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.



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).

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.

[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

Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy

David Zucchino, Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2020), 426 pages including notes, bibliography, and index along with 12 additional pages of prints.

On November 10, 1898, Wilmington, North Carolina erupted into violence. It began with an armed mob of white men burning the building which housed the Daily Record, an African American newspaper. Supposedly, this was because of an editorial that had been published months earlier that challenged the idea that lynching was necessary to keep black men away from white women.  After the fire, the mob terrified the African American community while white community leaders set out to exile leaders within the African American community along with members of the City Council and the Police Chief. Backing up these groups were reserve soldiers and sailors who had just recently returned home after having been deployed during the Spanish American War. By the end of the day, Zucchino estimates that there were 60 dead and that most of the black community had fled into the swamps. Some would leave right away; others would leave over the next few months and their absence would change the community forever.

After the terror created within the African American community, the leaders of this coup, turned to the elected and appointed leaders within the city government, who were mostly Republicans who had been elected with the help of the black vote. The election two days earlier had been a landslide for the Democrats (who at this time in history were the conservatives and had made the election about white supremacy). But with the mayor and aldermen not up for re-election, the leaders of the coup used the violence of the day as a reason to march on city hall and to demand the resignation of the city’s leaders. Then they placed their own people in power. The story reads like a who’s who of Wilmington’s leading families who were involved in the coup, along with clergy and members of the Jewish community.

David Zucchino, a reporter by trade, is not the first to tell this story. But Zucchino, with engaging prose, offers new insight into the events leading up to 1898 as well as what happened afterwards.  While much of what had been said about 1898 throughout history had been a lie, but the book could have also been called “Wilmington’s Secret.” This is not the kind of story a community speaks about publicly and, until the 100th anniversary of the event approached, most people knew little about what happened in 1898. I lived in the Wilmington area from age 9 to 24 and only knew rumors about 1898. I even played baseball at Hugh McRae Park (which recently has been renamed), unaware that the park was given to the country to only be used by whites. Even in the late 60s, I don’t remember seeing any blacks in the park. McRae was one of the leaders of the white supremacy movement in Wilmington. It wasn’t until the late 1990s, when I was home visiting my parents and picked up Philip Gerard’s novel, Cape Fear Rising, that I began to fully understand what happened. Since then, I have read four other books about this episode in history.

Zucchino begins his story with the fall of Wilmington to Union forces in the final months of the Civil War. In short chapters that focus on an event or a point in time, which reads like a newspaper column, Zucchino paints a broad picture of what was happening in Wilmington prior to 1898.  Wilmington was a place of opportunity for African Americans and many moved to Wilmington seeking a better life. At this time, most African Americans in North Carolina still had the right to vote and many did, which led to the 1898 election in which the black population was discouraged to exercise their rights. In the aftermath of 1898, the state would establish laws that would essentially disenfranchise black voters. Zucchinno shows that the event of November 10 was carefully planned. It was the ultimate example of playing the “race card.” The white leaders within the city excited fear of a black uprising among the white population, but they kept the white citizens from acting until after the elections. They even stopped earlier attempts to get Manly and his newspaper (which had published the supposedly offensive editorial months before the November events). By waiting till after the elections, they were able to intimidate the black population from voting while keeping the federal government from becoming involved. Even on November 10th, they were careful not to avoid endangering federal government property and employees (such as the head of the Customs for the Port of Wilmington, who was African American) because of a fear of the federal government becoming involved.

Zucchino doesn’t end his story in 1898. He looks at the impact on what happened in Wilmington on the rest of the country and tells what happened to the leadership on both sides in the decades following the coup. As he points out, even in 1998, at the 100th anniversary of the event, there was tension as to how the story would be told.

While there are many books about the 1898 coup, Zucchino’s book is professionally written and brings the events to light in a clear manner. This is a worthwhile addition to the growing library on both this horrific event and the rise of the Jim Crow South, as well of an example how fear, hatred, and misinformation can be used to incite evil.

My review of We Have Taken a City, another book about this event, click here.

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.



[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,

[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.