Notes on my reading during the past month


Gary D. Schmidt, Orbiting Jupiter 

(Boston, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015), 183 pages. 

This young adult novel is about Joseph. A teenage father, he’s sent to a foster family who own a farm in rural Maine.

The family has one other boy, Jack. After getting off to a shaky start, the two become like brothers, watching out for the other. The story centers around what happened to Joseph in his past. When he was 13, he fell in love with Madeline. While Joseph was from a broken family that economically lived on the margin, Madeline’s family was well off. When she became pregnant, they sent her away where she gave birth to a daughter she named “Jupiter.” The planet plays a prominent role in the story as Joseph had pointed it out to Madeline and he often looks for it in the sky. The story’s conclusion occurs around Joseph attempt to find his daughter.

Upon Joseph’s release from Stone Mountain, a juvenile detention center, he find himself with chores to do on a farm. He works beside Jack and makes friends with Dahalia, one of the orneriest cows in the barn. Thereafter, he’s the one who milks her. At school, he struggles with some teachers who think he shouldn’t be in school, but others see promise in him. Joseph is exceptionally strong in math and a prospect for the track team. The story occurs in winter. Schmidt captures the the cold of Maine. When milking, the boys lean in on the cows to capture their warmth.The frozen landscape makes the river dangerous, but also creates an opportunity to ice skate on the family’s pond.

Christmas is especially meaningful for Joseph as he attends church with the family and learns about Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father. He also learns of Mary’s early age. While Schmidt doesn’t mention it, it’s traditionally assumed the Virgin Mary was 14 when she gave birth. This is Madeline’s age when she gives birth to Jupiter. I won’t spoil the ending. However, this book is sad, and I found tears in my eyes. Yet, there’s hope in the child, Jupiter. 

Alyce McKenzie, Novel Preaching: Tips from Top Writers on Crafting Creative Sermons

(Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2010), 180 pages. 

As a “working preacher” who has also taught homiletics on a graduate level, I try to read at least one book a year on the craft, along with another book on writing. This year I chose this book, written by a professor of homiletics at Perkins School of Theology, a Methodist seminary in Texas. 

Writer’s Conference

This book is divided into three parts. The first two deal with the practice of preaching, where the author attempts to provide the information in a creative manner. In the first part (which is what I thought the book was about from its title), she images being at the Breadloaf Writer’s Conference. Taking her readers along with her, we go from conversation to conversation with fiction authors. As we overhear their discussions, we gain insight into how preachers might us some of the tools of authors to engage his or her congregations in their sermons. We learn about noticing and being aware of what’s important in the text and in our sermons. McKenzie draws from a number of authors including Annie Dillard, Natalie Goldberg, Frederick Buechner, Stephen King, Isabelle Allende, Toni Morris. We gain insight into character, plot, and shape along with picking up ideas of how to journal and to capture such insights into the human condition. 

A Cooking Show

The second part of the book involves a cooking show. Here, she draws from well-known (and some not so well known, at least not for me) professors and writers of homiletics.  Each one teaches how they approach a sermon, and the reader gets to pick up a recipe card at the end of their presentation. By the time I got to this part of the book, I was a little over with the cuteness of McKenzie’s writings. The writer’s conference wasn’t quite as overblown as this imaginary journey through some kind of convention with all kinds of “chefs,” a few of whom I’ve met, many of whom I’ve read and heard lecture. Those I knew before reading this book include Charles Rice, Fred Craddock, Tom Long, David Buttrick, Richard Eslinger, Henry Mitchell, Paul Scott Wilson, Nora Tubbs Tisdale, Justo Gonzalez, Eugene Lowry and Mike Graves. To her credit, McKenzie draws from across Western Cultures including African American, Korean American, men and women, Protestants and one Catholic example. 

Best part of the book–Sermons

I found myself wondering about those not included: Tex Sample (who focuses on the language of the working class), Cornelius Plantinga, Jr (who has written about preaching and literature long before this book’s release), Robert Smith, Jr (an African American who has strong grasp of doctrinal preaching), and Haddon Robinson. The latter really surprised me as his Biblical Preaching may be one of the most popular books on preaching and is the “bible” of expository preaching.  

The final section of the book was my favorite. The section consists of a number of creative sermons written by McKenzie. Who’d ever think of angels as UPS workers (after all, angels deliver messages from God which ties into the packages delivered by a UPS driver. I’ll come back to these sermons, I’m sure. McKenzie is able to touch on her audiences fear and concerns and offer a helpful word of reassurance from scripture. I would have preferred to have read more sermons and less of her “tidbits” of information from authors and homiletic professors. 

Caroline Christmas: Archibald Rutledge’s Enduring Holiday Stories

edited by Jim Casada (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2010), 225 pages. 

Archibald Rutledge was the poet laureate of South Carolina for decades. He was a well-known poet and author writing about nature and hunting during the first half of the 20th Century. Having read several of his works beforehand, I waited till a week before Christmas to read his collection of “Christmas stories.” This book was a gift from my staff in Georgia. 

While the book is filled with Rutledge stories, Jim Casada selected the stories included within the collection. Casada also provides insight into when the selection was written, the circumstances around the story, and where it had previously been published. Many of these stories have been published multiple times. First, in magazines (especially Field and Stream, Outlook, and Outdoor Life), and later in collections published by Rutledge. 

The book is divided up into six parts. The first section all deals with Christmas stories at Hampton Plantation. Rutledge spent thirty years teaching at Middlebury Academy in Pennsylvania. During these decades, he would always come home for Christmas. In one story, he writes about catching a train during a blizzard up north and arriving on the Atlantic Coast Line early the next morning in the sunny South. His brother meets him at the train station in Charleston and two hours later they’re hunting. Such descriptions brought back memories of me, as a young seminary student, catching a train from Pittsburgh during a snowstorm, heading south to visit my sister the week before Christmas in Florida. When the train arrived in Savannah early in the morning, wearing shorts, I went for a walk along the platform. 

A Natural Christmas

The second part of the book, titled “A Natural Christmas,” has selections where Rutledge describes walking in the forest and fields of coastal South Carolina during the Christmas break. Known as a hunter, we are provided a glimpse of Rutledge’s vast knowledge of wildlife, especially birds. While most of these stories are about watching birds, he mentions dove hunting. During such a hunt, in 1896, he shot a bird twice the size of the others. It turned out to be a passenger pigeon. Before Rutledge’s time, these birds flew in vast numbers that would darken the sky. But even by the time Rutledge came along, they were rarely seen. This story was published in 1911. That was just three years before the last of passenger pigeon died in a Cincinnati zoo. I find it interesting the world Rutledge describes had not yet been impacted by chemicals like DDT. Such chemicals have been destructive to birdlife. Reading his prose is to be taken back to a more primeval world. 

Deer Hunting

Deer hunting is the focus of the third part of the book. Such hunting on the coastal plain is done with shotguns. In telling the dangers of using rifles in such flat terrain, he draws on a familiar form of transportation of his day. “Express bulletins don’t make no local stops,” he humorously notes. Around Hamilton, deer hunting was also done with dogs who would chase the deer out of the bays and swamps. While I never hunted with dogs, I did go a few times with my father. I was not yet old enough to carry a gun. We were stationed along a remote road. We froze while waiting and listening for the dogs to drive the deer out way. While my dad did shoot several deer, he never did when he had my brother and me in tow. Again, these stories are filled with wisdom and insight into hunting. My favorite of his deer hunting stories was the last. In this story, he prepared to take his son hunting when he returned from Europe after World War Two. 

Other Game

There is a small section of stories about hunting other wild game, especially turkey and quail. He mentions squirrel, rabbit, duck, and ‘coon hunting, but his stories are mainly limited to deer, quail and turkey. There is also a very short selection of seasonal poems. Casada feels his poetry hasn’t “aged” as well as his prose. One of the three poems, “Christmas Eve on the Rapidan (1863)” was set om the Civil War. Rutledge’s father was one of the youngest colonel’s in the Confederate army. The last section of the book has a number of recipes. 

Rutledge is a master at describing the land in which he’s hunting and the “chase” of the deer. His stories often contain humor, and the hunter doesn’t always come away with dinner. On one occasion he notes that after a week, they were still eating pork. In another story, he writes about a turkey hunter who followed a bird into a tree. Moving closer on Christmas Eve, as the light drained from the sky, he saw two dark figures in a tree. Not able to determine which was the bird and which was a clump of mistletoe, he fired and guessed wrong. The bird flew as a chunk of mistletoe fell to the ground. He picked it up to carry home for decoration. I also remember shooting mistletoe from a tree. It was an easy way to harvest the seasonal green, however the white berries often don’t survive the fall.

Rutledge and African Americans

 These stories are dated by Rutledge use of the term Negro for African Americans. While they were no longer slaves, they were still bound to the land and held a subservient role. During deer hunts, white hunters were stationed around a swamp or bay, while African American men led the chase. Using dogs, they’d go into the swamps to flush out the deer. One has to remember that Rutledge is writing from another age. While he often speaks highly of African Americans as a race, especially his childhood friend Prince, there is a separation. He lived in the big house and they lived in the shacks around the plantation. These stories were all written in the first half of the last century. At the time, long before the Civil Rights Movement, Rutledge saw no problems with such relationship. Anyone reading this book today needs to understand time has changed and realize Rutledge was blind to such injustices. 

Aaron McAlexander, The Last One to Leave Mayberry

(Stonebridge Press, 2011), 219 pages, a few b&w photos.  

McAlexander’s family is from Mayberry even though he grew up in Meadows of Dan, which is located about five miles north of Mayberry. In this book, he along with others from his family tell of their ancestor’s moving to this hardscrabble mountain terrain.

Today, there’s not much in Mayberry. There’s the church and there’s the store. Even in the good old days, there wasn’t much to Mayberry. The store also had a Post Office, but that closed in the 30s. There was a tannery and a number of diaries along with a school. Although the community is sparse, it created many good memories that McAlexander mines to create this collection of short stories. 

If you read this book, you’ll learn about trout fishing, the first telephone in the community, and the depression (that Mayberry seemed to experience long before the rest of the country). There are stories about men going off to World War 2 and a training flight over the mountains that crashed in the dark hours of morning in 1945. You’ll learn about a “suck-egg dog” (beside being a nasty term for one’s enemies). You’ll learn of the influence of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which divided farms, and about a blacksmith who became a Presbyterian preacher, who occupied the pulpit I currently attempt to fill. You’ll learn of mysteries that still remain mysterious. You’ll read about people who make a break for the West, only to come back home. McAlexander himself headed off as a physics professor, but upon retirement maintains a cottage in the community in which so many of his relatives reside (many of whom are below ground).  This is a delightful book with good stories. 

A Prayer for God to Enter History

The sermon prerecorded on December 23rd

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry and Bluemont Churches
December 27, 2020
Isaiah 64

At the beginning of worship, in preparation: 

Jesus’ birth came at an interesting time. Luke provides the historical setting: Augustus ruled as emperor, Quirinius was governor, and a major census was underway. On one hand, it was a time of stability. But the peace was fragile, maintained by terror and force, as I pointed out last week.

In Simply Jesus, N. T. Wright tells Jesus’ story by delving into the background of this world. As an analogy, he draws upon the story of the fishing trawler, 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: The Perfect Storm.  

This first century perfect storm involved the confluence of the Roman world. Their infrastructure provides the means for the message to get out after Jesus’ resurrection. Second, the Jewish world longed for the Messiah and hated the Romans, which set up conflict. The sovereign wind of God was the third “storm,” challenging everyone’s assumptions.[1]

What does it mean for God to come among us?

When God comes into our midst, we need to be careful. Such presence is dangerous. Things will be shaken up. And that’s what happened when God came as a child born in Bethlehem. Today, we’ll go back into a world without Jesus as we explore Isaiah 64. The prophet cries out for God to intervene. Would we be so brave? 

After the reading of Scripture: 

Although Isaiah lived centuries before the birth of Jesus, they resided in a similar world. As a small nation, Israel served as a pawn on an international scene dominated by foreign armies. It started with the Egyptians, then the Assyrians, and the Babylonians. The march would continue with the Persians, the Greeks and finally the Romans. This world of power spins around Israel. God’s people become dizzy and feel lost and abandoned. The prophet’s cry captures their anguish.  

The need for God to enter history:

This is a cry of lament! Isaiah knows God is not locked up in the heavens. God exists! God listens. God hears. Tearing open the heavens is metaphorical language. God’s present! It’s just that God doesn’t seem to be doing anything. Israel would like to see some tangible evidence. Therefore, the prophet calls on God to reveal himself in a manner that his presence will be unmistakable. Israel wants God to show up and scare the pants off her 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 he or she just had a sign, just a piece of tangible evidence, it’d make all the difference. But would it? After all, the Hebrew children in the wilderness witnessed God’s power and fury with the plagues and the parting of the sea. Yet they still continued to turn from God. The disciples witnessed Jesus’ miracles, and they still denied him. 

There’s just something about us wanting God to step into history and to solve our problems. We want God to be on our side. We want God to do our bidding. 

It’s as if it’s after school and we’re in a pickup basketball game. We want to choose God for our team. We forget that we don’t choose God. God chooses us! Instead of us trying to lure God over to our team, we should make sure we’re on his team.

Isaiah 64: A Prayer of Lament 

       This prayer, or lament, of Isaiah’s can be divided into four parts. If we separate them, we can better understand the prophet’s theology. 

An appeal to history

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; therefore, he bases his request on 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. Do you think God stopped acting with Jesus or the Apostles, or maybe with your baptism or confirmation? If so, join in Isaiah’s lament. Cry out for God to make himself known once again. God is the 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.

The need for confession: 

       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, 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.

Affirmation: 

       The third part of this lament affirms a 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.

Waiting:

Next, Isaiah waits. There is nothing more to do but to carry on as he waits for God’s answer.

       In the fourth verse of this chapter, we are told God works for those who wait. And when we think about it, much of scripture is about God’s people waiting on God. 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. 

It’s now our turn to wait for Christ’s return. At times, at least within the measurement of human history, God seems slow to act. Yet, in the meantime, we are to wait faithfully. Our willingness to wait reflects our trust in the Almighty.

Our lack of interest in waiting:

       But our culture doesn’t value waiting. We want things immediately! 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. We need that vaccine NOW! 

This lack of interest in waiting is true in religion, too. 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, instantly! But it doesn’t work that way. Anything worthwhile takes time.

       Even the church 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,” we’re told. “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]

Advent emphasizes waiting:

       We’ve just finished four weeks of Advent, a season of waiting. During these weeks, we were reminded of the centuries God’s people waiting for the Messiah, even as we wait for his return. As we saw last week, God encourages us to be still. We might substitute the word “wait.” We are still and we wait, and then we know 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.

Isaiah is far from inactive:

       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. 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’s present, but Isaiah’s contemporaries are unwilling to seek Him out. God worked to get Israel out of exile and back to the Promised Land. God forges a new relationship with his people, one that would in time cumulates with the birth of a Savior.  

       Amidst the chaos of the world, God was present just as God is present now in our world. At times, from our point of view, we might wonder where God hides. But, when we look back on where we’ve been, we often realize God has been with us. God guides and works through us to bring about his purposes.  

Opening ourselves for God to change us:

       Let me clarify something. Don’t leave 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. In so doing, opening himself up for God to reveal himself as we see happening in the 65th chapter of Isaiah.  

Craig Barnes, in Sacred Thirst proposes the point of hope is not just to hold on. I suggest it’s the same for waiting. We hope so we can be free to seek holiness where we find ourselves.[6] And isn’t that what Isaiah does? 

Externally, Isaiah’s situation doesn’t change, even after God replies.[7] But he’s changed. He’s changed because having called upon God and reflected upon his sinfulness, he’s now opened to encounter God and to know God’s presence. Knowing God’s presence makes all the difference. When we know God is with us, we can undergo any obstacles and face any challenges. Amen. 


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

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

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

[4] “Spiritual Shortcuts,” Christianity Today (January 2005), 27. The article is about today’s crisis of cheating, but the author ties it to our lack of interest in waiting and preparing.

[5] Psalm 46:10.

[6] M. Craig Barnes, Sacred Thirst: Meeting God in the Desert of our Longings (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 175. Barnes is now the president of Princeton Theological Seminary. This was an earlier book of his while he was pastor of National Capital Presbyterian Church. 

[7] Isaiah 65,

A Christmas Eve Story

This is a short Christmas program for those at home. I tell the following story in the program followed by “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”

I have told this story several times including in an article published in Nevada Magazine’s online edition.

1988 was the first time I was without family on Christmas. It was also my first white Christmas. And it was a holy Christmas. I had taken 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. To top it off, a zephyr blew in two days before Christmas. I watched the clouds rolled angrily across the Sierras. Soon snow flew. 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. Having taken care of everything for the evening service, I joined a group of friends skiing down the old railroad grade to Gold Hill.

When we got back, we stopped by the church to shovel the snow off the steps. I turned up the heat inside. Snow drifted and the high winds made travel dangerous. About an hour before the service, word came that the steep roads into town from Carson City and Reno were closed. Now, my preparedness was for naught. Our “lessons and carols” service featured a number of readers, many of whom lived off the mountain and couldn’t make it in. Howard, our organist, assured me everything would work out. St. Mary’s of the Mountain, the Catholic Church in town, had already contacted him to play for their Midnight Mass as their organist wasn’t able to make it in.

It was a great service. Despite the cold and ice, people from town flock in. We recruited readers. As the service began, the building creaked and groaned against the gale. At times, wind seeped into the building and caused the candles to flicker. Our worship service closed with candles challenging the dark as we sang “Silent Night.”

Afterwards, a group of us headed to the Mark Twain, one of the many saloons along C Street. We had good conversations while waiting for the midnight hour to head down to St Mary’s of the Mountain for Midnight Mass. We wanted to support Howard, who was playing the organ. 

When I say, “we went down,” 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, clear skies greeted us. Crisp cold air billowed from my mouth like a locomotive. I zipped my coat tight, bid my friends a Merry Christmas and headed home, walking up the hill toward the lighted V, high on Mount Davidson. Snow squeaked under my feet due to the cold. The scent of pinion pine burning in woodstoves filled the air. A few cars were parked by one of the saloons on C Street. Otherwise, the street was deserted. When I reached B Street, where I lived, I was nearly out of breath.  

I paused to survey the town. In a few houses, lights still burned. 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 the hunter stood high overhead, followed to the southeast by his faithful dog. To the north, the Dipper was rising. Although alone, I felt a presence…

Things had worked out. Our worship serve was special and several of us were blessed with a second 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 echoed in my head. “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” seemed appropriate I had experienced something holy and silent awe was a fitting response.

This ancient hymn has its roots in the early church and is 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.

This Christmas, may we spend some time in awe, pondering the mystery of what happened so long ago. And while 2020 has appeared as a storm to us, we know that after the storm passes, there are good times. As followers of Jesus, we need to have faith. 

May we also be aware that that child, born in Bethlehem, will come again and claim his throne. That’s where our ultimate hope lies. Until then, we hold on to hope and dedicate ourselves to him, our true Lord and our only Savior. Amen 

C Street, Virginia City, Winter of 1988-89

Advent 4: Peace

JEFF GARRISON
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
December 20, 2020
Psalm 46

A recording of the sermon made at Mayberry on Saturday, December 19

Thoughts at the beginning of worship

It’s the fourth Sunday of Advent. Christmas is almost here. Over the past three weeks, we have focused on hope, joy and love. I hope you have learned that these are not just emotions we feel, but actions that we take in response to a God who loves and comes to us. 

Yet, we live in a troubled world. This isn’t anything new. There’s always trouble. Today, our focus is on peace. A Christian view of peace is counter cultural. The world thinks of peace as an absence of war. But what if we could have peace even in the midst of war? That’s what I want us to ponder today. How do we live a peaceful life in the chaos that surrounds us day in and day out? 

After the reading of scripture: 

I may be an outlier, but I have enjoyed much of 2020. Many of you, I’m sure, can’t wait for the year to be done. I hear people talking about starting anew as if there’s something special about midnight on the 31st. There’s not. It’s just another tick of the clock.

However, there’s much about 2020 I’d like to forget. My list includes the pandemic and quarantine, fires in Australia and the American West, the massive numbers of hurricanes, a shortened baseball season, and the closing down of the economy. But still, personally, the year hasn’t been bad for me. After all, I’m in the mountains, My heart sings.

 2016 verses 2020

My bad year was 2016. It started earlier, on January 9th, with a slip on the foredeck of a sailboat. My left foot was pinned by some blocks. I fell backwards with the boat’s lifeline catching my leg just above my knee, so that it couldn’t bend. The strain on my pinned leg was great. Something had to give. My quad tendon snapped. It was the most painful thing I’ve experienced. My leg instantly became worthless. After surgery, my left leg remained in a brace. I couldn’t bend it for three months. Then I could bend it 30 degrees and slowly worked up from there. I spent much of that spring learning, once again, how to walk. 

And then, in late summer, because of a high PSA reading, I had a prostrate biopsy. Those are not pleasant, but that wasn’t the end of it. A week later, I woke at 3 AM, thinking I had the worst flu ever. I had gone to bed feeling fine. I took ibuprofen and tried to get more sleep. At 7, I sent emails to cancel my meetings for the day. When the drugs ran out, I took my temperature—104. Calling my doctor, he said get to the emergency room, pronto. I called Donna. She took me to the hospital. 

I had no idea how sick I was. At the front desk of the ER, they checked my temperature, blood pressure, breathing and heart rate. They had me on a gurney with an IV in my arm before Donna was able to park the car and find her way back inside. I spent the next couple of days in the hospital fighting sepsis, which probably came from the biopsy. Thankfully, the biopsy came back negative. 

A few weeks after that, Hurricane Matthew raked the Georgia Coastline. It was estimated that Skidaway Island lost 20% of its trees. Our paradise island was a mess. A year later, they were still hauling away timber, brush, and wood chips.

But was 2016 a bad year? 

Yet, with all that happened in 2016, I still have some good memories. And these memories are not just from the morphine they gave me for my leg. I never felt alone or so loved. Nor did I feel abandoned by God  

So, while I won’t deny that 2020 has been bad, especially for the families of over 300,000 Americans and the million others around the world who died, for me personally, it doesn’t quite rise to 2016. And, looking back on things, as bad as 2016 was, it wasn’t terrible. For God remained with me, in the midst of my pain. 

The 46th Psalm

The 46th Psalm is about confidence in a God who is present in the midst of a trouble-filled world. The Psalm is divided into three strophes or sections, each assuring us of God’s comfort while reminding us of the problems we face during our walk on this planet. 

First strophe

The first section deals with natural disasters such as earthquakes and volcanoes, hurricanes and tornadoes. 

            Perhaps we’ve not experienced this personally, although there was an earthquake in this area earlier this year. However, parts of our world have experienced all these events in 2020. When faced with such calamities, we may feel abandoned and afraid. But in each situation, the Psalmist reminds us that we should not fear for God is present and in control.  

Second Strophe

The calamity in the second section is not a natural disaster, but one of a human making. Now, war threatens; the hatred of people drives them to ruthlessly attack each other. Kind of sounds like this past election. 

Despite the fact that war is on-going, God’s holy city stands unharmed. Even in the middle of the chaos, God’s city stands untouched. God is sovereign. What can we do, as humans, to challenge God’s sovereignty? God’s city stands as an example of the way it should be. 

Third strophe

And finally, in the third section, we are reminded of God’s judgment. God has the power to bring wars to an end. However, judgement brings destruction; God puts an end to our ability to wage war. God’s holiness demands judgment.  

Visions of noise and chaos and war often demonstrate God’s presence. But here, we find that although God is present, that’s not where we encounter God.

Elijah’s similar encounter

Elijah had a similar experience with God on Horeb. There was a great wind, and God wasn’t in it. There was an earthquake, but God wasn’t in it. And then a fire, but that was not where he encountered God. Instead, after these events, Elijah experiences God in sheer silence. Elijah encounters God in a way that’s a similar to the promise made in the Psalm. Be still and know God.[1]

Be still, let the turmoil of life spin around you, and know that God is there with you.

What does this mean?

            There was a point in my life where I thought this Psalm told me to go to where I could experience stillness and quietness. What a convenient interpretation. I could use it as rational for a backpacking or canoe trip. I still believe that getting away from the turmoil of life can be a spiritual experience, but I no longer believe this Psalm is telling us that we should go hide.  

Another way to interpret the Psalm

Instead, I have another idea what this Psalm means. God sits me down in a chair. All around me things spin out of control. There are things I need to do. In the similar fashion, God lets the Psalmist experience the turmoil of life before revealing himself.

With all this chaos spinning around me, my first through is, “what can I do to fix it.” Isn’t that a human response? I want to do something. But in this chair, God’s hands remain on my shoulders gently encouraging me to stay seated. Then I hear a whisper, “sit still.” The voice is soft and soothing. Such a simple message with a profound implication. 

It’s as if God says, “I’ve got this, let me take this burden from your shoulders.” Even in the midst of all kinds of troubles, we can find peace in our lives and we can know God. 

The theme that’s echoed three times in this Psalm is that God is our refuge, our place where we can find solace.[2]

Psalm 46 and the Coming of Christ

 This Psalm reassures us that even in the chaos, God’s present. God stands by us to comfort. God is in the middle of pain. God comes to us; God doesn’t wait till all is calm and peaceful. 

I wonder if we get a wrong picture of what happened in Bethlehem from our depiction of the nativity. We see the idyllic pastoral view of cows sleeping while shepherds converse around a campfire. And then, later in the night, some wise–dudes dress in fancy clothes rides in on a camel with gifts. Such a peaceful night, but was it? 

Scripture tells another story. Herod and his court burn the midnight oil in Jerusalem, worried that their rule will end. They grasp at straws to see how they can maintain control. Out of fear, they commit a terrible atrocity. And above Herod, we have Caesar and his legions. Roman soldiers keep an iron hand on far-flung parts of the empire like Palestine. 

The world into which Jesus was born

We learn in Luke’s gospel that a decree from Caesar forced Joseph and the pregnant Mary to make a trip to Bethlehem. It was no skin off Caesar’s back, but mighty inconvenient for the Holy Family. 

So, the world wasn’t necessarily peaceful on the day of Jesus’ birth. It was a world like ours, troubled. And everyday citizens like Mary and Joseph, along with the parents of young children in and around Bethlehem, were caught up in the powerplays of those with authority. 

It’s into this kind of world that our Savior was born—a troubled world longing for peace. It’s also into such hearts that Jesus comes… If we’re not sick, Jesus suggests, we don’t need a doctor. But if we realize our human frailties, we’ll run to a physician.[3]

The Psalm in 2020

Be still and know that I am God is a message we need to hear in 2020. When we think we can overcome all our problems, we develop a false sense of pride. We feel we can take care of ourselves; a feeling in which we risk making ourselves into a little god. But when we realize that we are truly not in control, we must turn to God and only then can we discover peace. War may be all around us, but we can be at peace because we are assured that God is with us and, in the end, we’ll be with God. 

That’s why God tells us to be still. In the midst of our troubles, we need to trust the God of creation, the God of redemption, and the God of our future.  When we trust such a God, we can have peace.

In a year like 2020, listen to that voice from God telling us to slow down, to be still, and to know that God who set the stars in the sky, who divided the land and water and separated night from day, the God of the cosmos, is also our refuge and strength.   Amen.

Resources and Notes:

May, James L. Psalms: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1994.

Weiser, Artur.  The Psalms: A Commentary, Herbert Hartwell, translator. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1962.


[1] 1 Kings 19:11-18. Interesting in other ways and in other parts of the Old Testament, we find God revealing himself in these other experiences of Isaiah. In Genesis 1, God’s spirit is a wind over the chaos. The word for wind and breath in Hebrew is the root of the word “Spirit.” God also made himself known to Moses with the burning (but not consumed) bush. 

[2] God as refuge appears in the 1st, 7th and 11th verses. 

[3] Matthew 9:12, Mark 2:17, Luke 5:31.

My Installation as Pastor of Bluemont and Mayberry Churches

On Sunday, December 13, the Presbytery of the Peaks installed me as pastor. Normally, such worship services are filled with clergy from local churches, local politicians are invited, and there’s a big reception afterwards. Not this year. Not with COVID. First of all, we had to do it where we could maintain social distance. Neither church is large enough to have more than 40 people or so safely in worship. We were blessed when Meadows of Dan Baptist Church allowed us to hold the service in their sanctuary.

The Presbytery Commission with me (I’m second to the right)

The service is led by a commission that includes Ruling Elders and Teaching Elders (ministers) from area churches. The Commission included Ruling Elders Rick Rudolph and Mike Nyquist of Mayberry, Ruling Elder Libby Wilcox of Bluemont, Ruling Elder Sue Bentley of Northside Church in Blacksburg, the Reverend Bob McL. of the Presbyterian Church of Floyd, the Reverend Sara Jane Bush Nixon of New Dublin Presbyterian Church, and the Reverend Steve Willis, Vice Moderator of the Presbytery. While there was no singing due to COVID, instrumental music was provided by Joey Webster and Lil. Puckett.

The YouTube Link is to the entire service is below. Under that are the text of Sara Jane’s sermon on Exodus 3:1-11 and Matthew 16:13-18, the charge to me given by Bob, and the charge to the congregation by Libby.

Sermon by the Rev. Sara Jane Nixon

A long, long time ago, God’s people were in slavery. A long time ago, they were being threatened with extinction, literally, with the killing of their children and the death of their adults through long, hard labor. But before that, before their slavery, before they were a nation, before the foundation of the world, before anything that ever was or is or will be was made, God had laid the plan for their redemption. Long before time began, God planned for Moses. And through immense dangers, through genocide, through murder, through exile, God preserved him and kept him. And when the time was right, God got his attention through a burning bush. And he said to him, “Go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people out of Egypt.”

But despite all that effort, despite the plan that had been in place since eternity, despite the fact that we tell this story about Moses so many thousands of years later, it’s remarkable how little of this passage is actually about Moses. It’s the Lord who has seen the misery of his people in Egypt, the Lord who has come to rescue them, the Lord who has come to bring them into a good and spacious land, the Lord who has heard, the Lord who has seen, the Lord who sends. And when Moses asks why him, the Lord has nothing to say about Moses as a person. Nothing about how excellent his moral character is, nothing about his leadership qualities, his extroversion, his teaching abilities. None of that seems to matter. All God has to say on the subject is “I will be with you.” It’s not about Moses. It’s about God. 

And when Moses still has hesitations, still has doubts, God’s reassurance still doesn’t have anything to do with him. “But God, what if they ask me who sent me? What if they ask me, who is the God of our fathers?” God gives a cryptic answer at first: “Tell them ‘I AM’ is my name.” But then he explains further: He’s the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God the ancestors knew. He hasn’t forgotten, he’s still the same. 

Gallons of ink have been spilled over what it might mean for God to say that his name is “I AM.” But it at least seems to imply God’s active presence, active commitment to being the same God at all times and in all places. The God of the fathers – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – is I AM. The God of Moses and the Exodus is I AM. The God of the future is I AM. “This is my name forever,” says God, “the name you shall call me from generation to generation.” It’s a promise. Who am I? Says God. You’re gonna find out. You’ll find out by my faithfulness, my unfailing love, from generation to generation to generation forever. Whatever else changes, my faithfulness, my commitment, my love for my people will not. That’s how you’ll know me. From generation to generation. Forever. 

And they did. We did. Most of all through the birth and life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God and Son of God, firstborn of all creation, the Word from before the beginning who was made flesh and walked among us, full of grace and truth. But that self-revelation of God in Jesus is not always clear – not at all times, not for all people. It wasn’t even necessarily clear for the people who knew Jesus the best. It’s a secret – a mystery, in the biblical sense of the world. A biblical mystery isn’t like playing Clue,  where you’ve got to figure out who killed the butler in the library with a candlestick. It’s something you need to have revealed to you by someone else. It’s a secret you can’t know unless you’re told. 

And so when Peter comes out with his true and history-changing recognition that Jesus is the Christ, the true king of Israel, the Lord and God of the universe, who has come to rescue his people like a new and second and final Moses, Jesus praises him. Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! But he still doesn’t get the credit. 

He doesn’t know it by himself. It’s God who has revealed it to him, God who has made it known, God who has revealed the mystery of Jesus’s identity to him. 

And in recognition of the moment, Jesus changes Peter’s name. He makes a pun on the Greek words, “Petra,” rock, and “Petros,” Peter. Don’t ever let anyone tell you Jesus isn’t funny. “You are Petros, Peter, and on this Petra, rock, I will build my church.”

“Hey Rocky, I’m gonna build my church on this rock.” But the emphasis here still doesn’t fall on Peter. It’s not about what a great leader Peter is going to be. It’s not about how perfect he is – because spoiler alert, he absolutely was not. Peter becomes the Rock on which Jesus built and is building his church not because of who he was, but because of who Jesus is.

 Because Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and because God revealed that to Peter and enabled him to make that profession, Peter is the Rock. And if God has revealed it to you, and enabled you to make that profession, you’re a rock too, a rock that God is using to build his kingdom. And God makes a promise, too. He promises that he’s not building in vain. Even if the gates of death and hell try to overrun that kingdom – and they will – they won’t succeed. The God who promised to be there from generation to generation promises that nothing will stand in the way of bringing his kingdom to earth, making it, as we say, on earth as it is in heaven. 

Up till now, he’s kept that promise. He’s kept it through plagues and wars, through seismic shifts in the fabric of society, through more assualts of Hell’s gates than even the history books can keep up with. Despite all the odds, despite our enemies and more often than not our own stupidity, here we are. Despite these last nine months, here we are. Nothing is the same as it was. We could not have imagined our present last year, and next year is even more uncertain than usual. Here we are in an uncertain present, struggling into an unknown future.But even here – especially here – God delights to show us his faithfulness. He delights to open a new chapter and a new promise in your life, Jeff, and in your lives, Mayberry and Bluemont, in your new life together. The gates of Hades, the gates of Death, they’re raging. But from generation to generation,  God shows himself to be the God who is  with us here, wherever “here” is. And here in the Rock churches – made up of physical rocks, yes, but also the spiritual Rocks of those who make the proclamation that Jesus is the Christ, a new thing is happening. A pastor and two churches are coming together to live out that profession and the promises that follow it in a particular time – 2020 – in a particular community. You’re here as a pledge and a witness that even here, even now, God is building his kingdom. 

And of course, you’ve all got dreams, hopes, aspirations, expectations for your time together. Some of them are reasonable and right and achievable, some of them, undoubtedly, will turn out to be fantasy. Jeff isn’t going to manage to be a perfect pastor. 

Bluefield and Mayberry aren’t going to quite manage to be perfect congregations. 

But that won’t matter. Because just like Moses wasn’t really the point, just like Peter wasn’t really the point, y’all aren’t really the point either. The God who promised Moses that he would be I AM to his people from generation to generation, forever, has promised his presence to you as well. The God who promised Peter that the gates of death would not prevail against his church keeps his word to this day. Today, we’re celebrating a new beginning, a new chapter. But it’s a new chapter in an old, old story – the story of God’s faithfulness, his love, and his determination that we all will dwell with him in peace. And in his grace and his mercy, he’s chosen to work that out in you and in your community through your and Jeff’s ministry together, through the confession that Jesus is the Christ, through the small and everyday ways you’re building up rocks for the kingdom. It’s not going to be perfect, but it doesn’t have to be. God will be perfect for you, and from generation to generation, though all the gates of hell oppose him, he will not fail. 

So to the God of all grace, who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish far more abundantly than all we could ask or think, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus, now and forever. Amen.

Charge to the Pastor by Rev. Robert G. McLavey

     Jeff, it is a joy and a privilege to welcome you to the neighborhood.  I came to Floyd—just down the parkway—a little over five years ago.  I, too, came from a large city—Denver, Colorado.  But it did not take long for me to feel at home in the beautiful surroundings of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  The people here are wonderful, and the history is rich.  There is a faithfulness in the people, where you know that God has been at work for a long time, using some real pioneers who either grew up here or came here when the area was a pretty tough place.  But God’s grace is strong, indeed, and we are the beneficiaries of those who have come before us to preach the good news of Jesus Christ.  And that has been true throughout the history of Christ’s church.

     In the Apostle Paul’s letters to Timothy, Paul passes on to his spiritual heir the wisdom accumulated through a life of mission, ministry, and suffering for the gospel.  In 1 Timothy, chapter 6, Paul says, “But you, man of God,…pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.  Fight the good fight of the faith.  Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses.”  In the first chapter of 2 Timothy, Paul says, “What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus.  Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.”  And, finally, in the fourth chapter Paul says, “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge:  Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.”

     Jeff, let me suggest that in this day and age, being a minister of Word and Sacrament is not enough to ensure that Jesus is held up in honor and glory. Yes, preaching the Word and rightly administering the Sacraments are essential parts of our calling, but we also must be living examples of truth.  We must speak with love and authority.  We must call out false teachers who speak with hatred and hypocrisy in the name of Jesus.

     And to do all of this, Jeff, you must take care of yourself.  You need to be fed spiritually, you need to be diligent in getting rest and inspiration, be sure to spend quality time with your wife and family, and you must be certain to take time to be in solitude with God.  As you are surrounded by these beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, realize that God’s creation is yet another example of his majesty and another testament to his sovereignty.

     Jeff, by accepting a call to these congregations in this community, a great treasure is committed to your care.  The people you serve are the flock of Christ for whom he gave his life.  Therefore, I charge you to never stop loving Jesus the Shepherd, and never cease caring for his sheep.  Labor faithfully on their behalf and do everything in your power to bring all those entrusted to your care to mature faith and the knowledge of God.  Seek to be one with Christ in all you say and do.

     Let me leave you with this delightful thought.  All of us who have studied in seminaries and have prepared for ministry by pouring over books of great theologians have encountered the writings of Karl Barth, the renowned professor at the University of Basel in Switzerland.  He was the most prolific theologian of the twentieth century, and his theology was as complex as it was profound.  But when Barth visited the University of Chicago on a visit to the United States, and as students and scholars crowded around him at a press conference, someone asked, “Dr. Barth, what is the most profound truth you have learned in your studies?”  Without hesitation, he replied, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

     Jeff, may that be your greatest truth, as well.  Share it with your congregations and the world!

To the glory of God.  Amen.

Charge to the Congregations by Ruling Elder Libby Wilcox

 Friends in Christ, 

There are few words that can express my excitement for this celebration of installation.  As chairman of the PNC, my committee has worked for the past year to find just the right pastor for our churches. With God’s guidance, we have done just that.  Today, I come before you as an Elder, with the charge for both congregations. This day is full of hope for the future. We have discerned in Jeffery Garrison the gifts of preaching and teaching and have called him to serve among and with us. In the Congregational tradition, it is the body of Christ – all of us together – that blesses this installation to ministry. No bishop examines or consecrates this time. It is the spirit of God, through the witnessing congregation that declares the joyful discernment and call of Jeff Garrison as our minister. Your presence here today is a vital expression of our faith. 

But after this sacred celebration ends, then what? This day is not just about Jeff, it is about all of us and how we will partner with Jeff to do God’s work. 

No successful, transformative, healthy ministry is ever a one-person show. If church and pastor are to form a partnership that is strong and enduring, we must honor each other as Christ has already honored us. We are all in this together. Given this, I charge you as God’s gathered people at Mayberry and Bluemont Presbyterian Churches, with these things.

 First, as our years with Jeff unfold, expect to change. That is because the Spirit still broods over us, Christ still walks among us and God still calls us. As our relationship unfolds, time will continue to work changes because all authentic ministry changes us. Expect to be comforted by this as our minister establishes bonds of affection with us, but also challenged and confronted as well.

 Second, remember that we are all called together as the body of Christ for God’s great purposes.  Jeff is not a proxy for our work. God doesn’t need another fan club. God needs workers in the vineyard. Paul reminds us in Ephesians, there is one body and one Spirit and each of us was given Christian gifts…..some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teacher, not for personal glorification but so the saints would be equipped for the work of ministry for the building up of the body of Christ. (Eph. 4) This world, yea, this part of the world needs to know God’s love and grace through each of us. This is a partnership of people and pastor on behalf of a mighty and merciful God. We are embarking on holy work. 

Third, honor Jeff’s ministry. While this is a partnership, there is also a peculiar setting apart that happens when we grant a minister the privilege of our pulpit and he commits to this ministry before a trusting, yearning congregation.  Ministry can be lonely and often there is little to go on to know if you are making a difference. A pastor is more likely to hear the vocal complainers than the quiet supporters, and is under enormous pressure to wade into conflict with wisdom beyond human capability when it gets personal. So honor Jeff’s ministry. Pray for him. Contact him – notes, texts, phone calls, emails, however – contact him with words of encouragement. Thank him for being a preacher, pastor and prophet in our midst. And honor him by challenging him, asking for clarification, sharing your viewpoint. Be full, and real and honest in your support. 

The apostle Paul frequently began his letters with wonderful words of thanksgiving, as here in his letter to the Philippians:   “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.” Paul goes on to say, “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.  It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me…”. 

 Indeed, today affirms once again that all of us are in God’s grace and are partners in the sharing of the gospel. With joy, thanksgiving and prayer, God’s good work will be manifest among us, if we give thanks for each other, honor each other, and remember that God has called us to this time and place for a reason. May you perceive this with the excitement and hope that only the Spirit can give and may our years together be marked with great faithfulness.  May God Bless all of us !

Advent 3: Love

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
Genesis 33:1-11
December 13, 2020

The sermon recored on Friday. It’s not exactly the same as the text below, but pretty close.

Thoughts at the beginning of the service:

            As we’ve done for the past few weeks, we’re looking this morning at a unique passage of Scripture for Advent. Why not, we’re coming up on a weird Christmas with the precautions we have to take to slow the spread of COVID. 

 Our scripture passage is about Jacob, one of the patriarchs of the Hebrew tradition. You know him. A cheater, who found himself cheated. He deceived Esau, his brother, out of his inheritance by offering a hungry boy a bowl of soup. And if that wasn’t enough, he took advantage of his father’s failing eyes to obtain his brother’s blessings. This creates a rift between him and his brother. He flees for his life. 

While wandering, he fell in love with Rachel and agreed to give her father seven years of work for her hand in marriage. But his father-in-law tricked him into first marrying her sister, Leah. So, Jacob worked seven more years for the woman he loved. Then he had two wives, each jealous of the other. Jacob’s is not be the first dysfunctional family in Scripture, but his is one of the more extreme.[1]

Jacob had battled with a mysterious being. Was his adversary God?[2] He shows the scars of battle as he limps along. But God blesses him. His family will carry on the promise first given to Abraham. 

Jacob returns to his homeland which means he must confront his brother, Esau. Jacob, the fair skinned momma boy, must meet his macho brother. They’ve not seen each other in two decades.

A message of love

            While Jacob is the main character in our story, I hope you will consider this passage from the eyes of Esau. Esau shows us how to be gracious. He displays love. The jilted brother quickly forgives his conniving sibling. Esau could have had Jacob’s head on a platter, but instead, he buries the ax. 

Esau’s love is similar to the love God shows the human race. Our Heavenly Father could have been done with human sinfulness and wiped us off the map. Instead, God shows amazing love by coming to us as an infant. As we prepare to once again celebrate Jesus’ birth, we need to remember we’re called to love and to let go of grudges.  

After the reading of Scripture

            I’ve heard that procrastination is a sign of creativity. I’m not sure it’s true, but I hope so. I’d want to use it as an excuse for waiting till the last possible moment to buy Christmas presents. 

            Jacob, in our story, had put off meeting his brother as long as he could. One of the things we’ll see exploring this text is that there are things we shouldn’t put off for too long. 

The danger of putting things off:

            When there’s something I don’t want to do, I put it off… I fret over it… Especially when an apologize is called for. Don’t you hate doing that? Apologizing? If you’re like me, you struggle to do it. After a while, what could have been easily corrected with a hand-written note or a phone call becomes a huge task. 

            Or maybe because I felt slighted, I didn’t want to take the first step. There’s an important lesson here. We can’t control others; we can only control ourselves.

            It seems important for Jacob to make an effort at reconciliation with his brother even though he’s not sure how it was going to turn out. He can only control what he does, not how his brother responds. 

            I wonder if the years he was away, he’d fretted over making such an effort. In doing so, he creates a monster out of the task at hand. The more Jacob thinks about it, the more he worries that his hairy masculine brother will wring his neck. 

            On the night before he encounters Esau, Jacob’s hip is pulled out of joint in a wrestling match. Now, the big day arrives. Limping, there’s no way he can outrun Esau. He’s stuck. He’ll meet his brother and face the consequences. 

We all change:

            Another thing I have notice about myself is that although I realize I’ve changed, I have a hard time imaging how other person has changed. This is especially true of someone from my past. I remember them as they were when I last saw them. If we really think about it, they, too, have changed. 

            Have you ever been to a class reunion? You look around and wonder who are all these old people? I do, not realizing they’re probably thinking a similar thing about me. 

            I also have experienced this phenomenon on Facebook. An old friend sends a friendship request. I look at their profile picture, thinking it must be from my friend’s parents. We all change. 

            Is this part of Jacob problem? Does he still see Esau as the young man he’d wrong and assumes that Esau had spent the past two decades letting his anger boil? After all, Jacob has spent time fretting over what might happen when they meet again.

The Meeting:

            Seeing Esau approach makes Jacob nervous. He lines up his family, starting with the servants their children.[3] Then he places Leah and her children next. And at the end he places his beloved Rachel and her son, Joseph.

             Although we are not told the reason, it appears Jacob hopes that if his brother is out for blood, his vengeance will be appeased on the first group of his family. 

            He’s saved his favorite for the last. Maybe he thinks Rachel and Joseph will have a chance to get away. We’re not told how the mothers of his children felt about this alignment, but I am sure such favoritism didn’t bring harmony to his dysfunctional family.

            To Jacob’s credit, he goes first. He’s in front, limping along, with his extended family in tow. If there is going to be blood, he might as well offer his own. After all, he’s facing demons of his own making. We’re told that Jacob bows seven times as his brother approaches—the type of homage worthy of a Pharaoh.[4] Besides that, Jacob had already culled his flocks and sent the best animals ahead as a gift to Esau. Now he shows his submissiveness. 

            Jacob has no idea how his brother will respond. Will Esau extract revenge? 

The graciousness of Esau:

            Instead of vengeance, Esau is joyous! Much like the father in the Prodigal Son, Esau runs out ahead and embraces his brother. The two hug and cry together.  

            Then Esau comments on his brother’s family and delights in meeting his sisters-in-law and nieces and nephews. Jacob rightly gives God the credit for his family. Esau then insists that no gifts are necessary even though when Jacob presses, he accepts the gifts graciously. As Jacob says, he has all that he needs. But it appears that so does Esau. Both men have been successful. Jacob has herds and a large family; Esau has a small army.  

Encountering God through love:

            Then, in verses 10, Jacob expresses his joy, saying that looking at Esau’s face is like looking into the face of God. Jacob knows what he’s talking about for he has encountered God a few times by this point. And remember, Jesus tells us in a parable that we too will encounter him in the face of others.[5] Maybe a part of this has to do with Esau’s willingness to let the past be gone and to make the reconciliation as easy as possible. That’s a godly act.

            After a reunion, they go separate ways, partly out of necessity. With the herds and animals, Jacob’s crowd is much slower than Esau’s. What’s important is that the two brothers have been reunited and Jacob is back in the land of his father.

Implications for our Christian life: 

            A lot of times we are like Jacob, afraid of taking steps toward reconciliation. We worry and agonize over it. Like Jacob, we may even go to great lengths to pave the way, such as offering gifts. But when we finally get around to it, many times we find that it wasn’t nearly as big of a deal as we had made it out to be. Sometimes, like with Esau, the person we worry about has moved on with their lives. Other times, they’ve softened, or erased their bitterness. 

            Jesus teaches, as his followers, we need to be the person who takes steps toward reconciliation. That’s what being a Christian is about. However, it’s not often how other people see the church. They see us as being hateful toward things we’re against. We have work to do to show the world what being a Christian is all about.

The Christmas message in the passage: 

            I mentioned how Esau acts like the father in the familiar story of the Prodigal Son.[6] Remember, the father in the parable represents God. The younger son has done terrible things. The father was justified if he treated his son as dead. 

            Like Esau with Jacob, the prodigal’s old man doesn’t wait for him to arrive. Instead, he runs down the road to meet his wayward son. 

            Think about God running after us. Isn’t this what God does in the Christmas story. By coming as an innocent child born in a stable, God takes the risk to reach out to the human race. 

            Out of love, God takes the first steps toward us. Do we, like Jacob, continue to limp toward God, or do we try to run? Hopefully, because God comes as a child, we’re not threatened. We can embrace such love. And when we do experience such love, we’re to share it. 

            In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches us to pray, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” or as a more modern translation would have it, “forgive us our sins as we forgive the sins of others.[7] And Jesus tells us to make things right with our brother (or sister) before we come to make a sacrifice to God.[8] Our willingness to forgive the wrong done by others is linked to God’s forgiveness. But, as we see in our story of Jacob and Esau, it’s hard to take the first step and seek reconciliation. 

            We’re told this story from the point of view of Jacob. We don’t know what had gone on in Esau’s life. But it’s evident he’s glad to see his brother. 

What are we to do? 

            If there are those whom we’ve wronged, like Jacob, we need to take a risk on forgiveness. We need to be the ones to strive for a new relationship. And if someone comes to us seeking reconciliation, we should show the graciousness of Esau. Love is not just a feeling. It’s an act that works for the well-being of the one loved.  

            Loving one another is what Christmas is about. God came to this world as a bundle of love. When we accept the gift, our lives are changed, and we share that love with others. Amen.

©2020


[1] With Cain killing Abel, that distinction would go to the first family in Scripture. And Noah’s family actions after the flood also dysfunctional tendencies. 

[2] Genesis 32:28.

[3] Jacob has had children by both his wives and their two servants. 

[4] Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis, revised edition (1961, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1972), 327.

[5] Matthew 25:37-40.

[6] Luke 15:11-24.

[7] Matthew 6:12.

[8] Matthew 5:24. 

A Good Day Fishing

Last week I spent a few days with my father and uncle (and my uncle’s brother-in-law) fishing off Cape Lookout.

The end of a day

We leave the jetty off the southwest side of Lookout a little after four. To the west, the sun is dropping close to the horizon.

I’m at the helm of my dad’s boat, following Dale and Larry. We race across calm waters, parallel to the beach on the south end of Lookout, heading toward Shackleford Banks. The day before, this section was so rough, we turned around and sought safety behind the banks. As we pass into the Lookout Bight, we make a hard right into Barden’s Inlet. Quickly passing the split of land at the end of Lookout, we’re soon running along the backside of the island. We’re now heading parallel to our previous heading, but in the direction, with just a split of land separating us from where we were. 

The channel cuts a path resembling a giant question mark, as we maneuver between Lookout and Shackleford Banks.

We pass a lovely two mask schooner that has taken shelter behind the banks. The still water is only marred by the wake of our boats.

After passing the Old Coast Guard and Life Saving stations, we cut back toward the Lookout Lighthouse, which not only rises up into the sky but whose reflection follows us as we snake back north, keeping the red buoys on our right. Once we pass the lighthouse, the channel straightens as we head toward the east end of Harker’s Island. The sandbars have shifted and there are places we ignore the buoys. In one place, a sandbar has completely covered the old channel and we take a green buoy to the right. If we’d stayed in the marked channel, we’d been grounded. 

We take the northern channel at the split and curve around the west end of Harkers Island. The sun has now set behind us. As we make the turn into Eastmouth Bay, the pink sky reflects off the calm waters.  As we approach the channel into our dock, I push the throttle up to slow the boat down as I raise the motor enough to make it over the sand bar at the mouth of the dredged cut. We putt into the dock. It’s been a good day. Now there are fish to clean. 

The cooler contains Day and my fish. Larry and Dale’s are in the bucket.

Heading out early in the morning

We’d left that morning around 7 AM and watched the sun rise as we were running around Harker’s Island.

The temperature was below freezing, as evident by the ice on the docks. But unlike the day before, when the gales of earlier in the week had calmed to a stiff breeze of 20 miles an hour, this morning was calm. We didn’t feel the cold nearly as much as the previous day. We arrived at the rock jetty off Lookout, set anchor, and began to fish. A dozen or so boats were already anchored and had lines in the water by the time we arrived. As the day continued, even more would arrive. 

The fishing wasn’t great the first few hours. I seemed to lose jigs to the rocks, while just on the other side of the rocks, a dude with an orange coat, sitting on a swivel seat on the bow of his boat, caught fish after fish. Most were thrown back, but he kept a few. I pondered why they liked his grub and not mine. But then I got a bite. The light rod bent over and began to work the fish, but before we could get it to the net, he got off. Fifteen minutes later, my dad caught a speckled trout. There was one in the cooler.  

We were just about to head to the other side of the jetty, when Dad caught another while I lost another. So, we stayed and kept fishing. Larry and Dale had moved their boat to the other side and texted us to let us know a wildlife officer was over there checking fish and license. We assured him we only had “legal” fish. The officer only checked a half dozen boats, and then left, but he’d written a lot of tickets for fishing without licenses or having kept more fish than allowed. 

Finally, I did land a speckled trout that was just barely large enough to keep (speckled must be 14 inches long).  As the tide dropped, exposing the rocks and the shoreline approached out anchorage, we watched another guy fishing from the surf, on our side of the jetty catch fish after fish. I began to wonder what was wrong with our technique.

Catching fish

Then it happened. Dad caught a puppy drum. It was a good fight. I pulled my line in and helped him out the net.  While dad was putting the fish away and putting a new grub on his jig, I got a bite. It was another puppy drum. This one also took several minutes to get it into the boat. I’d get the fish almost to the boat and it would begin running, pulling line off the reel. As the line was only 8-pound test, you have to keep your drag fairly loose to keep the line from snapping. Dad waited until the fish tired and I got it to the boat, where he could help net it. It was another puppy drum, about 21 inches long. It went into the cooler, too. 

The limit of drum is one a piece, but for the next hour, we kept catching and releasing them. The fish ranged from 20 to 26 inches and they all gave a great fight. I’m not sure how many we caught, but each of us caught seven or eight fish. All the fish fought hard and took several minutes to get into the boat.

boats around the jetty which can only be partially seen by where the rocks are above water

As the noon hour approached, we were both getting hungry.  We finally took a break to have lunch (beans and weenies and crackers), even though the fish were still biting. Several other boats along with the guys on shore got into catching drum, so after lunch we moved to the other side of the jetty. We anchored next to Larry and Dale and began fishing. Pretty soon, we both caught a gray trout (we could only keep one, but we only caught one apiece). Then we caught a few more speckled trout. It seemed as if for every trout I got into the boat, I would lose one jig to the rocks. About half of the trout, we had to throw back as they were not of legal size. I also caught a bluefish. 

While we fished the jetty, out in deeper water shrimp thrawlers worked back and forth. You could hear the drone of their diesels and when pulled in their nets to cull their catch, the sound of gulls squawking overwhelmed the sounds of the waves breaking on the rock.

As the trawler culls their catch, the gulls fight for that which is thrown back

As the afternoon wore on, more. and more boats left for home. There were only a half dozen of so left when we decided to call it a day.

Advent 2: Joy

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
December 6, 2020
Acts 8:26-39

Introduction at the beginning of Worship

One of our secular songs of the season is Jolly Old Saint Nicholas. The lyrics come from a poem, “Lilly’s Secret”, published in December 1865. At that time, just after the Civil War, the United States needed a little Christmas cheer. In the poem and song, a girl teases Santa with this request:

Jolly old Saint Nicholas
lean your ear this way;
don’t you tell a single soul
what I’m going to say,
Christmas Eve is coming soon;
now you dear old man,
whisper what you’ll bring to me;
tell me if you can.

She tells St. Nick what her siblings want for Christmas. A pair of skates for Johnny, a doll for Suzy, and a storybook for Nellie (she thinks dolls are folly). 

            But her whispering in Santa’s ear displays wisdom grounded in humility, as the poem and song ends: 

As for me, my little brain
isn’t very bright;
choose for me, dear Santa Claus,
what you think is right.[1]

This song displays two pieces of wisdom. First of all, Santa is jolly. What causes this joy in the man in red? I suggest it comes from his giving. 

            Joy is our theme for today. While we should never confuse Santa with God, we know the Almighty also takes great joy in giving. Second, when it comes to God, like Lilly with Saint Nicholas, we should receive his gifts with gratitude rather than demand what we want. We’re like Lilly in that we don’t know what we need. 

Today’s theme

            Who would have thought we’d need a Savior born in a stable and crucified on a cross? That’s not the kind of gift we would have thought of, but it’s what this world needs. And we’re to joyfully accept this gift and to share it with others. In doing so, we’re not only joyful, but we help fill the world with JOY!

            Today, we’re again looking at a passage that isn’t often used during this season. In Acts 8, Philip guides an Ethiopian Eunuch to faith… Philip, in this part of Acts, is transported around like the characters from the Enterprise in the old Star Trek TV show. He’s preaching in Samaria, only to find himself in the Gaza when he meets the Ethiopian. Afterwards, he’s heading to Caesarea. The joyful gospel spreads throughout the region. 

After the reading of scripture: 

            Jesus came to save sinners.  We often hear these words of Paul from 1st Timothy echoed in our Assurance of Pardon after we confess our sins.[2] Jesus came to save sinners. Our passage this morning emphasizes this role of our Savior. In our passage, the good news is experienced by someone first century Judaism would have considered beyond redemption. For a first century Jew, you avoided foreigners. Furthermore, a eunuch, like a leper, was considered unclean. The assurance of this news fills the eunuch with such joyful excitement that he asks to be baptized the first chance available. 

            Now, we don’t know if this Ethiopian eunuch was a bad guy. To the contrary, the evidence we have within the text suggests he’s seeking God. He’d made a long trek up the Nile and across the wilderness to worship and to pursue truth. Only those who have a desire for God would have gone on such a pilgrimage. Of course, being good and bad has nothing to do with our need for God. We all need God which is why Jesus came.

            Interestingly, this Ethiopian eunuch journeyed to Jerusalem to worship. As a eunuch, he was in the service of a queen. He was a high official in the court, the Treasurer. For this reason, he may have had some official business in Jerusalem. But we don’t know. 

TV’s portrayal of this story

            A few years ago, a TV mini-series titled “AD” put a Hollywood spin on the story of the early church. In order to make the story TV-ready, they filled in a lot of details with speculation. In the episode dealing with this story, the Ethiopian was driven out of Jerusalem. The Romans were going to kill him because they feared the Ethiopians would join with the Jewish Zionists against Rome. 

            As the eunuch leaves Jerusalem, he travels through Gaza where a wheel came off his chariot. Philip happens along the way. Not only does he interpret Isaiah for the Ethiopian, Philip repairs his chariot.[3] Of course, they’re trying to make a story that plays better on the big screen by providing a few additional details and altering a few others. Who knew Philip was a mechanic! 

            According to the text, we’re just told that the Ethiopian was in Jerusalem to worship—the rest of the details came from the NBC writers. 

            It’s interesting the Ethiopian went to Jerusalem to worship. Was he a God-fearer? One who studied the Hebrew scriptures but hadn’t yet converted? He couldn’t be accepted into the Jewish faith at the time as a proselyte. Circumcised was a rite that would have been impossible for this man.[4]  

Who’s this eunuch?

            Many of the commentators on this passage play down the man as a eunuch, stressing instead his official positions. He was an important man. After all, he had a chariot (Israel wasn’t filled with ‘two-chariot homes” in those days). He also had the ability to travel far away. As an African, he was exotic. Finally, he held a responsible position, the Queen’s treasurer. Think of a Steven Mnuchin or, soon to be, Janet Yellen, of the first century. 

            Despite his position, as a eunuch, he would not have been allowed to become a proselyte to the Jewish faith at the time. His status barred him from ever entering the temple. But in this encounter with Philip, he finds acceptance. Whatever happened during his time in Jerusalem, he now understands the gospel. 

            Interestingly, he came to Jerusalem to worship, but didn’t discover God by himself. It’s on his way home that God finds him. Ultimately, our conversion into the faith is grounded not in our search for the truth, but God searching for us. And God often uses other believers to help us understand.   

            Even the Scriptures do not help this man to fully encounter God. It takes someone else, Philip the Evangelist. (He could also be called Philip the Runner as we imagine him sprinting alongside the chariot.) Philip, at the Spirit’s request, heads down the Gaza road. His preaching has been very effective in Samaria, leaves a place where good fruit is being harvested in order to go into a wilderness area with no one around. Philip, here, demonstrates God’s concern for the lone lost sheep.[5] He helps this man understand the prophecy of Isaiah.  

Philip’s role

            God’s ways seem strange in our economy. Why give up what is good, the preaching in Samaria, for what seems to provide little return? Here, from what we’re told, the good news is heard by just one man. 

            The New Revised Standard version says he was sent south to the Gaza, but a footnote suggests this can also be translated as “at noon” he goes to the Gaza…”  Who, in their right mind, would set out on a journey in a barren waterless land at noon? It would be unbearably hot. Furthermore, he has to run alongside the Ethiopian’s chariot. This isn’t Philip’s idea. God calls him to this task.[6]  

            As Philip hears the man read Isaiah, he asks him about it and is invited up into the chariot. There, an out-of-breath Philip lays out what God is doing through Jesus Christ. The next miraculous event is that they happen along a pool of water. Water isn’t common in the Gaza. But here’s a pond and the Ethiopian ask to be baptized. 

            Philip baptizes him and when the Ethiopian comes up from the water, Philip disappears just as Spock and Captain Kirk would disappear from a distant planet, leaving behind the inhabitants to wonder. But the Ethiopian isn’t worried. He’s happy. He’s joyful. The eunuch now understands. He travels on, praising God. 

            Perhaps, but don’t know for sure, he shared the gospel south of Egypt. We know that early in Christian history, the gospel thrived there. Even today, a strong Coptic Church remains in Ethiopia. 

What do we learn from the text?

            What can we take away from this text? You know, Christians are not made in a vacuum. One can’t just pick up this book we love (the Bible) and experience the fullness of a Christian life. The Ethiopian could read it, but he didn’t understand it. 

            Think about how you learned of the faith… Were there someone (or most likely “someones”) who helped you grow and understand that lead to your acceptance of Jesus? And how did you feel when you finally “got it?” Were you like the Ethiopian? Did your heart sing?  

            God uses people, believers, to help us understand, interpret and apply the Word to our lives.  

A personal story

            Let me tell you a story. Back in the early 1980s, after a painful breakup, I went through a period where I stayed away from church for a while. I was working for the Boy Scouts at the time. One day, I received a call from Bob Eplee (one of the district scout leaders). He said he and Junebug (another leader) wanted to talk to me. I assumed it was about scouting. 

            Bob, Junebug and I met a day or two later for breakfast. I had my notebook with me (this was before laptops and iPads). I was ready to work. 

            “Put your notebook away,” they said. “We’re not here for that.” Then they totally floored me when they laid it out on the table. “We think it’s time for you to come back to church.” We had all attended the same church, First Presbyterian in Whiteville, North Carolina. This meeting was their way to give me this simple but important message. Although they may not understand this themselves, I’m sure God sent them.  

            We have all had people in our lives that have shown us how to live as a follower of Jesus. For such people, we should be thankful and joyful. Furthermore, when we have a chance to share the message, we should be like “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas,” feeling grateful for a chance to make a difference in another’s life. 

Conclusion

            We’re coming up on a strange Christmas. Thanks to COVID, they’ll be many lonely people out there. As followers of Jesus, whose birth we celebrate, we need to do whatever we can to safely spread joy to the world. How might you, like Philip, put joy in the life of another person? Amen. 

©2020


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jolly_Old_Saint_Nicholas.  Accessed December 4, 2020. 

[2] 1 Timothy 1:15.

[3] For a summary of this episode, see:  http://www.nbc.com/ad-the-bible-continues/episode-guide/season-1/rise-up/111/2388571

[4] See Deuteronomy 23:1

[5] Luke 15:3-7.

[6] See Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Acts (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 141-142; and William H. Willimon, Acts (1983: Lousiville: Westminister/JKP, 2010), 71-72.