Tossing dice

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

 Acts 1:12-26

May 17, 2015

 

Before I get into my sermon today, I want us to do something.  I would like everyone who has plans to travel this summer to stand up.  I know many of you are heading to cooler climates, some like the Gandelots have already left.  But if you plan to head up north for a few months or just be on the road for a day or two this summer, please stand and let me offer a prayer for traveling mercies:

Lord Jesus, you and your disciples were constantly traveling around Galilee, the surrounding providences and to Jerusalem.  Today, thanks to technology, we can travel great distances easily and sometimes we assume we have everything under control and then a tire goes flat or our luggage is lost or we come down with an illness.  O God, we pray for your mercies to be upon those who are traveling and who are away this summer.  While in transient and at other locations, help us to see your presence in the wonders of your creation.  When we face roadblocks, give us patience.  When we encounter difficulties, guide us through the troubles with your Holy Spirit.  And when it is time for us to return home, give us safe travels and a joyful reunion.  This we pray in your name.  Amen.

 

The Acts of the Apostles, which we’ll be working through for the next several months, is a book about an incredible journey of the gospel going out to the ends of the world.  But in our reading today, we have lull before the furry of travels by the Apostles as they wait for the Holy Spirit.  Read Acts 1:12-26.

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My mother would probably never forgive me for saying this (so we’ll keep it between you and me), but her great virtue had a flipside vice.  Her virtue was that she always thinking about how others felt and one of the greatest sins in her eyes was to say or do something that was hurtful to another person.  From my mom, I learned empathy firsthand and it’s a wonderful gift.  On the other hand, not only did she worry about other people’s feelings, she spent too much time worrying about what people thought of her and tried to instill this concern in her children. This brings me to a game night at the church of my childhood…

I was probably 13 or maybe 14 and we’d had a potluck dinner at church.  Afterwards there was a friendly game of charades.  Someone was acting out something, and our goal was to guess what they were doing.  He or she (I don’t remember who) bent over and pretended to throw something on the floor.  My brother, who is a year younger than me but obviously, at this young age, more worldly, shouted out “playing craps.”  It wasn’t the right answer, but everyone laughed except for my mom.  I laughed although I had no idea of what crabs, or shooting dice, meant.  The answer, I believe, was marbles.

On the drive home (my father must not have been with us that evening), mom lectured us about her embarrassment.  “Everyone is going to think we’re a household of gamblers,” she said.  I can assure you, we weren’t.  Had I been a bit more sophisticated in my Bible knowledge at that time, I might have pulled out this passage in defense of my brother.   “See mom, throwing dice is in the Good Book.”  I doubt that would have helped any more than throwing kerosene on a fire.

This week, in our passage, we are waiting.  Jesus has ascended into the heavens and the promised Spirit has yet to descend upon the disciples to give them the power to take the gospel to the ends of the known world within a generation.   If you look at the beginning of our reading, you’ll see that the disciples have returned to the Jerusalem, to the “Upper Room.”  Perhaps this was the place where they had enjoyed the Passover with Jesus or maybe the room in which they gathered when they heard the rumors that Jesus was alive and then were surprised with his presence amongst them.

In that room, they all bunk together.  Luke uses the same list of disciples here as he did in the fifth chapter of his gospel, with the exception of omitting Judas the betrayer and shuffling the names, moving Peter to the forefront, perhaps indicating the prominent role he’ll play in the early church.[1]   Also in the group, we’re told that there was Mary, the mother of Jesus, and other women followers. Also in the group were Jesus’ brothers.  That Upper Room must have either been large or it was crowded.  We’re told they devoted themselves to prayer.  We’re not told what they were praying, but I has suspicion that one of their petitions had to do with upgraded accommodations.

Next, we’re told that Peter addresses all the believers (there were 120 of them).  He reinterprets what Judas did in light of scripture.  Instead of him ranting on about what kind of lowlife would betray a friend, as Judas had done and so had Peter, Peter points to the positive side, saying that what Judas did fulfilled scripture.  It doesn’t get Judas off the hook for his actions, but it does show how God can take the misdeeds of a wayward humanity and bring about good.  Peter is providing this insight as a way to encourage them to make a decision on someone to replace Judas.  The need for 12 apostles appear also to be a human need to fulfill the kingdom. Twelve is a significant number going back to the tribes of Israel, the number of disciples chosen by Jesus, and then moving forward to the various uses of the number in Revelation: the twelve candlesticks, the twelve elders and so on…

Before Luke gets to the decision about a replacement for Judas, he tells us what happened to the disciple they’re replacing.  All the Gospel speak of Judas as a betrayer, but only Matthew and Luke (here in Acts) tells us what happened to him after Jesus’ death.  Both speak of his death (in Matthew, he hangs himself and Luke tells us he fell down and busted open).  Both accounts speak of the property purchased with his silver payment (the property known as the Field of Blood).  As with his death, there are some differences in how the field came into Judas’ possession, but they both have the same name of the place.  Matthew tells us it was a place used to bury foreigners and Luke doesn’t contradict this by saying it became a desolate place and there was nothing living there.[2]   As for reconciling the differences, I’m not sure it is possible or necessary, but at the risk of being too gory, one ancient theologian attempting to reconcile these stories by suggesting that the rope cut through Judas’ neck and he fell to the ground and busted open.[3]

After a description of Judas’ demise, Peter continues on with the need for another apostle.  He sets out criteria:  they must have been around since the time John was baptizing and they must be a witness of Jesus’ resurrection.  There are two names who meet the criteria: Joseph, called Barsabbas, who is also known as Justin.  This guy must have been in a witness protection program or invading the IRS to have been known by so many aliases.  The other is Matthias, of whom we know nothing.  They pray, then they casts lots, and Matthias is chosen.

Now, before we begin to worry about the wisdom of selecting church leaders in this manner, which I would not suggest, we should remember two things.  The candidates had to meet the criteria for office and the disciples prayed and although it appears the choice was left to chance, they had put the choice into God’s hands.  Interestingly, however, we never from either of the two candidates again, but then the same can be said for most of the disciples.  We’ll just hear about a few of the Apostles in the next dozen chapters, after which God raises up another Apostle, “Paul.”  Paul will take center stage for the last half of the book.

What we can take from this passage and use in our lives to help us to be better disciples.  Certainly, according to Peter’s criteria, the days of the Apostles were over upon the deaths of those who had been with Jesus from baptism to resurrection.  But that’s okay because the promised Spirit will take over in the next chapter and lead the church forward.  We could deal with the gory parts of the passage and suggest that if we come across ill-gotten gain, we should use it to meet a need that wouldn’t benefit us directly, such as providing a burial location for foreigners…  But that, too, is kind of stretching it.  So let me suggest this…

How do we make a decision when we have two equally viable choices before us?  From what we’re told, Matthias and What’s-his-names were both equally qualified.  There are times when we have two good options and we have to decide between them.  It might be going to college and we have two good schools with nearly equal scholarship offers on the table.  It might between two possible spouses.  It might be between two jobs or two locations or you’re moving to a new location and you got to pick out between two similar houses live in or two worshipping communities to join.  Too often we have this idea that matches are made in heaven, that there is only one right answer, and that we have be super diligent and spiritual in order to make the right decision.  Sadly, such emphasis on the right decision leaves us feeling that other options would be a failure and we’d be somehow eternally doomed.  It’s as if we’re a rat in a maze and there is only one combination of turns that will lead us to the cheese.  But that’s not the way God works.

Where we have two equally qualified choices before us and when we have prayed over the decision, when we have gone to God for direction and realize that both options are equally viable, we should accept that regardless of which decision we make, God will be with us and working through us.  Instead of focusing on “getting it just right,” we need to step back and accept that regardless of what we do, God is in charge and if God allows us the freedom to decide for ourselves, we should be thankful (and give thanks) and move forward trusting that we will continue to be blessed as we live into God’s future.  And when we take a wrong turn, we ask forgiveness and move toward the right path.

The early church was known as “The Way.” We are on a journey (we are on The Way) and there will be many possibilities ahead in our personal lives as well as in our corporate lives.  “It’s not so much what you do,” said the Greek philosopher Epictetus when speaking on happiness.  “It’s how you do it.”[4]  Likewise, as disciples of Jesus, it might not be the path we take that’s important, but how we travel that path.  Ask yourselves, do you glorify God in your journeys?  Do you travel reflecting Jesus’ face?  Amen.

 

©2015

[1] Cf, Luke 6:14-16

[2] See Matthew 27:3-10.

[3] Bede, Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles 1.18b, as quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Acts (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2006), 16-17.

[4] Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred (New York, MJF Books, 1998), 92.

Acts: The Start of a Grand Adventure

mother's day

My Mother and Father, 1959

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

May 10, 2015

Acts 1:1-11

 

We’re setting off on a new tack this morning, as we work our way through the book of Acts.  The official title given to this book is The Acts of the Apostles, but it’s really about the acts of God through the Apostles.  Today, on the Sunday before Accession Day, the day in the church’s calendar in which we recall Jesus’ leaving the disciples behind, we’re looking at the opening of this book.  Unfortunately, the way Scripture is laid out, you miss the natural connection with the Gospel of Luke and Acts.  Both are written by Luke, addressed to same person, Theophilius (a name that literally means lover or beloved of God).  In the Gospel of Luke, we have the story of Jesus and in the book of Acts, we have the story of the church.  As we’re going to see, its one grand adventure, which is what church should be, a grand adventure directed by God.[1]  Let me tell you a story…

In early January, before school resumed for the winter term of my senior year in college, my brother and I drove my parents and my younger brother to the airport.  It took both of our cars for they each had two large suitcases and two carry-on.  Airlines were more lenient in those days and besides, they were moving to Japan and the rest of their stuff, which was traveling by ship, would take two or three months to arrive.

It was a morning of mixed emotions and because we were there much earlier than we needed to be, there was plenty of time for expressing such feelings.   Mom, especially, wasn’t quite sure what they were getting themselves into and was reluctant to go.  This might have been the hardest thing she ever did, leaving us behind.  My father and younger brother (who had just turned 12), were excited about the grand adventure upon which they were embarking.  After an hour of nervous goodbyes, the three of them walked out and boarded a Piedmont Airlines plane for the first leg of their journey.  My brother and I waited until the plane was in the air and then returned home, a little sad as our world was changing, but we got over it as we prepared for our next semester in college.

When we think of people heading off on a journey and the mixed emotions of excitement and sadness that goes with the departure, it is the one who is departing whom we expect will have the grand adventure.  And that was true for my parents, but not completely, for the four years they were in Japan, my brother and had many of our own adventures.  My mother was sad about leaving and afterwards would even say that she still had regrets because when she returned from Japan we were done with college and spread out geographically.  Things would never be the same… They never are. It would have been that way regardless of had they stayed home or moved overseas.  Sadly, she no longer remembers her adventures and is unable to talk on the phone.   So for her, I’ll wish all you moms (and those who have or have had mothers, a Happy Mother’s Day.

Now let’s go back in time, to learn about another group of folks sending off their best friend, the Lord Jesus.  Read Acts 1:1-11

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One of the most interesting southern revivalists during the 19th century was Sam Jones.  He’s from Cartersville, up in the hills of northeast Georgia.  “Golden Rule” Jones, as he was also called, was known for his humor.  One unique aspect of Jones’ revivals was “quittin’ meetings.”  The new converts would publicly confess their vices: cussing, drinking (Jones was a teetotaler), smoking, gossiping, running around, and so forth.  Once they confessed, they promised to quit. This was a 100 years before the “just say no” campaigns and I’m not sure they had any better track record back then than today, but that’s not my point.

At one of these meetings, “Golden Rule” Jones asked a convert what she planned to quit.  “I ain’t been doing nothing,” she said, “and I’m going to quit doing that too.”[2]   I expect there are many people in her category. She’s right, you know.  Disciples are created to “do.”  We’ve been created for mission and that’s what the books of Acts is about.  At his ascension, Jesus commissions the disciples with a task and all disciples that come later are given that same task.  We’re not here to worry about when the kingdom is going to be fulfilled or anything else, where here to be Jesus’ witnesses!  As I’ve said, we’re created for mission!

          Now, this doesn’t mean that we’re all going to be sent to the Sudan or to China or onto the foreign mission field.  Yes, there are those who are called to such places and one of the ways we fulfill our calling is to help support them.  But even those of us who never have such an opportunity to serve in an exotic place are called to do mission wherever we find ourselves.  You see, our mission is to be sent to and love those who do not know Jesus Christ.  This involves telling people about Jesus and caring for them.  We don’t have to go very far to find people in need of hearing a message of hope.  The mission field begins at our doorstep.

I’ve heard it said “the Christian faith is more about doing than about being.”  Doing is in a large part being a Christian.  Of course, our salvation does not depend upon our doing.  If it did, that would mean we would have to earn it and we’d all be in a heap of trouble.  It’s kind of hard for us mere mortals to impress God with our capabilities!

Our salvation is secured by Jesus and what he did for us.  Instead of working to achieve righteousness, we are righteousness because of him.  We do good because God, through Jesus Christ, has already done more than enough for us.  Out of gratitude and thanksgiving, we give back a portion of our blessings and this doesn’t just mean giving money when we pass the plates.  That’s important, but a disciple must also give hope to those who do not know Christ: that’s our mission!

In 1988, Nike came out with has become one of the most recognized corporate slogan in the world during a very successful marketing campaigns.  Do you remember the slogan that went with their swish logo?  It was….  “JUST DO IT!”   There are a number of books written about this slogan.  People have even credited it for helping them break addictions, encouraging them to move out of abusive relationships, to start businesses and, of course, to buy sneakers.[3]

JUST DO IT!  This brings us back to the disciples in our scripture reading who are just standing there looking up into the sky.  In a cloud, Jesus departs.  He’s no longer there to be seen, yet the disciples still gaze into the heavens.  Then, two men in white robes appear; we’re reminded of the men in dazzling clothes who met the women at Jesus’ empty tomb.[4]  Were they angels?  The text doesn’t really say.  But they bring a heavenly message, asking, “What are you doing looking up into the heavens?”  Of course, they know good and well what the disciples are doing.  Jesus has gone away and they are so stunned they keep looking for him.  This question, “what are you looking up there?” is a humorous reminder that the disciples have work to do as soon as they receive the Spirit.  Jesus left them with a big mission.  They need to get ready, yet they just stand and look into the sky…

Someday I feel like that.  I want to just lie on my back and look up at the sky.  But since I’m not an astronomer nor an air traffic controller, I don’t often have that luxury.

Next, the two men tell the disciples that Jesus, who was taken up in the clouds, will come again in the same way as they saw him go up…  If I had the power to rewrite scripture, I might leave this last thought out.  Unfortunately, too many people get hung up on the idea that Jesus will come again in the sky and miss the meaning of this encounter with these two men.  That first rhetorical question, “what are you looking at?” is a reminder that Jesus left them with a job to do and right before he left Jesus told them not to worry about when he’s to return.  Instead, until he does return, we’re to be his witnesses.  The disciples were to start where they were at, in Jerusalem, then moving into the seedy neighborhoods of Samaria and then on to the ends of the world.  What are you looking at could be interpreted as “Didn’t you understand what Jesus told you?  Get to it, JUST DO IT!”

Now let’s consider this: If our belief in Jesus Christ doesn’t lead us to act, aren’t we really just looking up in the sky?  Perhaps we need to incorporate Nike’s slogan into our lives…. JUST DO IT.  Of course, by itself the slogan is “empty and narcissistic,”[5] morally indifferent and hollow.  “Hearing these words, we are given no distinction between feeding the hungry and having an affair; between teaching Sunday school and robbing a bank.  But we know better because we’ve been created for more, we’ve been created for mission!

Tony Campolo tells about being a college professor and having students asking him to help them identify what God’s want them to do with their lives. He said that he can’t answer that question, but that there is a more important question: “What is Jesus calling us to do today?”  “This is the day the Lord has made.  What does God want me to do?  What does God want me to achieve today?”[6]

When those two men remind the disciples they have a job to do, the disciples don’t need to ask for directions.  They had been with Jesus for three years.  They had heard our Savior’s commandments: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.[7]  They had learned from our Savior’s parables: “O Lord, when we did we see you hungry and offer food, thirsty and offer drink?” Jesus answered, “When you did it to the least of these…”[8]  And they had seen our Savior teach by example:  Going to Lazarus when it wasn’t safe for him to go near Jerusalem, talking to the Samaritan woman at the well, forgiving the woman caught in adultery, and calling the children to come to him.[9]

JUST DO IT, we’re told… but what are we to do?  Just reach out to someone hurting, just challenge a hateful comment, just confront destruction, just offer a word of encouragement, just share the gospel with someone seeking, just give out a cup of cold water, just seek to live more like Jesus.  Just do it!  Amen.

 

©2015

[1] Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Acts, (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 66.

[2] Doug Adams, Humor in the American Pulpit from George Whitfield to Henry Ward Beecher (Austin, TX: The Sharing Company, 1975), 71.  Story of the “quittin meetings” from Leonard Sweet in Soul Cafe (April 1995).  See also Kathleen Minnix, Laughter in the Amen Corner: The Life of Evangelist Sam Jones (Athens, GA: Univ of GA Press, 1993).

[3] Sweet, Soul Cafe.  Donald Katz, Just Do It (New York: Random House, 1994).

[4] Luke 24:4

[5]Sweet, Soul Cafe, 2.

[6] Tony Compoloo, “Becoming What God Intended You to Be,” Thirty Good Minutes, Program 4715 (January 25, 2004).  See www.30goodminutes.org

[7] Matthew 22:37-39, Mark 12:30-31, Luke 10:27-2

[8] Matthew 25:45

[9] John 11ff, John 4:4ff, John 8:3ff, Matthew 19:14

Worship: The Sacraments

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church 

First Corinthians 11:17-34

May 3, 2015

 

This week, as we continue to look at how worship helps us reflect Jesus’ face to the world, we’re considering the sacraments and specifically, communion.  As Protestants, we have two sacraments: baptism and communion also known as the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper.   The sacraments are holy ordinances, instituted by Christ which are outward and visible signs of what Christ has done for us, internally and spiritually.[1] Before Christ, the Jewish people had two such sacraments or rites: circumcision and the Passover.[2]  One is the initiation into the community, the other is an on-going reminder of what God has done.  Baptism and communion form the same functions.

The sacraments, taken together with the Word, read and proclaimed, are the two main ways in which we experience God in worship.  We speak of the word and the sacrament.  Both are important.

You see this in our sanctuary with the pulpit representing the Word, the table reminding us of communion and the font as a reminder of baptism.  In baptism, we signify our being adopted into the Christian family, at the table we are nourished by Christ and reminded that we are a part of his family in which he is at the head.  And at the pulpit, we learn about God’s Word.  We come to learn and experience Christ so that we might take his word out into the world and live accordingly.   We come and experience and then go out to reflect Christ’s face to the world.

Today’s sermon is from First Corinthians, where Paul chides those in Corinth for their manners at the Lord’s Table.  Read 1 Corinthians 11:17-34

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I have this vision of a communion service in first century Corinth.  Everyone brings their own food as they gathered on the day of resurrection, the first day of the week.  After singing a few hymns and listening to a sermon or maybe reading a letter from Paul or Apollos or another teacher, they share in the Lord’s Supper.  But unlike our Communion Service, they had a regular meal consisting of all the major food groups and more liquid refreshments than necessary.  And everyone brings their own food and they gather around picnic baskets in various parts of the hall.

Over in corner to our right are the Smuckers.  The pastor joins them, feeling feels privileged to have been invited!  The Smuckers live in the big house, up on the hill, overlooking the Aeagan Sea, where they observe a wonderful sunrise every morning and in the afternoon, when the sun is hot, are treated to nice off-shore breezes.  They subscribe to Bon Appetite and other magazines of fine dining and have come well-prepared for the communion meal.  Lamb chops: after first marinating them in wine, olive oil, rosemary and garlic, a servant has grilled them to perfection.  In their basket are bowls of German potato salad, fresh bread, Asparagus slathered with butter.  And their wine isn’t that cheap Greek junk; it’s imported from the south of Gaul (a land we know as France).  They’ve come with a fancy table cloth, use linen napkins and crystal goblets and set up a layout that looks like a picture from the magazine.  And I almost forgot: they’ve got dessert waiting…  Pecan pie (with Georgia pecans!  It doesn’t quite go with the lamp chops and fine wine, but it tastes so good.  Besides who’s watching calories?  Rumor has it that the communion meal is free from such worries.

Over on the left hand side of the hall is an average family, the Garrisons.  They live in a modest house and are eating hot dogs today.  Since this is a special occasion, they’re not just any old dog; these are thick and juicy Ball Park Franks, served up on a steamed bum and with sauerkraut and fancy mustard.  After all, this ain’t no ordinary lunch.  This is the Lord’s Supper.  For drinks, there’s a pitcher of iced tea and a couple of bottles of Sweetwater IPA.  A bag of chips, a jar of pickles, and a tin of brownies complete their meal.

Now, in the back of the hall are the poor members of the congregation.  They all live down in the market district, where the smell of fish penetrates everything including their clothes.  Their homes aren’t much, generally just a shack.  And they don’t have much to eat.  Someone brought a bit of bread the Smuckers had given to the food pantry a few days earlier. They scrape off the mold before they divide it up.  Someone else has brought fish, yesterday’s catch that didn’t sell in the market.  For greens, there is a dandelion salad garnished with raw leeks they’ve dug up in the hills.  The leeks help cover up the smell of fish.  For a drink, there are a few Mason jars of lukewarm water.

These people don’t feel like they belong, but they’ve heard stories about Jesus and his love of all people, including the poor and the sinner. They believe in Jesus; he gives them hope! But they can’t help but feel that others in church are looking down on them…

Now, I’m not sure if this was exactly how communion was celebrated.  It’s my take based on my interpretation of Paul’s letter.  Another commentator suggests they served a common meal, but because they started early in the evening, before the poor got off work, those whose lives were more leisurely ate all the food while those who labored for others for a living got the crumbs at the end and went home hungry.[3]  Either way, however the Lord’s Supper was celebrated in Corinth, when word reached Paul, he was incensed.  This is a meal that is to bring believers together, not to separate us.

If you’ve read First Corinthians, you’ll know Paul has a temper.  In this letter, we see him upset with the Corinthians for tolerating horrific sins and for disorderly worship.  Paul’s reaction here isn’t anything new.  He’s not going to tolerate the Corinthians making a mockery out of the Lord’s Supper.

Paul places the most important point in the middle of his argument: the Institution of the Lord’s Supper.[4]  This section starts with Paul’s criticism of the Corinthians: some eat their fill while others go hungry… some leave thirsty while other stagger home drunk.  Then, after reciting the words of institution, Paul reminds the Corinthians of the seriousness of the meal and the responsibility required of those who partake of communion, warning them that to take communion recklessly could be dangerous to their health.

It appears as if Paul has dual ideas for the use of the word “body.”  The primary use of this word in communion reminds us of its Christological meaning.  The bread is the body of Christ which reminds us that Christ offered up his body as atonement for our sin.  Therefore, this meal is not something to be taken lightly as it reminds us of our only hope in life and death.  So we come to the table seriously contemplating to whom we belong.

But for Paul, the term body also applies to the church (the body of Christ).  In the next chapter, Paul goes into more detail about this aspect of the body, but in the communion service, the reference to the body can also be relational.  After all, Jesus took the bread, which he linked to his body and shared it with the disciples.  Kenneth Bailey in his work on First Corinthians recalls a traditional Middle Eastern custom used to express friendship, where the host would take bread and dip it and give it to his guest saying “Eat this for my sake.”[5]  See the parallel?

Today, Christians around the world eat at this table.  Not only are we to be fortified by “Christ’s body broken for us,” we’re also to be united in Christ’s body in the world.  Therefore, as Paul points out, this celebration is too important to mock it as some had done in Corinth.  Instead, this table is a sign of unity of all who follow Christ.

We could blame the Corinthians for causing communion to change from a joyous feast to the ritualized sharing of crumbs and thimble-sized glasses of juice or wine.   Alasdair Heron, a Scottish theologian who wrote a major work on the Lord’s Supper noted that Paul’s treatment of the abuses at Corinth lead to the separation that became well-established by the 2nd Century, between agape or fellowship meals (like what we had on Christmas Eve) and the more symbolic celebration of the Lord’s Supper.[6]  Both meals, I think, are important.  When we break bread together, we come together to share not only our food but also our presence.  We are a part of the body of Christ, and we can’t be cut off from one another unless we want to be cut off from the body that gives us life.[7]

When we come to this table, we come as equals and we come needy.  What is provided here in our midst can’t be supplied from our pantries at home.  We come because Jesus calls us and he feeds us.  Without him, we would be nothing.  With him, we have life, life eternal.   So examine yourselves, confess your sin and failings to God (for he already knows them) and then come and celebrate with an open heart.  And afterwards, having been spiritually fed by our Lord, go out in his name to feed others whether it be with food or by your time or with your encouragement.  Leave here asking yourselves how you might reflect Jesus’ face to the world during the upcoming week.  Amen.

 

©2015

[1] Presbyterian Church, USA, “Westminster Larger Catechism”, Book of Confession, 7.272-273, Questions 162, 163.

[2] Presbyterian Church, USA, “The Scots Confession,” Book of Confession, 3.21, Chapter XX1

[3] Kenneth E. Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians (Downers Grove, IL: IVP 2011), 318-319, 322.

[4] Paul, throughout Corinthians, uses this rhetorical method of sandwiching his more important point in the middle of his argument.  See Bailey, 316.

[5] Bailey 320.

[6] Alasdair I. C. Heron, Table and Tradition: Toward an Ecumenical Understanding of the Eucharist (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983), 39-40.

[7] John 15:5.

Worship: Learning to Give God Credit

 

April 26, 2015

Psalm 34:1-14

 

In a documentary titled Mother Teresa, a priest who had known her since she was young noted this misconception about Teresa.  Most people think she went to Calcutta and was so moved by the conditions of the poor that she had to do something.  The priest then says “that was not it!”  Instead, “she knew the love of Jesus and it was specifically because of that love that she responded.”  As another writer says of Teresa, “Worship changed her.”[1]  Because she knew what God had done for her in Jesus Christ, she felt called to show mercy to others.

Last week, I talked about us coming into the presence of God in worship and how we should respond in praise, confession and a willingness to hear and do God’s work.  Today, I want us to look a little deeper into how the worship of an Almighty God changes us.  When we come into God’s presence and learn from God’s story, our world and worldview changes.  No longer should we be concern with “the self.”  Now our vision is godly; we’re to look at the world through God’s eyes and respond in a manner that furthers God’s kingdom and that will bring God all glory.  Today’s passage comes from Psalm 34.

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According to the subscript, David wrote this Psalm before becoming king.  Saul is king of Israel and he’s after David.  In his flight, David is captured by the Philistines, Israel’s age-old enemies.  David is then taken to the King of Gath.  Fearful of what might happen, David acts as if he’s crazy by clawing at the doors and letting spit run down his beard.  The king, seeing David in such a condition, chastises his servants.  “Do you not see this man is mad?” he asks.  “Why did you bring him to me?”  The king of Gath must have had a sense of humor for he then asks, “Do I lack for madmen?”  David’s trickery is successful.  He is released.  If you’re interested in the story, you can find it in 1st Samuel, chapter 21.[2]

This is a Psalm of Thanksgiving to God for having delivered David from trouble.  But it doesn’t just apply to David.  In fact, any of us who have felt God’s salvation might pray this Psalm as a way to give thanks for what we’ve experienced.

Let’s think of the Psalm in the context that it’s set in Scripture.  David is fleeing Saul but he’s not exactly in the presence of friends.  He’s got to come up with a plan to get away for he represents a threat not just to Saul but to other kings around Israel.   And he comes up with a “crazy” idea.  He’ll act insane.

You know, David could have claimed responsibility for his deliverance.  Why didn’t he?  After all, he was the one who thought up the stunt.  If God had been the deliverer, why wasn’t there bolts of lightning or flames of fire?  To have someone act crazy seems a little wimpy for God.  In fact, if you go back to the 1st Samuel account, you won’t find God being mentioned as intervening in this situation.  Instead, this passage was probably a folk story that gave ancient Israel a good laugh at the cunningness of their great king, David.  These are the stories that helped endear David to the Hebrew people.  But David, the Psalmist, knows who butters his toast.  He points to God.

This speaks well of David’s character, his crediting God for his salvation instead of claiming responsibility himself.  Despite his faults, David recognizes that all his blessings are from God.  That’s why he is remembered as a great king and able to survive Bathsheba-gate and other scandals of his administration.

There are two parts to the part of the Psalm I read this morning.  In the first seven verses, the Psalmist recalls God’s good deeds.  In verse two, he proclaims God’s good news to the humbled, verse four to the fearful, and verse six to the poor.  This section ends with the Psalmist envisioning the angel of the Lord on sentry duty, camped around those who fear the Lord, saving them from their troubles.  God is good; the Psalmist knows this!  God wants what is best for us and for all his creation.

The second part of this Psalm concerns itself with our response to the goodness we’ve experienced from God.  Reformed theology—the theology of the Presbyterian Church—taking its cue from scripture, has always maintained that God’s grace comes before human response.  In other words, we don’t buy grace, we can’t bribe God for it, and we don’t keep God’s law just so God will be good to us.  God has already proven his concern for his people as the Hebrew people experienced over and over again.  We, too, have experienced this love through Jesus Christ.  After reciting his experience with God’s grace in the first seven verses, the Psalmist invites us to experience it.  “Taste and see that the Lord is good,” he proclaims.  “Come, O children, and I will teach you to fear the lord.”  “Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit; depart from evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it.”  Having encountered the divine, the Psalmist invites us not only to experience God but also to change our lives to reflect God’s righteousness.  First there’s God’s grace, then our response!

How many of you have seen the Robert Devall movie, The Apostle?  It came out 15 or so years.  In it, Devall plays the character of Sonny, a Pentecostal-holiness preacher who, in a fit of rage, takes a baseball bat to his associate pastor, who is having an affair with his wife.  Not only is the guy his wife’s lover, he’s also gaining the loyalty of Sonny’s kids.  The man dies and Sonny flees, settling in rural Louisiana where he takes on a new identity as Apostle E. F.  Teaming up with a retired African-American pastor, the two set out to rebuild an old church building and to establish a new congregation.

Soon, with an old school bus and the remodeled church building, Sonny is back in the preaching business.  His first Sunday is a bit slow, but slowly he fills the building and soon the congregation is hopping.  Although the style of worship is foreign to traditional Presbyterian worship, there is little doubt that God is present and that Sonny believes in what he’s doing.  Even when the law finally catches up with him following an evening service, Sonny is calm.  Asking the officer for some time, he takes off his watch and jewelry and gives them to a man in the church and asks him to hock the items and use the money to keep the ministry going.  In the final scene of the movie, Sonny and a group of fellow prisoners are working in a chain-gang.  As they work in a ditch with swing blades, Sonny recites a litany of God’s goodness and his fellow prisoners respond with praise.

As humans, we have our share of shortcomings and failures.  Sonny had more than his share, including murder, yet in the movie Devall was able to show God working through his character such as when he stands down a bulldozer driven by a local bigot who planned to destroy the church where Sonny was preaching because of the interracial makeup of its members.  With confidence, Sonny was able to confront this guy and soon, the bigoted man is on his knees praying.  The movie shows God using Sonny, a broken and guilty man, just as Scripture shows us God using David, despite his shortcomings.

Robert Devall, in an interview after the release of “The Apostle” was asked about why he would display bad side, the weaknesses of the preacher.  He said:

 

“[W]e either accept weaknesses in good people or we have to tear pages out of the bible. I would have to rip the Psalms out of the bible and never read them again. Because no one less than the greatest king of Israel, King David, the author of the Psalms, sent a man out to die in battle so that he could sleep with his wife. And that was a far more evil thing than anything Sonny would ever, ever do.”[3]

 

As humans, we have our good and our bad sides.  We can be petty and needy, especially when we focus on ourselves.  If David had wanted to claim responsibility for his escape from the Philistines, he could have and no one would have thought twice, but God wouldn’t have received the glory and ultimately, that’s what is important.  We need to get the focus off us and onto God—that is what worship is all about.

If we want true joy in our lives, we need to bask not in what we’ve done but in what God has done.  If we want to truly reflect Jesus to the world, we can’t focus on ourselves.  David knew his success belonged to God and was able to rejoice, not in what he could do, but in what God was doing.  And David invites us to experience God, to “taste and see that the Lord is good.”  Will we take up on his offer?  Will we allow worship to change us so that we might live not for ourselves, but for our Lord Jesus Christ?  May his name be honored in our lives.  Amen.

 

©2015

[1] Mark Labberton, The Dangerous Act of Worship: Living God’s Call to Justice (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2007), 77.

[2] 1 Samuel 21:10-15.

[3] Bill Blizah & Ronald Burke, “The Apostle: An interview with Robert Devall, Journal of Religion and Film, Vol. 2, #1 (April 1998).  See  https://www.unomaha.edu/jrf/apostle.INTERVIEW.htm

Coming into God’s Presence

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Isaiah 6:1-8

April 19, 2015

 

The need to worship is something instilled in us.  Whether or not we’re Christian, whether or not we’re religious, all of us have a desire to find meaning in something larger than ourselves.  That “something” becomes the object of our worship.  The “atheistic Communist,” whom we used to so fear, had a belief in a dialectical materialistic philosophy that they saw giving rise and power to the proletariat in order to create a new state—essentially this new state was one that was worshipped.  Even the most apathetic couch potato, who never darkens the door of the church, may worship a football team, NASCAR driver, or movie star.  Even the narcissistic believe they are larger and more important than they really are and worship this inflated ego that has no relationship to reality.  We all look for meaning; it’s just that a lot of us try to find that meaning in the wrong places and end up restless and disappointed.

“I can’t get no satisfaction,” Mick Jagger first sang a half-century ago and for many the words still remain true.  More often than not, in this consumer age in which we live, that which touts to be the answer is disappointing.  So we try something new.  We’ve heard the claim “new and improved” so many times and for so many trivial items that advertisers have to continually up the ante to seduce us.  Christopher Lasch, in the Culture of Narcissism, describes consumers (and let’s face it, we’re all consumers), as “perpetually unsatisfied, restless, anxious and bored.”  We’re educated by advertising and by the culture that consumption is “the answer to the age-old discontents of loneliness, sickness, weariness, lack of sexual satisfaction, the malaise of boring and meaningless jobs and the feeling of futility and fatigue.”  But consumption can never fill the voids of our lives and it only masks our restlessness. [1]  We can’t get no satisfaction.  Soon, we’re back wanting more.  Like a junkie, we want another fix.

This isn’t anything new; it’s an age-old problem.  Augustine, writing 17 centuries ago, noted that our hearts are restless until they come to rest in God.[2]  Today, in my second sermon on how worship can help us to reflect Jesus’ face to the world, I want us to think about what it means to encounter the living God and to find the satisfaction we desire.  My passage for the morning will be Isaiah 6:1-8.

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Our scripture for this morning, Isaiah’s call, is an example of what should happen in worship.  In this passage, Isaiah encounters God in all his holiness and majesty.  This occurs the same year that King Uzziah died, which gives us a timetable for the event, but also contrasts the transient nature of earthly kings and powers to the eternal nature of the King to whom our allegiance belongs.  Uzziah is dead; his throne is empty.  But Isaiah witnesses a greater throne and king.  Yet, Isaiah has a problem; he’s seen the real King and prevailing wisdom has it that for a mortal to see God would bring on certain death.  Our sinful state leaves us vulnerable before God’s holiness.  Isaiah knows he’s in deep sneakers as he cries, “Woe is me; I am lost, I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips and I have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.”

But all is not lost.  One of the seraphs before the throne takes a coal from the altar, flies down and presses it to Isaiah’s lips, proclaiming that his sins are forgiven.  At this point, Isaiah can now hear the call of God, asking who will go and take a message to the people, and Isaiah pipes up and says, “Here I am, Lord, send me.”

If you would go on and read the rest of this chapter, you’d realize the job Isaiah volunteered for wasn’t a coveted one.  He was to speak judgement to his people.  Sometimes it’s that way with us; when we accept God’s calling, often it is to do things we would rather not do.  Jesus makes this point clear to people when he informs the disciple that when he was young, he went where he wanted, but when he was old, he’d be taken where he does not want to go.[3]  Authentic worship isn’t about us; it’s about God.  Ultimately, it isn’t about how we feel, but what God wants us to do.

What can we learn about coming into God’s presence and worship from Isaiah?  First of all, we see that true worship, worship that encounters the holy, is dangerous.  It’s playing with dynamite!  There’s a power greater than ourselves present here, and if we tap into it, we will have little control over where it will lead.  It’s a fearful thing to fall into the hands of an Almighty God, the Puritans professed.  But with the disciples, we have to acknowledge, “Where else can we go to find the words of eternal life.”[4]  So we stick around, even though it’s scary.  Like Isaiah, we stick around and find that worship is also redemptive.  Where else can we go to find forgiveness, to be offered a new chance, to have our guilt erased and set free to start over?  And then, like Isaiah, we find that not only are we forgiven, we’re forgiven so that we can hear God’s word, so that we can hear that call from the Almighty to fulfill God’s purpose in our lives.  Ultimately, worship is to be life-changing.  Coming into the presence of God does that!  The sanctuary, the place wherever we worship, isn’t an escape from the world, but a place to equip us to go back into the world to fulfill our roles as disciples of the living Lord.

Understand that worship is something that needs to be done throughout the week, but it also important that we come together as a community to worship.  As Jesus says, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I will be there.”[5]

Think about what we do here and how it relates to Isaiah’s experience.  We come into God’s presence, we realize God’s holiness and our lack of it, and we are forgiven and then sent back into the world to further God’s work.  That’s the cycle that goes on Sunday after Sunday in a Reformed service of worship.  The Call to Worship and the Opening Hymn of Praise reminds us that this a sacred place and time.  The prayers of confession, both those spoke corporately and privately, remind us that we are in need of forgiveness.  Corporately, we’re reminded us that as a people, we are guilty.  The private prayers of confession spoken to God silently in our hearts, remind us that as individuals, we are guilty.  The Assurance of Pardon reminds us of the forgiveness offered through Jesus Christ, that frees us up to hear God’s word and to go back out into the world.  I know some churches don’t use a time of confession, but they’re missing the meat of the gospel.  We stand in need of forgiveness and through Jesus Christ, God stands willing to offer forgiveness.

How might we make the most out of our time for worship on Sunday morning?  First of all, begin your preparation for worship early.  Go to bed at a reasonable hour on Saturday night so that you are well rested.  As I discussed last week, the Jews begin their Sabbath at sundown and that’s not a bad habit for us Christians.  Prepare for Sunday morning on Saturday, whether it is setting out clothes to wear or preparing food.  This will assure that Sunday mornings are not hectic.  Then, when you wake up, you can easily get ready for worship and perhaps even have some time to go to God in prayer or to spend some time in God’s word.

Next, when you come to worship, come with a holy expectancy.  Come, expecting that you will encounter God.  Now, not every Sunday is a mountaintop experience.[6]  In fact, few are going to be mountaintop experiences and if we strive for that, we’re probably focusing on what we want and not what God wants.  But that said, if we don’t expect anything out of worship, we’re probably not going to receiving anything.  What would happen if just ten of fifteen of you came expecting God to show up?  It could be dangerous; it could be glorious!

Next, arrive early.  Here, do as I say not as I’ve been known to do.  When I am not preaching, I’m not known for arriving too early (you can ask my wife or daughter).  But if you are here five, ten or fifteen minutes early, you have time to focus on God, to calm your hearts, to put away distractions.  Spend this time making a mental note of that which to thank God or of the deeds you stand in need of confessing.  Look around and see people who are in need and offer intercessory prayer.  Lift up the preacher (I need all the help I can get) along with the Elder of the Week and the choir and those involved in the children sermon or drama, along with our ushers and greeters.  Pray for those who might be new in our fellowship.  Read through the bulletin, internalizing the prayers so that they can become your prayers.  Look over the scriptures so that you might receive more out of the sermon.

While in worship, learn to absorb distractions.  We’re all human here.  I am going to make some mistakes (as I did last week when, on auto-pilot, I left out a line in the Apostles’ Creed).   Others are also going to make mistakes.  Instead of fussing and fuming over it, pray silently for them, that God might bless them.  Focus your energy on what is positive, not on what can be negative and destructive.  Embrace worship as a sacrifice, as your sacrifice, to God.  Remember, what happens here “isn’t about you!”  It’s about God!  Keep focused on that which is important.

And finally, when you leave worship, go out to live your life as an heir to the kingdom, listening and obeying God’s word throughout the week.  In so doing, you’re whole life will be more worshipful and you’ll be continually praising God.

We’re all to be worshippers.  In worship, our restlessness finds peace in the heart of God.  In worship, we move from the position of the guilty one, “Woe is me!” to the response of a confident disciple, “Here I am, Lord.  Send me.”  Amen.

 

©2015

[1] See Marva J. Dawn, Reaching Out without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for this Urgent Time (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 64-65.

[2] Augustine, Confessions, 1:1.

[3] John 21:18.

[4] John 6:68

[5] Matthew 18:20.

[6] Even the disciples found that they couldn’t stay on the mountaintop.  Life is to be lived in the valleys and on the plains, where people are at.  See Matthew 17:1-13, Mark 9:2-8 and Luke 9:28-36.

Worship and the time we have…

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

April 12, 2015

Genesis 1:14-18, 1:26-2:3

 

Over the next five weeks, I want us to think about how worship can assist us in being better disciples.  How might worship help us reflect Jesus’ face to the world?  This series of sermons will correspond to a class I’ll begin teaching starting this Wednesday (at 7 PM). In these sessions, we’ll explore in depth what I am trying to convey in my sermons.

We worship a God of order.  The first thing God does in the opening of Scripture, is to bring order to chaos.  The earth was a formless void in which wind blew upon the waters and all was dark.  God begins by creating light and separating it from the dark, and then creating the sky and then separating the land from the sea.  In the first three days, the earth takes shapes.  Now this isn’t to say that God does this in our understanding of a 24 hour day in which the earth spins around.  There is a deeper meaning to be learned.  Besides, God’s time is not our own, as the Psalmist reminds us when he proclaims that a thousand years in God’s eyes are like a day to us.[1]

We live by calendars and watches (or iPhones, which combine the two).  We’re all incredibility busy, but that’s not something unusual for humanity.  We learn early on that if we want something done, we best do it ourselves and in such we work hard, which is good but we risk making an idol out of ourselves when we achieve.  Therefore, it is good to have reminders to pause and worship.  The church has a calendar which strives to remind us of what God has done and we’ll talk more about that in my Wednesday night study. Today, I’m going to focus on our daily and weekly schedules and the need for regular prayer and for observing the Sabbath. These two things will enhance our worship of God.

When we carve out space with the time we’re granted in order that we might focus on God, we bring a different order to our lives.  We realize our dependence on our Creator and our own limitations.  When our lives are ordered in a holy way, we align ourselves with God’s purposes.  Order reprioritizes our lives.  We’re important to God, as we’ll see in our morning reading, but we’re not the center of the universe.  Today, I want us to look at the ending of the first account of creation as found in Genesis 1.  I’ll begin reading with verse 14.

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I’ve always marked time by the sky, at least since I was a Boy Scout and became interested in the constellations and their movements.   Growing up, I’d spend nights in the fall fishing on Masonboro Island with my dad.  This nine mile long uninhabited island can be quite dark, especially when the moon is not up, providing a wonderful vista to watch the winter   constellations rise on the horizon.  As the hours in the evening passed, the stars would rise higher.  By the time I was in high school, I had come to associate the rising of Tarsus, the Pleiades, and Orion with fall.  The later in the season it was, the earlier in the evening they’d rise, so by winter they’d be up in the sky as soon as it was dark.  As we’re now in the spring, you can watch them setting in the west shortly after the last of the day’s light has drained from the sky.  It won’t be long and they’ll all disappear in the evening sky, only to return in the fall.

Having lived and camped in the arid west, where you can sleep on the ground without a tent and bug net and not be rained upon or driven crazy by bugs, I used to make a game of guessing what time it was by how far the constellations had moved from when I first fell asleep.  When I’d check my watch, I’d generally be close, within an hour.  While doing this, I often thought about how the ancient people kept track of time by the heavens.  Not only was the heavens their clock, it was also their calendar.  When certain stars appeared on the horizon early in the evening, they’d know it was time to plant their crops or that the rainy season was approaching.

We’re told in the Book of Ecclesiastes that God has instilled in us a sense of time—past, presence and future—and has made everything for a particular time in our lives.  We can’t know what God’s up to, but according to this Old Testament book, we’re to enjoy what God has given us while we stand in humbled awe before our Creator.[2]  Today, think about the cycles of time and how we worship God.

The early Christians had their prayers at dawn and sunset, the latter known as vesper or evening song.  The monastic movement within the early Christian Church divided up the day into “hours” and the night into “watches” as a way to help them fulfill Paul’s command to pray without ceasing.[3]  Kathleen Norris, a Presbyterian lay pastor and author, spent two sabbatical periods of her life living in monastic setting in which she set her day by the canonical hours.  Reflecting on her experience she wrote:

“In our culture, time can seem like an enemy: it chews us up and spits us out with appalling ease.  But the monastic perspective welcomes time as a gift from God, and seeks to put it to good use rather than allowing us to be used by it.”[4]

 

Perhaps we need to look at how we allow time to control our lives and reorder our time so that it might inform our spiritual lives.

The Bible opens with a story of time, as God brings order into the chaos.  Everything has its place–earth and water, light and dark, sun and moon…  Interestingly, light is created on day one, the sun and the moon are placed in the sky on day four.  What’s going on with this?  God isn’t telling us how the cosmos was created; God is making a theological point.  True light comes from God, as we read in the first chapter of John’s gospel.[5]  There were those in the ancient world who worshipped the sun and sought meaning from the stars, but the God of creation dethrones such fake deities.  The sun, moon and stars become a calendar instead of a god.  The opening chapter of Genesis is filled with theology that helps us understand the nature of God and our role within God’s creation.

The next thing I want you to understand about this reading is how the day is organized.  We’re told over and over again that there was evening and then morning, then the first day (or the fourth of the fifth).  In other words, as we learn from our Jewish friends, our days don’t begin with the ringing of the alarm clock and the scuttle to get somewhere on time, but with the setting of the sun.  God invites us to begin our days in rest, not labor!  Slaves labor to earn rest, but that’s not a part of God’s gracious plan for us.  Each day begins with the rest necessary for us to sustain life.

But there is another rest that we’re old of in these verses, one that comes at the end of the week, the Sabbath rest.  But before we get to that, we come upon God’s creative activities of the sixth day and are reminded that God has been busy long before we came on the scene.  We didn’t inherit a formless void of earth.  Instead, God created the earth and then brought us into it to be his partner in maintaining it as we enjoy its benefits.  According to Genesis 1:29 and 30, we shouldn’t be going hungry because God has taken care of our needs.

Then, after finishing the work of Creation, God takes a break.  When we observe this Sabbath rest, we are emulating God.  Daily rest is granted so that we might be renewed for work, for God created us in that way.  But the Sabbath is a gift.  It’s a chance to unhook for the pressures of life and step back from all that we’re doing and acknowledge our dependence on God.[6]

How many of you have seen the movie “Fiddler on the Roof”?  If you haven’t, you should; it’s a beautiful film.  Tevye, a milkman in Czarist Russia, is a devote Jew.  At the end of the week, he greets the Sabbath at sundown, playing his violin.  It’s a special day, a special time.  By observing the Sabbath religiously, he has fostered a deep relationship with God, often talking to God as he delivers milk to the village.  If we can instill within our routines time (to reflect, to mediate, to pray, and to enjoy the Sabbath), we’ll be brought closer to God.  Tevye, in the movie, is able to find strength to get through some very difficult times including persecution, because of how, participating in this godly ritual, he’s been brought closer to the Almighty.

If time, as illustrated in the setting and rising of the sun, the positions of the stars and the moon, has been placed into order by God, it’s sacred.  It’s a gift!  As one’s who acknowledges the source of this gift, we should give thanks to the Creator by hallowing out a portion of time to focus on the relationship we’re called to have with God through Jesus Christ.

Now Jesus, as we heard in our New Testament reading, warns us against doing this in a legalistic way.[7]  We don’t observe the Sabbath as a way of earning salvation.  Instead, the day is provided for our benefit, as a way that we can grow closer to our Heavenly Father.  Jesus grants us the freedom to observe the Sabbath for the right reasons.

We could all benefit of taking a day off, a day to stop and just enjoy. Furthermore, as Jesus shows us countless times in his life, when he went off alone to pray,[8] we need to take time during our days to pray and to be at one with our Father.  Through Christ, we’re called into a relationship with God and as we know from our relationships on earth, they require a commitment, they require time…

The first way that worship should help us reflect Jesus’ face is to remind us that time is sacred and that our lives need to be reprioritize so we can connect with God in order that we might reflect the face of God’s Son.  Some of you are already doing this, but if you’re not, I encourage you to take a day a week to enjoy life and then to carve out of the other hours you’re given moments to connect daily with God.  At the very least, pray that God gives you strength during the day when you wake, give God thanks for that which you have when you eat, and surrender your burdens to God at night when you go to sleep.  Such simple gestures reminds us of what’s important and orients our lives in a manner that will bring God glory.  Amen.

©2015

[1] Psalm 90:4.

[2] Ecclesiastes 3:11-14

[3] 1 Thessalonians 5:17.  See C. W. Dugmore, “Canonical Hours” in The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1986).

[4] Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996),  xix.

[5] John 1:4-5.

[6] Mark Labberton, The Dangerous Act of Worship: Living God’s Call to Justice (Dower’s Grove, IL: IVP, 2007), 106.

[7] Mark 2:23-28.

[8] Examples:  Matthew 14:23, 26:36-35; Mark 1:35, 6:46, 14:32, 14:36; Luke 5:16, 6:12, 9:18, 9:28-29.

Easter Sunday 2015

DSC_0698

The sanctuary prepared for Easter with brass bells and plenty of flowers!

 

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Easter Sunday 2015

John 20:19-29

 

 

What a contrast today is to that first Easter.  We worship in an open building with signs drawing attention and encouraging others to visit.  We’re told in John’s gospel that the disciples, on the first Easter, were hiding.  We’re told the doors were locked out of a fear of the authorities.  I doubt too many of us are afraid today, at least not here in America, even though we know it can be dangerous to be a Christian in some parts of the world as we’ve witnessed this week with the atrocities in Kenya.  Our prayers need to be with our brothers and sisters there and wherever people live in fear due to their beliefs.

Our passage this morning is from the 20th Chapter of John’s gospel.  At sunrise, we looked at the opening verses.  Now we’ll explore the events later that day and what happens on the next Sunday when Thomas encounters the risen Lord.   Read John 20:19-29.

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It is evening of the first Easter…  The disciples gather in secret, behind locked doors.  Fright and fatigue show on their faces.  The past week has taken its toll… They’d been at the top of their game, marching triumphantly into Jerusalem.  But after the palm branches dropped onto the street, things went sour fast.  Jesus, their leader, their friend, there reason for being, was arrested, executed, and buried…  Out of fear, the disciples scattered.  Saturday, the Sabbath, was spent in fear.  As business resumes on the first day of the week, rumors begin to spread about Jesus being alive.  As impossible as it may seem, some claim to have seen Jesus.  So the disciples begin seeking out each other.  This motley collection of fishermen, tax collectors and such from Galilee don’t know what to do.  What should they make of the stories? “Can the women who were there at the tomb be right?  Can Jesus be alive, or is this just an idle tale?”[1]

And then suddenly, as the sun sinks in the West, Jesus appears.  We’re not told how he gets through the locked doors, but there he is in the middle of the gathered disciples, holding up his hands, greeting his friends, saying: “Peace be with you.”  What a sight!  The nail holes are evident.  His side is ripped where the Roman spear pierced.  The fatigue on their faces disappear, but the fright remains, as they gaze upon their Lord, their Master, their friend.

Again Jesus says: “Peace be with you,” only this time he continues, telling them that just as he was sent by the Father, he’s sending them out into the world.  Then, reminiscence of God blowing breath into the nostrils of the clay figure there in the Garden, giving life to Adam, Jesus blows upon the disciples.[2]  And they receive the Holy Spirit and become a new living community—a community with the power to offer forgiveness.

A week later, the disciples are again in the house… again, it’s the first day of the week, Sunday, the day after the Jewish Sabbath, the day that will in time become the primary day that most Christians worship.  Again the doors are locked.  The shades are probably still pulled…  On the roof a disciple may be on lookout; they fear of the authorities.  So much for Jesus’ command to go out into the world…  It’s been a week since they’ve seen the resurrected Christ, with his wounds still visible, yet they’re still hiding, still afraid for their lives, still afraid to go out into the world…  Then Jesus reappears.

Thomas, who has not yet seen Jesus, is also present.  Thomas is an empiricist.  He wants to see, to sense, to touch, before he commits himself to something.  Knowing this, Jesus invites Thomas to place his finger in his wounds…  “Don’t doubt, believe!” Jesus says.  In awe Thomas cries out, “My Lord and my God!”

Thomas’ cry, “My Lord and my God,” represents the climax of John’s Gospel.  Thomas’ acknowledgment is more than Jesus just being the Messiah.  Thomas realizes Jesus is also God.  By confessing Jesus to be God, Thomas goes beyond all other confessions of the disciples up to this point.[3]  Though a doubter at first, Thomas becomes the first disciple to recognize Jesus as more than a teacher or a leader sent by God.  Jesus is God.  Furthermore, Thomas’ proclamation is a political statement.  Roman emperors were addressed as “Our lord and god.”  Here, Thomas confesses who truly is Lord and God, and it ain’t Caesar or any one else to whom we might be lured into professing allegiance.[4]   By calling Jesus Lord, Thomas asserts Jesus is worthy to obey.  By calling Jesus God, Thomas declares that Jesus should be worshipped, as we’re doing today.

What can we make out of these post-resurrection appearances of Jesus?  I would like to offer a few suggestions by observing Jesus, the disciples and Thomas and ending with some implications for us as disciples and the church today.  Let’s start with Jesus…  Having overcome the grave, he appears to the disciples.  He’s alive, yet John makes it clear that his wounds still fresh.  In Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells the disciples that he’s not a ghost.[5]  John, by recalling Jesus’ wounds, makes the same point.  Here is Jesus, in the flesh.

I’d like us to ponder why it’s important to have Jesus’ wounds still visible.  “It’s such a comfort to know that Jesus’ wounds remain visible in his risen body,” one woman said.  “Our wounds are not taken away, but become sources of hope to others.”[6]  We’ve all been wounded.  Some of us have had physical wounds, broken bones and the sort, but unless they’re really severe, they generally heal.  It’s the other wounds that seem to linger on.  Broken promises and broken relationships; failure to achieve or obtain adoration; things we’ve done that has disappoint others or ourselves.  We’ve all been wounded in these ways.  And you know, Jesus never says he’ll take all of our problems away or that we’ll be free of such wounds.  Instead he says we’re okay, even with our wounds, because we belong to him.  We don’t have to worry about what other people think, what’s important is that we believe in him.

Let me assure you that you’ll still have failures and setbacks, even after you come to know Christ.  But that’s ok because the mystery of our faith is that in our weaknesses we become strong.  It is in those areas of our lives where we have pain and hurt that we learn to depend on God.  Our wounds become our schooling in applied theology.   If we have no pain, we’ll have a hard time even perceiving our need for God.  Ultimately, Jesus’ wounds remind us that God can take what was painful and make us even stronger.

Now let’s look at the disciples.  On the day of Jesus’ resurrection they are hiding…  They don’t know what to make of the stories about Jesus’ reappearance.  What would we do if in their shoes?  I doubt we’d be any different.  It takes an encounter with the Risen Lord to get them to believe.  But I’m not sure they were ready for Jesus and certainly not for his marching orders, for Jesus tells them he’s sending them into the world to carry on his mission…

A week later the disciples still haven’t gotten out into the world.  They are still hiding in the same house.  They are still afraid they’ll lose their lives; they are still afraid that they, like Jesus, might end up on a cross…

Sometimes we are like the disciples.  We believe.  We know what is right.  We may even know what God wants us to do…  but we need to be prodded.   The disciples were comfortable hiding in that room and sometimes we’re comfortable hiding.  But we have been called to share our faith with others, to offer hope to a broken world, and to share God’s love.  That can only happen when we leave the comfort of our cubbyholes.  As Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount, we must let our light shine.[7]  To live as a disciple is to live in the world while pointing to Jesus as the source of our lives…

Now let’s look at Thomas’ reaction.  Thomas has gotten a bad rap over the years…  He’s called Doubting Thomas, as if his doubt is something unique.  It isn’t…  All the disciples have their doubts.[8]   To be honest, I’ve had my share of doubts and, if honest, you’ll admit it’s the same with you.  Doubting doesn’t make Thomas unique; what makes him unique is his confession that Jesus is God.

God is beyond human proof.  When and how God is revealed to us is up to God.  Our doubts force us to depend upon the faith that God grants.  And as we learn to trust that faith, we become even stronger.

What all this means to us, today, two millenniums after the resurrection? Jesus’ last words in this passage are interesting.  It’s a blessing on us, not to the disciples. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” Jesus says.  Did you hear that?  He’s talking about you and me; he’s blessing those of us who have not had an opportunity to stick our fingers into his wounds.  Instead of seeing, we believe due to the presence of the Holy Spirit and the testimony of others who have felt Jesus’ presence in their lives.  And because we have faith in Jesus Christ, we’re to listen to his teachings and to live lives that strive to glorify him.  That’s the challenge we have, as individuals, to listen to Jesus and to live faithful.

Furthermore, as a community of believers, we’re empowered to forgive sins.  That’s quite a task.  You know, there are a lot of good things that the church does in the community that other groups can also do, and in some cases these groups can even do it better than the church.  But there is one thing that no other group can do—government can’t do it, civic clubs can’t do it, political parties can’t do it—and that’s forgive sins.  Only God can forgive sins, the Pharisee’s in Jesus’ day charged.[9]  And they were right.  But Jesus is God and thereby has the power to forgive sins, a power he grants to the church.  This unique community in which Jesus calls us needs to be, first and foremost, a place of forgiveness.  That’s the challenge we have, as a church, to be a community of grace, a community of mercy.  If we live up to this challenge, we’ll not only be blessed, we’ll be a blessing to others.  Amen.

 

©2015

[1] Luke 24:11, “and these words seemed to be an idle tale.”  John’s gospel only tells about Jesus’ encounter with Mary Magdalene prior to meeting his disciples later in the day.  See John 20:1-19.

[2] See Genesis 2:7.

[3] As an example, the climax in Mark’s gospel comes with Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, but Thomas makes a stronger Christological statement, proclaiming that Jesus is also God. See Mark 8:29.

[4] Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI: The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1970), 1047.

[5] Luke 24:36-43.

    [6]Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Road to Daybreak (1988).  As quoted in Sowing the Seeds of Hope, Presbyterian Stewardship emphasis material.

[7] Matthew 5:15-16.

[8] See Matthew 28:17; Luke 24:11, 25, 37, 41; Mark 16:14.  Gerald Sloyan, John: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox, 1988), 227.

[9] Mark 2:7, Luke 5:21.  As for God forgiving sin, see Exodus 34:6-7; Isaiah 43:25, 44:22.

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus!”

Jeff Garrison

First Presbyterian Church

March 22, 2015

John 12:20-26

 

reflect

Image from http://www.atcunion.org/blog/files/0cd447caee0c7396988c0850231e44cb-197.html

This morning we’re going to explore a passage in the 12th Chapter of John’s gospel.  This incident occurs just a few days before Jesus’ crucifixion.   The situation in Jerusalem is tense.  In the preceding chapter, Jesus raised Lazarus from the grave.  Paradoxically, in John’s gospel, this life-giving miracle is the final straw for the Jewish leaders.  They are thinking that the only way to stop Jesus is to kill him.  In the verse right before where I will begin reading, a new urgency can be heard within their voices as they complain about how everyone is going after Jesus. Providing life to one leads to the death of another—that’s a way of understanding the gospel!

It’s almost as if John is trying to legitimize the leader’s fear by then telling us a group of Greeks are coming to meet Jesus.  Jesus is popular!   But instead of building on his popularity, Jesus tells a parable that implies the seriousness of following him.   Listen.  READ JOHN 12:20-26.

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I like the way this passage starts off.  “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  If I was stronger, I’d turn this pulpit around and show you the plaque on the inside that reads, “Sir, we would see Jesus,” which is the King James translation of this passage.[1]  Hopefully, at times, Jesus is experienced in our worship (as well as in our lives).

Here, we have some Greeks, outsiders, seeking Jesus!  A shift has occurred.  The magnitude of Jesus’ ministry, which won’t be fully understood until after his death and resurrection, is foreshadowed.  Jesus had primarily worked with the Jews.  Now these Greeks seek Jesus.  There are disagreements among scholars if these “Greeks” were Greek-speaking Jews, Jewish proselytes, or Gentiles.[2]  Since they’re in Jerusalem right before the Passover, it seems that they must be Jewish; or, they are at least considering adopting Jewish practices and becoming a proselyte, but John doesn’t say one way or another.  Regardless of their background, John uses them to foreshadow Jesus’ larger purpose—salvation for the entire world.

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus,” they ask.  Jesus draws people to himself, which he still does today, but we’re not told if they ever got a chance to see Jesus.  The question is asked of Philip—a disciple with a Greek name, which may be the reason he’s singled out.  In the stories of Philip, it seems he can’t do anything by himself.  Instead of answering, he runs off finds Andrew and the two of them take the request to Jesus. [3] But John doesn’t tell us if Jesus granted them an audience.  Instead, John notes Jesus’ shift in conversation, as he talks about what’s going to happen.

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”  Now that John has shown that interest in Jesus extends beyond those living in Judah, Galilee and Samaria, Jesus focuses on what is about to unfold.  “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”  I’m sure this was sweet music to the disciples’ ears.  They’ve been wondering when Jesus was going to usher in his kingdom.   They’ve had visions of Jesus sitting up on David’s throne and them all around him in positions of power and glory.  But Jesus doesn’t stop at the glory, he continues on with a disturbing parable.  “Unless the wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains only a kernel, but in dying it can grow into a plant which bears fruit.”  Jesus isn’t just hinting around, he is saying clearly that he must die.  The Pharisees are going to get their wish.  As Jesus peaks in popularity, his life and ministry on earth comes to an end.

Let’s consider this parable.  Farming was tough back in Jesus’ day.  There were no Co-ops or Farm Supply Stores where you could buy seed.  Instead, you kept a portion of your previous harvest as seed so you would have something to plant during the next season.  This means that if you had a poor harvest and, as the winter continued, your supply of wheat would dwindle and you’d have to make a hard decision.  Do you eat all your wheat or do you tighten up your belt and go with less so that you will have seed enough for another crop?  Consider your thoughts as you, on an empty stomach, sowed the seeds into the ground.  It took faith to be a farmer back then, just as it does today, to bury seeds knowing they’ll die but in the hopes they’ll sprout.

Some of the disciples listening to Jesus’ parable had probably experienced such situations.  They knew the value of planting, of letting the seed die in the hopes that God would give it new life and an abundant harvest.  Here Jesus is talking about himself, about his death, but he quickly shifts to talk not just about himself but also about his followers.

“Those who love their life will lose it and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  Whoever serves me must follow me…”  This idea of losing our lives or losing ourselves for Jesus isn’t too appealing, but there is something to it because this saying from Jesus is recorded in all four of the gospels.[4]

There are a couple of things in this passage that I want us to consider this morning.  First of all, Jesus wants to make sure that his disciples, and his followers who come thereafter, know that he came to die, and that in dying he was doing something very counter-intuitive.  Through his death, through being lifted up (if you’d read ahead to verse 33), Jesus draws all people to himself.  Like the seed that dies in the ground as it sprouts new growth, Jesus knows his sacrifice will reap an incredible harvest.

Jesus’ message is “I love you enough to die for you.”  In this way, Jesus is like a good parent who will do anything and everything to save the children.  It is something instilled in mothers throughout the animal kingdom.  I have seen it when paddling on a river and come near to the nests of ducks and one bird takes off, limping, as if to lead us from the nest.  The bird keeps moving away from the nest until we are far away and then, flying normally, circles back.  I’ve also seen this behavior when hiking—a grouse will wobble away from the nest staying just out-of-reach, until you are a safe distant from the nest, then flies off normally and circles back to the nest.  Both birds are making themselves more vulnerable in order to save their young.  Likewise, Jesus is there for us and not only is he willing to die for us, he does!

Jesus sacrifices for us, but he also calls on us to sacrifice for others.  It is not just about Jesus’ sacrifice, but our willingness to work on behalf of others.  If we follow Jesus, we must as he said in another place, “Pick up our cross daily.”[5]  The Spiritual life is about being in tune with the needs of others.  We have to be willing to sacrifice, to let go of things that we hold dear but which hinder our walk with Jesus.  If we want to enjoy a life with Christ, we got to give up a life of sinful ways.  You can’t be hating folks and be a Christ follower.  You can’t be dishonest and be considered a Christ follower.  I’m not saying we have to be perfect.  Certainly we’ll all slip up, but when we do, we confess and repent and continue on, devoting ourselves to change and continue striving to be better.

But this passage isn’t just about the sins we’re to give up; it acknowledges that a life following Jesus has cost which can be quite high—it can cost as much as our own lives.  Yet, our focus can’t be on what we’ll lose, but on what we –and more appropriately—what our Master will gain in the harvest.

We always have to give up something to acquire something else, that’s a principle of economics.  You can’t have it all, you can’t have your cake and eat it too, so you make an economic decision to sacrifice one thing for another.  If you’re a kid and you have a dollar burning in your pocket, you have to decide if you’re going to spend it on an ice cream cone that’s been tempting you, or if you will invest the dollar for when you go to college.  One satisfies an immediate need, the other a long-term need.  Unfortunately, in our society, immediate gratification generally wins. But not in the gospel!  Long-term gratification takes precedent.  Consider Jesus’ words about storing up our treasures in heaven where we don’t have to fear thieves and where they will not rust.[6]

What is it that Jesus is calling us to give up for him?   A lot of what is being taught in this passage has to do with death, but I hope you can see a linkage between this parable and Jesus’ teachings on stewardship.  In the parable of the talents, in which those who were rewarded had invested all they had, the ones who were rewarded did not hedge their bets.[7]  They had faith.  Jesus calls us to be faithful and willing to invest in the building up of his kingdom.  As an individual, that may mean being willing to give sacrificially to Christ’s work in our church and in his missions in the world.  Or it may mean you give up a pleasurable vacation and volunteer to go on a mission trip.  As a congregation it may mean us doing something we’re uncomfortable with, perhaps adjusting the style or the time of worship in order to make room to receive new disciples.  It may mean compromising so that we all benefit and our programs are strengthen.  It may mean we are forced out of our comfortable zone and go out into the world to help others.  “Unless a seed falls to the earth and dies,” we’re told.

I want to go back to that opening question in our text, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus?”  How would we respond to such a request?  Although we cannot take them physically to Jesus, hopefully they will witness Jesus in our lives and in the life of his community, the church.  For we are his body in the world and when we follow him, he can be seen through our lives.  As Jesus reminds us in the Parable of the Judgment of the Nations, when we show kindness, we serve him.  But you know what; Jesus doesn’t want us to wait for that question.  Instead, he wants us to share him, to show his love, with others.  Jesus wants us to reflect his face—Jesus’ face—onto a hurting world.  What are we willing to give us, to sacrifice, for him?  Amen.

 

©2015

[1]This isn’t the only pulpit with this as Frederick Dale Bruner points out in his commentary, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 712.

[2] Brown thinks they are Greek proselytes.  See Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, Anchor Bible Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 1966), 466.  Sloyan thinks they’re Greek speaking Jews living outside Israel’s borders.  Gerald Sloyan, John: Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox, 1988),155.

[3] When Philip was called to follow Jesus, he went and got Nathanael to go with him.  John 1:43ff.

[4] See Matthew 10:39, Mark 8:35, Luke 17:33.

[5] Luke 9:23

[6] Matthew 6:19-21.

[7] Matthew 25:13-20

St. Patrick’s Day prayer and a funny cartoon about the Trinity

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day (and my first St. Patrick’s in Savannah–while I avoid the downtown area), here is a prayer from Brother Patrick.  I used a portion of this in my benediction on Sunday.  Thanks Nadar Awad for sharing this prayer with me.

I bind to myself today

The strong virtue of the Invocation of the Trinity:I believe the Trinity in the Unity,The Creator of the Universe.

 

I bind to myself today
The virtue of the Incarnation of Christ with His Baptism,The virtue of His crucifixion with His burial, The virtue of His Resurrection with His Ascension,The virtue of His coming on the Judgment Day

 

I bind to myself today
In the hope of resurrection unto reward,In prayers of Patriarchs,
In predictions of Prophets,
In preaching of Apostles,
In faith of Confessors,
In deeds of righteous men

 

I bind to myself today
God’s Power to guide me,
God’s Might to uphold me,
God’s Wisdom to teach me,
God’s Eye to watch over me,
God’s Ear to hear me,
God’s Word to give me speech,
God’s Hand to guide me,
God’s Way to lie before me,
God’s Shield to shelter me,
God’s Host to secure me,
Against the snares of demons,
Against the seductions of vices,
Against the lusts of nature,
Against everyone who meditates injury to me,Whether far or near, Whether few or with many.

 

Christ, protect me today Against every poison, against burning,Against drowning, against death-wound,That I may receive abundant reward.

Christ with me, Christ before me,Christ behind me, Christ within me,Christ beneath me, Christ above me,Christ at my right, Christ at my left,Christ in the fort, Christ in the chariot seat, Christ in the deck, Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks to me,Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me.

Below is a humorous cartoon where Patrick explains the Trinity (I used this once in worship when I was in Michigan)

 

John 3:14-21

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

March 15, 2015

John 3:14-21

Spring is around us as trees are budding forth as azaleas bloom.  The show of color is a reminder of the new life offered through Jesus Christ.  But before we can embrace the new, we must let go of the old which is what Lent is all about.

Today, we’re looking at the second half of Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus as found in John 3.  It contains that verse we all know—John 3:16—which is the gospel encapsulated in a single sentence.  I once heard it described in terms of superlatives:

  • The greatest subject ever: God
  • The greatest extend ever: So
  • The greatest affection ever: Loved
  • The greatest object ever: The cosmos
  • The greatest gift ever: His one and only Son
  • The greatest opportunity ever: Whoever believes
  • The greatest commitment ever: Entrusting oneself to Him
  • The greatest rescue ever: From destruction
  • The greatest promise ever: Everlasting life[1]

 

In these verses, as in much of John’s gospel, our Savior speaks of light and darkness, of grace and judgment.  If we believe in Christ, we must leave the darkness behind and come into his light.  But that’s easier said than done, for shame holds us back.  Shame hinders our will.  READ John 3:14-21.

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None of us like to admit guilt.  Nor do we like to be caught doing something wrong.  It’s a part of the human condition, going all the way back to the garden where Adam and Eve, after biting into that juicy piece of fruit, hid from God.  Or they tried to hide… Sooner or later our transgressions come to light.  We can’t run forever!  We end up like a kid, having raided the cookie jar, standing before our mom denying our deed with melted chocolate chips on our hands and crumbs in the corners of our mouths.  We get caught.  Maybe we’ll get away with our misdeeds for a while, maybe we’ll even go a lifetime without being caught, but the big guy knows.  Sooner or later, we must come clean.

In the meantime, we worry and fret over being caught.  We cover our tracks the best of our ability, but we’re never able to pull it off perfectly.  When I was in the ninth grade, I participated in a serious prank the last day of school before the Christmas vacation.  A couple of us decided our school needed a white Christmas and finding old test papers, we covered the front lawn with paper.  I don’t remember anything that happened during those two weeks off; I don’t even remember what I got for Christmas.  My only memory of that vacation is worry—being afraid that when my Christmas vacation was over, it would be extended for me to the great displeasure of my parents.  Mike (one of my co-conspirators) and I rode the school bus back to school that early January like two men on death row.  But we got off easy.  It seemed everyone had forgotten about the prank.  Worry, it turned out, was our penance.  But I still remember the knot in my stomach as I rode the bus back to school knowing I’d done wrong.

Garrison Keillor captures the fear of getting caught doing wrong in a humorous account in his first bestseller, Lake Wobegon Days.  The story is about a boy who is a member of a fundamentalist church.  One night, he goes out drinking with a Catholic girl…  They were driving home at night down the Old Post Road.  They’d had two whiskey sours each, on her fake ID.  When he topped a hill driving way too fast, he notices a pair of tail lights directly in front of him.  It was Brother Louie, driving his usual 30 miles per hour.  He slams on brakes, swerves, and then hits the gas to pass him…  But as he swerves, Louie’s neon red license plate holder catches his attention.  “The wages of sin is death,” the top side read.   “Romans 6:23,” was below the plate.  “It was like a flashbulb exploding my face,” he recalled.  His date thought he was a wonderful driver and had saved her life, but he knew the truth and assumed God saved him from his sin (drinking and lusting over a Catholic girl) because God had something important for Brother Louie to do.[2]

Have you ever been there?  Thinking God spared your life because it was the only way someone else would be safe?  There’s enough guilt in the world to go around and it causes us to think less of ourselves that we should.  For the truth is, as we read in this passage today, “God loves the world.”  This love implies a supreme act, its love shown in action.[3]   Secondly, this love is for the whole world, not just for believers.  The word translated here, as “world,” is cosmos, which implies all there is to the created order.  This is no selective love shown to just a few.  This is an all-encompassing love manifested in action.  My paraphrasing this passage, trying to capture the intent here, goes like this:  “God shows his love to the cosmos (think Star Trek) by giving His Son.”

All of us have done things for which we’re ashamed.  That’s okay.  As I’ve said, that’s part of the human condition, going back to the beginning.  We’re disobedient, we rebel, and then we feel guilty and want to go hide.  There are two important things to understand.  Our shame shows our need for grace and, secondly, God’s love still extends to us.  God provides a way for us to escape the helplessness that Nicodemus felt when Jesus told him, earlier in this chapter, that he’d have to be born again.  When Old Nick heard that, he thought he might as well throw in the towel.  But as we learned in that passage, Jesus isn’t talking about something that Nicodemus does, he’s talking about what God does for us.  God sends His Son.

This is good news; however, there is a warning linked to the good.  Jesus does not come to condemn the world, we’re told in verse 17.  He comes to save it.  But what about those who don’t want to be saved, what about those who don’t want to admit that they’ve got problems only God can solve?

I think this passage might be best understood in light of the events at the Garden when our ancestors first violated God’s order.  “Eat of this tree and you will die,” they were told.   And like a kid being told not to play in the puddle or with an electrical outlet, they went right to it and the shadow of their curse hangs over humanity today.  Call it original sin.  As a race, we’ve fallen from God’s grace.  We’re condemned!  That’s a given.  That’s already happened.  Jesus doesn’t come into the world to bring further condemnation; he comes to save.

Think metaphorically of the human race sailing on the Titanic.  It’s struck ice and is listing badly.  Jesus is a purser, calling folks to get into the lifeboats, but as we know from that maritime disaster, the first set of lifeboats go away nearly empty.  Most people put their faith in the supposedly unsinkable ship.

You may have faith in your own ability to save yourselves, or you may just be afraid of what might be exposed if you come into the light, either way your ego keeps you from experiencing the fullness of life as God intends.  And sooner or later, judgment day comes; sooner or later, our pride and misdeeds will be brought to light.  What then?

Graham Greene’s wonderful novel, A Burnt-out Case, is the story of Querry, an architect, who has built great cathedrals but yet doesn’t believe in God.  Tired of all the praise and glamour, he runs away to a Leper Colony in the Congo, “into the heart of darkness” (to quote another English author).   It seems appropriate, with our text from John, to have someone running away from God with the hopes of hiding in the jungle.  Of course, no jungle is dark enough for God of the cosmos, and even there Querry is hunted down.  He befriends one of the lepers, feeling a kinship with one whose flesh has rotted away.  Querry believes his soul has also experienced such rot.  Yet he finds enough of his old self that he’s able to build the one building that satisfies him—a simple hospital, nothing elaborate.

The book ends with Querry’s death.  We’re left with an uncertainty as to whether or not Querry experienced salvation.   In the last chapter there’s a discussion between a doctor and one of the priests who works at the colony.  They cannot decide if his soul has been “cured.”  But as the priest notes, “he learned to laugh and to serve others.”  And then he quotes the medieval mystic Pascal, “a man who starts looking for God has already found him.”[4]

Although we may love the darkness, we can’t run forever.  Yes, we can try…  But sooner or later the truth comes out.  The sooner we stop running and open ourselves up to the grace God offers through Jesus Christ, the happier we’ll be.   There is no need to carry around the shame and the guilt of sin, for God through his Son, provides an alternative.  We can get over our guilt.  We can put away the burden of sin and shame and embrace a new life as a disciple of Jesus—the life of a believer in the one who is the author of all life.

Our passage today is part of a longer section.  It starts with Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night.  And Jesus tells the Pharisee that he’ll need to be born again—which leaves Nicodemus speechless, for he can see no way he can make this happen.  But that’s just the point.  He can’t.  We can’t.  But God can.  And God cares for this messed up world so much, he’s willing to give it all, to give his Son, so that through him we can find forgiveness and acceptance and be able to put away the burdens we’ve carried, and live life eternally in his presence.  Don’t be afraid, that’s the message for all of us here.  Don’t be afraid of the light—it’s the only hope we have.

Our passage begins with Jesus recalling a strange healing ritual God had Moses perform in the desert—gazing upon an object they feared—a bronze serpent.  Those who were able to face their fears were able to be healed of the snakes’ poisonousness bite.  Don’t ask me how it worked, but it’s the same way with our sin.  We don’t like it, but as long as we let our fear keep it from the light, we will never get better.  We need to face our fears and one of our greatest fears is our shame being brought to light.  But it is the only way to salvation, the admission that we can’t save ourselves and must surrender all to the God of Creation who showed us his love in Jesus Christ.  This week, when you experience the glorious sunlight of spring in Savannah, think about what sins you need to bring to God’s light in order to be healed.  Amen.

 

©2015

[1] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 201.

[2] Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon Days (New York: Penguin, 1985), 140.

[3] See Raymond Brown, The Gospel of John I-XII: The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1966), 133.

[4] Graham Green, A Burnt-out Case (New York: Viking, 1961), 247.

Jesus Cleanses the Temple

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

March 8, 2015

John 2:13-25

The second chapter of John’s gospel has two stories.  In the first, Jesus is the life of the party as he turns water into wine.  In the second story, from where my sermon will come, Jesus breaks up a party.[1]  It’s Jesus’ first confrontation as recorded by John with the religious leaders of the day.  The season of Lent is about us preparing ourselves to accept (or rededicate) our lives to Jesus.  Let’s hear what John says and think about what we might learn… Read John 2:13-25.

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I love this story (at least on one level).  Jesus, like Rambo or some superhero, his righteousness burning, cleanses the temple.  This story is most appealing when I’m angry; I justify myself as I’m reminded that Jesus, too, got angry.   But, on another level, I wonder if that’s not an excuse for my own bad behavior.

John tells us that this occurred during the Passover.  I should point out a few things about this story which appears in all four of the gospels.[2]  As you probably know, many of the stories in the gospels appear only in two or three.  But all have the account of Jesus cleansing the temple.[3]  But there are slight differences in John’s retelling from the others.  He places the story early in his biography of Jesus, and makes it his first big encounter with the religious leaders of the day, where the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, place the story toward the end of Jesus’ life.  In those gospels, the story becomes one of the reasons why the Jewish officials are so adamant that Jesus must be put to death.[4]

I’m not going to try to come to some kind of harmonization of the four Gospels based on the events found here, but I think we should look at John’s Gospel, and see why he placed this story where he did, and why he includes his particular details, which are somewhat different than the other gospels.  First of all, John tells us that this is at Passover.  In John’s gospel the Passover is recounted three times, whereas in the other gospels they only mention the Passover feast during the time of the Last Supper.  This is how we come up with the notion of Jesus having three years of ministry.[5]

Jesus and his disciples had headed south to Jerusalem.  The text says they “went up to Jerusalem,” but that refers to Jerusalem being up in the hills.  They are on a religious pilgrimage and desire to celebrate the Passover in the Holy City.  When they arrive at the temple, there at the outer court, the Court of the Gentiles, Jesus finds a shopping mall. John includes a little more detail here than the other gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke do not mention sheep and cattle being sold at the temple, only the dove sellers along with the money changers.

The reason for this selling is that many of those who have come to the temple are like Jesus and the disciples.  They have traveled great distances, coming from Galilee, and in some cases coming from other areas of the Mediterranean in order to be at Jerusalem during the time of the Passover.  While there, they would like to be able to offer a sacrifice in the temple.  But, if you travel a long distance, it’s kind of hard to bring along your own sacrifice, especially since the sacrifice needs to be unblemished.  So, they bring money, hoping to purchase a suitable sacrifice locally.  Seeing this as an opportunity, merchants stepped in to fill the need.  (And, no doubt, gouge the tourist.)

The other group of people, the money changers, are there because you are required to pay a temple tax when you enter to pray.  The tax covers the temple operation and salaries, but the tax itself must be paid with a special coin.  You couldn’t pay it with the regular currency the Romans used because those coins had the image or the seal of Caesar imprinted on them.  This leads to the story in Luke’s Gospel where the religious leaders are attempting to trap Jesus by offering him a coin and asking him about it.  “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s, Jesus replied.[6]   This whole topic comes upon the offense the Jews took of coins with Caesars head on them.

The money changers also perform an important role in the eyes of the Jews, making sure that the money used to pay the temple tax is appropriate, and isn’t money considered idolatrous for having Caesar’s face on it.

But this buying and selling within the temple grounds disturb Jesus.  He throws a fit, telling them to take all their stuff out of there, and to stop making his father’s house a marketplace.  By the way, Jesus doesn’t say that the buying of animals or the change of money is wrong—it’s just that it’s being done in the wrong location.  They’ve taken over the Court of the Gentiles as if gentiles don’t matter.  It’s all about location and the temple is to be for worship.[7]

John tells us Jesus made a whip of cords, and with it he drives the animals and moneychangers out.  To my knowledge this is the first ever recorded “running of the bulls.”  Some scholars suggests the reason Jesus makes a whip out of cords is that any other kind of weapon, like sticks, would have been prohibited in the temple area.[8]  These cords laying around were probably used to lead the animals into the temple and once sacrificed, the cords weren’t needed anymore.  So Jesus fashions them into a whip, not a dangerous whip, but one that gets his point across as he chases everyone out.

Of course, this upsets the religious leaders.  They immediately ask Jesus, “Why are you doing this?  What sign can you show for doing this?”  In other words, who gives Jesus this authority?  Who says he can come onto the temple grounds and crash their party?  Jesus’ reply is interesting. “Destroy the temple,” he says, “and in three days I will raise it up.”  They respond that the temple has been under construction for 46 years, and in fact, it’s going to be several more decades before the temple is completed (it will only be completed a few years before the Romans destroy it for the final time.)  So they look at Jesus with amazement and disbelief.

Yet, we’re told there were many who believe in Jesus because of what he does and the signs he provides. The primary sign here, I assume, is the force he uses driving out the money changers and those selling sacrifices.  People feel that he has authority.  But then, we’re told Jesus does not entrust himself to them, because he knows all people, and needs no one to testify about anyone, because he himself knows what is in everyone.  So here, early on, John is reminding us of the divine nature of Jesus Christ.

In the tenth chapter of John’s Gospel, John portrays Jesus as the Good Shepherd.  And, of course, there is the 23rd Psalm, where God is seen in this pastoral vision as the Good Shepherd, who leads the sheep to grassy meadows, or takes them to places where the water is still, so they might have a drink.  But the Good Shepherd, who is also one who will lay down his life for the sheep, will vigorously defend the herd from any kind of attack or wild animal.  I think the second vision of a shepherd defending the sheep helps us understand what Jesus is doing here as he cleanses the temple.

Jesus is concerned with our worship, and that our worship be focused on God, and not be done as a way to enrich ourselves.  In an essay reflecting on Jesus’ righteous indignation, John Bell of the Iona Community suggests that ‘to do nothing, to remind calm in the face of this iniquity, would be to condone the discriminatory practices.”[9]

We need to understand the nature of worship John is driving at in his gospel.  If you go to the fourth chapter, where Jesus speaks to the Samaritan woman at the well, you may recall that Jesus tells her there will come a time when worship will not be centered at the temple, or at another mountain in Samaria where the Samaritans worshipped.[10]  Worship is to occur everywhere.  As followers of Jesus, our whole lives are to be acts of worship.  We give thanks to God, for he has given us everything we have.  In this way, this passage is about stewardship, how we use what God has given us.  Are we good stewards with that which God has given to us?  Do we use our resources, our talents, our gifts in ways pleasing to God and thereby glorify God?  Or do we, like the folks in the story, try to hedge God’s gifts and create a bounty for ourselves?

When we are selfish and only use our talents and resources for our own benefit, and corrupt worship for financial gain, we are in danger of facing the wrath that Jesus shows here at the temple.  We break the commandments, for we create ourselves and what we do into our own little god.  We worship ourselves above God the Father in Heaven.

Believing in Jesus Christ is more than just making a statement of faith.  It’s more than just going through confirmation class, and standing up and saying Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior.  It also involves following Him and living our lives in a manner which is pleasing to Him, and which will glorify God.  The pastoral vision of Jesus as a Good Shepherd contains both functions of the position.  It’s not just leading the lost lamb back to the flock, but caring for the flock and protecting the honor of the herd’s owner.  If Jesus was just the gentle shepherd, why would He have been crucified?  Or to put it bluntly as Christian author Philip Yancy does in his book The Jesus I Never Knew, what government would execute Mr. Rogers or Captain Kangaroo?[11]

I hope you get my point here.  A shepherd can’t always be a nice guy.  A shepherd has to protect the sheep and may become violent in order to do this.  Like a shepherd having to deal with wild animals and thieves, Jesus leads us through a world that is troubling and violent.  As a shepherd, he’s willing to go to bat for his sheep, even to the point of laying down his life in order to protect the lambs.

As a member of Jesus’ flock, we should take comfort in our Lord’s anger.  Yes, sometimes it might be disconcerting to us, but in the long-run, only such a God can keep us safe from the wolves looking to devour us, while protecting the holiness of God.  As a member of his flock, this should be comforting to us, but it is also a warning.

Don’t use this passage to justify your anger.  Instead, use it as a reminder that because our Lord’s love for us is great, his anger will burn against anything that threatens our eternal safety. Amen.

 

©2015

[1] Drawing from the internet.  To the best of my ability, the original sourc ise:  Jesus Clears the Temple – from “The Book of Books in Pictures”, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Verlag von Georg Wigand, Liepzig: 1908

[2] Matthew 21:12-17, Mark 11:15-19, Luke 19:45-48.

[3] Other stories in all four gospels include the baptism, the feeding of the multitude, the entry into Jerusalem, the washing of the disciple’s feet, the supper, the betrayal, crucifixion and resurrection.

[4] In John’s gospel, the catalysis that leads to Jesus’ death is the raising of Lazarus.  See John 11:45-52.

[5] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 143.

[6] Luke 20:25.

[7] Bruner, 143-144.

[8] Raymond Brown says that whips were not allowed (he actually suggested Jesus might have instead used the rushes used for animal bedding instead of cords).  See Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John, I-XII (New York: Doubleday, 1966), 115.

[9] John Bell, 10 Things They Never Told Me About Jesus (Chicago: GIA Publications, 2009), 116.

[10] John 4:21.

[11] Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 15.

Colbert’s Confession of Faith

I found this video interesting, especially how Stephen Colbert recalls Peter’s profession of Jesus as the Messiah followed by his human frailness as an example of our struggles (and which goes with my sermon of last Sunday).  While I agree that Peter was the leader chosen by Christ for the early church, I don’t agree with him being the first Pope as that concept wasn’t established until later.  None the less, I commend this video and how Colbert expresses his faith to you.

Second Sunday in Lent 2015

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

March 1, 2015

Mark 8:27-38

 

We didn’t talk about Lent last week as we were busy with the Kirkin’ o’ the Tartans.  Thanks to everyone who made that service special.   Today is the second Sunday of Lent.  This is a season set aside in the ancient church for preparation for Easter, especially preparation for those who were considering baptism and joining the faith.   In time, Lent has become a season of repentance as we confess our unworthiness of and thankfulness for God’s grace.  My passage this morning is from the 8th Chapter of Mark.  It reminds us that we can easily mess up and that God’s ways are not our ways.  Read Mark 8:27-38

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We all wanna be like Jesus, right?  We’re in church so I expect your answer is in the affirmative.  But do we really want to be like Jesus?  And if we’re sincere, do we have what it takes?  Peter must have thought he had what it took.  After all, he’s the one who hits the nail on the head, boldly proclaiming that Jesus is the Messiah.  This is the climax of Mark’s gospel.  Peter reveals Jesus’ true identity and if you look at the gospel as a whole, you’ll see that the story quickly shifts.

The first half of Mark’s gospel is about Jesus’ preaching and teaching, his healings and exorcisms as he travels the countryside.  Anticipation builds as to just who this guy is that is known as the “Son of Man?”  Jesus has a purpose and maybe he’s afraid if the word gets out too soon, he won’t get things done.  So Jesus tells the disciples not to say anything about him being the Messiah and then he changes subject.  From this point on in Mark’s gospel, Jesus focuses on his upcoming passion, his suffering and death.  Peter, however, doesn’t want to hear any of this.  Jesus’ talk shatters his image of the Messiah.

You know, Spring Training is now underway, so it’s time to talk baseball.  Did any of you see the movie, Eight Men Out?  It’s been out a while and was about the 1919 Chicago White Sox, a team dubbed as the Black Soxs for throwing the World Series.  One of the most memorable movements in the movie is of a kid about ten years old.  The scandal has just broken and the kid runs up to Shoeless Joe Jackson, one of the best all time players of the game who, when he first started playing, was so poor that he played barefooted.  At this point in the movie, he’s about to be banned from baseball for good.  The kid runs up to his hero and pulls on his pants, crying, “Say it ain’t so, Joe!  Say it ain’t so.”

It’s hard when our hero turns out differently than we expect.  Yet, that is often what happens which is why it seems that people in high places often fall from grace, because they cannot live up to their own expectations.  Jesus, however, is perfect.  It’s just that he sets a new standard, one that Peter doesn’t expect.  Peter has grand visions for the Messiah, the one who will restore Israel to her rightful place of prominence.  He wants Jesus to be a tough Super-hero.  When Jesus talks about his upcoming death, Peter is just like that little kid, “Say it ain’t so, Jesus!  Say it ain’t so.”

Jesus then does something that catches everyone off guard.  Turning to Peter, he rebukes him, “Get behind me, Satan.”  In a matter of minutes, Peter has gone from being on Cloud Nine to having his parade rained out.  Jesus calls Peter, the guy who has been beside Jesus for some time, Satan.  Jesus goes on to show Peter his fault.  The Rock, as his name implies, is thinking like any other man.  Peter’s thought process is no different than yours and mine and other humans.  Jesus’ plans don’t make sense to our way of thinking.  We understand power.  Like Peter, we could understand if Jesus picked up a sword and lead a campaign again the Romans.  But that’s not what happens.  God’s ways are not our ways.  With God, the weak and the meek inherit the earth. [1] Face it, that’s not the way things generally work out on our planet.

Like Peter, we understand an arm’s race; we understand the power of money and guns, tanks and ships, politics and coalitions.  Like Peter, we’d all be there saying to Jesus, “Say it ain’t so!”  Like Peter, we’d be rebuked.  We’d hear Jesus’ words, “Get behind me, Satan.”  Yes, like Peter, our hero won’t measure up to our standard, but more importantly we won’t measure up to his.

At least Peter’s rebuke was in a semi-private setting (just the disciples).  After these words, Jesus calls the crowd over and continues to teach.  “If you want to be my followers,” he says, “you’re going to have to pick up your cross.”  I envision those following Jesus being a troubled by what they are hearing.  These are the hardcore supporters, who have followed Jesus to Caesarea Philippi, a good hike from where Jesus has been teaching.  These are the Jesus’ groupies who’ve taken off work to follow Jesus for a few days and now they’re in a town named after the Roman Emperor (who they hope to overthrow). Hearing Jesus talk some kind of nonsense about picking up a cross, I’m sure, caused some of them to say, I’m out of here.”  They knew what it meant to pick up a cross; they’d seen those who had taken up arms again Rome wither on the cross.

Of course, we’ve sanitized the cross to the point that it is safe to wear around our necks.  We have crosses on the lapels of coats.  We put crosses on the windows and bumpers.

Will Campbell, who refers to himself as a bootleg preacher (he’s an ordained Southern Baptist), has harshly criticized the church in America for teaching essentially, “Pick up you cross and relax.”[2]  We don’t know what it means to pick up our cross today.  A decade ago, Mel Gipson tried to get us to consider it in his movie, The Passion of the Christ, but did it stick?

When Jesus says, “Pick up your cross,” he is providing a vivid analogy to something those gathered around him knew all too well.  Rome freely employed the cross as a way to terrorize slaves and citizens of conquered lands.  The cross was the ultimate deterrent—you challenge Rome and you pay dearly.  Those Galileans following Jesus had seen it in action.  They lived in a brutal world.  When Jesus began to talk about crosses, they didn’t have any romantic allusions to some fashion accessory.

Jesus then continues by giving one of his paradoxical proverbs:  “Those who want to save their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it.”  Like “the last being first,”[3] this proverb makes no sense to the economy of the world.  But God’s economy is different.  Winning isn’t what counts the most; its faithfulness, faithfulness to the one who was willing to give his life for the life of the world.

What’s most important?  Where are our commitments?  Are we committed first and foremost to our Savior Jesus Christ?    Now, this passage implies martyrdom, which isn’t an option any of us would willingly choose.  Yet, when we accept Christ’s call, according to Paul, we’re called to allow our old selves to die as we receive new life in Christ.[4]  In a spiritual sense, we all die as we leave our past behind and seek to become more Christ-like.

Is Christ calling us to face martyrdom as this passage is sometimes interpreted?  We don’t think about martyrs much anymore, or at least we didn’t until ISIS started their atrocities such as murdering the Egyptian Coptic Christians two weeks ago.

Brian Blount, a New Testament scholar and now the President of Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, has spent a lot of time working with the gospel of Mark.  Brian suggests that martyrdom isn’t exactly what our Lord is calling us to.  Instead, he’s calling us to be his followers or to join him on “the way.”  This way has already been outlined in Jesus’ teachings.  It’s the way of healing, of confronting the demons of the world, of being merciful and proclaiming God’s kingdom.  All disciples are called to share in this work.  We’re to follow Jesus, doing what he commands, which doesn’t necessarily mean death by the cross (even though it’s always a remote possibility, as some of the disciples experienced).  After all, we’ve aligned ourselves with Christ and in doing so we’ve shunned the values of the world.[5]  This can be threatening, but the most any worldly power can do is to kill us. However, as disciples, we are not living for today.[6]  We’re living for eternity and in the everlasting realms, the powers on earth are weak.

This understanding of picking up your cross as a call to follow Christ helps us make sense out of Jesus’ rebuke of Peter.  “Get behind me, Satan,” is a command for Peter to take his rightful place as a follower.  Instead, Peter tempts Christ to deviate from his mission.  As a tempter, Peter does the work of Satan, hence the reference

In light of being followers of Christ, do you recall the old bumper sticker that read, “God is my copilot?”  It’s wrong.  God, through Christ, is to be our pilot and navigator.  We can be the flight attendants.

Do we want to be like Jesus?  Then we must be willing to follow him.  Following requires commitment.  We dedicate ourselves to something bigger than us.  We put away our worldly ways of thinking.  Like Peter, we must conform our mind to the mind of Christ.  We can’t try to change Christ mind to reflect our values.  We have to be willing to put Jesus and his kingdom ahead of our own little kingdoms.  Do we wanna be like Jesus?  It is a difficult road; it’s the way of the cross.  Amen.

 

©2015

[1] Matthew 5:5

[2] Will D. Campbell, Souls among Lions (Louisville; Westminster/John Knox press, 1999), 37.

[3] Matthew 20:16.

[4] Romans 6:1-6.

[5] Brian K. Blount, Go Preach!  Mark’s Kingdom Message and the Black Church Today (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1998).  See especially Chapter 9.

[6] Matthew 10:18, Luke 12:4.

A Story of a Cross

This past Sunday I was asked if there was a story behind the silver cross I normally wear in worship over my robe.  Well, yes, there is.

meAs I was preparing to head to seminary in Pittsburgh, I accepted a part time job at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Butler, Pennsylvania.  I was hired for this position over the phone, after being interviewed by the Pastor, Steve Hamilton, and an Elder.  Jean Henderson, who was the placement and field education director at the seminary (and who had also been interim at Covenant) had given them my name.  We had a pleasant chat.  Not having a map close by, I had no idea where Butler was at so I asked.  I will never forget Steve’s response.  “It’s just a nice 30 minute drive through the country up Route 8.”  (The second time I drove it, I counted, in the 32 miles from the seminary to the church, 48 stoplights.  Obviously, we had different views of country drives).   Despite the drive, it was a wonderful experience.  Steve was a good mentor and the congregation was encouraging.

In a way, the members of Covenant are the reason I decided to go into pastoral ministry.  When I entered seminary, I had no idea what I was doing except that I was answering a call from God to go to seminary.  I assumed I would graduate and continue in similar work to what I had been doing, perhaps becoming a church capital campaign fundraiser.  From the beginning, people in the congregation at Covenant would say, “you need to go into the pastoral ministry.”  But I thought I would never have enough to say to sustain a lifetime of preaching.  Through their encouragement, I began to think about pastoral ministry and during the summer between my first and second year of seminary, when I set out to complete the Appalachian Trail, I found myself thinking more and more about the pastoral ministry.  When I decided to take an internship year, I accepted a position in Virginia City where, as student pastor, where I had full responsibility for the congregation’s preaching and pastoral care.  That became my trial by fire.

I have many good memories of working at Covenant, especially with the youth.  We did ski trips at Seven Springs as well as cross-country skiing closer to home, camped out in a cabin in Cook Forest, toured the Pittsburgh Zoo, held Superbowl parties, baked bread overnight on a Saturday and sold it to the congregation as a mission fundraiser, held a congregational “Valentine’s Day Dance,” exploring the “Underground Railroad” room under the building, and celebrated the congregation’s 175th Anniversary.  At the end of my first year, the congregation gave me a robe which I wore for over ten years, only replacing it when I earned a doctorate and the congregation I served at the time gave me a new robe with chevrons.  But it was my last year at Covenant that they really surprised me.

DSC_0279

The cross on a stand in my bookcase

One June 4, 1988, after my semester was over, we took the youth to Cedar Point, a large amusement park on Lake Erie in Northwestern Ohio.  We left the church before dawn, all huddled into a rented van that Steve and I took turns driving.   After a day of riding roller coasters and enjoying one other’s company, we drove home, arriving well after midnight.  I think I got six hours of sleep before crawling out of bed and preaching.  During that worship service, I was surprised by the gift from the congregation.  The Andersons, members of the church, had a son who own a jewelry store and was a silversmith.  They had him design a one-of-a-kind Celtic cross.  I wore the cross that Sunday and have worn it almost every time since then that I have been in the pulpit.

DSC_0280

Nevada Jack

I was showered with many gifts that day including two others that I remember and still cherish.  Steve gave me the journal that I wrote in during my year in Nevada as a student pastor.  And the Johnston family, who had two children in the youth program, gave me a teddy bear that I would name Nevada Jack.  Nevada Jack has made many appearances at children sermons over the years.  Around his neck is a neckerchief that reads:  “Jeff ‘Y’all’ Garrison, May the Lord be with you, Love, David, Jody, Heather and Noah Johnston.”

When I look at the cross or scan through my journal notes or see Nevada Jack sitting on the bookcase, I am reminded of what wonderful people that have helped guide me along the way.

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Sr. High Youth, winter 1986-7

Youth Group at a YMCA Overnight Retreat Winter 1987-1988

 

 

 

Kirkin’ o’ the Tartans Service, February 22, 2015

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Ephesians 2:11-22

February 22, 2015

knox

John Knox, 1513-1572

For the past two months, I have tried to hit on some of the key tenets of the Presbyterian Church while linking these topics with theologians who were instrumental within our Reformed Tradition.  Today, my topic is going to be the church and since we are celebrating the Kirkin today, we’re borrowing prayers and liturgy from the Scottish Reformer, John Knox.  Of all the well-known Reformers, Knox perhaps suffered the most, spending a year and a half as a galley slave in a French navy vessel after the French intervened into the Scottish troubles on behalf of the Roman Church.  He was also one of the most fervent Reforms as can be seen in his prayers (I’ve toned down some of them).

In the Kirkin’, those of us of Scottish descent (and I’m from the MacKenzie clan) honor our extended family.  But more important than this family is the larger family to which we all belong, the family of God.  Knox, who during a period of exile from Scotland studied under John Calvin, insisted that the true Church could be found whether the word was rightly proclaimed, sacraments rightly administered, and discipline maintained according to Scripture.  This three-fold marks of the church adds one to Calvin’s, who only insisted on the first two marks for the true church.[1]  But the “marks of the true church” need to be held up against Scripture.   Listen to how Paul describes the Christian community and how we are connected first to God and then to one another. Read Ephesians 2:11-22.

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What’s God’s vision?  That’s the most important question we, as disciples of Jesus, should be asking… What ultimately matters isn’t what we want; it’s what God wants.  Our passage this morning provides a clear outline of God’s vision—the mending of a broken world through Jesus Christ.

In an article titled “Living the Vision of God,” Dallas Willard tells a story that illustrates what it means to be committed to the Almighty God and not a substitute:

When you go to Assisi, you will find many people who talk a great deal about St. Francis, many monuments to him, and many businesses thriving by selling memorabilia of him.  But you will not find anyone who carries in himself the fire that Francis carried.  No doubt many fine folks are there, but they do not have the character of Francis, nor do they do the deeds of Francis, nor have his effects.[2]

 

He goes on to write about how Francis stayed focused to the vision of God.  There was a fire within him that caused him to challenge the church of the age as he worked to help the poor and to bring people together in Jesus Christ.  Willard’s point in his short essay is that we often become involved in the good works or in mission of the church and forget the vision of God.  Everything we do here at Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church, as well as in multitude of other congregations around the globe, needs to be grounded in God’s vision.

In verse 19, Paul lays out God’s vision.  We’re no longer strangers and aliens, but citizens and saints and members of the household of God.  Then Paul describes God’s vision as a building project.  But it’s not a project where all the material is delivered from a lumber yard and deposited in neat piles accessible to the carpenters: the 2x4’s here, the 2x6’s there, the sheeting over yonder…  Instead, the materials needed for this building are scattered and isolated, estranged and cut-off from each other.  So God starts with the cornerstone, which is Christ.  Then he sets the foundation: the apostles and prophets.  With a strong base with which to begin, the structure can begin to rise up using material that has to be brought together from afar until at last there is a spiritual dwelling place for God.  This spiritual dwelling place is the church; the place where those of us who have accepted what Christ has done for them can be at home.

Charles Hodge, a professor at Princeton and probably the greatest American theologian of the 19th Century, in commenting on this passage makes this claim:  “To be alien from the church, therefore, is to be an alien from God.  It is to be without Christ and without hope.”[3]  John Knox, the principle author of the Scots Confession, a part of which we’ll say together in a few minutes, says that without of the Kirk (the church) we won’t have eternal life.[4]

The doctrine of the church is important.  What Hodge and Knox insists is that it’s impossible to be a Christian outside of a community. Jesus was always calling people together. We are not Lone Rangers.

Next Sunday, we’ll celebrate the Lord’s Supper.  The imagery of the table around which we gather with Christ as the host is just a follow-up on what happens throughout the Gospels, people coming together and being in fellowship.  If you remember the stories of Jesus, you may be surprised by who sits at the table: a sinner, to the sinner’s right is a tax collectors, across the table is a prostitute, and then there are a few religious leaders, the disciples, along with a mother-in-law or two, and other family members.[5]  Jesus calls us together, out of our brokenness, where we are united and made whole through him and through the fellowship with others.

Paul begins our text recalling the conditions of the Christians in Ephesus before their conversion.  It appears most of the congregation were Gentile converts to the faith.[6]  They were aliens from Israel, cut off from the faith and without hope.  But Christ changes that!  The dividing wall between the Jews and the Gentiles is removed.  Remember, at the crucifixion the veil at the temple that separated the worshippers from the Holy of Holies split, signaling the barriers to God are removed.[7] God comes to us in Jesus Christ, even though we are sinful, so that we might all be reconciled to God.  As Paul says in verse 15, there is no longer two, but one new humanity.  We may come under different tartans, but inside these walls, we are all the same.  All who accept and believe in Jesus are given new passports.  We’re now citizens of God’s kingdom; we are now members of God’s household.

Elsewhere in the letter, Paul speaks of our being “adopted” by God.[8]  In the Scots Confess, we’re told that God has chosen from all ages, realms, nations and tongues those who make up his church.[9]  Christians are all part of the same family which is why we’re to be at peace with one another, loving and enjoying each other’s fellowship.  However, this doesn’t mean we don’t also love those who are not believers, for only to love those inside the church would be hypocritical.  Not all people are children of God, for not everyone has been adopted into the family.[10]  But everyone—in and out of the family—is loved by God and created by God in His image.  So, as we strive to imitate our Savior’s example, we love everyone!  However, if we can’t get along with those within the family, how are we going to show those outside the family our love?

Part of the problem of the church today, and I’m talking about the church in general, is that we are so divided and so distrustful of each other.  Liberals or progressives don’t like those who are conservative or more orthodox and neither do those who are conservative like those who are liberal.  In this way, we mirror society!  Sometimes one congregation will hold a grudge against another congregation.  But the divisions aren’t just between congregations and denominations; they can also be between groups of people within a congregation or within a denomination.  Such groups insist on things being their way.  They insist that they are right.  Where is the humility displayed by Jesus?  We’re supposed to be a family; look around and remember to love everyone!

A few years ago, Dan Kimball, a pastor who has done a lot of work with the “emerging generation,” published a book titled, They Like Jesus But Not the Church.[11]  When you think about how the church sometimes behaves, it is easy to see why they don’t want to be a part of it.  But Jesus doesn’t call us into the church to be contentious or to feel self-righteous.  We’re called into this community to love one another and to show the world another way of living.

One of the “Great Ends” of the Presbyterian Church states, we’re to exhibit “the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.”[12]  How are we doing at exhibiting God’s kingdom?  In another place in foundations of our church’s polity, the church is described as “a community of love, where sin is forgiven, reconciliation is accomplished, and the dividing walls of hostility are torn down.”[13]  When the church lives into its ideals, we will create a place where people will be drawn to us.  As the old folk song goes, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

God loves us and has called us together so that we might love one another.  Will we?  Ask yourself, “what will ‘I’ do this week to show love to those who are around me?”  May we, in the mighty name of Jesus Christ, make our part of the world a better place.   Amen.

©2015

[1] For Knox’s take on the church see Presbyterian Church, USA, Book of Confessions 3.25  (The Scots Confession, Chapter XXV).  For Calvin, see John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559 ed), V.1.9.  The Foundations of Presbyterian Polity in the opening of the Presbyterian Church Book of Order follows the three-fold marks of the church (F-1.0303)

[2] Dallas Willard, “Living in the Vision of God,” http://www.dwillard.org/articles/artview.asp?artID=96

[3] Charles Hodge, Commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians (1857, reprinted Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 124.

[4] Presbyterian Church USA, Book of Confession, 3.16  (Chapter XVI, The Kirk).

[5] For example see Luke 8:39, 14, 15:1-2, 19:5

[6] Ralph P. Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon: Interpretation: A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1991), 32.

[7] Matthew 27:51, Mark 15:38 and Luke 23:45

[8] Ephesians 1:5.  Paul also speaks of adoption in other letters.  See Galatians 4:5, Romans 8:5, 23.

[9] Presbyterian Church USA, Book of Confessions 3.16 (The Scots Confession, Chapter XVI, “The Kirk)

[10] Rick Warren, What On Earth Am I Here For? (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2012), 120.

[11] Dan Kimball, They Like Jesus But Not the Church: Insights from Emerging Generations (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007).

[12] Presbyterian Church (USA), Book of Order, F-10304

[13] Ibid, F-1.0301

Boy Scout Sunday

The Boy Scout BadgeJeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church


Boy Scout Sunday: Psalm 8  


February 8, 2014

 My love for being outdoors was kindled during my years as a Boy Scout.  Our troop would often camp in Holly Shelter Swamp along the Northeast Cape Fear River.  Down below the bluff on which we camped was a dirt parking lot for a boat ramp.  On Saturday evening, after the sun set and dinner was done and dishes washed, we would gather in the empty parking lot for a giant game of capture the flag followed by a bonfire.  In the winter, with clear skies and no electric lights for miles, the stars were brilliant.  Some nights, our scoutmaster would tell us a scary story but other nights he’d talk about the mythology behind some of the constellations.  We would look up at the sky in awe, and I still do.  On Thursday evening, about nine, Orion was high overhead, Tarsus (the Bull) along with Pleiades (the Seven Sisters), were beginning their descent toward the western horizon as Canis Major (with the Dog Star) rising higher in the east.  Looking up, I felt as if I am among old friends.

Psalm 8 is attributed to David, the Shepherd King. I can imagine him, on the nights he spent out in the fields with the sheep, looking up in awe of God’s handiwork.  The sky, especially on a crisp clear night, is amazing.  And he pens these words…   Read Psalm 8

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Do any of you Boy Scouts like Dennis the Menace?  He was one of my heroes when I was in Scouts and my uncle, who was like an older brother to me, would pass along his old comic books and I would laugh and laugh as I devoured them.  I remember in one strip, Dennis the Menace tells his friend Joey he prayed at night because the rates are lower.  (I hate to have to explain this joke, but it’s probably one only those of you over 25 who understand… you see, before cell phones and changes in telephone services, it was once much cheaper to call at night.  That’s a history lesson for the Scouts!).

Part of what makes Dennis so endearing is his honesty. “It’s cheaper to pray at night,” the five-year old reasoned, picking up I’m sure on a reference from his parents that long-distance calls are cheaper at night than daytime. And why shouldn’t prayer be the same way? There may even be an underlying truth to his comment. I expect if you took a survey of people who pray regularly, you’ll find that with the exception of mealtime, most people pray at night, while horizontal in their beds. I know I do.  It’s the time of day to put our worries aside and prayer is one way for us to do this.

If you are praying at night, continue! But if you are only praying at night, think about what this says about how important God is in your life. As I once heard it said, “Prayer is not a part-time occupation for Christians.” If we want an intimate relationship with God, we have to do our part to stay connected as well as to understand what God requires of us.

Since Christmas, I have been talking about distinctions which make us Presbyterian and a part of the church known as the Reformed Tradition.  One of the things we in the Reformed Tradition highlight is the importance of stewardship.[1]  Now, too often people only think of stewardship as giving money to the church, but as I’ll say over and over again, that is only a very small part of what it means.

Stewardship is an acknowledgement that all we are and all we have and the entire domain in which we live belongs to God.  As stewards, God has placed us on earth and expects us use the gifts given to make the world a better place.  We are called by God, we are saved through the death of Jesus, for the purpose of carrying out God’s will.[2]  Therefore, all of us, not just these guys in uniform at the front, are to be doing good turns daily! We’re to be God’s stewards of that which God provides, making the world a better place even as we wait for paradise to be restored as we heard in our first reading this morning.[3]

Today, we’re spending time with a passage that’ll help us understand our role as God’s stewards in the world.  God creates a world that over and over again is proclaimed “good.”[4] And God, the Almighty one, the “Maker of Heaven and Earth,” gives us dominion over this world. We’re heirs of God’s creation and his creative ability. Unfortunately, too often we take this for granted. But it’s not always been that way. Listen to what Eugene Peterson, the translator of The Message, a Presbyterian minister and theologian has to say about how Israel used the Psalms.

The Psalms were prayed by people who understood that God had everything to do with them. God, not their feelings, was the center. God, not their souls, was the issue. God, not the meaning of life, was critical. Feelings, souls and meanings were not excluded—they are very much in evidence—but they are not the reason of the prayers.[5]

 The Psalms are prayers and hymns of Israel, a people who, in their best, drew their meaning from this unique relationship they had with the Creator. They were a people who didn’t consider prayer a long distant phone call, for they knew God was present. Likewise, God is present with us. We don’t pray just because we’re in the mood; we don’t pray just because we need something; we don’t pray just because we want to go to heaven—that’s all self-centered stuff—we pray because we acknowledge God as source of all life and from there know that if we’re to be happy, content, and fulfilled in this life, we must ground ourselves in a relationship with our Creator and Redeemer.

The author of the Eighth Psalm is amazed when he contemplates God. Think about him lying on a hill there in Judea watching sheep. As night descends, he looks up into the sky. Stars begin to pop out and he makes out images—the dipper. If it’s winter, he sees Orion, the hunter; if it’s summer, there on the southern horizon, he watches the Scorpion. He looks in awe at the planets. In amazement, he gazes upon the waning moon and is in awe at a streaking meteor. Taking all this in, he’s humbled to think about vastness of the universe and that God, who created is all, is still concerned with a mortals like him, with mortals like you and me.

Some may look at the sky and be overwhelmed and feel so insignificant, but the Psalmist takes a different tack.  As one Old Testament scholar writes, when it comes to God, we don’t worry about what we don’t know about galaxies and electrons, instead we proclaim who it is we trust.[6]

The Psalmist thinks about how God created us. “We are created a little lower than God,” he writes. Indeed, we are created in God’s image; we’ve been given a huge legacy.  Just as God has control and dominion over the universe, we have dominion over our world. The Psalmist recognizes human power, but it’s a power within the context of God. As humans, we relate to the world around us like God relate to us; in other words, God cares for us and we should care for the part of God’s creation we’re given dominion over. Our power is a gift from God. Having dominion doesn’t mean we’re absolute monarchs; rather we’re benevolent kings over creation, ruling for the benefit of all creation.[7]

After the Psalmist elevates the human to a creature given special power and responsibility from God, he returns to his original words: “O Lord, Our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth.” Everything within the Psalmist life is centered and ordered on his relationship to God. If he wants to boast on his achievements, he must, as Paul suggests, “boast in the Lord.”[8]

You know when we consider the wonders of the universe and then consider how God is closely involved with all our lives; we should realize the nature of our relationship to God. When God is revealed in Scripture, we find that our own understanding of self is linked to God. There is no revelation of God without it also throwing light on the nature of humanity.[9] Looking at God, we learn who we are—the power we have as well as our limitations—so that we can see how we should live in order to maximize our lives. Looking at God, we should stand in awe, but with joy in our hearts. God is good and has entrusted us with a world that provides for our needs, a place where we can live fruitful and fulfilled lives; but it’s an awesome responsibility for we are to be good stewards of the gifts God has given.

Let me tell you a story… Once there was a good king who ruled wisely and was loved by all the people of his kingdom. He only had daughters, four of them, and he loved them as well. One day he called his daughters together and told them he was leaving on a long journey. “I wish to learn about God,” he said. “I’m putting you in charge.” They didn’t want him to go, but the King said he’d pray for them and they’d do well. He also told them he had a gift for each of them. They each stepped forward and he placed a grain of rice in each of their hands, telling them it was his wish for them to learn the meaning of the rule.

The oldest daughter immediately went into her room and tired a long golden thread around the rice and placed it in a crystal box. Every day she would look at it. The second daughter also went to her room and placed the grain of rice in a wooden box and put the box in a secure spot under her mattress. The third daughter, the pragmatic one (there always one of them), noticed her grain of rice was no different than all the others. She threw it away, figuring she could always replace it. The youngest daughter took her grain of rice to her room. She thought about it for a week or two, for a month or so. Then finally, she understood.

Several years passed before their father, the king, returned from his pilgrimage. As the oldest daughter saw her father coming down the road, she rushed out to greet him, showing him the grain of rice he had given her. “Very good,” the king said. Then the second daughter ran forth and presented her grain to her father and again the king said, “Very good,” he said again. As the first two daughters were heading out to greet the father, the third ran into the kitchen and fetched a grain of rice. She too presented it to him and again he said, “Very good.”

Finally, the youngest daughter stepped forward and told her father that she did not have the grain of rice he’d given her. “What did you do with it,” her father asked?” “Father,” she said, “I thought about the meaning of the rice for a long time. Finally, I realized that it was nothing but a seed, and then I discovered the meaning. So I planted it (obviously this was a grain of rice that hadn’t been bleached or shucked) and it grew and from that I harvested many seeds and replanted them and now I have enough rice to feed our kingdom.” She then led her father, the king, to where he could see the results. Surrounding the castle were acres and acres of rice.

The king took off his crown and placed it on his youngest daughter’s head saying, “You have learned the meaning of the rule.”[10]

To paraphrase the Psalmist: “God has given us dominion over the works of his hands; God has placed all things under our feet….” Jesus tells us, “The kingdom of God is like a seed…”[11] Standing in awe of God doesn’t mean we’re caught like a deer in the headlights. We worship an awesome God; a God who made us just a little lower than himself, and because of this we have incredible potential to be a positive force for good in the world.

Do you accept the potential God has given you? Will you accept your responsibility to be a good steward of all that God has given you?  Will you do your good turn daily?  Amen.

 

©2015 

[1] Presbyterian Church USA, Book of Order, F-2.05

[2] Ephesians 2:10, Titus 3:6-9

[3] See Revelation 21 & 22.

[4] Genesis 1:31

[5] Eugene Peterson, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), 14.

[6] James L. Mays, “What is a Human Being?  Reflections on Psalm 8,” Theology Today 50: #4 (January 1993), 517.

[7] Cf: Mays, 518.

[8] 1 Corinthians 1:31, 2 Corinthians 10:17; Galatians 6:14.

[9] Artur Weiser, Psalms: Old Testament Library, Herbert Hartwell, translator, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), 142-143.  In the opening chapter of The Institute of Christian Religion (1559 edition), John Calvin writes:  “man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him (God) to scrutinize himself.” (Calvin, Institutes, I.1.2)

[10] William R. White, Stories for Telling (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1986), 71-73.

[11] Matthew 13:31.

Presbyterian and Reformed: The Problem of Sin: Idolatry

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Deuteronomy 5:1-10

February 1, 2015

 

A salty old sailor who sat through a sermon at the Seaman’s mission on the Ten Commandments was visibly shaken.  “What’s the matter,” another asked.  “Well,” he said pondering, “at least I ain’t made no graven images.”

Such is the attitude of many of us today.  In these modern times, the second commandment gets a bit overlooked.  The days of manufacturing idols of out metals, wood or clay are all gone, or so we suppose.  We’re more sophisticated, or so we think.  We don’t believe God resides within an idol and therefore think we are safe from breaking this commandment, but are we?

Today, as I’ve been doing since Christmas, I am looking at key tenets of what makes us a part of the Presbyterian Church and the Reformed Tradition.  Taking sin seriously is one of the tenets.  When it comes to sin, I am sorry to disappoint you, but we are all guilty.  For us, sin finds its root in idolatry-the substituting of something for God.  Sometimes we place ourselves in the position of God (and if it’s not us, it’s our spouse, parents, children, jobs, country, or even the institutional church).  As good as these other things may be (and they can be very good) they are not an acceptable substitute.

220px-Ulrich_Zwingli_by_Hans_Asper_1531

Ulrich (Huldrych) Zwingli 1484-1431

As I have done so far in this series, I am linking our topic to a theologian.  Today, we’ve prayed prayers used by Urich Zwingli, who was the first to reform the churches in Zurich.   Zwingli was probably the most radical of the first generation reformers.  He strove to get rid of anything that might be construed an idol, which led to a purging of the churches in Zurich.  He also had pretty strong beliefs concerning the Lord’s Supper, which separates him from both Luther and Calvin.  He was also a brilliant man, but he died early, in his 40s, in battle.  With such a short life, he did not have the time to produce the massive volumes of written material as did Calvin and Luther.   Our text today will be from Deuteronomy 5:1-10

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In this passage from the beginning of the Ten Commandments, we’re provided three reasons we’re to have no other gods before the One True God.  First of all, it’s the Lord who gives this commandment.   “I am the Lord,” the sixth verse begins. What’s implied here is that God, as Creator, rightful holds the title for the earth. “The world and they who dwell therein” belong to God, the Psalmist proclaims.[1]

Who is this God?  The Confessions of the Presbyterian Church bring together many of the attributes of God found in Scripture.  We speak of God as “a Spirit, infinite in being, glory, blessedness and perfection.”  God is “all-sufficient, eternal, unchangeable, incomprehensible, all present, almighty, all knowing, most wise, most holy, most just, most merciful and gracious, long-suffering and abundant in goodness and truth.”[2]

When we think about God, it is easy for us to be overwhelmed.  As mere creatures, God is beyond our imaginations.  It is easy when contemplating God to give up and resign ourselves never to be able to fully understand God and therefore drop our quest to know God.  But God, as he lays out his commandments, encourages us.  We’re reminded that not only is he Lord, he’s also our God.   “I am the Lord, your God,” he says in verse seven.  Not only is God the all-powerful creator, who rightfully claims ownership of Creation, he is also “our God.”  God takes the initiative to come to us, to enter into a relationship with us, to be personally involved with us.

The second reason given to us to encourage our compliance with the first commandments is that God led our ancestors out of Egypt.   Our God, the Creator of all, heard the cries of the Hebrew people as they labored, building pyramids and other sorts of monuments for the rulers of Egypt.  Today we marvel over their work.  We shouldn’t forget that the construction of these ancient wonders was done by the backbreaking labor of an enslaved people.  But God heard their prayers.  Over the sound of cracking whips, God heard their cries, just as he hears ours.  Through the leadership of Moses and a host of special effects, God rescued his people.  God is not a distant Creator, uninterested in what goes on in the world.  Our God listens and responds.

The third reason given for our obeying this commandment is that we were brought out of the house of slavery.  In the wilderness, as Moses recalled the Commandments, he was referring to Egypt and the 400 year period of slavery.  But let’s take a bit of liberty with its original meaning and see if we can come up with a meaning for us today.  The Exodus event provides a model of how God rescues his people.  It’s an archetype.  We can understand this commandment personally.  We obey because we’ve experienced release from bondage, whatever the form of slavery it might have been.  Has God helped you kick the smoking habit, beat drugs, get control over alcohol abuse, recover from an accident, a job loss or a divorce, or regain self-esteem?  Regardless of what it was, if God helps us regain control, we owe him enough not to break this commandment.

Having no other gods mean we let God be God and we trust and depend upon him.  God is the giver of life.  We need to remember this for whenever we put something between God, and us, we find our lifeline compromised.  If you have difficulty breathing and are on oxygen, you want to be careful not to stand on the tubing between you and the oxygen tank.  Otherwise, you won’t get the air you need and might pass out or even die.  It’s the same way with God.  God’s will is for us to draw our life from him and to live abundantly.  We don’t want to cut off our supply of his life-giving breath, but we do this anytime we place something between God and us.

The first commandment excludes all other gods.  The second commandment forbids any physical representation of either another god or the one true God.  At the time the commandments were given, this was a radical departure from the norm.  In the Near East, the use of art to depict deities was ubiquitous.  Everyone was doing it.  Everyone was into idols.  Israel stood alone and offered a new way of looking at God.  God is holy and therefore not to be depicted in artwork.  This doesn’t mean that art is bad.  Instead of knowing God through art, God is to be known through our experiences with him.  This is why the Exodus event becomes so important for the Hebrew people.  It is in this deliverance they encountered the living God, whose reality can be described, and then only partially, with language.[3]

God, in the Second Commandment, goes to great lengths to stress the importance of not having idols: God insists that idols cannot be in any form, whether it comes from the heavens, the earth or the waters.  Birds, animals and fish are all off limits.  God is the creator, not the creature.  God is the artist, not the subject of art.  God doesn’t want to be objectified, for if we can objectify God, we can handle him, and ours is a God that’s too hot to handle.

Why does God get so upset over idols?  I certainly don’t think God is threatened by our misguided actions.  God has power over all other make-believe gods, as shown by Elijah with the priests of Baal.[4]  There is no danger of God losing his position to one of our idols.  Instead of God taking this personally and being upset, God is actually concerned for our well-being. As a component of our created being, there is a restlessness, a longing, an emptiness within us which we try to fill.  God created us this way so that we might see the need to have him fill our restless desire to worship something beyond ourselves.  But God wants us to come freely, which means that we will also be tempted to create our own substitute for God.  All of us have this desire for fulfillment; idolatry is when we try to satisfy it with something that is less than God.[5]

Idols are impotent; they are without power and they give us nothing.  Idols rob us of the power we have within ourselves and from God through the Holy Spirit.[6]  Our idolatry has gotten more sophisticated; we’ve long given up on the golden calf and little miniature statues of Artemis that were dear to the Ephesians.[7]  But are we putting our trust in God, or in something else?

Surely this commandment means that we are not to depict God in any creaturely way.  But as Christians, we acknowledge that 1400 years after the commandments were given, God came to us as a man.  In other words, God himself chose to relate to us in a way we can understand.  It’s interesting that we’re not given a physical description of Jesus in the New Testament.  The mystery of what God looks like continues!  Instead, we’re told that we will meet him when we reach out to someone in need and that we’ll feel his presence when two or more are gathered in his name.[8]  God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ means we should not worship a picture, even if we had one of Jesus. However, the incarnation gives us a better understanding of the nature of the God we worship and adore.  Through Christ, we can have a more personal relationship with God, which is what God wants and we need.  Think of it this way, you can’t have a relationship with a piece of art; you can only have such a relationship with the living God.

Worship the Lord with all your heart and mind, body and soul.  Amen.

 

©2015

[1] Psalm 98:7, KJV.

[2] Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 7.

[3] Duane L. Christensen, Deuteronomy 1:1-21:9, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001), 114.

[4] 1 Kings 18:20-40

[5] cf, Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing: The Search for A Christian Spirituality (NY: Doubleday, 1999), 3-5.

[6] Joy Davidman, Smoke on the Mountain: An Interpretation of the Ten Commandments in terms of today (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1963), 38-39.

[7] Acts 19:23ff.

[8] See Matthew 18:20, 25:40.

Review of “The Theology of John Calvin”

Charles Partee, The Theology of John Calvin (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2008), 345 pages

theology of john calvinThe Theology of John Calvin is a fitting magnus opus for Charles Partee, who devoted a lifetime to studying and understanding the work of the Reformer. This book is a great addition to the literature on Calvin’s theology as well as the debates that have surrounded the 16th Century Reformer since his first edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion was published in 1536. Partee’s knowledge of Calvin’s writings as well as the writings of Calvin’s proponents and opponents provides the strength to this work. This vast knowledge is also the book weakness. To get to Partee’s understanding of John Calvin, one has to wade through page after page of debate around various interpretations of the Reformer. Although this is an important work, this is not a book that I would recommend for one unfamiliar with the issues surrounding Calvin. To fully appreciate this book, one needs to have some understanding of the major issues of the Reformation as well as many of the theological debates of the past five centuries.

 

Partee begins his study with “three introductory conclusions” in which he identifies the opponents of Calvin (who often argue with a caricature of the reformer), the proponents of Calvin and, as he labels them, the misponents (those who think they are arguing for Calvin but have made wrong assumptions about the Reformer). As Partee points out neither Calvin nor Luther were philosophical theologians, but many of their followers were. (14) The theologians who followed both Reformers, with their philosophical insight, often create a haze over the original Reformers’ work. Partee finds agreement with Holmes Ralston (John Calvin Verses the Westminster Confession), who credits Calvin with rescuing him from the Calvinists. (17) For this to happen, one has to read and understand John Calvin and not just look at what the Reformers who followed Calvin had to say about him.

 

After his introductory chapter, Partee follows the outline that John Calvin used in the Institutes of the Christian Religion. Here, as he does throughout the book, Partee notes the disagreements over various interpretations of Calvin on this point. Many have followed the idea put forth by Benjamin Warfield that the Institutes are based on the four articles of the Apostles’ Creed. Others, such as Edward Dowey suggest the structure to be based on a two-fold knowledge of God (God the Creator and Redeemer). More recently, Philip Butin has suggested the Institutes follow a Trinitarian structure. The fourth interpretation of the structure, one that Partee uses throughout this study, emphasizes “union with Christ,” and sees the structure being divided into two parts: God for Us (Books 1 & 2, God the Creator and God the Redeemer) and God with Us (Books 3 & 4, The Faithful Person(s) and The Faithful Community). (40)

 

Going into a review of the various sections of Calvin’s study as outlined by Partee is beyond the scope of this review. But a few general comments are necessary here. Throughout the book, Partee argues that the writings of John Calvin are more Biblical than theological and that the Reformer is more confessional than logical or argumentative. Partee also argues that “union with Christ” is the center of Calvin’s theology. He deals with issues like election and predestination, but reminds his readers that although Calvin’s opponents (and some of his proponents) try to make this the core of his theology, it’s not. Surely, Calvin believed and wrote about predestination, but it was not the center of his theology. The topic isn’t even broached until well into the Institutes. This changed in later Reformed doctrines such as the Westminster Confession which moved the doctrine of election to the 3rd article and placed Jesus Christ as the 8th article. (243) Predestination, for Calvin, was taught because it’s Biblical. Furthermore, Calvin sees the doctrine as a comfort to the elect, who know that they can’t screw up their election if it is in God’s hands. Furthermore, the doctrine should create humility in the believer (you can’t brag about your salvation if it is God’s doing).

 

Not only does Partee have a wealth of information about theological debates, he is also well versed in the classics and sprinkles this work with quotes by the likes of John Bunyan, John Milton, William Shakespeare and Herman Melville.

 

For those with knowledge of Calvin and the theological issues of the 16th Century, I recommend this book. For others, I would recommend starting with Francois Wendel’sCalvin: The Origin and Development of His Religious Thought. As a disclaimer, I should note that a quarter of a century or so ago, I studied under Charles Partee and found him to be a wonderful and fascinating professor.

Augustine and the Doctrine of Election

                

augustine

Augustine of Hippo

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

January 25, 2015

Romans 8:18-30

 

I am continuing my review of the theology that makes us Presbyterian and a part of that great body within Christ’s church known as the Reformed Tradition.  Today, the topic is election and no, I am not talking about going to the polls, those sickening TV commercials, or even politics.  I am talking about the only election that manners in eternity: God voting for us.  Election is another name for predestination—the theology that maintains God’s control over our salvation.  As one set of theologians writes, “In prosperity and in adversity, God is for us, in us, and with us.  This conviction is not a deduction to be demonstrated to a skeptic, but a mystery to be experienced by the faithful.”[1]  This doctrine is a source of our comfort as followers of Christ who says to the disciples, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.”[2]

As I have done with this series so far, I am going to attach a theologian to this doctrine and that is Augustine.[3]  Augustine lived in North Africa in the late fourth and early fifth century. He’s considered the most influential theologian from the early church; therefore, it’s important we know something about him.  His father was a pagan, but his mother was a Christian. He was an academic early in life, who loved women and liked to party.  Much to his mother’s dismay, he kept a mistress.  During the first thirty years of his life, he certainly didn’t appear to be on the road to sainthood.  But that changed!

Augustine had a mother who continually prayed for him.  Any of you who are mothers who wonder if your prayers for your children do any good, this is an example from which you can draw inspiration.  Thanks to his mom’s prayers along with the work of Ambrose, another leading figure in the early church, and most importantly the work of the Holy Spirit, Augustine was converted.  At the age of thirty, he put aside his wild ways and focused his attention on the church, resigning his professorship so he could concentrate on serving his Savior.

During Augustine’s ministry, the Roman world which had held together for centuries, collapsed.  The church found itself being attacked by left-over pagans, who blamed this chaos on Rome abandoning the gods of old.  The church also found itself attacked internally.  Like Calvin’s Geneva, many Romans flooded North Africa as refugees. Among these refugees was the English theologian Pelagius.  Pelagius, whose writings have not survived so we must reconstruct his views by how his opponents viewed him, questioned the doctrine of Original Sin and held that the human race could, by its God-given will, accept Christ, make the necessary changes, and be saved.  So Augustine had two battles—one with those outside the church and one with a sect within the church.  In his answer to Pelagius, he expands upon the doctrine of election (or predestination), a doctrine from which he borrows heavily from Pauline thought.

Today’s sermon will be taken from the eighth chapter of Romans.  Paul begins discussing our suffering, how it is not comparable to our future glory.  Then he discusses the hope and longing for the unfolding of God’s kingdom, and how all creation is anxiously waiting.  It seems strange that creation yearns, but we must remember that in Genesis, Adam’s fall did not just affect humanity, the rest of creation was also impacted.  If there is any question to this, we just have to look to the mess we humans have made out of the environment.  But we don’t have to depend on ourselves, God’s Spirit has been promised to help us in our weakness.  Paul concludes, reminding us that we can trust in God because all things will come together for the good.

This is an interesting passage.  Paul moves from talking about suffering, creation’s longing for rebirth, and predestination….  Paul continues, in this chapter after our reading, reminding us that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ.  This is a comforting passage.  Ultimately, for Augustine and Calvin, election or predestination is a doctrine of comfort.  Read Romans 8:18-30

###

 

Two of my favorite theologians are Frank and Ernest (from the comic strips).  Ernest asks Frank if he believed in fate.  “Sure,” Frank says, “I’d hate to think I turned out like this because of something I had control over!”

In the last 200 years, predestination has taken a bad rap.  Some equate predestination to fate, but it isn’t exactly the same.  Predestination is a part of Christian Theology which says that God is all powerful and is in control of the world and because of this, God knows what will happen and is working to bring out good in all things.  Of course this type of thought doesn’t seem to allow much room for “free will.”  And we, especially us Americans, like to think of ourselves as free…  We only need to look from a Biblical perspective to see what freedom does for us.  It only gets us deeper into sin.  So, if we are to have any chance at salvation, God has to be in control…  God, not us, is the author of salvation.

One analogy that attempts to explain this imagines the world as one giant supermarket—a huge Publix!  We’re all inside shopping and are freed to pick the items that we can reach and place them into our carts.  Some of these items are good for us like spinach and celery.  We are also able to pick up things that aren’t so good like highly processed foods loaded with sugars and fats.  But God is with us and guides us and, when we’re not looking, is also adding things to our cart that which his way up on the top shelves, where we can’t reach, things like salvation.  We think we’re in control, but are we really?[4]

We Presbyterians have often been characterized as believing in an elitist form of predestination.  I believe this is generally because most people perceive this doctrine on the same level as Frank in the comic strip that I referred to earlier.  They see predestination, our fate, as a crutch.  If I am predestined to be saved, I don’t have to worry about anything and if I am not predestined, then I cannot do anything to change my fate anyway…  This maybe how the average person understands this doctrine, but that’s not totally correct.

Our Confessions challenge such thinking as foolish, for we are to teach everyone God’s word in the hope that they might repent.[5]  That is part of our calling as a Christian.  The doctrine of predestination is a doctrine of comfort for those who are saved, yet still suffer.  It is not a doctrine designed to lead people to Christ. To perceive predestination only in the area of salvation is to misunderstand it.

Before I go too far, I would like to clear up one basic misunderstandings concerning predestination.  This is not only a “Presbyterian” doctrine, regardless of what the followers of Wesley might say.  The concept was clearly presented by Augustine, in the early church and his writings influenced both Calvin and Luther, but all three were deeply inspired by Scripture.  Paul writes that we have been “chosen before the foundations of the world”, and that “from the beginning, God has chosen us to be saved.”[6]  In the Old Testament, Jeremiah is told by the Lord that before he was formed in the womb, God knew him![7]

I do not believe you can have a theology which takes sin and the power and providence of God seriously without having some kind of doctrine of election.  However, this is a part of the counsel of God and we will never fully understand it. As with much with God, it is a mystery.[8]  But it is also a hopeful concept which is firmly grounded in our belief that God is at work in the world to bring things around for the best.

At the risk of over simplifying, I will summarize our theology into four basic parts:  First, we are sinners.  Paul made an extended effort in Romans to emphasize this.[9]   Second, God still loves us as shown in the life of Jesus.  (God did not throw up his hands and say, “you’re on your own.”)  Third, God’s Spirit gives us the power to respond to this love and frees us from our bondage to sin.  And finally, we respond to God’s love with praise, worship, and dedication of our lives to God’s purpose.

If you followed this, you will see that our salvation is God’s doing.  Once we accept God’s love, once we accept Jesus as Lord, we then respond by working to bring God further glory within our lives.  Works and ethics, for a Christian, are a response to God.  They are not an attempt to earn God’s favor, for God has already freely loved us.  Predestination then, is not something terrible.  Instead it is a comforting mystery.  We know God is working things out for the best and we do not need to control.

Paul, in this section of his Roman’s letter, ties predestination with human suffering and misery.  Paul does not diminish the suffering which Christians and every human being experiences in life.  We suffer from illness and accidents, from broken hearts and back-stabbing friends, and from other people prejudices and our own missed opportunities.  Life can be painful, and Paul does not deny it.   Instead he points out that all of creation is longing for the fulfillment of God’s promise.  Creation, which was cursed along with Adam, Eve and the snake, longs for the new day when decay will be no more.[10]

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

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

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

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

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

 

©2015

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

[2] John 15:16.

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

[4] Partee and Purvis, 110.

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

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

[7] Jeremiah 1:5

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

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

[10] Genesis 3:14–19

[11] Revelation 21:1-4.

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

Our Presbyterian and Reformed Heritage, Part 2: Scripture

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

January 11, 2014

2 Timothy 3:10-17

 

 

mluther

Martin Luther

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

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

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

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

###

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

presbyterian seal

Presbyterian Seal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[3] 2 Timothy 1:5

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

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

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

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

©2015

 

Our Presbyterian and Reformed Heritage, Part 1

John_Calvin_by_Holbein

John Calvin 1509-1564

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

January 4, 2014

Isaiah 12

  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[5] McGrath, 70.

[6] Robinson, 199.

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

[8] For a background to this symbol, which is now used as the seal for Calvin College, see http://www.calvin.edu/about/history/calvin-seal.html.

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

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

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

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

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

[14] McGrath, 75.

First Sunday of Christmas: December 28, 2014

movarian star

Moravian star on our front porch

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

December 28, 2014

Isaiah 64

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

©2014

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

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

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

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

[5] Psalm 46:10.

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

Christmas Eve Homily 2014

 Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Christmas Eve 2014

Titus 2:11-15

1913 Christmas card

A 1913 Christmas Card

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2014

Advent 4: The Gift of Revelation

christmas 2013

Frozen Cheeries, December 22, 2013


Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

December 21, 2014

4th Sunday of Advent

Hebrews 1:1-4

 

 

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

christmas 2013 2

Christmas Eve 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

©2014

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

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

[3] Matthew 25:31-46.

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

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

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

“Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent”

virginia city 004

C Street during a snowstorm Winter 1988-89

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

virginiacity

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

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

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

December 14, 2014, Advent 3

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Third Sunday of Advent

December 14, 2014

First Peter 1:1-5

 

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

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

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

###

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

©2014

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

[2] My blog can be found at:  www.thepulpitandthepen.com

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

Jeff Newlin’s Sermon at the Installation of Jeff Garrison

installation

Installation Commission

OUR SPIRITUAL WORSHIP

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

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

Nov 9, 2014, 4 pm

By Dr. Jeffrey Newlin

 

Text:  Romans 12

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

II.  Not that your relationship will always be easy.

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second Sunday in Advent: Patience

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church 

Second Sunday in Advent

December 7, 2014

Romans 8:25

 

 

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

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

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

###

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

©2014

[1] Luke 1:5-24

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

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

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

Advent 1, November 30, 2014

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church 

November 30, 2014

First Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 25:6-26:4

 

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

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

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

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

###

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 ©2014

[1] Luke 4:18ff.

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

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

[4] Revelation 21:4.

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

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

[7] Ecclesiastes 3:12-13.

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

Stewardship Sermon #2

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church 

November 16, 2014

Luke 8:4-15

 

 

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

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

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

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

###

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2014

 

[1] Exodus 13:2.

[2] Exodus 23:19.

[3] Romans 5:8

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

[5] 1 Corinthians 3:6.

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

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

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

[9] Luke 8:18, The Message.

[10] 2 Corinthians 9:7.

Stewardship sermon #1

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church 

November 9, 2014

Luke 12:13-25

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

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Photo taken in 2011

Photos taken in April 2011

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

©2014



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

Shared Concerns

okefenokee

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 of Baptist, Congregational and Episcopal clergy, many of whom went on to teach in seminaries around the country.  His influence at Princeton continued long after his death as his son and other students continued his tradition. Interestingly, until 2011, there has not been a major biography of Hodge since 1880, when his son published a biography just two years after his father’s death.  This is one of two major biographies of Hodge to be published in 2011; the other being Andrew Hoffecker’s Charles Hodge: The Pride of Princeton (I haven’t read it).

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

Gutjahr makes the case that Hodge’s upbringing, especially how his family found themselves dependent on the charity of others, set his 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 50th anniversary 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’s 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 early 20th 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, 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 about our 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 the 19th 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, he always 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 that 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 be a 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 grieved over 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 1846 General 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, they 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 the Institutes 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 as is 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).
 –
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).
 –
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

###

  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

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 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).