lives here as resident aliens—whose lives are committed to the Lord into whom we have hope.

Christmas is the season of hope!  There is hope for all people, but especially those who are often overlooked by society, such as the readers of Peter’s letter.  But that’s the way God works.  Think of Mary, as we heard earlier, a nobody living in a second-rate town in a distant part of the world who is chosen to be the mother of Jesus.  It wasn’t because she was particular pious.  The decision that she carry God’s son was because of God’s graciousness.

In fact, the whole Christmas story is about hope being provided to those who often are without it.  Think of who gets invited to the stable… You’ve got the shepherds.  These guys were dirty and lived outdoors and weren’t exactly the pillars of the community.  And then there are the magi, the wise men from the east, foreigners, who were out-of-place in a Jewish society that longed for purity.  But it is to those on the margin who witnesses the miracle, who experiences the hope that comes into the world with the birth of a Savior.

We, too, are offered such hope.   Yes, as Peter points out, life isn’t always going to be rosy, but that doesn’t matter because we know things aren’t the way they should be.  But because we have faith in Jesus Christ, we endure. We live in eternal hope that is only possible for those who have been chosen and destined by God.  This Christmas, receive the gift of hope and consider what a difference it makes to your life and to the lives of those around you.  Live in hope!  Amen.



[1] The places in the letter that allude to Peter’s authorship is the first verse and a few verses in chapter five.  See Donald Senior, “First Peter Introduction” in the New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 2181-2182.

[2] My blog can be found at:

[3] Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Alients: Life in the Christian Colony, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1989).

Jeff Newlin’s Sermon at the Installation of Jeff Garrison


Installation Commission


Preached on the Occasion of the Installation of the Rev. Jeffrey Garrison

As Pastor of Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church, Skidaway Island, GA

Nov 9, 2014, 4 pm

By Dr. Jeffrey Newlin


Text:  Romans 12

  1. Intro
  • I would like to begin by thanking those of you who are members of Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church. I owe you a great debt, for you have brought one of the best friends that I’ve made in my stewardship ministry closer to me
  • twenty-seven years as a Presbyterian Pastor, which concluded with a year-and-a-half as Transitional Pastor for Providence Presbyterian Church, Hilton Head, and six years as Pastor of Reid Memorial Presbyterian Church, Augusta, GA, I became a stewardship consultant with RSI.
  • As a pastor I was involved in 3 different capital campaigns in 3 different churches. I loved them, not only because they strengthened the ministries of the churches that I was serving, but because they unified my congregations and deepened the commitment and faith of many church members.  I started working as a stewardship consultant in the hope that I might help other churches experience the same sort of spiritual blessing from capital campaigns. And that’s certainly been the case in my work with over 100 congregations, representing 20 denominations.


  • I’ve also had the opportunity to work with a great number of highly competent and committed pastors, and Jeff Garrison is one of the finest that I’ve worked with.
    • No doubt a lot of my respect for him is due to the fact that we agree on so many matters.
    • But it is more than that; He represents the best in the Presbyterian tradition of the scholar/preacher. I have learned much from him, and know that you will as well.
    • Most importantly, his scholarship isn’t scholarship for the sake of scholarship; it is scholarship for the sake of the love of God and the service of God.


  • Jeff is not only a fine preacher/teacher/writer. He is also a devoted pastor.
  • After working on two 3-yr capital campaigns with Jeff, I’ve had the opportunity to share many post-meeting beers with him.
  • I’ve always left those meetings feeling better about life. Jeff listened to me, encouraged me, and challenged me , and invited me to do the same thing for him.
  • Members of Skadaway Presbyterian Church, I know that you’ll be blessed by Jeff Garrison, and by his lovely wife and daughter, Donna and Caroline; just as I’m sure they’ll be blessed by you.


  • All in all, from my perspsective the prospects look very good for a long, happy relationship between Jeff Garrison and you as pastor and people.


II.  Not that your relationship will always be easy.

  • I don’t have to tell you that we live in a world that is very confused about where we should be going, as individuals and as a society, and what we should do to get there.
  • “Being true to oneself” has become so sacred, that people are losing the ability to “be true to anyone else besides themselves.” All values have become relative, other than tolerance.   We’ve all suffered from this, but the greatest casualties of all are our children.


  • And it’s not only the world that is confused about where we should be going and what we should do to get there, the church is confused as well.
    •  The most obvious of example of this in our denomination is the heated debate over homosexuality. People of great faith are on both sides of the issue, Christian crusaders are on both sides of the issue, each firmly believing that this is a decisive issue testing the very life and purpose of the church, yet both sides can’t be right.  How can we survive this conflict?
    • Then there’s the battlefield of music. Music is supposed to elevate us, inspire us, and unite us, but in congregation after congregation it threatens to break us apart.  Some people want traditional music with organ.  Some people want praise music with guitars and drums.  Some people like the old Presbyterian hymnal, some people like the new Presbyterian hymnal, and some don’t like any hymnal at all. How do we get along with each other?
    • And apart from these obvious issues, there is the enormous variety of opinions that you find in any congregation. Americans are raised to place a high premium on thinking for themselves.  For whatever reason, Presbyterians demonstrate this quality in spades.  It’s harder and harder in our churches to find a consensus on anything.   Sometimes it seems like you can’t take anything for granted.
    • People are beaten up every day by our highly competitive, dog eat dog society. We come to church looking for an oasis of peace.  When we come to church and find conflict and argument we lose our patience and get grumpy.  The natural pettiness and self-righteousness that is within us all is stirred up.  The church’s climate is poisoned, and instead of lifting us up to be better persons, it brings us down.


  • This dynamic is well represented by an old episode of the Little House on the Prairie.
    • The minister of the church talked to his congregation and told them, “I have just talked with my superior. I told him that I love it here, but there is one thing that we need.  We need a church bell.”
    • Everyone immediately agreed and decided that they’d take up an offering.
    • Olson, the wealthy shopkeeper’s wife, said that that wouldn’t be necessary. She said that she thought they needed a bell like the one in St. Paul, and said that her husband and she would be glad to give it as long as their names were placed on a plaque in the church.
    • A member immediately protested, “This is the Lord’s church. He built it and no one else’s name is going to go on it.”
    • To which Mrs. Olson responded, “You’re someone to talk. You sleep through church every Sunday.”
    • Someone else chimed in, “I don’t think we even need a bell. It would be so heavy that the church would collapse.”
    • Before long everyone was arguing and fighting. The next Sunday no one was in church.”
    • The story makes us smile, because we recognize too well in it our own patterns of thought and behavior.
    • If a church could be vacated in the late 1800’s over a church bell, how much more so today over the issues that divide us.
    • Is there any hope for you and your church? Is there any hope for my church and me?

III.  Of course there is hope. But it’s not your hope, and it’s not my hope.  It is God’s hope.

  • You and your new pastor need to firmly plant yourself in this hope at the beginning of your ministry together, and regularly return to it, if you are going to thrive as God intends for you to thrive. In order to help you do this, I propose for your sustained attention the twelfth chapter of Romans.
  • The first eleven chapters of Romans are perhaps the most exalted theology in the whole Bible. In them Paul lays out for us the central doctrines of the Christian faith, all revolving around the Gospel proclamation that we sinners are justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
  • In the twelfth chapter of Romans, all of this exalted theology suddenly becomes very practical. The rubber hits the road.  And if we heed Paul’s advice our rubber will hit the road, and it will stay on the road and won’t swerve off, even when it starts storming.

IV. First Paul says, “I appeal to your therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”

  • Long ago the prophets warned Israel that God was not primarily interested in their temple sacrifices. What God really wanted was their obedience.
  • Paul tells us the same thing when he tells us that the sacrifice that is most important for us to make is the presenting of our bodies, holy and acceptable to God. That, he tells us, is our spiritual worship, the only worship that really counts.
  • What does it mean to live so that we are constantly presenting our bodies to God as something holy and acceptable to him? It means that we’re “walking the talk” that we talk on Sunday mornings.  It means that we are constantly striving to be obedient to God above all else.  It means that we are constantly striving to please God above all else.
  • Now, this may not seem like much to help your congregation find its way through all the conflictual issues of the day and all the squabbles that any congregation is want to have, but it is actually a lot. It’s actually all that we need.
  • The key is that all of us are trying to please the same one, God. When you have a congregation full of people, or a denomination of people, genuinely striving to please God above all else, not themselves, there will be a harmony amongst them, no matter how much they differ about specific issues.
  • When I’ve done marriage counseling, I’ve usually used the example of a triangle with the couple, and asked them what happens to two points of a triangle when they both try to grow closer to the third point of the triangle?
  • “They grow closer together at the same time,” they’ve responded.
  • “Right you are,” I’ve replied, “And that is what will happen to both of you as you seek to grow closer to God. As you both strive to grow closer to God, you will grow closer to each other.”
  • What happens with marriages happens with congregations and denominations. If we are all genuinely seeking to please God and not ourselves, we will find in each other openness to other positions, and an openness to change, because we will know that our own personal positions are not the last word.   We are more concerned about finding out what God wants than finding substantiation for what we want.

V. But how do we know what God wants when there are so many different opinions of what God wants, not only in the world, but in the church as well?

  • Paul tells us in the beginning of the twelfth chapter of Romans. After writing that we should present our bodies to God as a holy sacrifice, he writes, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
  • If we are to obey God in our bodily actions, in the way we treat other people and conduct our business, our minds must first be transformed so that we can discern what is the will of God.
  • And how are our minds transformed so that we can discern the will of God?
  • They’re transformed through prayer. They are also transformed through feeding on God’s word.  Where can we more find out who God is and what God wants than in God’s holy word?
  • At its heart, Presbyterian piety is focused on the Bible. It’s through the disciplined study of the Bible that knowledge of God and God’s will grows.  It’s through the devotional use of the Bible that our love of God and God’s goodness grows.
  • Now, anyone who spends any amount of time with the Bible knows that it is a difficult book. Its content is richly variegated.  Many times it seems to contradict itself.  It is very complex.   If you think about it, this shouldn’t surprise us that the Bible is complex, for life is complex and God is complex, infinitely complex.  The Bible is a book that takes a whole life to learn, and even then, you’re just a beginner in it.
  • But many people are not very patient with this kind of rigorous effort. They want their religion simple.  If they’re learned a couple of Bible stories they think that they’ve gotten enough.
  • Any Presbyterian Church worth its salt will not fall victim to the popular desire for religion lite. It will want its children, young people, and adults to know more than a few Biblical stories.  It will want them to be familiar with the book, comfortable in the book, skilled at studying the book, and skilled at praying the book, and all of this will take work and effort.
  • So, Jeff and members of the Skidaway Presbyterian Church, I admonish you to study your Bibles together as you seek to discern the will of God, so that your minds might be transformed, and so that your bodily sacrifices might be holy and acceptable to God.



VI. But let’s face it; there are a lot of people studying the Bible very hard who still have a lot of disagreements and conflicts with each other. Isn’t there anything more that can be offered to help us, as we seek to discern the will of God?

  • Yes there is. I’d like to say three things more to you today, two from Paul’s 12th chapter, and one that is not in Paul’s 12th

A. The first tip from Paul, “be humble.”

  • In Paul’s words, “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”
  • And again: “Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.”
  • That we should strive to be humble should be obvious to Christians, for by the standard of the wisdom and ways of God we are all novices, we are all beginners.
  • This doesn’t mean that we must say that everybody is right and must accept everything as equally true. Paul charges us to strive to know the “will of God.”  He assumes that there is a particular will of God on particular issues, and that we should do whatever we can to know it.
  • What it means is that we are always aware of the limitations of our own educations and experience, we’re always aware of the rich educations and experiences that others have had, and that we are always eager to learn more from others.
  • If all the members of a congregation demonstrate this kind of humility toward one another, they will not only stay together, they will grow together, even though they continue to hold strongly divergent opinions with great passion.

B. Paul second tip for holding together is: “Love one another.”

  • That’s easy to do with people that you agree with. (As I’ve told you, your pastor and I agree on many things.)  It’s much harder to do with people that you have profound disagreements with.
  • So Paul goes on to say: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.  … Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought of what is noble in the sight of all….Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
  • Whenever we sense any spirit of vengeance within us, towards anyone else, but especially towards a fellow Christian, we must pray that God purify our hearts of it. There is no other way for us to be Christian.
  • Once again, this doesn’t mean that we pretend that all ideas are equal, so we don’t have to debate anymore. Paul writes that we are to “hate what is evil, and hold fast to what is good.” He recognizes that not everything is equally valid.  There is an absolute difference between good and evil, and as Christians we must strive to love the one and hate the other.
  • The key here is that whereas Paul urges us to “hate evil,” he never urges us to “hate evil people.” Instead he says that we are to “love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.  Bless those who persecute you.  Do not repay evil for evil. Never avenge yourselves.”
  • Paul knew too well that evil is not something which distinguishes one group of people from another, so that one group of people are evil and one group aren’t. He knew that the division between good and evil runs right through the hearts of all of us.
  • A congregation, which remembers this as it seeks to love the good and hate the evil, has every reason to hope that it will stay together and grow together..

C. My final tip for helping a church hold together isn’t from Paul. It comes from Little House on the Prairie.

  • While the adult members of the church on Walnut Grove were destroying their church over their argument over the bell, something else was going on.
  • There was a deaf, dumb man, named “Tinker,” who made tin toys for the children in the community.
  • When Laura commented to her father that, “the deaf man had no children,” her father responded that “all the children of Walnut Grove were his children.”
  • One day when Tinker was playing with the children, and they started arguing with each other, he held up two big dolls and pretended that they were fighting with each other. Than he held up two little dolls and pretended that they were fighting with each other.
  • The children got the point. They could see in themselves what was happening to their parents.  So they eagerly agreed to Tinker’s plan to turn things right.
  • Each of the children brought whatever tin they could find around their houses to be melted down into a bell. They even brought their own precious tin toys.
  • When the church bell started ringing the next Sunday, the adult members were obviously surprised.
  • Many of them came to church for the first time since the conflict started, eager to find out whom to blame.
  • Predictably, they started to accuse each other of who gave the bell.
  • That’s when the children said, “No, no one of you gave the bell. We gave the bell.”
  • The episode ended with one of the men saying to the minister, “Reverend, why don’t you lead us into the church?”
  • Everyone followed him, as Tinker kept ringing the bell.

VII. What is the church business that we are involved in really all about?

  • It is about our spiritual worship. That’s the only worship that really counts.
  • It’s about presenting our bodies as living sacrifices to God.
  • It’s about not being conformed to this world, but allowing our minds to be transformed so that we might be able to discern God’s will through our study of the Bible.
  • It’s about conducting all of our discussions and debates in the church, no mater how heated, in a spirit of humility and with deep love for each other.
  • Any church, which devotes itself to offering God this spiritual worship, will be blessed greatly and will be a great blessing to its community and all those around.

Second Sunday in Advent: Patience

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church 

Second Sunday in Advent

December 7, 2014

Romans 8:25



Last week we looked at the gift of anticipation.  As followers of Christ, we anticipate a better world coming.  Today, as we continue our review of the non-tangible gifts of Christmas, we will look at patience.  The two go together: anticipation is what we long for and patience is our willingness to wait and not to settle for second best.

Of all peoples, God’s people should be patient.  We have a history of honing this skill.  Throughout scripture, we see our ancestors waiting a long time for their prayers to be answered and their desires to be fulfilled.  Think about Abraham and Sarah growing old waiting on a child.  Or the 400 years Israel was in slavery in Egypt and the decades she spent in Babylonian exile.  And none of that compared to the centuries she awaited the promised one foretold by Isaiah.  And none of that compares to the millenniums we’ve waited for Jesus’ return.  Consider the story we heard earlier this morning, of Zachariah and Elizabeth.[1]  They waited so long for a son that they’d given up hope.  Patience may be a virtue, as we’re taught, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.  Nor does it mean we wait idly on the sidelines.

Waiting isn’t wasting time; for it is through waiting that God transforms his people.  Learning how to wait with anticipation can help us improve our lives.  When we lack patience and act rashly, we often find ourselves in hot water.  Think of words said rashly that offends others, or decisions made rashly that causes major problems down the road.  Patience is good.  Waiting is not all bad.  My text for today’s message comes from Paul’s letter to the Romans.  It’s short, just one verse: Romans 8:25:



 There was once a spoiled and rotten child…  Let me assure you that I am not talking about anyone’s child or grandchild who is here today, because none of them, I’m sure, are spoiled or rotten.  But this boy was both.  As Christmas approached he produced a letter to Santa with a wish list that rivaled a Russian novel.   And he was expecting to receive it all.  “Christmas is not the season of entitlement,” his mother said in a scolding tone.[2]  His parents, knowing they needed to nip his attitude in the bud, forced him to sit in front of the Nativity scene and told him to contemplate the meaning of Christmas and to write a letter to Jesus to wish him a happy birthday.

The boy stared intently at the manger, but he couldn’t get it out of his head that Christmas wasn’t just about him receiving gifts.  So he began to compose a letter.  “Dear Jesus,” he wrote, “If you bring me all that I want, I’ll be good for the year…”  Then he thought about how hard that’d be and so he tore up the letter and tossed it in the waste basket and started over.  “Dear Jesus, if you bring me all that I want, I’ll be good for a month.  Again the thought about how hard that would be, to be good for a month, for 30 days.  He crumbled the letter and dropped it in the waste basket and started again.  “Dear Jesus, if you bring me all that I want, I’ll be good for a week.”  Thinking further, he realized how futile his negotiation efforts were so he tossed that letter and resumed his contemplation of the Nativity.

Suddenly he spotted the figure of Mary, there in the back, behind the manger, a beautiful young woman wrapped in a “Carolina blue” shawl, her face shining as she gazes upon her newborn son.  He snatched Mary out the Nativity, wrapped her in some tissue paper and hid her in the bottom drawer in his dresser.  Then he went back to writing his letter.  “Dear Jesus, if you ever want to see your mother again…”

Parents in particular know about waiting…  It is not just the nine months of expectant waiting, sometimes it is years waiting for the miracle of pregnancy to occur.  And sadly, sometimes it never happens.  Certainly in our first reading, from Luke’s gospel, that’s what Elizabeth and Zachariah experienced.  “This is never going to happen,” they thought.  When the angel approached Zachariah, he didn’t believe and therefore found himself mute for the nine months Elizabeth carried their child.   I am sure that Elizabeth got to decorate the nursery just the way she wanted with Zach unable to question or challenge her decisions.

Jerry, a friend of mine who is the Pastor of the Assembly of God Church in Cedar City, Utah, once told me about how excited he was to have one of the “named parts” in his church’s Christmas pageant.  All his life he had wanted to have a major role in the story.  He had tired of playing a sheep, or a cow, or stuck in the back of the multitude of angels (where he didn’t belong).  Now, he finally thought he had really made it.  Then, looking a little deeper into his character, he realized he been given a part with no lines to learn…

Poor Zechariah, after waiting for years for a child, he now waits 9 months in silence.  There can be no bragging nor the expression of joy!  He learns patience!

One of the problems with waiting, with our lack of patience, is fear.  Because of fear what might happen, instead of waiting patiently, we try to flee, to hide, or force the situation.  Henri Nouwen, in an advent devotion on this text, says this about the opening chapters of Luke:


It impresses me, therefore, that all the figures who appear on the first pages of Luke’s Gospel are waiting.  Zachariah and Elizabeth are waiting.  Mary is waiting.  Simeon and Anna, who were there at the temple when Jesus was brought in, is waiting.  The whole opening scene of the good news is filled with waiting people.  And right at the beginning all those people in some way or another hear the worlds, “Do not be afraid. I have something good to say to you.” These words set the tone and the context.  [3]


Our world encourages us to rush in and fix things right away.  We don’t value waiting.  When talking with a couple who are planning on marrying, I discuss with them the danger of trying tackle a conflict right away.  The problem of solving conflicts when you are in the heat of battle is that you don’t think very clearly.  Often, the battle during the height of a conflict is fought over something that’s not at all related to the real issue.  Calling a cease fire and waiting, while cooling off, allows both parties to see things more clearly.  We need to create space for us and for others to wait; we need patience; knowing that distance gives us better perspective and in that hopes God is working with us as we wait.

It is healthy for us to accept and understand that there are things in life we can’t control.  We can’t control when God wants to act.  Elizabeth and Zechariah had no control.  We’re in the same boat.  As Paul says, we are hoping for what we cannot see, but we wait with patience.  We do this because we know that God is good!  Things will work out in the end.

This Christmas, receive the gift of patience!  We can’t force God’s timing, nor can we force another person to change according to our timetable.  If we all took a deeper breath and as we worked to better the world, was a little more patience with ourselves and with others, we’d all be better off.  But it’s hard.

You know, I am often frustrated at the pace the church moves.  Years ago, I was asked about how it was to be a pastor and in charge of a congregation.  I said I often felt as if I was the captain of a battleship and trying to steer from the bow with a canoe paddle.  Change comes slowly and some people get upset with that (while others don’t want change at all).  But if we look at scripture, we shouldn’t be surprised that change takes time.  God seems to wait till the timing is right, and only then does the speed of change accelerate.  For so long God had been quiet; there had been no prophets in Israel.  And then, all of a sudden, God acts, Elizabeth becomes pregnant and then Mary, and the world is changed forever.

Larry Osborne, who writes about church work, discusses how we often seem concern with God’s will (which he admits is a worthwhile endeavor as God is not always clear and we have to discern it), but he goes on to say that just as important as it being God’s will, we have to make sure it’s God’s timing. God’s will has a “what and when” component.[4] We can want things to go faster, but we must remember that its best if we go with God’s timing.  Otherwise, we’ll make a mess of things.  Patience is a gift that will allow us to prepare as we wait for God’s timing.

We live in a world where we expect instant gratification.  But when it comes to our faith, such expectations may be unrealistic and even harmful.  Having faith means we’re in God’s hands and are open to his timing.  We don’t know when Jesus will return, but we should anticipate it and be ready.  In the meantime, we come to the Communion table remembering Jesus’ atoning death and glorious resurrection as we long for his return.  Communion is also a symbol of patience.  We wait, we look for his coming, as we gather around this table, supporting, loving, helping and encouraging one another…  That’s what our faith is about.  Amen.



[1] Luke 1:5-24

[2] This is a quote from my friend, MaryMartha Melendy.

[3] Henri Nouwen  “Waiting for God” in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001), 29.

[4] Larry Osborne, Sticky Teams (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 179.

Advent 1, November 30, 2014

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church 

November 30, 2014

First Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 25:6-26:4


It is good to be back with you.  Last Sunday I was in North Carolina with my father, checking on my mother and spending time with family.  All is well as it can be with my mom.  She is in a nice nursing facility and the staff appear to be kind and consciousness.  You can’t ask for much more.  I also got to see my grandmother, along with my brothers, sister and uncle and they, too, are doing well.  The winds were not good for fishing, but I did take a long paddle on a creek that I haven’t paddled in over 30 years.  It was interesting to see the changes.

I came back to town and find the sanctuary and grounds all decorated!  Thanks for everyone who participated last week and helped spread the holiday cheer.  I know there are some additional decorating that will be done on Wednesday of this week.  This sanctuary will be beautiful on Christmas Eve!

It’s Advent; the season we flood the night with lights and deck the halls with greenery as a reminder that although winter is upon us and the days are short and the nights long and the trees bare, that is not the permanent state of being.  For into darkness comes the light of Christ.

The four Sundays of Advent is a time to be reminded of the years the Hebrew people waited for a Messiah as we, too, await the Messiah’s return.  These are also days of anticipation.  Our children and grandchild are anticipating the Christmas gifts as they begin to appear under trees.  But during this season, I want us to focus on some of the non-tangible gifts offered to us during the holidays.  Today, it’s the gift of anticipation.  Is this really a gift?  What do you think?  Let’s look at our passage for the day and see what insights it might gain into what to means to anticipate great things from our God.   Read Isaiah 25:6-26:4.



When I was a child, the anticipation of Christmas began around the time of the World Series.  Back then, most of the games were played during the afternoon.  The boys on bus 6, the flat nosed yellow bus that made the run from Bradley Creek School along Greenville Sound and Masonboro Loop Roads to Myrtle Grove Sound, would clamber for a seat in the back.  Someone would have a nine volt transistor radio and we’d huddle around to hear what the score might be.   Could St. Louis pull it out and beat Detroit?  Did the Met’s really make the series and did they stand a chance against the Orioles?  (It just didn’t seem right pulling for a New York team, but everyone loved the Mets.)  And then, in another year, there was the Reds, with Johnny Bench and Pete Rose…  We’d catch up on the game and when we reached our stop, we’d run home to watch the rest of the game on a black and white TV.

The World Series was exciting, an excitement only to be broken the day we’d run into the house and spy the Sears and Roebuck Christmas Catalog sitting on the kitchen table.  It seemed to appear right toward the end of the Series.  Oh, the toys.  The World Series quickly faded from memory as we make out our Christmas wish list, learning at an early age how to best violate the Tenth Commandment. (By the way, that’s the commandment that deals with coveting.)  “I want this, and this, and this…” we’d say as we thumbed through the catalog with the devotion of a monk studying the Scriptures.  Our lists would grow along with our anticipation of Christmas.  But then something happen. Time, during the fall season, seemed to stand still.  Christmas just couldn’t come fast enough.  We hadn’t yet received the gift of anticipation.

We don’t like to wait, do we?  We want our cake and we want it now.  Delayed gratification isn’t something we are good at.  This is something our family dog could teach us all.  Thursday was Thanskgiving and we were all looking forward to a big meal, including Trisket.  In fact, of everyone at our house, Trisket looked forward to that meal more than any of us.  The rest of us where caught up in football games and other stuff.  But Trisket’s nose started twitching as the oven heated up and he was ready long before the meal was served. But he’s learned to wait.  He lies where he has a good view of the kitchen, just in case something falls on the floor, where he watches and waits.    Yes, I confess, we are bad dog owners and treat him with a few morsels of goodies which he swallows whole, only to patiently wait for more.  Trisket could teach us all about anticipation and hope!

Receiving the gift of anticipation should teach us to be thankful that God is in control, that we’re in good hands, and that the future is indeed promising.  My dog knows that, but we like instant gratification, which is problematic.  We’ve all heard the old proverb, “Good things come to those who wait.”  But we don’t like to wait.  The gift of anticipation is something we all need.

Our passage today comes from the Book of Isaiah.  This is an important book of the Old Testament for it is quoted or alluded to more than any other book of the Old Testament with the possible exception of the Psalms.  Jesus quotes from Isaiah at his sermon in Nazareth[1] (the sermon that got him run out of his hometown) and in all the book is quoted 46 times in the gospels.  In’s quoted another 30 times by Paul and another 30 times within the book of Revelation.  The early church fathers referred to Isaiah as the “fifth gospel.”[2]  Gospel, we know, means “Good News,” yet much of the opening two-thirds of Isaiah is depressing.  God is getting ready to punish Israel for her lack of trust in the Almighty and for her misdeeds.  But within these chapters, there are glimpses of hope that pop out as we see here in the 25th and 26th chapters.  Good news don’t make much sense if there is not something you need to be saved from.  Otherwise, why would we need God?

Isaiah gives us a universal vision for what God is preparing to do, not just for Israel but for all in the world who is waiting for God’s reign.  We have a vision of the great Thanksgiving in the sky, a feast of rich foods and good wine.  The mountain refers to Jerusalem and it will be a place of blessing for all the world who will gather there as pilgrims,[3] thankful that God has removed the shroud of sadness that has covered everyone’s eyes.  No longer will they be morning; death will be no more; God is going to wipe away their tears (a promise that we also read at the end of scriptures in Revelation[4]).  But we don’t get to experience this paradise right away.  In verse nine, the people proclaim that this is the God for whom we waited…  We have to wait to taste of the banquet, we have to wait for paradise to be restored.

Of course, those who continue to fight against God, to rebel against the one who is our hope, represented in this passage as the Moabites, will not experience this reversal of fortune. The insert of the verses at the end of chapter 25 deny a universal claim of salvation for all.[5]  Salvation is only those who have placed their trust in the Almighty.  And those who trust, will break out in a song of praise as we see with the beginning verses of the 26th chapter.  “Trust in the Lord forever,” we’re told in our last verse, “for in God we have an everlasting rock.”

Think about this vision from Isaiah in the eyes of Israel, who was facing a humiliating defeat on the battlefield.  Here you have a people who are utterly humiliated and beaten down, but they have hope.  They know God is still God and that in the end, their shame will be removed.  They live with anticipation!  And so should we!

I’d recommend all books on the Christian faith by Craig Barnes that I’ve read.  In his book, Yearning, which I think was his first book, he writes:  “Everything that the Bible says about the future is meant to help us live better in the present.” [6] The subtitle of this book is “Living Between How It Is and How It Ought to Be.”  That’s where we live our lives—between Jesus’ ascension and his return.

We live knowing what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, but we also live knowing that God has greater things planned for us in the future.  God gives us a foretaste of what’s to come as a way to help us survive the difficulties of this life.  Not every day is going to be perfect, but God promises to be with us and promises us that in the end, when all things work out according to his plan, we will experience joy unlike we have ever known.  So we live in anticipation, knowing that the future will be better than the best of days we have experienced.

So enjoy and make the best of today, and tomorrow, and of this season.  As we’re told in Ecclesiastes, God wants us to enjoy the gifts we are provided in this life.[7]  But let’s not forget the end goal.  It’s out of our hands, but we’re waiting for the return of our Lord.  We live with anticipation, serving Christ in our lives, watching for the coming of a new heaven and earth, as we pray: “Come Lord Jesus.”[8]  Yes!  Come, Lord Jesus, Come.  Amen.


[1] Luke 4:18ff.

[2] Susan Ackerman, “Isaiah Introduction,” in The new Interpreter’s Study Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 956.

[3] See  Otto Kaiser, Isaiah 13;29: The Old Testament Library (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1974), 200.

[4] Revelation 21:4.

[5] Christopher R. Seitz, “Isaiah 1-39: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1992), 192

[6] Craig Barnes, Yearning (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1991) 162

[7] Ecclesiastes 3:12-13.

[8] Presbyterian Church USA, “A Brief Statement of Faith,”, Book of Confessions, lines 72-76.

Stewardship Sermon #2

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church 

November 16, 2014

Luke 8:4-15



Let me begin this morning in which we’re talking about Stewardship with the concept of the firstborn.  In the Old Testament, God calls on Israel to consecrate all the firstborn in Israel: human and beast.[1]  The firstborn was offered to God for his use, just as the first of the harvest was offered to God. [2]  We, too, are to give our first-fruits to God, as a sign of faithfulness, trusting that God will continue to bless us.  But that’s not what we often do; instead, we give God our left-overs.

Thanksgiving is coming up.  I’m not going to be here next week to offer you this tip, so let me tell you today.  There’s hotline you can call to make sure you are properly preparing your turkey.  It’s 1-800-Butterball (you leave off the L’s when dialing).  A few years ago, I heard an interview with one of the operators of the helpline.  She told about a call she handled from someone with a turkey that had been frozen for ten years in the bottom of a freezer.  They wanted to know if it would be safe to eat.  The expert said that it would be safe as long as it had stayed frozen the entire time… she went on to say she couldn’t vouch for how it would taste and it certainly wouldn’t be as good a fresh turkey.  “That’s okay,” the caller said.  “We’re giving it to the church.”  This example may be a bit extreme, but we do tend to give out of what we have left and not out of our abundance.

Compare our attitudes on giving to God’s.  God gave us his first-born!  God gave to us before we believed.  God gave to us before we showed ourselves to be worthy.  In fact, we are only worthy because God has given to us.  Paul tells us that God has shown us his love in that Jesus died for us while we were sinners.[3]  God didn’t wait and see how we’d turn out before offering Jesus.  Likewise, we are not to give only because we feel blessed, or because we feel the church is worthy, or because we know the dollars are going to causes we support.  We give out of faith and trust in a God whose love has been shown to us love before we even existed as a twinkle in our parents’ eyes.[4]

Today is stewardship Sunday and we’re asking you, after the sermon, to make a commitment to your church.  This is a generous church.  We do a lot to support missions and I am asking you to continue to sow seeds of hope!  Your gifts make things happen, they open up possibilities, they create hope! Now let’s look at our passage for today as I read from Luke 8:4-15.



He visited me right after I had moved to Cedar City, Utah.  He showed up on the door one morning saying he needed help.  He didn’t look like he was in need of a handout. He was well dressed, but fatigue shown in his face and there was desperation in his voice.  I invited him in to my study and asked what I could do for him…

I learned he was not looking for a handout.  In fact, he was the manager of a local credit union.  But he did need help.  He told me that at his girlfriend’s insistence (and so that she would become his fiancé), he had recently been baptized into the Mormon Church.  He didn’t come from a very religious family.  He’d been baptized as an infant, but only attended church a couple times a year growing up.  His main memory was Vacation Bible School.  With this limited knowledge, he said he knew something wasn’t right.  We talked and prayed.

Over the next few months, we frequently visited.  He began to attend church and ended up breaking off his engagement and moved back to where he had grown up in Southern California.  I lost track of him.  A number of years went by before I received a phone call.  He was doing well, had become very involved in a Bel Air Presbyterian Church.  He also had a new fiancé and wanted to know if I was available to come down and officiate at their wedding.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make that work out, but it was good to know that things had worked out for him.

If we live like we should, for every story like the one I just told, there will be many that we never hear of in which God uses us to sow seeds, to share the gospel, to show the love of our Savior.  Ponder this question: How do you sow seeds?  (pause) This would be a good question to discuss during the coffee time after worship this morning.

We never know what happens when seeds are sown.  The sprouting of the seed and the growth of the new plant is not in our hands and often it is not within our sight.  Certainly we can cultivate the soil and provide water and nutrients, but there are things we can’t control and ultimately the destiny of the seed is out of our hands.[5]

I often wonder what might be going on to cause a particular situation or story to end up in scripture.  Here, it may be that the disciples are having a hard time with the knowledge that not everyone is receptive to our Savior’s message.  These men had been close to Jesus and saw him change lives (even bringing the dead back to life).  They had seen many people respond positively to Jesus’ message, but there were others who seemed unaffected.[6]  This was bothersome.  It is a question that still lingers.  Why do some people accept Jesus’ message while others ignore and some outright reject it?  Or, as a Dutch Calvinist might ask, “why is grace only irresistible to some?”[7]

The Parable of the Sower addresses the lingering question as why some ignore the gospel, while others appear to accept it, only to fall away.  There was a crowd of people around Jesus and many of them would have been farmers.  They knew what it meant to sow seeds.

Farming in the first century was different than today. They didn’t have all the farm implements: plows, disks, planters, and cultivators.  It almost seems as if today’s farmers have it easy (but even all the fancy equipment can’t bring rain in the right amounts).   First century farmers also did things a little different than today’s farmers.  Instead of preparing the field and then planting the seeds, they would scatter the seed and then, with a primitive plow, disturb the dirt enough to bury most of the seeds.

Of course, things did not always work out the way you’d hope.  Some seeds would fall on the path and be trampled or eaten by birds instead of finding ground in which to germinate.  Other seed would fall on spots in which there were rocks right below the surface.  These seeds might sprout and grow quickly but since there were no solid roots, they would die just as quickly.  Other seeds would sprout in the same ground as weeds and fight a losing battle.    But there were a few seeds that landed in good soil and they reproduced as such a rate that they made the harvest.

Listening to this parable, I’m sure, were many who wondered what Jesus was driving at.  Certainly they knew and understood, in a literal sense, what it meant to sow seeds.   They’d probably even done this task themselves.  When Jesus interprets the seed in the story to be the word of God, many listening in probably wondered whether or not they were good or bad soil.  In other words, will the gospel take root in me or will I turn away in despair?  This is why they ask for an explanation.

We now learn that this parable isn’t intended to make us worry and wonder about our faith.  Instead, the parable addresses the concern Jesus’ followers have about not everyone responding to the word, to the gospel.  Not everyone hears Christ’s call; and not everyone who hears takes his word to heart.  But just as the sower continues to plant even though he knows not every seed with take root, we too much continue our word.  In other words, instead of seeing ourselves as the soil, we in the church should see ourselves as the sower.  We are called to share the gospel, to sow seeds of faith.  But like the sower in our story, we can’t control the outcome.

The idea of us being the sower of gospel seeds also addresses one of the questions that would have been in the mind of those listening to this story.  There were no union shops in first century farms.   There were no “sowers,” per say.  They were farmers and yes, one task was to sow seed.  But they also plowed and chopped weeds and brought in the harvest.[8]  But in this passage, Jesus is referring to just the work of getting the word out, not all that our faith entails.  Jesus wants us to sow seeds regardless of the harvest we receive.  A few verses later, after our reading, Jesus tells us not to be misers of what we hear, for generosity begets generosity, stinginess impoverishes.[9]

When we see ourselves as sowers, we understand our responsibility.  Our task as Christians, it has often been said, is to be faithful, not successful.  God gives the growth, not us.  Because we don’t know where or even when a particular seed might germinate, we’re to carry out our tasks and trust that God will bless our efforts.  This takes a big burden off our shoulders!  We are just laborers in God’s kingdom.  We sow the seeds; God brings in the harvest.  All we are asked to do is to faithfully share the gospel.

Now we share the gospel in several ways.  We are to do it in our own lives: As followers of Jesus are to be living examples.  We do it with our words, telling others about what we have experienced through Jesus.  And we do it by supporting the work of the church.

First and foremost, our purpose as a body of believers is to make disciples.  Secondarily, we are to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world.  And it takes money, it requires our generosity, a commitment to God.  Our offerings given through the church is another form of sowing seeds.  And like the germination of a seed, such as it was with my friend from Utah, we may not know the results of our sowing.  We may not know of the blessings a missionary or one of the missions we support in downtown Savannah experiences.  We just keep on sowing because God has given to us first.

In a moment, we will sing our closing hymn and as we do, I invite you to come forward and present your commitment to our church.  God loves a cheerful giver.[10]  Amen.



[1] Exodus 13:2.

[2] Exodus 23:19.

[3] Romans 5:8

[4] Ideas from Robert Morris, .The Blessed Life (Ventura, CA: Regal, 2002), 30-34.

[5] 1 Corinthians 3:6.

[6] Consider the story of the ten lepers, only two came back to give thanks.  See Luke 17:11-19.  In Luke, this is after Jesus told this parable, but it is just one of many examples.

[7] The fourth point of Calvinism as defined by Dort is “Irresistible Grace” (the “I” in Tulip:  Total Depravity, Unlimited Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and the Perseverance of the Saints)

[8] This comes from a reference to the parallel passage (Matthew 13:1-9).  See F. Dale Bruner,  The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28  (Grand Rapids: Eerdman, 2004), 5.

[9] Luke 8:18, The Message.

[10] 2 Corinthians 9:7.

Stewardship sermon #1

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church 

November 9, 2014

Luke 12:13-25

             Next Sunday is the day we make our commitments to support God’s work through Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church for the next year.  Our Stewardship theme is “Sowing Seeds of Hope.”  This week and next I will preach on parables about agriculture-sowing seeds.  Farming is often referred to as a great gamble.  Yet, farmers are hopeful as they plant their crops, trusting in the Lord for sunlight and warm weather and moisture, things of which they have no control.  In such a manner, we’re like farmers.  Even the Apostle Paul saw himself in this way: “I planted, Apostle watered, God gave the growth.”[1] There is much to be hopeful and thankful as we strive to grow and build this faith community by proclaiming God’s Word and living in a manner that brings God glory. We’re exploring the parable of the rich but foolish farmer.  It’s a story of priorities.  Who do we trust?  Where do we place our faith?  Interestingly, this story is told right after someone asks Jesus to intervene in a family dispute over inheritance.  Jesus refuses to get involved, and then tells this story.  Let’s listen now to the Master as I read from the twelfth chapter of Luke, starting with verse thirteen.  (Read Luke 12:13-25).



Photo taken in 2011

Photos taken in April 2011

Whenever I think about a farmer, I envision my Uncle Frank.  It’s been a couple of years since he died.  Frank raised tobacco and was good at it.  He expanded the number of fields and barns and worked hard during the summer to raise and cure the golden leaf.  As he got older and the tobacco market declined, Frank leased out most of his land and retired.  Well, kind-of retired.  He’d farmed the same ground all his life.  He grew up on that land and there must have been something in the dirt that was addictive as Frank was not able to let it go. In his retirement, Frank started raising strawberries.  Then he added sweet corn and peas and beans and tomatoes and watermelons and other crops.  There were two old tobacco barns he used the cure tobacco, out near the highway.   He converted them to a produce stand, air conditioning the barns where he stored that which he grew.   The tin roof shed between the barns, where tobacco used to be tied on sticks, became his showcase for produce.  The whole operation was under the shade of pecan trees.  There were a few rockers sitting around where people could cool off and enjoy a Coca-Cola on hot summer afternoons. I don’t think anything brought Frank more happiness than the knowledge someone was enjoying the fruits of his labor.  The juice from a watermelon or that from a red tomato, cut thick and stuck in between two slices of bread slathered with mayonnaise, running down the chin of a “youngin” made it all worthwhile.  The knowledge that some people drove 20 miles out of their way just to purchase some of his sweet corn was satisfying.

It seems appropriate that the last time I saw Frank, when we were visiting North Carolina just a few months before his death, he was on top of a John Deere, planting peas. Frank was not at all like the guy in the story Jesus told.  Although I’m sure Frank struggled with greed, as we all do, he was a bighearted man.  I believe it was his love for the land and the happiness his produce brought to his costumers and not the money it put into his bank account that kept Frank farming well into his eighth decade.  Furthermore, Frank generously supported his church, was always known to help out neighbors in need, and was one of the first to step up to support a worthwhile community endeavor.


We’re not told much about the farmer in our story today.  All we know for sure is that he was successful.  He had been blessed with fertile land, cooperative weather and a bountiful harvest.  That’s good. We’re to enjoy the gifts from God’s creation!  He built barns to store up his excess.  That’s not necessarily bad, as we saw in our Old Testament lesson.  If Joseph hadn’t built barns and silos in Egypt during their seven years of plenty, they’d all starved during their seven years of drought.[2]  So what’s the problem here…  Why does God call this man a fool?

I have a feeling this man is incredibly lonely.  Interestingly, in the parable, he only talks to himself.  “I’m going to do this and that,” he says, but he’s the only one around.  He takes credit for all that he’s done, forgetting others who are partly responsible for his blessings.  There were the laborers who prepared the fields, who chopped the weeds, and who helped harvest the crop, all for the chance of having a full belly at the end of the day.  I’m sure they received their portion, but the man doesn’t acknowledge he’s dependent on the sweat from their brows…  Next, there were the carpenters who sawed the wood and lifted up the beams and built his barns.  We can assume they, too, were paid, but their contributions are overlooked by the man in the story.   And then there is the one who sends the rain and the sun and who gives the harvest. [3]  The source of his blessings is also ignored. Yet, we’re also not told that the man’s death is punishment.  I don’t think it was.  It seems to have just been his time.

Death is something we will all confront.  Steve Jobs, the founder and leader of Apple Computer, in a commencement address at Stanford a few years before his death, acknowledges this:   No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent.[4]

Think about the prospect of death as a change agent.  The knowledge of our humanity, our mortality, should help us focus on that which is important.  We can learn from this man in the story, which is why Jesus told it.  But too often, perhaps because we have tried hard to erase death from our minds, we ignore it.  The man is not called a fool because he was rich and didn’t share of his blessings, for we don’t know that.  For all we know, he may have been very generous.  Nor was he called a fool for hoarding the bounty of his fields.  After all, if someone doesn’t store up food, we’d all starve during a year of drought or floods, and this was especially true at a time when buying produce on the world market wasn’t an option. Instead, the man was called a fool because he was not living for today.  Instead of enjoying today, and receiving it as a gift from the Creator, he was making plans to enjoy tomorrow.  As we all know, but may not want to admit, tomorrow may not be.


This farmer worried about how he could store up his crop so that he could kick back and relax or party sometime in the future.  He thought he had everything under control, but he over-reached.  Like us, he was mortal.  Life is a gift from the Almighty, not something that he (or we) can control.  Yes, we can and should take care of ourselves (we should even plan for tomorrow), but we can’t bank on tomorrow’s sunrise so we better make sure we appreciate today. I should reiterate again that there is nothing in this passage that suggests this man was immoral or he had prospered from unjust actions or had been dishonest with others which allowed him to gain wealth.  That’s not the problem Jesus addresses here.  Instead, his problem is where he places his trust.  His full barns have become his god; his barns are where he places his trust.  He’s an idolater.  His idol isn’t some stone carving, but a barn and a collection of silos. For us, it might be a bank account, an investment portfolio, or real estate properties.

Looking at his full barns, the farmer thinks his future is secure.  We can look at our accumulation of stuff and also be deceived. Jesus moves from this story to encouraging us not to worry about tomorrow.  Elsewhere, Jesus says they’ll be enough troubles tomorrow to worry over, take care of your troubles today.[5]   “One day at a time,” is a motto our AA friends live by, and it’s a good one.  “Worrying,” as Jesus reminds us, “will not add a single hour to the span of our lives.”[6] Life can be trying.  We can live by fear and be anxious and strive to assure our future by hoarding and in so doing isolate ourselves from others and God.  But even then, we can’t stop the inevitable.  Sooner or later, we’ll be gone.  At such a time will we be known for what we did with the blessings God entrusted to us?    Will our legacies be based on us focusing on ourselves or on trusting God?

As you think about your commitment to our church for 2015, I encourage you to look at your lives from the perspective of your faith in an Almighty God.  Do you trust that God will be with you in the future?  If so, do you live like it?  Do you embrace the possibility each day holds?  Do you give freely and generously?  Do you seek out the fellowship of others?  Are you willing to take a risk, to be a little foolish, not like the farmer who thought he had it made, but foolish by worldly standards which means trusting in God whom we believe wants something more and better from and for us?[7]

Examine yourselves this week.  It’s not too late to start enjoying the life God has given us.  It’s not too late to make things right with God.  It’s not too late, but at some point in the future it will be.   Life is too short to be greedy.   We start this change by placing our trust in God and living for Jesus, generously supporting and working for his kingdom.  None of us know what tomorrow will bring.  What’s important is how we make the most of today and in whom we place our trust for tomorrow.  Being a faithful steward is our choice: Do we trust ourselves and our own abilities?  Or do we trust God?  Amen.


[1] 1 Corinthians 3:6.
[2] Genesis 41:46-57.
[5] Matthew 6:34.
[6] Luke 12:25, NRSV
[7] See 1 Corinthians 1:18

Shared Concerns


Okefenokee Swamp (October 31, 2014)

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

November 2, 2014

I John 2:28-3:7

  Have you read any of Don Miller’s books?  His best, in my opinion, is Blue Like Jazz.  Miller is considered one of the leaders in the emergent church movement.  A few years ago I heard him speak at the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College.  It was a treat as he caught the audience’s attention in his slightly irreverent but humorous demeanor.  He started his presentation by lifting up a Bible, and asking, “What kind of culture or society would we envision if we knew nothing about the church and read this book, especially the gospels?”  Then he went on to suggest that never in our wildest imaginations would we dream of the church as it exists in America today.  Ponder that!  He has a point. Today is my final sermon in which we are looking at the covenant that exists between me and you.  Again, if you haven’t read the covenant, you can find it online[1] or stop by the office and pick up a copy.  Over the past six weeks, we’ve looked at our shared vision, shared theology, shared ministry, and shared leadership.  The overall theme is that we’re all in this together.  Today, the topic is our shared concerns.  Within the covenant, much of the concerns addressed deal with my role as a pastor, as well as how we are to hold one another accountable.  However, I suggest such concerns not only exist with me professionally but with how we relate to one another.  If we’re living our lives in Christ, if we have been adopted into God’s family, our lives should reflect this new reality.  Read 1 John 2:28-3:7.


  We’re wrestling today with a passage of Scripture that calls us to a new way of living.  We’re to abide in Christ, or as another translation says it, we’re to “live deeply with Christ.”[2]  We’re to be ready for Christ to return.  We don’t want to be caught short when our Lord comes to claim us; we don’t want to be caught looking out for only ourselves and ignoring the needs of our brothers and sisters.  We want to be ready, and we do that by living a life of righteousness as Jesus taught.  We show our readiness by actively loving and caring for others. The Good News in this passage is in chapter 3, verse 1, which reads in the New Revised Standard Version, “See what love the Father has given us that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.”  This is a passage I often quote when we celebrate the sacrament of baptism as we did last week.  But what does it mean to say that we’re “Children of God?”  Paul says through Jesus Christ, we’ve been adopted by God.[3]  What’s Paul talking about? If we truly see ourselves as children of God, are we not obliged to act like it?  And furthermore, if we see other people as God’s children, aren’t we obliged to treat them with the nobility they deserve?  Now, siblings do fight, most of us who have brothers and sisters experienced this growing up.  In this way, too, the church is like a family, although it is harder to leave a family than it is a congregation.  But let’s face it, fighting isn’t what we’re to be about. This is why, as noted in both our covenant and in the Book of Order, we are to exercise “mutual forbearance,”[4] as we strive in all things to bring God glory. John suggests dual implications of being God’s children.  It impacts our lives now as it reflects God’s goodness.  But there’s also an eternal component, one that hasn’t been revealed.  This second implication will be revealed, as John proclaims in verse 2, when we see Christ face to face and become like him.  But until then, we’re to work on purifying ourselves.  After the optimism of the opening verses, John becomes a bit negative as he goes back to the subject of sin.  Sin separates us from God. Throughout this letter, John warns his readers over and over again the damage that can be caused by sin, but follows his reference to sin with reminders of the pardon we’ve received through Jesus.  For to abide in Christ, we live humbly, acknowledging him as Lord of our lives and our world and we love others as ourselves.  Let me repeat this and break it apart:  To abide in Christ, we must live humbly for we know that our salvation isn’t of our doing.  Salvation is a gift.  Secondly, we must acknowledge Christ as Lord of our lives and world which means that we look to him for direction as to how we should live, which takes us back to reading the gospels as Don Miller suggested.  Do we live up to our inheritance in Christ Jesus? Let me tell you a story.  Tommy lived a couple of houses up from us on Bishop Street when I was a kid.  This was back in the 60s and divorces were less common than today.  Tommy was the first child on our block to be part of what we would call a blended family.  I don’t even remember the details; all I remember is that he had a different last name than the one on his mailbox.  Kids can be cruel, and we were no different.  Soon, he was known as Tommy-two-names.  It wasn’t a very nice nickname, and I knew that because when my mother heard me using it, I got into trouble.  Of course, there were times she wasn’t around and we could slip “Tommy-two-names” into a conversation much like an assassin slips a dagger into the side of a victim.  Why do children do this?  Even as adults, why do we not honor and care for one another?  After all, we’ve all been created in God’s image. We moved from that home shortly after I completed the third grade.  I don’t know what happened to Tommy, but I’ve often thought about him, and have worried some about what impact picking on him might have had.  Did it cause any permanent psychological damage?  When you’re a child you don’t think about such things.   But cruelty begets cruelty… Children have so much potential.  But because their egos are so fragile, that potential can easily be lost.  (Perhaps this is why John insists on calling those of us in church, “children.”)  The wrong words, heard enough times, can shatter a child’s strength.  But the right words, spoken to a child, can also help a child reach beyond their wildest dreams.  Does our language build people up or tear them down?  There are enough people in this world that have been treated like Tommy, who are now walking wounded.  As Christians, we need to be careful not to contribute to the problem but to rescue those like Tommy and to build them up as a member of God’s family. Fred Craddock, one of America’s greatest preachers today, tells a story of Ben Hopper. Ben was such a child who heard those right words at the right time in his life.  Born in the nineteenth century to an unwed mother in the hills of East Tennessee, Ben approached the batter’s box with two strikes already against him.  It must be terrible to grow up not knowing who your father might be.  Ben experienced this.  He was continually teased.  Walking down the street with his mother, he could feel people thinking, “Who is his father?”  At school, lunchtime and recess were especially difficult.  Ben learned how to keep to himself so as to avoid ridicule. When Ben was about 12, a new preacher came to the church nestled in the hollow in which Ben and his mother lived.  People soon began talking about this gifted preacher; he seemed to be bringing a revival to this rural country church.  Hearing these stories, Ben wanted to go meet the man.  One Sunday he got up enough nerve to go to church by himself.  He sat there in the back, thinking to himself that he could slip out the door when the congregation was singing the last hymn.  (You know, there are people with such an escape plan…  On occasion, I can see them from up here…) Ben didn’t want anyone to ask about his father, or worst yet, to ask what a boy like him was doing there.  But the service turned out to be wonderful.  All that he’d heard about the preacher was true.  Ben was mesmerized and forgot to slip out before the benediction.  There he was, stuck in the crowd making for the door.  People were in a rush.  Women had to get home and pull their roast or chickens from the oven.  Everyone was going home to gather with their extended family, everyone except for Ben.  It would just be him and his mom, and their meager fare. Ben tried to slip through the crowd; he tried to get through the door, but all a sudden a big set of hands grasped him by the shoulders from behind.  It was the preacher.  He turned Ben around, looked him in the eyes, and asked, “Who are you, son?  Whose boy are you?”  Ben said at that point that his heart dropped; his worst fear had come to pass.  Even the preacher was going to make fun of him.  But the preacher continued… “Wait a minute.  I know who you are.  The family resemblance is unmistakable.  You are a child of God.”  Then the preacher patted Ben on the back, and said, “Boy, that is quite an inheritance.  Go out and claim it.”  In telling this story, after having been elected as Governor of Tennessee, Ben Hopper credited his success and the respect he found in life to that country preacher, who cared enough to encourage a little boy.[5] John reminds us that we’re all children of God.  As God’s children, we share our concerns!  Being instilled in God’s image[6] means that there’s a family resemblance!  Being adopted as God’s children, through Jesus Christ, means that we’ve got an inheritance to claim.  Claim it!  And once you claim your inheritance, encourage others to claim theirs.  Take seriously what it means to abide in Christ.  Let Christ’s light shine from your life,[7] so that others may see his glory and together we can build a church that more nearly corresponds to that ideals set down by our Savior.    Amen.  


[2] The Message.
[3] Paul refers to our adoption in Romans 8:23, 9:4, Galatians 4:5 and Ephesians 1:5.
[4] Presbyterian Church (USA), Book of Order, F-3.0105.
[5] This story was told by another preacher who heard it from Fred Craddock..  The way I heard it, Craddock meet Hopper in a restaurant there in the mountains.  I’m not so sure as Ben Hopper was governor of Tennessee from 1911-1915.
[6] Genesis 1:27.
[7] Matthew 5:14-16

Shared Leadership

Richard and me in 2008

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

October 26, 2014

Matthew 20:20-28

  This is Reformation Sunday and, as I am fond of mentioning, one of the most important doctrines to come out of the Protestant Reformation, especially when it concerns how we “do church” is the “Priesthood of All Believers.”  I am not trying to put myself out of a job, but you don’t need a professional to connect to God.  You can do that yourself.  Now, in the defense of clergy, it is helpful to have those who have some additional training and have been called by God to shepherd those within the Christian family, but all of us has direct access to Almighty.  In the Old Testament, you had priests who bridged the gap between the human and the divine.  But Jesus, as our High Priest, bridges that gap, allowing us all access.  This mean that my prayers are no more valid than yours, so when you pray for good weather for your next picnic and a storm brews up, don’t assume that I could have done any better. Today, I want us to see this passage through the lens of “Shared Leadership,” which is the fourth item in the covenant that exists between me and the congregation.  Again, if you have not yet read the covenant, you can do so online[1], or see me and I can get you a paper copy.   In the Presbyterian Church, the pastor and the elders make up the leadership team (the Session) who work together to define and articulate the congregation’s vision and implement its ministry.  But as leaders, we’re all servants: servants of the congregation and, more importantly, servants of our Lord Jesus Christ. In our passage, Jesus and the disciples along with a crowd of people are heading toward Jerusalem.   Right before our reading, Jesus pulls the disciples off to the side and tells them that he’s going to Jerusalem to die.   Matthew doesn’t tell us what the disciples’ reaction was, instead follows this story:  Mrs. Zebedee comes to Jesus with a request on behalf of her sons.  Pride and jealously are often the opposite sides of the same coin, as we will see here.  We must let Jesus in so that he can rearrange the priorities of our lives in a godly manner.  Read Matthew 20:20-28…


Let me tell you about a good friend.  Richard is a little older than I am—by about two months!  I expect that early next month, I’ll receive a phone call.  “Jeff,” Richard will say, “Do you know happens on the 15th?”  I’ll respond with something silly and he’ll say “Noooo, it’s my birthday!  Don’t you remember?”  Of course I do, but it is a game we play. Richard could be designed as someone with “special needs.”  For a long time he worked at Wendy’s in Hastings, Michigan, and was probably the chain’s biggest promoter.  Once, he was in a local coffee shop for breakfast and I quietly picked up his tab.  When he found out it was me, he thanked me and keep thanking me…  for the next year.  It didn’t take much to please Richard.  He’s a simple man, with simple tastes. One Sunday, in church, Richard stood up during joys and concerns and bragged to everyone about receiving a raise.  Afterwards, he came up to me and said, “Jeff, can you believe it?  I got a raise.  Come by Wendy’s and I’ll buy your lunch.”  He was so excited and proud and I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the minimum wage had just gone up. I’m sure when we get to heaven, Richard is going to be in a prominent place! Unfortunately, for most of us, happiness is harder to come by, as we see in today’s scripture reading.  This passage rings true.  Although ugly, we can imagine it happening today…  In fact, it does happen.  You have a mother who wants what is best for her children and is willing to stick her neck out and request special favors for them.  Remember the cheerleading scandal in Texas a decade or so ago, when a woman hired a hit man to knock off her daughter’s competition?  Now that’s a bit extreme, but it’s natural for us parents to want the best for our children and in this way the mother of the Zebedee boys is no different that many of us. You also have in this story a natural reaction by the rest of the disciples.  They’re jealous and upset that Mrs. Zebedee has stuck nose into where they don’t think it belongs.   And finally, you have Jesus who’s probably mumbling, “I thought I taught them better.”  Jesus uses this opportunity to drive home a point he’s been trying to make all along.  Pomp and circumstance isn’t a part of this kingdom; his kingdom is built upon service.  Within the community Jesus institutes, we have to keep our ambition and our jealously in check.  If we don’t, we risk destroying relationships with others and ultimately with our Lord. As I said before reading the scripture, our passage follows Jesus telling the disciples about his upcoming passion—his betrayal, crucifixion and death.  Of course, Jesus also says he’ll be raised on the third day, but there’s a lot to get through to get to that point.   Immediately following this pronouncement, we have the mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee coming before Jesus with her sons.  She kneels, humbling herself, and asks that her sons get to sit in the place of honor in Jesus’ kingdom.  Now, in the previous chapter, Jesus told Peter that he and the disciples would all be seated on thrones and gets to judge the 12 tribes of Israel.[2]  So Jesus has already told them they’d be rewarded, but then he followed that promise with a warning, the parable of the workers in the vineyard, which we looked at a few weeks ago.  As one commentator pointed out, Jesus is tackling two different problems in this chapter.  First, with the parable of the workers, he deals with the problem of feeling superior over others.  Here, at the end of the chapter, he deals with our seeking superiority.  Pride and ambition are two great demons with which Christian leaders wrestle.[3] We have a lot of stuff leading up to this.  Jesus has warned the disciples about the danger of spiritual pride and he has shown them what he must undergo to bring about his kingdom.  It’s amazing, given what’s has gone before this, Mrs. Zebedee makes such a request. It’s interesting that after she makes her request, Jesus doesn’t address her.  Jesus responds to her sons, who are there with their mother.  Looking at the passage, we learn that she’s not the type of mother who discreetly works behind her children’s back to make things better for them.  In fact, it almost looks like her sons set her up for this, maybe thinking that Jesus would have a soft spot for a woman whose two sons left the family fishing business to follow Jesus.  After she makes her request, Jesus addresses the sons, asking them if they can drink the cup that he drinks. The cup is a metaphor commonly used to refer to suffering.  Now, these guys shouldn’t have a problem linking together the cup and what Jesus had just told them about his upcoming crucifixion.  To be crucified was so horrible that Jesus’ comment should have been like a slap to their faces.  And maybe it was, but I think they were only hearing what they wanted to hear.  They say they can drink the cup and as we learn in the book of Acts, Herod had James killed[4] and although it is not recorded in the scriptures; it is often thought that John, too, died a martyr. One of the problems with spiritual ambition is that it makes other folks jealous.  When the other ten hear about James and John and their attempts to get special treatment, they become angry.  It’s a natural response.  After all, James and John are not the only ones to have left their businesses and their careers to follow Jesus. Knowing he’s got a problem brewing, Jesus calls the disciples together and tries to head off the bickering by telling the disciples they are acting no differently than those in world.  Within the world, there is a hierarchy.  This was especially true in the Roman world, the Gentile world, as Jesus points out.  You’ve got Caesar in Rome and a lot of petty kings like Herod stuck out in the providences.   If you were in a position of power, you had control over those under you.  Because you had the Roman legion on your side, you could carry out your policies…  But such power politics was not to be a part of Jesus’ community, the church. You know, one of the things that distinguish those of us in the Reform Tradition, a trait going back to the Reformation, is our belief in the reality of sin which leads us to the conclusion that power shouldn’t be concentrated into the hands of one person.  That’s why we don’t have bishops in our church and why the elders are considered equal in power to the clergy.   Instead, we have committees.  I’ll be the first to admit that there can be problems with committees, but in designing a church, the early Reformers sought to make all members equal in the eyes of God.  They also to provided checks and balances to keep power from becoming corruptive.  By placing power in a group, they hoped to have some control over the corruption that can easily slip into an individual’s life.  The “priesthood of all believers,” implies equality within the Christian community. As we’ve seen within this section of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus states over and over that the last shall be first and the first, last, and that we have to come to the kingdom as a child.[5]  Now, he extends this, giving us an example of how adults are to come to the kingdom.  We’re to come like Jesus, to serve and not rule.  Do we? You know, too often we act like the disciples.  We either want to be the greatest, like James and John, or we are jealous, like the ten.  It’s a great temptation.  As Paul and Jeremiah says, if we’re to boast about anything, it should be about what Lord has done.[6]  Knowing our blessings, we should be humbled and realize we’ve been provided a great opportunity to expand the Kingdom’s mission and ministry.  Secondly, as we see in this passage, we should also be careful not to be jealous.  We’re to serve others and not to be making rash or harsh judgments about what others are doing. If we want to be leaders, we must be willing to be a servant.  Jesus’ way isn’t the way of the world; it’s a contrarian way, but then our God loves surprising us and when we are faithful, we may find ourselves blessed beyond measure. This week, encourage others with a kind word; take an extra moment to do something nice for someone; instead of demanding what you want, be willing to let another have their way.   We’re not to rise within the Christian community to stand out or to be able to brag about ourselves.  There are two types of leaders: those who think they deserve the position and those who accept it as a way to serve.  The second is the way of our Lord.  We humbly accept positions of leadership, knowing that we’re called to service and to let the greatness of Christ shine in all that we do.  Amen.  


[2] Matthew 19:28
[3] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Churchbook: Matthrew 13-28, (Grand Rapids: Eerdman, 2004), 235-326.
[4] Acts 12:1-2
[5] Matthew 19:30, 20:16.  See also Matthew 18:4 and 19:13-14
[6] Jeremiah 9:23-24, 1 Corinthians 1:31

Let’s Invite Others to the Party

homecoming 5

Homecoming Luncheon 2014

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Matthew 22:1-14

October 19, 2014

  As I have been doing for my past two sermons, we’ll continue to look at a section of the covenant that exist between me and the congregation.  The third part of the covenant is a shared ministry.  Ministry is something in which we all participate.  I hope you have viewed this shared covenant; if not, check it out online or stop by the office for a copy.[1]  Much of this section of the covenant in which I refer to today deals with our assigned task in carrying out the various aspects of ministry: pastoral care, outreach, mission and education.  We’re all in this together! In the sermon, I want us to focus on the church’s main mission as set forth by Jesus Christ.  We are to be his witnesses and to make disciples.[2]  We are to invite people into God’s kingdom!  If I was to speak of evangelism, many of you will cringe and have visions of knocking on strange doors or preaching on a street corner.  So let me rephrase our purpose.  We’re to invite people to a party.  We know how to party, to have a good time and so did Jesus.  He was always at dinner parties and he describes heaven as the ultimate dinner party, the heavenly banquet, the grandest homecoming ever!  Doesn’t it sound better to invite people to a party instead of beating them over the head with the Bible?  Of course, we must make sure it is the right kind of party. Our passages from Scripture today both speak of parties—one good and one bad.  In our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, we learn of an atrocious party in the wilderness.[3]  The Hebrew refugees from Egypt celebrate after they’ve molded the golden calf.  This is kind of like the “Burning Man” festival, which occurs over Labor Day weekend every year in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada.  This passage reminds us of how we, as a part of the human race, are willing to sacrifice for the wrong things!  The Hebrew people took off their jewelry and gave up their treasures in order to have a “false god” in which they could see.  Of course, God’s envoy, Moses, crashes the party and refocuses the people’s attention to the one responsible for their deliverance. In our New Testament reading, we’re going to hear about another party—the heavenly banquet.  This parable is an allegory.  The king clearly represents God, the son for whom the party is thrown is Jesus.  Those who send out the invitations are prophets and missionaries, and those who reject the invitations are those who refuse to hear the gospel.  This parable is the third of three parables in which Jesus attacks the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem.  In all three, there’s a foretelling of the church, of God’s attempt to invite everyone (including gentiles) into the kingdom.[4]  But this parable has a different twist.  There’s a catch.  Not only is this good news for those of us who are not children of Abraham, but there is a warning about coming to the party unprepared.  Let’s look at the text… (Read Matthew 22:1-14)


    I would like to draw your attention to the passage at the beginning of the bulletin which comes from Eugene Peterson’s memoirs.  Peterson grew up in Montana as a son of a butcher.  As he looked back on his life after four decades of ministry, he realizes the role his father and his father’s butcher shop played in how he viewed ministry. The West, well into the first half of the twentieth century, could be a rough place.  Two blocks from the Peterson’s butcher shop was a brothel.  Of course, good people wouldn’t be seen there but there was always gossip and scuttlebutt in the air about this den of iniquity.  The women were looked down upon by respectful townsfolk.  But not in his father’s butcher shop.  There, they were treated with respect.  His dad insisted on calling them by their “Christian names” and would not allow any gossipy talk about the women occur in his presence. There were also many Native Americans living on the edge of the town and many held racial prejudices against them.  They were poor and alcoholism rampant.   Again, Peterson’s dad insisted on treating them with respect.  When they came in to purchase a cheap fatty piece of meat, the only thing they could afford, his father would slip a nicer cut of meat into their package. Peterson summaries what he learned about church from his father’s shop in this manner:   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 confirmed.[5] Friends, this is what we’re called to be about.  A congregation consists of people like us.  We are not worthy, but are thankful we have been called by a gracious God and  therefore strive to create a place that reflect the values of the Kingdom to the world and demonstrates an alternative to the present reality.[6] In today’s gospel reading, Jesus combines two parables.  As an overview, I suggest the first parable applies to what we are to be doing and the second is a reminder that we’re really not in charge. The first parable is about the party… more specifically, a wedding banquet.  The king who is throwing the party sends out an invitation telling people to be ready.  Everyone in the king’s court is busy as they roast calves and prepare that huge ox…  The idea of two invitations is important.  The first alerted people to the upcoming feast.  The second invitation was sent right before the feast was to be served.  It’s like ringing of a bell at the Ponderosa Ranch, Ben Cartwright calling Hoss and Little Joe to the table.   But there is a problem. The call to the table is issued and everyone has an excuse.  The king then sends out others to call people to the table and this time, as if they are tired of being hounded, they beat up the messengers.  This infuriates the king and he has their city destroyed.  But dinner is prepared and it’s time to eat.  Without refrigeration, this food will all go bad, so he now extends the invitation to everyone.  Instead of respectable guests, peers of the king, we now have the homeless, those with physical limitations, and those who are not normally invited to such gatherings fill the hall.  Everyone enjoys the food and drink and the king is happy until he sees one person without a wedding robe… Now, I wish Jesus had ended with the first parable, for that one is easy to understand.  The King is God and I think it is fair for us to see ourselves, as Christians, as either those who were invited late to the dinner (the first group was a warning to the Jews who didn’t accept Jesus) or as the King’s slaves who are sent out to gather in guests for the feast.   I’ll come back to this line of reasoning in a sec… When man who was without a robe was unable to answer the King’s inquiry about why he wasn’t dressed appropriately (and I’ll avoid making a comparison here to dress code debates I’ve have heard about at the Landings), the king has him bound and tossed into the outer darkness.  Wow, this hard to understand.  Don’t you agree?  And it’s even harder to accept…  But here it is in scripture…  How might this passage apply to us?  What can we learn from it? As I was thinking about this passage, I realized that I could preach several sermons from it, but today I want us to think of where we would fit in the passage. As I said earlier, we are either those who are drawn into the feast by the king’s servants, in which case we should be extremely grateful or we are the slaves who are inviting others into the banquet.  Actually, I think we can be placed in both categories.  We experience the first as we’re drawn into a relationship with Christ and then, as his disciples, we are sent out to invite others.  That’s our mission, our shared ministry.  We’re to change the world, but not by some big program but by making disciples for our Savior, one at a time… Now, let’s look at the one who came underdressed to the banquet.  As I said, this is a hard passage.  Why wasn’t he wearing appropriate attire?  We don’t know.  If he didn’t have a robe, why didn’t he say so?  The king, who has been gracious to the point and is even kindly in the manner he approaches the man (calling him “friend”) may have provided him with an appropriate robe.   Of course, that’s speculation, but what we’ve learned about the king is that although he can be angry when his servants are mistreated, he is generally gracious.  After all, he extended multiple invitations to his guests and instead of letting the food go bad, opened up the banquet hall for everyone to come and enjoy. What does this mean? Ultimately, I think this passage reminds us that we’re in the business to invite others to the kingdom, regardless.  The worthiness of those who come, who answer the call, isn’t our business.  That’s God’s business.  We’re given an assignment, God can sort it out.   Jesus tells another parable, that of the grain and the weeds, where we also told not to judge but to let each grow, reminding us that the judgment is not our responsibility.[7] We’re to live gracious lives, inviting others to come to meet Jesus.  This is not just my job as Pastor, nor is it just the job of the Elders.  All of us who are disciples of Jesus are called to be both inviting and welcoming of others.  How well do we do this?  What do we need to work on to be for efficient?  Let me know… Today, we have a homecoming dinner as we welcome those who have come back after having spent their summers in cooler climate.  We welcome you back, and we remind you of your assignment as we take seriously this “shared ministry” in which we are engaged.  Again, welcome back!  I feel privileged for the opportunity to join you on this journey.  Amen.  


[2] Matthew 28:16-20
[3] Exodus 32:1-14.
[4] See Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew: Interpretation, A Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), 244-251.
[5] Eugene Peterson, The Pastor: A Memoir (NY: HarperCollins, 2011), 40.
[6] See “The Great Ends of the Church” in the Presbyterian Church USA’s Book of Order, F-1.0304.  Here I am especially thinking of the sixth “Great End,” “the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.”
[7] Matthew 13:24-30.

Our Covenant Together: A Shared Theology

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

October 5, 2014

Philippians 2:5-11

  Today is my second in a series of sermons highlighting aspects of a covenant covering our relationship as a pastor and congregation as we work together to further God’s kingdom in our community and throughout the world.  As I told you last week, this covenant is a requirement of the Savannah Presbytery.  It was written and edited by the Pastor Nominating Committee and myself, and approved by both the presbytery and the session of our church.  Copies are available online[1] or you can stop by the office and we’ll give you one.  The covenant is based on the concept of our sharing in God’s work, which requires that we have a shared vision, which we looked at last week.  It also requires for us to have a shared set of beliefs or theology, which will be my topic today.   Of course, I’m only giving you the highlights of our common theology.  I’ve been warned about excessive sermons and am not vain enough to think I can fully summarize all we believe in twenty minutes. As a Christian community, our faith is grounded in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Without Christ, little that we do makes sense.  Jesus Christ is the glue that holds the church together.  The membership requirements to be a part of the Presbyterian family, at least on the surface, are easily met.  All you have to do is to realize your need of a Savior (that’s admitting that you are a sinner and without Christ are lost). Secondly, you must accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.  This sounds simple until we dig into what it means and discover that our allegiance is to Jesus alone: not to ourselves, to our families, to our bosses, to our country or even to our favorite baseball team.  All of these other individuals and organizations are fallible as I found out this past Wednesday when the Pirates lost the National League wildcard game.  In the end, only Jesus Christ is infallible. Finally, you have to pledge that you’ll be a part of the church family, praying and supporting one another and the church as you also commit yourself to follow Christ and to study God’s word as you strive to apply it to your life. As I said, on paper, being a member of the church sounds easy and I hope some of you who have not yet united with us in our faith journey here at Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church will do so.  But you must remember that there are deeper implications to our shared beliefs, our shared theology, which we could explore more fully in a classroom setting.  In Scripture, there is a hymn found in Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi that beautifully summarizes what we believe about our Savior, Jesus Christ and I will use this passage as our text for today.  Read Philippians 2:5-11


  This passage is poetic and beautiful.  There have been lots of debate among scholars over the deeper meaning of these words here, but one of the things that is widely accepted that this is an ancient Christian hymn on the incarnation.[2]  When we speak of Jesus’ incarnation, we refer to how God was embodied in his life.  This may have been the first Christmas hymn.  In Jesus Christ, God became a person, just like you and me.  It is an essential tenet of the Christian faith.  Now, whether Paul wrote this hymn or someone else and Paul just incorporates it into his letter (like I might allude to a poplar tune in one of my sermons) is of no importance.  What’s important is the unique relationship of Jesus to God the Father and how Jesus’ life informs how we’re to live. Paul’s main emphasis here isn’t theology, its ethics.  It’s how we live as Christ-followers.   “Let the same mind be in you as was in Christ Jesus,” Paul writes or as the Message translates begins this passage, “Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself.”   As one commentator wrote about these passage, “Paul presents Christ as the ultimate model for moral action.”[3]  Christ, who is equal to God in that mysterious union of the Trinity, did not exploit his position of power, but became a servant, a slave, in order to reach and lift us up.   If we are Christ-like, we too will be humble.  We, too, will use our talents and gifts not for our own glory, but for the glory of God as we serve others. I heard that when I was being introduced to the congregation by the Pastor Nominating Committee, I was being compared to guys with some pretty big shoes to fill.  A theologian like John Calvin, a leader like Abe Lincoln or Stonewall Jackson (depending on which side of the Mason-Dixon Line you came from) and a preacher like Charles Spurgeon.  Although flattering, such comparisons are not humbling!  Don’t tempt me.  The only similarity with me and those guys is that we all have beards. Since some of you may not know much about Spurgeon, who was considered the greatest Calvinistic preachers in Great Britain during the 19th Century, let me share a story about him.  He had just finished a sermon on avoiding temptation when a saintly-looking woman, as she was leaving church that Sunday, approached Spurgeon and told him that she had managed to avoid sinning all week.  “That must make you really proud,” Spurgeon responded, with a twinkle in his eyes as he shook her hand.  “It does,” she said.  I wonder if she ever understood? Pride is a dangerous thing and we see from this ancient hymn, Jesus shuns pride for obedience.  He takes on the human condition, yet remains without sin.  But he doesn’t brag about his accomplishments, instead he’s crucified for them.  Yet, because of his obedience, God lifts him up, restores him back to his divine and glorious state so that at the end of history, all will bow before him in worship and in doing so we will be bringing glory to the Father. Although this passage shows one of the keys tenets of our theology—that God became a man and lived among us—it also illustrates the truth Jesus taught throughout his ministry:  the last shall be first[4] and those who want to be great must first become a slave or a servant of all.[5]  We worship an awesome God.  What other kind of God would leave behind heaven and all its glory to accept our situation and lot in life?   Our God encourages us to strive to be “Christ-like” which means we must serve others…  And as important as theology is to get right, it is more important that we live by what we believe.  Do we believe what Paul emphasizes in this letter to the Philippians?  More importantly, do we live like we believe it? Fred Craddock, another commentator on this passage, summarizes these verses this way:  “The hymn stands in the church’s Scripture not only to define lordship and discipleship, but also as a judgment upon the kind of triumphalism that abandons the path of service and obedience.”[6] Now let me get back to my discussion about a shared theology.  Certainly, at the center of all Christianity is Christ.  But there is more to our shared beliefs than just the person and work of Christ.  Presbyterians are a part of Christianity that is often referred to as “the Reformed tradition.”  By reformed, I’m not saying that we’re like criminals who have done their time in prison and are now out.  Instead, it is a tradition developed during the Reformation, mostly in Switzerland, and from there spread to Germany, Holland, Scotland, Ireland and North America.  Later, it’s spread to Asia (especially Korea) and to Africa, where it is growing by leaps-and-bounds today.  Although the Reformed Tradition dates back to the Swiss Reformation that occurred around the same time as Martin Luther’s reformation in Germany, it was a Frenchman by the name of John Calvin who helped create a common core of beliefs that are centered around the Sovereignty of God. As we see in this passage from Paul, Jesus Christ chose to come in the flesh.  He could have stayed in heaven and avoided a lot of heartache, but then he couldn’t have shown us the way back to the Father.[7]  So we worship a sovereign God who freely came to us.  God now calls us through a Son to accept his forgiveness of our sins and then, with the help of the Holy Spirit, encourages us to live a godly-life that honors both the triune God and furthers the kingdom in the world.  That, in a nutshell, is the core of our shared theology.  It’s all about God and what God has done and can do in our lives.  Will we accept the call and follow the path set forth by Jesus?  Amen.  


[2] Gerald F. Hawthorne, Philippians: Word Biblical Commentary #43 (Waco: Word, 1983), 76.
[3] Hawthorne, 79
[4][4] Matthew 19:30, 20:16; Mark 9:35, 10:31; and Luke 13:30
[5] Matthew 20:26, 23:11; Mark 10:43;  Luke 1:48; and John 12:26
[6] Fred B. Craddock, Philippians: Interpretations: A Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox, 1985), 43.
[7] John 14:6.

Charles Hodge (A Book Review)

gutjahr_hodgePaul C. Gutjahr, Charles Hodge: Guardian of American Orthodoxy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011) 477 pages including an index, notes, bibliography and a few photos.

Charles Hodge taught at Princeton Theological Seminary for over fifty years and was perhaps the most prominent American theologian of the 19th Century.  During his career, not only did he teach a significant number of Presbyterian ministers, he also taught a large number of Baptist, Congregational and Episcopal clergy, many of whom went on to teach in seminaries around the country.  His influence at Princeton continued long after his death as his son and other students continued his tradition. Interestingly, until 2011, there has not been a major biography of Hodge since 1880, when his son published a biography just two years after his father’s death.  This is one of two major biographies of Hodge to be published in 2011; the other being Andrew Hoffecker’s Charles Hodge: The Pride of Princeton (I haven’t read it).

Hodge was born in 1797 into a Philadelphia family involved in shipping and international trade.  The family was also instrumental in the development of a college that would later become Princeton University.  Hodge’s own life would be tied to Princeton, as all of his advance education was at the school with the exception of a year spent in Europe studying.  When Hodge was an infant his father died from Yellow Fever.  Although he was born with a prominent name, without a father and with the demise of American shipping in the late 18th Century, Hodge’s mother struggled to raise him and his brother Hugh.  Through her efforts and the support of family and friends, both sons were educated at Princeton (Hugh became a physician). They were also raised within the Presbyterian Church and taught the Westminster Catechism.

Gutjahr makes the case that Hodge’s upbringing, especially how his family found themselves dependent on the charity of others, set his