Jeff Garrison Bluemont and Mayberry Churches November 27, 2022 Isaiah 2:1-5
At the beginning of worship:
I started reading Fleming Rutledge’s book, Advent: The Once & Future Coming of Jesus Christ a few weeks ago. In one of her essays, she mentioned how she experienced Advent as a child. Rutledge is an Episcopalian, and they have a much stronger Advent tradition than most Protestants. But her childhood experience struck home with me because I’m old enough to remember when they first introduced an Advent wreath in the Presbyterian Church we attended.
This happened in the late 60s or maybe 1970 or 71. It was before I entered high school. We even had a workshop to make Advent wreaths for our homes. We would read a devotion and light candles before dinner. The problem with those wreaths is that the candles were so small, they became a fire hazard well before Christmas.
Advent: life before Jesus
But what struck me about the Advent of childhood, as I and Rutledge experienced, is that we were encouraged to think of the world without Jesus. We were to imagine living in the first century before the common era and contemplate what it would have been like to have no hope because Jesus had yet to come. This makes Advent void of Jesus.
But Advent is about Jesus. Jesus, who descends from God, who was there at the beginning of creation. Advent is also about God’s intention for the world as we look to Jesus’ return. As Rutledge writes, “Advent faces into death and looks beyond it to the coming judgment of God upon all that deceives, twists, undermines, pollutes, contaminates, and kills his beloved creation. There can be no community of the resurrection without the conquest of death and the consummation of the kingdom of God. In those assurances lies the hope of the world.”
Before the reading of scripture:
This season of Advent, I’ll focus on readings of hope from the prophet Isaiah. As a prophet, Isaiah speaks of judgment, but also of hope. His judgment passages seem to go on and on but mixed in are bits of hope. Our passage this morning from the second chapter is wedged in the middle of Isaiah’s opening oracle of judgment.
The first three chapters of Isaiah deals rather harshly with God’s chosen people. They have rebelled against God. Zion is to be desolate and trampled on by foreigners. Judah and Jerusalem will suffer because of their arrogance. They have ignored their covenant with God. Judgment is at hand. But amid these oracles of judgment, we also get a glimpse of hope. God is doing something new. And for that, we can rejoice.
Have you ever wondered what heaven will be like? I am sure most of you have, but what kind of vision do you have for heaven?
Is our heaven hopes like Bunyan’s?
Last week, I wove into my last sermon on the Lord’s Prayer pieces from John Bunyan’s classic, Pilgrim’s Progress. When Christian crosses over the river at the end of his pilgrimage (the river representing death), he’s met on the opposite bank by messengers who lead him up to gate of the Celestial City. There, people wear crowns and fancy gowns. Inside the city, the streets are paved with gold. Everyone sings praises to God and rejoice in his arrival.
Perhaps something like this is your idea of heaven? But I’m not sure. I’m too much like Mark Twain. He wondered why, if heaven was just singing hymns, anyone would want to go there. Especially someone who couldn’t stay away in church on earth, why would they want to be involved in an eternal hymn-sing.
Isaiah’s vision of the life to come
Isaiah, in the middle of prophecy of judgment, gives us a different vision of the future. This is a vision of Zion, and one that I can buy into, a vision of peace. From Isaiah we have those comforting passages about the lions and lambs and wolves napping together, along with this passage where instruments of war are transformed to tools of peace. The world is restored to its original intention. We’re back in the Garden. This passage which focuses on Zion is my hope for the world to come.
Zion was a narrow ridge which contained the oldest part of Jerusalem. The name became attached to the city and to the hill upon which it sat. But in time, because of Jerusalem’s importance and the with the presence of the temple, Zion came to be understood more theologically than geographically. Zion is where God reigns.
Our passage envisions the day when this will come to pass. The judgment promised in the chapter 1 and later in chapter 2 will have passed. The earth has been purified. Now that God has assumed his throne on Zion, it’s the highest mountain.
In a literal understanding, this doesn’t make sense. Zion wasn’t a tall mountain. It wasn’t even the highest mountain around, there are many much higher to the south. Jerusalem itself is at roughly 2500 feet in elevation, about the same as we are here. But in our scripture, Zion is the highest peak. Either there are some unique geological changes occurring, or more likely Zion seems the tallest peak because we’re dealing with theology and not geology.
Zion’s importance isn’t because of its physical height but because it is the Lord’s house. It draws people from all nations who desire to learn more about God’s ways. Zion becomes a center of learning, for out from it comes God’s word. Israel was to be the light to the nations. Isaiah foresees Israel fulfilling this calling.
In verse 3, we see that in this new age of which the prophet envisions, the “With-me” principle works! Do you know the “with-me” principle? It was a concept taught by Stan Ott and Lee Zehmer at our “Centered and Soaring” event earlier this month. The with-me principle involves us, when doing something with or for the church, inviting another to join us. Come “with me,” we might say. In Isaiah, we learn that people invite others to go with them to the mountain of the Lord, to learn of God’s ways. I can’t think of a better reason to invite someone along then to learn about God. We learn together!
Or course, some of this has already happened. The disciples, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, headed out into the world with the Great Commission. Their marching orders was to make disciples and to baptize them and to teach what Jesus taught.And they went two-by-two. Jesus showed them God’s ways. Jesus then calls his followers, promising to show us the way back home to the Father. But showing the world the way home is just a part of what Isaiah envisions in chapter 2.
A message for the United Nations
In verse 4, we have a passage known beyond scripture. Even by those with little Biblical knowledge have heard about beating instruments of war into farming implements. You find these words chiseled into a wall across the street from the United Nations. Silently, as Fleming Rutledge images, it reads of beating swords into plows as it mocks nations that go to war.
God’s view extends to the entire world
Looking at this passage, we see this is God’s kingdom. And God’s domain isn’t just for one nation, but the entire world. As judge, God settles disputes. There will be no more war or rebellion. God does this, but look carefully, God doesn’t do this all by Godself. God calls on us to participate. He hands us a heavy apron and calls us to become blacksmiths. How are you at swinging a hammer or heating up a forge? Ever see yourself working in a blacksmith’s shop? See, there’s going to be a need for more than choir members in heaven! For some of us, this is really good news.
Converting the tools of war to instruments of peace
Notice the text says that God’s judges while they (think we) beat the swords into plowshares. The tools of war are repurposed so that they become instruments of peace and prosperity. Swords become plows; spears refashioned into pruning hooks. As a friend suggested in a sermon: tanks become John Deere tractors, gun barrels are fashioned into posts to hold grapevines, while missile silos find a new life as wheat silos. And the Pentagon, what to do with it? It can be converted into the world’s largest Food Court.
Today, as we continue to read about the war in Ukraine, along with other places in the world like Somalia and Ethiopia, wouldn’t a little peace be nice? War brings destruction and famine, which is not God’s intention for the world. War is a sign our sinfulness. God desires us to live in peace, but a peace that involves more than the absence of war. A peace based on justice (which is why God serves as judge). And this is also why God sent his son into the world, to be born in Bethlehem.
Bethlehem: The House of Bread
Did you know that Bethlehem means “the House of Bread.”God desires the world’s abundance be used to feed everyone. And while war continues to exist in the present, there will come a time in which God will intervene. Peace will be established, and justice will reign. This is what we hope for when we pray, Come, Lord Jesus, Come. We long for the day when, instead of spending our resources on artillery shells, which only destroys, we invest in feeding and caring for people.
We’re always in Advent
You know, Advent isn’t just four Sundays before Christmas. In a way, the church exists in Advent. Ever since the first coming of Jesus, we long for his return to consummate God’s kingdom. Until then, we hope and pray for his return. As Paul teaches, communion, or the Lord’s Supper, celebrates Jesus’ return.We strive to live in a gracious manner that shows the world kingdom values. And we share this hope with others, as we invite them to catch a glimpse of the vision the Bible gives us of the world to come.
Our hopes and fears…
As the Christmas Carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” reminds us, “Our hope and fears of all the years are met in thee (or Jesus).” Place your hope in Jesus. Yes, we live in a world of war and hate, but it’s not the way God intends. Imagine a world without war. Pray and do what you can to make this world a better place. Help create a small place where we can display Kingdom values. Invite others to also dream and vision a new future.
And perhaps we should all learn some blacksmithing, just to be ready for when Christ returns. Amen.
Jeff Garrison Bluemont and Mayberry Church November 20, 2022 The Lord’s Prayer, Part 6
At the beginning of worship:
Two weeks ago, at Mayberry Church, we held a training event titled “Centered and Soaring.” This event was sponsored with partnership funds from the Presbytery of the Peaks. Those there were provided several “take-away ideas” to strengthen our discipleship as a follower of Jesus. One take-away was a Prayer Covenant. The idea is that we join with another individual to pray for each other for a specific time. Sometimes the prayers may be general, other times they may be more specific, as when we need help in a particular area.
Jesus wants us to pray for each other
When Christians pray for one another, we’re doing what Jesus teaches in the Lord’s prayer. This is not a prayer about us as individuals. It’s about us in community. Consider the words: “Our Father, Give us, Forgive us, Lead us not, Save us…” There is no “Me” in the prayer. It’s all about community and for that reason, we need to be praying for one another.
This will be our six and final Sunday focusing on the Lord’s Prayer. I have never preached a series on Jesus’ prayer and in a way am sad that it’s coming to an end. There is so much more that I would like to say. This prayer is steeped in our tradition. As Matthew’s version of the prayer reminds us, we’re to use this prayer as a model or template for our own prayers.
Lord’s prayer as a template
At the Presbytery meeting this past Thursday at Second Presbyterian in Roanoke, our moderator modelled this. She didn’t say she had written a prayer based on the Lord’s prayer, but as I listened, I could pick out the various petitions of the Jesus’ prayer. When you need to pray and are lost for words, you might consider the parts of the Lord’s prayer. And, to reiterate, if we find a lot of “Me’s” or “mine’s” in our prayers, we should compare how we pray to how Jesus teaches us to pray.
Before the reading of Scripture:
While I didn’t watch Jeopardy this week (which is nothing new), I heard about it. One of the questions in a championship round had to do with which epistle of Paul’s had the most Old Testament references. According to Jeopardy, the right answer was Hebrews. I didn’t realize so many familiar with the Bible watched Jeopardy, for immediately Facebook and Twitter blew up with people pointing out Jeopardy’s mistakes. For nowhere does Hebrews tell us that Paul was the author and there are some who question labelling it an epistle as it’s more of a sermon than a letter. And finally, Romans appears to have more links to the Old Testament than Hebrews. They got it wrong on many levels.Hold that thought, I’ll come back to it in a moment.
Petitions in the Lord’s Prayer: A Bit of Jeopardy-like trivia
Today we’re looking at our last petition in the Lord’s Prayer: “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” I noted in one of my earlier sermons that while we tend to consider the prayer to have six petitions, there are some who divide it into seven. To do this, they split the last petition into two separate parts, one on temptation and one on the evil one. You can find this in Luther’s Catechism as well as the catechisms of the Catholic Church.One of the reasons for making this prayer into seven petitions instead of six is that it seven is consider a perfect number.
This kind of trivia might do you well if you find yourself on Jeopardy. Of course, you’ll have to guess which source their experts consulted as to if there are six or seven petitions in this prayer.
I recently spent a lot of time with John Bunyan’s classic, Pilgrim’s Progress. I had read parts of it before, but never spent much time studying the book until a theology group of which I am a member decided to study it. In preparation, not only did I read the book, I also read a commentary on it and also reviewed books on Puritanism which I had read decades ago.
Popularity of Pilgrim’s Progress in 19th Century America
I had looked forward to delving into this work of Bunyan. I had known for some time that Pilgrim’s Progress was the second most popular book in the 19th Century for those moving into the American West. On wagon trains and clipper ships, the Bible was the number one book people had in their possessions. If they had a second book, unless you were Samuel Clemens, the book was most often Pilgrim’s Progress. Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, wrote a humorous piece about hauling a dictionary across the continent.
Pilgrim’s Progress begins with the story of Christian, who becomes convicted the city in which he lives (aptly named “Destruction”) is about to be destroyed. No one wants to listen to him talk about what’s to happen. He’s mocked by friends and family. So, he decides to flee. He leaves on a pilgrimage to the Celestial City, to God’s kingdom. While he abandons his family, he begins his trip with two friends. But they quickly leave him. His travels are often solo or with just one companion, such as Faithful, who is martyred along the way…
Obstacles to overcome
Christian must overcome many obstacles to reach God’s kingdom. In the second half of the book, Christian’s wife Christina and his children make their way to the city, following Christian’s example. Unlike Christian, who is often alone, they travel in a group and while they have their own trials, they make the journey with less trouble than their father, who has become an encouragement to other pilgrims.
The reader of Pilgrim’s Progress comes away with the impression the Christian life is one of constant challenges and temptations. Nothing is easy about the pilgrim’s journey, but the hope of the eternal city keeps the pilgrim moving forward and making the right decisions.
Pilgrim’s Progress and the ending petition
The ending of the Lord’s Prayer captures Pilgrim’s plight. “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” The language here is stark. Deliver us could also be “snatch us” as if we’re about to walk off a cliff. Metaphorically that’s what we’re about to do when evil confronts us.
Early in his pilgrimage, Christian is caught in the Slough of Despond. In this prayer, temptation is the pit or slough where we find ourselves stuck when caught in sin. And the evil one is the power that draws us into the pit.
Evil forces in the world
This prayer reminds us that there are forces in the world who challenge us and seek to keep us from faithfully following Jesus. And prayer challenges those powers. As Karl Barth, the great 20th Century theologian, said, “To clasp hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.”
Prayer is where we start. Before we do anything else, we need to be sure we are on God’s side. This prayer helps us do because it refocuses us, away from our petty concerns, and toward God. Before we set out to save the world, which isn’t our job by the way, we should pray. We pray because we see dimly in this world, and we need God to light or direct our way.
Temptations can be so subtle. Often temptations are good gifts but are not used in the manner intended. When anything moves between us and God, the good is tainted. And the evil one knows this, which is why he makes temptations seductive. So, we ask God to help us as we navigate this life. We only have glimpses of the holy, of God’s plan and glory. But we move forward, through the fog, in faith, praying and holding out to the hope we have in Jesus.
Lack of community
One of the things that struck me in my recent study of Pilgrim’s Progress was the lack of community. Christian is often on his own. I’m afraid this aspect of Bunyan’s book has been detrimental on American Christianity. The book’s popularity in our early history tempted the church to deemphasize community over the individual.
A theologian friend of mine has suggested the Achilles tendon of the Reformed Tradition is our lack of understanding of ecclesiology. That is, by focusing on the individual, we don’t have a good understanding of the church and how it is to help us grow disciples. This over-emphasis on the individual may stretch back to the Puritans, of which John Bunyan was one. But in Scripture, as we see in this prayer, the focus is most often on the community. We need to regain a sense of how the Christian community works to draw us closer to Christ.
Lord’s Prayer is based on community
The Lord’s prayer is not about the individual. It always pulls us from our individual concerns to the concerns of others. We don’t pray, “Save me,” but “Save us.” The community, the church, is to be there to help us when we falter along the way. While we look for God’s guidance as we are tempted or challenged by evil, we are also to be supported by other godly people. We have two hands and should hold God in one and God’s people in the other.
It is interesting that Jesus’ begins his prayers with a focus on God as Father, and ends this prayer on a downer, talking about the evil or the “evil one.” We can give him a name, “Satan.” Perhaps this why a doxology is added onto the prayer. However, as we see, most Bibles don’t have this doxology. If you’ve worshipped in a Catholic Church you’ll know they don’t say it. I found this out the hard way when I was a student pastor and participating at a Thanksgiving service at St. Mary’s of the Mountain Catholic Church in Virginia City. I continued to pray, along with a handful of Presbyterians, while the rest of the congregation ended their prayer early.
The doxology was found in texts dated to around the 10thCentury. It’s found in the King James Version, but even then, it was known that this passage may not have been original. John Calvin admits such in his writings. Today, as it is not found in any of the older manuscripts, translations leave out the doxology. However, thanks to the King James Version, the phrase has been adopted by us liturgically. After all, who wants to end a prayer with the focus on Satan?
Why might this doxology have been added? One suggestion is that the prayer ends so ruggedly so we might continue with our own prayers. This is kind of like how I write my pastoral prayers. Generally, on Sunday mornings, as I watch a new day emerge out of the darkness, I write a paragraph or two. Then, we when we come to the prayer, based on shared joys and concerns and how I’m feeling, I finish praying “off the cuff.”
In favor of the doxology
Personally, I don’t think we should get rid of the doxology even though it’s not in scripture. Instead, it concludes this prayer in a “shout out” to Almighty God: thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory. But if you want to pray the prayer as it is found in the gospels, do so and tack your own prayers of praise at the end.
I hope you have learned something about prayer over the past six weeks. If I was to quickly summarize the highlights of this prayer of Jesus, I’d say it focuses us on God, on our necessities and the necessities of others, and to our need for God’s protection and the fellowship with other believers. Amen.
 Both the Heidelberg and Westminster Catechisms have six petitions. These are found in the Presbyterian Church USA, The Book of Confessions (Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly, 2018). The same is true for John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559, Ford Lewis Battles translation), III xx.
 Martin Luther, “Large Catechism,” Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), 433-435
 The Greek early Church fathers mostly divided the prayer into six (two sets of three, and Matthew often uses sets of three in his gospel). However, Augustine along with Lutherans and Catholics use the “perfect” seven sets. Fredrick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids: Eerdman, 2004), 293.
 In addition to reading Pilgrim’s Progress and listening to it on Audible, I also read Robert Maguire, D.D., Commentary on John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress” (1863, Minneapolis, MN: Curiosmith, 2009).
 Mark Twain, Roughing It (1871: Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993), 18-19.
 My other concern is the apparent lack of grace that is seen in Pilgrim’s Progress.
 Ecclesiology is the study of the church. Dr. Jack Stewart, formerly a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, and I have discussed this several times. As a scholar of Charles Hodge, Stewart points out that Hodge had planned but never completed a fourth volume of his systematic theology that would have been on ecclesiology.
 Alister McGrath, In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How it Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture (New York: Anchor Books, 2001), 242, 244.
I drove to hospital in Pinehurst the first day I had off. It was the thing to do, especially since my dad was living on the other side of the world and my grandmother, a widow for just a few years, had her hands full. There, in a sterile room, was Uncle Dunk. His name was Duncan Calvin McKenzie, but to everyone he was Dunk.
Dunk wasn’t really my uncle; he was my great-uncle, my grandma’s brother. As a man, he seemed to have as many lives as a cat. He was still living in the old place, his parents’ home, on Doubs Chapel Road, next to where we lived before moving from Moore County when I was six. I remember the old house well, the kerosene heater in the parlor where we’d gather in the winter. In the summer, we’d sit on the back porch unless it was Sunday, then everyone sat on the front porch while us kids climbed in the large magnolia trees whose branches reached the ground, making it an easy tree to climb.
Dunk had come home from work one weekend with the intent on doing some grilling. The coals just weren’t turning white fast enough for Dunk. He was ready for that meat to start sizzling. I’m sure his judgment was already somewhat impaired by alcohol. He tossed some gasoline on the grill.
Dunk was in pain when I was saw him, but he’d live another day. In fact, he’d live another twenty-five years. That gasoline saved his life, for afterwards, till he finally went into a nursing home, my grandma kept a close watch over her younger brother, keeping him mostly sober.
My first memory of Dunk came from when I was just a little boy. I was probably four. My parents had brought an old home, a couple hundred yards east of my great grandparents place, and were fixing it up so that we could move in. Every evening, we’d be over there working, or at least Dad would be working. Dunk, who was still living with his parents, my great-grandparents, just up the road, would come down and help the best he could.
During much of this time, he wore a neck brace then, which made him kind of look like the women from the Karen tribe of Burma with long necks and heads pulled high by metal bands. Of course, Dunk’s brace wasn’t a fashion statement; it was the result of having totaled his car on 15-501. I think it was near the Lower Little River Bridge. He almost didn’t make it then. Despite a broken neck, Dunk did what he could. When not able to help, he’d play with us kids. I’m sure, his keeping us our fingers away from the Skil saws, was a big help. Dunk would late help my father build the copper clad steeple for Culdee Presbyterian Church.
After we left Moore County, we’d only see Dunk occasionally. On time, he’d told my Grandma that he wanted to see us. She went and found him drunker than I’d seen a man before. She brought him home with her and ran him through the shower, then sat in one of her hard maple chairs at her dining room table and poured coffee down him. He cried, saying he was ashamed of his condition. By making him sit there, I wasn’t sure if she was trying to punish him or to use him as a lesson for us kids. I was probably ten or eleven years old and just didn’t know what to make of it all. I still don’t.
A few years later, after Dunk’s daddy died and the old place was getting pretty worn down, my Dad took my brother and me over to see if he was home. Knocking on the back door, he yelled for us to come in. Dad opened the door, but wouldn’t let my brother and me go in. I could see there were four men in the sittin’ room, but no were sitting. They were nearly passed out on the sofa and floor. Seeing us, Dunk struggled out to the back porch, where he held tightly to the screen door in order to remain upright. I think he was both ashamed as well as glad to see us. One of the other men yelled out some lurid comment. Dunk told him to shut up. By then my Daddy was herding my brother and me toward the car. I was probably thirteen or fourteen then and even today I not sure what to make of it all.
As the years drifted on, I’d occasionally see Dunk at Culdee Church when I was in Moore County on a Sunday. He’d be out front on the lawn after the preaching was over, smoking cigarettes and talking to the men. Of course, if he’d fallen off the wagon, he’d be missing among the assembled crowd.
Regardless of his condition, Dunk always remember us kids at Christmas and send us something. At first, it was mostly candy, often a box chocolate covered cherries that would leave a little sticky glue on the corners of my mouth. When I got to high school, he went through a phase of giving me bottles of Old Spice Aftershave, even before I was shaving (something I gave up long before I used all those bottles). Then, thankfully, he started giving me packages of handkerchiefs. This kept up till I was in my forties and I’m sure even today half the handkerchiefs in my dresser drawers were gifts from him.
As he got older, his wounds begin to bother him. During War World Two, Dunk was a pharmacy mate in the Navy. He served on a supply ship in the Pacific, and if I remember correctly, it was struck by a torpedo or maybe a kamikaze. I don’t think it sunk, but some of the sailors aboard were lost. He seldom talked about the war, but it must have bothered him. His back and neck, both of which had been broken at various times from automobile accidents, always hurt. He shuffled around; at least he couldn’t get into too much trouble. He started to go to a men’s Bible Study and attended church more regularly. I reckon it was in his blood as his Daddy and Granddaddy and Great-granddaddy had all served as an Elder at Culdee Presbyterian. He never served as an Elder, but for his last quarter century of his life, he attended faithfully. He also took delight in his dogs.
Dunk reached out to my adopted son. When we’d visit in the summer, he’d take him out fishing on his pond, the same pond I’d first fished in when I was just a tot. I liked that they got to share that together. Both went through a lot. As the boy got older, whenever we talked, he’d ask about Dunk. Dunk also adored my daughter. When he learned she was taking violin lessons, he presented her with a violin that had belonged to his granddaddy, the man for whom he was named. His granddaddy traded a barrel of kraut for the violin, back in the 1860s. Dunk was tormented by demons most of his life, yet deep down there was goodness.
Jeff Garrison Bluemont and Mayberry Churches November 13, 2022 The Lord’s Prayer, Part 5 Matthew 6:9-15, 18: 23-35
At the beginning of worship:
I came across a quote this week that struck me. “The worst thing is not being wrong but being sure one is not wrong.” Let that sink in. “Being sure we are not wrong.” Why is that so bad? Because we often fail to see or understand our sinfulness. It’s easy to see sin in others, but harder to see it in ourselves. But one day, we’ll all stand before God’s throne. And we will all stand in need of forgiveness. But we don’t like to forgive, do we? We’re going to talk about this today.
Before reading today’s scripture
Today we’re looking at the fifth petition in the Lord’s Prayer. Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.
Debts or Trespasses
Historically, those of us in the Reformed Tradition, including Presbyterians, have always said debts and debtors. When I say the Lord’s Prayer at a funeral or an ecumenical gathering, I just quietly say debts knowing I’ll be drowned out by those who say trespasses. I am not sure why others—from Roman Catholics to most Protestants—say trespasses.
In preparation for this sermon series, one of the books I read was by two Methodists, William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas. I thought they might enlighten me, as the Methodists say trespasses. Instead, they admitted that while there is a long history of saying trespasses in the prayer, it’s not what’s in the Bible. Maybe this is the one thing we get right.
If you look at almost all English translations of the Lord’s Prayer from the King James Version on, the Greek is translated as debts. Now, right after the prayer, as we’ll see, Jesus speaks of trespasses. But not in the prayer. In the prayer as recorded in Luke’s gospel, Jesus uses the words for sin and for debts. I think there is a reason for the use of debts, for we are all in debt to God.
I have been listening to John Oller’s, The Swamp Fox, an audible book this week. The Swamp Fox was Francis Marion. A Revolutionary War hero from South Carolina, Marion did his best to be a thorn in the side of the British and Loyalists. This was especially true as Britain began its Southern Strategy in 1780, with the hopes of gathering loyalists and moving north to trap George Washington and his army. During this period, Marion destroyed British supply routes between the coast and the upland. As Cornwallis’ army moved north, it was ill prepared for what they would face and eventually they became trapped. Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, and the war ended.
South Carolina during the Revolutionary Way
During the war, South Carolina had more engagements than any other colony and was the bloodiest theater. But in many ways, the Revolutionary War in South Carolina wasn’t so much a war against Britain, but a Civil War. While there were a few British regulars in South Carolina, much of the combat occurred between loyalists and patriots. At the time, these two groups were also known as the Torys and the Whigs. They were merciless toward the other. And sometimes, spats between neighbors determined which side one was on.
When a patriot did something to his neighbor, his neighbor became a loyalist and fought for Britain. This also went the other way, too. The armies burned homes of their enemies, and often killed their prisoners. Marion supposedly detested such behavior and was willing to court-martial his own soldiers when they behaved in such a manner. But he had his hands full. Because of the animosity between groups, after the war, most loyalists migrated to Canada or back across the sea.
South Carolina was not a good place in the Revolution
South Carolina would not have been a good place to live in the late 1770s and early 1780s. (I’m not sure it’s any better today, but I’ll leave it at that and not include more of my North Carolina bias). But I hope you can you see how the lack of forgiveness leads to chaos. The home of one side was burned, someone else burns a home of someone on the other side of the conflict. I think it was Gandhi (at least in the movie) who said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
What’s So Amazing About Grace?
In his book What’s So Amazing about Grace, Philip Yancey says grace is the best gift the church has given the world. But two pages later, he also acknowledges that the church often communicates ungrace to the world. When we in the church fail to grant forgiveness, we don’t appear graceful!
Physical needs before forgiveness
As we saw last week, Jesus, in the Lord’s Prayer, first takes care of our physical needs. “Give us our daily bread,” is the first petition that concerns us directly. Then, on its heels, Jesus addresses the human condition. We are a sinful people. Not only do we need to eat, but we also need forgiveness. And we need to forgive others. It’s the only way we can break the cycle of vengeance that is too prevalent in our world today.
Forgiveness is difficult
But face it, forgiveness is hard. And it’s not very popular. Many churches forego prayers of confession, which I think is one of the most important prayers we have. After all, where else can we find forgiveness. It’s the one unique thing the church has to the offer the world. Lots of what the church does can be done by other groups, and in many cases, they can do it better. But Jesus gave the church the keys to the kingdom. We have the right to proclaim the forgiveness of sin that can only come through Jesus Christ. No other group has that kind of gift that is so desperately needed in our world today.
We are debtors!
This prayer assumes we have debts. This may have come from an old concept where, when we sin, a notation is made into a ledger indicating the debt we now owe. And debts need to be repaid. It’s the only way the books can balance. Yet, we are all guilty. In other words, we are all debtors. As Paul writes, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Our debt may be from that which we have done which is against God or against neighbor. And it may be that which we left undone but should have done. There’s a ledger book for us all and it’s filled with sins of commission and omission.
Forgiveness is not cheap
Sin is serious and forgiveness is not cheap. Jesus paid the price for our sin, enabling us to be forgiven. The only way we can be forgiven is for God to wipe out our debt.
Forgiveness with a caveat
But this forgiveness comes with a caveat. While we are forgiven by God through Christ, in our striving to be more “Christ-like,” we are to be forgiving others who have done wrong to us. We don’t do this to obtain forgiveness. Instead, we forgive graciously, knowing what God has done for us. When we act in this manner, we break that cycle of revenge that threatens to tear our world apart. First God forgives us, then we are to go and do likewise and forgive others.
When we forgive someone who’s wronged us, it’s like throwing “a monkey wrench into the eternal wheel of retribution and revenge.” But it’s the only way forward. As C. S. Lewis once said, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”
As we heard in our reading from Matthew 18, Jesus told a frightening parable about this. A man owed and obscene amount of money to his king. 10,000 talents. Each talent was worth 15 years of wages, so this man would never be able to pay unless he lived 150,000 years. We’re talking about a debt as great as what Elon Musk borrowed to buy Twitter. Now the king wants to clear his accounts. Unable to do so, the man and his family are to be sold into slavery. He begs his creditor, the king, for forgiveness. Surprisingly, the king relents and forgives.
But the man who was forgiven such a great sum, was unwilling to forgive another who owed him 100 denarii, or the equivalent of 100 days of work. The one forgiven the obscene amount wasn’t willing to forgive the one who owed a fraction of what he owed. And the king in the story, who represents God, is furious when he learns about this ingratitude. We don’t want God furious at us, do we?
All of us need forgiveness and to be forgivin
We stand in need of forgiveness, but we must also be willing to forgive. Failing to forgive, the cycle of revenge will only grow and eventually lead to our destruction. The good news is that God forgives us. Accept this incredible gift and strive to let others also experience this gift. For when we forgive, we are displaying a central characteristic of a loving and gracious God. And may we do it all so that God will have the glory. Amen.
 John Oller, The Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution, Joe Barrett, narrator (2016).
 Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 30, 32.
 Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 309.
 While I didn’t want to go down this path in this sermon, one of the problems I have with dispensationalism is that some theologians who hold such beliefs see the difficult teachings of Jesus in the Sermon of the Mount applying not to the present but to a future dispensation. This concept makes the commands in Jesus’ sermon easier for us to “ignore” in the present age because they are too hard, instead of seeing them as a goal which we may not successfully reach, but should still attempt. See John H. Gerstner, Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth: A Critique of Dispensationalism (1991) or Bruner, 310.
I didn’t really have a dog in the hunt during the World Series, but I did enjoy watching parts of the games. However, over the past month, I did read two books about baseball in which I’ll review. If you’re a fan, you might find these books interesting and a way to carry you through the winter until February, when the pitchers and catchers report to spring training. The first book was to take me back to the second grade, about the time I learned about baseball. The second, a biography of Ty Cobb, took me back to an era even before my grandfather played ball. I’ve been reading a lot this year and I am way behind on book reviews.
David Halberstam, October 1964
(New York: Fawcett Books, 1994), 382 pages including a bibliography, plus 16 pages of photos.
1964 was the year I became aware of baseball. My dad giving me a bat that summer. Also, when my grandparents attended the World’s Fair in New York during the fall, they stopped by to see us on their way home (we lived in Petersburg, VA from 1963-66) and gave me a baseball cap that featured photos of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. That cap would probably be worth something today. The year was also one for change for baseball. It was the last year for a while in which the New York Yankees dominated baseball. It was also a year the St. Louis Cardinals again became a dominate National League team. They would beat the Yankees in the World Series in seven games. Over the next few years many of the Cardinals would become familiar as I followed the game more closely. Lou Brock, Curt Flood, and Bob Gibson would again play in the first World Series I followed carefully as the Cardinals lost to the Detroit Tigers in ‘68.
While the book title just mentions October, Halberstam provides an overview of the entire season for the leading teams. He also provides historical background of players, coaches, and managers including delving into the Yankees fading glory and the building of a contending team in St. Louis. He also gives background into other teams in the chase for the pennant. Both teams in the World Series had won their pennant by only a game and there were several teams in the hunt until the last day, making it an exciting ending. New York ended one game ahead of the Orioles and two games ahead of the White Sox. In the National League, the Cardinals were never in first place until the last week of the season. On the last day of the regular season, they bested the Phillies and Reds by one game.
Another difference between the teams was the American League being far behind the National League in recruiting African American players. St. Louis hosted many black stars, while New York was just beginning to bring aboard black players.
While there was some acknowledgement to what’s going on in the world outside of baseball, Halberstam mostly focused on the game itself and how it was changing as you had more African Americans playing the game, television was becoming more important, and the players were becoming celebrities. Some, like Mickey Mantle, ate up the attention while others like Roger Maris wanted no part of it.
This book provides great introductions to the players, coaches, and owners of each team. It’s a good read for baseball fans. I have read and enjoyed several other books by David Halberstam including The Summer of ’49 and The Fifties.
Charles Leerhsen, Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty
(Audible, edited by Malcolm Hillgartner, 2015, 15 hours and 33 minutes)
Many believe Ty Cobb to be the best baseball player of all times. Sadly, even though motion pictures were available at the time he played, there are no films of Cobb running the bases or swinging a bat. Just a short movie of him warming up by catching and throwing a ball. While many think Cobb is the greatest, others believe that Cobb was one of the dirtiest ballplayers of all time. The rumor is that he was hated by most other players, and was a racist.
Leerhsen has taken it upon himself to challenge a lot of the rumors about Cobb. While he doesn’t come across like a Sunday school teacher, Leerhsen portrays Cobb as a complex human being. A great ball player, he probably didn’t sharpen his spikes (or if he did, it might have been to intimiate his players, but spiking of other players does not seem to have been a regular occurrence for Cobb. While this was the rumor even during his career, in one case where the commissioner was going to punish Cobb for such an infraction, a photographer provided evidence that he had not spiked the other player
As for being a racist, Leerhsen points out that as an older man, Cobb was one of the former great ballplayers to welcome Jackie Robinson, the first African American, into the major leagues. He was also elected to the baseball hall of fame its first year in existence and received more votes than Babe Ruth. Leerhsen, while correcting many of the misconceptions of Ty Cobb, show us a flawed man who was a talented ballplayer. He liked to win and worked hard. Cobb didn’t like spring training (and often showed up late) because he stayed in shape in the winter. He also studied the game and other players, which allowed him to get a “psychological jump” on them.
Cobb’s career begin in the “dead ball” era. Before the First World War, the baseballs were not as tight as those after the war. In addition, unlike today when balls are replaced regularly, during this era a ball might be used for the entire game. As the innings advanced, the ball tended to get softer. During his era, there were few homeruns. Cobb often bunted and depended on speed to make it to the base. Or he would punch the ball over the heads of the infield.
As a batter, Cobb had a unique stance and held the bat with his hands apart. This allowed him to quickly choke up on the bat if the ball was inside of the plate, or extend his grip if the ball was outside. After the war (in which Cobb volunteered), Cobb showed he could also reach the fence. Once, having been told Babe Ruth was the better ballplayer, he hit five homers in two games. Cobb still holds the highest lifetime batting average in the major leagues. But where Cobb really made a name for himself was baserunning, successfully stealing home a record number of times. And he liked to win!
Cobb was successful in life. He invested well (including in his home state’s Coca Cola stock) and was probably a millionaire halfway through his career. He was also one of the highest paid ballplayers of the era, earning up to $60,000 a year in the mid-1920s. But he did have a problem with violence and often got into fights with other ballplayers, with fans, with hotel clerks, and others. While Leerhsen acknowledges this tendency, he points out this was an era where were fighting was common among ballplayers.
Cobb became one of the first celebrities of baseball. He hung out with Presidents and often inviting other players down to Georgia to hunt or fish with him during the off season.
I enjoyed listing to this book as I drove back and forth from my father’s home last month.
Jeff Garrison Bluemont and Mayberry Churches November 6, 2022 The Lord’s Prayer, Part 4 Matthew 6:7-13 and 4:3-4
At the beginning of worship:
We don’t like to be dependent on anyone other than ourselves or perhaps our spouses. It’s the American way. Pull yourselves up by our bootstraps, be independent. But there’s a problem with such thinking. It runs counter to the gospel of Jesus Christ. In all things, we are dependent on the providence of a loving God. And we live in an economy that demands we depend on others. Could you make your own car or build your own road? But today, I want us to consider God’s providence.
We owe where we are in life to God. Think about it, we could have just as easily been born in Ethiopia or Ukraine. We could have been born with a birth defect or learning disability, contracted a terrible disease at an early age, had horrific parents, or been run over by a truck. Some of you may have experienced such, but even then, God sticks with us. If God was not present, where would we be? When we consider the blessings received in this life, most of us should be humbled. Look for the blessings you have and be grateful.
Before the reading of scripture:
As we continue to look at Lord’s Prayer, let me say a little more about this prayer as it appears in Matthew’s gospel. First, the prayer is almost exactly in the center of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. If you look at this sermon in the Greek, which runs three chapters in the gospel, there are 116 lines before the prayer and 114 after it.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus said a lot about prayer. Prayer is central to Jesus’ teachings.
Jesus begins this prayer saying, “So you should pray like this.” For some reason, the New Revised Standard Version (along with some others), leave out the “You,” but in the Greek, Matthew emphasizes it. Jesus says his followers are to pray like this (this is the You in this sentence). We’re not to pray like those in other faith traditions. Nor is prayer just about putting in an order for stuff. We are to pray like Jesus.
A second point is that this prayer is given as a model. It’s not the law. We don’t have to pray these words, exactly. Instead, this prayer becomes a template for our prayers. “You should pray likethis.”
The fourth petition
Today, we’re looking at the fourth petition of this prayer. Remember, the Lord’s prayer can be divided into two equal parts. The first three petitions praise God and reorients us toward God. The second three petitions are about our needs. The first is for our daily bread. Jesus is interested in our well-being. We ask for bread even before forgiveness, which indicates the importance of our physical health. The word bread, in how it is used here, implies more than something made with wheat (which should be good news for any of you who may be gluten intolerant).
While the word translated as bread literally means food, here it probably also refers to all we need to survive. And note, we ask for bread, not cake. We can be thankful when we’re given cake but should be satisfied with bread. We ask God to provide the basics, day in and day out.
I am again reading the prayer from Matthew’s gospel along with a short passage from Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness in Matthew 4.
I’ve shared with you before that I spent five years working in a wholesale bakery. I started there as a summer job, between my freshman and sophomore years of college. And I stayed on for a while. You know, there are plenty of jokes about working in the bakery. People say such things as “you must be rolling in the dough,” which isn’t the case literally or figuratively.
The bakery industry involves tough work in a difficult business climate. Because bread goes bad fast, it must arrive fresh in the stores almost every day. Once I became a supervisor, I was on call always unless I was on vacation.
Daily bread and the wholesale bakery
Give us our daily bread, we pray. This took on a whole new meaning when daily bread was being shipped out in a dozen tractor trailers each evening. Or, as happened once, when we ran out of flour, we kept looking down the railroad tracks for the train bringing the hopper car full of flour, that was a day late. Even in modern times, there is no guarantee of daily bread.
The bakery was never idle more than one day at a time. Starting around midnight on Saturday night and going through late afternoon Sunday, we’d bake what was shipped out late Sunday afternoon and evening. Smaller trucks took the bread to stores where it was fresh on the shelves early Monday morning. The plant was shut down on Tuesday and Saturday, which was when our deep cleaning occurred. And if you had a breakdown, you worked until you got the product out because if it wasn’t on the shelves, the customer would buy another brand.
Short shelf life for things on earth
This prayer, “give us our daily bread,” reminds us that things on earth have a short shelf-life. There is some debate over this petition as to if we’re asking for heavenly bread (as in the banquet in God’s kingdom) or bread to sustain our bodies on earth. Both are important, but I go with the later. If we don’t have food, we die. Surely, we are to store up our treasures in heaven, as Jesus recommends. Jesus acknowledges that there is a danger of accumulating even solid things on earth, which over time will rust away, or be consumed by moths, or stolen.
But Jesus also realizes that we need to eat. That’s why he fed the multitudes, a miracle found in all four of the gospels. And it’s also why the church’s mission from the beginning has been to feed people.
Jesus, the “Bread from Heaven” also fed peopl
Yes, Jesus says he’s the “bread of life,” which we find in John’s gospel. But Jesus never says that we don’t need anything else. He fed the 5,000 because they were hungry. But Jesus didn’t want people to depend on him for just physical bread when he could give so much more.
When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness to turn a stone into bread, as we heard in our readings, he said one doesn’t not live by bread alone. Notice, he didn’t say, one does not live by bread! It goes without saying that we need food and the necessities of life.
Such gifts we ask daily from God; otherwise, by hoarding, we may begin to think that we’re in charge of our abundance and see no need for God. We’d be like the guy in the parable who wanted to build larger barns, only to die before he could enjoy their benefits.
Communal aspects of bread
Yet, no one wants stale bread. And moldy bread isn’t good for us. Of course, today there are options such as freezing bread and pulling it out when needed, but that wasn’t the case in Jesus’ day. Bread was baked daily. Bread is also an example of a communal dependance on one another. Also notice, we pray for “OUR bread,” not “MY bread.”
The baker depends on the farmer to grow the grain. Grain is hauled a great distance, even in Biblical times. Think of Joseph’s brothers taking grain from Egypt back to Canaan to feed their families. Before the baker can use the grain, a miller grounds it into flour. And the flour needs to be used soon or bugs begin to grow in it. If the baker in Jesus’ day was in a city, he’d have to have hire someone to bring him firewood for the oven.
Bread, something we take for granted, requires a whole village. Few people can do all it takes to prepare bread, and if we could do all it takes, from growing grain to grinding, to kneading and preparing fires for baking, we’d have no time to do anything else.
Luther’s interpretation of this petition
In his catechism, the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther said that when we pray for our ‘daily bread,’ we are asking for everything necessary to have and enjoy our bread. Luther has a good point here. At the same time, Luther continues, we ask for protection from everything which would interfere with us enjoying our bread.
In his little book, A Simple Way to Pray, which Luther wrote for his barber, he includes a prayer based on this petition which thanks God for blessing our temporal and physical lives. Then Luther strangely continues, “Graciously grant us blessed peace. Protect us against war and disorder. Grant our dear emperor fortune and success against his enemies…”
War and bread prices
It may seem strange to pray for peace when praying for our daily bread, but perhaps, if you’ve been following world news, you’ll understand. Bread, even in ancient days, wasn’t something people took for granted. In Jesus’ day, much of the grain that fed Rome came from North Africa. War has a way of disturbing transportation arteries, making wheat and other food stuff more and more expensive.
We’re seeing this now with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Ukraine is one of the world’s breadbaskets. A large percentage of the world’s grain and vegetable oil, especially in the poorer regions of African and the populated cities of Asia, come from Ukraine. If all a sudden the world lost 42% of its sunflower oil, 16% of its maize, 10% of its barley, and 9% of its wheat, which is the share of these products supplied by Ukraine in 2019, people will suffer.Grain is a commodity. Producers sell commodities where they can get the highest price. Therefore, a war thousands of miles away affects prices in our grocery stores.
So, after reorienting our lives toward God, we ask God to care for us. We don’t pray to be indulged with goods or supplied with rich foods. Instead, we ask, day by day, for what we need to get by so we might enjoy this good world in which God allows us to live. And, as this prayer reminds us, we don’t pray, “give me” but “give us.” We want everyone to have enough that their stomachs might be satisfied. This prayer not only orients us on God; it also focuses us on the needs of our neighbors.
I hope you see this petition in a new way. First, we’re not just asking for our own needs, but for everyone’s need. Second, we ask this prayer daily, for we continue to need to be reoriented toward a gracious God from whom all good things flow. Amen.
 Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 292-293.
 Bruner, 306-308. For a detailed discussion of the word used for bread, see James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 334-335.
 When I worked in the bakery (1976-81) bread only stayed on the shelves three days. After a week, it would often mold. Today, it appears that bakers are using better preservatives than were available then, as a loaf of bread often last two weeks in our house.
 Matthew 14:12-21, Mark 6:30-44, Luke 9:10-17, and John 6:1-15.
 John 6:35. John 6:35-59 discusses the crowd’s desire for more bread, but Jesus had already fed them when they were hungry and now wants them to seek not just temporal benefits but spiritual benefits of believing in him.
 When I was working in the bakery in the late 1970s and early 80s, flash freezing was just coming into use. Unlike slow freezing, flash freezing keeps the dream from losing taste while frozen and when it thaws it is still fresh. I’m sure this is used even more today in the industry.
 William H. Willimon & Stanley Hauerwas, Lord, Teach Us: The Lord’s Prayer & the Christian Life (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 76.
I wrote this essay in the late 1990s.when I served a congregation in Utah and had no idea I would eventually end up back in the South… I recently pulled it out and edited it a bit before sharing it. The essay shows some of what I was reading at the time. If I would undertake such a quest to again to put my thoughts on preaching on paper, I’m sure it would be quite different. Nonetheless, much of what I wrote still seems relevant. -C. Jeffrey Garrison
Ramblings about my preaching
After worship, Howard Bennett, the church organist, came up to me smiling, his arm outstretched, and loudly proclaimed, “We have a preacher!” It was the second Sunday of September, 1988, Camel Race weekend. I had just preached my first sermon for the First Presbyterian Church of Virginia City, Nevada. For the next twelve months, I would serve the congregation as a student pastor. It felt good to hear Howard’s praise. I didn’t consider myself a preacher. I needed his affirmation for I didn’t know if I had what it would take to deliver a year’s worth of sermons to a group of people I was just getting to know. Howard’s praise provided confidence!
I based my sermon that day on the question Jesus asked the disciples in Mark 8:27, “Who do people say that I am?” The theme was Christocentric, heavy on theology and void of humor. Thinking back, I’m sure what Howard meant by his affirmation was that I sounded like a preacher. No longer am I sure it was a compliment, although I’m positive Howard meant it that way. What happened, I now believe, is that with a strong pulpit presence, I discovered how to make people listen—or at least stay awake. I’m not so sure this is all together positive. Staying awake in some of my sermons might fall into the cruel and unusual punishment category.
One thing I learned early on in preaching is that there was a benefit to my accent. I disagree with Norman Maclean’s father, a first generation Scottish Presbyterian preacher in Montana. The elder Maclean tried to eradicate his Scottish brogue and despised those who came from the mother country and flaunted their accent. Instead, I have found that having an accent makes people take notice. Perhaps it’s because they must concentrate on listening. Down South, I’d be just another prophet without honor instead of the celebrity I became during my three years in the pulpit in upstate New York.. Sometimes, of course, the benefits of an accent are mixed and lead to misunderstandings. There are still people in Virginia City who believed my Palm Sunday sermon about Pilate, had something to do with a pilot (perhaps he flew for Air Rome).
Although I count my accent a benefit, I have always considered my uniquely southern-style grammar and diction a liability. I’ve struggled with grammar and when I get excited and talk fast, any rules of grammar which I might have picked up along the way fly out the window. Even though I’m proud to be a Southerner in the pulpit, at times I’m a bit afraid the congregation might think of me as a bumbling idiot. Southerners in general suffer from this malaise which serves as an antidote to our healthy sense of pride.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to spend a week studying with the late Dr. W. Frank Harrington of Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia. The conference was in Hastings, Nebraska and consisted of Presbyterian pastors in the Rocky Mountain or Plains states. Frank, the pastor of the largest church within the denomination, amazed me in how commanded everyone’s attention with his thick slow southern voice. Frank vindicated southern preaching for me. His approach in the pulpit was like a Southern lawyer addressing the jury. Leaning up against the pulpit, speaking in a slow conversational tone, he’d get us to laugh and to cry and then, when he had us hooked, demand we make some decision concerning our faith. “Always preach for a conviction,” Frank repeatedly reminded us.
Frank was a true Southerner. Like all great preachers—J. Wilbur Chapman, B. Frank Hall, C. Kenneth Hall, D. Lyman Moody. C. Wesley Jennings and C. Jeffrey Garrison—he had an initial in front of his real name. Although he never admitted this, I’m willing to bet he cursed his parents to the grave for not using his first name. As a Southerner, Frank had the ability to tell stories and to laugh at himself, invaluable gifts for preaching. All of us have fallen short of God’s glory and Frank’s prime fault was that he hailed from the lesser of the Carolinas.
With only a few notable exceptions such as Norman Maclean, Southern authors have, in my humble opinion, been the only literary voice in twentieth century America. Even non-Southerners such as Big Sky writer, A.B. Gurthie, Jr., big game stalker Ernest Hemingway and the quintessential bum Jack Kerouac found it necessary to sojourn in the South. As with Frank Harrington’s preaching, these authors remind me that we Southerners have something to say. Sometimes it might not be what people want to hear, but we say it anyway, partly because we’re ornery, partly because that’s what we feel God calls us to do.
What is preaching?
H. Eddie Fox, a Southerner who hails from the Methodist tradition, defines preaching as proclaiming: “the biography of the deeds of God in terms of one’s autobiography with the hope that persons, enabled by the power of the Holy Spirit, respond to God’s act of forgiveness in Jesus Christ, in repentance and faith, and live out the new life in faithfulness to the kingdom of God.”
This definition leaves out an important component of preaching, the call of God. As Fox and his co-author George Morris points out a few pages later, the Jonah story demonstrates “two fundamental truths.” Going to Nineveh wasn’t Jonah’s idea and hearing about God wasn’t the Ninevites’ idea. God wanted the word out. Preaching is proclaiming God’s biography, but at God’s request. When I honor this request, I trust God’s Spirit works in the life of the hearers so they may be moved by God in ways I, as the preacher, may never know.
The humbling knowledge that God’s in charge
Sometimes preaching is humbling. There was a woman in the Virginia City congregation who was living, with kids, in an abusive situation. During one sermon, she heard me say something that empowered her leave her husband and seek safety. To this day, I’m not sure what she heard because I was preaching what I thought was an ecological message about taking care of God’s creation. God does work in mysterious ways—even to the point of allowing someone hear the gospel in a sermon that has little to do with the message. John Calvin explains the power of preaching to be in the Word, not in the minister. Though humbling to our egos, there is comfort knowing God uses preaching and teaching to “awaken faith and promote sanctification.” The burden of preaching is lifted from our shoulders and placed upon God’s broad shoulders.
Of course, knowing God works through our preaching does not excuse us from preparation. Preaching is hard work. We must incorporate God’s Word into the modern situation and do it in a way that doesn’t bore our congregations to death. Preaching should not be, as I once heard a professor from a reformed theological seminary sarcastically quip, “taking out and examining the doctrines.” Preaching should be alive. It involves telling stories—God’s story and our story. And telling stories should be fun and humorous.
Billy Sunday, the so-so baseball player for the Pittsburgh Pirates who became a sensational (or sinsational?) evangelist, once said: “God likes a little humor, as evidenced by the fact that He made the monkey, the parrot—and some of you people.” Today, the preacher task is more challenging. Media moguls, with resources to create mind-blowing scenes, have taken over storytelling. The preacher must rely on the use of words and an occasional gesture to connect to the mind of the listener so that his or her imagination might visualize the possibilities that exist within God’s kingdom.
Probably the greatest gift a preacher can give to his or her work is honesty. This means we may have less to say than we’d think. One of the problems with preaching is that people expect us to have answers and we, wanting to please, also want to answers questions concerning life and faith. But do we? What do we really know?
Wendell Berry, a Kentucky tobacco farmer who spins a pretty good story, tells about the preacher in Port William’s, Kentucky, who, upon learning that a son of parishioners is missing-in-action during World War Two, immediately goes over to family’s home. A relative of the missing man, while discussing this visit, says, “the worst thing about preachers is they think they’ve got to say something whether anything can be said or not.” The task of preaching is to be honest and at times admit we do not know what God is doing. Instead, we are called to be faithful. As the funeral liturgy goes, “even at the grave we make our song, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”
Development of my theology; Or, before you get into the pulpit, you better have something to say
I was born in Pinehurst, North Carolina, just two days after the death of Humphrey Bogart. This was the same year that Jack Kerouac published On the Road, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas shot it out in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and Elvis released “Jailhouse Rock.” In some existential sort of way, these events may have played a role in my theology. Since I don’t know anyone alive who understands existentialism, I’ll refrain from speculation.
Culdee Presbyterian Church
My theological development started on Easter Sunday, 1957. The location was Culdee Presbyterian Church, located in Eastwood, North Carolina, a community which even then didn’t have a post office. It had a Shell Station, a small grocery store called “Bunches,” and a Presbyterian Church. The Post Office closed about the same time the last logging train pulled out of Eastwood Station. This was before my grandmother’s birth. Culdee Presbyterian Church was built on a sandy ridge between Nick’s Creek and the Lower Little River. My Scottish ancestors settled this land two hundred and some years earlier. Out on the ridge where the church sat, they staked out a cemetery filled with many of my ancestors.
At the time of my baptism, Culdee consisted of a white-washed pine board church and a cinder block Sunday School building. The McKenzies, Blues, and McDonalds had organized the congregation in the dark decades after that fateful and foolish charge up Seminary Ridge. Ninety-five years later, they were just beginning to get over it, although it would take another generation or two to completely purge the system. On that Easter Sunday, dressed in my finest, my mother and father, flanked by grandparents and great-grandparents, presented me to the Reverend J. Thomas Young to be baptized. A few drops later, I was marked as a member of the Covenant.
The Garrison/McKenzie clan played an important role in my early theological development. My Grandfather Garrison had converted to Presbyterianism from a hard-shell Primitive Baptist background, due to his marriage to my grandmother. His conversion represented a pentecostal event in the life of Culdee. The congregation witnessed God’s love extending even to those without a Scottish name. He serves as elder at Culdee for many years. The presbytery elected a commissioner to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, US. Unfortunately, his health kept him from attending. Although he died twenty years ago, to this day I still think of my grandfather as the ideal elder. He regularly read and studied the Bible. His prayers at the table, when the family gathered, were reverent and brought to my mind an image of a good and loving God.
My Great Grandfather McKenzie has also served as a model of faithfulness for me. He served as an elder for forty years and for most of that time was also the Sunday School superintendent. My great grandfather died when I was in Junior High, but I can still see him in the room at my grandparents. He lived with them the last couple years of his life. He would sit in his rocking chair and read the Bible. When the good book wasn’t in his hands, it would be sitting next to his bed on the nightstand. The family in which I was born was steeped in the Bible.
Early memories of church
My early memory of church was watching our neighbor, Art Zenn, prepare the site for a new building with his bulldozer. It was great fun to watch him push dirt around. The congregation started construction on its new sanctuary around 1960. My grandfather was on the building committee and did much of the plumbing and heating work. My father and great-uncle built the copper clad steeple. A crane hosted the structure into place. In 1962, just a year before we moved away from the area, the new building was complete. They tore the old, white-washed wooden sanctuary down. The new brick church began to grow as it reached out to new people in the community. No longer are all the officers Scottish or married to a Scot.
Cape Fear Presbyterian
I grew up in was Cape Fear Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, North Carolina, a city we moved to when I was in elementary school. My fondest memories are working on the Boy Scouts of America God and Country award with the pastor, C. Wesley Jennings. Mr. Jennings only had daughters and found the scouting program a way to make up for this shortcoming. He prodded my brother and me through the program. During this time, I began to understand more about what it meant to accept Jesus Christ as one’s Lord and Savior. As I started High School, I began to read the entire Living Bible, in a teen version called “The Way.” The Bible had been a Christmas gift. I checked off each chapter read in the front of this Bible. Although I gave up the challenge after a few months, I read over half of the Scriptures.
Encouraged to consider the ministry
While in High School, my congregation started electing women and youth to church offices. I was honored to have my name placed in nomination for deacon and surprised to be elected. In the Southern Presbyterian Church, Deacons had oversight of the budget and buildings as well as being responsible for taking up the offering and serving as ushers. I bought a suit and assumed my duties. The hostility within meetings shocked me. Money does that! While serving as a Deacon, people began to suggest I should become a preacher.
The ministry was not an altogether new idea. I had told my grandmother, when I was ten, that I planned to be a Presbyterian minister. As soon as the words were out of my mouth I began to wonder where they came from. However, the ministry seemed an exciting possibility, yet I wasn’t totally comfortable with the idea. It would be another decade before I felt the call to the ministry. By then, I had graduated from college, worked in a bakery, and for the Boy Scouts. I had also been married and divorced and had moved to western North Carolina.
My call to ministry was a process that began with my healing from a broken marriage. My first wife and I had problems. We separated. Then she became pregnant from another man. We quickly divorced, and she remarried. Crushed, I slipped into a period of depression which lasted a couple years.
Experiencing a call
A new town and new friends restored my confidence, and a new church again offered me a chance to serve by spending one night a month in a homeless shelter. It was also a time of decisions as I was trying to decide if I wanted to stay on with the Boy Scouts or seek some other form of employment. During this time, the thoughts of seminary began to come to me. On a backpacking trip early in January 1986, while mulling over options, I decided I’d try seminary. When I got home, I called one of the pastors at the church I’d joined in Hickory. Even though we’d never discussed the ministry, he asked, “what took you so long?” That Spring I received affirmation from many minister friends, two of whom were Lutheran.
I also received my first opportunity to preach that Scout Sunday, just a few weeks after deciding to enter seminary. As a scout executive, I had often been invited by troops to “say a few words” at their church. Then, out of the blue, this pastor whom I’d never meet, called and told me he planned on me giving the sermon on Scout Sunday. I was floored. The first Sunday in February 1986, I preached my first sermon in a Methodist Church. That summer, I sold my house and moved up north and entered Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. I’d chosen Pittsburgh over Union at Richmond and Columbia in Georgia because I’d never been there and wanted to see what it was like. Besides, Roberto Clemente had played ball there.
Looking back on it all, I can see God’s hand gently nudging me toward seminary and the ministry. While at Pittsburgh, I worked in two different congregations, both of whom encouraged me in my journey. God’s guidance and the love and encouragement of these folks prepared me for the task of preaching. My own journey taught me to trust and place my faith in God.
Impact of Growing Up Southern On My Theology
Oscar Wilde supposedly said, in the aftermath of the American Civil War, that “one couldn’t admire the moon in Georgia without being told how much better it looked before the War.” Mark Twain noticed the same thing in conversations about the moon in New Orleans. These two accounts mean either my Southern ancestors spent a lot of time looking at the moon during the closing decades of the nineteenth century or someone stole another’s story without properly crediting them. It doesn’t much matter anyway.
The Truth Behind Southern Mythology
It’s a well-known fact that southerners, at least those of us who are Caucasian, reminisce over the antebellum period when our ancestors spent afternoons sipping mint juleps in rocking chairs on the porch of the big house. Listening to these stories, one must assume this was also an era before mosquitoes, ticks, sand gnats, and flies. Those pests must have been introduced as retribution by those pesky Yankees.
The truth is that few of our ancestors enjoyed such luxury, but after Sherman burned everything, one could always act like the family lost its fortune during the war. Even when I was a child, 100 years after it was all over, what seemed important was not how much money your family had, but how much it had before the War. If the truth was known, my kinfolk was probably out in the swamps, hard at work chopping wood for the still that made whiskey for the mint juleps that everyone else’s family enjoyed on their front porches. While swatting gnats, they’d swap stories about ghosts which, once they got around, explained those mysterious lights in the swamps and help keep the revenuers at bay.
Lost Eden or New Jerusalem
All this nonsense just goes to prove that Southern Theology, at least the theology of the common folk, focuses more on the lost Eden than it does on the coming kingdom. In other words, we look back more than we look forward. Although it rings true in the South, in some ways this is true about all of America. “The biblical image of humankind living in a garden dies hard in America,” notes William Pannell, a professor of evangelism at Fuller Theological Seminary. We long for the past and this hinders our ability at sharing the gospel in a world that no longer looks or shares the same heritage as we do. Pannell jokes that southern style religion as shown on television is “merely a camp meeting with air conditioning.” The people such productions reach “are in harmony with the style and message of the preacher.”
Just because Southerners tend to look back to the garden doesn’t mean we don’t anticipate the return of Christ. We think and worry about the second coming a lot. We certainly don’t want to do something we’re not supposed to be doing when Michael’s trumpet blows.
My great granddaddy, who was born in the late 1880’s, often shared stories about his childhood with me. Sometime around the turn of the century, he was in another man’s watermelon patch doing what boys from the South do best. He’d cut open a watermelon, eat it’s heart out, drop the rest of the melon for the birds and seek out another ripe juicy one to enjoy. It was the middle of a hot cloudless day when suddenly the sky turned dark, and the temperature dropped. He noticed that the birds singing as if it was evening. My great granddaddy looked up and saw the sun disappear. He dropped the watermelon and ran for all eternity, as fast as his bare feet could take him. He didn’t want to be caught raiding another man’s watermelon patch on judgment day.
It is my belief that one’s theology needs to look both backwards and forward. We need to look back beyond the Civil War, to first century Palestine and that man we claim to be God named Jesus Christ. And we need to look forward, not in a fearful way to the horrors of judgment, but to Jesus’ promise of a new and coming kingdom. Perhaps looking forward has been difficult for southerners because of the guilt of our past. Even the most ardent racist would have a hard time reconciling a belief in a kingdom where non-whites would be subservient to the rest of us.
The Spirituality of the Church
One of the theology I grappled with coming out of the Southern stream of the Presbyterian Church is the concept known as the “Spirituality of the Church.” This doctrine was taught by one of the South’s greatest theologians, the “humble” James Henley Thornwell, a man who admitted he wanted to be “regarded as the greatest scholar and most talented man that ever lived.” The concept of the “Spirituality of the Church” separated the church and state into “two separate spheres of authorities and functions.” The church was to be spiritual. Its task was evangelism, to bring people to Christ and then to send them back into the world where they carried out social obligations as Christians.
There is much appeal in this concept. It is true that a regenerated individual who lives his or her life in Christ should make a wonderful public servant and carry forth Christ’s will into the public sector. The church is the one organization designed to bring people into a relationship with God. There are other organizations better suited to carrying social change than the church. However, the concept has been misused to keep the church quiet on serious social issues (like slavery and race relations). Prophets of old did not limit the scope of their wrath to the spiritual realm and neither should the church. Jesus reminder that we need to be wise as serpents and as gentle as doves probably applies here.
The doctrine of “the spirituality of the church” as well as a strong emphasis on Scripture, helped separate politics from the church. As a result, the pulpit became a place where only sins specifically forbidden in Scripture were condemned. An interesting challenge to this doctrine, which crossed denominational lines, came from the Methodist revivalist Sam Jones. A former alcoholic, Jones became an ardent prohibitionist and turned his revivals into “civic reform crusades” seeking to limit society’s access to alcohol, prostitution, and gambling. By the time I grew up in the South, the drinking of alcohol, which is not prohibited in scripture, was often portrayed as the root of all evil. This created sort of a split personality amongst southerners. Some sins not listed in scripture were condemned while others, such as racism, were labelled as a political problem and not discussed in the pulpit.
Growing up southern, I memorized at a young age Paul’s word, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” I think I could have quoted this verse even before I could quote John 3:16. However, there seemed to be a distinction between sins. Although we’ve all sinned in some spiritual sort of way, some of us have sinned more than others and those of us who have sinned by the flesh have thereby fallen further from God’s glory and are to be looked upon with contempt. It is biblical that we’ve all sinned, but this categorization of sinfulness only serves to create a false pride in those who are strong enough to avoid being caught in the sins of the flesh (drunkenness, adultery, etc.).
I wish someone, at an early age, could have reinforced the concept of God’s grace as well as they taught the concept of sin. I would have been a lot more accepting of others had I understood all along that God’s love extends equally to even the vile sinner.
Current State of My Theology
Somehow, I managed to survive growing up in the South. As a preacher, I am thankful for my past, it provides great source material for sermons. Partly due to my growing up in the South, I was instilled with reverence for Scripture, Almighty God, a need for a Savior, the importance of a religious community, and a fear that hell is being unable to swat mosquitoes in a backwater swamp on a hot day. Most of these traits have served me well as I’ve tried to tell others about Jesus Christ.