Making the best of things during a pandemic

lunch and morning coffee included

Surprisingly, things have been pretty busy for the past six weeks. You’d think t hat wouldn’t be the case since many places are closed down to visitors so I’m not making hospital or nursing home visits. Our office is closed for public visitation, but since they’re all separated, some of us still come in. Learning how to keep a congregation somewhat connected during a time of pandemic has taken it’s toll. Nothing is as easy as you’d think. The main thing that has keep me sane is that I’ve been able to regularly bike to work–which is good for the 3.2 miles each way gives me some physical exercise since the fitness center is closed. Plus, if I’m not going to the hospital, I don’t need a car, and since people only see me via a zoom camera, I can wear a dress shirt and shorts!  That’s me, riding to work one cool morning this week.


But by last week, things were clicking and I was able to get out on the water twice. Last Wednesday, I paddled over to Wassaw Island, took a nap and did some reading and writing while on the island, then paddled back. It’s about five miles each way. While I paddled with the tide, I had quite a wind against me heading out (thankfully the wind was to my back when I paddled home.

Nap Time on Wassaw

On the two trips I did, I decided to try to do a “devotion” from my kayak. I recorded these on Facebook live and had a lot of folks watching and commenting. Then I copied and posted in my newly created YouTube channel, so you can watch. I need to learn to do this a little smoother, but I’m curious as to what you think. The first (3 minutes) is a prayer by a favorite Scottish theologian of the early 20th Century, John Braille. The second includes two poems (one by Mary Karr and the other by me) along with a Puritan prayer. Clink on the links below:

Earth Day Prayer

Two Poems and a Prayer

Friday, Paddling around Pigeon Island

How are you surviving the pandemic? I hope you have been able to get outside–it’s a great way to enjoy while creating social distance.

Encountering Jesus Along the Way

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
April 26, 2020
Luke 24:13-35

To watch the entire service (approximately 40 minutes), click here to go to our YouTube site.

           It is solved by walking, Augustine of Hippo said.[1] I believe it. When I don’t know what to do, I often take a walk (or ride a bicycle or spend time in a kayak). There’s something about getting out and moving that helps us re-center ourselves. It’s especially true during these times of social isolation. We need to get some fresh air and pick up a little sunshine. It helps our mental state. And maybe that’s why the two disciples in today’s scripture reading decided to hike over to Emmaus. After all, they’d had a bad week. We’ve all had some bad weeks lately and could all probably use a good walk. The weather is going to be nice today—just maintain a safe social distance.

As we’ve done through Lent and have continued through the Easter season, I’m going to use a piece of art to help us get into the text for today. Our picture shows two disciples flanking Jesus as they walk along the road. Now, as we’ll see when we get into the text, they don’t recognize Jesus. We do! He’s in the middle (remember my sermon from last week-Jesus is always in the middle and we need to keep him there.). Also, Jesus is wearing white! That’s a dead giveaway! One of the disciples holds a scroll and Jesus is obviously helping him understand what he’s reading. But let’s step away and get into the mind of what this lad, over on the edge, might be thinking.

          I have a lot of time to think out here, watching the sheep. I see a lot of people coming and going. Jerusalem, the Holy City, is just over the rise, a few miles away. These three were heading away from the city and engaged in a great debate. Even with my back turned, I could hear them a mile away. And as they were talking, the third guy, the one in a white robe, catches up with them. He joins their conversation. They seem rather surprised that he didn’t know what they were talking about. There’s this man, supposedly a king, who’d been crucified. But then he starts asking questions and I can tell they are intrigued. Here, a guy who didn’t seem to know the news, yet knows the scriptures.

          Later in the day, as the sun is setting, I see the two men again, rushing back toward Jerusalem. They are joyous and excited. I wondered what happened to the third man, the one who seemed to know so much.


It’s still Easter in our text, the afternoon after word began to spread around about Jesus not being in the tomb. People are trying to figure this all out. One of the things that I like about Luke’s retelling of the resurrection is how he gives three different stories which all happened that first Easter Sunday. There is the account of the women and Peter at the empty tomb early in the morning. Then there is this account that happens along to the road to Emmaus. Finally, there is the appearance of Jesus among the disciples at a fish fry. In today’s account, we learn that what happened was necessary and foretold by prophets. The Messiah had to suffer, die and rise again.[2]

In the account we’re looking at today, we join up with two disciples walking to Emmaus, a town which according to Luke was about seven miles from Jerusalem. We’re not sure, today, where Emmaus was located. One of the disciples is identified as Cleopas, and we don’t really know who he is as this is his only mention in Scripture. It’s assumed these two disciples were not part of Jesus’ inner-circle (the twelve) but of a larger group of those who followed Jesus.[3] Some think the unnamed disciple might have been Cleopas’ wife. Perhaps they were two of the 70 disciples Luke mentions in the tenth chapter, who were sent out by Jesus.

On this occasion, they are walking and discussing the events of the past few days when they are joined by a stranger. This makes sense to me, as I have walked a lot in my life. I recall numerous occasions along the Appalachian Trail where I was talking to someone and a third person comes up behind us and, overhearing what we were talking about, puts his two cents worth.

Interestingly, they do not recognize Jesus. Certainly, if they had traditional robes and head coverings, it could be hard to recognize him, but we’d think they would be familiar with his voice. But Verse 16 indicates that their eyes were prevented from seeing Jesus, which parallels what happens in the guest house, where their eyes were opened.[4]

When the stranger joins them, he asks, essentially, “What’s going on?” Think about this. It’s been a troubling few days in Jerusalem. This is kind of like someone coming up to you in the grocery store, way too close, while you’re decked out with gloves and a mask, and ask what’s up with the gloves and masks. Does this person not know what’s going on with the COVID virus?[5]  Cleopas, the only disciple named, questions him harshly. “Are you the only one that doesn’t know what’s happened? It seems odd that this stranger is clueless, and they fill Jesus in on all that has happened. They witness to Jesus, about Jesus! But it turns out, Jesus’ isn’t so clueless. He helps them understand the Scriptures by asking a question. It has been said that questions “help tune the soul,” as they help “illumine the world.”[6] Jesus’ question, on the need for the Messiah to suffer before glory, does this. Jesus, whom they still don’t know, helps these disciples see the Scriptures in a new way.

There’s a part of me that feels as if Jesus is playing with the two disciples. Yes, he knew very well what happened in Jerusalem over the past few days. But Jesus, instead of pulling down hood of his robe and demanding the disciples look him in the eye, or maybe showing them his hands and feet, takes the time to lead these disciples to the point in which they can accept and understand what happens. Jesus is never in a hurry; he takes his time, helping us to understand God’s grace.

The disciples, who still haven’t figured out who Jesus is, appreciate his words and invite him to eat with them in Emmaus. We have the sense Jesus was willing to just keep on walking, but hospitality is appreciated, and Jesus’ accepts. This sets up an occasion for him to break bread with the two disciples and it is in that act that their eyes are opened, and they recognize him.

Something else happens. Jesus, at the table, goes from being the guest to the host.[7] The disciples are rewarded for their hospitality, perhaps foreshadowing what would later be written in the Book of Hebrews, “Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it.”[8] In this case, it’s not just an angel. It’s the Lord himself.

As they walked to Emmaus, I imagine the two disciples lollygagging along. Their heads are down, they’re kicking stones. They’re sad about Jesus and not sure what to think of the rumors they’ve heard. Their slow pace allows this stranger to catch up with them and join in their conversation.  Afterwards, after Jesus opens their eyes, they run back to Jerusalem. Their pace picks up. They have a purpose. They head back to find the disciples and to share the story of their encounter.

Jesus gives us a purpose. In the other resurrection stories, Jesus sent off those he met with a mission. Mary Magdalene is to go tell the disciples. The disciples are to build a church on forgiveness. But here, Jesus just disappears. However, the two disciples know what to do. This is just too glorious to keep to themselves. They must share the message with others, so they head back to Jerusalem to tell the disciples.

In some ways, our encounters with Christ are probably more like these two disciples walking to Emmaus. There are very few Damascus Road experiences, like that of Paul. It ranks up there with Moses’ burning unburned bush. Most of us experience Christ, like these two, when we realize something someone said caused our hearts to burn, or when someone opens Scripture and we learned the eternal truths of God’s Word. And when something like that happens, we must tell someone. It’s a Truth we can’t keep to ourselves. This is how our faith spreads. We encounter Christ through his word or through someone who speaks to us about Christ and then Christ becomes real to us.

When Christ became real to these two disciples, they rushed off to tell others. What do we do? How do we respond? How does our faith change our lives? In this time of social distancing we might not be able to barge into a neighbor’s house sharing the good news, but there are still ways we can let people know what we’ve found to be true. There are ways we can let people witness our faith, for we have a story that demands to be told. Amen.



[1] Solviture ambulando. It’s one of my Augustine’s more well-known sayings that has been often quoted.

[2] See Luke 24:6-7, 25-27, and 46.

[3] Norval Geldenhuys, The Gospel of Luke: The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 632.

[4] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 716-717, 724.

[5] This story came from Jill Duffield, “Looking into the Lectionary-3rd Sunday of Easter,” The Presbyterian Outlook (April 20, 2020).

[6] Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred (New York: MJF Books, 1998), 24.

[7] Edwards, 723.

[8] Hebrews 13:2, New Living Translation.

Three Books: Civility, Theology, & Poetry

What are you reading this days?  Looking for a good book while you isolate yourself? Here are three books from books I recently read. It’s by sheer accident that two of them discuss Epictetus (but different parts of his philosophy):

P. M. Forni, The Civility Solution: What to Do When People are Rude (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008), 266 pages including notes.

The late P. M. Forni was the founder of the Civility Institute at John Hopkins University. In this short book, he deals with issues we face all the time, rude people. He encourages his readers to take the high and honest road when dealing with such folks. It’s the only way to build a more civil world.

In the first chapter, Forni defines rudeness as a disregard for others and an attempt to “control through invalidation”. He lists the costs rudeness has for individuals, the economy, and society: stress, loss of self-esteem, loss of productivity, and the potential of violence. He also discusses the cause of rudeness, which is simplifies as a bad “state of mind”.

In the second chapter, Forni presents and explains how to prevent rudeness by listing and explaining eight rules for a civil life:

Slow down and be present in your life
Listen to the voice of empathy
Keep a positive attitude
Respect others and grant them plenty of validation
Disagree graciously and refrain from arguing
Get to know the people around you
Pay attention to the small things
Ask, don’t tell

In the third chapter, Forni writes about how we can “accept real-life rudeness.” He quotes Epictetus, who encourages us to want things to happen as they happen for a life to go well. After all, we can’t control other people, and if we expect that there will be rudeness in life, we won’t be surprised. But once we accept the situation, then we can act upon it, which may be to remove ourselves or to refuse to be react. “Rudeness is someone else’s problem foisted on you,” Forni notes (62). Once we accept reality, we may choose to respond appropriately and even assertively to redirect the situation.

In the fourth chapter, Forni writes about how we respond to rudeness, but does so by beginning with a wonderful (and very rude example) from two 18th Century British politicians. Scolding his rival, John Montagu cried, “Upon my soul, Wilkes, I don’t know whether you’ll die upon the gallows or of syphilis.” Wilkes responded, “That will depend, my Lord, on whether I embrace your principles, or your mistress” (67). Forni suggests that when we encounter rudeness, we cool off, calm ourselves, don’t take it personally (most often it’s not personal), and then decide what we need to do. While we do not need to respond to all situations, we don’t want to ignore all situations, either. When we do decide to confront, we need to state the problem, inform the offending party of its effect upon you, and request such behavior to cease. Forni then lists special situations such as bullying, rudeness at work, and rudeness with children.

The second half of the book consists of a series of case studies. Starting with those close to us, Forni offers examples of rudeness that we might face along with a solution to how we might confront the behavior. Other chapters deal with rudeness from neighbors, at the workplace, on the road, from service workers, and within digital communications. While these chapters contained many important ideas and examples, it essentially applied the principals laid out in the first half of the book.  It’s too bad that Forni is no longer with us. He could have updated this issue with a section on political rudeness.

Another of Forni’s books have been on reading list for some time. This book was brought to me by a colleague, who had found it at a book exchange and brought it for me, knowing of my interest in civility.  I was glad to read it and would recommend it. I also look forward to reading more of Forni’s writings.


N. T. Wright, Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 223 pages including a scripture index.

This is a collection of twelve lectures crafted into independent articles addressing many contemporary issues in the world: the debate over science and religion, the role of women within the church, the environmental crisis, evil, natural disasters,  politics, and the future. For those who have some familiarity with Wright’s theology, you will see many of these topics addressed with his recognizable theology of the cross and resurrection ushering in a new era in which we now live. The resurrection is the eighth day of a new creation brought to us by God the Redeemer (paralleling the new creation in Genesis). For Wright, the purpose of salvation is to restore us to stewards of creation (36).  Wright is also critical of the adoption of Epicureanism during the Enlightenment, which allowed us to do away with “God.” The result is that we’ve gone back to the old gods of Aphrodite, Mammon, and Mars.  In other words, we’ve “got rid of God upstairs so that we can live our own lives the way we want…. And have fallen back into the clutches of forces and energies that are bigger than ourselves… forces we might as well recognize as god” (149-154). Wright also draws some interesting comparisons from his native home in the United Kingdom to the religious situation in American. He points out how the “right” is seen as the savior of religion in American, and how it’s the “left” in Britain that for the past forty years have tried to restore religion to the public life (164). The closing essays looks at the future. While debunking ideas such as the rapture and others end world scenarios popularized by the “Left Behind” series, he leaves his readers with a more hopeful vision of the future.  I enjoyed these essays. They left me with a lot to ponder and I recommend the book to others interested in how the Christian faith might inform our lives and world today.


Laura Davenport, Dear Vulcan: poems (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2020), 63 pages.

There is much about the South in these poems. Her grandfather’s grandfather walks back from Richmond in the spring of 1865, burying his burdens along the way. A girl becomes a woman in the industrial city of Birmingham, Alabama, with its mile-long coal trains snaking around closed steel mills. While the title poem, “Dear Vulcan,” is set in Birmingham, Davenport explores many places across the region. There are urban and rural settings, places inland and others by the ocean. Hell is seen in a basement pool hall. The August thunderstorm at night “washes summer metallic edge from the air.” There’s the city without women, which keeps reappearing, populated by a boy experiencing the world. Sexuality is explored in parked cars, church basements, and by a married couple drawn to each other in bed after painting the room. In each poem, the reader stumbles upon more pleasant surprises.

While I found much about the South in these poems that I related to, the one missing element was race. Birmingham was not just the Southern Pittsburgh; it was also the city of Bull O’Conner and the 16th Street Baptist Church where four young black girls waiting for their Sunday School class to begin, died in a racist firebombing. Perhaps, one could hope, this could be forgotten and buried or painted over, and we could have a South where race no longer mattered. But that’s my bias, instilled by growing up during the Civil Rights era. But maybe the absence of race (as in women in the poems in cities without women) is that the South often struggles to ignore that which it doesn’t want to face. In my own personal life, I am still amazed that I could live in a city in Virginia for three years, (this was before they segregated schools) and never realize that we (whites) made up only 20% of the population. For the South as a region to come of age, it’ll have to learn to face the unspeakable.  In the meantime, children become adults and must experience the world around them which Davenport captures beautifully.

I met Davenport through a writer’s group that I’m in. I was hoping to catch her book release, but it was the day after I had flown back from Austin, Texas, just as the country was shutting down over the fear of COVID-19. As I had been around several hundred of my “best friends” inside two airplanes, I decided it was best if I self-quarantined. I missed the reading at the Book Lady Bookstore but was able to pick up a signed copy of the book thanks to the “Booklady” (who had an employee drop the book off at my office on his way home). How’s that for service!

The Resurrection, Parts 2 & 3

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
April 19, 2020
John 20:19-29


Throughout this Easter Season, we’re looking at post-resurrection stories of Jesus. We find these mostly in the gospels of Luke and John. As we left off last week, Jesus had risen and had appeared to Mary Magdalene. He sent her off on a mission to tell the disciples. Prior to her arrival, all they know is that Jesus’ tomb is open, and his body is gone. They are fearful, worrying that they may end up facing the same kind of death Jesus’ endured. But that changes.

What is this resurrection about? What does it mean for us, today? In Richard Rohr’s devotional this week, he quoted Franciscan sister and scientist Ilia Delio:

Christianity can help us realize that death and resurrection are part of the evolutionary path toward wholeness; letting go of isolated existence for the sake of deeper union. Something dies but something new is born—which is why the chaos of our times is, in a strange way, a sign of hope; something new is being born within.[1]

Is this a time of hope? In this time of pandemic, what do we need to let go of? How might we become more whole? How might we develop a deeper union with Christ? Our text provides some suggestions.

We’re continuing to look at art to help us get into the Scriptures. Today’s painting, of Thomas checking out Jesus’ wounds, is by Caravaggio, an Italian painter of the late 16th and early 17th Century. Let’s get into the head of the other disciple looking over Thomas in this depiction of the event. What do you think was going on in his mind?

Like Thomas, I also have doubts. I was just not willing to speak up. Can this really be Jesus? After all, his body was so broken when they pulled him off the cross. Yet, he’s now in front of us. Jesus insists that Thomas, who doubted when they said Jesus had risen from the dead, stick his finger into his wound. I’m watching. Thomas is reluctant, but Jesus grabs his wrist and pulls his hand toward the wound. Can this really be the same Jesus, that just a little over a week ago, hung on a cross?  And is he the same Jesus we followed throughout Galilee? Will people believe us when we tell what we’ve experienced? I no longer understand what is happening, but I know that nothing will ever be the same.

Let us read from the gospel of John, chapter 20, beginning with verse 19.


          What a week it. From the Parade to the cross and now on the evening of the first day of a new week, the disciples gather in secret. The doors are locked. Everyone is exhausted. Fright and fatigue show on their faces. After three years, they only have each other. And now there’s a rumor going around, started by Mary Magdalene, that Jesus is alive. Some think it possible, but others believe it’s just idle tale?”[2]

        And then suddenly, as the sun sinks in the West, Jesus appears. How did he get through the locked doors? But here he is, when he belongs, in the middle of the middle of the gathered disciples. Jesus was the one who unites the disciples. He’s always in the middle. He was even in the middle of those crucified on Friday. The middle is where Jesus belongs.[3] Remember that!

Holding up his hands, greeting his friends, Jesus says: “Peace be with you.” What a sight! The nail holes are evident. There’s a rip in his side where the Roman spear was thrust. The fatigue on their faces disappear, but the fright remains.

Again, Jesus says: “Peace be with you,” only this time he continues, telling them that just as he was sent by the Father, he’s sending them out into the world. The unique thing about the resurrection is that Jesus speaks to the disciples as if they are his equals and able to continue in his mission. Then, reminiscence of God blowing breath into the nostrils of the clay figure there in the Garden, giving life to Adam, Jesus blows upon the disciples.[4] Obviously, they weren’t worried about COVID-19.

A week later, the disciples are again in the house… Again, it’s the first day of the week, Sunday, the day after the Jewish Sabbath, the day of resurrection, the primary day that most Christians worship.[5] Again, the doors are locked. The shades are pulled… So much for Jesus’ command to go out into the world… It’s been a week since they’ve seen the resurrected Christ, with his wounds still visible, yet they’re still hiding, still afraid for their lives, still afraid to go out into the world…  Then Jesus reappears. And, where is he? Standing there among the disciples—in the middle—where Jesus belongs.

Thomas, the empiricist who wants to see, sense, and touch Jesus before he commits himself to believing is also present. Knowing this, Jesus invites Thomas to place his finger in his wounds… Imagine Thomas reaching out his hand. And then he sees. In awe, Thomas cries out, “My Lord and my God!”

         We could argue that this is the climax of John’s gospel. “My Lord and my God,” acknowledges that Jesus is more than the Messiah. We get a whiff of this in Matthew’s gospel where we’re told the women at the tomb worshipped Jesus.[6] We don’t worship a person; we worship God. Thomas takes this a step further and declares that Jesus is God. His confession has gone beyond all other confessions of the disciples up to this point.[7] A doubter at first, Thomas is the first disciple to recognize Jesus as more than a teacher. Jesus is God. Furthermore, Thomas’ proclamation is a political statement. Roman emperors were addressed as “Our lord and god.” Here, Thomas confesses who truly is Lord and God, and it’s not Caesar or anyone else to whom we might be lured into professing allegiance.[8] By calling Jesus Lord, Thomas asserts Jesus is worthy to obey. By calling Jesus God, Thomas declares that Jesus should be worshipped, as we’re doing today.

N. T. Wright suggests that Thomas serves as a parable for our need to both have the historical and scientific facts. He wanted to touch, to experience, and to see. But when he claims Jesus to be God, he transcends the historical and scientific realm into something “higher and richer.” We’re into a new creation.[9]

         What all this means to us, today, two millenniums after the resurrection? Jesus’ last words in this passage are interesting. It’s a blessing on us. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” Jesus says.  Did you hear that?  He’s talking about you and me; he’s blessing those of us who have not had an opportunity to stick our fingers into his wounds. Instead of seeing, we believe due to the presence of the Holy Spirit and the testimony of others who have felt Jesus’ presence in their lives. And because we have faith in Jesus Christ, we’re to listen to his teachings and to live lives that strive to glorify him. That’s the challenge we have, as individuals, to listen to Jesus and to live faithful.

       Furthermore, as a community of believers, we’re able to offer forgive sins. That’s quite a task. You know, there are a lot of good things that the church does in the community that other groups can also do, and in some cases these groups can even do it better than the church. But there is one thing that no other group can do. The government can’t do it, civic clubs can’t do it, political parties can’t do it—and that’s forgive sins. As God, Jesus has this power and he grants it to his church. For this reason, the church is an essential business. But the church isn’t a building; the church is wherever God’s people are at, which now, hopefully, is in the safety of our homes.

There’s a lot of hope in this passage. We have a God who can do incredible things and I believe God is doing that right now. This pandemic is offering us a chance to pause and re-evaluate our lives and what is important. We have plenty of time as we sit around the house watching TV and reading novels. But just remember this, the church isn’t here in this building, it’s where you and all the other believers are located. And, more importantly, as it was in that first Easter, and the next Sunday, Jesus needs to be present, in the middle of us. It’s easy to be depress these days, but Jesus is here, ready to give us strength and hope and encouragement. While this pandemic might suggest that it’s not safe to invite people into our homes, the exception is Jesus. Invite him into your home. Spend time with him during these weeks of isolation, asking him what you might learn from this time. For Jesus is not in the grave, he’s descended to the Father, but he’s left behind his Spirit to guide and comfort us. And for that, we should be thankful.  Amen.



[2] Luke 24:11, “and these words seemed to be an idle tale.”  John’s gospel only tells about Jesus’ encounter with Mary Magdalene prior to meeting his disciples later in the day.  See John 20:1-19.

[3] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 1162.

[4] See Genesis 2:7.

[5] Christians worship on the first day of the week because the Lord rose that Day (John 20) and the Holy Spirit descended upon the church on that day (Acts 2:1ff). See also 1 Corinthians 16:2.

[6] Matthew 28:9.

[7] As an example, the climax in Mark’s gospel comes with Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, but Thomas makes a stronger Christological statement, proclaiming that Jesus is also God. See Mark 8:29.

[8] Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI: The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1970), 1047.

[9] N. T. Wright, Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 60.

“I Have Seen the Lord!”


Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
John 20:1-18
Easter Sunday, April 12, 2020


Throughout Lent, we have been looking at pieces of art from around the world as a way to get into the Scriptures for each Sunday. We’re going to continue this tradition through the Easter Season. Today, we are looking at another artwork from the country of Cameroon, as the artist imagines Jesus and Mary Magdalene looking like the people of that country. Let’s think for a moment about what Mary Magdalene is thinking up to this point in the story:

          I’ve stuck by Jesus ever since I encountered him that day on the road, long before we came to Jerusalem, when he freed me of those seven demons that had tormented me.[1] I gave him what I had to support his ministry. I followed him from Galilee to Jerusalem. This past week has been overwhelming, from the glorious entry into Jerusalem, beginning with the waving of palm branches and the shouting of Hosanna. Whenever I could be close to Jesus and listen to his teachings, I was there. I heard him teach in the temple about giving to Caesar what was Caesar’s  and giving to God what was God’s, and about the generosity of the poor woman with two coins, whom most ignored, but whom Jesus lifted up as an example of faith. I was there, in the background at the dinners, and I followed Jesus as he was led away like a criminal. How a man who had freed me of such evil could be considered a criminal and a threat to the nation, I’ll never understand. I watched in horror as he was beaten and mocked and then led to the hill of death, where they crucified him. I couldn’t believe what was happening.

          I’ve had a hard time sleeping the last two nights. I kept wanting to be with him again, but I know he’s dead. When the birds began to sing in the predawn hours, I decided to get up and head to the tomb. I wasn’t prepared to find it empty, and Jesus’ body gone. I wondered where they had taken my Lord, and ran and told the disciples. Afterwards, as I was wandering around lost, I couldn’t believe my ears. He called me by name, “Mary.” Things are never going to be the same…[2]

Now let us listen to today’s lesson as I read from the 20th Chapter of John’s gospel.[3]

         We have spent all of Lent looking at the last week of Jesus’ earthly ministry: From the entry into Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday, to the teachings at the temple and the various dinners and then the betrayal that led to Jesus’ death. On Friday, we appeared to be the end of the story. Jesus is dead. His lifeless body is sealed in a tomb as the sun is going down on the day for preparing for the Sabbath. Everyone returns to their homes or where they’ve been staying. I’m sure Caiaphas, the chief priest, and Pilate, the Roman governor, along others in leadership positions are glad to be done with this rabble-rouser. They may have even rested well on the Sabbath. Others, like the disciples and those who had followed Jesus were troubled. But they, too, felt it was over. They saw Jesus’ limp body be taken from the cross. But, as we know, the story doesn’t end.

         John begins the 20th Chapter with several statements about time. It’s early. It’s the first day of the week. In the first chapter, John’s gospel has an echo of Genesis. Both start the same way, “In the beginning…” John takes that well-known phrase from the opening chapter of Scripture and applies it to Jesus. Jesus, the Word, was with God at the beginning of creation. God is doing something new. As in the seven days of Creation, when God created heaven and earth, we now have a new week. In the first week of Creation, God created humanity, the crown of creation, on day six. Now, on day six, God once again does his triumphant work, reconciling a sinful humanity with the divine through the sacrifice of God’s Son. That’s Good Friday. God rests on the seventh day, the Sabbath, our Saturday. And then, on the first day of the new week, in those early morning hours, God begins a new age.

          As Paul proclaims, Christ is the first fruit of those who died.[4] With the resurrection of Christ, God is beginning to do something new. N. T. Wright explains in his essay on John 20, the Easter story is more than just God putting a happy ending to a really bad week. Easter is the beginning of God’s new creation. The work of the Father in creation, and the work of the Son in redemption, are complete.[5] It’s now the eighth day. We’re in a new era.

         The reports of this new era start with a restless Mary Magdalene going to the tomb while it’s still dark and seeing that it’s open. Of course, her experience, as is ours, is that once you are dead, there’s no coming back. So she runs to tell the disciples. Two of them, Peter and probably John, race each other back to the gravesite.[6] And there they find an empty tomb, with the linen cloths that had wrapped Jesus’ body left behind. But none of them know what to think. In verse 8, we’re told that the faster disciple believed, but what did he believe? The next verse seems to indicate that he only believed the tomb was open, and that Mary’s report was factual. They did not understand that Jesus must rise from the dead. So instead of hanging around, they head back to bed.

        Mary hangs around. We get a sense of what she is thinking when she answers the angels who want to know why she’s crying. “They’ve taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they laid him.” Mary Magdalene still believes that Jesus is dead. She assumes, because she can’t imagine otherwise, that some grave robber broke into the tomb and took the body away. In her mind, this is a terrible deed. It would be a terrible deed. You don’t mess with dead bodies. Even our military prosecutes soldiers who desecrate enemy dead. After all, once they are dead, they no longer pose a threat and are no longer enemies.[7]

Mary Magdalene, who has a front row seat at what God is doing, can’t imagine what’s happening. Even when she first sees Jesus, she assumes he’s the gardener. After all, dead men don’t walk around. She thinks the gardener may even be responsible for removing Jesus’ body. It’s only when Jesus calls her by name does she realizes that what has happened is more marvelous than she could ever imagine. John has already told us that the Good Shepherd knows his sheep by name.[8] And Jesus knew Mary, and when she hears her name, she recognizes him.

In Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, he is always assigning his followers with a mission. Jesus assignment for Mary Magdalene is insightful. Go and tell my brothers…” he says. The disciples are elevated; instead of disciples, they’re now brothers, on equal terms with Jesus. Furthermore, Mary is lifted up into this family, for Jesus tells her that he’ll ascend to “my Father and your Father, my God and your God.” Having been called by name, Mary Magdalene is now a part of Jesus’ family.[9] She runs off to obey Jesus, going to the disciples and saying “I have seen the Lord!” Could there ever be a more wonderful proclamation? Their world would never be the same.

         This is an Easter unlike any we’ve experienced before. Instead of being together, wearing new clothes, bringing flowers to decorate the cross afterwards while kids hunt Easter eggs, we’re all separated as we strive to stop this virus that has unleashed death upon the earth. In some ways, we’re like the disciples, who were essentially hiding on that first Easter. Yes, Mary was out, as well as Peter and John for a short period, but once they saw Jesus’ body is gone, they head back to where the rest of the disciples are hiding. In fact, if you keep reading, you’ll see the disciples were not only hiding, they were behind locked doors.[10] But this time of isolation didn’t last for them, nor will it last forever for us. Sooner or later, things will go back to some kind of normality.

We will once again be able to gather and to enjoy each other’s presence. Yes, we’ll once again show off Easter bonnets and hunt eggs and flower a cross. But we won’t be able to go back to exactly the way things were, and that’s okay. This was true for the disciples, too. They didn’t go back to those carefree days of traveling around Galilee with Jesus. But that was okay, too, because they were experiencing something new and even better. They got to tell the world the good news.

          This is the meaning of this “great pause” we are living through right now.[11] In a way, we’re given a gift. We have the time we need to ponder what’s important in our lives. And if we can hold on to what’s important, what we value and cherish, our lives after things return to normal will be much richer. Friends, use this time, this gift, to grow closer to our Lord and to learn to depend upon him. And if we do that, we can be like Mary Magdalene, so when our Savior through the Holy Spirit calls us by name, we’ll be ready to answer. Amen.



[1] Luke 8:2

[2] Inspired by John 20 and an article on Mary Magdalene in Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (New York: Harper and Row, 1979), 101-103.

[3] In the worship service, the Reverend Deanie Strength will do the opening monologue of Mary Magdalene’s thoughts and read the Scriptures.

[4] 1 Corinthians 15:20

[5] N. T. Wright, Surprised by Scripture, (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 209.

[6] While John’s name is not given, it is generally assumed that he is the other disciple.

[7] For such rules from all nations including the United States, see

[8] John 10:3.

[9] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 1152 & 1154.

[10] John 20:19.

[11] The term “great pause” comes from Julio Vincent Gambuto, “Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting,” April 10, 2020,

Jesus in the Garden

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Mark 14:32-43
April 5, 2020


Our text for today, as we finish looking at the events of Jesus’ final week of earthly ministry, is his prayer in the Garden. It’s a time of temptation. Jesus is worried. He knows what will happen and grieves. He’s troubled. A lot of us may be like Jesus on this night, as we worry about the future and this unseen enemy that we all face. May we learn from his prayer.

As we’ve done throughout this Lenten Series of looking at the events of Jesus’ final week of earthly ministry, we will use a painting. This painting come from the African country of Cameroon. We see Jesus praying while his inner-circle of disciples nod-off. Let’s imagine what Peter is thinking as he falls asleep.

          Too much wine, perhaps. Or maybe I’m so sleepy because I’m just so very tired. This week is taking its toll. Watching our every step, wondering when the other shoe will drop, afraid that the commotion stirred up about Jesus will result in something terrible. I’ve been on edge ever since we got here.

          But oh my, that parade! Who would have thought that this man I met on the shores of my fishing spot would turn out to be three years of non-stop surprises?! The entrance into Jerusalem was more amazing than all of it combined. I felt sure that I was part of something that was going to change everything! Now I’m not so sure. Not everyone, it turned out, was so pleased about Jesus’ arrival here. We’ve been under scrutiny for days.

          Then tonight at the table, Jesus revealed that one of us was about to hand him over. My gut turns over with the thought of it. Could we, who’ve become family, my family, turn against one another under pressure? Fear threatens our very bonds!

          So why put ourselves out here in the open? I need to stay awake, keep watch! I’ve got my sword. I know Jesus told me not to bring it, but come on! All he seems to think we need to do is pray. He asked us to pray with him. Yes, I pray, I’m praying, I’ll fervently pray! But is it enough? How can God help us if soldiers arrive? And yet… I’m so sleepy.


Soloist sings: Enter
Enter the story
Enter the place you belong
Not just looking on
For this is your story
Enter the story

Enter the passion
Enter the place we belong
Not just looking on
For this is our passion
Enter the passion
[tag] Enter the story…
Enter the passion…
Enter his passion.[1]

          There are many paintings of Jesus praying in the garden in addition to this one from Cameroon. One of my favorites hung in the Session room in the congregation I served in Utah. I always felt it was an appropriate picture for a board room. Board rooms often have photos of the company founders, or the company president. Such paintings remind us of our heritage. Having Jesus in a church board room reminds us of who’s really in charge. It’s not the Session. Jesus Christ is the head of the church.

In this painting, Jesus overlooks Jerusalem. A few lights can be seen in houses below. Just above the horizon, a full moon hangs in the sky but it is partly covered by clouds or fog and you get the sense that landscape might soon be totally dark. By the way, since Passover occurs at the full moon in the Jewish month of Nisan, this part of the  that something sinister will soon happen. Looking back on this final week of Jesus’ earthly ministry, we have been given hints all along that something isn’t right, something is going to happen. Now, we’re at the decisive point. Does Jesus go through with this plan or not?

        Leaving the bulk of the disciples behind, Jesus takes the three disciples that consist of his inner-core and heads into a garden. For those steeped in Scripture, a garden recalls the perfect adobe of Adam and Eve, but also the temptation that occurred there.[2] And certainly, now, Jesus is to be tempted once more, perhaps ever a greater temptation. Does he follow his Father’s will and endure the shame and pain of a crucifixion? Or does he slip out of town and head back to Galilee? This is a pivotal point.[3] Does he go forward and experience the horror of an abandoned death? He can still back out, but that won’t be the case once Judas arrives.

Matthew and Mark both identity this garden as “Gethsemane,” a Hebrew word that means oil press. Luke says it’s on the Mount of Olives, which is a fitting places for an oil press, and John’s gospel says this occurs across the Kidron Valley, which cuts between the temple and the Mount of Olives.[4] So essentially, all the gospels are in general agreement on the rough location of Jesus’ prayer. And they agree that he prays fervently.[5]

         Jesus positions the three disciples close by. While he wants to be alone with the Father, he also wants to be close to friends. He asks them to stay awake. Yet, they immediately fall asleep. Was it the wine? Was it the exhausting schedule? Are they worried and depressed and the only way they can shut their brains off is through sleep? Jesus steps away and prays, then comes back to check on the disciples. He does this three times. Each time, they’re asleep. This compounds his troubles. He will have to go through the experience all alone. After his third trip back to the disciples, he arouses them and announces the arrival of the betrayer.

         What can we learn from this story? Let me suggest three things. First, to prepare ourselves for trouble, we need to take our concerns to God in prayer. Prayer is important even when we know the answer we’ll receive might be no.[6] God the Father wasn’t going to remove his cup, yet Jesus prayed. We might pray, “Lord, take this cancer away.” Sometimes God does, sometimes God doesn’t. But in praying and in bringing our personal concerns to God, we are drawn in closer to our Creator, and that’s a benefit that can help us cross troubled waters.

At a time like the present, we all need to be in prayer, for ourselves, our friends, and the world. We need to pray for our leaders, for those who are sick, for those who have lost loved ones, for those who have lost their jobs, and for those who are treating and fighting the virus. But we also need to pray for ourselves, our own struggles and for our own peace of mind. For we can endure almost anything if we have God on our side.

         A second thing we can learn from this story is that there is a benefit of being supported in prayer. While God will hear our prayers, there is something to be said about having others praying with us. Like they were in the garden, separated by some distance, and like us now dealing the COVID-19 and being separated by six feet, we need to remember that we don’t have to lay hands on one another for our prayer to be effective. We must be willing to ask or to be asked to pray. And when someone asks us to pray for them, we should consider it an honor and fulfill their request. It helps to be supported in our prayer.

        And finally, we learn that even when we fail come through (and we’re all human and won’t always do what we should), we should remember that God doesn’t abandon us for petty failures. Look at the disciples. None of them could keep their eyes open on this most important night of their lives, but Jesus didn’t throw them under the bus. Instead, he faithfully kept his promise and even though Peter would go on to deny him, Jesus would use him to build his church. In fact, these three—Peter, James and John—would all become major players in the church following the resurrection. So even if we fail, don’t lose hope. Keep going and trust that God is with you.

These are tough times in which we’re living. Let us do what we can to support one another. We begin our preparation in prayer. Amen.



[1] This edited monologue and song is from the Worship Design Series: “Entering the Passion of Jesus: Picturing Ourselves in the Story.” Subscription from

[2] Amy-Jill Levine, Entering the Passion of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to Holy Week (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2018), 133.  See Genesis 2 & 3.

[3] William L. Lane,  The Gospel of Mark: NICNT (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1974), 516.

[4] See Matthew 26:26, Luke 22:39, and John 18:1.

[5] John’s gospel doesn’t have Jesus praying in the garden, but while still at the table. His prayer isn’t even for himself, but for his disciples and is found in John 17.

[6] Levine, 132.  

In Memory of Baseball (a poem with a recording and a book review)

The 2020 baseball season was scheduled to kickoff this past weekend. Unfortunately, it has been postponed due to the current pandemic. So here is a poem I wrote this weekend (you can even listen to it–how neat is that) along with a review of a book I recently read with my book club on the 1949 baseball season. Enjoy and wash your hands!.

I am not sure why there is not the arrow to start in the strip below, but if you click just to the left of the 00:00, you can start the recording. It’s a minute and 16 seconds long. 

David Halberstam, Summer of ‘49, (1989, New York: HarperPerennial, 2002), 354 pages, with a bibliography, index, and some black and white photographs.


In the post wars years, as players returned from the war, baseball captured the imagination of Americans. It was America’s sport. Football and basketball prominence was still in the future. The ballpark was a place where the melting pot vision could be witnessed firsthand. Immigrant children like the DiMaggios (there were three brothers who played in the majors) were second generation Italians and stars. Then, staring in 1947 with Jackie Robinson, African-Americans were included in the roosters. Postwar ball reached a new height with the thrilling 1948 pennant race in the American League. In the days before playoff series, the top team in each league went to the World Series, and if there was a tie, there was a one game playoff. Three teams were in contention in ‘48: the Cleveland Indians, Boston Red Sox’s and the New York Yankees. The Indians won, leaving the younger Red Sox’s and the older Yankees disappointed.

The 1949 season turned out to be just as exciting as the Yankees and Red Sox’s battled it out for the American League pennant. The season began with the Yankees great Joe DiMaggios (who’d bridged the team from the Ruth/Gehrig era to the Mantle/Maris era) being out with an injured foot. The other great hitter was the Red Sox’s Ted Williams. Also playing for the Red Sox’s was Joe’s brother, Dominic. It was an exciting season in which the Yankees won the pennant in the last inning of the last game as the two teams battled it out.

Halberstam, who was a teenager during this season, captures the excitement that came down to the final inning. Once again, the Red Sox’s are disappointed. The Yankees win. Halberstam tells the story of this season, providing insight into the financial workings of baseball as well the changes that were taking place. This was a time when players still mostly traveled in trains, but planes were making their debut. It was also a time that most games, which had previously not been broadcast locally, were being on the air and great names were emerging in the broadcast booth, many who would soon become the well-known reporters who overshadowed the previously honored sportswriters. Even television made an appearance during the World Series. And for the Yankees, new names were rising up such as their new manager, Casey Stengel, and their rookie catcher, Yogi Berra. Other players who would grow into greatness were also beginning to make themselves known such as Willie Mays (whom the Yankees took a pass on due to his race).

Although I have never liked the Yankees, I was impressed with their teams discipline and how they instilled hard playing in each member of the team. Joe DiMaggio exemplifies this when asked why he plays so hard in games in which little was at stake and he responded that there might be someone in the crowd who’d never seen him play. For anyone who enjoys baseball, this is a good read.