Reformation Sunday: God as a Fountain of Goodness

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Presbyterian Churches
October 31, 201
Isaiah 12

Sermon recorded at Mayberry Church on Friday, October 29, 2021

At the Beginning of Worship

Today is Reformation Sunday. 504 years ago, on this date, Martin Luther nailed up his 95 Thesis. This marked the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. I will use the gap between now and the beginning of Advent (as I don’t have enough time to complete our study of Daniel) to give you a primer on our Presbyterian or Reformed heritage. Today, I am going to highlight the work of John Calvin and the important concept within our tradition, the sovereignty of God. 

The Reformed Tradition

Our tradition began in Switzerland, at approximately the same time as Luther’s Reformation in Germany. The first city to convert to a Protestant faith was Zurich under the leadership of Urich Zwingli. The Reformation spread to other cities within the Swiss Confederation. Geneva adopted the Protestant faith in 1535 under the leadership of William Farel. The next year, Farel encouraged John Calvin, a refugee traveling through Geneva, to join him in the work.  

Calvin’s Influence

In many ways, the Protestant movement has never been the same since Calvin placed his imprint upon it. Foremost in his teaching is the sovereignty God. To understand Calvin, we must examine him in light of the 16th Century and get beyond the view of him being a grumpy old man.[1] He wasn’t! Calvin’s impact on our world is immense, far beyond theological and biblical studies. At the turn of the 21st Century, one survey identified Calvin as one of the ten top individuals within Western civilization that defined the previous millennium.[2] His writings, teachings, and sermons influences not only theology, but government and economics. You see vestiges of Calvin’s thought in the founding of our nation. 

In this service in which we draw from Calvin’s worship style, I hope that not only do you learn about him, but why he felt so strongly about his theological convictions which should strengthen our lives as followers of Jesus.

Calvin’s Life

To be fair to Calvin, I should acknowledge he’s probably rolling over in his grave at all the fuss made about him. Calvin was a simple man: a pastor and a teacher. He didn’t seek publicity. Upon his death, he insisted he be buried in an unmarked grave. His wish was granted. But Calvin’s influence is still felt. 

Born in France, on July 10, 1509, Calvin fled from his home country due to religious persecution. He ended up in Geneva, where he spent most of his life. Geneva, in the 16th Century, was far ahead of the rest of Europe, politically and economically. Then, as today, it was a banking capital. Compared to the rest of the continent, Geneva was a relatively tolerant city.[3] (Relative is the operative word—this was the 16th Century, after all.) Due to the turmoil of the times, Geneva attracted large numbers of refugees from all over Europe. Calvin was one of these refugees.   

In Calvin’s ministry, he encouraged the city to take care of the poor. With so many refugees, the city was overwhelmed. Calvin had the church receive and give out an offering to the poor, a practice he tied to the Lord’s Supper. Such gifts should remind us that after being nourished by God, we should consider the nourishment of others. But Calvin wasn’t just content to take care of the poor. He also encouraged everyone to work, including refugees of noble birth, many of whom felt they were above such tasks.[4]

Calvin also turned the medieval usury laws on their head. He felt it was okay to charge interest if one made a loan to help someone start a business—the person who made the loan should benefit from the success of another. But he did not think it was okay to take advantage of the poor, loaning to them with high interest rates and forcing them into a subservient position.[5] Calvin would be quite critical of today’s “pay day loans.”   

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

Calvin’s Worship Style

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

Before the Reading of Scripture

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

Read Isaiah 12

Calvin’s Seal

The seal Calvin adopted for himself had a hand offering up a heart. The words around the seal read, “My heart I offer to you, Lord, promptly and sincerely.”[8] This symbol reflects Calvin’s faith grounded in a sovereign and loving God. 

Today’s Text

The seal of Calvin University based upon Calvin’s seal

Isaiah 12 is a Psalm of Thanksgiving. Israel can rejoice because God’s anger has been turned away. In the face of such news, offering ourselves to God—heart and all—is an appropriate response.[9]   

Verse one tells us that God’s anger has been removed which leads Isaiah in verse two to proclaim God to be his salvation! There is no longer a need to be afraid. When we are in bondage to sin, we are cut off from God, and there are plenty of reasons for us to fearful. 

John Calvin, writing on this passage, speaks of how sin clouds or fogs our mind. When we are away from God, we are filled with dread. But when the news of God’s salvation is heard, experienced in the coming of Christ, it’s like the sun burning away the fog; and we can have confidence in God’s mercy. Drawing upon Colossians 3:15, Calvin continues saying that this confidence should fill our hearts and “banish all fear and dread.” We are not “free from all distress,” but we have the assurance that in the end we will be victorious.[10]

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

God as a Fountain of Goodness

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

Nathan Coulter

You know, when you are thirsty, there is nothing better than a good cold drink of water drawn from the depths of the earth. Wendell Berry’s novel, Nathan Coulter, ends at such a place. Nathan and his grandpa have been out watching the men cut hay. As his grandpa is now too old to work the fields, Nathan escorts him back to his home. 

As they make their way across fields and pastures, they come upon the spring in a notch in the rock down by the brow of the hill. The old man sits down to rest. The boy goes and draws a cup of water for his grandpa. He takes the cup and cuddles it in his hand, looking at the spring and commenting that he’d never known it to go dry. As he drinks from the cup, Nathan thinks of all who’ve drunk from the spring, his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather and of those who inhabited the land before them.[13]  

Spring as a Foundational Metaphor 

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

Concluding in Praise

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

Having been freed from God’s anger, we rejoice and encourage others to rejoice. Having experienced the goodness of the Lord, we should also show goodness and mercy to others.

Be the Salt of the Earth

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

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


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

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

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

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

[5] McGrath, 70.

[6] Robinson, 199.

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

[8] For a background to this symbol, which is now used as the seal for Calvin University, see

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

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

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

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

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

[14] McGrath, 75.

Trains and Karl Barth

The group

I spent last week at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia with a group organized by the Foundation for Reformed Theology. We gather once a year to discuss agreed upon reading of serious theology. We had last meet in early March 2021 in Austin, Texas. That was the last time I’ve been on a plane. When we departed from home that year, the airport appeared to be dying. We knew our world was in a midst of change. It was good to be back together, even though the world hasn’t completely returned to normal.  

Discussing Barth

This year, our major reading was from Karl Barth’s Christology section in his massive work, Church Dogmatics. In seminary, almost 35 years ago, we had to read some selections of Barth’s writings. Since then, I have only read his revised commentary on Romans, where Barth moved away from 19th liberal theology in the years after the First World War. This summer, in addition to reading the Dogmatics, I also read Christiane Tietz’s new biography of Barth which I reviewed a few months ago.

At best, I have a love/hate relationship with Barth. A brilliant man, it feels as if he wrote down every word that came into his brain. But amidst all the thoughts and ideas, there are often real jewels of ideas. I imagine reading Barth is a bit like mining diamonds.  This time around, I came to appreciate Barth’s footnotes, where he defends his ideas with brilliant exegesis of scripture. 

Traditionally, theologians develop their Christology after outlining the inability of humanity to save itself. Barth flips this idea on its head, first writing about the God who journeyed “into the far country.” Barth wants us to realize that grace always comes before sin. We experience this through Jesus Christ, who Barth also goes into depth to show was God. And God comes and lives among us. When they Pharisees condemned Jesus for eating with sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes, they were acknowledging the radicalness of this God who comes to us. Barth builds his theology around Jesus Christ. We must take our focus off our selves (and our pride) and find ourselves connected to a God who comes in a small and insignificant manner. Barth’s ideas continue as he discusses judgment, sin, pride, and the fall. This is a brief explanation of 30-some hours of discussion!

These were seen on my walks around town

Every afternoon, after spending hours talking about Barth, I would take a walk, From the yard signs, you can tell that Decatur is breaking Georgia’s image. Everywhere were signs in support of BLM and civil rights. Even yards that were decorated for Halloween had a message! I also learned that the first ever Waffle House was in the community of Avondale. Now we know who to blame…

Midnight Train to Georgia

Having just driven to Hilton Head, Savannah, then Wilmington, I decided to travel differently. I took the train from Danville, Virginia to Atlanta. This is a section of the route known as the Southern Crescent, which starts in New York and continues to New Orleans. Traveling in a roomette, I boarded the train at 11:20 PM. A waxing moon seemed to hang just outside my window. I fell asleep to the gentle rocking, the faint sound of the engine whistling, and the beeping and flashing lights on the lower guards as we raced through crossings. I woke as the train stopped and looked out the window. We were in Toccoa, Georgia. I had slept through the Carolinas. 

Sadly, however, I learned this train no longer has a dining car. It seems that most of the dining cars on the eastern trains have been removed because they were beyond repair. Breakfast was a microwave affair, and like other affairs, was unsatisfying.

Once arriving in Atlanta, I walked almost a mile, over to the midtown Marta Station. I had packed everything into a backpack, so I was able to easily navigate around the streets (which were all closed for a citywide race). At Marta, the Atlanta area light rail, I took the train to Five Points, where I caught the east line out to Avondale. While I could have taken a bus to the seminary, I again walked.  I was late for church at Columbia Presbyterian, so I spent much of the afternoon walking around the community.  

Eating in the Big City

Piedmont Park

During my week at Columbia, all my big meals of the day were ethnic: Thai (2x), Indian, Korean, Alsace (French), and Vietnamese. On Friday, I met Mike, a friend from Savannah, who was in Atlanta. We spent the afternoon cursing the traffic, walking around Piedmont Park, and eating dinner (Thai), before he dropped me off at the station and headed back south, to home. 

Homeward Bound

Danville, VA

Coming back, the train was late. I was exhausted and ready to crawl into bed. But there was a problem with my printed ticket. As they were rushing to load the train, the conductor finally told me to get aboard and go to the lounge car (which was empty at 1 AM). It turned out, the conductor when I came down never scanned my ticket (I assumed he had). Then, the system had cancelled my trip. Thankfully, there was a roomette (but the attendant had to remake the room as it had just become available).  But by the time the train arrived in Gainesville, our first stop after Atlanta, I was snuggled up in bed. 

I arrived back to the mountains in time to see the leaves at their peak. 

God looks out for us

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Presbyterian Churches
Mark 2:21-28
October 24, 2021

Sermon recorded during worship at Bluemont Presbyterian Church on Sunday, October 24, 2021.

At the Beginning of the Service

The Sabbath has been called the first labor law.[1] God graciously realizes we need to rest, just as God rested on the seventh day. But we humans, in our fallen state, have a way of taking a good thing too far and screwing it up. We do that with drink and become drunks, with food and become gluttons, with sex and become promiscuous, with rest and become lazy. God created this world good, but our sinfulness has a way of messing things up. This can even be true when we are trying to be good or godly, as we’re going to see this morning. Think about it. Ever had a time in your life when you seriously wanted to do good, and it went the other way. Thankfully, our misguided efforts are covered by a blanket of grace. The good news reminds us there is nothing the redeemed can do to move beyond God’s grace. Our assurance is in God’s hands not in our own.[2]

Before the reading of Scripture

Today we’ll look at a passage in the second chapter of Mark’s gospel. Early in his gospel, Mark sharpens the distinction and conflict between Jesus and other religious groups like the Pharisees.[3] Jesus is doing a new thing, as we learn in the opening parable of the wineskins. Then we see an example of this new thing with a reinterpretation of what the Sabbath means. 

Read Mark 2: 21-28 

What’s going on?

Do you think the Pharisees might have been picking on Jesus for the wrong reason? They get all over him for harvesting grain on the Sabbath, but don’t say anything about the fact Jesus and his disciples are in someone else’s grain field?  Nor do they get on to him for traveling on the Sabbath. After all, the rabbis limited travel on the Sabbath to less than 2000 steps, around 800 meters.[4] Think about this for a moment as I go off on a tangent.

My Great Grandpa Learns a Lesson

I inherited my Presbyterianism from my great-granddaddy McKenzie. He was a strong church leader who served as an elder at Culdee Presbyterian Church for over 40 years. It was the church his father and grandfather help establish in those dark days following the War Between the States. Like most churches in the day, it emphasized the fear of God, and the preacher regularly reminded the congregation about God’s judgment.

My great granddaddy often told stories about his life when he was a boy. Sadly, because I was just a boy, I never wrote them down. I wish I remembered them all, but a couple I do recall. One had to do with him goofing off one summer day when he happened by a neighbor’s watermelon patch. It was hot and those watermelons were tempting. My great granddaddy took out his knife and cut one open. With his hands, he dug out the heart—that sweet center of the melon—and ate it. It was good, so good he decided to go for another. Soon, melon juice was running down his chin and staining his shirt. But boy, they were good. The few joys of a hot summer, in my opinion, are good tomatoes and watermelon. 

Now, as my grandfather stuffed himself, something strange occurred. The air cooled as the sky darkened. As there were no clouds in the sky, this seemed odd. Then the birds started singing as if it was evening. My young great granddaddy looked up and to his horror saw the sun, high overhead, disappearing. He dropped the melon in his hand and ran, as fast as he could in his bare feet, home. “I didn’t want to be caught in another man’s watermelon patch on judgment day,” he told me. At the time, he didn’t know it was an eclipse, which was perhaps good since it instilled in him a healthy awe of the Creator

The Era before Fast Food

This brings me back to the subject of Jesus and the disciples munching in some farmer’s field on the Sabbath. The reason the Pharisees didn’t get on Jesus for his disciples harvesting food that didn’t belong to them was that Jewish law allowed one to pluck grain with their hands from their neighbor’s field. According to Deuteronomy, we’re told:  

If you go into your neighbor’s standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbor’s standing grain.[5]

In other words, you could take what you needed to quench your hunger, but you are not allowed to drive a combine through your neighbor’s fields. (I’m not sure this applies to watermelons). This loophole in the law was necessary in the days before roadside restaurants. Those traveling needed a way to obtain food. So, the Pharisees don’t get onto Jesus for theft. 

Travelling on the Sabbath

They also don’t get on to him for travelling on the Sabbath. That’s probably because if they’d seen this behavior, they would have also been guilty of having traveled so far. Part of our sinfulness is that we tend overlook the sinful acts with which we struggle. 

Laboring on the Sabbath

So, they accuse Jesus of laboring on the Sabbath. This labor involved harvesting (plucking the grain) and threshing (rubbing the grain in their hands to remove the chaff). Kind of picky, don’t you think? Jesus defends himself by recalling that David once ate holy bread when he was hungry. Ask yourself: “What’s going on here?”

Something New

Jesus is doing something knew. Our passage begins with an illustration about patching coats and wineskins. This is probably not something few of us have experienced. We either replace our clothes or take them to a tailor. Today, we age wine in barrels, Then, it goes into bottles to be served. But back in the first century, you had to patch your coat, along with skins used to hold wine. So, you made sure the cloth you used to patch something was preshrunk and that your wineskins were new so that it would stretch and not bust open during the fermenting process.

This illustration is followed by the story of Jesus and the disciples eating from a field on the Sabbath. Again, he’s doing something new, and it doesn’t go over well with the establishment. People don’t like change. That was as true in the first century as today. But in Jesus Christ, God does something new. God reaches out for us. 

Sabbath and God’s Concern for Us

The Sabbath demonstrates God’s concerned for our well-being. To paraphrase Jesus’ remarks to the Pharisees, “The Sabbath was made for humanity, not the other way around.” The Jewish faith, at the time of Jesus, emphasized the Sabbath so much that it was seen as a mark of faith. However, Jesus challenges this idea and reminds people the Sabbath is made for them, not the other way around.[6] But the legalists have nothing to do with that.

As the Sabbath is made for us, we should consider how it was understood in the early church. Paul tells the Romans that some think one day is better than another while others think all days are equal, and in Colossians he says we shouldn’t let ourselves be judged over the Sabbath.[7] From the writings of Paul, the early church felt it had the right to shift the Sabbath from the last day of the week to the first, in honor of Jesus’ resurrection. That said, Paul does not suggest we forget about the Sabbath. We still need rest. Only it’s not rigidly required that our rest occur on a particular day of the week. On the one hand this, this is good. God grants us freedom. Unfortunately, this freedom has led many to forget the Sabbath altogether.  

Jesus is concerned for our well-being. Legalism upsets him. One must eat, but the religious leaders of the day made that difficult. Jesus teaches us here something about the gracious nature of God. There is a dangerous tendency to see the law and things like the 10 Commandments as restrictions on our freedom. That’s not why they were given. God didn’t give the commandments as a test we have to pass to enter paradise. Instead, the commandments are rough guidelines within which we can enjoy life, starting now. 

Our Limits

The Sabbath Command reminds us of our limits. We can’t run ragged 24/7. We need rest, both daily (which is why night was created), and for an extended period at least once a week. The Sabbath is a day we can put our employment concerns, and the concerns of the world, aside. We’re to enjoy the creation God has given us. It’s a day we can enjoy the families God has given us. It’s a day we can catch our breath and look around and give thanks. 

Another Great Grandpa Story

When I was a small child, we lived on a parcel next to my great-grandparents farm. On occasion, we ate Sunday dinner with them. First thing my great grandma did when she got home from church was make biscuits. Much of the dinner was already prepared the day before, but the biscuits had to be fresh. First, she’d take some kindling and light a fire in her wood burning stove. 

Don’t get the idea that we were hillbillies because my great grandma had a perfectly good gas range sitting in her kitchen. It’s just that she preferred the wood burning stove for most of her cooking. After her death in the summer of ’64, the wood burning range was taken out, but before then I have good memories, as a five- or six-year-old, gathering chucks of stove wood my great-granddaddy had split. 

As the oven heated up, my great grandma mixed some flour, salt, and baking soda, cut in some lard, then added buttermilk. She’d knead the gluey glob till it was smooth, rolled it out, and cut out the biscuits. Soon a heavenly scent filled the room. 

When the meal was over, if it was meal without pie, my great granddaddy would get up and go to the pantry and come back with a jar of molasses or honey. He’d drop a big plop of butter in his plate, pour on the sweetener, and mix it up good with his folk. Then, throwing away all manners, he’d sop it up with the left-over biscuits. Talk about good. Afterwards, we kids would run out and play while the adults retired to either the back porch or, if in winter, around the heater in the parlor. When we’d come back in an hour or so later, they’d all be napping. That’s the Sabbath!


Jesus in this story doesn’t negate the Sabbath. He just encourages us to use it as it was created, for our benefit. Take a deep breath. Receive the Sabbath as a gift from a gracious God. And, above all, be thankful we’re in God’s hands. Amen. 

I’m being held by my great grandpa. (from left to right: my great grandma, my father, my uncle, me, my great granddad, and my grandma). This photo was taken in 1957.

[1] I heard the idea of the Sabbath as the first labor law in a lecture by Dr. Dale Bruner.

[2] This concept is found in the Reformed Tradition’s doctrine of sin and grace. 

[3] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 86-87.

[4] Edwards, 94. 

[5] Deuteronomy 23:25.

[6] In a commentary on Exodus written around 180 AD, Rabbi Simeon ben Mensasy refers to an older saying, “The Sabbath is given to you but you are not surrendered to the Sabbath.” See William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark  (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 119.

[7] Romans 14:5, Colossians 2:16.

Catching Up: A Theology Conference and some sailing

This month I’ve been involved with academic travels through the Southeast, intersperse with family and fun activities. I began with a road trip to Hilton Head, where I spent three rainy days as a part of a Theology Matters’ conference held at Providence Presbyterian Church. The church has a massive campus on the south end of the island. Unfortunately, the rain was such that I didn’t even walk from the hotel to the church as I’d done in the past. Thankfully, the last day, the weather cleared long enough for me to take a walk out on the beach. In addition to interesting discussions, it was good to see a number of old friends and to make some new ones.

Providence Presbyterian Church, Hilton Head, SC

The conference, “from Generation to Generation,” looked at how we continue to share the gospel to each new generation. It featured stimulating lectures and as always, I came away with a more books on my to-be-read (TBR) pile.  Below is a brief introduction to the keynote lecturers and their topics:

James Edwards, professor emeritus of theology of Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington gave two of the keynote speeches. I have always enjoyed listening to Dr. Edwards. His commentaries on Mark and Luke are a stable in my library.  He spent much of his time discussing the development of the early church. Edwards hold the view that the concept of God in the early church came from its Jewish roots, not from a marriage between Jewish and Greek thought. Edwards made connection between the early church, existing under the Roman thumb, and the church today. He noted that autocrats are always powerful (and dangerous) during crisis, but that the church is called to be a truthteller in such times.  Interestingly, Edwards has recently written a book on the ministry of Ernst Lohmeyer, who was persecuted by the Nazis and later executed by the Soviets shortly after World War II.  But it was his newest book that made my TBR list: From Christ to Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the Christian Church in Less than a Century (Baker 2021). 

Jennifer Powell McNutt, professor of theology at Wheaton College, spoke on the church in exile. Drawing on the current refugee problem along with the refugee issues of the 16th Century, she noted that the refugee crisis impacted the life and work of John Calvin. She also noted how, during the Reformation, being a follower of Jesus could easily lead one into a refugee situation. In Calvin’s commentary on 1st Peter, he reminds us that “children of God are only guest in the world.”  However, even though we are exiles on earth, we are called to engage and be in ministry, as opposed to withdrawing from the world. And part of the church’s calling is to “end the suffering of others.” While she drew heavily from Calvin, she also drew from Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor, of whom I learned was an accomplished poet. I never knew this about him and will need to learn more. McNutt is author of Calvin Meets Voltaire: The Clergy of Geneva in the Age of Enlightenment, 1685-1798. While it sounds interesting, it is expensive. I did pick up a copy of a book she edited, The People’s Book: The Reformation and the Bible.

Jeffrey Bullock, President of Dubuque Theological Seminary titled his lecture, “7 Observations on Theological Education.” While his jumping off point was the seminary, his observations had more to do with the church at large.  He told of the church where he came to faith in Jesus Christ (his parents weren’t religious) which closed. They didn’t have to close. They still had significant resources, but they were tired. And to the very end, there was someone taking minutes. We Presbyterians have a way to make sure everything is neat and in order. While maintaining church order, Bullock suggests we have lost the vision. He also had criticism on “too many duds” who come to seminary misfit for ministry and how the church needs competent leadership. Furthermore, he critiqued seminaries for being too much an academy and having no connections with churches. Pastors, while they can gain knowledge in seminary, must be nurtured in the church, according to Bullock. He also believes the “project” of the mainline denomination has come to an end. Once the religion of America became its culture, we lost our identity. 

Richard Ray, former professor and currently chairman of the board for the Presbyterian Heritage Center in Montreat, NC, picked up on the theme of exiles, reminding us that we’re always safer in exile. When things are going well, it’s harder to experience divine power. The Bible invites us into divine power, which is invisible to many because it is revealed in weakness. Quoting Augustine, “our words are not adequate for what is being portrayed but that is the beauty of it all.” The Bible is about miracles. It’s saying, “You want believe what will happen with Jesus.” Our help is not in our abilities but in God’s power, which is the beauty of Scripture. Like others, Ray pointed to the late 1930s when the danger of totalitarianism in the world was high with the rise of fascism and totalitarian communism. From this era, he recommended the novel Darkness at Noon, by Arthur Koetler, which dealt with a Stalinist style government. 

Steve Crocco, recently retired as the librarian at the Yale Divinity School, titled his talk, “Running Toward the Sound of Gunfire. He spoke about how we era now ending a new era after the end of Christendom. Noting that ministry has always been difficult, we now have new challenges that the church has never faced. Quoting Karl Barth’s famous saying that one should preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in another, he joked that it was a shame no one asked Barth which newspaper. Today, there are no consensus on which news source to trust. His advice was to focus on the letter to the church in Ephesus in the book of Revelation. There, the church is praised for its truth, but condemned for having lost its first love. The love of Jesus compels the church into the danger. He noted how many in the Nazis era, were too scared to speak out. But there were a few like Bonhoeffer, who “ran back toward the sound of gunfire” when he left his comfortable position in New York to return to Germany as war loomed. Of course, Bonhoeffer the Nazis executed Bonhoeffer. 

The skies began to clear the last day of the conference

After his talk, I had lunch with Steve. It was good to catch up. We hadn’t seen each other in over 30 years. In my first year of seminary, he was hired as a new PhD to be the librarian at Pittsburgh Seminary. We played some ball together, as that first year he lived in a student apartment with his family as he attended the University of Pittsburgh to earn a Master’s in Library Science (a requirement for his job). Steve left Pittsburgh after nearly 10 years. He would go on to serve as head librarian at Princeton Theological Seminary, the Army War College, and then Yale Divinity School.

Joseph Small, retired director for the Office of Theology and Worship of the Presbyterian Church USA, encouraged us to ask the burning question of those in the church, “Is it true?” He went on encourage deep theological thinking while suggesting there are four basic theological questions: 1. Who is God really, 2. Who are we, who am I, 3. What does God have to do with us? And 4. What do we have to do with each other? Then Small cheated a bit and suggested a fifth question, “What am I going to do now?”  Small encouraged us to read at least one significant theological book a month and to read it in a community of others with whom you could discuss our reading. His book recommendation was Douglas John Hall’s Lighten Our Darkness

Todd Billings teaches Historical Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. Unfortunately, at the last minute, his doctors encouraged him not to travel as he has been struggling with terminal cancer. So, he sent a recorded his talk titled, “A Surprising Hope: Bearing Wounds.” Billings first focused on the pandemic. He lamented how our culture trains us to deal with emergencies by finding someone else to blame (we act as if our ideological opponents are always wrong). In too many ways, our public dialogue is much like the pharisee in Matthew 18, who gives thanks in his prayers that he’s not like others. But Jesus was critical of this pharisee. Instead, new need to present a genuine faithfulness to the world, one that shows we serve a God who can bring water into the desert. He notes how Paul refers to our body as a temple. We need to remember that the temple does not make God active, but thinking of our body as a temple reminds us that we do not belong to ourselves. Furthermore, no temple is holy. Only the God who resides there is holy. If we think we are holy, we will be disappointed and not have a hope with which we can pass on to a new generation.  Billings’ memoir (of him and his family struggling with cancer and his mortal limits) is titled The End of Christian Life. It has jumped to the top of my TBR pile.  

At the helm

After three days on Hilton Head, I drove down to Savannah with the plans to sail on Friday and Saturday. Sadly, Friday brought too little wind and way too much rain. But I did get a long sail in on a J24 with some friends from the Landings Sail Club on Saturday morning and early afternoon. Then, I drove to Wilmington, NC and spent a couple of nights with my father, before heading back to the mountains. 

“I believe, help my unbelief”

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Presbyterian Churches
October 3, 2021
Mark 9:14-29

Sermon taped at Mayberry Church on October 1, 2021

Thoughts at the beginning of worship:

Do you know about red herrings? They’re not like red snapper. You don’t eat them. A red herring is a term often used in debate. When someone doesn’t have a good argument, they throw out a red herring. It distracts everyone’s attention. Politicians, of all strips, do this all the time. But so do we. If you can’t handle a situation, you distract people. Sometimes we do that with our faith. We don’t like something, so we start arguing theology, when we really should be showing the compassion of Christ. 

Red herrings are nothing new. They were thrown around even in Biblical times, as we’re going to see in our text for the morning. 

Last week, we finished the first half of the Book of Daniel. I am going to take a few weeks break from Daniel and move into the gospels. We’ll come back to Daniel later. 

Read Mark 9:14-29

What are they arguing about?

Wonder what everyone was arguing over? We’re not really told. Yet, everyone seems glad Jesus has arrived. “Overcome with awe,” we’re told. Perhaps, as Jesus and three of the disciples have just come down from the Mount of Transfiguration, a glow still surrounds his face.[1]Or perhaps they’re just glad he’s there so he can settle their differences. 

Jesus asks, “what’s going on.” He doesn’t get the answer we expect. I don’t know why the nine disciples who’d remained behind didn’t just lay it all out for Jesus. They could set have forth both sides of the argument and let Jesus settle the issue. Maybe they were embarrassed. 

Or perhaps this is one of those all-too frequent occasions where the real issue is something different than what the argument was about. A red herring has been thrown into the argument. This happens all the time, especially in relationships. You argue about one thing when you are mad about something else.

The Real Issue

What’s at issue here is a possessed boy driven into fits and driving his parents insane. The boy needs help. We’re told the disciples, the nine who were not with Jesus, tried to free the boy from the demon. They failed. Some scribes were also at this gathering and, we might assume, likewise, were unable to help the boy. 

I have a hunch what this argument is all about. Since neither the disciples nor the scribes can heal the boy, they distract the crowd by debating theology. They argued over the nature of God, an important topic I think we’ll all agree. But while they are arguing, this kid is on the ground foaming at the mouth. 

Forgetting an essential trait of God

In their highfaluting talk about God, they forget an essential trait of our Creator—compassion. We’ve all been created in God’s image and given a dose of compassion. However, it seems as if those gathered around this boy have lost some of theirs. I have a hunch why they suddenly get quiet when Jesus asks what’s up. They know Jesus is going to see through them and get to the real issue—there is a child in need.

The Real Issue

Jesus’ asks, “What’s up?” While the disciples, scribes and the crowd remain silent, a man in the back speaks up. “I brought my son to your disciples. They couldn’t rid his body of the demon.” The silence of the crowd and the plea of the father focus us on the real issue. Jesus is incensed. “How much longer,” he shouts, “do I have to put up with you?” Jesus directs his anger at the disciples, in other words at the ones who should know better. You know, we’re a lot like the disciples. 

Jesus then asks that the boy be brought to him. When the demon inside his body sees Jesus, it goes berserk. Even demons believe and tremble, we’re told.[2] The demon throws the child into a violent fit. The healing stories of Jesus are always more than just a demonstration of brute power overcoming illness and evil. If Jesus only wanted to demonstrate his power, he would have just said, “Get ye gone, you lousy demon,” and the freed boy would run home to his momma. Instead, Jesus uses this opportunity to teach. 

Evil causes about destruction and death

As the boy shakes uncontrollably, Jesus asks the father about how long the boy has been like this. The father, whom we now see as desperate, tells Jesus the boy has been like this since childhood. A demon has tried continually to destroy the boy by throwing him into the fire and into bodies of water. Evil always brings destruction and death. 

Mark is the short gospel; he’s brief on the details. Indulge me for a moment. Let me fill in what I think the father said while asking Jesus to have pity. “The boy is possessed. He destroyed our living room. He broke the lamps and tables and chairs. He broke the trinkets my wife purchased on our honeymoon. Our child is the terror of the neighborhood. Other kids refuse to play with him. Dogs, even mean junkyard dogs, run from the kid. Our son has problems. If you are able, do something,” the father pleads.

“If God is able?”

This request takes Jesus back.  “If I am able?” he asks.  “If I am able?  Sure, I’m able; all things are possible with faith.” I wonder if the man’s faith had been challenged by the disciples’ inability to help his son. After all, he had obviously heard about Jesus and the twelve and felt if he could just get his son to them, he’d be made well. But then, it didn’t happen. 

The man’s desperation 

The man assumed the disciples had the powers of their master and is now down to his last straw.  “Maybe Jesus can help,” he thinks, “but maybe not. I better not set my hopes too high.” When Jesus tells him that all things are possible for one who believes, he cries out, “I believe, help my unbelief.” This is the climax of the passage. “I believe, help my unbelief.” It’s a cry of desperation. He believes because he has no other option.  

He believes, but he stills has doubts. If we are honest, most of us can identify with the man’s feelings. We know Jesus is the answer, but we don’t want to trust him enough to throw on him all our concerns. 

“Consider the lilies of the field and birds of the air,”[3] Jesus tells us. We’re quick to remind Jesus that we are not flowers or birds, but people, human beings, Homo sapiens, the crown of creation. We are people with jobs and homes and mortgages and car payments and kids with whom we have a hard time relating. Like I said, we’re like this man. We believe, but only to a certain point. We believe, but not fully. We want to keep some control and that’s where we generally get in trouble.

Harold’s story

Harold was a man who started mysteriously attending the church I served in New York state. A tall broad man, he farmed and drove a truck. He dressed in overalls and flannel shirts. When he first started coming to church, he would slip out during the last hymn. It was a month before I got to shake his big, calloused hands and was another month or so before we talked. 

As you know, in a small town, everyone knows everyone. People wondered why he was coming to the Presbyterian Church. Even people that didn’t attend our church questioned me about this strange turn events. Someone shared that he was in trouble with the law and that his family had never attended church. I was told that one needed to be careful around him. He was prone to violence.

When I finally got a chance to meet one-on-one with Harold, he broke down and cried. This huge hunk of a man bawled as he explained all his troubles. His son, who was in his early 20s, was wanted by the law for traffic violations. It seems the boy liked to outrun the sheriff deputies, which didn’t exactly endear him to the officers. One night, two deputies came to Harold’s house at two o’clock in the morning. 

According to his story, Harold asked for a search warrant. They said they were in hot pursuit of his son and didn’t need one. Harold’s son was in bed asleep. They pushed the door open and came in. As I said, Harold was a big man and when the first officer stepped into his house, he did what came naturally. His fist connected with the face of the officer, driving him back onto the porch with a busted nose. It was a short-lived fight. The officers drew guns and nightsticks and quickly subdued Harold, hauling him off to jail.

Harold was vindicated. It turned out the officers did need a search warrant, but the court fights and the time in jail took a lot out of him. He lost his life savings and was in danger of losing his farm. Like the man in this story, he didn’t know what to do, and there was nowhere else to turn. Putting his trust in Jesus was a desperate attempt to regain sanity by a man who had no other options left. 

But it worked. To the surprise of the whole community, Harold asked to be baptized (he wore a suit that day). He turned his life around. For a man who had been a loner most of his life, he began to make friends. His legal troubles were behind him, and a few years after I’d left New York for Utah, I was surprised to learn he’d accepted a position as an officer in the church. 

Our human condition

“I believe; help my unbelief.” This is an honest statement of our human condition. The ability to say “I believe” comes the grace God gives us to seek him out. The cry, “help my unbelief,” is a prayer of confession that demonstrates to God our dependence upon him. To say, “I believe,” isn’t enough. We can all say, “I believe,” and still believe it is something we do by ourselves. We can say “I believe,” and believe were in control. But when we say, “Help my unbelief,” we admit our need and dependence upon God. 

We can’t succeed by ourselves, we need help

It’s difficult to admit; but we can’t do it alone. Therefore Jesus, at the end of this passage, tells the disciples this type of demon can only be driven out by prayer.  Overcoming the powers of evil is not something we can do by ourselves (we can see where Harold’s attempt at control got him). Only by depending upon God can we be truly successful in life and in eternity.  

This passage reminds us that we’re not God. We’re not the Lord, we don’t run the company, and we’re not the CEO. Jesus is in control and we’re here to do his work. We must depend on him and his power as we listen to the cries of those in pains—those who have the blues like the man in our story and like Harold. We listen and reach with compassion and love while trusting in God to do what we can’t.  Amen.  

just before sunrise this morning

[1]Interestingly, the crowd is in awe before Jesus heals!  See  Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (London: A & C Black, 1991, Hendrickson Publishing, 1997), 222-223.

[2] James 2:19

[3] Matthew 6:25-28.

Two Books: Poetry and Ministry

Richard Lischer, Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery

(NY: Random House, 2001), 242 pages, no illustrations.

A delightful collection of essays that describes Lischer’s first three years as a pastor in Southern Illinois, just east of St. Louis, Missouri. He arrives driving a Ford Pinto. Fresh out of school, he finds his church in the middle of a cornfield. It takes time for this well-educated pastor to relate to his congregation, but he gradually begins to love these people. Nationwide, Civil Rights and Vietnam are in the news, but this little church seems to be far from the headlines. Lischer fights over the American flag in the sanctuary and the gossip that seems to spread so fast that the pastor is the last to know. Providing marital counseling to a couple dealing with adultery, Lischer lets a “shit” slip out. To his amazement, considering their issues, this offends the couple. He conducts a graveside funeral with military honors and learns, at the last minute, that the honor guard made up of local veterans, are firing live bulletins. He deals with greedy funeral directors trying to upsell fancy caskets that are beyond what the beavered can pay. In telling this story, Fischer also shars the quirks of this congregation which publishes everyone’s giving in their annual report. 

While Lischer claims to be a Lutheran, he doesn’t indicate which synod he belongs. But in the essays, he writes about taking on a teaching position at an exile group from Concordia seminary. This would put him on the “liberal” wing of the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. I know this because in my first church, there was a small Missouri Synod church in town. The pastor had been in seminary at this time of a fundamentalist take-over. He left the seminary to attend and graduate from the “seminary in exile.” Many in the church wasn’t happy with him being cozy with those who supported women’s leadership roles in the church. 

The stories in this collection can be funny and sad. As I was reading them, I thought a lot about my own first pastorate and how many similar stories we shared. This book might be paired with Craig Barnes’ book, Diary of a Pastor’s Soul, which I read last year. Barnes writes about a pastor’s last year before retirement. It would be beneficial for a seminarian or someone considering the ministry to read both both books. 

Gregory Orr, A Primer for Poets & Readers of Poetry 

(New York: Norton, 2018), 325 pages. 

What an incredible book. While I’m no expert on poetry, or literature about writing poetry, I found this book helpful, interesting, and easy to read. The only other book I’ve read writing poetry was Mary Oliver’s, A Poetry Handbook. I feel Orr’s book to be superior. Unlike Oliver, he doesn’t spend a lot of time discussing meter and some of the more technical issues of poetry.  While it has been years since I read Oliver, from what I remember Orr goes much deeper into the use of metaphors and of how words in poetry brings understanding through naming, singing, saying, and imagining. While not spending as much time on meter, Orr does dedicate many pages to how words sound when place together in the process of creating a poem. I found Orr’s writing to be helpful not just for the understanding of poetry, but also for the understanding of life. In this way, the book reads like a gift. While this book could be used as a textbook, with many helpful exercises, it was not dry as one might expect a textbook to be. 

Drawing from his vast bank of knowledge from poetry, literature, mythology, the Bible, philosophy, education, and other fields, Orr sees poetry residing in the paradox of a chaotic world and a desire for order. It takes both to create poetry. Just as God speaks above the chaos in Genesis 1, and creates the cosmos, poetry attempts to bring order to the chaotic. Poetry helps us understand the world in which we live. Drawing from Greek mythology (and from the writings of Nietzsche), he recalls the interplay between Dionysus (the god of chaos and ecstasy) and Apollos (the god of beauty and harmony). Art requires both. 

Poetry allows us to image a better world as we cross the “threshold” between chaos and order.  In this manner, poetry can be political and used by the powerless to challenge their oppression.  

Orr sees two ways of our ordering the world, that lead to two types of poems: lyric and narrative. The lyric describes something in the moment, bringing intensity to a landscape or an emotion. Orr sees such poetry as being more dominate in America today. Narrative poetry is more story based. Of course, poems don’t always fall into one of these two camps. Many (if not most) poems are somewhere in between the two camps, maybe closer to one form or the other.  For my own poetry, while I see some of both, most of what I have attempted to write falls into (or close to) the narrative camp. 

This book is “illustrated” with many poems drawn from different times in history. While there could have been more poetry from cultures other than the West (there are some), I think this is excusable as he writes for an English-speaking audience. For both the poet and the reader of poetry, he suggests keeping a notebook of our favorite poems, so that we can go back an examine them and learn their meanings. This exercise seemed to be a good idea, but I have yet to do it. 

There is also a very helpful glossary of poetry terms at the end of the book.  I would love to reread this book with friends and hear what others think.