Who receives the credit for these two healings?

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
June 27, 2021
Mark 5:21-43

Thoughts at the Beginning of Worship

Let’s me share with you a quote I came across this week from Doris Haddock. She went by the name Granny D. In 2000, at the age of 90, she walked across America. It took her a year as she made her way from Los Angeles to Washington, DC. Let her be a reminder that age is no excuse for inactivity. Anyway, here’s what she wrote: 

Most people are worth knowing if you will take time to understand them. Unfamiliarity with other people, ignorance of other people, is what makes war possible and violence possible, and it drives all the social divisions in a school or in a town, nation, or world. When you understand people well enough, you can’t help but love them, even if you hate them too. If you think those are incompatible emotions, I remind you to think about your relationship with almost any close family member. Understanding people is indeed loving them.[1]

In our text for today, we’re going to see Jesus’ compassionate side. When word spread around that he was able to bring about healing, people lined up to meet him. But even when busy, Jesus takes time to be with people. While he brings healing, he encourages people to have faith and to care for others. We’re called to the same ministry. Our passage is from Mark 5, verses 21-43. 

READ Mark 5:21-43

After the Scripture reading:

Have you ever had a dream in which there was something in which you needed to do, something you were committed to do, but obstacles kept getting in your way? You feel caught in a Kafkaesque story, unable to escape and unable to do what needs to be done?

Or maybe you have had such happen to you in real life. You agree to meet a friend at a specific time and set out with plenty of time to spare. Along the way, problems appear: an accident, a traffic jam, you get lost, or come upon someone in need and stop to help. 

Delayed by Sheep

I know I mentioned in one my newsletters an experience I had in Idaho. This was when I was in seminary and running a camp out there. Scheduled to speak at First Presbyterian in Twin Falls, I had a 90-mile journey from the camp I was directing in the Sawtooth Mountains. I allowed an extra hour but did not realize that this was the morning they brought all the sheep through the town of Ketchum, taking them to their summer pasture in the mountains. 

I was blocked by 100s of thousands of sheep. In those pre-cell phone days, I was frantic. When I finally got through the beasts, I drove at a high speed through the lava flows. I arrived, before I was up to speak, but 10 minutes after the service began.  

Whether in dreams or in real life, I’m sure most of us have had similar situations in our lives. We feel strongly about doing one thing and something intervenes. And I think Jesus knew this kind of feeling as we see in our reading this morning. 

Sandwich stories

Mark is famous for his “sandwich” stories.[2] Such stories involve Jesus talking about something and interrupted. The plot seems to move away from where it was heading. This allows time for things to happen as tension builds. Today’s story is an example. 

Jairus and daughter

Jairus, a father, who appears to be a rabbi in a synagogue, appeals to Jesus to help his daughter. Jesus goes with Jairus to take care of the sick girl. 

But there’s a crowd. A first century traffic jam. They must push themselves through the masses as they try to make it to Jairus house before it’s too late. Or maybe the masses are following Jesus, wanting to see a miracle. But the crowd is holding up Jairus and Jesus. Can’t they see the two have important work to do? Of course, this was in the days before flashing lights and sirens could clear a path. 

Intervention: a woman’s sickness

Our story shifts as Mark tells us about a woman who had been suffering with a bleeding issue for 12 years, the same number of years that Jairus has celebrated and felt blessed by his daughter. For this sick woman, the years were hard. She poured her resources into getting well, and now was penniless and hopeless. 

Differences in how they approach Jesus

Notice that Jairus, who had resources, approaches Jesus straight on. He knows his position in society. This woman approaches Jesus from behind. Without any hope left in the medical community, her only chance is for Jesus to heal her. If she could touch his clothes.[3]

There is a bit of superstition in her wish, as if the power is in Jesus’ clothes.[4] That’s not where there is power, the power is in Jesus, as God. 

This unnamed woman pushes through the crowd and reaches out and touches the hem of Jesus’ garment. The picture that we have is of a thick crowd, which begs the question of how Jesus even knew that a particular woman had touched him. The disciples want to know, but Jesus knew as he felt his healing power enter the woman.

We can imagine what Jairus must have been thinking as this interruption delays Jesus. 

When the woman healed identifies herself; Jesus displays kindness and maintain her dignity. He doesn’t say, “I made you well.” Had he done that, which would have been within his right, it would have focused her healing on him. Instead, this is about her needs. Jesus credits her own faith for bringing her healing. 

Back to the original problem

Now, after the delay, we’re back to our original issue, Jairus’ daughter. But before they resume their trip, they’re met by those from Jairus’ home who tell him that she died. Jairus’ heart must have dropped as they tell him not to bother Jesus anymore. But Jesus encourages Jairus to continue to believe as he gathers his inner circle—Peter, James, and John. They head to Jairus’ house. 

Different settings

The unknown and penniless woman is healed in public. Jairus’ daughter is dealt with in a more private setting, just a few disciples and family members.

The commotion at Jairus’ house

When they arrive at the house, they see the ladies’ guild has swung into action. Casseroles are coming in as they cry and make a fuss over the girl and her grieving mother. Some of those who gather may have been paid mourners. They go wherever there is a death. They’re making a commotion but are they really grieving. For when Jesus says she’s only sleeping, they stop wailing and start laughing.[5]

Mark’s humor

I hope you catch the subtle humor here. Mark’s story is funny. All these grieving women, including the professional grievers, are unable to wake up the girl. And then Jesus comes in. I image him gently taking her hand and quietly, as the commotion continues outdoors, telling her in a soft voice to get up. She does. Jesus’ voice is heard over against the ruckus going on around the girl.

Then Jesus asks that they keep this resurrection quiet, but that they do need to get the girl something to eat. Jesus takes care of her needs. We’re not told what happens, but I bet the father jumps into action. He might have even dug out desert for her to eat in celebration.

Jesus doesn’t claim credit

These two stories mingle together. A woman regains her health, and a daughter is restored to her father. Good work, Jesus. But Jesus doesn’t claim credits. He credits their faith. Not only do they experience grace, but they also maintain their dignity. That’s the way it is with Jesus. And we should follow suit. After all, when we don’t care who gets the credit, great things can happen.

If Jesus intervenes in our lives, and as God he is free to intervene and reward, we should be grateful. And until then, we should have faith in the one who has power to heal, power even over creation. Amen. 

[1]Granny D., Walking Across America in my Ninetieth Year.  Quote from:  https://www.plough.com/en/subscriptions/daily-dig/odd/june/daily-dig-for-june-20   

[2] Two other examples: Mark 3:21-35 and 11:12-25. See Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (London: A&C Black, 1991), 147. 

[3] See https://pres-outlook.org/2021/06/5th-sunday-after-pentecost-july-27-2021/

[4] William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974) 192-193.

[5] Lane, 196-197.

Mark Brown: Another Williston Memory

I still have Mark’s photo and my “Sugar Bear Ecology Club” card.

The Christmas break from school was just beginning. My church youth group celebrated with a progressive dinner. We travelled around to different homes, one for appetizers, another for a salad, another for the main dish, then the last home for dessert. If we were adults, there might have been a stop for drinks, but being a 10th grader, I knew little of such a world. 

We were at the manse, where the preacher and his family lived, for dinner. In the kitchen, the television aired the local news. Although we could hear it, we pay no attention, as Mrs. Jennings, the pastor’s wife prepared the main dish. Suddenly she came into the room. She was quite upset and shaking as she asked if any of us knew a Mark Brown, a student at Hoggard High School, where most of us attended. Everyone turned to me as she told us he’d been killed that afternoon. While Mark and I no longer shared classes and had gone in different directions at Hoggard, everyone knew we had hung out a lot at Williston, the year before.

Mark reminded me of John Lennon with his long stringy brown hair. He wore tinted wire glasses and often an army fatigue jacket upon which he’d drawn pictures in ink. He looked like a hippie. Mark was a year older than me, having lost a year in elementary school. A car had hit him one day, leaving him with weeks in the hospital and even more time in recovery. By the time he returned to school, he was so far behind that he had to repeat the grade. 

Although Mark was old enough to drive, I don’t remember Mark doing so. Instead, he rode his ten-speed everywhere. Once he received a warning ticket on his bike. If I recall, he was riding on Arlie Road. With no other cars in sight, Mark wove in and out of the dotted center lane. A police officer, sitting in a parked car in a driveway, observed this. He pulled Mark, in his bike, over and issued the ticket. Mark didn’t make a big deal out of it, but it was funny to hear him tell the story.

Mark was quiet and mostly a loner. We’d become good friends the year before at Williston’s Ninth Grade Center. Every day before school, Mark could be found at the top of the north stairwell. He would squat between the two bars of the railing, his feet on the bottom bar and his thighs pressed up against the top. He’d then lean forward and hug his knees, perched over the stairs like a gargoyle. Sometimes he’d read; mostly he’d stare. He was often alone. The north stairwell, along with the adjacent boy’s bathroom and breezeway was the domain of those of us who had attended Roland Grice the year before. Although Mark had recently moved to Wilmington from up north (New Jersey, I think) and never really ran around with the pack, his presence in the stairwell provided me the opportunity to get to know him.

Mark’s philosophy was to bother no one. If someone taunted him, he’d ignore them and walk away. He was the gentlest guy I knew, and I respected him for it. At a time when everyone was running around in gangs and the school and city were in turmoil, Mark refused to join in. Instead, he began his own little counter-cultural gang, inviting folks to join his Sugar Bear Ecology Club. Those accepting his offer received membership cards harvested from cereal boxes. We had to pledge to the “Clean Code.”

Clean up our world
Liter hurts everyone
Each member must do his share
Animals are our friends
Nature belongs to all of us

(©1971 by General Foods Corp)

As far as I know, there were only three members of the club: Mark, a guy named Joe, and me.

Later in our ninth-grade year, after watching a man climb and hang in slings on the flagpole while painting it, Mark had an idea. His lunch was 4th period, the same time I was in Ms. Gooden’s class. He told me to keep an eye on the flag that day when he was at lunch. I did. Looking out the window wasn’t anything unusual for me, although probably less so in Ms. Gooden’s class as I, along with most of the other boys in the class, had a crush on her. Our class was on the second floor, over the offices with the flagpole right out in front.

Sure enough, Mark climbed the pole that day. On the top, he was eye level with me. He held onto the top like a monkey and swung around the pole, the flag flapping around him. Students flocked to the windows and to the front of the school to witness the spectacle. Mr. Howie and Mr. Barrett, the principal and one of the assistants, ran to the scene. They demanded him to come down immediately.  I thought for sure he’d be suspended, but they let him off with a stern warning. At a time of turmoil, climbing a flagpole seemed to be a relatively minor offense.

My dad took me to Mark’s funeral. It was a day or two before Christmas 1972 and held at the Catholic Church on Wrightsville Beach. It was stormy and the tide high. When we crossed the causeway, the waves lapped at the few boats still in the water that late in December. This was my first time in a Catholic Church. Much of what happened seemed strange, except for the crying. Everyone cried. Even my father, who’d only met Mark once or maybe twice, seemed visibly moved.

Mark’s death didn’t seem fair. Mark had been riding on the back of his brother’s motorcycle. Someone ran a red light at the intersection of Oleander Drive and Independence Boulevard, hitting the bike. His brother was able to hold onto the bike and ride it down. Mark was thrown off the back and across two lanes of traffic. He’d beat death once before, but not this time.

A Proper Goodbye

Sermon recorded at Mayberry on Friday, June 19, 2021

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
June 20, 2021
Hebrews 13:18-25

I am sorry for the format issues in the bottom half of the sermon. I’m not sure what happened, and I have to now get ready to head to church! At least you can still read the text.

Setting the stage: At the opening of Worship

In a tweet this week, Pastor Timothy Keller wrote, “The gospel is neither religion nor irreligion, but something else entirely – a third way of relating to God through grace.”[1] I like that. It sounds a lot like what we have heard repeatedly as we have worked through the Book of Hebrews. The message of Hebrews was directed to a people who long to have rules to follow. They prefer the structure of their old faith rather than the graceful freedom offered in Jesus Christ. 

Today, we’re at the end of Hebrews. There are just a few items to clean up, some business to take care of before the author puts away his pen. Like us, he wants to make a good impression. Like us, he wants to say what’s important as he says goodbye. 

Saying what’s important, especially when saying goodbye, is a good message for Father’s Day. 

Read Hebrews 13:18-25

After the reading of Scripture:

We’re at the end. Not of history, at least I don’t think, but at the end of our work through Hebrews. We started this journey in January and since then, except for a break around Easter, have be enmeshed in this book. Are you ready for a new topic? I am. After all, this is my 21st sermon on the book. Today, we’re looking at endings. How do we say goodbye? 

Preparation for a trip

I think it was a Far Side comic. An ambulance delivers to the emergency room a patient from an accident. The doctor does a quick check, and then looks up to the nurses while shaking his head. “Dirty underwear, dirty socks, he’s hopeless. Who’s next?” The title below the drawing said something like, “Every Mother’s Nightmares? 

Was your mother that way? Did she make you wear clean clothes when traveling? Not only did mine do that, we had to leave a clean room behind. As bad as an accident might be, it would be horrible for someone else to have to clean up your mess. 

Thinking first about others

While there is humor in such situations, in the defense of mom’s everywhere (on this Father’s Day), such ideas are rooted in thinking about other people. That’s to be celebrated. It’s not a bad thing to leave a good impression, whatever it is we’re doing. 

Letters and Texts

Back in the day when people wrote letters by hand, which were sent through the Postal Service with an envelope and stamp and all, there was a particular form to follow. Most often, you ended the letter upbeat, hopeful, or at least invoking a blessing on the reader. 

Today, with character limits on text, few people even bother placing their name at the end. This creates a problem if the receiver of that text doesn’t have your name in their address book. If you receive such text, you only have a phone number to go by. You must either figure out who sent it (and what they’re talking about) or, at the risk of offended the sender, ask, “Who’s this?” 

I long for the good old days when we signed letters “sincerely,” and then included our name. It seems the courteous thing for us to do. Leave a good impression. After all, we have no control of the future. Instead of letting things hang, we should say our goodbyes in a way that if anything happened to us, we wouldn’t regret it. 

So, we kiss our loved ones when they, or we, set off on a trip. We tell family members we love them. We tell our friends how much we appreciate them. Proper goodbyes express our care. It’s the right thing to do. 

An American Requiem

An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War that Came Between Us is a wonderful family memoir by James Carroll. The book also warns us on how not to say goodbye. I first read this book twenty years ago and sadly lent it out and couldn’t find it this week, but I remember much of the story. 
Carroll’s father planned on becoming a Catholic priest, but instead married and became involved in the early days of the FBI. He rose in the organization. He became J. Edgar Hoover’s right-hand man. When the Air Force was created after World War Two, he was chosen to head security. He went directly from being a civilian to receiving the stars of a general. Carroll grew up in Germany and Washington, DC, in a privileged household. Because of his father’s connections, he met Elvis Presley in Germany and dated one of Lyndon Johnson’s daughters. 
Assuming his father’s dream, Carroll enters the priesthood. This was the mid-60s, the era of Civil Rights and Vietnam. His father, at this point in his career, ran the bombing of North Vietnam. While in seminary, Carroll came under the influence of the Berrigan brothers, remember them? One of the two preached his ordination sermon. 
You can image how proud his dad was that his son was going to be a priest. After all, he’d felt the call but failed to follow it. His father invited all his friends. Sitting in the congregation that day were lots of generals and admirals. In addition, there were politicians, from the highest levels of government. And, in the pulpit, was an anti-war priest, who didn’t hold back words. His ordination was a disaster. For years afterwards, Carroll never talked to his dad. 
Then his father started to lose grip on things. It got so bad he was quietly retired from the Air Force. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. In his father’s remaining years, Carroll, left the priesthood, married, and had children. He tried to reach out to his dad. He realized he’d made a mistake, that he didn’t really understand his father, and that he embarrassed him. Sadly, his father no longer remembered or cared about what had happened. As his brain faded, there was no way to bring about reconciliation.
One reviewer of this book referred to it as Carroll’s benediction on his dad’s life. What he couldn’t do in person, he put on paper. 


Good endings are important

While it is not always possible, there’s something nice about good endings. And that’s what happens at the end of Hebrews. While I have insisted Hebrews is more like a sermon than a letter, the ending of the book takes on a letter format. The author, like someone writing a letter, wants to end on a positive note. He attempts to capture the hope of their relationship in Christ, and to close with one final summary of the gospel.


Our Hebrew Text

He starts by pleading for them to also help him and his community. Throughout this letter, he’s encouraged his readers and listeners to remain faithful. Now he enlists their help. We need the prayers and support of others. I need you to pray for me. We all need others to pray for us. Whatever you take from this sermon, remember to pray for me and for one another. It’s part of our commitment to one another as Christians. 
Next, he expresses the desire to visit his friends. He doesn’t make a promise that he will visit but expresses the hope it might work out. “God willing, I’m coming,” is another way of saying what he means. He knows he doesn’t control the future. 
From what we see, the author has a close relationship with this community. They know each other well. 
Then he offers a benediction which highlights what’s been said in this letter. He invokes the name of the God of peace who brought Jesus back from the death. Jesus, our shepherd, by whose blood we have an eternal convent and who offers us new life. Then there’s our part of this summary, living in God’s will, through Jesus Christ. 
This wonderful benediction captures so much of our Christian faith. Even if circumstances conspired against our author, so he died without visiting the recipients of his letter, he said what needed saying. He ends with a few more niceties. He gives them so news about Timothy. He says hi from those who are around him as he writes. That’s about it. As I’ve said, we have come to the end. 


How should we graciously say goodbye to those we love and for whom we care? We have an example here, at the end of Hebrews. If your dad is alive, be sure to tell him you love and appreciate him today. If there has been some strain on the relationship, try to work out. If you have children of your own, the same thing goes. 
In all our dealings with others: encourage graciously and with love. Amen. 

Happy Father’s Day! My dad fishing off Cape Lookout. December 2020

[1] https://twitter.com/timkellernyc/status/1405471032622845957?s=20

Recent readings


Four book reviews: The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses, That Time of the Year: A Minnesota Life, and It Can’t Happen Here.

Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

(2013, Audible, 2014), 14 hours 59 minutes

What a complex book. At times I loved it and other times I wondered what I was doing immersing myself within these words. The Narrow Road to the Deep North, a title taken from Basho, a famous Japanese haiku poet from the 17th Century, centers on the life of Dorrigo Evans. An Australian physician and surgeon, Evans reads the great literature of the world and serves in the Army. Captured on Java by the Japanese early in the Second World War, he and his fellow prisoners are sent to Western Thailand to build a railroad to Burma. While the story of the war unifies the novel, this is not just a book about war. Dorrigo carries with him a dark secret, but one of hope. Just prior to the war, he had an affair with Amy, his uncle’s young wife. Her memory haunts him in the jungles of Thailand and even after the war as he continues his career in medicine and begins his own family. 

Evans is a complicated character who is thrown into a horrible situation. As the highest-ranking officer among the POWs, he must make decisions to meet the Japanese quota of daily workers along his section of the railroad. These are life and death decisions, but he has no control. All the men are starving and disease prone. At one point, he must pick men for a march into the jungle to another camp. He makes the decision by picking out those with the best shoes. He fights with the Japanese for better food and medical supplies and rest for his men. He establishes a rough surgical hospital. He is tormented when he cannot save a man’s life because he lacks medicines and equipment. Yet, he is loved by the POWs and performs remarkably well despite the situation.

His personal life before and after the war was a mess and continues this way after the war. While he marries and provides well for his family, he is distant. He feels inadequate and guilty. He drowns his pain in numerous affairs. But, when his family is threatened by a fire in the bush, he arises to the occasion. His wife and children are amazed at this. For the first time, the children see his compassion, as well as the risks he takes to save his family. 

The story isn’t just about Dorrigo. We are given mini biographies of others who were at the POW camps. Some died there and their ghost remain with Dorrigo and his fellow survivors. Others live on, but their lives have all be affected by the terrible treatment they received as POWs. We also learn about some of the camps guards and Japanese officials during the war and afterwards. 

One of the cruelest guards is a Korean, the “Goanna.” Extremely brutal and sadistic in his treatment of prisoners, he is hanged for war crimes. Yet, I felt sorry for him. He was not Japanese. He joined the Japanese army (Japan had annexed Korea in the early 20th Century) for the money. But Koreans were always seen as second-class citizens and instead of being in the real army, they were assigned duty as guards and such. His sister, lured also by money and the promise to help wounded soldiers, became a “Comfort Woman,” essentially a prostitute for the Japanese army. He bore the burden of learning what she had become. He also felt he was just doing his duty for a promise of 50 yen a month (A yen must have been worth a lot more back then!).  

Major Nakamura was the camp’s commander. He returns to Japan and hides his identity at first. He finds a job working with the Japanese blood bank. Years later, Nakamura has a conversation with a Japanese doctor who tells of the medical experiences he conducted on American POWs. The doctor confides that they did their duty and are safe as the allied armies want to put the war behind them. The doctor suggests that only the foolish and those from Korea and Taiwan were punished for war crimes. 

Flanagan shows the complexity of individuals, who can be compassionate and cruel, capable of appreciation of beauty and able to create what is ugly. Evans shows great compassion and leadership during the war and not so much before or afterwards. For Nakamura, it’s the opposite. He’s savage in the war and mellows afterwards. Not only do we see this through the characters but also through literature (both Western and Japanese). I am going to think about this book for some time to come!

I recommend this book with a warning. The descriptions of the POW experience are very realistic. Parts of the book read like a horror tale. Furthermore, at times, when discussing Evan’s relationships with women, I found myself thinking I could use a little description. Some of these parts seem like I was reading an “adult” romance novel. But when blended, this book left me pondering the human condition.

I listened to the unabridged version of this book on Audible.  I have been on the Burma-Thai railroad and to a few of the many huge cemeteries from those who died there: British, Australian, New Zealanders, Dutch, and Indian. These plots remain a sobering place. 

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses

 (2003, Audible release 2018). Read by the author.  7 hours 46 minutes

I found this a delightful book that opened windows of understandings for often overlooked plants. Mosses are some of the simplest plants but are also very complex and important for the wellbeing of our planet. Drawing from her experience as a scientist, who studies moss, as well as her Native American heritage, Kimmerer weaves stories of her family and heritage into the larger story of moss. I enjoyed listening to her lyrical style of composition and since listening to this book, I have been looking at moss everywhere, on shady ground, rocks, on trees, and on rotting wood. I need to purchase and reread this book in print to capture all the names of the types of moss. The book is essentially a natural history of moss. In telling the story of moss, the plant becomes a metaphor for our lives.

“But the world is still unpredictable and still we survive by the grace of chance and the strength of our choices.” (at the end of chapter 12). 

Garrison Keillor, That Time of the Year: A Minnesota Life

 (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2020), 360 pages including a few photos. 

I received this book as a Christmas present and thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Having listened to Keillor and the Prairie Home Companion since the 80s, much of the book felt like I was visiting old friends whom I’d met over the radio. This book gives us insight into Keillor’s life and the decisions that led him into radio and to becoming a well-known author. Throughout the book, one has the feeling that Keillor feels blessed with the ability to have done what he did through a radio show. He is gracious in giving thanks to those who have helped him along the way, from teachers and aunts, parents and friends, and to those in the business. He also writes graciously about those who performed on the show and the friends he made along the way. I was shocked to learn he had become friends of Michigan’s author, Jim Harrison. Harrison, best known from his novella that became the movie Legends of the Fall, listened to Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion and the two began a correspondence. Keillor ends the book with a beautiful “sermon” on Psalm 100, which he summarizes as “In other words, lighten up. It isn’t about you. Improve the Hour.” 

I am sure there are parts of the book in which Keillor avoided topics and left things out (this is a memoir and not a autobiography, after all). However, he acknowledges the pain he caused to this first wife and the situation which led to him being removed from Public Radio during the rise of the “Me, Too” movement. With the latter, Keillor avoids making his accuser out to be evil, while maintaining his general innocence. He agreed that some of what he said to the woman may have been taken the wrong way but insists there was never anything to their email exchanges that rose to the level of the complaints. His bitterness is at how quickly Minnesota Public Radio decided that he was expendable. 

A few quotes: 

“Satire is perishable like lettuce.” 

“I wanted to have a long retirement and disappear into the sunset and outlive everyone qualified to give my eulogy.” 

Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here

 (1935, Audible 2016), 14 hours 28 minutes. 

I read this book in college or just afterwards, but decided to listen to it again (which I mostly did while driving or walking). The book begins at a civic function in a small town in Vermont in the run up to the 1936 election. While the book moves from character to character, the unifying stream is about a Vermont newspaper editor, Doremus Jessup. Written before the election of 1936, the book creates an alternative to history. FDR doesn’t even win his party’s nomination in 1936. Instead, a rogue candidate, Buzz Windrip, rises to power on the promise of giving everyone $6000 a year. He also has an army of supporters who, soon after taking over as President, goes into action. Quickly, the country descends into fascism.  Jessup, who had always played it safe as a newspaper editor, writes an editorial that gets him into trouble. He becomes politically involved with an underground movement. Arrested, Jessup finds himself in a concentration camp. After his escape, he makes his way to Canada to join exiled Americans working for an overthrow of the government. 

Surprisingly, although of a serious yet fictional subject matter, there is a lot of humor in this book. These words drip with satire. 

This book was written during the era of Huey Long and at the time of the rise of fascism in Europe. While dated, there is much to ponder. Demagogues are dangerous. This would be a good book for America to reread. 

Hebrews 13:7-17: Leadership

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
June 13, 2021
Hebrews 13:7-14

Recorded at Bluemont Church on Friday, June 11, 2021

Thoughts at the Beginning of Worship

In preparation for today’s worship, I found myself rereading portions of Joseph Small’s wonderful book, Flawed Church, Faithful God. I like the title, for it accurately describes our situation. Toward the end of the book, he addresses the situation many churches find themselves in today: 

Churches in America today are anxious, not hopeful. The prospect of institutional decline leads to a frantic succession of vision statements, strategic plans, measurable objectives, and the displacement of outputs by outcomes, all dependent on the latest management trends. Hope in God’s way is replaced by reliance on the latest fads in management techniques accompanied by official expressions of optimism that sound eerily like whistles in the dark.[1]

While I agree with much of what Small says, I also think there has always been an anxious thread within the church. But such fears have more to do with our focus on what we are doing or can do and not enough focus on what God has done and is doing through Jesus Christ. We’re called to depend on the grace of Jesus Christ and him alone. And we need leaders who bring a message of grace to us, not ones who place more burden on our lives. 

Read Hebrews 13:7-17

After the Reading of Scripture:

We’re almost at the end of Hebrews. God willing, we’ll complete our journey through this book next Sunday. Our section today appears to focus on leadership. Our reading was bookended, in verses 7 and 17, with words concerning those in leadership over us. But there is so much more in this middle part of the 13th chapter. As we seen throughout this book, the author again circles around and brings back up topics he’s already covered. 

Earthly leaders are important. They’re identified here as those who told us about Jesus. Leaders have the awesome responsibility to care for the souls the believers under their watch. It’s a humbling position and my prayer often, when writing sermons, when I am going into a meeting, or a visit is that God will be glorified and that what I say and do will not build me up but help build Christ’s kingdom on earth. Being a leader in the church is humbling. You must be grounded in the Word and in prayer and know your own limitations and shortcomings. None of us are perfect, including myself. 

Jesus is our Ultimate Leader

The preacher of this letter to the Hebrews, after first encouraging his listeners to remember their leaders and learn from them by imitating their faith, turns to our ultimate leader, Jesus Christ. John’s gospel speaks of Christ as the good shepherd.[2] Hebrews devotes much of this letter to showing Jesus’ superiority to everyone and everything else. Earthly leaders will fail. Only Jesus is faithful day in and day out. He is the same, we’re told, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. 

While we’re to be concerned and responsible to our leaders, the preacher who lifts Christ up every chance he has, encourages his listeners to remain faithful to the Savior. Undoubtedly, there were some leaders at the time this letter was written, who preached some weird ideas of their own. God’s grace is the foundation of our salvation, we’re told, not obeying a bunch of rules and regulations concerning food and sacrifices. Verse 10 contains a terrible truth. Those who teach otherwise are not invited into the real altar, or we might say the perfect sanctuary where the perfect sacrifice, Jesus Christ, was made.[3]

Leaving the Old Behind

The author seems intent on us understanding that we’re leaving behind the old. Like Jesus, we’re to leave the city, which represents the old ways. Jesus suffered and died outside the city, and we are to be willing to join him and endure abuse, too. We know that the present is temporary. This world will pass away. We’re to wait and hope for this new city. While we wait with hope, we continue to praise God. For we know that God working things out.  

While we have a perfect sacrifice in Jesus Christ, we’re to sacrifice ourselves for the good of others. The preacher continues, remining us to do good and to share what we have with those who are in need. 

Role of the Church and Its Leaders

Our hope is in Jesus Christ, but this does not mean that the church is not important, nor does it mean that there is nothing more for us to do. Through the church, we learn of God’s grace through Jesus Christ. And through our lives and sacrifices, others may come to know the good news of Jesus as they see us life in a graceful manner. 

This passage concludes with a second reminder of the role of Christian leadership. The author informs his readers that leaders are also held accountable. Then he concludes with a hope they can do their work with joy and not sighing. If they can do their work with joy, it will be better for everyone. Hebrews is aware that not all the work of leadership is easy or joyful. Sometimes leaders must make tough decisions or give counsel that others may find offensive. But it’s part of the job.

A Story about Learning Leadership

As a new pastor, I remember early on being visited by a guy whose wife and children attended my church. I hadn’t even had the chance to meet them when he stopped by this afternoon. This was before my first Sunday, and this visit made me question just what I was getting myself into. 

This man had concerns. His wife was leaving him. He wanted me to tell her, offering scripture for me to quote, that she was to obey and submit to him. While he had a few selected verses to back up his ideas, he seemed to miss the point of scripture. This became apparent as I asked him a few questions. 

Gradually, in our conversation, it came out that he felt it was his right to come home after a hard day’s work and drink a six-pack and smoke a few joints. He admitted to doing this every evening. He even admitted that when she confronted him with his behavior, he sometimes became violent. Without even hearing her side of the story, I was glad she was making a break. As their children aged—they were at this time an infant and a toddler—I knew this situation would not get any better.  “I think I’m on her side,” I told him. 

“You’re not going to help me,” he asked? He then questioned my faith and my commitment to scripture. 

I told him that I would help him if he was first willing to work on his own issues. Furthermore, I told him, I certainly wasn’t going to suggest his wife and their kids remain in such a setting until he got his act together. He didn’t want to hear that. He cussed me and left. 

Leadership is Tough

Leaders, responsible for the souls of others, often find themselves in a difficult situation. We are not here to agree and to support whatever people think is right. Being faithful to the gospel means there are times we must challenge people in order that they might do what is right for them, for their families, and for God. Not everybody wants to hear that. 

Leaders Need Your Help

Speaking on the behalf of leaders (and in the Presbyterian system, we have shared leadership between clergy and Elders), we do the best we can. But we need your help and your prayers, and I think that’s the message of this passage. None of us, except Jesus, are perfect. Yet God works through us. For that, we can be thankful and humble. Leaders are important, but our hope is not in ourselves, in our leaders and institutions. Our hope is in Jesus Christ, and him alone. Amen. 

As leaders, we never know what’s around the next bend

[1] Joseph D. Small, Flawed Church, Faithful God: A Reformed Ecclesiology for the Real World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), 187.

[2] John 10:1-18.

[3] See https://fromarockyhillside.com/2021/03/hebrews-10-sacrifice/

Williston’s 1971 Snowfall

I have been reviewing some old writings about my days at Williston 9th Grade Center. Click here to read an earlier story about Ms. Gooden.

I always dreaded going back to school after a long break, but the morning of January 2, 1972 was the worst. Heading to the bus stop, I shuffled my feet like a man going to the gallows. A pall had hung over the entire break. I boarded bus #23 and sat silently in the back as we traveled up South College Road to Roland Grice. Everyone got off. The seventh and eighth graders headed out to play while those of us who were ninth graders climbed into another bus for the shuttle downtown to Williston. This was the first year of cross-town (actually cross-county) busing, which for me meant that the first hour and a half of each school day was devoted to riding in or waiting on buses. The same was true for the afternoon, another hour and a half of waiting and riding. This was the price we paid to be a part of a court-ordered social experience. On January 2nd, the ride took even longer.

I don’t remember who made the first dare. Right before the fourth period bell, standing in the back of Ms. Gooden’s room, Abraham, Mike and I dared and doubled-dared each other to toss out the window some of the old outdated books stored in the shelves along the back wall. As it was with the first bite into Eve’s apple, after the first book flew out the window, the rest became easier. We each tossed a couple out into the bushes below by the time the bell rang. Ms. Gooden came in from the hall and began to teach. It was the last day of school before the Christmas break.

Our indiscretions should have ended then. But it didn’t. As fate would have it, Ms. Gooden left the room for a few minutes during the class. We came up with another dare. In the back of the room was a filing cabinet where the former teacher, now an assistant principal, had stored years of test papers. I don’t remember which one of us was the natural litterer, but soon a file folder of papers sailed across the front yard. Someone joked about snow. We all got into the act. Wilmington hadn’t had a white Christmas in a hundred years and we were out to change that. A brief snow flurry ensued, blanketing Williston’s front lawn. The flurries died down as soon as we heard Ms. Gooden’s high-heels clicking down the hall. We jumped in our seats, covered our smirks with our hands, and tried to act like nothing had happened. A few moments later, the principal, Mr. Howie, stormed into the room. He didn’t bother to knock or ask permission. I’d never seen a black man so red.

“Who threw those papers out the windows?” he shouted.

Our smirks retreated in the face of his anger. The three of us, an unholy trinity, sat there praying that no one would rat us out.

“You’d better have their names in my office by the end of the period,” he warned his young teacher before stomping out the door.

Ms. Gooden walked back to our corner, her heels clicking with each step. Then she just stood there. There’s nothing worst than having a gorgeous woman look at you with big, sad, disappointed eyes. We immediately forgot that she was on the other side, a teacher, and confessed to our misdemeanors. After class we headed to lunch while Ms. Gooden went down to the principal’s office.

Our final two classes of the day were dreadfully long. The three of us walked around, looking rejected, kind of like the Pakistani soldiers who’d just been defeated in by the Indians in what is now Bangladesh. We kept waiting for that dreaded speaker above the chalkboard to call out our names and tell us to report to the office. Our prayers must have been effective or, more likely, Mr. Howie and company were looking forward to their holiday every bit as much as us. The summons never came.

Having safely made it through the last day of school, I assumed our actions would catch up with us the first day back after the holidays. I headed back to school, fully expecting to be sent back home, suspended for at least a week. But to my surprise, nothing more was said about the strange snowfall that December day. I often wondered what kind of conversation had gone on between Ms. Gooden and Mr. Howie, but I never inquired. It was best to let that sleeping dog lie.

Christians Should be Outstanding Citizens

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
June 6, 2021
Hebrews 13:1-6

At the Beginning of Worship

       We gather on the first day of the week, on the day of resurrection, to worship. Why? What does it mean? Think about this in our time together. 

Today, we’re beginning our exploration of the last chapter in Hebrews. We have completed the heavy part of this book written to encourage those first century disciples who were considering abandoning their faith. The author pleads with them to continue following Jesus, making the case for the excellence of our Savior. 

Worship God with awe is our call at the end of the eleventh chapter. The author of this letter/sermon wants us to praise God, not just on Sunday mornings, but with our lives. In the 13th Chapter, the author offers practical suggestions as to the shape our lives should take. These guidelines form around the concept of mutual love and knowing that God is always with us and provides us with what we need.

Read Hebrews 13:1-6

After the Scripture Reading

A Definition of Worship

I asked you at the beginning of our time together this morning what it means to worship. In his wonderful little book, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, Frederick Buechner describes worship like this: “To worship God means to serve him.” He goes on to say there are two ways in which we do this. One is to do things for God. “We run errands, carry messages, fight for what’s right, feed his lambs and so forth. The other is to do that which we need to do for ourselves. Sing praises, tell God what’s in our minds and on our hearts (we call that prayer), and to make fools of ourselves in the way lovers have always made fools of themselves for the one they love.”[1]

Our reading today follows the advice we were provided at the end of the Hebrews 12. There, the author/preacher of this book, calls on his listeners to give thanks as we worship God with reverence and awe. We are well familiar with worship as a gathering in a sanctuary or perhaps even family worship around a dining room table. But we often forget that we’re to live lives of worship. How might we do this? Today’s reading lists several suggestions to set us out in the right direction. 

Bookend concept: Philadelphia

       These suggestions are bookended with two overseeing concepts. The first is Philadelphia, not the city but the original meaning of the word which is brotherly love. We can also translate this as mutual love. We can’t limit such love just to our male siblings Love is the over-all trait of a Christian. We sometimes sing, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Love becomes our identity. Paul reminds us that love never fails. Love, along with faith and hope, remain forever. But love is the greatest of these.[2]

Bookend Concept: God’s Presence

The second concept, that bookends the other side of this advice, is the notion that God will be with us. God is always present. God’s providence provides for our needs. Of course, this does not mean that just because God is with us, everything will go the way we want it to. That’s not the case and our author knew it, as we see in a passage.

Knowing God is with us means we have no reason to be afraid. After all, our reading ended, “what can anyone do to us?” This doesn’t mean we won’t have hardship. Our reading makes it clear there are those in prison and who are being tortured. Jesus said a similar thing when he told the crowds not to fear those who can kill the body but fear the one who can destroy both the body and the soul.[3] The eleventh chapter of Hebrews ends with a final explanation point: “Our God is a consuming fire.” Obviously, our author understands God’s power, as well as God’s mercy as shown in Jesus Christ. 

The Call to Show Hospitality

So, what is it that we’re called to do based on our mutual love and our belief in God? First, we’re to show hospitality to strangers. Doing this, we’re told, some have entertained angels. What are our experiences with strangers? In the ancient world, hospitality to those you did not know was chief virtue. Even pagans understood this. Stories of Zeus dressed as a beggar, and then rewarding those who, without knowing him, provides help, existed. 

In the ancient world, people often took advantage of strangers.[4]There were few inns, and those that existed often were not places one wanted to find themselves. Hospitality was important. Several times in Hebrews, we’ve looked back at Abraham. He showed hospitality to the stranger.[5] Even today, in the Biblical lands, it is important that one receive guests in an honorable manner. 

In the summer before I entered seminary, I spent much of my time off hiking portions of the Appalachian Trail in the South that I had not yet hiked.[6] One such hike was from Bastian, Virginia (where 1-77 crosses the trail) to Pearisburg, Virginia. My second afternoon on the trail, this was a three-day trip, I met a couple who had just moved to the area. They invited me to stay in their barn, which they wanted to make available to hikers. They also invited me for breakfast. We had a wonderful time talking, and they were excited to learn I would soon be entering seminary. They were also Presbyterians and were heading off to church as I headed back onto the trail. They added facilities for hikers and for many years, their barn was a welcome respite along the trail. Not that I was one, but I wonder how many angels they encountered? 

While it is important for us to show hospitality to those we know, the litmus test for Christian hospitality is how we treat those we do not know. Even Jesus acknowledged that greeting a friend isn’t anything to brag about. “Even the Gentiles do that,” he said.[7]

Empathy to Those in Jail and Being Tortured

       We’re also to extend our hospitality to the less fortunate, including those in prison and jail. Often when someone is sent away, they are forgotten. Out of sight, out of mind, but that excuse can’t be used by Christians. Here, as well as in the 25th Chapter of Matthew, we’re reminded of the importance of reaching out to those in jail. In Matthew, we’re told that such efforts are akin to comforting Christ.[8]  

Furthermore, we’re to have empathy for those who are tortured. The preacher may be thinking of Christians, who during times of persecution, faced torture. But I don’t think he’s only thinking of Christians. He does not distinguish between believers and not, only between the unfortunate who are tortured and those who are not. 

Torture as a practice was regularly employed in the ancient world. That doesn’t make it right. We should have empathy for those who are inflicted with such pain. The Message translation captures the idea of empathy when he says, “Look to victims of abuse as if what happened to them happened to you.” 

Whether torture is legally carried out by government or at the hand of rogue individuals, Christians should be outraged. Everyone deserves respect. After all, a foundational principle of our faith is that we’ve all created in God’s image. We have an obligation to speak up when someone abuses someone else.

Marriage Fidelity and Avoiding Greed

Our last two entreaties involve two ideas we might pull apart. But they go together. One deals with marriage and adultery. The other focuses on greed and a desire to have more. In our world, we separate these ideas. After all, adultery is the seventh commandment and coveting the tenth. But these ideas are united by the language in this text. Furthermore, in the ancient world, they were not seen as separate concept.[9] Both were considered an inability to control one’s appetite. We’re to be content and thankful with what we have. Our obsessions, whether sexual or material, can get us in trouble. 

Christians as Outstanding Citizens

The ethical call of Hebrews is that Christians should be seen not just by other Christians, but all people, as outstanding citizens within the community. We’re to be contented with ourselves, to have good hearts, to welcome the stranger and to look out for those who are not able to help themselves. How are we doing? 

Let’s be Known for our Love

You know, when those outside the church see those of us inside it living in fear over the loss of power and prestige, fighting with one another and the world, and concern only for ourselves and our ideas, we provide them no compiling reason to join us. But if they would see the type of Christian raised up here at the beginning of the 13th Chapter of Hebrews, they will be intrigued. They may or may not join us. Ultimately, that’s God’s call. But they will know we are Christians. How? By our love. Amen.

Good morning from the Blue Ridge. This was my view at 6 AM this morning!

[1] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), 97-98.

[2] 1 Corinthians 13:13. In this chapter, Paul uses the “Agape” form for love (the love God has for us, the type of love that looks out for the best in the other) and not the “Philos” form used here. While they have slightly different means, they are still close in meaning and both are translated as love. 

[3] Luke 12:4-5.

[4] F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964), 389.

[5] See Genesis 18.

[6] From 1983-1986, I hiked the southern portion of the trail from Springer Mountain, Georgia to the Shenandoah Mountains in Northern Virginia. The summer of 1987, I completed the trail, hiking from the Shenandoah’s to Mt. Katahdin in Maine. 

[7] Matthew 5:47.

[8] Matthew 25:36.

[9] Luke Timothy Johnson, Hebrews: A Commentary (Louisville, KY: WJKP, 2006), 341-342.