Shared Concerns

okefenokee

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.

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  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.  

©2014



[1] http://skidawaypres.org/pastor/?p=82
[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…

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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.  

©2014



[1] http://skidawaypres.org/pastor/?p=82
[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)

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    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.  

©2014



[1] http://skidawaypres.org/pastor/?p=82
[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

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  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.  

©2014



[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 ofBaptist, Congregational and Episcopal clergy, many who 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 18thCentury, 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 course for life.  He valued education, was generous and hospitable. (22) One of the first things I remember hearing about Hodge when I was just beginning my theological studies was a statement made (partly in jest) at his 50thanniversary of teaching at Princeton Seminary where he bragged that nothing had changed in tenure.  Such a view makes Hodge out to be a stern and inflexible teacher within the Old School Presbyterian tradition.  Gutjahr dispels such a myth.  His portrait of Hodge’s life shows him a man that cared deeply about others, was grounded in a deep personal piety, who enjoyed simple things of life (such as gardening, which was the only thing he every bragged about), and loved children and family.  Hodge was married twice and greatly grieved at the death of his first wife.  He delighted in his children (one of whom took over his position at Princeton) and grandchildren.  Although Hodge belief in Augustinian Calvinism as represented in the Westminster Confession of Faith remained constant throughout his life, Gutjahr makes the point that he was not the fundamentalist that would be found in Princeton later in the 19th and early20th Centuries.  Hodge, who was also always interested in science and endorsed the day-age theory of creation instead of holding to the literal seven day creation of Genesis. (368) Gutjahr also shows how Hodge grounded his theology in a school of philosophy known as Scottish Common Sense Realism.  This thought,popularized in America by John Witherspoon (a Presbyterian clergyman who was President of Princeton and the only clergy to sign the Declaration of Independence) dominated American intellectual life in the years before the Civil War.  Scottish Common Sense Realism attempted to hold to the importance of science as it had developed during the Enlightenment while tying it to a religious base.  It taught three basic concepts:  1. Basic truths are “self-evident.”  2.  In addition to the five normal senses, people possess a common moral sense allowing all people to distinguish between good and evil.  3.  The use of the inductive method (as taught by Francis Bacon) allows for facts abou tour world to be known through experience. (39)  This philosophy modified American Calvinism from the harsher elements of earlier Calvinists as it made more room for individual responsibility in that all people (not just the elect)had a common moral grounding.  (At some point, but not in this book review, I should explore the relation between Common Sense Realism and the concept of “Common Grace” that rose within Dutch Calvinism and how the two of them relate to Calvin’s third use of the law). Hodge rose to prominence within the denomination during the 1837 split between the Old School and New School.  The New School softened its Calvinistic beliefs by emphasizes the role of emotions and allowing the use of revivalist techniques in the conversion experience.  Hodge defended the Old School position challenging the thoughts of Albert Barnes (major theologian of the New School position), evangelist Charles Finney and others in his popular journal, Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review.  He also had problems with rise of Christian volunteer societies in the19th Century. Although he supported various Christian denominations working together to share the gospel overseas, closer to home he warned of their danger within congregations and denominations, reminding others that they were not the church proper. (166) One of the more controversial issues that Hodge faced in his lifetime was slavery.  Gutjahr continually makes the case that Hodge hated the system even though at one point he owned a slave who served as a housekeeper.  It appears Hodge treated her well, encouraged education and Christian discipleship for all slaves, but Gutjahr doesn’t give us any more details about how he came to purchase her and what happened that led to her freedom (or sale).   In the years leading up to the Civil War, heal ways suggested that slavery should be gradually eliminated and saw danger in the extreme abolitionists who demanded an immediate end to slavery.  Seeing nothing in scripture the expressly prohibited slavery, Hodge did not see the justification for such splits. In the Civil War, he was firmly on the side of the Union but mostly because he felt the Union was necessary, not because he felt the war would end slavery.(325)   Gutjahr devotes a whole chapter to slavery and later another chapter on his support of Monogenism (which held that all humanity came from a single source and not multiple sources).  The polygenists (humanity came from multiple sources) was used by some Southerners to support slavery, but Hodge felt such a belief went against Scripture.  (It would be interesting to follow how the Southern acceptance of polygenism changed over the 19th and 20th Century leading to the Scopes Trial as there does seem to bea great disconnect here).  Thepolygenism/monogenism debate helped Hodge change his position on slavery and by the time Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Hodge supported it.  (350). During the time of Southern succession, Hodge was grieved by the nation’s split, but he hoped that the church (Old School Presbyterians) could demonstrate Christian unity.  This was not to be and Hodge, who fought to keep the church from mirroring the nation, was deeply depressed about the split within the church.  Likewise,Hodge didn’t agree with the Northern Old and New School reunion in the years after the war, preferring a reunion with the Southern Church.  That was not to happen.  The Southern Old and New Schools had merged in 1863 and the Southern and Northern streams wouldn’t come back together until over a century had passed since Hodge’s death.  Hodge served as a moderator of the Old School Presbyterian Church 1846General Assembly, an assembly in which he encouraged the development of Presbyterian parochial schools.  This idea didn’t develop into a reality as few within the denomination supported it. Gutjahr follows Hodge’s battles with Transcendentalism, Mercersburg Theology, German idealism, and with the Southern Old School leader, James Henley Thornwell.  Thornwell followed Hodge as moderator of the denomination.  Although the two agreed on many things, when it came to their doctrine of the church, the disagreed.  Hodge insisted that the Bible allowed for latitude for church government while Thornwell, who maintained that the “Bible is our only rule and when it is silent, we have no right to speak,” believed God had set down the Presbyterian system within scripture.  (288) When the 1843 General Assembly elevated ministers above elders, making them members of a presbytery and not a local church, Thornwell feared this would denigrate the role of ruling elder and lead to “High Churchism and Popery.” (290) Gutjahr argues that the battle between Thornwell and Hodge demonstrates how, in matters of the church, Hodge could be a “biblical pragmatist.”  Another area where Hodge went against many in his own camp was in his support of accepting Roman Catholic baptism.  The baptism, set forth in the Trinitarian formula, was enough for Hodge to insist that it was valid even though he disagreed with much of their theology and polity.  Gutjahr also makes the case that Hodge could be more lenient and gracious toward those outside of the Reformed Faith than within it.  If one was going to be a Presbyterian, Hodge had higher expectations how they conformed to the Westminster Catechism. I was shocked with how little Hodge depended on the actual writings of John Calvin.  His own theological training used the theology of Francis Turretin (Swiss Reformed).  Examining the index to Hodge’s own three volume Systemic Theology shows only a moderate number of references to Calvin. Within the text there are a few footnotes to theInstitutes of the Christian Religion, but not as many as I would have thought.  This may be more of a personal preference(or maybe it was because of the times didn’t demand as detailed footnoting asis expected today).  For me, I would have to credit the course on Calvin’s Institutes,as taught by Charles Partee, to be the most influential class during my studies of theology.  (See my review of Charles Partee, The Theology of John Calvin) Gutjahr concludes the book with an Epilogue that briefly discusses Hodge’s legend continued on after his death through the Presbyterian Fundamentalist Crisis of the 1920s.  A whole book could be written on Hodge’s influence and the epilogue just “wet’s one thirst” for such a work.  That said, there are several good books on this transition, but they only briefly mention Charles Hodge.  See George Mardsen, Fundamentalism and American Culture:The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelism, 1870-1925, and Bradley Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists, & Moderates. This is a major book to work through and I would only recommend it to those interested in 19th Century American history, specifically intellectually and theological thought.

A Shared Vision

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

September 28, 2014

Matthew 18:10-14

 

  In the early years of the 20th century, John Deere introduced a revolutionary corn planter that changed agriculture in our country.  It was called the John Deere 999.  The 999 came from the fact that the planter would only miss one hill of corn in a 1000.  That’s pretty good, when you think about it.  But such thinking is our way of thinking.  In God’s eyes, would it be good enough.  What about the one that got away? Today, I am beginning a series of sermons focusing on a covenant that I worked on with the Pastor Nominating Committee and was adopted by the Session.  Earlier in our service, in the reading from the Westminster Confession of Faith, we heard about the covenants God has established with his people, leading up to the covenant of grace established by Jesus.[1]  A covenant expresses what we are about.  In this covenant in which we’re entering within my ministry, there are a number of responsibilities we’re to share.  First of all, we have a shared vision for what this congregation might be.  In our joint covenant, we reference the Great Ends of the Church (there are six of them), and I encourage you to look them up.  You can find it online, or come by the church office and I’ll give you a copy of the covenant.[2]  Today, I’ll focus what I think should be our overall vision for the church.  We’re told in Proverbs that where there is no vision, the people perish. [3]   We need a vision and our vision comes from Jesus. We’re to be concerned for those who are lost—both outside the church and those who have been a part of the fellowship but have drifted away.  Do we have a heart for the lost?  Are we happy with the 99 or are we willing to envision a new community that makes a place for the one on the outside?  READ Matthew 18:10-14

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  We started early that August morning.  At 6400 feet, the air was cool and the sun a good two or three hours from cresting over the eastern mountains.  The church camp I had been directing for the summer had ended the week before and most everyone had gone home.  I, on the other hand, had to stay around till after Labor Day in order to take care of groups that came in on the weekends.  This gave me plenty of time to hike and enjoy myself.  Matt and Henri, two of the counselors, were with me this day.  We’d finished up the summer camp work and they’d be leaving the next morning; this was a farewell hike. Our plan was to bushwhack up drainage of the East Fork of the North Fork of the Wood River (I love the way they named streams in that part of the country).  We would hike up to a saddle southeast of Ryan Peak, a climb of some 4,000 feet, and then drop down on the other side into the drainage for the West Fork of Trail Creek.  We’d continue hiking, till we got the Trail Creek Road where we’d be met for the ride back down through Sun Valley and Ketchum, where we’d stop and have dinner before returning to the camp. The climb was tough, often at a 45 degree angle and through a thick forest of lodgepole pines with thick duff on the ground that made climbing tough.  You’d slid back part of each step.  The lodgepoles also had dead lower branches that need to be broken out of our way.  We were all in good shape.  Yet, it took us a good steady hour to break out of the thick trees and another hour to truly be above tree line.  From then on, we seemed to float.  The skies were almost blinding, bright blue, and not a cloud to be seen.  We snacked at the saddle, and then Matt and I climbed a few hundred more feet to a small summit that gave us a 360 degree view of our surroundings.  Orienting our map to make sure we had the right drainage (this was before GPS), we started down the other side. It was when we reached the tree line that we heard the cry of a lamb.  This area is heavily grazed by sheep and the sound of them bleating is not unknown.  But this was a lone animal in country in which there are cougars and bears and coyotes, all who would to have a leg of lamb dinner.  We found the pitifully looking lamb crying for its mother and tried to catch it, thinking perhaps we could take it down with us and find its herd, but we didn’t have a staff or even a rope for a lasso and our attempts were comical at best.  The animal kept out of our grasp, but kept on crying.  We left it behind and continued down the drainage.  A mile or so later, we came upon the rest of the herd, with a sheepherder on a horse.  We told him about the lamb, but this guy was in charge of thousands of animals and he didn’t seem too concerned.  “She’ll find her way back,” he said, as he brushed off our concern and took another nip from his flask. Obviously, this guy wasn’t the Good Shepherd.  Now, I won’t say that he was unconcerned.  But when you have a herd of several thousand animals, you’ve got your hands full.  As a business, you expect to lose a certain percentage of your animals to predators every year.   So you keep the 99 together and hope the one lone animal makes it back to the herd. There are a lot of things in the gospel that don’t make sense: the last being first, the meek inheriting the earth, those who weep breaking into laughter and the shepherd who leaves the 99 in search for the one that is lost. You know, we’ve heard this parable so many times; it’s hard for it to have the shock value that it carried in the first century.  When Jesus told the story, I’m sure the disciples were thinking, “Yeah right, that’s exactly what a good herder will do.”  No, that’s not what they would have thought.  Instead, they knew it was crazy for a shepherd to leave the herd in search for a solitary animal.  But Jesus wants them to know that this is the way God works.  God goes out of his way to bring back those lost from the flock. This part of Matthew’s gospel is directed at the church.  The 18th chapter of Matthew begins with the disciples asking a question about who’s most important in the kingdom.  Jesus shows them a child and says they have to become like a child if they want to see the kingdom.  Then, in the 10th verse, where we’ll begin reading, Jesus expands his thoughts, warning the disciples to take care of those seen as insignificant or marginalized within the community.   One way of understanding this is that if the church is the 99 and doing its role of taking care of one another, then the herder could be freed to go and get the lost sheep.   Of course, “If the church is taking care of each other,” is a big “IF,” which is partially why Jesus told this parable. The one lost here refers not to someone who has never heard of the gospel, but to someone who has been a believer, but like in the parable of the soil, their roots never took hold.[4]   Maybe they were never fully committed to the gospel, or maybe they were just beginning to learn about Jesus, but when they compared themselves to others around them, they felt insignificant.  Maybe they didn’t feel they had anything they could contribute to the church?  Or maybe someone said something that hurt them and cause them to break away from the fold and to go their own way.  Whatever is the reason, these “insignificant ones” are in danger of not only falling away, but of being led astray, even into destruction.   So it is important that they be reclaimed.  God doesn’t want them to remain lost; he wants them to be restored into the fellowship of the church. Jesus tells us that not only do those who are least significant have angels looking out for them, but that these angels also are there with the Father in heaven.  This shows God’s concern for these people who are on the edge.  In Jesus’ day, it was thought that only a few angels actually got to look into God’s face.[5]  This is another example of the last being first…  Those who seem insignificant in our midst may be most significant in the eyes of God.  In fact, because they have these angels looking out for them, we may be making the wrong enemies when we look down on such people.[6] “Don’t look down on even one insignificant person,” Dale Bruner writes in his commentary on this passage.  “In every believing community there is at least one person whom we feel deserves contempt.  Such people Jesus now upgrades.”[7] How might this parable apply to our life together within this community?  Are there people that we look down upon?  If so, we should examine our motives in light of Jesus’ teachings.   What can we do to show such people love?  How can we make everyone in our midst, regardless of what they bring to fellowship, feel important and significant?  And what about the lost sheep, those who have fallen away?  How might we encourage them to come back?  (By the way, some of you are doing a wonderful job of reaching out to such people.)  I encourage all of you to ask, “Is there someone missing that I could call and invite back?”  Or maybe, go a step further and visit?  Or, if you are unable to do that, maybe write a note?  Or have you made someone feel insignificant and need to do some apologizing?  If we each made one contact this week, we’d make a big difference!  And what can we do as a community?  What changes might we embrace that would make Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church more inviting, more appealing, to those outside these walls? Jesus calls us to look out for one another.  If the church is caring for one another like it’s suppose to be, then it’s safe for us to go out in search of the lost sheep and to bring them back into the fold.  Can we buy into a vision of a church that is so caring that we seek out the lost?  This isn’t something that I can do alone, nor is it something that just the Elders can tackle.  It takes all of us.  Amen.  

©2014



[3] Proverbs 29:18, Kings James Version
[4] Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23.
[5] Douglas Hare, Mathew: Interpretation Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster, 1993), 212.
[6] F. Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 12-28 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 218.
[7] Bruner, 217.

How do we change? A quote to ponder…

honduras

Mission Trip to Honduras, 2005

“Moving beyond intentions begins by changing the questions we ask of ourselves. Instead of only asking what kind of person we wish to be (generous, faithful, disciple-like…) we also need to ask the less comfortable question of what we need to change about ourselves next in order to be more like the aspired person we envision. Instead of only asking what kind of congregation we want to be (vital, growing, disciple-making, justice seeking…) we also need to ask the less comfortable question of what change we need to address next, or what we need to learn next, to be more like the aspired congregation we envision.” This quote came from an Alban Institute email and from Gil Rendle in his new book, Doing the Math of Mission: Fruits, Faithfulness and Metrics

Sermon for September 21, 2014

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church 

Matthew 20:1-16

September 21, 2014

    Our Old Testament reading this morning is often seen as the foundational text for marriage, and it is.  But there is also something else important tucked into that text.  In Genesis 2:15, we read that the man was placed in the garden to till it and to keep it.  I know this isn’t what everyone wants to hear, but we were created for work!  For those of you still working, you can give thanks tomorrow morning when the alarm rustles you out of bed that you are fulfilling part of your purpose as one of God’s creatures.  God, the Creator, made us in his image and when we work, we become co-creators.   Think about that! Today, in our text, I am looking at the parable of the workers.  We have some definite thoughts about work and fairness, which makes this parable hard for us to understand and/or accept, but let’s see what we might learn. Read Matthew 20:1-16.

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This is a haunting passage that bothers me as I’m sure it bothers many of you.  We believe we should be rewarded for our hard work. It’s instilled in us from an early age that if we do well and work hard, we’ll be rewarded.  Such beliefs provide an incentive to work; it’s the foundation of a capitalistic economy.    You work hard and you get ahead.  Think about how you would feel if you had worked hard and received the same wages as a slacker?  At the very least, we’ve be jealous; most likely, we’d be angry.  That’s what happens in this parable.  However, this is God’s economy and things are different. I hope there are reasons beyond the paycheck for why we work.  Maybe we labor because we want to make a difference in our world, whether it is tilling the garden or performing heart surgery.  Certainly, making a difference in our world is why many go into teaching, medicine, social work, ministry and other such fields.  But even in such fields, we want to be treated fairly, which makes this parable from scripture hard to accept; it runs against the grain of how we think things should be. As Americans living in the 21st Century, we have a hard time imagining the scenario Jesus creates in this parable.  It’s a scene that we’d expect to find in The Grapes of Wrath or described in a Woody Guthrie ballad.  Of course, in many parts of the world, such scenes are played out daily.  You’ve got a group of workers—maybe better described as laborers—waiting around in the market place. They have no resources; they are totally dependent on those who own the fields and who, during the harvest, need a few extra hands. When the landowner or their foreman drives up in a pickup, looking for laborers, they stand up straight and try to look strong, hoping they’ll be chosen to work and thereby have the money to feed their families… The foreman looks around and points to a few men who jump in the back of the truck and off they go to the fields. Here, in this passage, it must be at the height of harvest… The fruit ripens quickly and needs to be picked before it rots on the vines, so the landowner comes again and again into the town square, each time picking up new workers. By five o’clock, it’s only a few hours before dark (remember, Jesus lived a little closer than we do to the equator and his summer days were not as long as ours).  As the hot sun cools and becomes a large red ball sinking quickly toward the western horizon, it’s time to pay the workers. They line up; those who have only worked an hour are in the front, those who have worked the whole day are in the back. This seems odd; you think you’d pay those who began earlier first.  But that’s not the case: Jesus is telling a story and he wants to make a point. The foreman begins by paying the short-timers.  They receive a denarius, or the equivalent of a day’s labor. Seeing this, the men whose skin are red from having worked all day in the sun and whose clothes are stained from the fruit, think they’re going to make out well. “He’s paying the short-timers a day’s wage, certainly we’ll receive two or more denarius,” or so they think. When those who had worked all day, twelve hours in the sun, get to the foreman, they too are paid the same. They begin to grumble and complain. They don’t think it’s fair, and neither would we. But the landowner, the one who had hired them, addresses them as “friends,” and reminds them that they received the wages for which they’d agreed to work. By paying those hired on at the end a day’s wages, this gracious landowner ensures that all the workers and their families will have bread for dinner.  If they’d only been paid for an hour’s work in a society where food was expensive, they and their families would have gone to bed hungry.   The landowner is compassionate. This is not a parable about us in today’s workforce; it’s a parable of the kingdom. Everyone is paid the same.  With this in mind, we should acknowledge that there is a benefit in working all day in the field.  No, we’re not paid more, but we do have security and the peace of mind that, like the guys in the story, we’ll have something for dinner, that our eternity is secure.  It would be disheartening to have to wait till the 11th hour to obtain work, for you don’t get to enjoy your time waiting, instead you spend it worrying. Those who labored all day need to remember that there are worse things than hard work; having no work is one of them… In his two volume commentary on Matthew, Dale Bruner provides several suggestions to help our understanding of this parable. First of all, the parable is bookended with that little saying Jesus often repeats, “The last will be first and the first last.” It comes at the end of the 19th Chapter and again at the end of this parable. The parable demonstrates this, reminding us that Judgment Day will be a day of surprises.[1] Secondly, the parable is also Jesus’ way of responding again to Peter’s question back in 19:27 (“Lord, we’ve left all for you, what will we get?”). Although Jesus promises the disciples rewards at the end of the 19th chapter, he now emphasizes that they must not think of their sacrifices as so great that they look down on others who are also a part of the kingdom, but have not made the same kind of sacrifices. Likewise, it’s a warning to Jewish Christians who, as we know from early church history, looked down upon our ancestors, Christians who had been Gentiles. Furthermore, it is a warning for us not to look down on others who have not or cannot make the same sacrifices as we have.[2] Within God’s economy, we’re to do the work which we’ve been called, and to do it without grumbling. Finally and most importantly, “the parable teaches us the amazing grace of a Lord who lifts the lasts—the seemingly less effective, less fruitful little people and spiritual latecomers—into places of honor.” These workers are honored not because they have done enough good works, but because they have a good Lord.[3] We depend on God’s graciousness, not on our work, so whether we labor all day or receive our honor at the end like the thief on the cross,[4] we’re to be thankful for we couldn’t do it on our own! God calls us and instead of worrying about our pay, we need to be concerned with whether or not we are doing the master’s work. Nor should we hope we’d be the one hired on at the 11th hour, so we might end the day without a sore back.  Instead, we should ask ourselves this question: “Why would God even give me a chance?” We could be left in the marketplace, kicking cans and going home at the end of the day with empty pockets. In a way, we’ve all been hired on at the 11th hour…  We all owe a debt to those who’ve gone before us.  Think about that Great Cloud of Witnesses that, according to the Book of Hebrews, surrounds us and encourages us on our journey through life.[5]  There are the Hebrew children who suffered in slavery and exile, the early Christians who struggled and were persecuted as they strove to get the message out, the brave Reformers who insisted that the Bible was the sole authority within the church, the early pioneers of their faith who came here to Georgia in the early 17th Century including names like Whitefield and Wesley, and those who first moved to this island and began a church in the fire barn, which would eventually become Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church.  And then they were joined with others as they scrimped and saved and built these buildings.  We’ve been helped by others along the way and I am pretty sure those who have gone to their eternal home aren’t looking down and asking why we’re having it easy when they worked so hard…  Nor should we look down on others that are new to the kingdom, for God’s Spirit works mysteriously in all of us. Don’t waste much time worrying about what others are paid; instead, let’s be thankful for God has done for us!  Don’t worry about what others are paid; instead, throw yourself into the harvest for there is work to be done.  This week, take time to focus on what God has done for you and give our eternal landowner thanks for hiring you into the vineyard.  And, if you’ve not yet hired on, God’s calling and we’d love to have you join us as we labor in God’s field.  Just speak to me or to one of the Elders!  Finally, as we work, let’s do so with smiles on our faces, doing our best and being satisfied when the shift’s over.  Amen.  

©2014



[1] F. Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 13-28 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 317.
[2] Bruner, 317-318. Bruner has four summaries from the passage, but I combined his second and fourth together to create three.
[3] Bruner, 319.
[4] Luke 23:42-43
[5] Hebrews 12:1.

A Covenant

On Sunday, September 28, I will begin a five part sermon series that will focus on the five parts of “shared ministry” that is outlined in my covenant with the Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church.  In preparation for beginning this journey, I have posted a copy of the covenant so that people can begin consider what it means to be in a covenant with one another.

A COVENANT BETWEEN THE REVEREND DOCTOR CHARLES JEFFREY GARRISON AND THE CONGREGATION OF

THE SKIDAWAY ISLAND PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH

OF SAVANNAH, GEORGIA

  Within Scripture, a covenant is a document between two parties in which both commit to work for a mutually desired outcome.  Within Scripture, we read about God establishing covenants with Noah to save humanity from the flood and with Abraham and his descendants to establish Israel as a light to the nations.  God has established a new covenant open to all who follow and believe in Jesus Christ.  Within a covenant, each party pledges their responsibilities.  In keeping with the Biblical witness of covenants, the Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church of Savannah, Georgia, and the Rev. Dr. Charles Jeffrey Garrison, understanding ourselves to have been called into the mutual service of God, now enter into a covenant with one another.  This covenant is grounded in our shared faith in God, acknowledges our sinfulness as humans, our dependence on the grace, mercy and forgiveness of a loving God, and provides a structure for our shared ministry as we live out our faith in this place and time.   This covenant, embraced by the Rev. Dr. Garrison (Pastor) and congregation of the Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church and endorsed by the Committee on Ministry of the Savannah Presbytery, will take effect August 1, 2014 and remains in effect until the covenant is reviewed, amended or sustained as needed, after prayerful consideration and review by all parties involved in this covenant.   SHARED VISION:  Although we have different purposes, together we (the Pastor/Teaching Elder, Ruling Elders and members of the congregation) make up the body of Christ in the world, the church.  We are committed to work together to fulfill the great ends of the Church:   The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind; The maintenance of divine worship; The preservation of the truth; The promotion of social righteousness; and The exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world. (Book of Order, F-1.0304)   SHARED THEOLOGY:  We affirm our allegiance to God in Jesus Christ.  We adhere to the essential tenets of the Reformed Tradition as articulated in the Confessions of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  We understand these tenets to include: a belief in the Triune God and the incarnation of the eternal Word of God in Jesus Christ, the dependence on God’s grace through Jesus Christ as revealed in the Scriptures, the election of God’s people for salvation and service, a covenant life marked by a disciplined concern for order in the church according to the Word of God, a faithful stewardship that shuns ostentation and seeks proper use of the gifts of God’s creation, and the recognition of the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny which calls the people of God to work for the transformation of society by seeking justice and living in obedience to the Word of God.  (Book of Order, F-2.03-2.05)   SHARED MINISTRY:  As followers of Jesus Christ, we share in his ministry.  Although far from perfect, as a worshipping community, we are to be an expression of God’s kingdom and are entrusted with God’s message of reconciliation. (Book of Confessions, 9.31)  As disciples, we are all involved in ministry.  The Pastor serves as the Teaching Elder and is responsible to proclamation of God’s word through the weekly sermon, as well on other occasions such as Bible Studies and teaching within the Christian Education programs.  It is the duty of the Ruling Elders (Session) to arrange for the pulpit to be filled when the Pastor is absent and to share with the Pastor in the leading of worship.  The Pastor shall also be available to aid those who teach in the Christian Education programs of the church.  Furthermore, the Pastor will participate in New Member and Confirmation Classes and the training of Elders.  Together, the Pastor and the Session are to provide for the discipleship of the entire congregation by recruiting those who have been given such skills to teach and mentor.   The Pastor, Ruling Elders and members of the congregation all have a role in the care of those in need both within and outside of our fellowship.  Next to public worship and preaching, the pastoral care of the congregation is of primary concern for the Pastor.  He is to be with those who grieve at the time of death, and to be available for officiating at funerals.  Along with the Ruling Elders, he is to call on those who are seriously ill and homebound.  Together, they shall see to it that those who are not able to be physically present in worship have an opportunity to share in the Lord’s Supper at least twice a year.  The Pastor is to also be present at times of joy, celebrating with new parents as he informs them of the responsibilities required of them as they bring children to be baptized.  He is also to counsel with couples seeking to be married and be available, if possible, to officiate at such unions if requested and if he feels the couple is ready for such a commitment.  The Pastor shall also be available for short-term pastoral counseling for persons with personal or spiritual problems.  The Pastor and the congregation acknowledge that he is not a trained psychologist or psychiatrist and, depending of the need, may refer such individuals to a more qualified professional.   The pastoral care of the congregation is not only the responsibility of the Pastor and the Session.  All members of the body of Christ are to care for one another.  Furthermore, we are all to be committed to doing our part in the sharing of God’s good news in Jesus Christ, in word and deed, as we point to him as the source of our strength and serve others in his name.   The congregation’s ministry does not occur in a vacuum.  Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church is but a small part of Christ’s Church in the world.  As a part of the larger church, the Pastor and Ruling Elders participate in the life of the Presbytery of Savannah and the Presbyterian Church (USA).  The Pastor will faithfully serve as a presbyter within the Presbytery and, with the concurrence of Session, be open to serve in the higher bodies of the denomination (such as a commissioner to the Synod or General Assembly or as a committee member within the larger church).  Likewise, Ruling Elders are also to be open to opportunities to serve the larger church. The Pastor will also be a colleague to those serving other congregations on Skidaway Island and the surrounding areas.   SHARED LEADERSHIP:  Together, the Pastor and the Session are responsible for the vision and leadership of the Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church.  We will work together to discern God’s direction for the congregation as we strive to both share the gospel and meet the spiritual needs of the community in which we minster.  Furthermore, we pledge to seek ways to further Christ’s mission not only on Skidaway Island, but in Chatham County and to the ends of the earth.  This vision shall be shared with the congregation through the voice of the Session as well as in the sermons of the Pastor.  The Pastor, as Head of Staff, is responsible for the leadership of the church staff and to share the Session’s vision with them as they work together, each using their own gifts and responsibilities, to further the vision of the church.  This leadership includes holding regular staff meetings and, with the assistance of the Personnel Committee, conducting staff reviews.   SHARED CONCERNS:  The Congregation and the Pastor will seek to hold one another in prayer, to speak truth in love, to remember that God alone is the Lord of our conscience and, when there are disagreements, exercise mutual forbearance.  (Book of Order, F-3.0101 and F-3.0105)   The congregation and Pastor are in agreement regarding the terms of call for the Pastor, which are attached hereto as Exhibit “A” and made a part hereof and congregation declares its intention to provide the Pastor with the terms of call and to review these terms of call on an annual basis as required by the Book of Order (G-2.0804).  Such reviews will take into consideration changes in the cost of living as well any proposed merit increases.   The Congregation and Session promise to support the Pastor by providing him with four weeks vacation and two weeks study leave per year.  The scheduling of this time shall be done through the Personnel Committee.  Because ministry is demanding emotionally, the Congregation and Session encourages the Pastor to take a weekly Sabbath (a 24 hour period away from ministry) as well as another day a week off (this may be broken into parts such as a Saturday afternoon and a Sunday afternoon). Furthermore, the Pastor is to take good care of himself and spend time with his family. It is expected that he will reside on and become a part of the community on Skidaway Island.  To facilitate this, the congregation will provide him with a tennis level membership at the Landings.  The Session, through the Personnel Committee, recognizes that the Pastor is human and comes with strengths and limitations.  The Ruling Elders will encourage the Pastor to use his strengthens and, where necessary, work on his limitations.   The Pastor promises to lead with humility, to seek out God’s will for himself and the congregation, to study the scriptures, and to preach sermons from Scripture.  He will seek to be a friend to the friendless, an encourager to the downtrodden, and a colleague and mentor to Ruling Elders and the Staff.  He will thank and encourage those who support the ministry of the church, listen to advice and concerns, admit limitations and mistakes, ask forgiveness when someone has been wronged, and in all things give God the glory. Approved by the Committee of Ministry of the Savannah Presbytery on June 3, 2014 Accepted by the Congregation of the Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church on June 8, 2014 Accepted by the Pastor on June 8, 2014 

Sermon on September 14, 2014, “The Unforgiving Servant”

Jeff Garrison Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

September 14, 2014

Matthew 18:21-35

    Today, let’s consider what I think is the key to being the church in which Jesus envisioned.  Jesus gave the church something which distinguishes us from para-church ministries, civil and fraternal clubs, and special interest groups.  The church is to be a conduit for forgiveness in the world.[1]  We have the responsibility for displaying the Kingdom of God and the key to that is found in a willingness to forgive.  Perhaps the most important thing that occurs within worship is when a pastor or one of the worship leaders stands before you and pronounces that in Jesus Christ your sins are forgiven.   And, as Jesus taught throughout his ministry, not only are we to accept such forgiveness, we are to forgive one another.  As the Duke asks Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, “How shalt thou hope for mercy, rendering none?”[2] The 18th Chapter of Matthew is known for the section in it about church discipline.  But Jesus doesn’t want discipline to be the last word about the church.  He immediately follows up his teachings on the church, prompted by Peter’s questions, emphasizing the importance of forgiveness.[3]  Listen for God’s word as I read the passage about the Unforgiving Servant.  Matthew 18:21-35.

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“Lord, how many times do I have to forgive someone who has hurt me,” Peter asks.  The disciple has learned something important from Jesus: forgiveness is an essential requirement of discipleship. Perhaps Peter is trying to make himself look good by ending his query, “Is seven times enough? That is, after all, more times than was taught during that day.[4] “But, no,” Jesus says, “seven times seventy” or seventy seven times, depending on how one wants to translate it.[5] The number is not important here; the use of seven has more to do with a belief it is a divine number than with an actual amount.  There are those who will keep a list and forgive and 77 or even 490 times, and then joyfully let the offender really have it.  Such action isn’t Christ-like.  Jesus suggests our forgiveness, like God’s, should know no limit. John Calvin interpreted this passage to mean that “you never give up on anyone.”[6] This is a radical concept. It goes against our sense of fairness. It’s a slap in the face to the notion of everyone being responsible for themselves. We don’t like to forgive—we’d much prefer to assign blame and pronounce consequences. Remember the childhood saying, “cross me once, shame of you, cross me twice, shame on me.” Jesus knows his followers will have a hard time grasping what he means about forgiveness, so he tells a story… This is the way it is going to be in the kingdom of heaven. A king decides to get his books in order. He orders an audit. After the accountants and bookkeepers reconcile his accounts, he discovers one of his servants—most likely the one entrusted with managing his accounts—owes him a lot of money.  Ten thousand talents—this is not just a little bit of cash missing from the till, this guy is robbing the bank blind! In those days a talent was equivalent to the amount of money an average worker made in about fifteen years. And this guy owes ten thousand talents? That’s centuries of work. Ten thousand talents is a lot of money-in today’s market—hundreds of millions…  Trillions, Zillions!  In other words, there is no way this guy will ever repay his debt. He can’t even make the interest payment on it.  So the rich man orders that this servant and his family be sold into slavery. The debtor panics. Being sold into slavery is the worst thing that could happen. No longer will he have a cushy job managing accounts. He and the male members of his family will be forced to work in fields under the hot sun or perhaps to labor in an unsafe mine. And it’s even going to be worst for his wife and daughters; they may end up as prostitutes. Desperate, he falls to his knees and begs for his life. And the strangest thing happens. His debt is forgiven. There’s something of a comedy in all this. First of all, in the first century, there would be no way a man could have accumulated such debt. The amount would perhaps be equivalent to the entire GDP of the Roman Empire. Jesus is talking about more money than would have been in circulation at the time! There wouldn’t be a way for him to pay it back. Furthermore, if his debt is so great, he’d also take his lender to financial ruin; they’d both be sold off into slavery.  And we think the 2008, “too big to fail” scenarios were bad?  This would be catastrophic!  Jesus purposely exaggerates the numbers in this story to drive home a point.  We must understand the forgiven debt is so great—beyond comprehension in the first century—in order to demonstrate the amount of mercy God is capable of showing. There are also a few strange things about this story. Jewish law and tradition protected the man’s wife and family from slavery—so Jesus’ hearers would assume this man is a Gentile who lived outside Palestine.[7]  It would be horrifying to think of one’s family being sold into slavery, which is why Jesus tells the story this way. But knowing the debtor is a Gentile hints at the possibility of God’s graciousness being extended to all people. Matthew, writing to a mixed Jewish/Gentile population, would have wanted to include this little detail. This is, of course, a parable about the Kingdom of Heaven and the king represents God. But the parable is only partly about God and God’s compassion.  Jesus continues the story.  The kingdom is not just about what God does; we, too, have responsibilities. We, too, have a role to play.  In our story, the forgiven man—who has experienced such grace—then goes to one who owes him a small amount and demands payment. The text says 100 denarii, which when compared to a talent wasn’t much money at all, about a half-year’s wages for a worker.  Unable to pay at the time, the man begs for patience—knowing that, unlike the first debtor, he could eventually payoff his debt. But the one forgiven an impossible debt shows no compassion and has his fellow slave imprisoned. This, of course, does not happen in secrecy. Word gets out.  Other servants are distraught about what they’ve seen and tells the king. Predictably, the king goes into a tirade and has the forgiven slave brought back to him, chastises him, and orders him to be tormented until his debt is repaid. And since his debt is beyond measure, his torment is eternal. In this story, we have two visions of God—the compassionate God who forgives and the God of righteous anger who demands justice for those who cannot help themselves. On the human side, we have examples of helplessness, lack of compassion, and, with the fellow slaves who run and tell the Lord about the ungrateful servant an example of those who cry out for justice. These are the various character parts within the story? Where do we find ourselves? Do we see ourselves as the one doing the forgiving? Not likely since Jesus is talking about a debt that only God could forgive? Do we see ourselves the one’s witnessing the injustice and running and telling the Lord? Perhaps, especially if we are the type who stood up for the weak child on the playground or get incensed when we see injustices being committed. If we have a persecution complex, we might see ourselves as the second debtor, the one who owed a small amount and gets thrown in prison. But none of these characters are where Jesus wants us to find ourselves. This story is a trap. Jesus wants us to identify with the first debtor, the one who was so deep in a hole that he could never dig himself out, for we are that way with God, and we’re offered divine forgiveness. God has shown compassion upon us and we’ve been forgiven far beyond our abilities to repay. We should be joyous, and our experience of grace should transform us into a people willing to forgive others. We’re not necessarily talking about money here—the first debtor was probably a crook anyway, having stolen from his master, so he was being forgiven more than just a monetary debt. The story is also more about God’s forgiveness than the man’s debt. Experiencing forgiveness should make us more compassionate. But does it? As I said, Jesus tells this story as a trap—to show our unwillingness to forgive one another.  The story is a warning about the lack of forgiveness. Being unable or unwilling to forgive is a serious sin. We can’t, on the one hand, embrace God’s forgiveness, while being unwilling to forgive on the other. That’s why the Lord’s Prayer links God’s forgiveness with our willingness to forgive.[8] Are we good stewards of the compassion we’ve been shown? Are we willing to forgive? Do we show mercy? Are there people in our lives in whom we need to forgive?  Examine yourselves (we all fall down here sooner or later) and go to God in prayer, confessing and asking for help that we might be more compassionate.   And be willing to forgive!  Let’s put the past behind us; let us let go of grudges we hold.   If we, who make up the Body of Christ in the world, could truly be forgiving, we’d change the world for the better.   Amen.


[1] The “Confession of 1967” states:  “To be reconciled to God is to be sent into the world as his reconciling community.  Presbyterian Church USA, Book of Confessions, 9:31
[2] William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice IV.1.86,
[3] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Churchbook: Matthew 12-28 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004, 235.
[4] In Amos (see 1:3, 1:6, 1:9, 1:11, 1:13, 2:1, 2:4 and 2:6), God is shown as forgiving three times and punishing on the fourth.  The rabbis taught we should emulate God.  Bruner, 236.
[5] This is translated different ways but many translations, seeing Jesus making an allusion to the revenge sought by Lamech in Genesis 4:24 (Jesus undoes the revenge with an equal weight of forgiveness).  See Bruner, 236; Robert Gundry, Matthew: A Commentary on His Theological and Literary Art (Grand Rapids: Eerdman, 1982), 371 and Douglas Hair, Matthew: Interpretation, A Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1992), 217.
[6] Bruner, 234.
[7] Hare, 217; Gundry, 374; Bruner, 237.
[8] “For give us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”  Matthew 6:12.

Something to Ponder: Presbyterian’s Democratic Captivity

Attached is an article that a friend suggested I read.  It was published in FirstThings in March 2012.  For over twenty years, Joseph Small was the director of the Presbyterian Church’s Office of Theology and Worship.  Although Small primarily writes about the Presbyterian Church USA, in this article he examines the struggles that many denominations (from Baptist to Episcopalians) have with the changes of culture which has sidelined American Christianity in much the same way as it is sidelined in Europe.  I would be curious on your take on the article.  Is the new status (or lack of status) of the church something to bemoan or are their opportunities for us to once again reclaim what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ? Click this link:  Presbyterian’s Democratic Captivity:  Democratic Proceduralism Impedes Theological Discernment and Undermines Ecclesial Unity  

Learning to Walk in the Dark (A Book Review)

Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (New York: HarperCollins, 2014), 200 pages

The title of this book intrigued me.  I have long been a fan of Barbara Brown Taylor and have read most everything she’s published.  An Altar in the World  and When God is Silent are favorites and I have recommended and lent these two volumes to many people.  Back in the 90s, I was blessed to have been spent a week in San Francisco with a small group led by Taylor and came to admire not only her careful use of language but also her love of the natural world.  When I saw she’d written a book about darkness, I ordered it and immediately started reading, sitting aside other books that I was already reading. 
 –
Taylor describes her book as a journal instead of a “how-to” manual.  She begins with a phrase most of us who grew up in an age when kids played outside all day have heard: our mom’s calling us, saying, “Come inside now, it’s getting dark.”  From an early age, we are taught to fear the dark.  Darkness also becomes a metaphor for all that is bad, which is seen through the Jewish and Christian scriptures.  Yet, as Taylor points out, the God of the Scriptures is responsible for the darkness, too, having separated day from night.  And besides, there are many good things that happen at night in Scripture (44f). She also raises questions about our “full solar spirituality” which only focuses on the light, the pleasant, the sunny.  Such spirituality sees everything as positive and upbeat, but such theologies fail to provide support when things fall apart.   Quoting theologians and others who have written on darkness and what we might learn from such experiences, she sets off on her journey.  Along the way, she ponders the idea of restaurants where one eats in the dark.  As you are served, you are told where your food is at on your plate (93ff). She goes through a “blind exhibit” where she gets to experience what’s it like to move through the world without sight (96ff).  She crawls through a cave in West Virginia.  And she spends the night alone in a cabin in the words, experiencing night in a new way (153ff).
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By exploring darkness, Taylor has an opportunity to explore an overlooked branch of theology that expresses what God isn’t, instead of what God is.  There is an ancient root to this.  Augustine, in the 4th Century, said, “If you have understood, what you have understood is not God” (144).  She spends time with the writings of John of the Cross who believed “positive statements about God serve chiefly to fool people into believing that their half-baked images of God and their flawed ideas about how God acts are the Real Thing.”  By teaching what God is not, John attempts “to convince his readers that their images and ideas about ‘God’ are in fact obstacles between them and the Real Thing” (38).
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The lunar cycle provides the structure for the book.  She recalls the parallel between the three days separating the old (waning) moon and the new (waxing) moon to the death and resurrection of Jesus (108).   At the end of Taylor’s journey, she experiences a moonrise, a new experience for her (166ff).  I was shocked at this, perhaps because I grew up close to the ocean and have experienced many moonrises, especially in the fall of the year while surf fishing at night.  Before the moon appears, there is a light on the distant horizon, and when it rises, it appears to be much larger than it does when overhead, and its rays seem to shimmer across the water as if they were directed at you.   Taylor’s moonrise was moving enough that she decided to make a point to experience more such events.   I also found myself wishing that she had experienced a night sleeping under the stars in the desert or high in the mountains, where you wake and gauge the time by how far the stars appear to have moved across the heavenly sphere.
 –
Although the book may fail to teach us to walk in the dark, it does help us appreciate what we gain from the absence of light.  Quoting Carl Jung, we’re reminded that “one does not become more enlightened by imaging figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” (86)  There is much we might learn from the darkness and Taylor’s book is a beginning guide to help us see when the lights dim and the shadows overtake us.

Sermon on September 7, 2014

 

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Deuteronomy 1:34-45

September 7, 2014

  As we’ve indicated earlier, today is traditionally called “Rally Day” in the church.  The day signals the beginning of a new church school year.  It’s a time to rally the troops!  Rallies need a good cry, and ours for this year is “From the Beginning.”  God has been involved from the beginning and that is from where I hope comes.  It is my prayer you all will find a way to be involved in some form of Bible study.  As Christians, we’re to constantly be growing in our faith as we strive to know more about who God would want us to be. Since today is rally day, I thought I would remind you of one of the rallying cries from the Reformation, that era of when the Protestant Churches broke off from the Roman Church.  We often hear the short-cut version, “The church reformed, always reforming.”  Unfortunately, this abbreviated version implies that change—in and off itself—is good.   The full quote goes like this, “The church reformed, always to be reformed, according to the Word of God.”[1]  Change that is not led or approved by God is dangerous as we’re going to see in our text this morning. Last week we looked at the passage from the first chapter of Deuteronomy where Moses recalled how he sent spies into the Promised Land and they brought back wonderful reports of a rich and productive land.  But there were also the reports of the inhabitants of the land, giants who lived in walled cities that reached up into the heavens.  Pondering this, the people’s hearts were troubled and they rebelled against Moses and God, asking why God hated them so much that he delivered them from Egypt only to let them die at the hands of the Amorites.  This week, we’re looking at the second half of this passage, where God metes out judgment and Israel’s surprising response that leads to a hard lesson learned.    Read Deuteronomy 1:34-45

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  I’m going to show him!  I’m going to show her!  Such an attitude more often than not can get us into deep trouble.  Think about the baseball player who, after making an error on the field, comes to the plate ready to swing for the fence…  And he strikes out.  Or the girl dumped by a guy and just to show him picks up his best friend and begins a bitter relationship that’s not good for either one of them.  Or the salesman who, after a critical review, vows to show his employer and works hard but when things aren’t working out resorts to finagling figures… We are all valuable because we are created by God.  However, the desire to show someone else how valuable we are based on our skill or hard work can be dangerous and, if we’re not careful, can lead to our destruction.  Let’s look at our passage for this morning and see if we can learn from Israel’s mistakes and not have to repeat them. When word of Israel’s rebellion reaches God, he’s angry.  We don’t like to think of an angry, wrathful God, but perhaps we should.  God is holy and has high standards and Scripture has numerous examples of God getting angry.  Perhaps we can best understand this in the analogy of God as Father.  Even though we as parents become angry at our children, it doesn’t mean we don’t love them.  We have expectations for our children and when they disappoint us or don’t trust us, our anger may be kindled.  Hopefully, it’s because we care so much for them that we find ourselves angry, not because we don’t love them—even though that may be how our children interpret our anger.  Certainly Israel interpreted God’s anger in this manner. The wilderness experience was a time for the people to learn to trust God…  Because of the people’s lack of trust, God pronounces judgment upon Israel’s rebellion.  None of the people who are of age, who experienced God’s miracles in Egypt, will live in the Promised Land (except for Caleb and Joshua and their families).  All the rest will die in the desert.  Even Moses, who argued for the people to follow God, will not set foot in the Promised Land.   Sometimes the consequences of our lack of faith extend beyond the guilty.  Caleb, if you remember, was the faithful spy who argued for the people to move forward…[2]   And Joshua is the new leader of the people. The only other ones to live in the Promised Land will be those who are not yet of age, who do not yet know right from wrong, and who did not witness of understand the great miracles that happened in Egypt.   As God promises the land to the children, we are given an insight into why Israel was so concerned about going forth into battle.  Israel was afraid her children would end up being slaves, the booty of war.  Now the children will get to wander in the wilderness and learn the hard lesson from their parents’ lack of trust. Moses then tells the people they are to turn back toward the Red Sea, away from the Promised Land, where they will reside for forty years.  It’s at this point the people realize their foolishness and decide to take things into their own hands.   “We’re going to show God we can be faithful,” they think as they prepare for battle.  (If you ever find yourself thinking you’re going to show God something, you better have an attitude adjustment!)  God isn’t going with Israel into battle, as Moses warns.  Yet, after confessing their sins, they foolishly go forth, only to be defeated by the Amorites and chased away as if they were being chased by bees.  That’s not a pretty picture! Sincere confession leads to forgiveness, but there still may be consequences for our actions. Israel’s defeat doesn’t result in an orderly retreat that allows the army to regroup and fight again.  Instead, the defeat turns into panic as every man runs to save his own life. The parent/child analogy helps us to understand what happens here.  If you as a parent give an ultimatum to a child, it better be one you can keep if you want to raise the child up right and to teach the lesson you hope to teach.  So if you tell a child if they misbehavior in a certain way, they’ll be no ice cream after dinner and the child, sensing the loss, tells you he’s sorry, should you relent and let him eat ice cream?  Not if it’s a lesson the child needs to learn.  But now let’s suppose that the child, after confessing and when you’re not looking, heads to the freezer with a bowl and spoon.  This is kind of what Israel did.  What would be your response if you are the parent?  If you want to remain in control, you will have additional consequences for the wayward child.  Maybe you’ll extend the punishment.  No longer is it the loss of ice cream for the evening; now it might be no ice cream for a week, or a month (or forty years)… You see, God wants the Israelites to trust him and if he relents and lets the people go forth without leading them into battle, they will get the idea their power is in their swords and arrows, biceps and tactics…  Such ideas can be dangerous for they will begin to trust themselves and not God.  This week, as we did last week, we learn the importance of faith and trust in God.  Last week, the message was to trust God when we are moving forward.  This week, the message is to trust God and not act if we don’t feel God is with us or leading us. If God is not with us, we should be willing to step back into the wilderness and see what God wants us to do.  Our actions should be based upon the right motivations.  If we’re just doing something by ourselves, we might find ourselves greatly disappointed in the outcome.  God has a way of humiliating the proud and the one who takes things into his or her own hands.[3]  God wants us to be faithful and to trust him—that should be our motivation for all that we do. As I’ll say over and over again, when it comes to faith “It’s not about us.”  It’s about God and what God wants.  The question we should all be asking, praying about and bring to our reading of Scripture is “What is God’s will for us, today?”  Not what did God want us to do last year or in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, or even last week.  Let us be asking what is God calling us to do today and tomorrow.  We need to prayerfully seek out such answers.  As people of faith, we live with the understanding that God is good and, in the long term, wants what is best for us and for all his children.  Amen.  

 

©2014 



[1] Ecclesia reformate, semper reformada secundum verbum Dei.  This phrase is found in the opening of the Presbyterian Church’s Book of Order, F-2.02
[2] Numbers 13:30.
[3] Proverbs 3:34, 25:23; James 4:6

Book review: “Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear”

In Sunday’s sermon, I referenced this book.  This is an updated book review (I read the book and wrote the original review in 2009). Scott Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2007), 169 pages We live in a fearful world. There is the treat of terrorism. On the medical front, we fear cancer, Ebola, AIDS and other diseases. In our unstable economy, we fear unemployment and worry about losing our investments. There is always the fear of violent crime. All we have to do is to watch the evening news and we’re reminded of the danger lurking in the shadows. Will we or someone we love be the next victim? Although living fearlessly is foolishness and not a good option, Bader-Saye suggests there are theological problems created us being overly obsessed with fear. He doesn’t suggests that fear is a vice; instead, he explores how “excessive or disordered fear can tempt us to vices such as cowardice, sloth, rage and violence” (26). For Christians, living too fearfully destroys our ability to trust in God and to love others and to practice basic Christian virtues: hospitality, peacemaking and generosity (29). In his closing appendix, Bader-Saye notes that we need a better theology, not a political theory, to overcome fear. (154). Bader-Saye begins his book with a chapter exploring “fear for profit.” Quoting Al Franklen, he builds upon his idea that instead of a liberal or conservative media bias, the one we should be most concerned with is the profit bias (16-17). Fear sells and the past few decades (especially since the FCC deregulation of broadcasting in the 1980s) the demand on news shows to create a profit and to boost ratings have lead to more sensational and shocking news coverage, which often unnecessarily increases our fear. Numerous examples are citing in support of his theory. We worry about toxic residue in food when far more people die from an inadequate diet. We fear little known illnesses or operating room accidents while ignoring other more tangible things we can do to protect our health. We believe we live in a more dangerous world than in the past, but those of us in the West actually live much longer than our grandparents and great-grandparents. In the 1990s, when violent crime rates were falling, most people felt crime was out of control. Our elected leaders run campaigns of fear: “if you can’t woo voters, scare them” (19). Even the church isn’t immune to this obsession. Without naming names, Bader-Saye reminds us of how “religious groups are particularly vulnerable to the kind of demagoguery that creates and capitalizes on fear” (20). Although much of this book is devoted to fear in a macro-sense (especially in the political realm and in relationships between nation/states), Bader-Saye also notes the role fear plays in our personal lives. Perceived fear has even changed the way we parent as the emphasis shifts from “good parenting” to “safe parenting” (13). Fear also impacts our relationships. One who fears abandonment will have a hard time risking love, for if one does not love, one will never know abandonment. One who fears rejection may have a hard time trying something new. In an attempt to protect our hearts, we shield ourselves from that which we most desire (45). This book has much to say about international politics. Out of fear, preemptive strikes against an opponent are often prescribed. However, what defines the threat and the politics of preemptive strikes leads us down a road to where the only way to be safe is to eliminate all who could potentially be an enemy. This philosophy obviously has problems. Bader-Saye suggests that one way to control fear is to have faith in God’s providence, but he also notes that too often a politician invokes providence “as a divine rubber stamp for human ideologies and interest” (120). In a study of George Bush’s State of the Union Addresses in 2003 and 2004, he notes how in the first speech, Bush claimed that God’s providence was hidden, but in 2004 was willing to link the Iraq war with providence. (122). Bader-Saye also explores pacifism and just war (126f), as well as economic philosophies. I felt he came down a little hard on Adam Smith, whom he described as having the “perfect economic philosophy for the modern age-all the calories, none of the guilt” (136). He links Adam’s “invisible hand” of the market place with providence, saying that Smith’s philosophy gave us a providential excuse not to be generous (137). Reclaiming the original view of providence will help calm our fears as we trust in a good God. But providence is often misunderstood. Too many people see it “as a guaranteed protection plan [which] is to mistake both the real contingencies of life and the kind of power God chooses to use in guiding the creation to its goal” (89-90). We do a disservice to God and to others when we propagate the myth that our troubles are the result of our sinfulness and that following Jesus will take them all away. Such a belief isn’t even Biblical as both Job and Jesus point out. Bader-Saye draws heavily upon popular culture to illustrate his points. He quotes from all kinds of musicians, from Bono to Tim McGraw to Dashboard Confessionals (alternative rock). He draws upon many varieties of literature, from plays and movies. Theologically, he draws heavily from Thomas Aquinas, but also from John Calvin and Karl Barth and others. Although in discussion of the policy of ore-emptive strikes necessitated much discussion of George Bush’s policies (the book was published while he was still President), when discussing the role fear plays within the political process, he doesn’t limit himself to bashing just one political party, but made it clear that both political parties are guilty (19). He gives us a lot to think about in this short book. Each chapter concludes with a series of questions for the reader to ponder. For me, this has been an important book and has caused me to do a lot of thinking. The questions would make it a good book for a small group to study. A few quotes: On listening to the flight attendant’s instructions: “I’ve heard it many times before, but this time I could not help but hear ‘first secure your own mask’ as a kind of motto for the new ethic of safety.” (28) “I used to think that the angels in the Bible began their message with ‘Do note be afraid’ because their appearance was so frightening. But I have come to think differently. I suspect that they begin this way because the quieting of fear is required in order to hear and do what God asks of us.” (59) “Even the darkness cannot rob our lives of purpose, since ultimately our purpose is not constructed but received.” (86) “The political search for security today relies on the conventional power that comes from strength and wealth. But if we believe the biblical witness, that kind of strength is no strength at all.” (92) God draws history to its proper end not by conventional power (that is, control and domination), but by entering the fray of human history and transforming it from within. Jesus reveals to us a God who refuses to make the world out right by violently enforcing the good. To do so would be to betray the good by betraying peace. God’s ways are not the ways of the world. God is not a ‘superpower.’ God does not swoop in to rescue when things get really bad.” (93) “This is part of the intention of terrorism, to create a climate of fear that poisons ordinary human relations with suspicion.” (103) “Believing that Christians are called to be peacemakers does not necessarily mean that one must be a pacifist, but it does mean that one always begins with a presumption for peace and a very limited set of circumstances in which that presumption can be overruled by tragic and just use of force.” (118)

Sermon for August 31, 2014, “What are we afraid of?”

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Deuteronomy 1:19-33

August 31, 2014

  Fear is one of our basic instincts and we live in a fearful world.  Part of this is natural.  We fear what we don’t know.  We fear what we don’t understand.  We fear what we can’t control.  And since none of us can know or control the future, fear slips in.  As a basic instinct, fear is a powerful motivator which is why advertising executives, parents, employers, politicians and, sadly, even preachers appeal to this basic instinct.[1]  We live a fearful world, but because we have faith in Jesus Christ, we should heed our Master’s command not to worry.  We should listen to the angels who often begin their message with “fear not.”[2]  But because fear sells, we are bombarded with it.  We should ask ourselves what our fear says about our faith in Christ. Last week we began looking at the opening to the book of Deuteronomy and heard God, through Moses, tell the people of Israel it was time for them to be moving on.  They’d spent a generation in the desert, waiting.  They’d had an opportunity to seize the Promised Land once before, but the people resisted God’s call because were afraid.  Now, as they prepare to head out to claim that which God was giving them, Moses preaches a sermon in which he recalls what happened forty years earlier. Instead of putting their faith in the power of an Almighty God, the Hebrew people looked around and realized what they were doing was absurd from a human perspective. They revolted and found themselves spending four decades in the Wilderness. What were they afraid of?  And what are we afraid of?  Read Deuteronomy 1:19-33

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  What are we afraid of?  What’s holding us back from being the people God wants us to be?  What might cause us to lose traction and spend forty years—actual or metaphorical—wandering aimlessly? Recently I finished a book by Barbara Brown Taylor titled Learning to Walk in the Dark.  Darkness is often used as a metaphor for what’s bad or evil in the world, but when we deal with actual darkness, which consumes half of the created world at any one given moment of time, we realize that our fear of darkness keeps us from many good experiences.  If we fear the night, we will never see the stars or experience the magic of a lightning bug or enhance our other senses which take a backseat to sight.  Yet, as she began the book, most of us in our childhood have heard our mothers call, “Come inside now, it’s getting dark.”[3]  “What are we afraid of and how different might we be if we could foster courage to face our fears and to trust in God? I used to be envious of the disciples who got to witness first-hand Jesus’ great miracles.  Or the people of the Old Testament who experienced God’s great work.  I’d think if I was fortunate enough to experience such events, my faith would be so strong that I could move a mountain on a command.[4]  Of course, in my naiveté, I overlooked the fact that those who experienced God’s great works also struggled with faith.   Sometimes they even knew they lacked faith which is why the disciples asked Jesus to increase their faith.[5]   When I dug into the Bible story, I realized these witnesses to God’s word often took their experiences for granted.  Why would I be any different? The truth is that my idea of what faith is all about was all wrong.  I wasn’t looking for faith; I wanted assurance that things were going to work out my way.  I wanted knowledge of what was going to happen in the future, which only God knows, and that it was going to work out for my benefit.   If we study scripture, the Bible doesn’t let us hold such a position very long. The 19th Century Russian novelist Dostoyevsky captured this human weakness in a story that appears within his book, The Brothers Karamazov.   In this story, which one of the brothers wrote, Jesus returns to earth to check things out.  He comes back to Seville, Spain, during the time of the Inquisition.  It had been a long day in which many heretics had been burned at the stake.  When Jesus walks through the plaza, with the embers of the flames still warm, people rush to him.  They are blessed by his presence.  But the Inquisitor isn’t so happy about this change of events and when he sends soldiers to arrest Jesus, the crowds flee.  It’s just like the first time, all over again.  Jesus is led away and his followers disperse, hiding in fear.  Would we be any different? Faith is a gift from God; if it was not so, why would the disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith? Yet, that doesn’t mean that we don’t have a role to play.  Faith comes from hearing God’s word, from prayer and from the work of God’s Holy Spirit.[6]  It means we trusts our lives to God even when we can’t see or comprehend the future or even when the evidence to what we hope for seems contradictory.[7]  Yet, when things look dire, it seems as if it a part of our DNA make-up to forget about God, to toss our faith in the Almighty out-the-window, and to take in charge.  When we do that and find ourselves facing huge obstacles, we throw our hands up in registration.  That’s what the Hebrew people did, over and over again.  They had seen “God’s Word” first-hand, in Egypt, but they kept forgetting.  Sometimes they blamed their fear on Moses, other times they blamed it on God, but the refrain was always similar:  “Why did you bring us out here to die in battle, to starve, to thirst to death, to die of boredom from the same food?” In January 1996, the church I served in Utah was moving full steam ahead with plans of building a new church.  We had the property and in a few months would begin site preparation.  We were working with an architect and talking to a contractor.  And then something happened.  A family that had been very involved in the church (the father worked for the forest service and the mother ran our youth group) was relocated to the mountains of California.  Another family moved to Vegas.  A woman that had been the backbone of our Christian Education program needed to be closer to her mother and moved to Michigan.  Another couple (she was the church’s secretary and he was the stewardship chair) found themselves transferred to California.  In all, in the first six months of 1996, as we were busy making building preparations for building, we lost seven families.  And the congregation that January only had about a little over a 100 members!  This was a big hit.  The skeptics began to come out of hiding and questioned the vision for a new church.  But we moved forward, and although there were some tough times, God was faithful and God was glorified as others joined and filled the gaps as the building became a reality and as the church membership grew by leaps and bounds. Following Christ makes no sense to the world at large.  Yet, it is how we are called to live.  We are to trust that in the end God’s goodness is going to win out and that God is working through us to fulfill his plan (which we do not fully understand). The Heidelberg Catechism defines faith in this way (I’m paraphrasing):  Faith is the knowledge by which I accept as true God’s word and that God, through the Holy Spirit, is working in me to trust (and to share such trust with others) that through the gospel my sins are forgiven, I’m being justified and sanctified to live in everlasting righteousness, and to do Christ’s saving work in the world.[8]    It is in the fulfilling of the last part of this definition, doing Christ’s saving work, which God seems to take particular delight in making the world look foolish.[9]  Think about how the Hebrew people, a rag-tag group of refugees” were saved from sure destruction by the largest army in the world.[10]  We have the story of a young shepherd boy named David knocking out the giant.[11]  Jesus talks insistently about the last being first.[12]  Such things do not happen in the economy of the world, but in God’s economy, miracles abound and God is glorified. Our story today is a part of a sermon by Moses as the Hebrew people are preparing to one again claim their destiny.  Moses recalls what happened when Israel had just been freed from slavery by providing an abbreviated version of the story of spies being sent into the Promised Land.  In the Book of Numbers, there is a more complete telling of the story.  These two accounts mostly agree, and certainly agree on the major details.[13] The spies sent into the Promised Land returned with some good and some bad news.  The good news is that the land is wonderful; the fields produce an abundant harvest of which samples are brought back to give the Hebrew people a foretaste of what is in store.  The only problem is that those who inhabit this land are much stronger than Israel.  In Numbers, we learn the spies themselves questioned the feasibility of going forward.  Here, Moses only mentions that the Israelites began to grumble (but where did they receive their information if not from the spies?).  At first, the complaints are within their tents, but people continue to talk and there is a rebellion.  Along the way, the truth begins to be stretched. No longer is the focus on the vision of a Promised Land, but on something that doesn’t even exist: city walls stretching to the heavens and people who are stronger and taller including mystical giants.  Not wanting to take the risk, they invent stories to support their position and which clouds the vision. Do we ever do anything like this?  I wonder how many projects God has inspired in which we fail to seize the opportunity because we worry about things that aren’t even in play.  How many stories are enhanced in order to kill a good idea?  Yes, Israel was going to have a fight on her hands, but the battle isn’t against people stronger and who live in those fairytale castles that appear to reach into the heavens.  And besides, the people have God on their side, something they seemed to forget.  Therefore, they spend another forty years wandering as they learned to trust the Lord. What are we afraid of?  Why do we as individuals, as a church, as a community, even as a nation, always fear change?  Is it the fear of failure and embarrassment?  In the case of the Hebrews this would have included death on the battlefield and the enslavement of everyone else.  Yes, sometimes the consequences are great, but the alternative is that they die out in the wilderness.  Why do we fear change?  There is a comfort in the past, but sometimes change is necessary unless we are happy being slaves.  Sometimes we hold on to our bad behaviors, we take comfort where ever we can find it be it a bottle or a pill and we don’t want to give it up even though to continue with such behavior may lead to our destruction.  But No Sir, we don’t want to change.  Or maybe we fear that with change, we will lose control.  But are we really in control?  Or is it an illusion? What are we afraid of?  Is there something you feel you should be doing but are holding back?  Are their things that we at Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church should be doing but don’t because we are afraid? We shouldn’t let our fears define us.  Instead, we need to trust God and take risks as we move into the future.  What are we afraid of?  With God at our side, we shouldn’t be afraid of anything.  Amen.

©2014

 



[1] The opening chapter, “Fear for Profit” of Scott Bader-Saye’s Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear provides a good introduction to how fear affects society.  (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007).
[2] Matthew 6:25-34, Luke 2:10.
[3] Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (New York: HarperCollins, 2014), 1.
[4] Matthew 17:20
[5] Luke 17:5
[6]Second Helvetic Confession, XVI, as found in the  Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church USA, 5.113
[7] Hebrews 11:1
[8] Heidelberg Catechism, Question 21.  Book of Confessions, Presbyterian Church (USA), 4.021.
[9] 1 Corinthians 1:18
[10] Exodus 14
[11] 1 Samuel 17
[12] Matthew 19:30, 20:16; Mark 9:34, 10:31; Luke 13:30
[13] See Numbers 14 & 15.  In the Numbers account, it is God who tells Moses to send the spies out.  In the Deuteronomy account, the people ask that spies be sent.  Also, in Numbers, the spies are the ones who question Israel’s ability to conquer, where in Deuteronomy the dissent rises from the people.  In both accounts, Caleb argues for the people to go forward.

From Where I’ve Come

This is a post about a final walk through Hastings, where I served as a pastor for 10 1/2 years.  Hopefully it will provide a glimpse of my background.

The Old Presbyterian Church, now a community center.  This photo was taken in late April.  The dome to the far right is the Methodist Church.

The air is notably cooler following the earlier thunderstorm.  There is no wind and the humidity is high and the air heavy.  I walk down Green Street toward town.  In the past decade, I’ve walked down this street a thousand times.  I’ve covered this mile in the snow, in the fog, at night, in the sun and occasionally (by accident or lack of foresight) in the rain.  This will be my last walk, least as a resident of this town. Next time, I’ll be a visitor.  Wednesday morning, I’ll be on the road with my dog, heading south. – Tomorrow is the primary election in Michigan and signs clutter many yards.  Most are for Hoot or Jerry, who are squaring off for a slot as a county commissioner.  On a personal level, I like them both.  A few people weigh in for Justin Amash, our current congressman who has managed to upsetf everyone in politics, especially his fellow Republicans.  Brian Ellis is running against him and is being supported by the establishment that once seated Gerald Ford in the House of Representatives.  As I won’t be a resident in November, I’ve decided to sit out the primary election.  I’d feel bad voting for someone right before driving out-to-town for the final time.  Mixed in with the campaign signs are a few “no fracking” and a handful of real estate signs.  There are fewer of the latter than they were four or five years ago when the economy was really bad.  Fracking, a method of harvesting natural gas, is still a hot topic. – I’ve crossed Cass, Benton, and Young Streets, which I’ve been told were named for our town fathers.  I know many of the people on this street.  I pass Don’s house.  He’s a hard worker, often holding down a couple of part-time jobs in addition to his primary work at Flexfab.  Currently, he is preparing for another sale of collected antiques.  At Market, where Steve, a retired dentist lives, Green Street turns almost 35 degrees to the right and heads into town due east.  The homes here are older; some sport a detached garage with a hayloft above that remains as a reminder of a by-gone era.  In one older home, made into apartments, Sue lives with her daughter.  She’d escaped an abusive relationship in Tennessee and moved back to her home in Hastings and is now in college.  The other apartment is empty, but the woman who used to live here had a boxer that always barked when I walked by with my dog. –

Catty-cornered across the intersection with Washington is the Goodyear house, named from an early merchant family in town.  Most all houses in Hastings are known by their former tenants!  This home has a large porch with a flat roof.  When my daughter was young and they still had teenagers at home, they were a special stop on Halloween.  These kids (and a few adults) would set up as a rock band on the roof of the porch and pantomime to music blasting out of speakers, acting as if they were KISS or Motley Crew.   Halloween was always a big night on Green Street as hundreds of kids roamed around and everyone decorating their yards and handing out tons of candy.  One Halloween, a kid ahead of me darted across the street in front of a car.  Luckily, the driver was going slow and watching carefully and screeched to a stop as did my heart.  In the last few years, the police closed off the street, creating a safer environment for kids wandering around in the dark extorting candy.
A ways down on the north side of the street is Amy and Brian’s.  She’s a judge and he retired early and now runs a window cleaning business.  Then there’s Lori’s home with her Nantucket sign on a front porch, perhaps as a reminder of her hopes and dreams of where she’d like to be.  Back on the south side of the street in one of the many beautifully restored homes resides Dave, my pharmacist.  When I walk downtown early in the morning, I often see him walking into town to Bosley’s Pharmacy.  As I approach the light at Broadway, I see that the huge house on the rise to the south has a new labyrinth, laid out in stone in the yard beside the “project house” in which the owners have been working on for the past ten years.  When I moved to town, the place was falling down and looked haunted or at least like a movie set for an episode of the Adam’s Family.  Although it still isn’t fully restored, they’ve done a remarkable amount of work on it.
As I wait for the light to change, before crossing Green Street and heading north on Broadway, I scope out the landscape on last time.  The next block to the south is Central School.  My daughter started attending there at the middle of her kindergarten year.  We could have sent her to the newer school, as many parents did, but were charmed with the old school (the main building was built in the 1930s).  Her kindergarten class had a fireplace and an in-floor goldfish pond.  That was pretty neat and overall the school was a good experience for her. She had wonderful teachers and a very caring principal.  Although John has retired as principal, he’s still a good friend, and I will be ever in debt to Jean, her first grade teacher who instilled in her a desire to learn.   I’m going to miss those class field trips!   When I worked in town, I would walk up Broadway to school and my daughter would come running out into my arms to be picked up and swung around.  We’d walk back to my office, often hand-in-hand, where she’d hang around until it was time to head home.
episcopal church
Emmanuel Episcopal Church
 I turn south on Broadway, walking in front of Girrbach’s, one of two funeral homes in the town.  I’d been there many times to say goodbye to those no longer with us and to comfort friends.   At the next corner is Emmanuel Episcopal Church, a lovely brick chapel-looking church.  Across the street is the old Presbyterian Church with its slightly tipped steeple and huge white columns.  The old church building is looking nice as it is now the home of the Barry Community Resource Center, which is a wonderful use of the building that dates to the 1850s.  It houses a number of non-profit organizations and the sanctuary has been refurbished to a performing arts center.  The Presbyterians, of which I was the pastor, moved outside of town in 2010, onto a 34 acre tract of land next to the main highway heading toward Grand Rapids.  As a community center, the building continues to serve the town well and the new site has allowed the congregation to spread their wings.
The Adrounie House at Christmas
In the next block, on the left side is the Adrounie House, a wonderful Bed and Breakfast run by Don and April.  I stayed there my first visit to this town, back in 2003.   Next to the Adrounie House is a parking lot.  Once Dr. Upjohn’s house sat there, but the home is now preserved at Charlton Park.  Upjohn started his drug business in Hastings.  Local legend has it that his machine to make capsules was so loud he was ordered to remove it out of town.  He did, to Kalamazoo and they enjoyed the success of his company (now a part of Pfizer).  Across the street from the Adrounie House is the stately courthouse, built in the 1890s.  I head over at Court Street and cross the front yard of the courthouse to State Street (not to be confused with State Road which is on the other side of the river).  I walk down State Street (which most people call Main Street as it is the business district), passing the movie theater and a host of other businesses and restaurants. On the east end, there is the town hall and the library.  They were raising money to build the latter when I arrived and it opened a few years later.  To the community’s credit, all the money for the construction of the library came from the community.  Somewhere in there is a brick we purchased that has my daughter’s name engraved on it.

The Courthouse at Christmas

I walk behind the library and across the footbridge over the Thornapple River, where I pause and look around and to listen to the water.  This bridge is one of the few remaining structures of the old CK&S (Chicago, Kalamazoo and Saginaw) Railroad which never made it to Chicago or Saginaw (it ran between Kalamazoo and Woodlawn), and went defunct in 1938.  At the time, the Michigan Central railroad, whose tracks paralleled the river as it ran from Jackson to Grand Rapids, acquired the trestle and used it to access the factories on the other side of the river.  The Michigan Central pulled up tracks in the early 1980s, at which time the trestle was made into a walking bridge.

Old CK&S trestle.  This photo was taken by Vickie, a friend who paddled the river on August 14, 2014
Darkness is descending and bats dart around scooping up mosquitoes and other insects.   Yesterday, I paddled under this bridge for the last time.  At the time, the airspace above the river seemed to be dominated by Cedar Waxwings, darting around doing their part at harvesting the insects that like to feast on human blood.   The trip was bittersweet as I haven’t done much paddling of this section in the summer in recent years (I have tended to sail instead of paddle during the warmer months).  The local canoe livery has now started renting rubber tubes and the section closest to town was filled with tubers with their coolers and ubiquitous beer cans.  Cigarette smoke fouled the air and boom boxes drowned the sounds of the river and the birds.  Now it is quiet, except for the low roar where Fall Creek enters the river.  The last couple hundred yards of the creek has long been underground, as parking lots and buildings sit above it.  The huge culvert in which the creek flows into the river emits the roar as air blows through it.
 Leaving the trestle on the north side of town, I walk between buildings owned by Hastings Manufacturing, the maker of Hastings Piston Rings.   At one time they employed thousands, but today only a little over a hundred.  Many of the buildings are empty, as the company which had been locally owned for three generations went bankrupt a year or so after my arrival.  There was fear the company would cease operations, but a group of investors purchased it and it continues to chug along making high quality rings (they are an inclusive supplier to Harley Davidson).  Others of the buildings were the former home of Viking, a manufacturer of fire suppression sprinklers.  Long before I moved here, Viking moved across the river and on the west side of town.  I walk east on Mill Street, back into a residential community with houses built on a steep bank above the river, and turn left at Michigan Street, crossing the Thornapple again on the new bridge.  Below me in the water, a family of mallards preen themselves in preparation for the night.
A block ahead, behind City Hall, I stop to admire the bronze sculpture of a young girl exploring a garden.  Flowers are all around her now.  She was created by Ruth, a local artist who has lately taken hundreds of photos of me in order to paint my portrait.  Although I may leave this town, a part of me will remain.  But before she can work on the portrait, she has a couple of other statues to finish, so it won’t be ready until sometime next year.  The original will hang in the Presbyterian Church and I will receive a copy.  This will do nothing to ease my struggle with vainglory.

I stop for a beer at Vinnies Woodfired Saloon, a new restaurant and bar in town, and watch the Tigers lose to the Yankees as I admire the craftsmanship of the establishment.  The owner, a carpenter, used lots of wood and the establishment has a warm feeling about it.  Finishing my beer, I head home, taking Jefferson Street, passing the Olde Towne Tavern (known for good burgers) and the boarded up Fall Creek Restaurant. This was a favorite restaurant, but the owner, Jeff, got cancer and it closed last summer, just weeks before his death.  I miss him and his subtle humor, and his love for Santana.  His funeral ended with some musically talented friends playing Europa.  The song has a subtitle, “Earth Cries, Heaven Smiles,” which seemed to be appropriate as there were lots of tears on earth that day.  At the other end of the block is Brian’s Tire, ran by Jeff’s brother.  They have serviced my vehicles since I arrived in town and I have always felt that they were honest and fair and will miss doing business with them.  At Green Street, there is the Thomas Jefferson Hall, which used to be the Methodist Church.  The building is now owned by the County Democratic Party, which rents it out for auctions and antique sales as well as occasionally holding a meeting there.  On the next block stands the new Methodist Church, with its huge dome.  Last year they celebrated their 100th anniversary of the “new building.”  When I re-cross Broadway, I retrace my steps toward the house that will be my home for one more night.  The movers will finish up in the morning… The new First Presbyterian Church in 2010, at the time we moved into the building. ###

Sermon for August 24, 2014

Jeff Garrison Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church August 24, 2014 Deuteronomy 1:6-8

                   Summer is coming to a close, although you’d never know it by this week’s weather.  Schools have resumed and so has high school football.  We’re in the season of pep rallies.  Everyone gets excited and cheers on their teams before big games on the grid iron.  In a week or two, the collegiate season will begin and college students and alumni will gather in parking lots to celebrate and pump themselves up for the big games on Saturday afternoon.   There’s something within human nature that draws us together to cheer on “our side.”  It feels good to be with others who share similar desires and dreams.  You know what?  There are some pep rallies in Scripture and today we’ll be looking at one of them… We’re beginning this morning a tour of the opening section of the Book of Deuteronomy.  We’ll stick with this book for a few weeks, as there are some things we might learn as we come to an end of a transition.  Deuteronomy is the last book of the Jewish Torah, which consist of the first five books of our Old Testament, and provides a basis for community life.  The word Deuteronomy means “Second Law” and there are some overlap with the laws here and that which you find in other books of the Torah.  Deuteronomy and Exodus both contain an identical list of the Ten Commandments[1] and there are many other laws in this book about how the community is to live together as God’s chosen people. The Book itself consists of a group of sermons that all take place at the end of the Exodus experience, right before the Hebrew people move into the Promised Land.  The words are attributed to Moses who presides over his final prep rally before the Israelites cross over the Jordan.  Moses himself, who had led the people out of Israel, will not go into the land.[2]  Now is the time to make sure Israel is ready for what’s ahead.  As one commentator says, “There is a boundary to cross, a new phase to enter.  Deuteronomy is a book for such times of movement and change.”[3]  My reading today is a short one…  Read Deuteronomy 1:6-8.

###

  I wake up, again.  It’s 4:30 A.M., August 30th, 1987.   At the far end of the three-sided shelter in which I’m camping, Chainsaw and Offshore Steve are talking.  The last time I woke, an hour ago, the shelter’s timbers were rattling from the snores that had earned Chainsaw his name.  Dawn is still a ways away.  I sit up, staying in my sleeping bag as the air is cool, and quietly join in the conversation.  We’re excited, anticipating the day.  A bit later, I try to go back to sleep, but mostly I just roll from side to side. I begin my morning ritual a little before six, firing up my stove.  When the stove takes off, everything changes.  The roar of the flame, sounding a lot like the launch of a space shuttle, pierces the silence for the last time this summer.   I place the pot of water on it.  As I wait for it to boil, I stuff my sleeping bag and roll up my air mattress.  It only takes a few minutes to boil water, but I’ve learned not to waste time.  When the water is ready, I dump the remaining bit of my oatmeal into the old margarine tub that has served as my bowl for the summer.  Then, as I have done nearly every morning, I use my Sierra cup to dip out boiling water and mix it into the oatmeal.   Afterward, I again fill my cup and drop a tea bag into the hot water.  Breakfast is served.  As I wait for the others, I jot down a few notes in my journal and read from the Psalms in a Gideon’s pocket Bible. Then, in the early light, I head off with Steve, Chainsaw and another guy for the climb up Mount Katahdin, in North Central Maine.  It’s not a long hike compared to many of the days of hiking this summer: roughly ten miles round trip hike, but the 4000 feet climb is a killer.  Soon, I’m out in front.  It isn’t that I want to go this fast, but something draws me toward the top.  Yet, at the same time, I want to savor the day and find myself, even though not tired, taking frequent breaks.  This far north, the trees are showing the first signs of autumn.  The poplars are turning yellow.  High above me, clouds dance across the peak.  I listen to the birds and the water rushing through crystal clear streams. Walking, even with a pack, is now second nature.  I reflect back on my hikes over the past four years as I’ve covered the ground from Georgia north.  On that first trip in April 1983, we’d met a few hikers planning on walking the whole trail.  Joking one evening around a campfire, I’d penned a poem for their amusement that began, “Georgia to Maine, you must be insane.  I wondered if I am. Much of Katahdin is above tree line.  The climate and vegetation is arctic-like, but I find myself loving the openness.  The wind seems constant here and I’m mesmerized by the short grasses waving in the breeze.  The trail becomes steeper.  When I arrive at the “Gateway,” just a mile below the peak, I stop and wait.  I don’t want to summit by myself.  Offshore Steve, whose name comes from his occupation as a fisherman out of Cape Cod, is a good quarter mile behind me and I watch him climb.   We walk together to the top.  When we arrive at the rock cairn with a sign designating it as the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, we prepare a drink and take turns having our pictures taken, lifting our cups in a toast.  I find some rocks to shelter me from the wind and sit down to wait for others who are coming behind me.  In my journal, I attempt to capture my feelings.  Then I hear Amazing Grace.  I first wonder if I might be having an “audio-vision” or if someone has brought a tape-player up the mountain, but moments later, from another trail that was much easier than ours, a guy in a kilt appears, blowing into his bagpipe. “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound…” only with such grace can we accomplish anything. Katadhin photo of me      I stay on the summit for a couple of hours, leaving mid-afternoon.  A part of me doesn’t want to leave, but I know I have to.  The next day, in Millinocket, Maine, I pick up a package at the post office that includes some clean clothes.  It feels good to put on clothes that aren’t ripped, patched, and stained.  My summer is over; it’s time to get on with my life.  Although I have seen no burning bushes, the trip changes me.  It was on this hike that I decided to seek ordination as a pastor and a preacher.[4]             Mountaintops are great; the only problem is that you can’t live there!  Sooner or later, we have to come down from the heights and this includes not only literal mountaintops but also metaphorical ones.  Our bodies (and our minds) are not designed to live with so much excitement every day and if we try to constantly have that kind of rush; we’ll be like a junkie, always looking for our next fix. The Book of Deuteronomy begins at the end of the Exodus experience.  Forty years have passed since the slaves had left Egypt.  During this time, they’d been cared for by God in the wilderness and now they are being sent forth.  The opening of the book contains a speech of Moses recalling what the Hebrew people have endured in the wilderness as God shaped them into a people who will not only occupy the land, but will also serve God.  There’s a two-way covenant here.  The Lord will be their God and they will be God’s people.  That same covenant is offered to us. Let me tell you something important.  The call of God is always into the future.  God never calls us into the present; with God, we’re not to be content with the status quo.  Jesus didn’t say to Peter, “Come, follow me, but keep fishing and maybe you should buy some new nets.”  Instead, it was, “Come, follow me, I’ll teach you how to fish for people!”[5] The call from God always seems to include a new radical vision for the future.  After forty years, the Hebrew people had become comfortable in the wilderness as God took care of them, providing manna and quail and fresh spring water.  One could live relaxed in such a setting.  But we’re not necessarily called to be comfortable, to be relaxed; we’re called to be God’s people in the world and when we hide out in the desert, it’s hard to do the work God wanted his people to do.  So God calls them (and us) forth.  To show how grand his designs can be, God suggests Israel’s influence will extend far beyond what we know as the Promised Land.[6]  Even at its height of power under David and Solomon, Israel’s boundaries never fulfilled the description given here.  Perhaps this is because God’s vision is always more grand than our own, or maybe because Israel’s influence was far greater than the territory she controlled.  There’s truth in both suggestions. Like the Israelites at the mountain, we should be reminded that we don’t get a free pass!  The Hebrew people were led out of Egypt, out of bondage, for purpose.  They were to be a light to the nations[7]—a task they sometimes did better than others.  And we’ll probably be that way, sometimes being faithful and other times lagging in our faithfulness.  But God is always faithful and as God has given us much. Where do we go from here?  I have a sense that there are changes coming…  But before we rush off into change, we need to ask ourselves, “What does God want us to do?  What is our purpose?  How can we be faithful?” In our gospel reading, we learned how, when John the Baptist was in prison and awaiting execution, he sent his disciples to Jesus to ask if he was the Messiah.  Jesus didn’t send John a yes-or-no answer.  Instead, he told them to tell John what they’d seen and heard: the blind could see, the lame walked, the lepers were cleansed, the deaf could hear, the dead were raised and the poor heard Good News.[8]  Jesus’ mission during his earthly ministry was to meet the needs of those around him.  Where there are needs, the church is called to be present and to make a difference as we work for the fulfillment of God’s Kingdom. Until that day, when the Kingdom comes, we have our marching orders: to make disciples and to serve others, as Christ has served us. Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church is at a time of transition.  We’re like Israel, there beyond the Jordan.  We’re like me on the mountain, it’s time to come down and get on with life. The past is behind us; the future is waiting.  We’re to move forward and in order to do this, we need a vision.  In this passage, the Hebrew people were given a vision larger than they would achieve, but that vision moved them forward with anticipation.  This vision moved them into action.[9]  What is our vision?  That’s a question I’ve been asking people I’ve met over the past two weeks and will continue to ask as we move forward.  What is our vision?  How can we be more Christ-like, serving others and making disciples?  Think about it and share your thoughts with me.  Don’t be afraid to dream!  You know what?  When we have dreams, when we have an exciting vision, we’ll draw people to join us on our journey.  Life lived out in faith is exciting! This congregation has been blessed in the past, just as Israel was blessed, and we’re to be a blessing to others just as Israel was called to be a blessing.  Jesus said: “To whom much is given, much is expected.”[10]  What’s expected of us?  Amen.  

©2014



[1] The Ten Commandments are found in Deuteronomy 5 and Exodus 20.  Although the commandments are the same, there are minor differences given as the reason for obeying the Sabbath commandment.
[2] Deuteronomy 32:48-52.
[3] Christopher J. H. Wright, Deuteronomy: Understanding the Bible Commentary Series (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 24.
[4] Although I was in seminary at the time (this was between my first and second year), I was thinking I would work as a fundraiser for the church and not serve as a pastor.
[5] Mark 1:16-18
[6] The descriptions of the land here goes from Egypt to Iraq.
[7] Isaiah 42:6, 49:6
[8] Matthew 11:2-6.  See also Luke 7:18-23
[9] Peter C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy: The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 96.
[10] Luke 12:48

August 17, 2014, Revelation 1:4-8

Jeff Garrison Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church Revelation 1:4-8 August 17, 2014

           I am humbled and a little nervous to stand up here for first time to proclaim God’s good news to you and to this community.  I am thankful for the good work Sam did as interim pastor.  Someone told me about a sermon he gave a few months ago on there being no perfect pastors.  I’m glad he lowered the bar.  I would say that I hope to preach like Paul, but if you remember he could be longwinded and boring and once a man sitting in a window listening to him fell asleep and tumbled out of the window.[1]  I’ll try to do better and just in case, we’ll keep the windows closed. I have my faults and will begin today with some simple confessions.  From time to time it is good for me to remind of you of my imperfections.  I struggle with names and I pray that you will bear with me as I strive to learn your names.  Keep reminding me, sooner or later your name will make its way through my thick skull and be recorded in my brain.  My second confession today may seem trivial to most of you, unless you happen to be or have been and English teacher or a librarian.  Then it’s serious business.  That is, I have a tendency to jump to the back of the book when I am reading and that’s what I am going to do this morning as we begin our tour through this book of books that we love, God’s word.  The study of scripture is an incredible adventure as we learn not only about God, but also about ourselves.  Today, we’ll explore the opening section of the last book in Scripture, the Book of Revelation.  Read Revelation 1:4-8

###

 One thing you’ll learn about me is that I love trains!  I have taken five trips across our country on train, I’ve ridden trains in Canada, Korea and Japan, and once was blessed to travel (mostly by train) overland from Singapore to Europe.  There is something about being on a train and watching the landscape change.  People on trains are not as hurried as they are on airplanes.  It’s a good place to look, to read, to write and to meet new people. Trains have often been used as a metaphor for the Christian journey.  There are many gospel songs that express this.  “Life is Like a Mountain Railroad” has the refrain: “Keep your hand upon the throttle and your eye upon the rail.  Blessed Savior, thou wilt guide us till we reach the blissful shore…”  Or the Peter, Paul and Mary song, “This train is bound for glory, don’t ride nothin’ but he righteous and the holy…” I’ve often thought about how a long-haul train is similar to our Christian lives.  In the winter, trains with cars filled with produce are put together in Southern California and three or four days later that produce is being served up in restaurants and sold in the produce aisles of grocery stores in the Midwest and East.  There is no one engineer that takes that train from its source to its destination.  Instead, every eight or ten hours, a new crew takes over, so that by the time the train  has covered the three thousand or so miles, it’s had a dozen crews manning it. Christ’s Church operates in a similar way.  Pastors come and go, so do Elders, so do members.  Sometimes the tracks are smooth and the train makes good time, but other times there are curves and hills or even mudslides and washed out ballast and the going is slow.  Likewise, with the church, there are times things go well and other times we struggle.  But we’re to continue on.  When we take over the throttle, we must ask ourselves, “Are we being faithful to Jesus Christ?”  Are we doing our best to safely move the train a little further down the track, knowing that we’re a part of something so much bigger than ourselves?  We’re part of something that is eternal, as we see in our morning reading from the opening of the Revelation of Jesus Christ to John. Our passage begins with John making it clear that this letter to the seven churches is not from him but from a divine source.  The seven churches are in Asia which was a Roman providence in what’s today the country of Turkey.  John begins with the words, grace and peace, a greeting found throughout the New Testament and has been used by Christians throughout the centuries.  I used it at the beginning of our time together this morning.  It has been pointed out that the ordering is important.  Grace, which comes from God, is always first and a prerequisite for peace.[2]  Without God’s grace, we’d be lost!  Without grace, there can be no peace. John indicates three sources for this grace and peace.  First, it comes from the “Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”  This is a paraphrase of the God of the Exodus, who revealed himself to Moses as the great “I am who I am.”[3]  God is revealed as the eternal one, the one beyond our comprehension.   God is creator and present throughout history.  The second source comes from the seven spirits.  There are some debate over the meaning of this, but I think there is much merit in the ancient belief that this is a reference to the Holy Spirit.  Throughout the Book of Revelation, seven is considered the number of perfection and the seven spirits imply the Spirit’s fullness.  [4]   The third source of this greeting is from Jesus Christ. The three sources of the greetings, from the God the Father, the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ the Son provides us with a Trinitarian view of the Godhead.  It is a little strange to have the Spirit ahead of the Son (we usually think of Father, Son and Spirit[5]), but this construct allows for John to slip seamlessly into much detail about Jesus Christ, God’s revelation to us. We’re given more information about Jesus Christ. He is God’s faithful witness.  He reveals God to us and by knowing him, we can know the God the Father.[6]  We should remember that the book we know as Revelation was addressed to churches about to experience persecution.  Many Christians would die, and many more would die over the next two thousand years for their faith (and some continue to die today such as the Iraqi and Syrian Christians who have been recently executed for their faith by the fanatical ISIS militia[7]). Jesus, as “firstborn on the dead,” is a designation that encourages those about to face martyrdom, reminding them (and us) that life on earth is temporary.  We have eternity to which to look forward.  Furthermore, Jesus is the ruler of the kings of the earth.  We may live in fear of earthly kings and terrorists, but we should never forget that one day all will be called to account and just because one has the power of a king or queen and can seemingly do what he or she wants doesn’t mean that they will not be held accountable for their actions. John’s description of our Lord continues on a personal level as he reminds his readers (and us) what Jesus has done.  We’re loved, we’re freed from our sin, and we’ve been brought into a kingdom, into a family, where we’re established as priests who serve God forever.  One of our most important Protestant doctrines is the Priesthood of All Believers.[8]  As priests, all glory should flow from us to the eternal God. In verse seven, John refers to Jesus’ return.  Going back to his reminder that Jesus is “King of kings,” we are further reminded that upon his return everyone (including those who persecuted Jesus) will see Jesus which, of course, will cause many a great deal of concern and there will be wailing and weeping from those who nailed Jesus to the cross or who harmed his followers.. Revelation is written as a letter and today we’re look at the salutation section.  This section ends at verse eight, reflecting back on verse four where the section began, with a reminder that Jesus is co-eternal with the Father.[9]  “I am the Alpha and the Omega (the A and the Z, we might translate it), who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty!” We are called as followers of Jesus Christ, the eternal one.  During our tenure on his metaphorical railroad, we are to be faithful to him and him alone! Let me tell you a story.  Once I took the train out west, getting off in Las Vegas and renting a car and exploring places like Pioche, Nevada along with Bryce, Zion and the Grand Canyon.  I picked up the train one evening in Las Vegas to head back East, where I was living at the time.  It was already late and went to bed, exhausted from my travels.  In the early morning hours, around 4 AM, I notice we were not moving.  I assumed we were on a siding, waiting for a freight train to pass.  At 6, I got up and we were still stopped.  I made my way to the coffee and ran into the car attendant and asked what was going on.  He said we’d “died on the line.”  I didn’t know what he meant, but it didn’t sound good.  The term refers to the operating crew (the engineers and the conductors) exceeding their allowed hours to run the train.  When this happens, standing orders require they stop the train at the nearest siding and wait for replacements.  We were in the middle of the desert, near Black Rock, Utah.  It took them over four hours to get a new crew to the train.  By then we were so late that I missed my connection the next day, after we finally arrived in Chicago. I can assure you the faith of the passengers were running a little thin on that train.  But the car attendants did their best to make the journey pleasant and we eventually arrived at our designations.  When the dining car ran out of food, we stopped at a small town in Iowa where a van was waiting and received hundreds of boxes of KFC, which were passed around to hungry passengers.  They did what they could do to prepare us for making alternate travel arrangements and keep assuring us that we’d be taken care of once we arrived.  On top of it all, the remained incredibly calm and pleasant during what was a trying situation. We need to be like those attendants on that train, keeping a positive outlook and encouraging one another as we focus on our eyes Jesus.  We need to remember that he has all things under control.  Jesus is our reason for being here this morning.  He is the reason for this organization known as the church.  He is the eternal one, who has freed us from our sin and who draws us together.  He is the one we worship and serve.  He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.  It is my plan and my hope that in my sermons and as your pastor, his name will always be praised.  I’m looking forward to this exciting journey. Today, instead of using the Apostle’s Creed as an affirmation of faith, I’m going to draw upon another of our creeds in the Book of Confessions.   I am going to ask the first question in the Heidelberg Catechism, and I will let you answer it with words found in your bulletin which nicely summarizes this passage. Leader: What is your only comfort, in life and death? People: That I belong—body and soul, in life and death—not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of His own blood has fully paid for all my sins and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil; that He protects me so well that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that everything must fit His purpose for my salvation. Therefore, by His Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for Him.



[1] Acts 20:9
[2] Bruce M. Metzger, Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation (Nashville: Abingdon, 1993), 23.
[3] Exodus 3:14-15
[4] See Metzger, 23-24.  The idea of this being the Holy Spirit and making the source of the grace and peace from the Triune God was highlighted in one of the first commentaries on this book by Andrew of Caesarea (6th Century), Commentary on the Apocalypse, 1.4.  For alternative interpretations on the seven spirits, see Robert H. Mounce, “The Book of Revelation, revised. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 46-47.
[5] Matthew 28:19.
[6] John 14:7.
[7] http://www.christiantoday.com/article/isis.recruiting.children.to.kill.christians.shiite.muslims.video/39569.htm
[8] See “The Second Helvetic Confession,” Presbyterian Church USA, Book of Confessions, 5.154.
[9] Westminster Confession of Faith, VII.1 and The Nicene Creed

Published Writings

“Heavenly Peace: ‘Silent Night’ Turns 200” The Skinnie 16 #26 (December 21, 2018)

“Cumberland Island” The Skinnie 16 #25 (December 7, 2018)

“Keys’ to Contentment: A Visit to the Dry Tortugas” The Skinnie 16 #15 (July 20, 2018)

“The Sun Will Come Out: Easter Sunrise Services,”The Skinnie 16 #6 (March 16, 2018).

Trout Lake,” The Trackside Photographer (February 8, 2018), online magazine.

“Faith and Fortitude” with Dee Angell, The Skinnie 16, #2 (January 19, 2018).

“Listen Up: International Speakers Series Comes to Skidaway” The Skinnie 15 #26 (December 2017).

“A Visit to Carter CountryThe Skinnie 15 #23 (November 17, 2017).

“500 Years of Christian ReformationThe Skinnie 15 #20 (October 6, 2017).

A Pilgrimage to Iona” The Skinnie 15 #19 (September 22, 2017).

“Kirkin’ of the Tartans,” The Skinnie, 14, #9, (April 29, 2016).

“A Square Deal: The Sacred Harp,” The Skinnie, 13, #24, (November 27, 2015).

“Moving the Church,” Presbyterians Today, 105, #8, (November/December 2015).

“A Moravian Love Feast,” The Skinnie, 12, #26, (December 19, 2014).

“Comstock Christmas,” Nevada Magazine (Online Edition, November-December 2009)

“A Tribute to a Friend,” The Presbyterian Outlook (22 October 2007).

“Visitors and Villagers Experience Help and Hope in Honduras,The Presbyterian Outlook (20 August 2007).

“Bringing In Sheaves: The Western Revivals of the Reverend A. B. Earle, 1866-1867,”
American Baptist Quarterly XXXV, #3 (Fall 2006), 247-272.

“Writers’ Group,” The Spectrum, St. George, UT (I wrote 25 opinion columns between January 2002 and January 2004, every fourth Friday).

“What Commandments Mean Is More Important than a Slab of Granite,” The Presbyterian
Outlook, September 29, 2003.

“Santa Claus, Coca-Cola and the Strip,” Presbyterian Outlook, 181, #42 (20 December 1999).

“Bright Ideas: Stone Soup Stewardship,” Presbyterians Today, 89 #6 (October 1999).

Book Review of Winning the West for Christ: Sheldon Jackson and Presbyterianism on the
Rocky Mountain Frontier, 1869-1880 by Norman Bender. Nevada Historical Society Quarterly, 40, #2 (Summer 1997).

“Mark Twain: A Dusty Christian,” Presbyterians Today, 87, #6 (July/August 1997).

Book Review of My Life on Mountain Railroads by William Gould. Nevada Historical Society
Quarterly 39, #3 (Fall 1996).

Book Review of Religion and Society in Frontier California and California Spiritual Frontiers:
Alternative in Anglo-Protestantism.” Nevada Historical Society Quarterly 38, #4 (Winter 1995).

Of Ministers, Funerals, and Humor: Mark Twain of the Comstock,” Nevada Historical Society Quarterly 38, #3 (Fall 1995).

“Halloween: Celebrating what is Good,” The Daily Spectrum, St. George, UT, (27 October
1995).

“Encountering God along the Appalachian Trail,” Presbyterian Survey 85, #1 (January/February 1995).

“Naming the Unspeakable: The Church and Family Violence,” The Daily Spectrum, St. George, UT, (8 October 1994).

Book Review of Presbyterian Missions and Culture Interaction in the Far West, 1850-1950 by Mark Banker, Nevada Historical Society Quarterly 37, #3 (Fall 1994).

David Henry Palmer: A Pastoral Baptism in the Mining West,” American Presbyterians:
Journal of Presbyterian History 72, #3 (Fall 1994)

“How the Devil Temps Us to Go Aside from Christ: First Presbyterian Church, Virginia City,
Nevada: 1862-1867,” Nevada Historical Society Quarterly 36, #1 (Spring 1993).