“It Matters What Matters” October 28, 2018
“It Matters What Matters”
Job 42:1-6, 10-17
Margie and I took a trip to northern California two summers ago to see the redwoods. Evidently, that Spring there had been a major wind event which had caused a lot of these giants to come crashing down. By the time we showed up, some of the lesser highways were still closed for repair. Now this wasn’t a matter of clearing the trees from the roadway – that had been taken care of. No, I’m talking about actual repair of paved roads that had been gouged and torn up and smashed by some of the largest trees on the planet. It was a sad thing. Some of these trees could have been saplings at the time of Christ and then here they were: crisscrossed like a bunch of giant matchsticks.
Eugene Peterson, one of my favorite preachers, passed away last Monday at his home in Lakeside, MT. Mr. Peterson was known for many things: he was a scholar, a clergyman, a poet, and the author of over 35 books. His greatest work would have to be the paraphrase translation of the Bible that is called simply, “The Message.” Eugene Peterson was often called a pastor’s pastor. He had a way of cutting through the weeds that clergy find themselves getting tangled in. You could say that he had a keen sense for what really matters in the life of the church, what matters in our journey of faith, and what matters in the eyes of God.
In many ways he was disappointed with the state of the church today. His dissatisfaction began when he started his church outside of Baltimore in 1962. In an effort to get the church off the ground he attended several seminars on church growth. He figured this would be a good idea but soon realized that those leading the sessions didn’t understand what a church or pastor does, and so he was disappointed they ended up pushing consumer driven churches. The way to grow, he was told, was to find out what people wanted and then dish it up to them.
Like I said, what I love most about Eugene Peterson is that he understood that it matters what matters. He knew this seminar was off the mark when he was told by the leader, “The most important thing you can to do to have a good church is to have a big parking lot.” Later, he told podcast host Jason Daye, “That was the end of it for me, I just quit.” Likewise, when he found himself frustrated with the unimaginative way his congregants treated the Bible, he translated the whole thing himself and that translation has sold millions of copies around the world. His down to earth faith hinged on a love of metaphor and a commitment to the Bible’s poetry as what keeps it alive to the world. It mattered that the bible could be understood by those reading it today as easily as when it was written. Peterson said, “When Paul of Tarsus wrote a letter, the people who received it understood it instantly. When the prophet Isaiah preached a sermon, I can’t imagine that people went to the library to figure it out. That was the basic premise under which I worked.”
He went on to say, “I began with the New Testament in the Greek – a rough and jagged language, not so grammatically clean. I just typed out a page the way I thought it would have sounded to the Galatians.” Eugene Peterson was a gift; a blessing. Just as Martin Luther used to talk about “wrestling with scripture,” it is Eugene Peterson who has shown us (or at least, me) the pure joy of reading scripture. He once wrote, “There is nothing terribly difficult in the Bible – at least in a technical way. The Bible is written in street language, common language. Most of it was oral and spoken to illiterate people. They were the first ones to receive it. So when we make everything academic, we lose something.” Today we read of Job who was being hammered from all sides. His wife, his friends all advised him to give it up. “You must have done something to deserve this,” they said over and over. But Job knew in his heart that what really matters is that, as Peterson said, “All the persons of faith I know are sinners, doubters, uneven performers. We are secure not because we are sure of ourselves but because we trust that God is sure of us.” That’s what matters. To be sure of yourself is a fleeting thing. But to trust that God is sure of us, that’s what matters. That’s what changes lives. How could blind Bartimaeus have the courage to leap up and shout, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me?” How did Job endure such pain and loss and never cry foul – never seek to blame God? It is simple: they knew what matters, they understood what matters, and this belief and understanding is what controlled their every thought and emotion and action every day of every month of every year of their lives.
The death of Eugene Peterson has made me tired. I am tired of a world where the message of Jesus Christ is polarized and sanitized and politicized. I am tired of a world where faith leaders – the pastors of our time – have hitched their wagons to world leaders apart from the Gospel. It makes me sad that many have chosen the platitudes of our time over the beatitudes of Jesus Christ. But giants must fall. And as with the Redwoods, we can take some comfort in the knowing that others will rise up to take their place. Eugene Peterson was one of a kind. Like Job, he was a man of integrity; righteous in the eyes of God. On his deathbed, friends and family reported that he talked to people that have been long since gone from this world. I found it interesting that one of his final words were simply, “Let’s go.”
`A few final thoughts about Eugene Peterson. Christianity Today quoted from his book, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, “The story of our faith, our very existence, begins and ends with joy,” he wrote. “… Joy at the beginning, joy at the end, joy everywhere in between. Joy is God’s creation and gift. No authentic biblical faith is conceivable that is not permeated with it.”
His family saw Peterson live that divine joy through his final moments on earth. “With full and overflowing hearts, we give thanks for the gift of his life,” they stated, “knowing that his joy is now complete.”
I take comfort and I find strength in the life and words of Eugene Peterson and that is true because he was grounded always in the good news of the Gospel. As your pastor, I will strive to learn and grow from this man’s heart, his experience, and his unwavering faith. He said it best when he wrote these words, “The most important thing a pastor does is stand in a pulpit every Sunday and say, ‘Let us worship God.’ If that ceases to be the primary thing I do in terms of my energy, my imagination, and the way I structure my life, then I no longer function as a pastor.” With that, I would like to close by saying just that: “Let us worship God. Let’s go.”
Amen & Shalom