The Resurrection, Part 4

 

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
First Corinthians 15:35-50
May 26, 2019

Today, I’m in my fourth of five sermons on the 15th Chapter of Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth. That may sound like a lot of sermons, but it’s a long chapter!  Two weeks ago, we talked about the ethical consequences of the resurrection. For Paul, the resurrection isn’t just something that only affects us in the future; the resurrection is the reason for us to live for Christ in the present. In this section, Paul returns to his discussion about Christ and Adam as he discusses the “resurrected body.”[1]

It appears Paul’s reason for this discussion is to convince those in Corinth who question the resurrection. They may have formerly been Jewish Sadducees. The Pharisees, if you remember, believed in a resurrection, but the Sadducees taught that this life was it. Paul addresses such disbelief in the first half of his response. Now, as he moves toward his conclusion of the topic, he addresses what he anticipates to be the follow-up question. Having maintained that there is no resurrection, these critics of Paul’s teachings might come back to Paul’s challenge and ask, “Well, Mr. Big Shot, since you say there is a resurrection, how is this going to happen and what are we going to look like?” Let’s hear what Paul has to say.  Read 1 Corinthians 15:35-50.

Have you had an experience where you dreaded what was to come and then found yourself unexpectedly pleased by what happened?

         I woke up at 6 AM to the sounds of the Star Spangled Banner blaring from the radio. It was the day after Labor Day, 1988. KECH with its whopping 58 watts of amplification began the day’s broadcast up and down the Wood River Valley. The station was off air between midnight and 6 AM, so instead of setting an alarm clock, I just left the radio on at night. I went to sleep to music and woke feeling patriotic. I had become accustomed to getting up in this manner during the summer at Camp Sawtooth in the Boulder Mountains of Idaho. As the music played I’d wash up, brush my teeth, dress, and head down to the dining hall where I’d build a fire to ward off the morning chill. Throughout the summer, when I came into the dining hall, the cooks would already be in the kitchen, fixing breakfast. The smell of coffee perking and bacon frying would fill the air. It had been a near perfect summer. But this morning was different.

        I dreaded getting out of bed. The cooks were gone for the season. I had to fix my own coffee. Yesterday, the last weekend group for the summer had left and camp became eerily silent. If you have ever worked at camp for a summer, you’ll know the feeling I’m expressing. There were only three of us left in that canyon, and we’d all be heading out after lunch. The morning would be busy draining pipes and closing up the camp for winter. When it came time to leave, we’d lock the buildings and gates and our summer in the valley under the tall lodgepole pines between even taller mountains would be over.

         After listening to the news and the weather (it was below freezing in the mountains, but would warm up and be another sunny day in paradise) I reluctantly crawled out of bed. I made coffee for Jack and Evelyn, our caretaker and his wife. I laid a fire in the wood stove one final time.

It wasn’t just leaving camp that I was dreading. I was worried about what was ahead in my life. That spring, I had agreed to spend a year in Virginia City, Nevada. It sounded exciting back in March: to be a student pastor, preaching every Sunday, and living in this desert town. Now the time was at hand, I wasn’t sure I was up for the task. First of all, I had to come up for a sermon every week. And then, I’d be living in Nevada. This was back in the 80s, before casinos dotted the landscape. Having been raised to consider gambling a sin, it made me nervous to be where it was in your face.

         Furthermore, Storey County, in which Virginia City sits, had legalized prostitution, a troublesome idea that made me wonder how I’d relate as a pastor, a public representative of God. Finally, even the drive to Virginia City seemed daunting. Much of it was on two-lane roads through mountainous deserts. The last leg included the infamous forty-mile desert where there isn’t a drop of water to be found. I’d just read a book on this stretch the pioneers dreaded and even though I’d be flying through that part of the trip at freeway speeds, there was something about going through this desert that made me nervous. It didn’t get any better the next morning, when I stopped in Lovelock at the edge of this desert and noticed one of my tires going flat. I took it to a shop and sure enough there was a nail in the rubber. It was good I found it when I did; however, it seemed a bad omen. Have you ever been there where you just dreaded what’s next?

Of course, with the exception of that nail, the trip was uneventful. I arrived in Virginia City and after a week or so of feeling out-of-place, it became home. As much as I had enjoyed the summer, I really enjoyed that year in Nevada, as most of you have probably surmised from stories I’ve told. The dread turned into a blessing. Have you had such an experiences?

        We have a God who loves to surprise us. Ours is a God who invites those at the back of the line to come to the front.  He’s a God of love who’s willing to forgive and to allow us a chance to start afresh. He’s a God of protection and refuses to abandon us. He’s a God of glory who shares his majesty through the beauty of a sunrise or a rainbow after a thunderstorm. God can take what we dread and provide a memorable experience. And the resurrection is the ultimate example.

        We all dread death, don’t we, but our hope is in the resurrection, which can only be experienced after death. In the resurrection, God reverses our fortune and we’re changed from dead to eternal. Just don’t ask me how. It’s just God’s way. But before I go to what Paul has to say, I should note that such dread of change can be an issue in all areas of our lives. We even find ourselves having such feelings in the church. As people, it seems we like to resist change even though it’s the only thing certain in life… Yet, we’re always nervous about the future. This shows our lack of trust in others (which can be expected, for we’ve all been let down at one time or another). But it also displays a lack of trust in God. We seem to forget that God has things under control; it’s not really up to us.

You know, we’re involved in a Strategic Planning process and this passage speaks to the fear we have of such a process. None of us like change? But to loosely summarize what Paul says here: “sometimes things have to die so that something new and better can come into being…”

       As I said before reading this passage, Paul begins asking what probably had been a follow-up question by those who were denying the resurrection. “Just how are the dead raised, Paul?  What kind of body will they have?” Paul doesn’t mince his words here and replies with a passionate response, “Fool.” You can’t be much more emphatic than that! He continues by noting what is planted as a seed has to “in essence” die (as it’s buried in the earth) in order to come to life as a new plant. He also notes there are different kinds of flesh and different kinds of bodies as he points to other animals and even to the heavens… We live in a wonderfully unique world.

Of course, this world to come, this resurrected body we’re to inherit, is still a mystery. But it will be amazing, according to Paul. Our bodies are perishable, but after the resurrection, they’ll be imperishable. Due to sin, our bodies have been dishonored, but the resurrected body will be glorious. Our bodies today grow weak, but in the life to come our bodies will be strong. The resurrection will result in a new spiritual body—which by the way doesn’t mean we’ll be ghost-like, for Paul insists that we’ll have bodies.

         Next, Paul returns to the topic he’d brought up earlier in the chapter: Adam and Jesus. Adam is the man of dust. God created him as God created us. If there was any question about Christians believing in reincarnation, Paul negates such ideas here when he insists there is no spiritual beginning for us. This idea was no doubt prevalent in Corinth as it is found in Platonic thought. At the end of Plato’s classic work, The Republic, he describes how spirits leave one world to be born in this world.[2] But this isn’t a Christian idea. Many New Agers as well as Mormons, Hindus and Buddhists believe either in some form of pre-existent spiritual presence or reincarnation, but such thoughts are not a part of our theology. As Paul shows, we are from the dust.

        But there is one who transcends the dust, the one who in Revelation is known as “the alpha and the omega, the first and the last, who is and who was and who is to come.”[3] Although this man was from heaven, he set aside his glory and power and assumed a life in the flesh.[4] With Adam, the man of dust, we share his sinful imprint.  However, with Jesus, the man of heaven, we too will share his imprint, and it will be glorious.  But that’s in the life to come and we’re all going to dread what it takes to get there, for our perishable bodies must return to the elements before we can arise with glorious new and eternal bodies.

Does Paul tell us what heaven is going to be like? No, not really, except that we will have bodies. Instead, he places his trust in a loving God that has our best interest at heart. And he encourages us to do the same. Yes, there is a resurrection and whatever lies on the other side of death is going to be far more glorious than we can ever imagine in this life.

         As followers of Jesus, we shouldn’t spend too much time fretting and worrying about the future. “Don’t worry about tomorrow,” Jesus tells us.[5] God’s got it under control. Yes, life is going to be full of changes, but such changes won’t even begin to compare to the transformation we’ll experience at the end. Living with the confidence of the resurrection should mean that we fear changes less in this life, for the long-term forecast is for things to be incredible. Amen.

 

©2019

[1] Compare this to 1 Corinthians 15:21-24.  I am basing my thoughts upon ideas set forth by Kenneth E. Bailey in Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians (Dowers Grove, IL: IVP, 2011).

[2] See Plato, The Republic, Chapter X

[3] Revelation 1:8.  See also Revelation 21:6 and 22:13.

[4] See Philippians 2:6-8

[5] Matthew 6:25.

A Light to the World

Jeff Garrison 
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church 
Matthew 5:14-16
May 19, 2019

 

Over the past year, Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church has invested a lot of money along with both volunteer and staff time to help our congregation improve its technology. Last summer, we added the monitors, getting rid of the screen, that eye-sore behind the chancel that was hard to see. We also added cameras to record the service and other events held in our sanctuary. Then we started streaming our services over the internet, which is popular among those unable to make it to church because of traveling, being home bound, or in the hospital.[1] We’ve even offer a way to give online. All of this is a way to help us better connect to our community. Let me now put a plug in for a discipleship opportunity: we are always in need of people to help us with this ministry. If you would like to volunteer, speak to one of the volunteers in the sound booth or see Jim Brown or me.

Our world is changing. We are more mobile. We are living longer and the last years are often more restricted. As a congregation, this investment helps us continue as a beacon of hope in a dark world. After all, that’s what Jesus calls us to do as we’ll see in today’s reading. I am going to take a break from working through the resurrection passages in 1 Corinthians and look at some Jesus’ thoughts from the Sermon on the Mount.

        The Sermon on the Mount begins in the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew and continues for three chapters. We’re told Jesus is on a hill and the disciples and other followers have gathered around him. He begins teaching with a series of nine beatitudes: blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, the peacemakers, and so on. Then, there’s a bridge between the beatitudes and the commands that fill out his sermon. This is the “you are” section, from which we will read today. There are two “you ares”: salt and light. I should also note that the “you” here is plural. Jesus is saying, “You folks,” or as we say down here, “y’all.” Y’all are the salt and the light. This isn’t only for individuals. This is a community task, it’s the role of the church, as we’ll see.[2] Read Matthew 5:14-16.

###

       What does it mean today to be a light to the world? And what did this mean to those in the first century?

In early 2000, I spent several weeks in Korea where I had been invited to preach and, conveniently, as my parents were living there at the time, to visit them. I was able, as the old cliché goes, “kill two birds with one stone.” I flew into Seoul at night. This was the old airport that the city had grown up around. I was shocked as the plane made a low approach over the city to see numerous neon and lighted crosses on buildings. They were all over the place. Is this what it means to let your light shine?

          The Koreans borrowed this idea from the West. In the old villages in Europe, a church and its steeple was the center of town. You could see the steeple from far off. In America, we adopted such ideas. Consider a New England village with the tall steeple in the middle. Or look at the downtown Savannah skyline, with large steeples rising high over the trees, providing visibility and, in many cases, a maintenance nightmare. The purpose is to keep everyone mindful of the church as the center of our lives, where together we focus and praise God. Jesus talks of a city built on a hill that can’t be hidden, so if you build a city in a valley, you put up a steeple to make it more visible.

       I’ve told you before about our family’s exile from North Carolina when I was 6 years old and how I spent the first three years of school in Virginia. I still remember one of the churches we attended there—Second Presbyterian Church in Petersburg. It was an old church in the downtown area that had endured much. During the Civil War, its tall steeple was hit by a Union canon ball.[3] They had a hard time with the tall steeple and after it was blown off in a tornado and hurricane, so they opted for a shorter tower. The church I served in Ellicottville, New York used to have an 80 foot spire on top of the bell tower that soared over the city. But after being hit by lightning, they opted for a stubby top. Is this the way we shine light on the world? Or, is our light through our actions?

         As I pointed out, Jesus is making a transition from the blessings he’s offered to the more instructional part of the sermon. I encourage you to read these entire three chapters to see what’s happening. In a way, he’s giving this humble and struggling collection of people a great compliment. They are to be his light in the world. God chooses the marginal. The poor and the powerless are instilled with an important mission. Jesus, the light of the world, takes such a motley group and sets them off on an important assignment. Through our good deeds (we’re a part of this group), others watch and hopefully are impressed and seek out God. They, and we, are not to do good works to be praised, but so that our heavenly Father will be praised.

Note this: Jesus makes a point to say, “your heavenly Father.”[4] He repeats this emphasis in the next chapter in the Lord’s Prayer, where we begin “Our Father.”[5] From the very beginning, Jesus sees us as a part of his family. God is not just Jesus’ father.

So, are we a light to the world? That’s a question we should ask ourselves as I turn this sermon back to the focus of the morning—our use of technology.

        In our Old Testament reading, we hear the story of the “fall.” In the story of the Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit. It wasn’t that they picked a bad piece of fruit, it was that they were trying to be like God as they disobeyed a direct command from the Almighty. Much of our knowledge is morally neutral. It becomes problematic only when we use it in the wrong manner or for the wrong reasons, such as playing God. Technology is full of examples. Nuclear energy can be used to treat cancer and produce power and it can be used to blow the planet up. The same can be said for the internet. It’s a great tool for research, but we can also spread untruths and confusion. And social media, it’s a great tool to connect with others, but we can also use it to spread gossip. We can use these tools to be a light to the world or, as there’s always a downside, to cast darkness.

Jesus calls us to be a light. I pray our use of technology here at SIPC is doing that, helping us to be a light as we share the message of hope to the world. But we need to go deeper for we are all a part of this body. Because of this, we all need to take our own inventory of how we are letting your light shine? You know, if you have the church sticker on your car, it would be a good thing to be polite when you drive. Otherwise, people will have the wrong idea of what we teach in church.

        You don’t won’t to like the guy who was pulled over, arrested, and hauled off to jail for stealing a car. He protested continually. After an hour of checking his story, the police apologized. “I couldn’t believe it was your car,” the officer said. “You have all these bumper stickers about loving Jesus and following you to church. After you gave the finger, shouted obscenities, and laid on your horn at the driver who was obviously lost, I just assumed you had stolen the vehicle.”

Our actions often speak louder than our words.

If you use social media, do you use it in a way that brings God glory? Before you post something, ask if God is being glorified. You don’t have to make everything about God, but if you post or share something that is untrue or of a questionable nature, you are not being a light to the world. If you belittle those with whom you disagree, you are not being very Christ-like and your light isn’t shinning.

       As the church enters the technological world in which we live, I also encourage you, if you use such technologies, to do so in a way that will help further our light in the world. Online, we Christians can respectfully answer questions about our faith, we can offer comfort to those who grieve or live in fear, we can help meet the needs of others, we can help empower others to further God’s work, we can help create loving digital communities, and show the love of Jesus in a compelling ways.[6]

        Just “liking” or “sharing” posts about our church helps us share our message with others. Don’t let this new world scare you. And there’s more you can do. Help a neighbor who is homebound reconnect with church through our streaming services. Feel free to share a gleaming you gathered from a sermon, or tell of your feelings of a piece of scripture, or how a hymn or choir anthem spoke to you. But whatever you do, do it in a way that will bring a smile to Jesus’ face and help us reflect his face in a positive way to the world. Remember, as we heard in the chancel drama, Jesus has no online presence, but yours. No blog, no Facebook page, but yours.[7] Amen.

©2019

[1] To watch the streaming on Sunday mornings at 10 AM, go to our www.sipres.org and click “watch live”.

[2] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 192 and Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew: Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: JKP, 1993), 44.

[3] This is what I remember being told as a child. For this church in the Civil War (in which it was one of two to stay open throughout the siege of Petersburg, see:  https://emergingcivilwar.com/2016/12/08/petersburgs-second-presbyterian-church-and-the-final-christmas-of-the-war/

[4] Bruner, 163.

[5] Matthew 6:9ff.

[6] I modified this list from one created by Rachel Lemons Aitken, “Digital Discipleship” Ministry (May 2019), 23.

[7] This is a contemporary take on St. Teresa of Avila’s prayer, “Christ has no body:”

Christ has no online presence but yours,
no blog, no Facebook page but your,
Yours are the tweets through which love touches this world,
Yours are the post through which the Gospel is shared,
Yours are the updates through which hope is revealed.
Christ has no online presence by yours,
no blog, no Facebook page but yours..

By Meredith Gould, The Social Media Gospel: Share the Good News in New Ways, 2nd Edition (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2015), 9.

 

The Resurrection, Part 3

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
1 Corinthians 15:29-34
May 12, 2019

 

I have been reading Chimamanda Adichie’s novel, Purple Hibiscus. Set in Nigeria during a politically unstable time, it’s the story of Kambili, a fifteen year old girl trying to make sense of this world. Her father is rich, generous, and a devout Catholic. But at home he’s abusive and a tyrant. He makes his children live by a strict schedule and demands perfection. The family have their prayer time, but even that is strict and void of joy.

When Kambili and her brother are sent to their aunt’s home one summer, they experience a different kind of faith. As with the dad, her aunty leads the family in prayer. Kambili is shocked at the difference. Like her father, she prays for those who don’t believe. But her father prays only that they be saved for the torment of hell, while her aunt prays that they be blessed. And she ends her prayer asking that they all experience peace and much laughter.[1] This shocks Kambili, for laughter was something she never considered of asking for in a prayer. While her aunty isn’t her mother, in a way her “motherly touch” opens up a new way of understanding faith.

I hope you have had such mothers in your life, whether they were your birth mother or another woman like an “aunty”, who helps you experience the hope of our faith. My mother grew up poor and it made her sensitive to the needs and the feelings of others. She expected her children to always be kind to others. It seems, sometimes, that we learn about the gentleness of our faith from women. We should cherish such teachings for our faith is not grounded in judgment and fear, but in life, abundant life, everlasting life. This is why the resurrection, as we going to see today, is so important to our faith.

In my sermon today, I am going to continue looking at the 15th Chapter of Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, the resurrection chapter. Read 1 Corinthians 15:29-34.

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There are those who see the resurrection as a “pie-in-the-sky” doctrine that allows us to endure life on earth, kind of like Karl Marx’s critique of religion being the opium of the masses. But for the Apostle Paul, this is not the case. The resurrection makes a difference in his life in the present. It’s why he can be so fierce and bold to act.

          Today we are looking at the center of Paul’s argument for the resurrection. This is a rather problematic passage, especially the first verse which implies there are those who are being baptized for those who have already died. So let’s start out by digging into the text here. This is the only place there is any mention of baptizing the dead in the New Testament, which creates a problem. Should we be doing this, we might wonder? I don’t think so. The only groups who have baptized for the dead have always been considered heretical sects.[2] So what does this mean? No one really knows. As Kenneth Bailey points out in his commentary on First Corinthians, there are at least forty different interpretations of what this passage might mean.[3] But since it is the only place it occurs, we can’t be too sure.

But here’s a possibility. Perhaps Paul refers to a conversion of someone after the death of a believer. For example, someone in the faith dies: perhaps a spouse or a parent. The non-believing spouse or child then decides to be baptized and to become a believer in part in the hope to be reunited with their loved one after the resurrection. To get to the point Paul is making, if there is no resurrection, such an action would be foolish.[4]

The only religious group I know of today who baptize for the dead are the Mormons. But their cosmology, their worldview, doesn’t conform to the Christian tradition—be it Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox. Essentially, they believe that salvation comes through their particular organization, which is why they think even the dead need to be baptized into their church. But we don’t believe that. For us, baptism is not a requirement for salvation; it’s a sign of our salvation which is grounded, not in the church, but in Jesus Christ. We focus on him: on his death and resurrection. Paul is driving this point home in this section of First Corinthians.

From how this verse reads, Paul never says if he agrees or disagrees with whether or not the dead should be baptized.[5] Instead, he is using such a practice to bolster his argument that if there is no resurrection, the rest of the faith doesn’t matter. If God doesn’t have the power to bring Jesus from the tomb to life, God won’t have the power to bring us to life and, as he said earlier in the chapter, our faith is in vain.[6]  Again, for Paul, the resurrection is not a “pie-in-the-sky” doctrine, but one that has implications for how he lives his life in the present.

Paul is getting to the heart of the meaning of the resurrection here in the middle of this chapter. What difference does the resurrection make?” Paul essentially asks. His answer: “it makes all the difference in the world.” Because of the resurrection, we can face life with confidence and should live lives worthy of this gift.

Notice how Paul builds his case, reaching a peak at verse 31 with his boast of Jesus Christ, in whose death we’re called to die through baptism so that we might live eternally with him…   For Paul, everything is focused on the Lord. On both sides of this proclamation, Paul notes the danger the Corinthians and he face daily for their belief in Jesus Christ. And then on the outside of that, Paul is almost dripping in sarcasm as he begins and ends with a statement that includes “if the dead are not raised?” If there is no resurrection, why bother to do all this stuff? If there is no resurrection, why don’t we throw a party, eat and drink, for tomorrow we may die. But Paul doesn’t believe this as he shows in this central statement, his profession of faith in Jesus Christ. Therefore, he concludes with additional suggestions about how we’re to live our lives.

In verse 32 Paul suggests that if it weren’t for the resurrection, he’d not be fighting with wild animals in Ephesus.  As we look back on this from our perspective, we recall Roman circuses and it is easy to imagine Paul fighting lions like other Christians who were taken into the coliseum in Rome. However, the practice of feeding Christians to wild animals in the coliseum didn’t start until a century later.[7] So what might Paul be referring to here?

Although Paul spent more time in Ephesus that anywhere else in his missionary journeys and wrote this letter from there, Ephesus was a difficult place to be a Christian missionary.[8] We see this in Acts, where the silversmiths in Ephesus have a problem with Paul’s preaching.[9] Paul’s message is bad for business, for they make their living selling statues of gods and goddesses. If such gods don’t exist, why would anyone buy such a statue? This led to some difficulty for Paul and his ministry in Ephesus, a conflict that was like fighting wild animals for he may well have been fearful for his life. It wouldn’t have taken much for one of the merchants or craftsmen whose business was suffering to arrange for Paul’s body to be found floating dead in the harbor.

Paul’s point is that because of the resurrection, he doesn’t have to worry about his own life. In his letter to the Romans, Paul shows this confidence when he writes: “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord, so then whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”[10]

Again, for Paul, everything is focused on Jesus Christ. And it should be like that for us, too. Faith in the resurrection allows us to be committed disciples, without the fear of death.

After showing the importance of the resurrection in our lives, Paul concludes this section with two short proverbs.  In the first, “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company ruins good morals,’” Paul is possibly quoting the 3rd Century BC Greek playwright Menander. Just before this quote, Paul flippantly quotes from Isaiah: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”   Paul, throughout this letter, draws upon multiple texts so that there is something familiar to both the Greeks and the Jews in Corinth who are reading his letter.[11] Paul wants to heal the divisions in Corinth and this is just another attempt at doing that—quoting two different sources, so that each group would have something familiar to help their understanding.  Paul’s use of sources supports Christian preaching that draws on sources outside the Biblical canon for illustrations. Truth, wherever found, can be used to support the ultimate Truth.

Paul’s ending to this section of his letter reminds us there needs to be an ethical response on our behalf because of the resurrection. Because we have been promised this incredible gift, we should live righteously, avoiding evil and striving to do what is honorable.

Throughout this letter, Paul has pointed to the corruption and sin in the Corinthian Church, so his tag-on here comes as no surprise: “I say this to your shame,” Paul notes for the second time in this letter.[12] Paul expects the Corinthians to change. They are to unite and get over their divisions.[13] They are no longer to put up with outrageous sin.[14] They are not to make a mockery of the Lord’s Supper and they are to worship in an orderly manner.[15] If they accept and believe in the resurrection, they will change and live in a way that honors what God has done for them in Jesus Christ.

Does the resurrection make a difference in your life?  It should make all the difference in the world; it should give us the boldness to live for Jesus. But does it?  Reflect on the resurrection this week and ask yourself, what difference it makes? Hopefully, you will discover, like Paul, the importance of a core document of the faith that we’ll profess in a few minutes when we say the Apostles’ Creed. When you say the Creed this morning, focus on those last clauses: “I believe…. in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” Amen.

 

©2019

[1] Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Purple Hibiscus (New York: Random House, 2003), 127.

[2] William F. Orr and James Arthur Walther, First Corinthians: The Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976), 335.

[3] Kenneth E. Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2011), 449.

[4] Bailey, 450, agrees with G. G. Findlay (1900) and Joachim Jeremias (1960), who both independently of each other argued for this interpretation of the verse.

[5] Hans Conzelmann, 1st Corinthians: Hermeneia (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975), 275.

[6] 1 Corinthians 15:14.

[7]Orr and Walther, 338.

[8] See Bailey, 452.

[9] See Acts 19:23-41

[10] Romans 14:8

[11] Bailey, 453.  See Isaiah 22:13.

[12] 1 Corinthians 6:5, 15:34.

[13] Focus of 1 Corinthians 1-4:16.

[14] See 1 Corinthians 5.

[15] See 1 Corinthians 11-14.

The Resurrection, Part 2

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
1 Corinthians 15:12-28
April 28, 2019

 

In a devotion for last Sunday, Easter Day, Richard Rohr, reminded his readers that “Easter isn’t celebrating a one-time miracle as if it only happened in the body of Jesus and we’re all here to cheer for Jesus.” Sadly, he concludes, that’s what a lot of people think Easter is about. Rohr places the seeds for Easter in Christmas, with the incarnation, which I will discuss in my sermon this morning.[1] If God can become flesh (in the incarnation), the resurrection seems to follow naturally.

We’re continuing to think about the resurrection today. I want you to ask yourselves this question: “What difference does the resurrection make for your life?” We started working through the 15th Chapter of First Corinthians last Sunday on Easter. As I stated last week, in this chapter, Paul provides the most detailed treatment of the resurrection found in scripture. It’s also one of the longer chapters in scripture. This morning, I will begin reading in verse 12. Here, Paul begins by pointing to objections being made about the resurrection. For Paul, the foundation of our hope in Jesus Christ is found in the resurrection to life everlasting. Yes, we will all die; we will cease to exist. But the grave is not the end!  Later on in this chapter, Paul can ask: “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”[2] He can be that bold because he believes, as we proclaim in the Apostles’ Creed, “in the resurrection of the body and in the life everlasting.” Read 1 Corinthians 15:12-28.

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          People turn to the church when there is a death because we can offer hope for something beyond our frail mortal bodies. In all the work I did on the history of Western Mining Camps, one of the surprising things I learned was how at the time of death, even people who religiously avoided the shadow of the steeple, would be brought back for a funeral. The friends of Julia Bulette, Virginia City’s most famous prostitute, sought out the Presbyterian minister for her funeral. Mark Twain in Roughing It has a wonderful tale about Buck Fanshaw’s funeral. Fanshaw, a leader of the “bottom-stratum of society” and based on a real-life character who had a relationship with Bulette, died. The local roughs elected Scotty Briggs to “fetch a parson” to “waltz Fanshaw into handsome” (their word for heaven). The dialogue between the minister and Scotty is classic Twain.[3] Although funny, it’s a reminder that at the time of death, we want the comfort only the church can offer: the hope in life everlasting in Jesus Christ.

But let me suggest that such comfort isn’t just for those who are dying. It’s also important for how we live our lives. Having faith in the resurrection allows us to be bold. As we are Kirkin’ the Tartans today, we have to look no further than to John Knox, the great reformer of Scotland. Knox was convert to the Protestant faith through the preaching of George Wishart. Knox first heard Wishart in Leith on December 13th, 1545. Knox had already began moving toward the Protestant movement with his study of Scripture, but Wishart’s preaching accelerated the process. Knox immediately became Wishart’s disciple and spent the next five weeks with him. Knox stuck by Wishart, even though he knew that he was marked man. In early 1546, less than two months after the two met, Wishart was arrested and burned at the stake in St. Andrews.[4] Knox avoided such a barbecue, but ended up doing hard time as a prisoner, manning oars on a galley ship. Why would someone be so willing to risk their own life unless they really believe it’s worth it?

        At death and in times of peril, the church is a symbol of our faith and the hope we have for something we can never fully comprehend in this life, the resurrection.

Let’s look at our text. In verses 12 through 19, Paul plays the devil’s advocate. If there is no resurrection, it’s all a big joke. If there is no resurrection, then we are people to be pitied.  Of course, Paul doesn’t believe that.

In verse 20, Paul shifts his argument with a powerful “BUT.” This change of direction wipes out the objections he’d just raised. “But Christ has been raised,” Paul proclaims; this truth makes all the difference in the world!

Paul begins by contrasting two men who represent more than themselves. Adam is not just our first-umpteenth great-granddaddy; he stands as the primal man, the representative of us all.[5] The death that comes through sin is something we all share. Interestingly here, Paul does not cite Eve or blame her for the first sin, the eating of the forbidden fruit. In this way, Paul is more enlightened than he is often given credit. Within the rabbinical tradition at the time, as can be seen in the Apocryphal literature, Ben Sirach lays the blame for sin and death on the first woman. After all, Eve was the first to nibble on that sinful fruit.[6] But Paul doesn’t go there. Instead, by using Adam as an archetype for all humanity, he shows that we all share in the blame for sin and in sin’s consequence: death.

         However, there is good news. Although death came through a human being, so too has the resurrection come through a human being. Paul lifts the Christmas doctrine of the incarnation. In Jesus Christ, God became flesh! Christ is the first-fruit of the resurrection, a term that probably meant more to Paul’s audience than to us today. For you see, the Jews were to bring the first of the harvest, their first-fruits, to God as an offering of thanksgiving. We tend to give God what is left, not our first-fruit, which probably says a lot more about our spiritual state that we’d honestly like to admit. However, this isn’t about our giving, it’s about God’s gift, for God the Father gave us his first-fruit, in that of his Son.

        All this is a part of God’s plan in history, Paul notes. It’s all a part of the great plan to destroy all authorities and powers that defy or challenge God. At the end, there will be nothing to draw our attention from the Almighty. All idols will be destroyed, all that which we fear will be removed, the last of which is death itself. With the removal of that great enemy which has haunted the human race since the beginning, we can worship God without fear or distraction.

          Kenneth Bailey, in his commentary on First Corinthians, goes into detail about the meaning of Jesus placing all his enemies (the last one being death), under his feet. Bailey suggests that verses 24-27 could be removed and the reader wouldn’t notice. You can try this yourself, at home, just leave the verses out and see how it reads. So why did Paul insert this little segue? It’s to make a political point: Jesus is Lord! If Jesus is Lord, that means Caesar isn’t Lord. He cites examples from the ancient world in which the ruler’s footstool often had engravings representing the kingdom’s enemies and when the ruler placed his foot upon the stool, he was making a statement about his power. When Christ has finished, there will be no possibilities of his enemies, including death, making a comeback![7]

         In the winter of 2000, I had the opportunity to spend a few weeks in Korea: preaching, sightseeing and mountain climbing.  I visited the imperial city in Seoul, where the emperor once ruled, his throne built on a hill that allowed him to overlook the city. In 1910, Japan invaded Korea. The Japanese decided it was too dangerous to destroy the ancient throne, so instead they built a modern government building to block the view from the city. I learned there had been a great controversy over what to do with this building that was architecturally significant. Many wanted to tear it down, which is what happened, but others wanted to relocate it. One of the more creative ideas, which caused a minor international incident with the Japanese, was to dig a hole and sink the building and then glass over the top. That way, the building would not be destroyed, but the Korean people could have the satisfaction of “walking over” or stomping on the visible representation of 40 years of Japanese occupation.

The idea of our enemies being under our feet is still strong in our imaginations, as we can see from Korea. Yet, we need to remember that in the eternal realm, we’re not conquerors, Christ is! We’re not the victors; we share in Christ’s victory. The enemies are not under our feet, but his. And they’re not our enemies, they’re his enemies. We might even be surprised to find some of our enemies on Jesus’ side. For those of us who have Scottish blood in our veins, we may even be shocked to find some English in heaven. After all, all things are possible with God. But the important thing isn’t who’s in and out, it’s whether or not we are on Jesus’ side. Consider this, if we are out, we could end up being a footstool.

Friends, we’re mortal and we’re going to die. We know that, even if we sometimes act as if we don’t. As for when or how we’ll die, we don’t know. But we live with hope. We’re told that Jesus is the first-fruit of the resurrection. The implication here is that Jesus will not be the only one raised.  Jesus’ resurrection is not the exception to the rule. Jesus’ resurrection is the start of something new: all who trust and accept him will live with him eternally.[8]

And because we put our faith in Christ and through him have faith in the resurrection, we can live this life without fear. We can be like John Knox, following George Wishart to the stake. We can be bold on behalf of our Savior. Friends, live fiercely, in the knowledge that in life and in death, we belong to Jesus Christ.[9] Amen.

©2019

[1] https://cac.org/the-death-of-death-2019-04-21/

[2] 1 Corinthians 15;55.

[3] Mark Twain, Roughing It (1872), Chapter 47.  See also Charles Jeffrey Garrison, “Of Ministers, Funerals, and Humor: Mark Twain of the Comstock,” Nevada Historical Society Quarterly 38, #3 (Fall 1995).

[4] Jane Dawson, John Knox (New Haven: Yale, 2015), 28-32.

[5] Hans Conzelmann, First Corinthians: Hermeneia—A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975), 268.

[6] Kenneth E. Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Press, 2011), 443.  See Sirach 25:24

[7] Bailey, 447.

[8] William F. Orr and James Arthur Walther, I Corinthians: The Anchor Bible (Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1976), 330.

[9] Taken from the opening question of the Heidelberg Catechism.

The Resurrection

Jeff Garrison 
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Easter Sunday, 2019
1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Resurrection Day! The most holy day in the Christian calendar as we celebrate the risen Christ! And what a glorious day we’re enjoying.

Today I begin a series on the resurrection, working through Paul’s final essay in 1st Corinthians? Some scholars divide 1st Corinthians into five essays.[1] Paul’s first essay, which consist of the first four chapters, focuses on the problem of divisions within the church. His answer is unity through the cross. So Paul begins this letter talking about the cross. His final essay is about the resurrection. Paul covers the bases in 1st Corinthians, from Good Friday to Easter Sunday.

The 15th chapter of 1st Corinthians provides the most detailed treatment of the resurrection found in scripture. In the gospels, we read first-hand accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. Here, Paul explores resurrection theology and its implication.

The focus of our faith is that Christ rose from the grave.  Yes, it’s important that he paid the price for our sin on Friday.  But if there is no resurrection, what difference would it make?  The reason Friday can be called “Good Friday” and not “Black Friday” or “Sad Friday” or “We are Doomed Friday” is because Christ rose from the dead.  And he promises the same to those who believe and follow him.

Fredrick Buechner visualizes the resurrection this way:

“Remember Jesus of Nazareth, staggering on broken feet out of the tomb toward the Resurrection, bearing on his body the proud insignia of the defeat which is victory, the magnificent defeat of the human soul at the hands of God.”[2]

 

The resurrection is victory over all that is evil and corrupt. It’s a victory over all that’s wrong with this world. It’s a victory over death! The cross is not the final word. We deserve death for our sin, but God cancels what is owed and through Jesus Christ, offers us life. Let’s hear what Paul has to say: Read 1st Corinthians 15:1-11)

It was about this time of the year that Elvira showed up at church one Sunday morning. It was during my first year as a pastor in Cedar City, Utah. She was a frail woman and asked that we pray for her son, Carl, who was battling cancer. We did. Over the next few weeks she kept coming and I got to know her better. She was living in an adult foster home as her daughter, who’d moved her from Nebraska to the daughter’s home in Utah, couldn’t deal with her anymore. I also learned that she had not seen her son in years, even though he was now living in Las Vegas, just a three hour drive away.

A few months later, her daughter who lived in St. George, about fifty miles away, came to see me. “I need to explain my mother,” she said. I felt she was looking for me to relieve her of guilt for having placed her mother in this adult foster home. She got more than she’d bargained for that afternoon. When she left my office, she more troubled than when she had arrived, and I can only credit it to God. For you see, as she was telling me about her mother, she started to talk about her good-for-nothing brother, the one for whom we’d been praying. She couldn’t understand why he mattered so much to her mother. As she talked, things began to click in my mind.

“Wait just a minute,” I finally interrupted. “Your brother, Carl, does he also go by Doug.” There was a period of silence. She turned pale. I had my answer. It was awkward.

His name was Carl Douglas and he had lived in Virginia City when I was a student pastor there. In the five or so years in between, I’d lost track of Doug, but I had been with him when the doctor had given him the bad news that he had cancer. When I last talked to him, it was in remission, but had come back with a vengeance. I’d been praying for this friend, without knowing it, for months. And now I was sitting across from his estranged sister. Unlike her, I had only good memories of her brother. New Year’s Eve 1988 was one.  It was a Saturday and we both had plans for the evening, but when I was in the church practicing my sermon I heard water running and after checking found there was a busted pipe in the heating system, underneath the organ. Doug came right down and we spent a couple of hours fixing the pipe so that we might have heat for Sunday. That was only one example. He was known of his kindness, for being quick to offer a hand to those in need.

Soon after this meeting with his sister, I was in Las Vegas and was able to see Doug. He was pretty sick and knew he was going to die, but he was in good spirits and happy to see me and to hear about his mom. He asked me to officiate at his funeral. I agreed. A few weeks later, he rebounded a bit and some friends brought him up to Cedar City where he was reunited with his mother. We all had lunch together. It would be the last time Doug saw his mother. He died a few weeks later.  His sister still didn’t want anything to do with him, even in death, so when I drove down to Vegas to officiate at his funeral, I took his mother along. Since Doug had lived there for less than a year, there were only a dozen or so people at the service—his mom, his son, and a few friends.

A few months after the funeral, Elvira arranged to move back to Nebraska. When I think about all this, I’m amazed. I see God’s hand at work. What was the probability Elvira would end up in a church in a distant city where the pastor knew her son? There was actually a good chance her son could have died and she’d never seen him or even been able to attend the funeral, or even know of his death. Thankfully, she was able to see him and attend his funeral. God enjoys working to bring about surprises and joy!

This all happened 25 years ago. I doubt Elvira is still with us. She wasn’t in the best of health and in her late 70s at the time. But in a way, she got to experience a “resurrection” of her son and that’s something special. And the best of it. It was only an appetizer to the resurrection to come.

If you look at the first verse of this chapter, you’ll see that Paul begins this section of his letter by reminding the Corinthians of what he had proclaimed to them, what they had received, and upon which they’d taken a stand. One has to first hear the good news, then accept it, internalize it, believe it and share it. It’s all necessary to complete this process of being saved. But some in Corinthian must not have taken those last steps. They’d heard the gospel preached, they listened, but they never lived it, they never internalized it and now they are beginning to question the whole concept.

Imagine hearing this letter (there were only a few people back then who could read and furthermore, with only one copy of the letter, most people would be listening to it). Think about what it was like when it was being read. You listen. Some in the room maybe getting nervous for they’ve denied the resurrection.  They’re feeling the point of Paul’s pen.

In the middle of verse three, Paul cites an early creed of the church. A creed is a summary of the faith. Sometimes we recite the Apostle’s Creed, but this creed is even shorter. It testifies to five things:

Christ died for our sins.
His death was accordance to scripture.
He was buried which indicates that he really was dead, not just passed out.
He then rose from the dead on the third day and finally,
He appeared to a whole bunch of people.

 

From the very beginning of the church, this creed testifies to the importance of the resurrection for understanding the faith. Without it, the church has no reason to exist.

The listing of those to whom Christ appears is interesting.  Paul acknowledges that he’s a latecomer. Paul also doesn’t mention the women at the tomb, instead starts his list with Cephas or Peter. Some scholars have suggested this is because Paul is a chauvinist, but that’s probably not the case. Instead, if we went back to the beginning of the letter, you’ll see that one of the divisions in Corinth involved those who followed Peter instead of Paul. Most of these believers were Jewish, which is why Paul uses Cephas, Peter’s Jewish name. We also know that Paul and Peter had significant differences. By beginning with Peter, Paul may be trying to mend fences. Besides, the Corinthians know Peter, but they probably didn’t know the various Marys and others who were there at the grave.

In the spirit of mending fences, Paul tacks on Christ’s appearance to him at the end of his list. He humbles himself, acknowledges that before this appearance he didn’t believe. He had persecuted the church. When Christ appeared to him, he was most undeserving. But it’s that way with grace; we’re all undeserving (that includes you and me). Paul does mention that he has worked harder than anyone for Christ, yet even that he credits to the grace of God.

N. T. Wright, an insightful theologian from the British Anglican community says this:

 

“Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord’s Prayer is about.” [3]

We pray, “Thy kingdom come,” and the kingdom begins as Christ is raised from the grave. The cross is important, my friends, but the resurrection is what makes our life of faith worth living. In it, we have hope, for we know that our God loves to surprise us with joy.  In the same book, Wright also writes:

 

“The message of Easter is that God’s new world has been unveiled in Jesus Christ and that you’re now invited to belong to it.”

In other words, because of the resurrection, we’re now invited to live as God intends as we join God in his work of transforming the world—a transformation that begins with the open tomb on Easter morning. Everything will be changed. Jesus has defeated death and inaugurates the reclamation of the earth for God’s purpose.

           Will we believe? Will we allow ourselves to be transformed? God is working miracles in this world. I shared one such miracle at the beginning of the sermon. God wants to reconcile the world, not just to himself, but between mother and son, brothers and sisters, friends and enemies. Will we accept God’s invitation to proclaim the good news? Will we accept the invitation to hop up on the bandwagon and follow Jesus, out of the grave and into life? Let us pray:

 

Almighty God, who gives life to the dead, we thank you for Jesus’ resurrection and pray that you will help all of us to be his faithful disciples, sharing his life and his hope to a confused and lost world. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

 

©2019

[1] See Kenneth E. Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians (Intervarsity Press, 2011).

[2] Frederick BuechnerThe Magnificent Defeat

[3] N.T. WrightSurprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church

 

Give It a Rest

Jeff Garrison 
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church 
Mark 2:21-28
April 14, 2019

We’re coming to the last Sunday in our series, “Busy: Reconnecting with an Unhurried God.” I hope you have discovered a freedom to enjoy life and God and not be so hectic about things. Today we celebrate Palm Sunday. Are we too busy for a parade? In our text, today, we’re going to look at something different as we end this series. We’re looking at the Sabbath, which I’ve heard called the first labor law.[1] God realizes that we all need to rest, just as God rested on the seventh day. But we humans often have a way of taking a good thing way too far and screwing it up, as we’re going to see this morning in an encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees. Read Mark 2: 21-28.

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     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? Think about this for a moment as I go off on a tangent.

          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 was stuffing himself, something strange occurred. It was becoming cooler and the sky was darkening, which was odd since there were no clouds in the sky. Then the birds began to sing as if it was evening. He looked up and to his horror saw the sun, high overhead, disappearing. He dropped the melon he was working on 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 he seemed to instill him with a healthy awe of the Creator.

         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.[2]

 

In other words, you could take what you needed to quench your hunger, but you weren’t 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 had to have a way to obtain food. So the Pharisees don’t get onto Jesus for theft. Instead, they accuse him 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?”

         Jesus is doing something knew. Our passage begins with an illustration about patching coats and wineskins. This is probably not something any of us have experienced for we either replace our coats or take them to the tailor on Montgomery Cross. And our wine is aged in barrels and tends to come to us in bottles. But back in the first century, you had to patch your coats, and skins were 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.

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, there were those within the tradition that challenged this idea and reminded people that the Sabbath was made for them, not the other way around.[3] But the legalists would 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.[4] 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 is good for it gives us freedom. Unfortunately, this freedom has led many to forget the Sabbath altogether.

Jesus is concerned for our well-being. He gets upset with the legalism of the Sabbath laws of the first century. One must eat, but the religious leaders of the day were making 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. But that’s not why they were given. God didn’t give the commandments as a test we have to pass in order to go to paradise. Instead, the commandments are rough guidelines within which we can enjoy life, starting now.

         The Sabbath Command is a reminder that we are not able to 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 aside, and just enjoy the creation God has given us. It’s a day we can enjoy the families that God has given us. It’s a day we can catch our breath and look around and give thanks.

         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 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 up chucks of stove wood my great-granddaddy had split. As the oven heated up, my great-grandma mixed up 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 real good with his folk. Then, throwing away all manners, he’d sop it up with the left-over biscuits. It was good. Afterwards, we kids would run out and play while the adults retired to either the back porch or, if in winter, the parlor. When we’d come back in an hour or so later, they’d all be napping.

          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. Amen.

 

©2019

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

[2] Deuteronomy 23:25.

[3] 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.

[4] Romans 14:5, Colossians 2:16.

The Cycles and Seasons of Life

 

 

Jeff Garrison
S
kidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Ecclesiastes 3:1-15
April 7, 2019

 

 

Now that we have heard the first eight verses of the third chapter of Ecclesiastes, let’s now listen for the next seven verses as I read from The Message translation. Read Ecclesiastes 3:8-15.

 

This chapter is a wonderful poetic break in the middle of a book that’s often considered depressing. After all, Ecclesiastes begins by pointing out the vanity of everything, and it’s here we find such wisdom such a living dog is better than a dead lion.[1]

This is not recommended reading if you needed a pick-me-up, but since the book has found itself as a part of both the Jewish and Christian Canons, we have to deal with it. What are we being told here?

Our Lenten series encourages us to slow down, take a deep breath, and reconnect to an unhurried God. How might this passage encourage us to make such connections?

Our reading today begins with a thesis statement: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” If there is a time for everything, maybe we shouldn’t be so concerned about trying to do everything at once. The author, assumed to be Solomon even though his name is not used,[2] then provides us with fourteen pairs of opposites. We experience birth and death, planting and harvestings, and so forth. No values are given to either side. The couplet’s are like the Chinese Yin and Yang, both sides necessary for completeness.

Most of the opening couplets are self-explanatory, but not all. Verse five is traditional translated as a time to throw away stones and gathering stones together. We might wonder why gather stones if you are just going to toss them out. This appears to be related to ancient Israel’s laws around cleanliness and when a husband and wife might have sexual relations.[3] You didn’t expect that, I’m sure. The Message, from which I read this morning, captures this in its translation: “A right time to make love and another to abstain.

Verse seven speaks of a time for tearing and time for mending. Again, what’s up with this? Why rip up clothes only to repair them? This probably refers to the ancient tradition of ripping one’s clothes during periods of mourning and then repairing them once the mourning period is over. There is a time for sadness, grief and mourning, and a time to get on with life.[4]

This list reminds us that, like the seasons, there is a cycle to our lives. If Solomon had lived by the ocean, he might have added the tides. The cycles of life are all around us, but some are experienced more frequently than others. If we accept God’s sovereignty, there is no need for us to constantly be distraught over life’s ebbing and waning. We are freed to enjoy what we can while trusting and having faith that things won’t always be bad.

We can look at this list hoping we might understand life, but there is no wisdom to be discovered in such patterns.[5] While it’s evident that the human experience is a part of each of these couplets, we realize that we have no control over when or how they’re experienced. That’s left up to God.[6] The author of this book often reminds us that we live our lives in God’s domain and “under the sun.”[7] If we think we can ultimately have control over everything, we’re going to be disappointed. We’re not God, as this passage reminds us.

While we don’t discover any secret patterns in the first eight verses, we are given keys to understanding how we should live our lives in such a random world in the second part of our reading. We make the best of it, and we enjoy what we’ve been given.

We can be relieved that even though the patterns of life often seem vain, the author does find meaning in a life centered in God. After searching for meaning in the patterns of life, he comes to the conclusion that God wants us to enjoy life. Verses 12 and 13 reads, “we can never know what God is up to, whether he’s coming or going. I’ve decided that there is nothing better to do than go ahead and have a good time and get the most we can out of life.”

Tim Keller, writing about marriage provides insight:

 “The world goes on and we must live in it.  We must take thought for tomorrow. Yet our assurance about God’s future world transforms our attitudes toward all our earthly activities. We should be glad of success, but not overly glad, and saddened by failure, but not too downcast, because our true joy in the future is guaranteed by God. So we are to enjoy but not be “engrossed” in the things of this world.”[8]

 

The author of Ecclesiastes, who lived long before Christ, doesn’t share the same hope we have—that one day we will live eternally with our Lord. But even without such assurance, he was wise enough to know God wants us to take pleasure in life.

In our series on our need to reconnect to an unhurried God, Ecclesiastes reminds us of two things: let God be God and enjoy what God provides.

          In his acknowledgements at the beginning of his book on aging which I read this past week, Parker Palmer, a spiritual author from the Quaker tradition, writes:

We grow old and die in the same way we live our lives. That’s why this book is not about growing old gracefully. My life has been graced, but it certainly hasn’t been graceful—I’ve done more than my share of falling down, getting up, and falling down again. The falling down is due to missteps and gravity. The getting up is due to grace, mediated by people to whom I owe great debts of gratitude.[9]

It’s all about grace, and accepting God’s grace should lead us to gratitude.

There are cycles to our lives. Some things change frequently and we experience them over and over. I find myself more and more constantly following the stars at night, knowing where favorite constellations are at for a particular time of the year. For me, this all began when surf fishing at night on Masonboro Island, where in the fall I watched Tarsus, the seven sisters, Orion and Canis Major with the bright dog star all rise over the ocean. We experience the cycles of the moon, the tides, and the seasons. Likewise, the church year is filled with cycles as we long for Jesus’ coming in Advent, celebrate his birth with Christmas, remember his suffering and death during Holy Week and celebrate his resurrection on Easter and every Sunday morning.

We live life within cycles, but we have little control over when they happen. Of course, some of our cycles in life are only experienced once. We are only a child once. Unless there’s a hiccup in our learning, we only finish the first and second and on to the twelfth grades once… We have a period of working and building a life, then a period of retirement and aging. It’s all a part of how God knit together this world. Instead of fighting against the changes of life, we should graciously accept what loving God provides and trust him to see us through.

         We can’t control when the cycles of life happen, but we can control how we respond to them. Receive them as a gift, as grace. Amen.

 

 

 

©2019

[1] Ecclesiastes  1:1, 9:4.

[2] The author is named as “Qoheleth” which is traditionally translated as “Preacher”, but is identified as the Son of David, king of Jerusalem (See Ecclesiastes 1:1). This fits Solomon, but David had other sons, too.

[3] Robert Gordis, Koheleth: The Man and his World, a Study of Ecclesiastes (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 230.

[4] Gordis, 230-231.

[5] While there have been attempts to link the first eight verses with astrology, it has generally been treated as “far-fetched.” See Gordis, 229.

[6] William P. Brown, Ecclesiastes: Interpretation, A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2000), 40, 42.  As for patterns, see Robert Davidson, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1982), 22.

[7] The “under the sun” phrase is used 27 times between Ecclesiastes 1:3 and 9:11. In 4:7, it’s tied with the vanity of life.

[8] Timothy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God (New York: Dutton, 2011), 176. Keller is writing about marriage and not directly commenting on Ecclesiastes.

[9] Parker J. Palmer, On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity & Getting Old (Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publisher, 2018), ix.

Focusing on What’s Important

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
March 24, 2019
Luke 10:38-42

 

Our morning Gospel reading this morning stands in contrast to our Old Testament lesson. In our first reading, we heard about a Shunamite woman who, out of the goodness of her heart, shows hospitality to Elisha.[1] Not only did she feed and give him lodging, she adds a guest room on to her house so he can stay in comfort…  Contrast this to the story of Mary and Martha. During a visit by Jesus, Mary sits at his feet while Martha spends the afternoon in the kitchen. Martha isn’t happy with the arrangements and asks Jesus to order her sister to help. Do you remember Jesus’ response? The woman in the Old Testament reading was rewarded for her hospitality, in the New Testament reading Martha, who tries to be hospitable, is critiqued. What’s up with that?  Let’s check it out. Read Luke 10:38-42.

 

A recent article in Fortune Magazine, reporting on the 2019 World Happiness Report, claims the United States is the unhappiest it’s even been. I don’t believe that statement is quite right. I’m pretty sure they weren’t conducting such research at the height of the Civil War or Great Depression, but the article points out we’ve been dropping in the happy list for the past several years. We’re still in the top quarter of the pack, but we’re not doing as well as we once did. By the way, we don’t want to be at the bottom of this list, which is populated with war-torn regions like the South Sudan, Central African Republic, Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria… We’re way ahead of them, which isn’t hard to achieve. But ahead of us are all the Scandinavian Countries, many European Countries along with Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Costa Rica.

While prosperity is rising, we’re less happy. As the old cliché goes, money can’t buy happiness. But there are many other factors playing into this study. One of the study’s co-authors noted that the United States is a “mass-addiction society.” This isn’t just addictions to drugs and alcohol, which I think we would all agree brings unhappiness. But there’s a host of other addictions: “gambling, social media use, video gaming, shopping, consuming unhealthy foods, exercising, engaging in extreme sports, and risky sexual behaviors.” All of these create problems for happiness. Addiction is on the rise.[2] Let that sink in for a minute.

        Arthur Brooks, one of this year’s Calvin January Series speakers, had a new book come out this month. I read the first half of it this past week. It’s titled, Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt. I highly recommend it. Brooks’ points out that anger isn’t our problem. What he sees as a problem is contempt. When we are angry, we are generally wanting something better. When we hold someone in contempt, we are essentially wishing they didn’t exist. In a chapter titled “The Culture of Contempt,” he suggests that much of America, even though we hate it, are addicted—there’s that word again—to political contempt. We don’t like what this contempt does to us (not to mention those we disagree with), but we can’t seem to get enough of it. Like a junkie, we “indulge” in the habit. And the media, who has economic interest in our addiction, is more than happy to feed us.[3]

How do we break this cycle? How do we realign ourselves? How do we get back in line with what it means to be an American? To be a Christian? To be a follower of Jesus?

          Do any of you remember the old movie, City Slickers? It doesn’t seem to be old, but the movie was released in 1991. It starred Billy Crystal who, with a group of his friends from the city, decide to go out west for a few weeks to help round up cattle. In one scene, Crystal is riding on a horse beside Curly, an old fashion cowboy who could have been the Marlboro Man. When Crystals asks about his secret to being content in life, Curly points his index finger and says it’s this. Crystal is confused and asks, “You’re finger?” Curly shakes his head and replies it’s just one thing. Of course, Curly isn’t able to tell Crystal what’s his one thing is, that’s for him to find out. This “one thing” is now known as Curly’s law.[4]

 

I suggest that the one thing Jesus points out to Martha was himself. Serving others is good, doing a good deed such as feeding visitors is commendable, but there is a deeper human need and if we don’t ground ourselves there, we burn out. As humans, we have a need to connect with others and as a Christian, our need includes a connection to Jesus.  How do we go about this? Let’s see what our text says.

Our morning text comes on the heels of the Good Samaritan.[5] In that encounter, Jesus tells a teacher of the law, who was having a hard time understanding what Jesus was saying, a story. The message: be like the Good Samaritan, and “go and do likewise.” As with our Old Testament story, we get the idea that we’re to be about serving others. Now Jesus encounters a woman, Martha, who is so busy serving others that she can’t understand Jesus’ teachings. Jesus offers her an example, her sister. Martha needs to “sit down, listen and learn.”[6] Are we to be about serving? Or listening? Or both?

         Jesus isn’t telling Martha to be inhospitable. Hospitality is an important trait of Christians. We are told in the book of Hebrews: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for in doing so some have entertained angels without even knowing it.”[7] We are supposed to welcome the stranger, after all we have the example of the Good Samaritan. In his parable on the last judgment, Jesus tells us that we will be judged by how we react and treat those who are poor, hungry, naked, sick, or in prison.[8] Hospitality is important; it’s imperative for us Christians to be courteous and gracious, warm and generous. But it’s not the only thing.

Let’s look at the story. Jesus is traveling and stops at Martha’s home. This passage shows us a radical side of Jesus. Ignoring all the common customs of the first century, Jesus stops in the home of a woman, who is there with her sister, and even offers the women an opportunity to sit at his feet as a disciple and listen to his teachings… This would have been a scandal in the first century. Mary takes Jesus up on his offer. She sits down and listens to what he has to say. Martha, as the host, has work to do. We can assume she’s preparing some kind of fancy dinner… As the afternoon progresses, Mary became more and more intent on listening to the saving words of Jesus while Martha became more and more disturbed that she had to make all the dinner preparations.

         Finally, Martha has enough. Here, she is fixing a nice sit-down dinner, and while she’s working, her sister enjoys Jesus’ company. Perhaps, Martha’s a little envious… She tries to get Jesus on her side by appealing to his compassion.  “Lord, doesn’t it bother you that I’ve had to do all the work?” she asks. Reading between the lines, we get the idea she really wants to say, “Tell Ms. Couch Potato to get in here and help…” Do you sense the contempt is rising in Martha?

Jesus is moved by Martha’s plea. He responds, repeating her name twice. I imagine he speaks softly, slowly and tenderly, “Martha, Martha.” With the right inflection, it would be like saying, “Calm down, Martha, its okay.” Then he goes on, telling her she’s worried and distracted about so many things when there was need of only one thing… Remember Curly, riding high in the saddle, and saying there’s just one thing.

There’s some question about what Jesus meant when he said that there’s only need of one thing…  Is he talking about the meal? “Martha, forget the turkey and ham, the dressing and trimmings, the potatoes and beans; just fix a simple casserole or a sandwich, that’s all we need.” Or is Jesus referring to himself here.  After all, he is “the way, the truth and the life.”[9] He is all we need. And, as Jesus quoted the Old Testament to the Devil earlier in Luke’s gospel, “We don’t live by bread alone.”[10] “Martha,” he may have continued saying, “forget the dinner, you only need me, you only need to learn about my peace…”

Actually, both interpretations may be right. This is not an either/or situation. It’s a both/and situation. Certainly Jesus never denied the importance of eating… He feeds the 5000 and centers our remembrance of him at a meal around a dinner table we call communion.[11] It’s important for Mary and Martha and Jesus to eat. Jesus never denies this. Yet, he is concerned over Martha’s fretting over how long the turkey has to cook. You see, as long as Martha is whipping up potatoes, she’s not able to visit. A simple meal is sufficient. A simple meal would allow them time to talk and enjoy each other’s company. With a simple meal, Martha still could be hospitable and also have a chance to sit at Jesus’ feet and learn.

          Are we like Martha? Do we worry and become distracted over so many things that we are unable to see what’s truly important?  Do we keep our lives so busy that we have no real quality time to spend with friends? (I’m guilty). If so, we just might be missing something important… After all, Martha missed a chance to spend time listening to our Lord’s teachings. Don’t forget about hospitality, but remember that it’s not the only thing.

        You know, this is a busy time here at Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church. The Session has begun working on a strategic plan for the future. A small group of Elders have spent a lot of time on this project. This week, the rest of the Elders will join in the process, and then we’ll be asking for your help and ideas. This is good and needed work, but I encourage us to not be distracted from that which we truly need… Jesus Christ. Without Jesus, what we do will mean nothing. He’s our reason for being, for he calls us together in communion with him. So remember the main thing. Make sure to take time to spend with Jesus, daily. If you do, the rest will fall into place. Amen.

 

©2019

[1] 2 Kings 4:8ff

[2] Grace Dobush, “The U. S. Is the Unhappiest Its Ever Been,” Fortune Magazine (March 20, 1019). See http://fortune.com/2019/03/20/u-s-unhappiest-its-ever-been/

[3] Arthur C. Brooks, Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt (American Enterprise Institute, 2019), 28-29.

[4] See http://rebelzen.com/2008/08/curlys-law-how-a-fictitious-hollywood-cowboy-showed-me-the-meaning-of-life/

[5] Luke 10:25-37.

[6] Fred Craddock, Luke (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 151-152.

[7] Hebrews 13:2

[8] Matthew 25:31-46.

[9] John 14:6

[10] Luke 4:4 (Deuteronomy 8:3)

[11] The Feeding of the 5000 and the Institution of the Lord’s Supper can be found in all four gospels.  5000: Matthew 14:13ff, Mark 5:30ff, Luke 7:10ff and John 6.  Lord’s Supper:  Matthew 26:26ff, Mark 14:22ff, Luke 22:15ff and John 13:21ff.

The Assurance of God

 

Jeff Garrison  
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church 
Psalm 23
March 17, 2019

 

 

Let us pray:

“Where there is darkness, give us light.
Where there is ignorance, give us knowledge.
Where there is knowledge, give us wisdom.
And for those of us that think we have the truth, give us humility.” Amen[1]

 

         We’re looking at the 23rd Psalm today. It’s a prayer of faith not often heard on Sunday mornings; we save it for funerals. Wayne Muller in book, Sabbath, Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest, points this out:

“This is the psalm we sing when people have died. This is the psalm we save for death, because in the world of progress, you do not rest in green pastures, you do not lie beside still waters, there is no time. Never in this life. Only when we get to the promised land.”[2]

Muller’s sarcasm questions why we save the best for last. Good question. God wants us to enjoy “abundant life,” today. This “Busy” series is about embracing God’s gifts now, not just waiting for them to come to us in heaven.

Of course, this Psalm also provides us with “poignant words of trust” to say at the time of death.[3] As Paul reminds us, death is the last of our enemies to be destroyed.[4] So the Psalm gives us comfort at a time of grief, but the words only ring true if we have trusted and experienced God’s intervention in our lives. So, this morning, ask yourself what this Psalm say to you? Let’s listen carefully for a fresh understanding.  Read Psalm 23.

        The Northeast Cape Fear River broadens and deepens as it flows through Holly Shelter Swamp. In this area, on a high bluff on the east bank of the river was my scout troop’s favorite camping site. The ridge was forested with tall long-leaf pines. Lining the banks along the river were dogwoods, tupelo and cypress, their branches adorned with Spanish moss. The leisurely pace of the river invited us boys to sit on its banks and throw sticks into the water, watching them slowly float away. It’s the type of life Mark Twain wrote about on the Mississippi, a life of ease beside peaceful waters that seem to hold some mysterious power to heal, to forget our troubles, and to be renewed.

         In the late afternoon, things would change. As the sun dropped in the west behind trees, it created long shadows on the black waters. An eeriness descended. Spanish moss now appeared as the long beards of men whose mysterious and untimely death occurred in the backwaters of Holly Shelter Swamp. We had been warned.

Every Saturday around a campfire, we listened our scoutmaster, Johnny Rogena, tell us another story about a man who lost his hand in an accident in an old saw mill that stood nearby. This hand took on an evil life of its own, and had been terrorizing the swamp ever since.

Such tales were frightening, especially for an 11 year old boy. As the fire died down, we were sent back to our tents. We stayed together. When a bobcat squealed, we jumped. But soon, we were in our tents and hunkered down in our sleeping bags—the only safe place. These were convenient stories to tell young scouts for it encouraged us to stay in our tents. Sometimes at night we’d see the shadow of the hand stretch across the canvas of the tent, an effect caused by older scouts using a flashlight to project the larger than life reflection. A year or two later, when we were the older, we showed “the hand” to scare the new Tenderfoots. On those first few camping trips, we were scared and afraid to move. It took forever to fall asleep. That night, we knew what it felt like to be in the valley of death. In the morning we’d wake up and feel blessed to have made it through the night. As another Psalm reminds us, “Joy comes in the morning.”[5] We experienced such joy!

         Yea through I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” This most beloved psalm, as I pointed out, is ubiquitously used at funerals and mostly overlooked on Sunday mornings. This is unfortunate for the psalm tells us about a life lived well—a life lived in complete trust of God the Father.

         Psalm 23 is attributed to King David and it certainly brings to mind key elements of his early life. As a young shepherd, he knew what it meant to lead sheep through dangerous mountainous terrain. As a mere boy, he was willing to face the giant Goliath on the battlefield. As a young man, he was being chased by the armies of King Saul, who knew he was God’s anointed. And even as an old man with many enemies, he knew the pain of having his own son attempting to take his throne. Of course, we know David had many short-comings, but he made up for them by putting his faith in God’s hands. David was a man, the scriptures tell us, after the very heart of God.[6] We can imagine David, who trusted God even when he screwed things up penning these words.

          The opening verse captures the essence of the Psalm. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” The Psalm begins with a powerful metaphor of God as a shepherd. Of course, God is more than just a shepherd, which was a lowly occupation in ancient Israel. God is the Creator, the judge, the warrior, the righteous one, the ancient one. All these images remind us that God is greater than just a mere tender of sheep, but like a shepherd who is devoted to his sheep, God is devoted to his people, which makes the shepherd image the perfect depiction of our relationship with God the Creator.

That opening verse ends with this statement: “I shall not want.” It can also be translated, “I don’t need anything” or “I lack nothing.” The rest of the Psalm expands upon what the Psalmist is not lacking. The Psalmist enjoys rest, refreshing water, wholeness, protection, comfort, and an abundance of food and oil.[7] This Psalm speaks to those of us who have experienced salvation, who’d heard God (or an Angel from God) say, “Fear not, I am with you,” or “Fear not, favored one.”[8] When we know that God is with us, we can be comforted despite the challenges we face, whether a made-up hand roaming the swamps of Holly Shelter, or the real challenges we face: illness, abandonment, aging, financial ruin, being falsely accused, among others. We can face these trials because we know that even though everyone may abandon us—friends, allies, and family—we also know that God will never abandon us. God is with us through thick and thin. That’s a promise to hold tight!

        There are two great images at the end of this Psalm. First, there is a table set in the presence of our enemies. Royal banquets are often used in scripture to point to an eschatological future, the promised heavenly banquet where Jesus is at the head of the table and serves us. Perhaps the presence of our enemies is an invitation for them, too, to come to the table. They, too, have been created by a God who delights in bringing about reconciliation and encourages us to seek out peace with our enemies.

          The second image is the cup running over. Back in the 70s and 80s, Brim decaffeinated coffee had a series of advertisements about filling our coffee cups to the rim. We don’t serve Brim in the fellowship hall. The ad world is a perfect one and no one that I remember in those commercials spilled coffee on the rug, even when the cup couldn’t contain another drop. But here, in Psalm 23, we’re promised something even greater that being filled to the rim. Our cup overflows! This is a promise of abundance.

God’s goodness is the foundation for this Psalm. Just as a shepherd wants what is best for his sheep, God wants what is best for his people. God can be trusted. Yes, there are times we may suffer. Sometimes, as when I was a Tenderfoot Scout, our fears are irrational. At other times, our fears are very real. There are people who want us to fail, thinking that it would make them look better or at least make it easier for them to succeed. There are illnesses that can take our lives. There are dangers and temptations faced by those we love. But even when we face such real fears, we can place our trust in God’s unfailing love.

   When things are looking down, when life is busy and we can’t seem to get a break, we can go to this Psalm and be reminded that we are not alone. God’s goodness abounds. God’s goodness will overflow in our hearts and lives, giving us a new perspective on the challenges we face. Amen.

 

 

©2019

[1] Prayer by Rev. Ray Nott, given at the New Wilmington Missionary Conference in 1971. Marcia Bell shared this prayer with me. See note at bottom of:  http://skidawaypres.org/pastor/?p=1575

[2] Wayne Muller, Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest (New York: Bantam, 1999), 79.

[3] James L. Mays, Psalms: Interpretation, A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1994), 119.

[4] 1 Corinthians 15:26.

[5] Psalm 30:5.

[6] 1 Samuel 13:14.

[7] See Mays, 117-118.

[8] Genesis 15:1, 26:24; Deuteronomy 20:1, 31:8: Isaiah 41:10, 41:13, 43:5; Matthew 1:20; Luke 1:30, 2:10.

The Right Tempo

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
March 10, 2019
Matthew 11:28-30

 

Jig Pendleton is crazy on religion. He’s a character in Nathan Coulter, a Wendell Berry’s novel. Jig lives alone in a shanty overlooking the Kentucky River. Like some of the original disciples, he makes a meager living fishing. When not fishing, Jig spends his days holed up in his shanty reading his Bible. Over and over again, from cover to cover, he reads the Good Book. He knows it by heart, yet he’s consumed worrying about sin. You see, Jig believes if he can just purify himself enough the Lord will dispatch a chariot of fire, and like Elijah, take him up to heaven.[1] But there’s a problem. Jig can’t quite purify himself enough. It’s too great of a task. Sooner or later, he always throws in the towel and goes on a big drunk. Then, he starts his quest all over again.[2]

You know, when it comes to religion, we often think it’s about being good, or good enough. We think we need to be like Jig in one of his purifying stages. We see religion as hard work which is why many people don’t want to be bothered with it.  We forget about the joy of salvation.[3] I wonder if at times we spend way too much time on the Great Commission found at the end of Matthew’s gospel,[4] where Jesus tells his followers to go out and make disciples of all people. The operative verbs here are “go” and “make.” We see religion as making something, either out of ourselves or someone else. We’re caught in the trap of thinking the way to heaven is by hard and difficult work. We forget that long before the Great Commission, Jesus issued the Great Invitation.[5]  Instead of inviting us to labor, Jesus first invites us to come to him and take a load off our backs—to take a break—to catch our breath—to find the right tempo. 

The Christian faith isn’t supposed to be hard; it’s supposed to be joyous. Life is hard when we try to do everything by ourselves which is why Jesus calls us, “Come to me, all you who are weary.”

 

Are you weary? (What a question to ask at time change?) Who among us isn’t a bit weary? Who among us isn’t a bit heavily burdened? In this passage, Jesus addresses a crowd of people desperate for someone to come and lift their spirits. I envision Jesus looking into the faces of weary men and women tired from the legalism of first century religion. He observes the fatigued bodies of hard working men at dead end jobs, who are sick of paying the heavy taxes imposed by the Roman rulers. He sees the broken hearts of the women who deal, day in and out, with squalling children and distant husbands. He sees the sad eyes of children without a future. Like us, who among this group isn’t a bit weary? Who isn’t carrying a heavy burden? It’s refreshing to hear Jesus say “Come to me.”

You know, Jesus doesn’t bring an end to all their problems.  When those who had gathered around him woke up the next morning, many things had not changed. The men still have to go to work and the women have to take care of the children and prepare the family’s food. They still have letters from Roman IRS agents calling them in for audits and creditors banging on their doors. They still have squalling kids and screaming bosses. So just what does Jesus offer when he invites the crowd to come to him? What are we offered in this passage?

It’s easy to think that Jesus’ promise in this passage refers to our eternal rest, but that would also be very disappointing and not at all what I think he’s talking about. The primary concern for the Christian faith (along with the Jewish, as Jesus was talking to Jewish folks) isn’t our reward in the next world. Yes, the promise of eternal life is real, but when it becomes our sole focus, we prove Karl Marx right in his classic cliché that “religion is the opiate of the masses.” If we focus only on an eternal rest, then religion easily becomes a force to keep us in line and what fun is that? A state sponsored religion might be about social control; but a faith grounded in Jesus Christ is about freedom and transformation. The goal of the Christian faith isn’t to maintain status quo in individual lives or within a society. Instead, the Christian faith promises abundant life.[6]

So when Jesus says, “come to me all who are weary, and I’ll give you rest,” he’s talking about something that happens in the present. He’s promising us a new outlook on life—with him at our side. Instead of a life preoccupied with the pressures which surrounds us, he wants us to live a life thankful for what we’ve been given. We’re called to a new tempo, one that he sets, which is freer than the hectic world around us. Instead of a faith that worries if we are good enough for God, he offers a faith that gives thanks for God’s goodness. God’s goodness is what’s important, because we ourselves will never be good enough. We need to accept and be thankful that God loved us first. Our faith starts with God calling us, not the other way around and the first thing about caring for ourselves is to understand this distinction.

So Jesus invites us saying, “Come to me; take my yoke.”  He’s not talking about a single yoke, one that he gives us and we wear around so that we might haul a heavy load.  Instead, I think he offers a double yoke, one that he helps share the load. One in which we are able to watch him and learn how to live graciously, to appreciate beauty and to give thanks for the blessings of life. Our translation tells us Jesus’ yoke is easy, but it could also be translated as kind[7], or “easy to carry.”[8] Sure, we’re created by God for work, but we achieve more when the yoke is comfortable, just like an ox or a mule can pull longer if it has a well-fitted yoke. Since few of us have had any dealings with yokes, let me use another example.

My first real experience at backpacking occurred when I was in my first year of college. My uncle, who is a few years older than me, had just gotten out of the Navy and was also attending college. We decided to hike a new trail that ran along the crest of the Uwharrie Mountains in central North Carolina. It was 30-some miles long, not too long. I had a pack, “The Kilimanjaro,” one of the best packs K-mart sold. With a name like “The Kilimanjaro,” it sounds as if was a serious pack. We made the trek right after New Year’s, since we had a week before school resumed. With food and gear and plenty of warm clothes, we set out.

Unlike the other photos, this wasn’t in my sermon slides. Instead, I showed the backpack.

Halfway through that first day, I was in trouble. My shoulder straps were digging into my shoulders. The padding didn’t hold up. Instead of the straps displacing the weight over their width, they buckled and pulled right in the middle, making it feel as if I had a rope sawing into my shoulders. Compounding the problem was the lack of a waist band, without which I had no way to relieve the weight on my shoulders. I ended up improvising a waist band with some rope, which helped a little. By our first night, we were both hurting.  Yet, we continued. When I got back home, I started saving money and before I tried anything else like that, I purchased a brand new Kelty pack. It didn’t have a fancy name like my other pack. It was the D-4 model, a staple of Kelty’s packs for years!  I still have it. I threw that Kilimanjaro pack away a long time ago. With the D-4, I’ve done the entire length of both the Appalachian and John Muir Trails. I can assure you, a waistband and well-built, nice fitting shoulder straps make all the difference in the world. Had I continued hiking with the Kilimanjaro, I’d given up on the sport like my uncle did. Either that or I’d be crippled by now. We need an easy yoke if we’re going to accomplish what God plans for us.

Jesus calls us to come and learn from him how to enjoy life. He calls us to relearn our priorities, to set the right tempo.  Instead of having to work hard to earn God’s grace, we accept it and thereby joyously labor not for God’s grace but to praise God for having been so good to us. We don’t have to be so rushed, because we know God is in control. We don’t have to do it all, for we trust in God’s providence. We don’t have to pretend to be God. Let that burden go!

Jig Pendleton had it all wrong. Religion isn’t about working hard; it’s about looking around and gratefully receiving all we’ve been given. It’s about accepting our position in creation and giving thanks.

Take care of yourself. Reorient your life to a new perspective, one with Jesus, as the face of God[9], at the center. Drop the guilt and long faces, slip on that easy yoke, and (most of all) enjoy the journey. Amen.

 

©2019

[1] 2 Kings 2:9-12.

[2] Wendell Berry, Nathan Coulter (New York, North Point Press, 1960, 1985), 15-16.

[3] Psalm 51:12.

[4] Matthew 28:16-20.

[5] Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, John Knox Press, 1993), 126.

[6] John 10:10.

[7] Hare, 129.

[8] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 540.

[9] Bruner, 537.