Love God, Love Neighbor

Below is a copy and recording to my sermon for today (the recording was made on Friday, October 23, at Mayberry Church, so it might not be exactly the same as the text). The text is found below the .embedded video.

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
October 25, 2020
Matthew 22:15-40

At the Beginning of the Service: This morning we’re going to again dig into Matthew’s gospel. I’ll stay with Matthew for the next several weeks. 

The 22nd. Chapter, from which I preached last week and will again look at this week, along with the 23rd Chapter, are a block of teachings that marks the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry. In these two chapters, Jesus teaches the crowds during his last week in Jerusalem. But at the end of this teaching, Jesus leaves the temple with his disciples. From that point on, the teaching Jesus did that’s recorded in Matthew’s gospel was done privately with the disciples. 

Matthew begins Jesus’ ministry, after the baptism, with 40 days of fasting that ends with three temptations by the devil in the wilderness. Jesus’ ministry ends with three questions asked by those who would also attempt to trick Jesus.[1] But Jesus didn’t fall for the temptation or for the trick questions as he constantly focused on God in heaven. 

Our text today ends with Jesus’ double love commandment: love God and love your neighbor. I encourage you to spend some time this week thinking about how the double love commandment might help us, as Christians, heal the world.

After the Scripture Reading: Before I get too far into the sermon, let me make it clear that I’m not a big fan of professional wrestling. I don’t like the hype, the bragging, the fakery, or much of anything else about it. However, I admit, it can be entertaining and there have been a few times that I’ve gotten sucked in and found it humorous. 

Don’t you like how they set up the characters on the mat. One fighter represents good and the other evil, a symbolic Armageddon. It’s also interesting how they do tag team wrestling, where one guy who is getting pounded can, before he’s down, reach out and tag another dude who takes over the fight.  

Jesus might have felt he was a team of one against a group of tag-team wrestlers. First in the ring are the Herodians and the Pharisees.[2] Politics, it’s said, makes strange bedfellows and that’s the case here. These two groups wouldn’t normally speak to each other, but they come together against Jesus, asking him about paying taxes.[3] Jesus’ answer, give to Emperor what is the Emperors, stumps them. They run out of the ring and tag the Sadducees who step up and ask Jesus a trick question about marriage in the afterlife. This is ironic, as the text points out, since the Sadducees don’t believe in an afterlife.[4] In the Greek, Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees was to “muzzle” them,[5] which is a little stronger than the English translations that read, “He silenced them.” Think of muzzling a dog! Sounds like a pro-wrestling stunt, doesn’t it?  

         As I said earlier, our reading somewhat parallels the fourth chapter of the gospel, where Jesus is tempted in the wilderness. In the fourth chapter, Jesus answers the temper’s challenges with three God-centered responses. Here, Jesus also answers those who question and test him three times with God-centered responses. First, with the question from the Herodians and Pharisees concerning the paying of taxes, Jesus approves paying taxes, but since, as the Jews would have known, God owns everything,[6] he shrewdly makes the case that all belongs to God. Then, in a question over the resurrection, Jesus reminds us that God has power over even death. 

Finally, Pharisee climb back into the ring for one final challenge, a question about the law. Which commandment is the greatest? It’s a trick question. 

         Jesus doesn’t directly answer the question. There’s good reason. Had Jesus picked one of the Ten Commandments, he’d be stepping into their trap, for the commandments are equal. They’re all important; you can’t grade yourself by looking at the Ten and thinking that because you’ve kept seven, you’ll get a passing grade of 70. That doesn’t work. Jesus knew what they were getting at, so he answers in a way that goes to sum of the commandments, by drawing from Scripture two teachings that other teachers had seen as foundational.[7]  

         Yoking together the love of God and of neighbor summarizes our purpose as members of the human race. As the Westminster Catechism so beautifully begins, we’re to glorify and enjoy God forever. We do this by loving God and our neighbors (and we can’t forget, as Jesus teaches, that our neighbors are not just those who live next door. Remember the Good Samaritan?[8]). As humans, we are made to love. 

Too often we think of love in the context of affection. We think of love as an emotional rush we get when we are attracted to another. That’s not the meaning of Biblical love. Yes, we can be emotional when we think of all that God has done for us, but the passage Jesus quotes on loving God with all our hearts and souls and minds doesn’t mean that we have to be all mushy about who God is. Instead, what is demanded is commitment—emotionally and intellectually—to God. Likewise, it’s pretty hard for us to show affection to everyone (and probably pretty dangerous). If we tried to show such affection, we’d have a difficult time with at least two of the commandments: the seventh and tenth, adultery and coveting. We’re not called to the affectionate love of neighbors. Instead, we’re called to be committed to the well-being of our neighbors (and we can’t forget Jesus’ reminder that our neighbors include our enemies[9]). 

         By tying together our heart, soul and mind, Jesus implies that our love for God has to be total. It’s not enough to be emotionally in love with God, nor is it enough to be intellectually in love with God. We got to have both! We need to be holistic and love with the entirety of our being.  

         Dr. Robert Smith, Jr., a preaching professor at Beeson Divinity School tells about how he sometimes finds himself preaching to “beheaded people.” They’ve lost their heads; they’re only engaging God with their hearts, he says. They come to worship wanting the equivalent of a therapy session.” In other congregations, and sometimes in the same church, he finds himself preaching to “big-headed people.” They’re into scholarship and all they want is to have the gray matter in their minds massaged.[10]

Both groups, Smith points out, miss the richness of the gospel. We’re to love God with all our hearts and souls and minds. Our love for God is to be holistic and we’re to be led out from it, not only feeling good about our neighbors but to take their needs seriously and working for their well-being.  

         There are times I think my calling is the best job in the world. I know John Calvin suggested that the magistrate, whom we call politicians, had the highest calling. I had to bring in Calvin as today is Reformation Sunday.[11] Of course, Calvin was writing back in the 16th Century. I’m not sure he’d approve of any of our politicians today. 

Maybe I’m running the risk of pride to think so highly of the call of the pastor, but the pastor/preacher gets to spend time with people and also time with ideas.  To do it well (and I know there are times I don’t do it well), one has to balance these two sides—the emotional side with the intellectual. Otherwise, we go off into a philosophical head game or into sentimentalism. There has to be a balance.  

         Jesus’ double-love commandment has the power to heal the church and from the world. Too often, Christians get stuck on one side or the other of the equation. We love God so much and we get down on those who don’t praise God like we do. We think there must be something wrong with those people. And then, there are those on the other side, who feel so committed to looking out for their neighbors that they forget about God. What Jesus says here is that you can’t have it one way or another, it’s not either/or, it’s both/and.  

         Let me say something about the last half of Jesus’ response. We’re to love our neighbors asourselves. The word “as” is important. Jesus is not giving us a new commandment here, instead he’s reflecting back on the Golden Rule.[12] How should we treat others? As we want to be treated! How should we love others? As we love ourselves, or as we want others to love us?  

         How should we apply the double-love commandment? Consider your lives. Are you more emotional? If so, you might be the type of person who enjoys mission work, or helping out a neighbor, or taking food to someone ill. If so, keep doing that! But you also might want to look at balancing such activities with some intellectual exercises, a commitment to read Scripture or to join a Sunday School class or to read a theology book. 

On the other hand, if God is an intellectual exercise for you, then you might need to get in touch with your emotional side. Join in a work party or volunteer to help a neighbor, visit those who are struggling with life. 

As a follower of Jesus, we should strive for a balanced life. Not only do we fulfill Jesus’ call, it keeps us from burning out.

This morning, ask yourself, “Does my whole being glorify God?” If not, what might you do to balance your faith? 

Living a balanced life will be helpful to us, and also to the world. If we love God and neighbor, we just might change the world a little bit for the better. 

Let all of us commit ourselves by saying together: “May the love of God and the love of our neighbors begin with me.” Amen. 

c2020   

[1] Scott Hoezee, “Back to the Beginning” https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-25a-2/?type=the_lectionary_gospel

[2] Not much is known about the Herodians, but it’s obvious they are supporters of the Herod dynasty that ruled much of ancient Israel and Syria on behalf of the Romans. The Herod clan, who were part Jewish, tried to stay on the good side of both the Jews and the Romans. However, most Jews disliked them because of their ties to the Romans. 

[3] Matthew 22:15-22.

[4] Matthew 23-33

[5]  Frederick Dale Bruner, The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 410.

[6] Psalm 24:1.

[7] Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew: Interpretation, a commentary for teaching and preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), 259.  Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. 

[8] Luke 10:25-37.

[9] See Luke 10:21ff and Matthew 5:43-47.

[10] Robert Smith, Jr., Doctrine that Dances: Bringing Doctrinal Preaching and Teaching to Life (Nashville: B&H, 2008), 51.

[11] Reformation Sunday is traditionally the Sunday before Reformation Day (October 31). Reformation day, the day before All Saint’s Day, is when Martin Luther nailed the 95 Thesis on the door of the church in Wittenberg and is considered the beginning of the Reformation. 

[12] Matthew 7:12

The Wedding Banquet

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
October 18, 2020
Matthew 22:1-14

Click above to watch me deliver the sermon live (on Saturday)

Introduction at the beginning of worship:

          Our text for today’s service is about an invitation to a wedding banquet. Even though this is an allegorical wedding feast, the gospels are full of parties which should remind us that God wants us to have a good time in life. This parable shows that God wants to invite everyone, the more the merrier, as the passage foretells the church’s role in reaching out to the Gentiles.[1] But there’s also a warning. When we respond to the invitation, we should prepare ourselves to be in the presence of the King of Kings. Today, think about how you will prepare yourself for such an invitation.

After the Scripture Reading:

Anxiety dreams, those where we find ourselves somewhere unprepared, are common.

I my case, it’s Sunday morning. I’m not ready to preach. I don’t even realize it’s Sunday. I wake up and leisurely go about my business, wearing shorts and a sweatshirt, causally drinking coffee when panic strikes. It’s ten minutes before church. I haven’t written a sermon. I scramble to get dress as I make a note or two about what I can say from the pulpit, then jump into the car and race to church. I pull in just in time only to realize, as I open the car door that I forgot something, like my pants. It’s at that point I wake up sweating and realize it’s not Sunday. Or if it is, it’s 4 AM and I’ve already written my sermon.

There are variations to this dream. Sometimes I lost my sermon, or I thought someone else was preaching so I hadn’t prepared or, maybe instead of no pants, I’m wearing jeans with holes in the knees.

A psychologist might interpret such dreams as an indication of some buried fear of inadequacy, which is a fear of which many people suffer. We go around life trying to look good, to hide our flaws, and afraid that if other people see who we really are, they’ll not like us. As adults, we dream about being unprepared on the job. When we were younger, it might have been being unprepared for a test at school.

A similar dream is based on the fear being socially stigmatized, such as not being invited to a party. This is not a new fear. People feared being embarrassed even in Jesus’ day, which is why Jesus tells us in Luke’s gospel that if we’re invited at a party, we should sit in the back. If we sit up front, we might be embarrassed when a more honored guest claims our seat.[2]

One might also dream about being at a party unprepared. You wear a tux when it’s a costume party or you come dressed in jeans and everyone else is wearing a tux. Or perhaps you bring a gag gift not realizing it’s a wedding shower. Get the picture?

We can all image, I expect, the nightmare of the guest who came to the banquet in our text without a wedding robe. When the King, who represents God, asks where’s his robe, the guy’s speechless. He has no defense and knows it. This is no ordinary party; he’s not just booted out on the sidewalk but assigned to a horrific eternal fate.

The message of the parable is harsh but clear. We’re all invited to a banquet. God graciously extends the invitation, but we must come prepared to be in the presence of the King. 

Dirty torn clothes won’t cut it. That’s a joke. Our preparation has nothing to do with clothes. This parable is an allegory. It’s not about an actually wedding banquet, although weddings are a common image in scripture for the fulfillment of the kingdom. Read the ending of the book of Revelation. History concludes with a wedding, uniting a renewed heaven and earth.[3]

The robe represents something other than actual clothes. The prophet Isaiah sings a song of deliverance proclaiming what God has done. Isaiah provides us with another insight into the meaning of such clothing. Listen to this verse:

My soul shall be joyful in my God;

For He has clothed me with the garments of salvation

He has covered me with the robe of righteousness

As a bridegroom decks himself in ornaments,

And as a bride adorns herself with jewels.[4]

          Catch that? The robe represents righteousness. The parable points out the need for us not only to attend the wedding banquet, but for us to respond with a changed life. To honor the king who invites us to the banquet, we clothed ourselves, or more correctly we allow the King’s son, Jesus Christ, to clothed, us with a robe of righteousness.[5]

          This passage supports the ethical tradition of the Reformed faith.[6] We, who are unworthy, are called by God through Jesus Christ, to come to the banquet, to establish our relationship with our Creator, a relationship that we have broken by sin. Yet, despite that, God graciously calls us when he could just as easily abandon us. God lovingly calls us, sending his Son, so that we not only hear the call but will respond with grateful hearts of thanksgiving.

Our lives as Christians should be balanced between the justification God freely grants and our response. God’s love drives us to sanctify ourselves, to strive for godliness.

The unfortunate man without a robe represents one who hears God’s call—for he came to the banquet—but who didn’t prepare himself to be in the presence of the King.  

          Jesus ends the parable with a proverb: “Many are called but few are chosen.” Jesus often has a way to throw in a curve at the end of his stories. We’re left scratching our head and having to live in faith.

This proverb is problematic and could, if not understood in context, drive us to despair. It also doesn’t seem to go to with the parable, which only speaks of one not being chosen at the banquet. That poor dude doesn’t make a multitude. Instead, he seems to be a clueless guest who made a major faux pas for which we are left to wonder why he’s not forgiven. His blunder and this closing parable evoke a certain amount of terror. If this guy can screw up, then what is going to keep you and me from making a mistake?

          “It’s a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” asserts the author of Hebrews.[7] But what choice do we have? When Jesus asked the disciples if they, like the masses, want to abandon him, they responded, “Where can we go? Only you have the words of eternal life.”[8]

We have no choice but to live within the tension of the parable. The king is inviting us to the banquet. God is graciously calling us to his kingdom. That by itself should make us thankful and open to responding. But we’re left with the question, how should we get ready?[9]

          We should understand that salvation is not just forgiveness. It’s also about renewal. To put this into theological terms, we’re justified and sanctified.[10] That latter step, the sanctification part, requires action on our behalf.

This is the tension that exists between grace and the law—between what God does for us and that which we do in response to God’s love. We can’t do without either one, grace or law. However, we often over-emphasize one or the other. Instead, we’re to respond to God’s grace by striving to live by his law.

The intention of this parable isn’t to drive us to despair as we worry if we’re appropriately dressed, but to encourage us to be ready and to give our best to a God who invites us to the banquet. We’re summoned before God. The king has invited us; we need to respond in faith by striving to live godly lives.

          You know, those dreams in which we  wake up in sweat, worried about not being prepared? They probably help us be better prepared (like a Boy Scout, “Be Prepared”).

Likewise, this passage which not only has good news, but a terrible warning is a reminder of us to be ready. Yes, God wants us to enjoy the festivities, but we also have responsibilities and obligations. We’re to be God’s light in the world.[11]

Think about Jesus’ life, he enjoyed many dinner parties. And now we’re being called to the party that will top all parties. But first, as my mom used to say before calling us to dinner, “Wash up!” Amen.

©2020 Jeff Garrison


[1] Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew: Interpretation Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), 244-251.

[2] Luke 14:7-11.

[3] Revelation 21:2.,

[4] Isaiah 61:10, NKJV.

[5] Matthew’s idea of a wedding garment is an active attempt for us to live by the law (as compared to Paul’s idea that righteousness being imputed and based on our faith).  Martin Luther suggests the wedding garment could also mean faith and many who come to the banquet (Judgement day) will lack faith. John Calvin (along with Augustine), suggested that there was no need to debate whether the garments are faith or righteous works as the two can’t be separated. There was also a rabbinical parable from this era in which the wedding garments were seen as “charity,” which implies a more active role in our preparations. See Frederick Dale Bruner, The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 390.

[6] The Reformed faith (or tradition) refers to the theology of the Presbyterian Church. Presbyterians are not the only ones who are “Reformed.” Presbyterians, historically, came from Scotland and Ireland. The “Reformed Churches” (our cousins) mostly came from the European continent. Others also may hold to a Reformed faith, including some Baptists and Anglican/Episcopal. The Reformed Faith draws from the teachings of Swiss Reformers (Zwingli, Calvin, Bullinger, etc), and places a strong emphasis on the sovereignty of God, the reality of sin, and our need for a Savior. 

[7] Hebrews 10:31.

[8] John 6:68.

[9] See Barbara Brown Taylor, “Tales of Terror, Times of Wonder,” The Other Side (March-April 2000).

[10] John H. Leith, Introduction to the Reformed Tradition (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981), 79.

[11] Matthew 5:14.

Restoration of a Sinner

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
September 6, 2020
Matthew 18:15-20

Click this link to watch the service which begins at the 6 minutes into the table. The sermon starts at 18:20 minutes into the service. 

Also, it seems I wasn’t the only one to come down hard on gossip this week. Even the Pope joined the chorus in his Sunday address. Click here for the AP article.

At the Beginning of Worship:

             Technology has brought a lot of changes to our world, good and bad. On the positive side, it allows us to continue holding worship services during a pandemic, something that wasn’t available during the 1918 pandemic. But it also means everything is now more public, out in the open. Even things we might have hoped to do privately gets posted across social media for the world to see.

The downside of technology includes social media being filled with folks ready to attack anyone who might not agree with them. We’ve always had such people, but they used to easy to avoid. It’s amazing how people will attack others publicly, be it their food choices, their politics, or their use of grammar. Those who engaged in this manner think they’re doing something righteous when they blast an opponent. They think they look good and have power.

But is this how a Christian should act? Not according to the Scripture text we’re examining today. In fact, even when someone else is in the wrong, we need to go the extra mile to protect their identity, to show love, and to act with humility.

 

After the Scripture:

             I always admire those folks who can take bucket of rust and, with hard work, restore the car to where it looks like it just rolled off the assembly lane. It takes time, patience, expertise, and a willingness to get one’s hands dirty. But what beauty can come out of such efforts.

Today’s sermon is about restoration. Not of cars, but of people. As Christians, we are not only to be about making ourselves betters, but also others.

Our passage from the 18th Chapter of Matthew speaks of correcting the sins of our brothers and sisters in the faith. Let me warn you, this is an easy passage to abuse. If we’re to be correcting sin, we need to first remember we’re all sinners. Second, we are dishonest if we only correct those sins we find most grievous or only the sins committed by those we dislike, while ignoring the sins of those we like. Remember, Jesus said something about us getting the log out our eyes before removing a speck from someone else’s.[1]

            Pointing out the sins of others is something few of us want to do. That’s probably good. In the book The Peacemaker, which is mostly based on this passage, Ken Sande suggests those eager to go out and correct others are probably not the ones needing to perform such tasks.[2] The person who sets out to correct another needs to be humble and desiring both to restore the other person back into a relationship with Christ as well as to keep the publicity down. We’re not to try to make ourselves look better while making others look bad. That’s not Christ-like.

Like restoring an automobile, restoring relationships is hard work. It requires wisdom, love, gratitude, and humility. Without such gifts, one is liable to make a mess of things, just as having the wrong tools could ruin a car’s restoration. Without humility, we can make a mess of a relationship.

Now look at this passage. It starts with a difficult verse. Verse 15 is generally translated “if your brother sins against you…” The New Revised Standard Version translates it more to the intent of the original when it says if “another member of the church sins against you.” Matthew uses the word brother to imply all who are a part of the Christian fellowship, not just siblings or just men. The question that arises is whether we have the right to go correct others in sin.

If you take this passage as translated, the text implies that you go talk only to those who sin against you. Yet, almost all translations will have a footnote here, informing us that many of the older text omit the “against you.”[3] In such cases, it sounds as if we have a license to go correcting anyone who is in violation of God’s law. Since we’re all sinful at one point or another, the field is ripe for a harvest.

I’m going to do something maybe a little unorthodox and take both positions. If your brother or sister in the faith does something wrong against you, you are supposed to go to him or her. In other words, the harmed or the innocence party is supposed to make the effort to reconcile. Image that! My tendency, and this is probably true for most of us, is to avoid people who harm me, but that’s not what we’re being told here. And the object of the visit is not to beat up the offending party, but to restore them. We can also look at this verse from the angle of church discipline. Taking this verse to read: “If your brother does something wrong, go and have it out with him alone,” as the New Jerusalem Bible translates it, we’re told to confront those whose sins are so bad that they are harming the church of giving God a black eye.

Regardless of whether you think this passage applies only to sins committed personally against you as an individual or to sins in general, we’re not given a license to become intolerant moral police officers. Look at the context of this teaching. Right before here, in verses 10-14, Jesus gives the Parable of the Lost Sheep. The focus there, as in this passage, isn’t confrontation. It’s reconciliation, bringing the lost back into the fold. Then he follows this passage with the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. Remember that passage is about judgment upon those who act harshly and are judgmental toward others. Having these two passages as bookends reminds us that Jesus is primarily interested in restoration of the sinner and that if we’re involved in bringing about such restoration, we’re to be humble and gracious.

We need to ask ourselves if the offense is great enough to risk ruining a relationship. Sometimes, having a little thicker skin will do wonders and further the peace.

If, however, the situation requires action, we’re to go to the other person and confront them face to face; we’re not to be talking about it to others, starting up the gossip mill. Today, thanks to social media, starting a rumor is easier than ever. But before we announce to the world the wrong someone has done, we’re to go talk to them. We’re to listen to what they say, for they may have a different interpretation or understanding.

Listening is important. We might have missed understood. Furthermore, if Jesus were teaching today, I think he’d insist that we listen and gather the facts before we march off into a crusade. As for social media, he would probably suggest that before we share something online, we make sure what we say is supported by facts and are not just emotional responses that demonstrate our own confirmation bias.[4]

After having confronted the person face to face, if they are not willing to work things out or if they are going to continue sinful activities, we’re still not to start gossiping. We’re to maintain confidentiality as we attempt to come to an understanding with two or three others, who are trusted and will also keep confidentiality. In Sande’s book, he recommends that if we’re in a conflict with someone else, we tell them at the end of that first meeting that we’re going to seek the council of others—for if they know they’re in the wrong they may be willing to go ahead and work things out with us.

These two or three witnesses serve two functions.  First, they are observers. Judgment in Scripture always required two witnesses.[5] In this case, they are there to make sure that things are fair. They might listen and think we’re the one that is in the wrong and, in that case, we have to be willing to accept their advice.

After this second visit, if we still don’t resolve the problem, then we can take our complaint back to the church. In keeping with the process, this doesn’t mean that we stand up during joys and concerns and broadcast the complaint to everyone. Instead, we take it to the leadership, to those in charge, and let them be the judge. Only after this intervention fails, does the church have a right to exclude the offending party from the community of faith. Matthew says that then they’ll be like “pagans and tax collectors.”

What are our responsible toward correcting a member of the community who sins, remembering that we all sin? This was debated heatedly during the Reformation. John Calvin, one of the founders of our branch of Christendom, supported Church discipline for three reasons.[6] First, was to honor God. The church should act against those who are in open revolt against God. But Calvin did not suggest we start inquisitions. He never argued for a “pure church” because he believed that was impossible. Church discipline was taken only against those who openly refused to stop and repent of their blasphemous activities. The second aim was to keep the good within the church from being corrupted, and the third aim was to bring the guilty party into repentance.[7] Discipline was always carried out in hopes of restoring the contrite into the fellowship of the church. In other words, discipline was done pastorally out of concern for the accused soul.

When we take these verses out of their setting, they sound harsh. After all, Christ gives those of us in the community the power to banish someone from our midst.[8] He even tells us that decisions we make here have eternal ramifications. But our purpose isn’t to be the enforcer; instead our goal is to restore the sinner. And if we’re going to be convincing, we got to remember that we’re all sinners, which means we better be humble in any endeavor we undertake.[9] We don’t try to correct others as a way to prove our rightness, but out of love and concern. Like restoring a car, it’s hard work. Amen.

©2020

[1] Matthew 7:5.

[2] Ken Sande, The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004).

[3] There is debate over the inclusion of this phrase.  See Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (United Bible Society, 1985), 45 and Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew: Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1992), 213.  Robert Gundry argues for its inclusion in Matthew: A Commentary on his Literary and Theological Art (Grand Rapids: Eerdman, 1982), 367; while Frederick Dale Bruner omits the phrase.  See The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 225.

[4] Confirmation bias is agreeing with something because it “fits” our world view without verification. In other words, we decide something is right because it fits our existing beliefs.

[5] Deuteronomy 19:15.

[6] Although Calvin supported and participated in church discipline, unlike some Reformers such as John Knox, Calvin did not see discipline as one of the marks of a “true church.”  To him the marks of a true church was the proclamation of the gospel and the rightful administration of the sacraments.  For a discussion of Calvin and discipline, see Charles Partee, The Theology of John Calvin (Louisville: W/JKP, 2008), 270-271.

[7] The three purposes of discipline of John Calvin are in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV.12.5..

[8] While this is seen in this passage (Matthew 18:18), it also appears in Matthew 16:19.

[9] Heimlich Bullinger, another reformer and author of the Second Helvetic Confession tempers his talk on discipline with a reminder that Jesus said not to pull the weeds up because you risk pulling up the wheat.  See Presbyterian Church (USA), Book of Confession. 5:165.

It’s All About the Cross

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
August 30, 2020
Matthew 16:21-26

Click here to watch the service. The sermon begins at 18 minutes if you want to fast-forward. 

Beginning of Worship:  I saw a meme the other day. A man at a bar ordered a Corona and two hurricanes. “That’d be 20.20,” the bartender said. It’s not been a good year so far. It seems like we’ve all been carrying a cross over the past eight months. But is this what Jesus means when he says we are to pick up our cross and follow him?

The cross is a symbol we see everywhere. We have several in our sanctuary. We wear it as jewelry. It populates cemeteries and are often placed beside the road where there has been a fatal accident. But what does it means when Jesus tells us to pick up the cross? That’s today’s topic.

This is our second Sunday in the 16th Chapter of Matthew. If you remember, last week, Peter nails it. He confesses Jesus to be the Messiah. Today, he doesn’t look so good. He can’t accept Jesus’ plan involving the cross. Last week, Peter was praised. This week, he’s called Satan. There’s good news here because our lives are similar. We can do good and great things and we can do rotten things. Aren’t you glad there’s grace?

Jesus does something radical and he invites us to follow him, but it’s a costly invitation. Jesus demands our very lives. For those of us who follow Jesus, the cross becomes our sign of God’s power as Paul eloquently states in First Corinthians, but to others it’s foolishness.[1] But as a sign, the cross is not easily understood.

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After the Scripture Reading: What does it mean to pick up our cross and follow Jesus? Maybe a better way to ask this question is what does it mean to be a follower of Jesus Christ?  We have to be careful that we don’t cheapen the bearing of our cross in an attempt to explain our trials. Carrying the cross isn’t just enduring a bad time, like 2020. Picking up our cross and following Christ has life changing implications. We admit we’re not in control. It’s no longer about us and what we want and what we think we need. Instead, it’s all about the man up ahead, the one we are following.

Think about the theology of the cross in light of two seeming contradictions in scripture: Jesus’ call for us to pick up our cross and proclaims that he’s come to set us free.[2]

In Jesus’ day, no one thought of the cross as a sign of freedom.  In fact, a cross was viewed in just the opposite. It was a sign of torture, a reminder of the imperial power of Rome that subjected a huge portion of the population to slavery. In Rome, if a slave rebelled, the cross was the normal method of execution. The cross was a tool the Romans used to cement their control. When Jesus tells the disciples to pick up their cross and follow, they may have had second thoughts.

This particular passage is recounted in all three of the synoptic gospels—which tells us something about the impression it made on the disciples.[3] Yes, we know Peter doesn’t like the idea of Jesus dying, but that was all before Jesus issues this command. None of the gospels give us an idea of how the disciples and the crowd responded to Jesus’ call at this point. Such an omission is a part of the plan, I believe, for it allows us to respond to Jesus’ call in our own ways. This morning, we’re wrestling with what it means to pick up our cross. First, I am going to discuss some mistaken ways this call is interpreted: I’ll label these three as triumphant militarism, naive pacifism, and sentimentalism. Then I will offer ideas on how we are to be a servant of Jesus Christ and faithfully answer his call.

Peter’s idea of picking up the cross falls into my triumphant militaristic category. Remember, he’s the disciple who, at Jesus’ arrest, pulls out a sword and slashes the ear off of one of the men.[4] I imagine Peter, a fisherman whose muscles were well defined from working the nets, as a strong man. At this stage of his Christian walk, he’s a Rambo type character, ready to pull up the cross and use it as a club to pound his foes. Peter and the other disciples are ready for Jesus to set up a worldly kingdom. Peter wants Jesus to be King so he can be an advisor, right next to Jesus’ throne, the second in command.

When Jesus started talking about this suffering stuff, Peter gets nervous and decides he’d better try to steer his leader in a different direction. “Hey Jesus,” Peter remarks, “let’s rethink this part about dying.” But Jesus’ way wins out. The cross is not to be used by us as a weapon, nor does it give us any protection other than being a symbol of what Jesus has done for us.

If triumphant militarism is one extreme rejected by Jesus, so is the other extreme, which I label naive pacifism. I chose the term naive because pacifism for many Christians is an appropriate response. But when the path is naively chosen, we forget that we’re called to resist evil, to deny evil power in the world and instead we become a sacrificial pawn. Just as we should not use the cross as a weapon, it’s not to be used as a white flag of surrender, either. Jesus picked up his cross and carried it to Calvary in order to offer his life for sins you and I have committed.  Jesus died for our sins so that we don’t need to die for them, nor should we be expected to die for the sins of others. But this doesn’t mean there’s not work for us to do.

If we’re not to be militants or pacifists, we might be led to think the proper understanding—the middle way of understanding Jesus’ call—is sentimentalism.  Sadly, this is the way many people look at the cross. We clean up its horrific image and use it as jewelry and decor on our cars.  But such an understanding of the cross—if it goes no deeper—misses the point. It can even become a political statement or a superstition, which is idolatry. If the cross is only seen for its sentimental value—we’ve cheapened Jesus’ call.

I don’t know if I can give an understanding of what picking up one’s cross should mean to us all. Certainly, I think it means more than having a piece of jewelry. For a few people, it may mean martyrdom—as it did for many of the disciples. But Jesus certainly didn’t expect all his followers to be crucified. Secondly, martyrdom is not the highest virtue. Instead of martyr, the virtue we strive for is faithfulness. Yet, we learn from Jesus, if we love our life we will lose it.  Paul expands this thought when he speaks of our need to put to death the desires of the flesh and to live for Christ.[5]

By calling us to pick up our cross, Christ informs us that we’re not in charge of our Christian journey. We must be willing to follow him. Our calling isn’t about our needs or our desires, but about Jesus’ desire for us and for our lives. As Christians, we all have a calling that is linked to our vocations. Since we live our Christian life throughout the week, and we all have different occupations and trades, we each have to determine how we can best be true to our Savior. I can’t give a single definition of what picking up our cross will mean for everyone, just as Matthew didn’t tell us of the disciples response to this call.

As a seminary student, when I was a camp director in Idaho, we had each of the campers carry a live-size cross during a hike. Afterwards, around a campfire, we debriefed. Some told how difficult it was to physically carry the cross—toting the awkward beams and of the splinters. Others spoke about how they were uncomfortable to be out front of the rest of the campers, with everyone following and looking at them. Others had even more difficulty watching their fellow campers struggle. These wanted to show compassion by taking the burden of their friends.

These responses from the campers provide an insight into what the cross means and maybe an idea of how we pick up our crosses. When Jesus took up his cross, he was taking on the burdens of the world. He didn’t take the cross on his own behalf, but on our behalf. It wasn’t someone who lived a comfortable life that brought salvation to the world; it was someone who shared in the suffering of the whole world. We must understand that Jesus’ death on the cross is sufficient for our sins and the sins of the world.[6]

The penalty for sin—death—has been paid in full and none of us is being called to make another deposit—we’re not being called to save the world.[7]  By picking up the cross, Jesus shows his willingness to share in our pains and sorrows.  And he calls us, his disciples, to share in the pain of others. The campers who expressed compassion for the one carrying the cross understood, at least partly, what is means to be indebted to someone for taking on our burdens and for us to be ready to have compassion for others who are in pain. One meaning of picking up our cross is for us to be willing to stand beside others in need—whatever form that need might take. Jesus takes our burdens, he shoulders our cross, and the only way we can have a glimpse of what he feels is to feel the pain and burdens of others. So maybe our crosses have to do with how we show compassion.

I think our vicariously sharing in the pain of others also helps us to understand the proverb Jesus cites at the end of our passage. Jesus reminds us that whoever wants to save their lives will lose them and whoever loses their lives for his sake will find them. This is one of those great reversal statements of Jesus, but notice Jesus doesn’t call us to lose our lives in the lives of others. Rather, he calls us to place himself first in our lives—to put our total trust in him. Our call to discipleship is not to place some other than Jesus first (despite what politicians—many of whom have a messiah-complex, might hope for). Nor is our call to place ourselves first. It’s a call to follow Jesus and put our total trust in him. It means we must obey the first commandment: to have no god other than the one true God.  It means to take seriously the great commandment: to love God—the God revealed in Jesus Christ—with all our hearts and souls and minds and strength.

If we are grounded in our love for God as revealed in Jesus Christ, we will be able to fearlessly pick up our crosses, whatever form it may take, when Jesus calls. This means following Jesus even if it means losing our friends or being alienated from our families. This means following Jesus even though we will be despised. And it means we must be willing to follow Jesus even if lose our lives. We follow Jesus, and only him. Jesus is all that matters. Amen.

©2020

[1] 1 Corinthians 1:18

[2] See John 8:32-36.

[3] Matthew 16”24-28, Mark 8:34-9:1 and Luke 9:23-27. In each of these gospels, this scene is followed by the Transfiguration. Only Mark has the previous story of Peter confessing Jesus to be the Messiah.

[4] John 18:10.

[5] Romans 8:13.

[6] See Hebrews 10:1-18.

[7] 1 Corinthians 15:56.

What is Faith?

JEFF GARRISON
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Matthew 15:21-28
August 16, 2020

To watch the service, click here to go to our Youtube site. To see just the sermon (skipping prelude, announcements, call to worship, first hymn and confession) forward to 15:35. 

Last week, we heard about Jesus saving Peter from drowning after he attempted to walk on water. Afterwards, Jesus referred to Peter as one of little faith. Today, we have Jesus referring to a foreign woman’s great faith. What’s up with this? Let’s see…  Read Matthew 15:21-28

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Let’s go back in time to the First Century, to Tyre, a town on the Mediterranean, a port used by the Phoenicians. Like everything else in this part of the world, the town is now in Roman hands. But the roar of the waves crashing the shore are still the same. The taste of salt in the air is still the same. And on this day, as the heat begins to fade and an afternoon breeze from the ocean rolls in, the market opens. As we enter, our eyes catch the vision of a woman shopping. She has come early, before the crowds, her eyes red from crying, to gather food for her and her daughter. She doesn’t speak.

While examining slabs of bacon at the butcher’s shop, she listens in on the gossip. The butcher, a baker and a fisherman are chatting.

“Did you hear that Jesus, you know, the guy who fed 5,000 people with just a few loaves of bread and a few sardines, is in town?[1] A few more stunts like that and I’ll have to sell out,” the baker jokes.

“I might be with you,” the fisherman nods. “The method he uses to catch fish over on the Galilee will put little guys like me out of business.”[2]

The woman lingers, listening and wondering.

“Isn’t Jesus the guy who sent those demons into a herd of pigs causing them to run off the cliff?” the fisherman asks the butcher. [3]

“Yeah, it’s a shame, all that good pork washed out to sea. The price of ribs haven’t yet recovered! It seems the only trade he’s helped has been the roofers.”[4]

“Where’s he staying?”  The baker asks.

The woman’s interest is raised, she leans over the counter to hear…

“He had a hard time finding a place after that incident in Capernaum where some people cut a hole in the roof of a house in order to get to him,” the butcher replies. “Finally, Mr. Jones rented his old place up on 2nd Street. I couldn’t believe he’d rent it to Jesus. I asked him about it, but old man Jones’ wasn’t too worried. He said the place needs a new roof and maybe, this way, insurance will cover it.

“I think that’s him coming now,” the baker says, pointing to a crowd gathering at the town’s gate.

Overhearing this gossip, the woman’s face lights up. “Jesus,” she says to herself. “I must meet Jesus.” She drops her shopping bag, kicks off her heels and runs, without stopping, toward the crowd. Pushing through the folks, she shouts as if she’s insane: “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David. My daughter is tormented by a demon.” She’s so loud that everyone else stops speaking as she approaches. Even Jesus appears lost for words. The disciples consider her crazy and urges Jesus to send her away. After all, she’s pagan and it would be of no surprise that a pagan’s kid is possessed by a demon. She, too, probably is possessed, they think.[5]

Jesus brushes the woman aside. Pointing to his disciples, he tells her he’s been sent to the lost sheep of Israel. She continues, frantically asking for Jesus’ help. She’s tried everything. Jesus is her last chance for her daughter to be made well. Then her heart sinks, her head drops in shame.

Think about how this woman feels? She’d give her eye teeth to have her daughter freed. When she hears that Jesus is in town, her hopes are raised, only to be crushed. Imagine the pain she felt at this rejection—Jesus being either too busy or too tired to tend to her child. She’s helpless.

Many of us have felt helpless when dealing with our children. It’s a fairly common among parents, because there are often things beyond our control. But it’s even more common among those who are marginalized. Think of immigrant families risking everything to get a child to America, a place of promise, or to get them out of a place like Syria where the violence is terrible. Or consider African American parents who must have “the talk” with their sons. Knowing that you are not being taken seriously because of your ethnic background is something most of us don’t know about, but there are many such people in the world. Such folks are modern day examples of this Canaanite woman—feeling there is no food at the table for them.

This passage, we all know, is not just about disappointments and bad news. God, through Jesus Christ, is doing something incredible. It actually starts at the beginning of the chapter where we learn that food laws aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. “It isn’t what you eat—what’s in your stomach—that defiles you,” Jesus says. “It’s what’s in your heart.” God’s creation is good. Since we are all created by God, there is a possibility for us to all claim a divine inheritance.

The woman, as are most Gentiles who live near Galilee, is used to being called a dog. Humanity has almost always treated “others” within contempt. It was common in 1st Century Palestine for the pious Jews to refer to the Gentiles as dogs. Yet, I still don’t know what to make of this passage. It disappoints me for Jesus to use such language. I’d prefer to have him say, “My dear child,” or something similar. Just don’t call her a dog, Jesus, but I suppose political correctness wasn’t in vogue during the first century.

But instead of getting hung up on this one word, let’s put this into context and see what Jesus is saying. By saying he has to fed the children before the dogs, we learn Jesus’ mission is first to the Israelites. He’s ministering and teaching to the Jews But knowing this doesn’t help the woman; it doesn’t solve her problem. Jesus is supposed to be a good man and she’s stung by his words.

With her head bowed, I image she begins to leave, then pauses. Has Jesus denied her request? Or maybe, when the disciples are fed, there’ll be something left over for her child. It takes a few moments to get up her courage, but when she does, she spins around like a ballerina, raises her head and looks Jesus in the eyes. “Sir,” she addresses, “even the dogs eat the crumbs from the master’s table.” This lady is bold. Jesus is now going to have to deal with her, one way or the other.

“Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall for the master’s table,” what a great line.

“You’re right,” Jesus says. I imagine a big smile came over his face as he continued, with a voice loud enough to drive home the point home to the disciples, when he says, “Great is your faith. Your daughter will be healed.”

There is, after all, good news in this passage. The woman’s bloodline isn’t going to keep her from experiencing the healing powers of Christ. Even her religion isn’t a barrier. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say anything about casting the demon out because she was good or have kept the law or any other reason. Instead, Jesus acts freely and shows compassion to her and her child in the same manner he responds to our concerns brought to him in prayer. When there is something we, or someone we love, need, be bold in your prayers!

As I’ve said, this story comes right after Jesus has spent the first half of the chapter dealing with the religious elite of the day who complained that Jesus and his disciples were not keeping the tradition of the Elders. Jesus turned around this challenge, to emphasize that it’s not what we eat that defiles, but what comes out of our mouth and what’s in our heart. In other words, what we do is what’s important. To those leaders, this woman, by her racial status, is problematic and should avoided, but her insistence on the behalf of her daughter is a sign of faith. And Jesus responds to faith. In scripture, instead of talking about faith, Jesus mostly responds to it as he does in this situation.[6]

Which leads me to ask, what is faith? What do you think when you hear the word faith? It’s a word we use often, but do we really understand it? Do we have faith? The Second Helvetic Confession, written during the Reformation by Heinrich Bullinger, insists that faith is not an opinion or a human conviction, but is a “firm trust and a clear and steadfast assent of the mind, and then a most certain apprehension of the truth of God presented in the Scriptures,” the Apostle’s Creed, and God himself, and especially Jesus Christ, the fulfillment of God’s promises. And, the Confession goes on to say, “Faith is a gift of God.”[7]

Faith is knowing your only hope is in God, not in your own ability, which is what this Canaanite woman knew when she approached Jesus. She was unable to deliver her daughter, so she sought out the one who has such power. Faith is often described as a verb. It’s not just describing something, it’s about doing something. It’s placing trust in Jesus. Even though Jesus’ earthly ministry was to the Israelites, and the expansion of the gospel to the rest of the world would fall on his disciples, he was compelled to respond to the faith she demonstrated in him.

When we have no place else to turn, where do we place our trust? Is it with God as revealed in Jesus Christ? Or do we try to hedge our bets, hoping our own skills might save us, or perhaps our financial resources, our friends, our guns, or whatever else we place our trust. True faith trust only God as revealed in Jesus Christ. True faith is humbling because it acknowledges we can’t do it ourselves, that we’re dependent on the Almighty.[8] May we have such faith. May we be so bold as this woman in our prayers. At times like this, we need it! Amen.

©2020

[1] Matthew 14:13-21. This story also appears in other gospels.

[2] Luke 5:1-11.  A similar story is told in John 21, but that is a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus.

[3] Mark 5:1-20.

[4] Mark 2:1-12.

[5] In his commentary on this passage, Scott Hoezee writes about how demon possession would play into the disciples stereotyping of the Canaanites. Scott Hoezee, Proper 15A (August 14, 2017), Matthew 15:21-28. Center for Excellence in Preaching. https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-15a/?type=the_lectionary_gospel

[6] See Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), 169.

[7] Presbyterian Church USA, The Book of Confession, “The Second Helvetic Confession,” Chapter XVI, 5.112-113.

[8] Perhaps the reason Jesus says it is easier for the poor to get into heaven than the rich (Matthew 19:24) is because the poor, without resources, have no place else to turn for help.

Jesus, We Need You in the Boat

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Matthew 14:22-33
August 9, 2020

To watch the sermon, go to our YouTube page (linked here). The sermon begins at 16:30.

 

As you heard in Deanie’s wonderful sermon last week, it had been a tough day for Jesus and the disciples. Jesus had received the news that his cousin, who’d herald his coming, had been executed. Jesus and the disciples tried to get away, but the crowds caught up to them. Jesus stopped and spent the afternoon talking and healing. The crowds feasted on Jesus’ words, but the disciples knew that words would not fill an empty stomach. The twelve watched the sun drop in the western sky. In the age before fast food, there was no place to eat and they knew folk’s stomach’s would soon be growling. Worried, they interrupt Jesus and suggest he sends the crowds away so they can go into the villages and buy food. They are surprised to learn that Jesus expects them to feed the crowds. With Jesus’ help and a bit of fish and bread, everyone is fed and to drive home the point, there is enough food that each of the disciples left with a full basket. Then, as people are licking their fingers, Jesus has the disciples get into a boat to sail for a distant shore. He, himself, stays behind, saying he’ll catch up later, and disappears into the hills. Jesus still hasn’t dealt with the grief of John’s death. Like I said, it’s been a long tough day and it ain’t over yet.

Everyone else gets to goes home while the disciples row toward a distant shore. Then, in the darkness of night, something happens. Clouds move in, darkening the moon and clouds. The wind picks up and whitecaps begin to dot the lake. The disciples struggle with the oars as the waves rise. Normally at night, the sea calms as the air cools, unless there is a storm. And on this night, there’s a storm building. The disciples, which include four fishermen, panic. They struggle, hoping to keep the boat afloat long enough for the storm to abate. With the bow into the waves, some pull on the oars while others bail water.

The storm blows throughout the evening and into the early morning hours. The wind has put so much water into the air that everything is misty. It’s hard, in an era without navigation lighting, to make out the shoreline. So, they keep rowing, which is good advice, for you need momentum to push through the waves.  Keeping the oars in the water helps maintain the boat’s stability. This goes on for hours.  Imagine how exhausted they are when they see someone walking across the water toward them. It’s not surprising they think it’s a ghost. Even if you didn’t believe in ghosts, you’d reconsider. Or maybe, you’d think it’s the angel of death, coming to extract its toll. Exhausted and seeing such an apparition is enough to push you over the edge. But just when the disciples fear all is lost, they hear Jesus’ sweet Galilean voice. Jesus calls to them across the water; he’s coming to them in their hour of need.

Had the disciples had time to think theologically, they might not have been so shocked. After all, one of the first thing God does in creation is the calm the chaos of the waters and in the Exodus, God divides the waters so Israel can escape the wrath of the Egyptians.[1] In Psalm 77, God is portrayed as making his way across the mighty waters and in Job, we’re told of God trampling the waves.[2] God’s control extends even over the waters and if Jesus is Lord, it should be of no surprise that he walked out on the sea to rescue the disciples.

But the disciples are not clearly thinking this night. All they know is that they are in trouble and their friend Jesus is coming to bail ‘em out (I know, that’s a bad play on words). They are in need and here comes Jesus. The storm, it appears, rages until our Savior takes a seat in the boat, but even if it had continued, Jesus’ presence would have been enough. With Jesus there, their fears are calmed.

There’s a mini lesson in this for us. When we know someone in need or trouble, we often don’t act because we don’t feel we can do anything helpful. But being present is one way we can act. Just being presence with a person in need can help. Furthermore, when we are in need, it is comforting to know Jesus is with us. The comforting presence of our Savior is enough to calm our troubled souls. Just having a friend beside us in the boat is a blessing. We make more out of Peter getting out of the boat in this story, but it’s more important for us to understand the need to have Jesus in the boat. But let’s now consider Peter.

Peter is so excited that he wants to try Jesus’ stunt himself. Before he gets to the boat, Jesus says, “Okay, come on out.” Peter does. He walks on water. Think about it. This is an amazing feat. But the problem is that he thinks about what he’s doing. When Peter looks around and sees the waves and the water under his feet, he panics and immediately sinks. You know, in a couple of chapters, Jesus, in a play on Peter’s name, which comes from the Greek work, petra, or rock, proclaims that upon this rock he’ll build his church.[3] Its generally assumed that because Peter was a strong man from having spent a lifetime pulling nets that he received the name that means rock, but perhaps there’s some humor in all this. Ever heard of someone who “swam like a rock?” That’s Peter!

Can you image the disciples gathered around Peter and Jesus, snickering about Jesus building his church upon the rock—the rock that sank? But Peter wasn’t building the church alone. Peter had to have faith in the Almighty to step up into the leadership role after Jesus’ ascension. In a way, however, we’re all like Peter and sooner or later, we’ll all find ourselves in over our head and sinking and at that point we’ll need a lift, like the one Jesus gave Peter. Jesus will be present with us and will help us when we are in need.

In a way, we’re all like Peter, who was a man of human frailty. Peter often screwed up. He thought he could tell Jesus what not to do… “No, No, No, don’t go to Jerusalem to be crucified.”[4] And then later, when Jesus was arrested, Peter, perhaps Jesus’ closest disciple, denies knowing him.[5]  And here, he’s able to take a step or two on water, as long as he focuses on Jesus, but then sinks when he‘s distracted. We’re a lot like that as individuals and the church. There is a lot God can accomplish in us if we remain focused on Jesus. But when we stop focusing on Jesus, we get in trouble.

This is what most people focus on in this story. John Ortberg even wrote a book titled, If You Want to Walk on Water, You have to Get Out of the Boat. And that’s what we think this story is about: having that kind of faith in Jesus and focusing on him so that we can walk on water and not slip under the waves. But such an interpretation of this passage makes it into a moral story in which we feel guilty because none of have walked on water,[6] nor have we known anyone to walk on water except perhaps up north when the lakes are frozen. If this is only a story about stepping out in faith, we’d feel pretty bad because none of us is up to the task. So, let me suggest another interpretation.

There is good news even with Peter’s near drowning. When life begins to overwhelm us, as it appears to be doing these days as we worry about the pandemic and the economy and the upcoming election and everything else going on in the world, it is easy to be overwhelmed. It is easy to slip under the waves. But just as Jesus came into our lives when we first believed, he is also there when we get in over our heads. He’s there to help us turn our lives around. We can learn from our mistakes, which is a very thing for we have a forgiving God who is willing to help us when we depend on him and not on our own abilities.

You know, I image there was quite a bit of tension in that boat before Jesus stepped in. The twelve disciples were all afraid, but there may have even been some tension between the four fisherman and the rest of the disciples. The other eight, who were not seamen, were depending on the fishermen to know what to do. Why did they allow themselves to get into this dangerous predicament? But when Jesus comes aboard, they all calm down, as does the wind and waves. They know they’ll be alright. And as the wind dies and the waves cease, they do what we should do whenever God saves us. They worship Jesus. That’s the message we should take with us. Don’t worry about jumping overboard and trying to walk on water. Instead, let’s make sure we invite Jesus aboard our boats. For Jesus comes to save us and our response is to worship him. May it be so.

 

©2020

 

References:

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

Hare, Douglas R. A., Matthew: Interpretation, A Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1992).

[1] Genesis 1:1-13 and Exodus 14.

[2] Psalm 77:16-20 and Job 9:8.

[3] Matthew 16:18.

[4] Matthew 16:21-24.

[5] Matthew 26:69-75.

[6] See Scott Hoezee, “Proper 14A (August 3, 2020), Matthew 14:22-33 at the Center for Excellence in Preaching website.

Kingdom Parables

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-50
July 26, 2020

Click here. The entire service can be seen on Youtube. The service proper begins at 15:30 and the sermon begins at 28:00. 

 

At beginning of Worship:

Today, we’re finishing our look at Jesus’ parables in Matthew 13. Over the past two weeks, we’ve looked at larger parables, about farming. Today, Jesus rapidly fires off five parables about the kingdom that come from a variety of experiences. In these stories, we learn of God’s work and our need to respond with full commitment. Even when it doesn’t feel like it, when we are overwhelmed by the world, God is at work. When we discover God’s work, we need to join in. My question for us today, “Where do we see God at work and how should we respond?

 

After reading the scripture (Matthew 13:31-33, 44-50)

One purpose of a parable is to use simple things in which people can relate to tell a story that has profound implications. Jesus’ audience hasn’t seen Disneyworld or Las Vegas, which are at best cheap imitations of what God can do,[1] so instead of our Savior explaining God’s kingdom as some wonderful place, he tells stories. In a way, Jesus hops from one metaphor to another, telling them things they might know. They understand yeast and seeds, valuable treasures, and fishing. Like Jesus, let me tell a couple of stories.

When I was in seminary, I took a year off from my regular studies to take a test drive of pastoring. First Presbyterian Church in Virginia City, Nevada offered me a yearlong contract, as a student, to be their pastor. Up until this point in my life, I had never been to that part of the country. I’d been to the West Coast, to Los Angeles and to San Francisco. I’d even been to Yosemite, but I had never been in that vast sagebrush ocean known as the Great Basin. I was nervous. Nevada had gambling. “What kind of heathens gamble,” I wondered. Back in the mid-80s, you didn’t have casinos weren’t ubiquitous.

My second concern was it being the desert. I’d always been around water. I asked a member of their committee, who had lived in North Carolina, what Virginia City is like. He said I’d find it a lot like North Carolina, with the hills covered with pines. I knew he was teasing, but I needed to check it out. One weekend, I flew to Reno. It was night when I landed and in darkness, I was picked up and we drove up to the Virginia City, which is a couple thousand feet higher and on the back of a mountain range from Reno. The next morning, I couldn’t wait to see what kind of world I was in. I rushed to a window, opened the blinds, and looked out, and shook my head. Yes, there were pine trees alright, but the tallest of them might had been 12 feet high. Not much larger than the mustard tree in Jesus’ story. In time, I would come to know that these pinion pines, like the mustard bush, teams with life. Stellar jays, magpies, wrens, bluebirds, all kinds of small rodents and, in summer during the heat of the day, perhaps a great basin rattler. God takes care of them all, just as God took care of me. I soon got over my shock and set out exploring.

We are surprised by God’s kingdom. Who’d think that a little seed, be it a mustard or a pinion pine seed (which is great in pesto, by the way) could make such a difference?

The second image from my past is yeast. As you may remember, I spent five years working in a wholesale bakery, starting out while in college. You know, it doesn’t take a lot of yeast to make a lot of bread. Now, we used 50-pound bags of yeast, but we also received our flour in railcars. It’d take a couple of cars a week to supply our flour needs, during which time we’d go through a pallet or two of yeast. The thing about yeast is that once it’s mixed in, you have a hard time controlling it. The yeast takes over and the dough continues to expand until the yeast is killed in the baking process. When things go smoothly, the plant ran like clockwork. But occasionally, something happened, such as a jam in the oven. Suddenly everything stops, except the yeast. By the time things are fixed, the proof box is a mess cause all that dough kept growing and rising until it couldn’t rise anymore. Dough would be on everything. We’d have to take steam pressure cleaners and wash every rack in the proof box and all the pans. It was a mess. Thankfully, this didn’t happen often, but it happened enough that kept us humble.

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast that a woman takes and mixes with flour until all of it was leavened.” Think about this.  Once she introduces the yeast, it’s out of her control. If there is something in the dough for the yeast to eat, it continues to grow.

What Jesus is telling us here is that the kingdom is dynamic. Once the gospel is introduced, it starts growing and there is no stopping it. Think about how fast the church is growing today in China, even as the Communist Party tries to stamp it out. The church is growing in Africa and in the former Soviet Union, in India and South America. But the Kingdom is not only out there, on the mission field. It is also here in our congregation and even right here inside each of us.

The Kingdom is like a bit of yeast that can transform flour into a voluminous loaf, or a seed that can grow into a tree. Think about this for a moment. There are just a few things a baker can do to enhance the yeast. You keep it at the right temperature, feed it with sugar, and so forth… Likewise there are things we can do to enhance the growth of a tree such as watering and fertilizing. But ultimately, the yeast and the seed are not our doing. Their success, as both parables attest, belong to the hands of the one who controls life. These parables point to God’s involvement, to God doing something in our world and in our individual lives which we, by ourselves, cannot achieve.

At a time like this, with the pandemic and violence in the streets, we may wonder where God is and what God is doing. These stories remind us that we might not see God showing up in major ways, for that’s not how God works. Jesus was born among the animals in the poor hamlet in a far corner of the empire. A tablespoon of yeast or the seed that you can barely see can bring about great change. The change God brings into the world, into the kingdom, may not make the headlines of the New York Times, the Savannah Morning News, or even the Skinnie. But it’s here, alive, and working.

Jesus addresses the parable of the mustard seed and of yeast to a crowd of people. He wants everyone to know that God was doing something exciting and new in the world. Jesus wants to make it clear to everyone that God’s spirit is available; that if they would just open themselves up to the Kingdom which he’s ushering in, God could do wonderful things through their lives. The promise set forth in these parables still apply today.

After addressing the crowd, Jesus and the disciples slip away into a house. There the disciples questioned him concerning the meaning of parables. This gives Jesus an opportunity to tell more parables. The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, the merchant finding a valuable pearl, or a net cast into the sea.

Let’s think about these parables in relationship to the first two parables told to the masses. In the first set, Jesus suggest God’s action. As with the yeast or mustard seed, God is doing something in the world that we as humans cannot do. God is forgiving and creating new beings out of the old. It’s all God’s doing. However, in the parable of the hidden treasure and the valuable pearl, Jesus suggests we also act. The one who buys a field or buys the pearl does so because they want desperately to obtain the treasure or pearl. It’s the same way with God’s kingdom. When we experience a just a taste of it, we’re going to want it so badly that we’ll give up whatever in order to have it. This is the Calvinist doctrine of irresistible grace. If we experience the kingdom, we’re going to make it the number one priority in our lives. We need that kind of passion for God! Such passion will strengthen the church and further God’s work in the world. Now, parables can only be taken so far. No, unlike the person finding the treasure, we can’t buy ourselves a spot in the kingdom. But believe this: if we could, we should be willing to pay top dollar.

Jesus concludes these parables with one comparing the kingdom with a net which catches fishes, but in the end the good fish are separated from the bad. This ending parable is, in many ways, different from the others. Instead of being directed at the crowd or the disciples, it seems to be intended for the church. The parable is also the only one of this group which talks about the Kingdom in the future. The others four emphasize the beginning of the kingdom, here and now. Furthermore, this parable is about judgement. The fish which do not measure up are thrown out. However, it would be wrong to interpret ourselves as the discriminating fishermen. That task belongs to God. The familiar ring, which Jesus has already instructed, comes to mind: “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”[2]

There you have it. Two parables about God growing the kingdom, two about the value of the kingdom, and a warning… You know, Jesus doesn’t give us a clear picture of heaven here or anywhere in the Bible. He doesn’t talk about it as a place.[3] In The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard speaks of a kingdom as a place where one person’s influence determines what will happen.[4] This kingdom is where Jesus’ influence is a living presence. The kingdom of heaven is not someplace we strive to get to; instead, it’s something which starts inside each of us when we open our lives to God and invite Jesus in…. Amen.

©2020

 

Resources and References:

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

Duffield, Jill, “Looking into the Lectionary,” The Presbyterian Outlook (Online edition, July 20, 2020).  https://pres-outlook.org/2020/07/8th-sunday-after-pentecost-july-26-2020/

Gundry, Robert H., Matthew: A Commentary on His Literary and Theological Art (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982.

Hare, Douglas R. A., Matthew: Interpretation, A Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1992).

Hoezee, Scott, Proper 12A (July 20, 2020), from Calvin Theological Seminary’s “Center for Excellence in Preaching. https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-12a-2/?type=the_lectionary_gospel

[1] I’ve always been struck by Steve Wynn, one of the Las Vegas developers, often quoted (and blasphemous) quip about Vegas being how God would have done things if he had money.

[2][2] Matthew 7:1.

[3] In Revelation 21 & 22, John has a vision of a “new heaven and a new earth,” which is place, but Jesus keeps his kingdom talk to metaphors and ideas about what God can and is doing in the world.

[4] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, as referred to by Scott Hoezee in his notes on this passage. See https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-12a-2/?type=the_lectionary_gospel

The Danger of Forcing Others to be Good

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
July 19, 2020
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

 The worship service is available at Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church’s YouTube site. Click here. I began reading the scripture at 13:50 and the sermon begins at 16:50 and ends at 37:30.  

Opening of Worship: Nothing needs reforming as much as other people’s bad habits.” That’s probably Mark Twain’s most quoted saying. It rings true. It’s easy to see where someone else is wrong and to ignore our own blind spots. We want everyone but ourselves to clean up their act, forgetting the log in our own eyes.[1] Today, we’re looking at another parable from the 13th Chapter of Matthew. Like last week, it focuses on agriculture. This second “big field” parable is about the weeds growing within the wheat. We want everything to be pure, but at what cost? This morning, ask yourself if we really think we’re capable of being an honest judge?

###

 

I was gypped as a child. I don’t remember a sermon on this text. This scripture could have been added to the arsenal I used to make a case for not chopping weeds in the garden. I wasn’t a biblical literate child.

However, I am not sure this reason to not to pull weeds would have worked any better than when I told my siblings that the Bible said they should respect and obey me since I was their elder. Two things you can take away from this: using the Bible for our own self-fulfillment is dangerous, and the Bible is not a “how-to-farm” manual.[2]

Jesus tells this parable because he knows we’d like nothing more than to clean up other folk’s lives and when we attempt to do this, we often create a mess. If the church had paid a little more attention to this parable, we’d have had fewer headaches. Crusades, witch-hunts, inquisitions, and other quests for purity that have given the church black eyes and created massive suffering could have been avoided.

This parable is about the church.[3] We could easily place ourselves in the role of the farmhands who inform their boss of the problems going on in the back 40. “There are weeds in the wheat.” It’s a terrible thing… What should we do about it?

When I was in seminary and working for a church in Butler, Pennsylvania, I took the youth skiing one Saturday. The kids could invite friends. Ryan invited a friend who attended a very conservative church. In our group was another kid named David. This was back in the mid-80s. David was a “skater” and a problem child. On this particular day, it took him only an hour or so for the ski patrol, who had called him down a few times, to revoke his skiing privileges. David got to spend the rest of the day sitting in the lodge with a mother who didn’t ski, but volunteered to come along as a driver, to fix our lunch, and watch over our stuff. I’m not sure if she realized watching over our stuff including sitting on David.

After lunch, I spent some time skiing with Ryan and his friend. Riding up on a lift, this guy, filled with self-righteousness, asked me what kind of church we were to allow the likes of David to be in our midst. He assured me that his church would never allow David to go on their trips. My first thought was to get rid of the weeds and to throw this kid off the lift. But I came to my senses and tried to reason with him about how, if we’re here for anyone, we’re here for the David’s of the world. Then I mentioned about how Jesus seemed to prefer the company of sinners to those who are self-righteous. I began to take pride in my ability to rub his nose in Jesus’ words, until I realized I was no better than him.

You know, there have been times when I’ve wondered why someone was in church. Wouldn’t the church be a lot better if we didn’t have self-righteous folks like that kid on the lift? Wouldn’t it be better if there were no hypocrites giving us a bad name? Wouldn’t it be a lot better in here if we were all squeaky clean?  Probably not; if we were perfect, we wouldn’t need a Savior and we wouldn’t need the church. And if the church was that perfect, without the self-righteous, the hypocrites and those less than squeaky clean, most of us including myself would be out.

Let me suggest this… The farmhands’ question as to where these weeds came from is the same as us wondering why there is so much evil in the world.[4] Scripture doesn’t give us a good answer as to why there’s evil; instead we’re given a prescription of how to overcome it. Our righteousness is not from our efforts, but from Jesus Christ.

Martin Luther realized the church can’t be without evil people. Writing about the parable, he said: “Those fanatics who don’t want to tolerate any weeds end up with no wheat.”[5] This parable reminds us that we have to deal with the weeds and the wheat, the good and the bad. As much of a pain the weeds might be, they can make us stronger (as with a plant that must compete with other plants for nourishment and sun). Furthermore, the weeds serve as a constant reminder that we are not the ones who are in control.

God is in control. And there are many good reasons why God might not want to purify the church right away. First of all, God knows that any campaign to purify is going to create problems. The wheat, whose roots are not fully established, may be harmed when the workers try to pull out the weeds, just as good people are often harmed when someone becomes over zealous and instills a campaign of righteousness.

I’ve referred before to C. S. Lewis’ little book, The Screwtape Letters. It’s the fictional correspondence from Screwtape, an older and well-seasoned demon, to his nephew, Wormwood. Screwtape gives the younger demon advice as to how to win a soul over to the dark side.  Screwtape refers to Wormwood’s subject as a patient.  When Wormwood’s patient becomes a Christian, obviously a failure if you’re a demon, his uncle encourages patience:

One of our great allies at present is the church itself.  Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners… Fortunately, it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is the half-finished sham…

Screwtape goes on to point out that when Wormwood’s patient gets into the pews and looks around he’ll see “his neighbors whom he has hitherto avoided.” Then the demon could make his move.

Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like ‘the body of Christ’ and the actual faces in the next pew. It matters very little what kind of people that next pew really contains… Provided that any of those neighbors sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes… Work hard, then, on the disappointment or anticlimax which is certainly coming to the patient.[6]

This parable reminds us that we have to be careful that our zeal for holiness doesn’t become corrupt and our love becomes hate. If that happens, we’re no better than those whose actions we deplore. Scripture is clear that God has an enemy in the world who would like nothing more than to turn us away from the truth. It’s not always wild and sinful living that cause us to fall; we can also become so consumed to rid our world of evil and we begin began to think we are so important that we ignore       The parable of the weeds reminds us that if our enemy is unable to keep the seeds from taking root, he will as one commentator on the passage observed, “Overwhelm us with a loathing of evil.” In other words, he’ll corrupt our love and use it against us.[7]

Of course, the farmer in the story is God. As the farmhands, we may think we can be in control, but as we find out here, the farmer is wise and wants to make sure that the crop is not harmed by our zealous efforts. Now, there is another underlying message here. We might want to ask why we have to suffer evil in this world… At times, it may even appear that there is a benefit for being bad, for being a weed. But this passage reminds us that sooner or later, everyone gets their due. The evil may seem to prosper in this world, but there’s judgment coming. When the harvest is ready, the weeds will be consumed. Judgment means there will be “weeping and gashing of teeth,” which is another way of saying it won’t be good for the weeds.[8]

What might this passage say to us? It encourages tolerance. As sinners, redeemed by Jesus Christ, we must be careful not to think too highly of ourselves or to be too quick to condemn others. The church isn’t going to always be perfect. In Martin Luther’s writings, he recalls this old saying: “Whenever God erects a house of prayer, the devil builds a chapel.”[9] Trying to destroy that chapel may result in terrible collateral damage.

The church on earth will never be pure, but that’s okay because God is not finished with us yet. If we as the church can be accepting of others in the manner of Jesus, we will draw others to us that may not, at first, look like they belong. But we’re not the one who judges. Instead, we give thanks for those in our midst and love them unconditionally in the same manner that we’ve been loved by our Father in heaven. So, before we go out and volunteer for a crusade or sign up as the Grand Inquisitor, think about what Jesus is telling us through this parable. As farmhands within the story, we’re not in control.

A second thing to consider is that sometimes we might look a lot like weeds and on those occasions, we’d like to experience a little grace (just like others would like a little grace from us). Grace is a powerful tool in this world of ours. A little grace will go a long way toward breaking down barriers and bringing people together. As followers of Jesus, as his farmhands, we need to be showing the world what grace looks like.

In his memoir, A Dresser of Sycamore Trees: The Finding of a Ministry, Garret Keizer tells of a time he’d stopped at a grocery store to pick up some bananas for an elderly friend he was going to visit. He was smug thinking of his good deed. But then, ahead of him in the check-out line was a woman who had a bunch of little purchases. She paid for them individually. He had no choice but to wait as she fumbled around with these little piles of money. Waiting, he began to resent the woman. As he followed her out of the store, having quickly paid for his bananas, he “shot her that look” that said, “You’re a jerk.” But then, he noticed her opening the door of a large van. On the side was a sign for a local nursing home. Before she drove away, she handed each of the residents who were inside the van, their packages.[10]

We gotta be careful. We just might pull the wheat up with the weeds.

Show some grace this week. People are pretty tense with all that’s going on in the world. It’s easy for us to get upset with “Them,” whoever “them” might be. When we are stressed, we can make bad judgment. So, let’s show patience and trust God to judge, while we do what good we can. Amen.

 

©2020

[1] See Matthew 7:3.

[2] “[T]his story is not about agriculture but instead it is about theology…  do not consult it for best agricultural practices!”  Scott Hoezee, “Proper 11A, July 13, 2020, https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-11a-2/?type=the_lectionary_gospel

[3] There have been debates as to whether this parable is about the world or the church, but the evidence and most scholars think this passage applies to the church. See Douglas Hare, Matthew: Interpretation (Louisville; John Knox Press, 1993), 155.

[4] F. Dale Brunner, The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 28.

[5] Martin Luther,  as quoted by Bruner, 30.

[6] C. S. Lewis The Screwtape Letters (1941, New York, Macmillan 1961), 12-13.

[7] Bruner, 27.

[8] Bruner, 45.

[9] Luther’s Works, 51:173-87, as quoted by Bruner, 27.

[10] Garret Keizer, A Dresser of Sycamore Trees: The Finding of a Ministry, as told by Jill Duffeld, “7th Sunday after Pentecost:  God Does the Sorting,” The Presbyterian Outlook (July 13, 2020, online edition)

Overabundant Harvests

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
July 12, 2020
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

 

    A crowd gathers around Jesus. They press in, each trying to get closer to the mysterious storyteller, to touch the garment of the great healer. It’s an age before social distancing. Our Savior, to create breathing room, jumps into a boat and rows out a short distance from the shore. Then he turns toward the crowd and sees their tired faces: peasant farmers who toil to make ends meet, sun chapped fishermen who struggle day by day to provide for their families, young women whose bodies are already old from laboring in the fields. Jesus also sees the discouragement of disciples who’ve witnessed believers turn away. His heart goes out them. Knowing and understanding their disappointments, he tells a story:

 “Listen! A sower went out to sow.   And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away.  Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”

What does that mean, they began to ask themselves? Many are farmers and none had experienced such abundance. What kind of harvest have you received from seeds you’ve sown?

You know, gardening is big this year. I had a hard time finding seeds and plants earlier in the spring when I was setting up my summer garden in my plot at Skidaway Farms. With the lockdown and the limited products available at the grocery store in the spring, it seemed many were returning to their roots. People are digging in the dirt, which is a good thing. And I’ve had a good year. Sadly, the tomatoes, cucumbers and squash are done in this heat—but I’m beginning to get my fill of okra, eggplant and peppers! There are a variety of items to tease my taste buds. And it’s good to work in the dirt.

A number of years ago, I asked a farmer about this parable. I wanted to know what a good harvest of oats—one of the grains of choice in Jesus’ era, would be today. I was told such a crop generally yields between seventy and hundred bushels per acre and that he might use 2 or 3 bushels planting that acre giving a yield of roughly thirty fold.[1] With all our technology and science, tractors and herbicides, a hundred fold still seems out of reach.

The discouraged farmers and disciples listen to Jesus’ message, but they’re confused. They identify with the difficulty of the sower whose seeds are eaten or fall along the path, but they cannot understand where a farmer could have found such good soil to produce a crop of even thirty fold, and certainly not sixty or a hundred fold.  Farmers in Palestine in the first century had it tough. On average, for every bushel of grain they planted they reaped only seven and a half bushels. If it was an exceptionally good harvest, they might gather ten bushels.[2]

Obviously, God would have to really bless the crop if one was to reap 30 or more bushels. And Jesus’ message is just that, the harvest, those in whom the gospel takes root is a blessing from God. As humans, we cannot produce such an effort. But God can and therefore, as farmers know, we do our part and then must be patient, waiting and expecting the best.

This parable is an analogy and it is dangerous to push the analogy too far and think that the seeds which fell in the good soil were lucky while those who fell in the poorer areas were just ill-fated. Such an interpretation would diminish our responsibility for our actions. Perhaps, because the analogy can be interpreted in such a way, Jesus explains the story:

“Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

Jesus’ explanation emphasizes three dangers facing Christians in the world. Those who do not understand the gospel are quickly snatched away by the evil one just like the seeds on the hardened path are eaten by birds. To understand the gospel means more than an intellectual comprehension. To understand, in the Old Testament sense, implies a moral commitment as shown by the author of the 119th Psalm: “Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart.”[3] The first seeds lost are those who do not seek to live within God’s word.

The second danger facing Christians is marginal belief. Like the plant which grows in rocky soil, the believer who is not firm in his or her faith might grow up quickly, promising to do great things, only to turn away when times are tough. We’ve seen it happen, haven’t we?  People who get all excited and join the church, then become disinterested, burned-out, or melt away when challenged. We need to carefully strengthen our faith in Jesus Christ, allowing ourselves to get a good root system started. Otherwise, in our immaturity, we’ll try to take on the world and end up overwhelmed and give up.

The third obstacle facing Christians are the temptations of the world. The seeds overwhelmed by the thorns are examples of those who are more attracted to worldly affairs than to the gospel. We cannot serve two masters, Jesus has already told us in Matthew’s gospel,[4] and those who focus on worldly concerns soon forget about the gospel. As Christians, we are to be concerned for the world because God’s love for the world, not because of our own desires. Sometimes we get this turned around and then end up working for what we want and not for what God would have us do.

But this passage is not about avoiding good or bad soil, which is something over which the seed has no control. Instead, it’s a parable about what God can do. Jesus tells of the good soil which produced upwards of hundred fold. I’ve already discussed how such a yield was impossible in Biblical times and unheard of today, so we must conclude that the good soil is even more blessed by God so that it can produce such results. It’s important to understand that a plant is not judged on how it looks while growing, but on the fruit it sustains. Note that both the seeds sown on rocky soil and among the briers grow at first… Often, as with the case of the plant in the rocky soil, such seeds sprout and grow fast, but produce no long-term harvest. Only the seed in the good soil produces a bountiful harvest.

Our purpose isn’t to be digging up the thorns. Instead, we’re to encourage growth and deep roots.[5] Jesus also emphasis this later in this chapter, which we’ll look at next week, with the parable of the weeds amongst the wheat.[6] Judgment belongs to God, we’re to encourage growth and trust in the Almighty.

You know, when I was a kid we always had a large garden. Even though we lived in suburban America, my mother still thought she was on the farm… Every year, it seemed, she was in a contest with her mother and mother-in-law to see who could can the most green beans. Continually, throughout my childhood, they competed and set new world records for the number of quarts of green beans they canned. Why our family needed 75 quarts of green beans was beyond my comprehension-then and now-especially since everyone else was also busy canning them. They couldn’t give them away so after being forced to snap the beans, the beans were forced on us kids all winter long. This was in the ‘60’s, a time when Nuclear War seemed like a real possibility. I assure you, the thought of the bomb wasn’t nearly as frightening as living in a cellar eating green beans out of old Mason Jars… Now you know why it is I don’t like green beans. As for the green bean casseroles, I’ll steal an onion ring off the top, if you’re not looking, and leave you the rest.

Green beans aside, it takes time to produce a good crop. In my garden at the community farm, where I refuse to plant green beans, I am constantly pulling weeds, fighting fire ants, and trying to scare away birds. None of us have Jack’s magic seeds, we can’t plant a seed and have it grow up overnight. If we want a good garden, we must take the time to tend to it. The Christian life is similar. We must nourish ourselves continually, being constantly on the lookout for that which keeps us from focusing on Christ. And when we nourish ourselves—by studying God’s word, praying, worshipping, keeping the Sabbath, striving to be generous, and to show grace to all—we open ourselves up to be used and transformed by God. And God can use us to sow more seeds in the world which, if nurtured, will lead to more transformations, which offers the world hope.

But remember this is a parable. Don’t despair, thinking you are in the wrong soil. Don’t give up if things don’t go the way you feel they should. It’s easy to get discouraged and depressed. Instead of us seeing ourselves as seeds, we should see ourselves as the one who sows the seed. Even though God has blessed us, and for this we should continually give thanks, when we look around our community and across the globe, we see many people who are in need and not being reached by any Church, people who don’t know the love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ.

You know, the disciples must have felt the same way as we do before Jesus told them this parable. After hearing his words, they realized God was with them.  Sure, there were many people who rejected Jesus’ words. Sure, there were those who seemed so eager to follow Jesus, but had no roots and quickly fell away. Sure, there were guys like the rich young ruler who wanted to follow Jesus, but just couldn’t let go of the world.[7] But there were also blind men who could see and those who had been lame were walking. The disciples must have understood what Paul would later say: “So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.”[8]

Jesus’ story encourages us not to give up. Keep sowing the grain. Even in face of meager results, be true to the gospel and continue to praise God and proclaim to the world that Jesus Christ is the way and the truth and the life.[9] For we never know when God might provide a harvest of a 100 fold! That’s our job. Even amid doubt and despair, even during a pandemic, we claim this world for God. We believe that God is working out things for the best, and we pray God will give us a harvest. So let’s do our part and sow the seeds of the gospel. When you can offer hope to someone, offer hope. When you can help someone, help them. Do it all in the love of Jesus and give him the credit. Amen

[1] Wayne Kent, Ellicottville, NY.

[2]Douglas Hare, Matthew: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox, 1992), 152-153.

[3] Psalm 119:34.

[4] Matthew 6:24.

[5] Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 254-255.

[6] Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43.

[7] Luke 18:18-23.

[8] 1 Corinthians 3:7.

[9] John 14:6.

Let’s Join in the Fun

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
July 5, 2020
Matthew 11:16-19

To watch this service, click here. To watch the sermon, fast forward to 20:00 minutes in the stream.

 

Opening of Worship:
          How many of you remember Calvin and Hobbes, the comic strip? I always identified with that kid. There was a time when Calvin was writing a self-help book. O Great, you might think, just world needs, another self-help book. But Calvin saw a fortune to be made, as he confides to Hobbes. His strategy is to convince people there’s something wrong with them. It’s rather easy, because advertising has already conditioned us to feel insecure about our weight, looks, social status, sex appeal, and so on… “Next, he’ll convince people that the problem is not their fault.” This, too, is easy because nobody wants to be responsible.

        Having prepared the way, Calvin feels he can sell folks on his expert advice and encouragement. He’s on to something. We long for satisfaction and we expect someone to show us where to find it.

But the answers are not so simple. For followers of Jesus, we must admit that we don’t have simple or easy answers for life’s problems. You know, the early church was known as “The Way.”[1] That was because they didn’t give out pat answers, instead they point to the only enteral truth they knew—Jesus Christ. The church was the way people learned about Christ and is the vehicle God uses to share the gospel to the world. Think about it…

Back to that comic strip, Calvin decides he’ll help people get over their addiction to self-help books. His book is titled, Shut Up and Stop Whining: How to Do Something With Your Life Besides Think About Yourself.”[2] Actually, there’s some truth in that title. Sometimes we are too serious. We need to lighten up. We need to learn to play and enjoy life. That’s the theme of my message on this 4th of July weekend: enjoy life and play!

 

 

Sermon (After Scripture Reading):
There was a congregational meeting in which the topic of money (or the lack thereof) came up. An elderly statesman of the church stood up and complained about the lack of commitment. “We need to be willing to pull our share; the Christian life is one of suffering and sacrifice.” He concluded his speech, pleading “We need members who are willing to pick up their cross.” Many nodded their heads in agreement, but there were a few who were uncomfortable. A younger woman stood timidly and challenged the older member with Jesus’ words: “I come so you might have life and have it abundantly.”

Do you feel the tension between these two positions? The older member demands sacrifice while the younger member wants to enjoy the life promised by our Savior. Both positions can be “proved” by scripture. Both are valid. We must live within the tension of the two.

This is a beautiful world God has created. We’ve been placed here to enjoy it. Think about all the good things we enjoy. We should relish life, each other, and our Lord. Life is a joyful dance and we should make the most of it. Of course, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t sacrifice, but there should be joy in our giving since God has given us so much.

Children, if given a half a chance, know how to enjoy life. Even in poverty, you see kids laughing. Have you ever watched a child act like they were mowing the yard when you were out sweating and pushing a mower? The child pushes their own Fisher-Price popcorn mower back and forth, just like you’re doing under the hot sun. Perhaps you remember being like this as a kid? I couldn’t wait until I was old enough to mow the yard. That desire lasted about three weeks after I was old enough to mow. At that point, I decided growing up wasn’t such a big deal.

Kids play games. It’s fun. Think about your childhood. You could be a real cowboy without having to shovel manure. You could be soldier without being shot at or a nurse without having to dump bedpans. Children have a wonderful view of the world. They enjoy acting like grown-ups, and that’s okay. The problem arises when it goes the other way.

The way children act like they are “grown-ups” sheds light onto this parable of Jesus. In the passage, Jesus refers to a game played by kids in a village marketplace. The kids act like adults at a wedding or at a funeral. If it’s to be a wedding, one child plays a flute and the rest dance together in a circle. Or, if they act out a funeral, they cry and pound on their breasts in mourning.

Jesus said that people of his generation were like children who refused to join the game. Imagine the marketplace. Sometimes, you know, children refuse to get involved. Maybe because they don’t know the other children, or they’ve been picked on. It’s a sad thing to see a child standing to the side watching other kids enjoying themselves. And yet, once these children get into the game, something magical happens. They forget their apprehensions and have a great time. Jesus tells us that those who refused to hear his call are like children who refuse to get involved. By not participating, they missed out on the fun. We adults can be like this when we take things too seriously.

Jesus goes on to say that John the Baptist, the guy who lived off insects in the wilderness and dressed like a “deadhead,” is rejected as being a demon. John lived a rigorous life and people don’t want to hear about that. Sin and repentance are never been popular topics. So along comes Jesus who enjoys life. Jesus, it appears, never turns down an invitation to a party… Think about the weddings and banquets Jesus attends. Jesus enjoys the company of people and the pleasures of food and drink. This leads some people to call Jesus a glutton and drunkard. And they criticized him for the friends he hung around: tax collectors like Matthew and other obvious sinners like the fallen woman who dried his feet with her hair. Talk about a way to develop a reputation. Imagine the gossip when word got around about that scene.

There is a “Catch-22” situation here. Folks reject John because he lives without comfort and they reject Jesus because he enjoys life. Most people of Jesus’ generation wanted nothing to do with either one. They are too busy in their own little worlds to join the dance. But Jesus invites us all to join him. He invites us to live and really experience life. Are we ready for it? Are we willing to cast away our doubts and our troubles and to enjoy what we have been given?

In Joseph Girzone’s parable of Jesus, titled Joshua, he writes:

Jesus came to earth to try to free people from the kind of regimented religion where people are threatened if they don’t obey rules and rituals… Jesus came to teach people that they are God’s children and, as God’s children, they are free, free to grow as human beings, to become beautiful people as God intended. That can’t be legislated. Jesus gave the apostles and the community as a support to provide help and guidance and consolation. Jesus did not envision bosses in the worldly sense. He wanted his apostles to guide and serve, not to dictate and legislate like those who govern this world.[3]

This passage encourages us to enjoy life—something we tend to do around Independence Day. We need to have fun, enjoy the summer. We should live that first beautiful statement in the Westminster Catechism, which defines our purpose as “enjoying God forever.” Horace Bushnell, a 19th Century American theologian wrote during the dark days of the Civil War, “Religion must be a form of play—a worship offered, a devotion paid, not for some ulterior end, but as being its own end and joy.”[4] Yes, we need to be concerned for sin, but not too concerned. Jesus came to free us up to live.

Now, let me talk a bit about sin. You know, there are basically two kinds. If you were present here in the sanctuary and I could ask you to name some sins, you might begin your list with the favorite sins of your neighbors: adultery, stealing, murder, greed, not wiping your feet before entering the house, forgetting an anniversary, and so on. But all sin can be grouped into two categories. The classical form of sin is that of pride which comes from our desire to be God. That’s Eve eating the fruit because the serpent told her she would have the knowledge of God. It’s the same sin we all commit when we live as if we are the ultimate authority. We’re all guilty.

The other kind of sin is the opposite. The first type of sin was trying to be God, the second type is not living up to our God-given potential. In other words, we do not become the person God created us to be. Not enjoying the life that God has given us falls into this category of sin. In the parable, this is the child who doesn’t join in the game the children are playing.

So, let’s all be playful and enjoy God. Don’t sit on the sidelines. Join in the dance. Enjoy life and live up to the potential God has given us. Doing so, we fulfill our purpose. Not only do we bring God glory, I expect we bring a smile to God’s face. Think about it, God, like a parent, smiling while watching his child play with others. Amen.

[1] Acts 9:2.

[2]“Calvin and Hobbes” this comic appeared on June 6, 1993.

[3]Joseph F. Girzone, Joshua: A Parable for Today (NY: Macmillan, 1987) pp. 73-4.

[4] Horace Bushnell, Work and Play; or, Literary Varieties (New York: Charles Scribner, 1861), 21-22. As quoted by Leonard Sweet, The Jesus Prescription for a Healthy Life (Abingdon, 1996), 52.