It’s All About the Cross

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
August 30, 2020
Matthew 16:21-26

Click here to watch the service. The sermon begins at 18 minutes if you want to fast-forward. 

Beginning of Worship:  I saw a meme the other day. A man at a bar ordered a Corona and two hurricanes. “That’d be 20.20,” the bartender said. It’s not been a good year so far. It seems like we’ve all been carrying a cross over the past eight months. But is this what Jesus means when he says we are to pick up our cross and follow him?

The cross is a symbol we see everywhere. We have several in our sanctuary. We wear it as jewelry. It populates cemeteries and are often placed beside the road where there has been a fatal accident. But what does it means when Jesus tells us to pick up the cross? That’s today’s topic.

This is our second Sunday in the 16th Chapter of Matthew. If you remember, last week, Peter nails it. He confesses Jesus to be the Messiah. Today, he doesn’t look so good. He can’t accept Jesus’ plan involving the cross. Last week, Peter was praised. This week, he’s called Satan. There’s good news here because our lives are similar. We can do good and great things and we can do rotten things. Aren’t you glad there’s grace?

Jesus does something radical and he invites us to follow him, but it’s a costly invitation. Jesus demands our very lives. For those of us who follow Jesus, the cross becomes our sign of God’s power as Paul eloquently states in First Corinthians, but to others it’s foolishness.[1] But as a sign, the cross is not easily understood.



After the Scripture Reading: What does it mean to pick up our cross and follow Jesus? Maybe a better way to ask this question is what does it mean to be a follower of Jesus Christ?  We have to be careful that we don’t cheapen the bearing of our cross in an attempt to explain our trials. Carrying the cross isn’t just enduring a bad time, like 2020. Picking up our cross and following Christ has life changing implications. We admit we’re not in control. It’s no longer about us and what we want and what we think we need. Instead, it’s all about the man up ahead, the one we are following.

Think about the theology of the cross in light of two seeming contradictions in scripture: Jesus’ call for us to pick up our cross and proclaims that he’s come to set us free.[2]

In Jesus’ day, no one thought of the cross as a sign of freedom.  In fact, a cross was viewed in just the opposite. It was a sign of torture, a reminder of the imperial power of Rome that subjected a huge portion of the population to slavery. In Rome, if a slave rebelled, the cross was the normal method of execution. The cross was a tool the Romans used to cement their control. When Jesus tells the disciples to pick up their cross and follow, they may have had second thoughts.

This particular passage is recounted in all three of the synoptic gospels—which tells us something about the impression it made on the disciples.[3] Yes, we know Peter doesn’t like the idea of Jesus dying, but that was all before Jesus issues this command. None of the gospels give us an idea of how the disciples and the crowd responded to Jesus’ call at this point. Such an omission is a part of the plan, I believe, for it allows us to respond to Jesus’ call in our own ways. This morning, we’re wrestling with what it means to pick up our cross. First, I am going to discuss some mistaken ways this call is interpreted: I’ll label these three as triumphant militarism, naive pacifism, and sentimentalism. Then I will offer ideas on how we are to be a servant of Jesus Christ and faithfully answer his call.

Peter’s idea of picking up the cross falls into my triumphant militaristic category. Remember, he’s the disciple who, at Jesus’ arrest, pulls out a sword and slashes the ear off of one of the men.[4] I imagine Peter, a fisherman whose muscles were well defined from working the nets, as a strong man. At this stage of his Christian walk, he’s a Rambo type character, ready to pull up the cross and use it as a club to pound his foes. Peter and the other disciples are ready for Jesus to set up a worldly kingdom. Peter wants Jesus to be King so he can be an advisor, right next to Jesus’ throne, the second in command.

When Jesus started talking about this suffering stuff, Peter gets nervous and decides he’d better try to steer his leader in a different direction. “Hey Jesus,” Peter remarks, “let’s rethink this part about dying.” But Jesus’ way wins out. The cross is not to be used by us as a weapon, nor does it give us any protection other than being a symbol of what Jesus has done for us.

If triumphant militarism is one extreme rejected by Jesus, so is the other extreme, which I label naive pacifism. I chose the term naive because pacifism for many Christians is an appropriate response. But when the path is naively chosen, we forget that we’re called to resist evil, to deny evil power in the world and instead we become a sacrificial pawn. Just as we should not use the cross as a weapon, it’s not to be used as a white flag of surrender, either. Jesus picked up his cross and carried it to Calvary in order to offer his life for sins you and I have committed.  Jesus died for our sins so that we don’t need to die for them, nor should we be expected to die for the sins of others. But this doesn’t mean there’s not work for us to do.

If we’re not to be militants or pacifists, we might be led to think the proper understanding—the middle way of understanding Jesus’ call—is sentimentalism.  Sadly, this is the way many people look at the cross. We clean up its horrific image and use it as jewelry and decor on our cars.  But such an understanding of the cross—if it goes no deeper—misses the point. It can even become a political statement or a superstition, which is idolatry. If the cross is only seen for its sentimental value—we’ve cheapened Jesus’ call.

I don’t know if I can give an understanding of what picking up one’s cross should mean to us all. Certainly, I think it means more than having a piece of jewelry. For a few people, it may mean martyrdom—as it did for many of the disciples. But Jesus certainly didn’t expect all his followers to be crucified. Secondly, martyrdom is not the highest virtue. Instead of martyr, the virtue we strive for is faithfulness. Yet, we learn from Jesus, if we love our life we will lose it.  Paul expands this thought when he speaks of our need to put to death the desires of the flesh and to live for Christ.[5]

By calling us to pick up our cross, Christ informs us that we’re not in charge of our Christian journey. We must be willing to follow him. Our calling isn’t about our needs or our desires, but about Jesus’ desire for us and for our lives. As Christians, we all have a calling that is linked to our vocations. Since we live our Christian life throughout the week, and we all have different occupations and trades, we each have to determine how we can best be true to our Savior. I can’t give a single definition of what picking up our cross will mean for everyone, just as Matthew didn’t tell us of the disciples response to this call.

As a seminary student, when I was a camp director in Idaho, we had each of the campers carry a live-size cross during a hike. Afterwards, around a campfire, we debriefed. Some told how difficult it was to physically carry the cross—toting the awkward beams and of the splinters. Others spoke about how they were uncomfortable to be out front of the rest of the campers, with everyone following and looking at them. Others had even more difficulty watching their fellow campers struggle. These wanted to show compassion by taking the burden of their friends.

These responses from the campers provide an insight into what the cross means and maybe an idea of how we pick up our crosses. When Jesus took up his cross, he was taking on the burdens of the world. He didn’t take the cross on his own behalf, but on our behalf. It wasn’t someone who lived a comfortable life that brought salvation to the world; it was someone who shared in the suffering of the whole world. We must understand that Jesus’ death on the cross is sufficient for our sins and the sins of the world.[6]

The penalty for sin—death—has been paid in full and none of us is being called to make another deposit—we’re not being called to save the world.[7]  By picking up the cross, Jesus shows his willingness to share in our pains and sorrows.  And he calls us, his disciples, to share in the pain of others. The campers who expressed compassion for the one carrying the cross understood, at least partly, what is means to be indebted to someone for taking on our burdens and for us to be ready to have compassion for others who are in pain. One meaning of picking up our cross is for us to be willing to stand beside others in need—whatever form that need might take. Jesus takes our burdens, he shoulders our cross, and the only way we can have a glimpse of what he feels is to feel the pain and burdens of others. So maybe our crosses have to do with how we show compassion.

I think our vicariously sharing in the pain of others also helps us to understand the proverb Jesus cites at the end of our passage. Jesus reminds us that whoever wants to save their lives will lose them and whoever loses their lives for his sake will find them. This is one of those great reversal statements of Jesus, but notice Jesus doesn’t call us to lose our lives in the lives of others. Rather, he calls us to place himself first in our lives—to put our total trust in him. Our call to discipleship is not to place some other than Jesus first (despite what politicians—many of whom have a messiah-complex, might hope for). Nor is our call to place ourselves first. It’s a call to follow Jesus and put our total trust in him. It means we must obey the first commandment: to have no god other than the one true God.  It means to take seriously the great commandment: to love God—the God revealed in Jesus Christ—with all our hearts and souls and minds and strength.

If we are grounded in our love for God as revealed in Jesus Christ, we will be able to fearlessly pick up our crosses, whatever form it may take, when Jesus calls. This means following Jesus even if it means losing our friends or being alienated from our families. This means following Jesus even though we will be despised. And it means we must be willing to follow Jesus even if lose our lives. We follow Jesus, and only him. Jesus is all that matters. Amen.


[1] 1 Corinthians 1:18

[2] See John 8:32-36.

[3] Matthew 16”24-28, Mark 8:34-9:1 and Luke 9:23-27. In each of these gospels, this scene is followed by the Transfiguration. Only Mark has the previous story of Peter confessing Jesus to be the Messiah.

[4] John 18:10.

[5] Romans 8:13.

[6] See Hebrews 10:1-18.

[7] 1 Corinthians 15:56.

The Years of Lyndon Johnson (Volume 4)

Things have been busy at my house as we are now showing it and trying to begin packing for our move to Virginia… But the busyness hasn’t kept me from sailing, as I crewed a boat up to Hilton Head on Friday and then on Saturday, we raced back to Skidaway (I’ll have to do a post on the long race with little wind, because we too first place in our class). I finished this book when in Virginia a few weeks ago.

Robert A. Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2012), 712 pages including notes and sources and 32 inserted pages of black and white photos.


This is the fourth volume in Caro’s massive study on Lyndon Johnson, and the third I’ve read. In this book, Caro begins with the run up to the 1960 Democrat Convention. It was assumed that 1960 would be the year Johnson would run for the President. With his leadership in the Senate, Johnson was a powerful man. But he kept giving off mixed signals as to his intentions to run and once he stepped into the race, he bet that no candidate could achieve a majority of the votes during the first round at the convention. In that case, many would switch to Johnson and he could capture the nomination.  Johnson was too late for Kennedy had wrapped up a majority of delegates.  As Caro has done in the other volumes, he provides mini-biographies of key players in the story including both John and Robert Kennedy.  After Kennedy was selected as the candidate, he chose Johnson as his Vice President candidate. Even this wasn’t without drama as there was a question whether or not Johnson would accept the position, as he’d be leaving the second most powerful position in the country with his leadership of the Senate. But Johnson, who wanted to be President since his childhood, accepts the position realizing he’s only a heartbeat away from the Oval Office. Caro, through extensive work, debunks the theory (that has been popularized by Robert Kennedy and his friends), that Kennedy’s invitation to Johnson was just a nice gesture and one that they assumed Johnson would decline. Robert Kennedy and LBJ would continue to have a running feud the rest of their lives. Caro makes a convincing case that without Johnson, who wasn’t as well liked in more liberal areas in the north, Kennedy would have never been able to win the presidency in 1960.

After the election, Johnson found himself sidelined. His feud with Robert Kennedy continued to grow. His advice on how to handle legislation in the Senate (something he understood) was ignored. As a result, Kennedy wasn’t able to achieve most of his agenda. Johnson, who was more hawkish, was even kept out of key meetings such as with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Compounding Johnson’s problems was the investigation into some of his supporters, especially Bobby Baker. This had the ability to cripple Johnson and perhaps even keep him off the ticket in 1964. Interestingly, Caro tells the story in a suspenseful manner as the hearings on Bobby Baker was running in Washington DC as the motorcade in which Kennedy was shot was driving through Dallas.

Upon the death of Kennedy, Johnson changed. He quickly assumed power. He knew what needed to be done to send the right signals to the rest of the world in to halt any mischief that the Soviets or the Cubans might stir up. Caro, who in previous volumes have been critical of Johnson and points out his flaws, has high praise of how he conducted himself through the end of 1963 and into 1964. Johnson was able to achieve Kennedy’s goal of a tax cut along with Civil Rights legislation. His handling of the segregationist Harry Byrd was masterful, as he presented a lean budget to win Byrd while working to keep him from blocking civil rights legislation. He was able to keep most of Kennedy’s staff and win their loyalty. While Johnson is often remembered for being mired down in Vietnam, Caro praises his ability to guide the country through this difficult time.  He also put his own stamp on the Presidency by showing foreign leaders a good time at his ranch in Texas.  In the spring of 1964, Johnson had the highest Presidential poll rating of any President.

Like Caro’s other books, The Passage of Power is a masterful volume that captures the complexity of the first President that I remember. I hope Caro will soon come out with his 5th volume, that looks at Johnson’s 1964 victory against Barry Goldwater and how his Presidency collapsed with the failures in Vietnam, leading up to his refusal to run for a second term in 1968. If you’re interested in history or in the complexity of powerful leaders, I recommend this book.

What’s Essential

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Matthew 16:13-20
August 23, 2020

Click here for the worship service. Advance to 15:30 to begin watching the scripture and the sermon.

At the Beginning of Worship

What does it take for us to be true to our calling as Christians? What are the most important activities that makes us a church? There are two, which are outlined in the second half of the 16th chapter of Matthew’s gospel: confessing Jesus as the Messiah and following Jesus, even to the cross. At times like this when society is semi-closed due to the pandemic, these two essentials remain. Are we still doing them? Today, is my first sermon from this part of Matthew 16, and we’ll look at the first requirement, confessing Jesus as the Messiah.

The Message (after reading Matthew 16:13-20)

After a long illness, a woman died and arrived at the Gates of Heaven. “How do I get in?” she asked.

“You have to spell a word”, Saint Peter told her.

“Which word?”

“L-O-V-E,” the woman spelled out and the gate swung open and she entered.

About three years later, Saint Peter needed a day off and asked the woman to watch the Gates of Heaven for him. Guarding the gate, she was shocked when her husband arrived. “How have you been,” she asked.

“Oh, I’ve been doing pretty well since you died,” he said. “I married the beautiful young nurse who took care of you while you were ill. And then I won the lottery. I sold the little house we lived in and bought a big mansion. My wife and I traveled all around the world. We were on vacation and I went water skiing today. I fell, the ski hit my head, and here I am. How do I get in?”

“You just have to spell a word”, she said.

“What’s the word?” he asked.


You may be wondering what this has to do with our text today. Well, there’s a weak link. You see, the idea of Peter being heaven’s gatekeeper comes from this passage, where he’s presented the keys and given the power to open doors. These jokes have been told for a long time. One source suggests that St. Peter at the gate jokes have been around since the 14th century and were originally used to tempt monks to break their vows of silence.[1] Although their context comes from our morning passage in Matthew, we have to realize that the jokes have little relevance into how one is admitted into heaven.

Let me tell another. A devout Presbyterian woman arrived at the Pearly Gate. Peter asked her why she should be admitted and she acknowledged that she really didn’t deserve being let into heaven, but that God was gracious and had ordained her for salvation in Jesus Christ. She staked her future on that promise. Peter nodded affirming. As the swung the gate open, the woman brought out a casserole. “Just in case grace wasn’t enough,” she said, offering it to Peter.” We like to hedge our bets, don’t we?

Now, let me assure you, getting into heaven isn’t what this passage is about. This passage is about who is Jesus. Jesus and the disciples have been together for sometime at this point. They’ve travelled together, teaching and healing and taking care of people and proclaiming the kingdom. Its only now, after they’ve extensively invested themselves into this man named Jesus, that he forces them to deal with his identity.

The setting for today’s passage is in the region of Caesarea Philippi. You are probably wondering what that has to do with anything. It’s important! This city was on Israel’s northwestern border. Before Jesus’ birth, Herod the Great built a magnificent marble temple there in honor of Caesar. His son, Philip, enlarged the city and renamed it Caesarea in honor of Caesar Augustus. But there were other Caesareas around, such as the one over on the coast. Philip, a politician, liked to see his name in print, so the city became known as Caesarea Philippi. It honored both Caesar and Philip.[2] This is the important part. It’s here, in this city devoted to the worship of the Emperor, that Jesus asks the disciple who they think he is. Deep down, there is a political statement being made here. If Caesar is Lord, then who is Jesus? Or vice versa. It’s interesting, that while Jesus took the disciples into pagan lands, from what we know, he never said anything derogatory about the paganism. We should learn from him. But by focusing on his identity and mission at a place where Caesar was worshipped as God on earth, Jesus challenges earthly powers.[3]

Jesus first asks the disciples what people are saying about him. “Oh, some people think you’re John the Baptist, raised from the grave, or Elijah, or Jeremiah, or one of the other prophets.” This first question was a teaser, for then Jesus goes to the heart of the matter. He asks a question we must all answer, “But who do you say that I am?”

Ultimately, it all comes down to this question, doesn’t it? I can see why people believed Jesus to be a prophet, for he had done great things. Most people like Jesus, even those who are outside the church. He’s known as a good and kind man who was a good teacher. I recently had someone tell me that she doesn’t consider herself a Christian anymore, but she loves Jesus. I wasn’t sure what to make of that. The book They Like Jesus But Not the Church, points out how most people in our country like Jesus and how the church is often a barrier from people getting to know Jesus better. That hurts, but some churches are so overzealous with a desire to save (which is the Spirit’s work, not ours), that all they do is to encourage people to accept Jesus when people don’t even know who they’re talking about. Jesus has invested a significant portion of his time with the disciples before he hits them with this question, “Who do you say that I am?”  Likewise, we need to invest time discovering who Jesus is and talking to others about who he is before we try to encourage them to join up and become a follower of the Savior. We plant the seed, God brings about the harvest.

When Jesus asks the disciples who they say he is, Peter responds: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Peter nails it. This is no weak response. There are no qualifying phrases. He doesn’t say, I think you’re the Messiah,” or “You appear to be the Messiah.”  Peter is direct and his confession is the foundation of the church. “Jesus is the Messiah!” Peter is staking out what he believes, even though as we will see next week, he doesn’t really understand the implications of what he has said. But that’s okay, for as Jesus informs us, Peter wasn’t speaking on his own; his confession is coming from God. Then Jesus called Peter the son of Jonah, which is an interesting and paradoxical reference. First, Peter caught fish, a big fish caught Jonah. In addition, Jonah isn’t exactly a model for he ran from God, just as Peter ran after Jesus’ arrest. Another and maybe a more important parallel is that Jonah was a prophet to Gentiles, and that’s the direction the church will take under Peter’s leadership.

Peter is important. Jesus says, “You are a rock and on this rock I will build MY church.” There has been plenty of controversy over this passage. The Roman Catholic Church sees it as the beginning of papal succession, that the rock refers to Peter as the pope. We Protestants question this idea. Yes, Peter plays an important role in the establishment of the church, but the church leadership throughout history isn’t from Peter as an individual, but is invested within the body of the church.[4]

More importantly than the rock concept is the emphasis that Jesus places on “my church.” It’s clear, the church doesn’t belong to Peter or to the disciples as a whole, nor does it belong to us. The church belongs to Jesus Christ. He’s the one who gives the church life and its power. Certainly, as a body we can do great things. We’ve even been given the keys to the kingdom![5]  But our abilities aren’t due to who we are, but to whom we worship. Even death cannot stop the church, which is the meaning of the “gates of hell or Hades shall not prevail.” In Jesus’ day, Hades was a place for the dead, but death has no power which Jesus will demonstrate with the resurrection. The church is to have one focus: Jesus Christ. It’s his name we lift up in praise, it’s his example we lift up as a model for our lives, it’s his power we rely upon when we don’t have the strength to do what we need to be doing. We depend upon Jesus.

While we are totally dependent on Jesus, we are still valuable and endowed with responsibility. The church is given great power, including the power to loosen or bind sins, or the power to forgive sins and to withhold forgiveness.[6] That’s an awesome power. We should accept it with humble reverence for Jesus doesn’t give it for us to use for our sake or to abuse for our benefit, but for us to use to help others become more Christ-like.

Our passage ends with Jesus telling the disciples to keep a secret about his identity. We may find this strange. Wouldn’t Jesus want everyone to know? Certainly, when we get to the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus sends out the disciples to all nations with the command to baptize and to make more disciples.[7] That commandment, known as the Great Commission, is for all believers. But here, before the resurrection, we must guess as to why Jesus wants the disciples to keep this secret. Perhaps it is because he knows that they do not yet fully understand the implications of Peter’s confession. Maybe Jesus is afraid they’ll mix in their own incorrect ideas and political opinions and muddle the message.[8] We don’t know for sure why Jesus wants them to be quiet at this point, but certainly, after the resurrection, Jesus is forceful in his command that we go out into the world and share his love.

Now it’s back to us?  Who do we say Jesus is?  Our first goal, as a follower of this man from Galilee, is to understand him. As I pointed out earlier, Jesus didn’t spring this question on the disciples the first day they were together. The disciples have spent a significant amount of time with him, maybe nearly three years at this point. To be able to answer that question, we must pick up this book (the Bible) and read about him. We must study the gospels. We must take our questions to him in prayer. And as we come to know him more fully, we need to begin to question our lives and see where we fail to live to his standard, and to be honest to Jesus in prayer as we repent.  And finally, as we learn more about him, we need to share our knowledge with others, so that they too may know him.

You know, in this time with things slowed down because of the pandemic, now is a perfect time to work on your relationship with Jesus. Read one (or all) of the gospels. Write down for yourself your questions and who you think Jesus is and what he means to you. Having such a foundation will help you articulate your faith when it’s important. It’s a good investment in your eternal future. After all, what are you going to say to St. Peter at the Pearly Gates? Being prepared is better than bringing along a casserole. Amen.



[1] In searching for jokes, I came across this sermon which had the jokes I’ve used (I’ve altered them a bit) along with the suggestion as for the jokes origin:

[2] John Kutsko, “Caesarea Philippi,” Anchor Bible Dictionary Vol. 1 A-C, David Noel Freedman, editor (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 803.

[3] To learn more about the political reference here and why Caesarea Philippi matters, she Scott Hoezee’s take on this passage:

[4] Bruner, 127-130 and 135-137 and Douglas Hare, Matthew: Interpretation, a commentary for preaching and teaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), 191. Bruner, in an in-depth discussion on Peter’s role later in his commentary quotes another commentator who tries to bridge the “hyper-Catholic” and “hyper-Protestant views of Peter and summarizes him as “a man with a unique role in salvation-history… his faith is the mans by which God brings a new people into being.” Bruner, 137.

[5] Although in this passage, Jesus refers to Peter as the one with the keys and the ability to bind and loosen, later in Matthew’s gospel he speaks of all the disciples (and the church) being given this power.  See Matthew 18:18.

[6] Historically, the words “loosen” and “bind” have been understood in two ways. Doctrinally, they refer to the ability to loosen (or open) through teaching the way of Jesus and their binding is a warning of the consequences of not hearing and abiding in the word. Secondly, these words have a disciplinary meaning. The church has the right to bind disobedient believers, and to loosen the bindings of those who are repentant. Bruner, 132.

[7] Matthew 28:19.

[8] Burner, 137-138, makes this point.

Three Collections of Poems

  David Lee, Mine Tailings (Boulder, UT: Five Sisters Press, 2019), 79 pages.

David Lee was formerly the poet laurate of Utah and has been affectionally referred to as “the Pig Poet.” About the time I was leaving Utah, Lee retired as head of the English Department for Southern Utah University. Ever since I left Utah, I have hauled around a large collection of his poetry that came out in 1999, The Legacy of Shadows: Selected Poems. When rereading some of those poems recently, I decided to see if he was still publishing and learned about this volume. It appears that for part of the time, Lee hung out in Silver City, Nevada, a town on the south end of the Comstock Lode (I lived in Virginia City, on the north end of the lode, in 1988-89). Curious, I had the Book Lady Bookstore in Savannah find me a copy of the book for my pandemic reading.

Mine Tailings is divided into three sections: Silver City, the Shaft, and The Ore. In the very first poem of the book, “Silver City Dawn Poem,” Lee touched on many of my favorite memories of the Comstock: pinon fires, the wind, the morning sun, the sage, wild cats and rattlesnakes. As a reader proceeds further into this collection (and especially in the second section, appropriately named “The Shaft”), one comes upon many harsh poems that leaves little doubt as to what Lee thinks about President Trump. Some of the poems, like “On a Political Facebook Posting from a Former Colleague and Friend that Upset Jan,” are discombobulated and fragmented, similar to the President’s tweets. Lee often borrows snippets of Trump’s own words to turn around and challenge him through a poem.  The last section of poems contains many poems that are what I considered typical David Lee poems. These contain narrative and dialogue, tell a story and are often quite humorous. One such poem is “Globe Mallow” which is about a flower that Lee and his wife stopped to photograph while driving through a Native American reservation. When a rubbernecking tourist stops and asks what he’s seeing, the man confuses Globe Mellow with marshmallow. The photographer plays along, creating a tall tale about these plants producing marshmallow fruit in the fall. The man drives off, telling his family what he’s learned. The reader is left to humorously image his disappointment when he drives back into the valley in the fall intent on poaching marshmallows from Indian land.

It was good to read some fresh poems from David Lee. I am still pondering the role of the quail (which you had in the Nevada desert, but at least when I was there not to the extent that they show up in Lee’s poems) in these poems. In a sense, the bird is a thread that flies through the various poems.

Gary Synder, Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2009).

I have often heard of Gary Synder and have read a few individual poems and essays of his, but never a full collection. After reading Michael Cohen’s Granite and Grace, a book about Yosemite, I decided I needed to read more of his poetry. The Riprap poems were mostly written in the mid-1950s, about the time when Cohen first visited Yosemite and a year of so before my birth. Synder, as a young man, worked on trail building crews in the park. The title of these poems is appropriate as one often must riprap the side of the trail with rock to prevent erosion. These poems capture the places Synder worked, along with the people with whom he lived and worked. I enjoyed his descriptions of some familiar landscape. The second half of the book is his translations of a seventh century Japanese poet, Han-shan, writings. These poems were also interesting.

Nancy Bevilaqua, Gospel of the Throwaway Daughter: Poems (Kindle, 2004)

While drawing loosely on stories in the New Testament and other “non-canonical” writings of the first centuries of the Christian era and blending in the setting of the Biblical world, Bevilaqua has written a collection of poetry that area are alive with possibilities. These poems are steeped with a sense of place and often are linked to Mary Magdalene. One can feel the sunrise or the night sky, the parched earth under the midday sun, or the brilliance of stars at night, and the dusty feet from traveling along dirt paths. All these images draw the reader into this world.  I appreciated Bevilaqua’s ability to make the reader feel they are present in the first century even though I found myself (against the author’s advice not to read these poems from a religious perspective) wondering about their theological significance. There are certainly poems in here drawn on events of Jesus’ passion. In some ways, these poems attempt to recreate a piece of a lost world, reminded me Alice Hoffman’s novel, The Dovekeepers. In telling the story of the end of the Jewish rebellion against Rome in the first century, Hoffman draws from the experience of four women at Masada. Bevilaqua even has one poem placed at the Battle of Taricheae, an earlier defeat of the Jewish army in their revolt against Rome. Both authors, a poet and a novelist, create a wonderful sense of place at a particular time in history and should be appreciated. I read this collection on my Kindle.

A sapphire dawn, and silver palms. Venus
near the earth
still charred and yet I smell a coming
storm. He is sleeping
on the roof. I am too much awake.
-the opening lines of “Dawn, Migdal”





What is Faith?

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Matthew 15:21-28
August 16, 2020

To watch the service, click here to go to our Youtube site. To see just the sermon (skipping prelude, announcements, call to worship, first hymn and confession) forward to 15:35. 

Last week, we heard about Jesus saving Peter from drowning after he attempted to walk on water. Afterwards, Jesus referred to Peter as one of little faith. Today, we have Jesus referring to a foreign woman’s great faith. What’s up with this? Let’s see…  Read Matthew 15:21-28


Let’s go back in time to the First Century, to Tyre, a town on the Mediterranean, a port used by the Phoenicians. Like everything else in this part of the world, the town is now in Roman hands. But the roar of the waves crashing the shore are still the same. The taste of salt in the air is still the same. And on this day, as the heat begins to fade and an afternoon breeze from the ocean rolls in, the market opens. As we enter, our eyes catch the vision of a woman shopping. She has come early, before the crowds, her eyes red from crying, to gather food for her and her daughter. She doesn’t speak.

While examining slabs of bacon at the butcher’s shop, she listens in on the gossip. The butcher, a baker and a fisherman are chatting.

“Did you hear that Jesus, you know, the guy who fed 5,000 people with just a few loaves of bread and a few sardines, is in town?[1] A few more stunts like that and I’ll have to sell out,” the baker jokes.

“I might be with you,” the fisherman nods. “The method he uses to catch fish over on the Galilee will put little guys like me out of business.”[2]

The woman lingers, listening and wondering.

“Isn’t Jesus the guy who sent those demons into a herd of pigs causing them to run off the cliff?” the fisherman asks the butcher. [3]

“Yeah, it’s a shame, all that good pork washed out to sea. The price of ribs haven’t yet recovered! It seems the only trade he’s helped has been the roofers.”[4]

“Where’s he staying?”  The baker asks.

The woman’s interest is raised, she leans over the counter to hear…

“He had a hard time finding a place after that incident in Capernaum where some people cut a hole in the roof of a house in order to get to him,” the butcher replies. “Finally, Mr. Jones rented his old place up on 2nd Street. I couldn’t believe he’d rent it to Jesus. I asked him about it, but old man Jones’ wasn’t too worried. He said the place needs a new roof and maybe, this way, insurance will cover it.

“I think that’s him coming now,” the baker says, pointing to a crowd gathering at the town’s gate.

Overhearing this gossip, the woman’s face lights up. “Jesus,” she says to herself. “I must meet Jesus.” She drops her shopping bag, kicks off her heels and runs, without stopping, toward the crowd. Pushing through the folks, she shouts as if she’s insane: “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David. My daughter is tormented by a demon.” She’s so loud that everyone else stops speaking as she approaches. Even Jesus appears lost for words. The disciples consider her crazy and urges Jesus to send her away. After all, she’s pagan and it would be of no surprise that a pagan’s kid is possessed by a demon. She, too, probably is possessed, they think.[5]

Jesus brushes the woman aside. Pointing to his disciples, he tells her he’s been sent to the lost sheep of Israel. She continues, frantically asking for Jesus’ help. She’s tried everything. Jesus is her last chance for her daughter to be made well. Then her heart sinks, her head drops in shame.

Think about how this woman feels? She’d give her eye teeth to have her daughter freed. When she hears that Jesus is in town, her hopes are raised, only to be crushed. Imagine the pain she felt at this rejection—Jesus being either too busy or too tired to tend to her child. She’s helpless.

Many of us have felt helpless when dealing with our children. It’s a fairly common among parents, because there are often things beyond our control. But it’s even more common among those who are marginalized. Think of immigrant families risking everything to get a child to America, a place of promise, or to get them out of a place like Syria where the violence is terrible. Or consider African American parents who must have “the talk” with their sons. Knowing that you are not being taken seriously because of your ethnic background is something most of us don’t know about, but there are many such people in the world. Such folks are modern day examples of this Canaanite woman—feeling there is no food at the table for them.

This passage, we all know, is not just about disappointments and bad news. God, through Jesus Christ, is doing something incredible. It actually starts at the beginning of the chapter where we learn that food laws aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. “It isn’t what you eat—what’s in your stomach—that defiles you,” Jesus says. “It’s what’s in your heart.” God’s creation is good. Since we are all created by God, there is a possibility for us to all claim a divine inheritance.

The woman, as are most Gentiles who live near Galilee, is used to being called a dog. Humanity has almost always treated “others” within contempt. It was common in 1st Century Palestine for the pious Jews to refer to the Gentiles as dogs. Yet, I still don’t know what to make of this passage. It disappoints me for Jesus to use such language. I’d prefer to have him say, “My dear child,” or something similar. Just don’t call her a dog, Jesus, but I suppose political correctness wasn’t in vogue during the first century.

But instead of getting hung up on this one word, let’s put this into context and see what Jesus is saying. By saying he has to fed the children before the dogs, we learn Jesus’ mission is first to the Israelites. He’s ministering and teaching to the Jews But knowing this doesn’t help the woman; it doesn’t solve her problem. Jesus is supposed to be a good man and she’s stung by his words.

With her head bowed, I image she begins to leave, then pauses. Has Jesus denied her request? Or maybe, when the disciples are fed, there’ll be something left over for her child. It takes a few moments to get up her courage, but when she does, she spins around like a ballerina, raises her head and looks Jesus in the eyes. “Sir,” she addresses, “even the dogs eat the crumbs from the master’s table.” This lady is bold. Jesus is now going to have to deal with her, one way or the other.

“Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall for the master’s table,” what a great line.

“You’re right,” Jesus says. I imagine a big smile came over his face as he continued, with a voice loud enough to drive home the point home to the disciples, when he says, “Great is your faith. Your daughter will be healed.”

There is, after all, good news in this passage. The woman’s bloodline isn’t going to keep her from experiencing the healing powers of Christ. Even her religion isn’t a barrier. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say anything about casting the demon out because she was good or have kept the law or any other reason. Instead, Jesus acts freely and shows compassion to her and her child in the same manner he responds to our concerns brought to him in prayer. When there is something we, or someone we love, need, be bold in your prayers!

As I’ve said, this story comes right after Jesus has spent the first half of the chapter dealing with the religious elite of the day who complained that Jesus and his disciples were not keeping the tradition of the Elders. Jesus turned around this challenge, to emphasize that it’s not what we eat that defiles, but what comes out of our mouth and what’s in our heart. In other words, what we do is what’s important. To those leaders, this woman, by her racial status, is problematic and should avoided, but her insistence on the behalf of her daughter is a sign of faith. And Jesus responds to faith. In scripture, instead of talking about faith, Jesus mostly responds to it as he does in this situation.[6]

Which leads me to ask, what is faith? What do you think when you hear the word faith? It’s a word we use often, but do we really understand it? Do we have faith? The Second Helvetic Confession, written during the Reformation by Heinrich Bullinger, insists that faith is not an opinion or a human conviction, but is a “firm trust and a clear and steadfast assent of the mind, and then a most certain apprehension of the truth of God presented in the Scriptures,” the Apostle’s Creed, and God himself, and especially Jesus Christ, the fulfillment of God’s promises. And, the Confession goes on to say, “Faith is a gift of God.”[7]

Faith is knowing your only hope is in God, not in your own ability, which is what this Canaanite woman knew when she approached Jesus. She was unable to deliver her daughter, so she sought out the one who has such power. Faith is often described as a verb. It’s not just describing something, it’s about doing something. It’s placing trust in Jesus. Even though Jesus’ earthly ministry was to the Israelites, and the expansion of the gospel to the rest of the world would fall on his disciples, he was compelled to respond to the faith she demonstrated in him.

When we have no place else to turn, where do we place our trust? Is it with God as revealed in Jesus Christ? Or do we try to hedge our bets, hoping our own skills might save us, or perhaps our financial resources, our friends, our guns, or whatever else we place our trust. True faith trust only God as revealed in Jesus Christ. True faith is humbling because it acknowledges we can’t do it ourselves, that we’re dependent on the Almighty.[8] May we have such faith. May we be so bold as this woman in our prayers. At times like this, we need it! Amen.


[1] Matthew 14:13-21. This story also appears in other gospels.

[2] Luke 5:1-11.  A similar story is told in John 21, but that is a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus.

[3] Mark 5:1-20.

[4] Mark 2:1-12.

[5] In his commentary on this passage, Scott Hoezee writes about how demon possession would play into the disciples stereotyping of the Canaanites. Scott Hoezee, Proper 15A (August 14, 2017), Matthew 15:21-28. Center for Excellence in Preaching.

[6] See Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), 169.

[7] Presbyterian Church USA, The Book of Confession, “The Second Helvetic Confession,” Chapter XVI, 5.112-113.

[8] Perhaps the reason Jesus says it is easier for the poor to get into heaven than the rich (Matthew 19:24) is because the poor, without resources, have no place else to turn for help.

Heading to the Mountains

Rock Castle Creek

I was not planning on making a change, but it’s happening. Maybe it was COVID. We’ve certainly have had more time to think and ponder about what is important. Could God be using this time to open me to listening? Whatever it was to bring this on, I have accepted a call to two small historic rock churches located eleven miles apart and right next to the Blue Ridge Parkway in Southern Virginia. These are two of six churches built by the Rev. Bob Childress in the first half of the 20th Century, at a time when this part of the county was remote and often violent. Ever hear of the Hatfields and McCoys? Childress story has been captured in Richard C. Davids’ biography, The Man Who Moved a Mountain. Once he was converted, he began to encourage the people of the mountains to help one another and not just look after their close family members. Sixty years after his death, five of his six “rock churches” are still going strong.

As I said, I wasn’t looking to move and thought I’d spend another year or two on Skidaway before trying to find more relaxed position. But back in March, I learned of an opening of a large camp and conference center in Texas that was looking for a new president and CEO. Their current one was retiring at the end of the year. They wanted a minister in this position and it was suggested that I had some of the skills of which they were looking. I have led churches through relocations and large building projects, along with having done fundraising and development work. I sent them a C.V. thinking they’d probably not be interested. They responded back and had me answer a bunch of questions. I wrote an extensive essay. Then they invited me to interview. While the position would have prestigious and I’d been well compensated, there was something (other than moving to Texas, which was another issue) that kept nagging at me. We discussed it as a family. I’d always thought that when I turned 65, I would try to find a small church to serve, knowing that my pension would be adequate to take care of the rest. Here I was, just two years away. There was a certain amount of trepidation about assuming, if offered the position, a job that would require a lot of travel, along with the headaches of managing a huge staff and raising a lot of money (mostly from Texas oil leaders, who weren’t able to give their oil away this Spring).  Was this something I really wanted?

Bluemont Church

While this was going on, I saw an advertisement for a pastor to serve two churches along the Blue Ridge Parkway. My thought was, “I wish this was two years from now.” But then, the more I got to think about it, I decided to check it out. I sent them an email. Less than a week after receiving my query email, I received a call from the chair of their Pastor Nominating Committee. Early in the conversation she said, “We want you as our pastor.” I responded, jokingly, “You don’t know me.” That’s when I learned that while they hadn’t met me, they knew a lot about me as they had watched sermons and read this blog. I agreed to visit and found everyone to be nice and the area to be wonderful. At the end of my visit, they made an official offer for me to become their pastor candidate (the congregation still had to vote).

I realized that I could live on what they were paying without having to tap into my retirement funds. As they say, the rest is history. I pulled out of the interview for the Texas position. However, I realize now that position served as the catalyst for me being led to this new call.  Last week, we signed the contract that made it all official. I will assume the position in October. I will be preaching twice a Sunday, leading Bible Studies, but mostly pastoring the folks living up on the mountain along with a lot of seasonal residents with cabins who attend the churches during the warmer months.

God’s ways of leading are mysterious until much later. Like Abraham, we head off on a journey, unsure of our destination, but sure of the one we follow.  I am going to miss the good people at Skidaway just as I am looking forward to meeting the good people on the mountain. I have been blessed. I have enjoyed my time here, just as I have always found something to enjoy everywhere I have lived. After all, it’s all God’s world. And God is going to see us all through this transition.

Mayberry Church

I have always loved the mountains and the Appalachians are my first love. Long before spending significant time out west, I hiked the Appalachian Trail. The southern mountains are beautiful in all seasons. While the colors are spectacular in the fall, the spring is full of life. In the winter, the mountains often rest under a thin blanket of snow, and in the summer, everything is green and lush. And the history in these ancient mountains runs deep.  While there is much I will miss by not living on the coast, especially sailing, I look forward to spending more time paddling rivers, hiking in the mountains, and bicycling along numerous “rails-to-trails” in the region.  It’s also a little closer to my parents and easier to get to Donna’s family (you don’t have to drive through Atlanta from there).

View of the “Buffalo” (from the house that’s under contract)

If you’re ever up this way, stop in.  Sunday worship at Mayberry begins at 9 AM, followed by a 10:30 AM service at Bluemont.  I think they keep the time close together, knowing the pastor has to travel 11 miles (with the Parkway’s 45 mph speed limit), as a way to make sure I won’t go into overtime! The Mayberry Church is located just a few miles south of Meadows of Dan (and US 58). The Bluemont Church is eight miles north of Fancy Gap (US 52), which is where the Blue Ridge Parkway crosses Interstate 77. As we’re going to be dealing with this pandemic for a while, one of my first tasks will be getting the services up on YouTube.  I’ll let you know through this blog when that happens and how to find it.

Life is always exciting, but now I have to go pack some more boxes.

Lunch rest while on a hike last week along the Blue Ridge



Jesus, We Need You in the Boat

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Matthew 14:22-33
August 9, 2020

To watch the sermon, go to our YouTube page (linked here). The sermon begins at 16:30.


As you heard in Deanie’s wonderful sermon last week, it had been a tough day for Jesus and the disciples. Jesus had received the news that his cousin, who’d herald his coming, had been executed. Jesus and the disciples tried to get away, but the crowds caught up to them. Jesus stopped and spent the afternoon talking and healing. The crowds feasted on Jesus’ words, but the disciples knew that words would not fill an empty stomach. The twelve watched the sun drop in the western sky. In the age before fast food, there was no place to eat and they knew folk’s stomach’s would soon be growling. Worried, they interrupt Jesus and suggest he sends the crowds away so they can go into the villages and buy food. They are surprised to learn that Jesus expects them to feed the crowds. With Jesus’ help and a bit of fish and bread, everyone is fed and to drive home the point, there is enough food that each of the disciples left with a full basket. Then, as people are licking their fingers, Jesus has the disciples get into a boat to sail for a distant shore. He, himself, stays behind, saying he’ll catch up later, and disappears into the hills. Jesus still hasn’t dealt with the grief of John’s death. Like I said, it’s been a long tough day and it ain’t over yet.

Everyone else gets to goes home while the disciples row toward a distant shore. Then, in the darkness of night, something happens. Clouds move in, darkening the moon and clouds. The wind picks up and whitecaps begin to dot the lake. The disciples struggle with the oars as the waves rise. Normally at night, the sea calms as the air cools, unless there is a storm. And on this night, there’s a storm building. The disciples, which include four fishermen, panic. They struggle, hoping to keep the boat afloat long enough for the storm to abate. With the bow into the waves, some pull on the oars while others bail water.

The storm blows throughout the evening and into the early morning hours. The wind has put so much water into the air that everything is misty. It’s hard, in an era without navigation lighting, to make out the shoreline. So, they keep rowing, which is good advice, for you need momentum to push through the waves.  Keeping the oars in the water helps maintain the boat’s stability. This goes on for hours.  Imagine how exhausted they are when they see someone walking across the water toward them. It’s not surprising they think it’s a ghost. Even if you didn’t believe in ghosts, you’d reconsider. Or maybe, you’d think it’s the angel of death, coming to extract its toll. Exhausted and seeing such an apparition is enough to push you over the edge. But just when the disciples fear all is lost, they hear Jesus’ sweet Galilean voice. Jesus calls to them across the water; he’s coming to them in their hour of need.

Had the disciples had time to think theologically, they might not have been so shocked. After all, one of the first thing God does in creation is the calm the chaos of the waters and in the Exodus, God divides the waters so Israel can escape the wrath of the Egyptians.[1] In Psalm 77, God is portrayed as making his way across the mighty waters and in Job, we’re told of God trampling the waves.[2] God’s control extends even over the waters and if Jesus is Lord, it should be of no surprise that he walked out on the sea to rescue the disciples.

But the disciples are not clearly thinking this night. All they know is that they are in trouble and their friend Jesus is coming to bail ‘em out (I know, that’s a bad play on words). They are in need and here comes Jesus. The storm, it appears, rages until our Savior takes a seat in the boat, but even if it had continued, Jesus’ presence would have been enough. With Jesus there, their fears are calmed.

There’s a mini lesson in this for us. When we know someone in need or trouble, we often don’t act because we don’t feel we can do anything helpful. But being present is one way we can act. Just being presence with a person in need can help. Furthermore, when we are in need, it is comforting to know Jesus is with us. The comforting presence of our Savior is enough to calm our troubled souls. Just having a friend beside us in the boat is a blessing. We make more out of Peter getting out of the boat in this story, but it’s more important for us to understand the need to have Jesus in the boat. But let’s now consider Peter.

Peter is so excited that he wants to try Jesus’ stunt himself. Before he gets to the boat, Jesus says, “Okay, come on out.” Peter does. He walks on water. Think about it. This is an amazing feat. But the problem is that he thinks about what he’s doing. When Peter looks around and sees the waves and the water under his feet, he panics and immediately sinks. You know, in a couple of chapters, Jesus, in a play on Peter’s name, which comes from the Greek work, petra, or rock, proclaims that upon this rock he’ll build his church.[3] Its generally assumed that because Peter was a strong man from having spent a lifetime pulling nets that he received the name that means rock, but perhaps there’s some humor in all this. Ever heard of someone who “swam like a rock?” That’s Peter!

Can you image the disciples gathered around Peter and Jesus, snickering about Jesus building his church upon the rock—the rock that sank? But Peter wasn’t building the church alone. Peter had to have faith in the Almighty to step up into the leadership role after Jesus’ ascension. In a way, however, we’re all like Peter and sooner or later, we’ll all find ourselves in over our head and sinking and at that point we’ll need a lift, like the one Jesus gave Peter. Jesus will be present with us and will help us when we are in need.

In a way, we’re all like Peter, who was a man of human frailty. Peter often screwed up. He thought he could tell Jesus what not to do… “No, No, No, don’t go to Jerusalem to be crucified.”[4] And then later, when Jesus was arrested, Peter, perhaps Jesus’ closest disciple, denies knowing him.[5]  And here, he’s able to take a step or two on water, as long as he focuses on Jesus, but then sinks when he‘s distracted. We’re a lot like that as individuals and the church. There is a lot God can accomplish in us if we remain focused on Jesus. But when we stop focusing on Jesus, we get in trouble.

This is what most people focus on in this story. John Ortberg even wrote a book titled, If You Want to Walk on Water, You have to Get Out of the Boat. And that’s what we think this story is about: having that kind of faith in Jesus and focusing on him so that we can walk on water and not slip under the waves. But such an interpretation of this passage makes it into a moral story in which we feel guilty because none of have walked on water,[6] nor have we known anyone to walk on water except perhaps up north when the lakes are frozen. If this is only a story about stepping out in faith, we’d feel pretty bad because none of us is up to the task. So, let me suggest another interpretation.

There is good news even with Peter’s near drowning. When life begins to overwhelm us, as it appears to be doing these days as we worry about the pandemic and the economy and the upcoming election and everything else going on in the world, it is easy to be overwhelmed. It is easy to slip under the waves. But just as Jesus came into our lives when we first believed, he is also there when we get in over our heads. He’s there to help us turn our lives around. We can learn from our mistakes, which is a very thing for we have a forgiving God who is willing to help us when we depend on him and not on our own abilities.

You know, I image there was quite a bit of tension in that boat before Jesus stepped in. The twelve disciples were all afraid, but there may have even been some tension between the four fisherman and the rest of the disciples. The other eight, who were not seamen, were depending on the fishermen to know what to do. Why did they allow themselves to get into this dangerous predicament? But when Jesus comes aboard, they all calm down, as does the wind and waves. They know they’ll be alright. And as the wind dies and the waves cease, they do what we should do whenever God saves us. They worship Jesus. That’s the message we should take with us. Don’t worry about jumping overboard and trying to walk on water. Instead, let’s make sure we invite Jesus aboard our boats. For Jesus comes to save us and our response is to worship him. May it be so.





Bruner, Frederick Dale, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids, MI:
Eerdmans, 2004).

Hare, Douglas R. A., Matthew: Interpretation, A Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1992).

[1] Genesis 1:1-13 and Exodus 14.

[2] Psalm 77:16-20 and Job 9:8.

[3] Matthew 16:18.

[4] Matthew 16:21-24.

[5] Matthew 26:69-75.

[6] See Scott Hoezee, “Proper 14A (August 3, 2020), Matthew 14:22-33 at the Center for Excellence in Preaching website.

The Cross and the Lynching Tree (with a personal note)

James H. Cone,   (Marynoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), 202 pages including notes and an index.


The late James Cone (1938-2018) tackled a tough topic, linking together the most powerful symbol for Christians, the cross, and the most shameful symbol of white supremacy, the lynching tree.  The shame of the latter has been with me since the fourth or fifth grade. We had just moved back to North Carolina and in our state history book, there was a photo of lynching in Moore County that occurred in the late 19th Century. The main thing I remember was all the people, many young, were smiling around a dangling lifeless body. It was as if they were having a party. I was born in Moore County. I quickly did the math and realized that some of my great-grandparents (several of whom were still alive) could have been in that photo. I was horrified and didn’t want anyone to know that I’d come from that county. Of course, lynching wasn’t limited to Moore County. There were more lynchings (and ex-judicial killings) in other counties within the state and even more in other Southern states. Lynching wasn’t even limited to the South. Lynchings occurred all over the country. While some victims were white; in the West, Chinese and Mexican were thrown into the mix. But most of the victims were African American. Lynching was a way to keep the race terrified and, having been freed from slavery, under the control of their former white masters.

Cone set out to ask, “Can the cross redeem the lynching tree?” and “Can the lynching tree liberate the cross and make it real in American history?” (161)  There is a danger to our theology when we spiritualize the cross. There is a danger to our humanity when we ignore the lynching tree and deny the sin of white supremacy and the horrible treatment that African-Americans have experienced since first being brought in chains to American shores in 1619.

Cone begins his study with a detailed look at the cross. As a religious symbol, the cross is a paradox. Like the lynching tree, the Romans used the cross to terrify and keep at bay those who might threaten the Empire. Death on the cross was horrible. Yet, the church adopted this horrific symbol, claiming that God’s power is greater than the worse evil humans can inflict on others. For the human mind, as the Apostle Paul points out, the cross is a contradiction. But God can redeem this symbol and today the cross instead of being the horrific symbol of the empire’s power, is a sign of freedom and hope. As Cone explores as the beginning of his book, the cross is a common theme in both Black and White churches, but because of the experience of the two races, the cross is experienced differently. In White Churches, its more about the other world. That’s true in Black Churches, too, but there the cross is also a powerful symbol of hope for a people who have been oppressed.

Cone explores the theology of the cross of Reinhold Niebuhr. Perhaps the greatest American theologian of the 20th Century, Niebuhr had a lot to say about the cross. (Cone suggests Reinhold Niebuhr may be the greatest American theologian ever, but I would argue that point. However, Niebuhr was a major theologian and a scholar in the public realm during the 20th Century.)  Much of Niebuhr’s early writings (1920s-1940s) was done at a time when lynching was at its height. And while Niebuhr spoke out against white supremacy, Cone finds it strange that he never linked together the cross and the lynching tree. The second theologian Cone explores is Martin Luther King. While King, coming from the African-American tradition, focuses on the cross, also avoids linking it with the lynching tree. However, the poets and musicians from the Black tradition, do make the link as Cone explains:

They ignored white theology, which did not affirm their humanity, and went straight to the stories of the Bible, interpreting them as stories of God siding with little people just like them. They identified God’s liberation of the poor as a central message of the Bible, and they communicated this message in their songs and sermons. (118)

Cone’s fourth chapter focuses on the women’s voice from the Black community. While some women were lynched (warning: there are horrific details of lynchings in this book), most victims of lynching were men. Women spoke out for the men who, in the face of the lynching tree remained quiet and tried not to be seen. However, the lynching tree, like the cross is stripped of its gender and made an experience of all who encountered it, whether as a victim or as a witness. Perhaps the best-known woman’s voice to raise the issue of lynching was Billie Holiday. In 1939, she began singing the song “Strange Fruit.” No publisher wanted to record this song, so she sang it in nightclubs. No one could doubt the meaning of the lyrics: “Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze, strange fruit hanging from the poplar tree.”

This book may be difficult for white middle-class Christians to read, but we can’t deny that these things happened. If we want to get into the experience of how others understand their faith, we must listen to their voices. We must acknowledge their pain. In this book, Cone forces us to see the horrible treatment of a race and how it contradicts the Christian message. We need to lift up the lynching tree, in confession, realizing the sin it represents and live in the hope of a God who has the power to free us from such a past and shape us into a new people who might live in sister and brotherhood with those of a different hue.

This is the second book I’ve read by Cone. In the late 1980s, while in seminary, I read A Black Theology of Liberation. As a seminarian, I also studied under Ronald Stone, whose writings and conversations helped Cone shape his interpretation of Reinhold Niebuhr’s views of the cross. While the subject matter is often difficult, Cone is an engaging writer. In a time when American seems to be coming apart at the seams, this book should be read by those of us in the majority culture so that we can “walk a mile” in the shoes of those who are of a different color and whose experience as an American is different that ours.