Our Role in the Mysterious Growth of the Kingdom

title slide with photo of a fawn

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry and Bluemont Churches
May 19, 2024
Mark 4:21-34

Sermon recorded at Bluemont on Friday, May 17, 2024

At the opening of worship: 

Read Acts 2:1-4

Today is Pentecost, in which we recall the empowering of the church with God’s Spirit. As we just heard, God’s Spirit swept among the early disciples like flames, setting them on fire with the gospel. But because I’m focusing on Mark’s gospel this year, we’ll discuss the kingdom of God today. I think this theme works with Pentecost, for the kingdom can only come through God’s Spirit.  

We tend to think of the kingdom as something accomplished for us and given as a gift. I like to think of the kingdom as described in Psalm 23, a grassy place beside still waters. This idyllic vision has me semi-horizonal, propped up against a tree, chewing on broom straw while watching puffy clouds float overhead. When I get tired of that, I pull my hat down over my eyes and take a nap, enjoying the peace. 

But I’m not sure such ideas fits with much of scripture. One of the tenets of the Presbyterian Church is that we’re to exhibit the Kingdom of God to the world.[1] We may not always be good at that, but it’s our calling. And Pentecost, with those winds of fire rushing about, rouses us up from our naps, reminding us of the work to be done. But we’re also reminded of that invisible hand helping us.

Our scripture this morning contains a series of Jesus’ parables involving the kingdom. And two of the three parables relate the kingdom to farming. So back to that image of me napping up against a tree by the sill waters…. Jesus comes along, shakes me awake, hands me a gardening hoe, and tells me there are rows of crops to be chopped. The kingdom begins now, we’re a part of it. So, ask yourself, what’s God calling you to do?

Before reading the Scripture:

We’re continuing through Mark’s gospel. As we have seen throughout this series, Mark focuses more on narrative than teaching. We learn what Jesus did, including teaching, but often Mark doesn’t give us the content of such teachings. If you remember from my sermon three weeks ago, when I was last in the pulpit, there are two sections of Mark, each less than a chapter in length, where Mark inserts a string of teachings.[2] In the fourth chapter, Mark pieces together a group of parables which Jesus used to convey the meaning behind the Kingdom of God. Mark starts with the Parable of the Sower (or the Parable of the Soil or the Seeds) which we explored last time. 

Next, Mark recalls several short parables Jesus tells. We’ll explore these today. Most of these parables can be found in Matthew and Luke, but in different places in Jesus’ ministry, which indicates how Mark gathered them up and included them in this longer teaching section to give us an idea of Jesus’ teachings.  

Read Mark 4:21-34

These parables refer to the unexpected and surprising way God works in our world. The Kingdom of God is not equivalent to the heaven we often imagine, where we stroll around on golden streets. The kingdom is dynamic. It’s a light to be displayed. It grows. The Almighty is a God of creation, and God’s work didn’t stop at the end of Day 6. God continues to create. God builds a kingdom, and, in a way, we get to participate.

Verses 21-25

The first set of stories have to do with our role as Christ followers. If we have seen the light of Christ, we’re to help it shine for others to see. We get this same advice in the Sermon on the Mount, where we’re told to let our light shine so others may see our good works and give glory to our Father in Heaven.[3]

The purpose of light is to illuminate. But there is a veiled warning in the way Mark uses this story. The light will shine one way or another. And it will be illuminating all including our dirty laundry. We need to take the risk and come to the light and be made pure. 

The second part of this first set of stories almost sounds counter to the gospel. After all, Jesus speaks of the last being first,[4] but here the one who has more will receive even more. What’s this about? Does it fit with God’s economy that seems to reward the underdog? 

Here, Jesus must be alluding to faith, not possessions. Faith is given but must also be used.[5] An athlete can have a natural gift. But only by practice and through working out, can an athlete grow stronger, more proficient, and achieve success. Likewise, faith grows stronger with use. By repeatedly depending on faith, the amount we possess grows or strengthens. Faith, like our bodies, can’t be stagnant. If we don’t use it, we slide backwards. 

Verses 26-29

The second group of stories within our passage is about a farmer who plants seeds and then watches his field day and night. He knows he’s not in control of what happens. The seed germinates underground, out of sight. The farmer looks expectantly for the first sprouts.

I don’t know about you, but I get excited when I start to see green sprouts poke through the ground. And it’s amazing how quickly such sprouts take root and grow. In just a few weeks, a squash seed will grow from a couple of leaves about the size of a dime to long vines with huge leaves. As the farmer, we do what we can. We weed, water, and fertilize. But we’re still not in control. This is a perfect metaphor for the kingdom, which grows mysteriously. Yes, we can help it grow, but ultimately the growth is given by God.

This second set of stories contain elements of human freedom and responsibility. It’s freeing to know that God is in control because sometimes our best efforts don’t produce desired results. Farmers certainly know they can faithfully nurse a crop along only to have it wiped out by a hailstorm just before harvest. But what’s important here is not the harvest but the faithfulness. It’s important that we plant kingdom seeds, and then trust God. 

When we first moved to Utah, the house we lived in had a wonderful mini orchard in the backyard. There was an apple tree which, because of grafting, produced several types of applies. We also had a pear tree. There was an apricot tree which produced a wonderful harvest one year. The rest of the years we lived there it bloomed earlier and the buds froze. And then there was a mulberry tree which just made a mess. Except for the mulberry tree, I really appreciated the effort someone put into creating that mini orchard. We lived in that house for about four years. If I had planted such trees on day one, I would have never enjoyed a harvest. 

After leaving that first house, we moved into a house with a totally barren backyard. We were there for six years. I planted fruit trees, laid out terraces for herbs and vegetables. While I did enjoy vegetables and herbs, it wasn’t until the last summer I was there I received any fruit. 3 peaches! Hopefully, the next owner of that house enjoyed more of a harvest. It’s like that sometimes. As Paul reminds us, someone plants, someone waters, and God gives the growth.[6]

Verses 30-34

It’s interesting that Jesus tells so many parables about seeds. He began the chapter discussing grain. Jesus then uses another parable about grain and the farmer watching its growth. Finally, he ends the parable with a discussion of a mustard bush. 

It seems to be a bit paradoxical for mustard to be discussed. As a plant, it could be a nuisance to grain farmers. It shades the grain and takes up valuable space. It also becomes a haven for birds who feast upon the grain seed.  So, what is this parable about? 

This parable contains layers of meanings. Like the previous parable, we learn how the insignificant can become magnificent. The smallest of seeds becoming a great bush. Like a good storyteller, Jesus uses hyperbole here to bring home a point. The small seed stands in contrast to its growth. As one commentator writes, “The kingdom of God arises from obscurity and insignificance.” We’ll be amazed as God’s kingdom becomes real and more visible and wonder from where it came.[7]

There is also a deeper meaning in this parable about the birds nesting in the branches. This harkens back to the Old Testament prophets who spoke of birds resting in the branches of a tree as a metaphor of the gathering of all of God’s creation. In other words, Jesus alludes to the inclusion of the Gentiles. God’s grace applies to all people.[8] And that’s good (yet humbling) news to those of us who are not descendants of Abraham, but nonetheless follow Jesus. 

Conclusion

In these stories, Jesus reminds us of our calling to do what we can to build God’s kingdom. But we’re also reminded that the growth of the kingdom is beyond our control. At times we may not understand and feel discouraged, but we should trust that God has things under control. We do our part, and we trust God for the rest. 

In a way, individually, we’re like a foot soldier in a mighty army. We may not understand how our role helps achieve the victory, but we trust and follow orders. And our orders are to love God and to love our neighbors[9] as we trust God to make all things new. Amen. 


[1] Presbyterian Church USA, Book of Order, 

[2]The other chapter with teaching is Mark 13.  See  https://fromarockyhillside.com/2024/04/28/the-parable-of-the-sower/

[3] Matthew 5:15-16.

[4] Matthew 19:30, 20:16; Mark 9:35, 10:31; Luke 13:30.  See also 2 Corinthians 6:10, 8:9; James 2:5. 

[5] Bebe, in his Homilies on the Gospels (7th Century) says that those who hear Jesus’ words and observe them in their hearts will receive more. See also Morna D. Hooke, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (1991, Hendrickson Publishing, 1997), 134-135. 

[6] My paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 3:6.

[7] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 144-145. 

[8] Psalm 104:12; Ezekiel 17:23, 31:6; Daniel 4:9-21.  See Edwards, 145. 

[9] Mark. 12:30. See also Matthew 22:37 and Luke 10:27. 

Growth is mysterious. A newborn fawn along Fisherman’s Lane, next to Laurel Fork, May 17, 2024

A Tribute to my Dad

photo of sunrise and of my Dad

I’ve been quiet on social media lately, especially in blogland and on Facebook. Let me explain. I have also not posted any sermons recently as I have been away from the pulpit. This has been a time of reflection and change, which came to a head this past Monday, May 6, around 11:30 PM. That’s when my brother called from hospice to let me know our dad had died.


Dad paddling in the Okefenokee (2015)
Dad paddling in the Okefenokee (2015)

As you may imagine, I didn’t get much sleep the rest of the night, and was up way before sunrise to walk the beach (I was staying in Kure Beach). As the sun rose, I remember all those times being with Dad on the boat running out of Carolina Beach, Masonboro, or Barden’s Inlet as the sun rose. Dad’s timing always seemed perfect as we headed out toward the sun for a day of fishing. Of course, there were other days with rain or fog… But now, they’d be no more of those adventures.

On April 30, my father had his fourth intestinal surgery in twelve days. The first surgery was on Thursday, April 18. I was in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan at the time. My dad came out of the surgery doing well and things were looking up. We had several conversations by phone. He expected to get out of the hospital in four or five days. But before this happened, his intestines started to leak and there were infections. The next Thursday, he had the second surgery. They were not able to do everything, so they scheduled another surgery for Sunday and kept him sedated. There would be one more surgery for Tuesday morning, April 30. I arrived in time to meet the surgeon as he met with my brother, sister, and me. While he expressed hope, he also warned us that our father couldn’t survive another intestinal surgery. 

Dad shooting a basketball after his 25th Wedding Anniversary celebration
Dad, after his 25th Wedding Celebration (1980)

On Wednesday, they removed the respirator and Dad slowly woke up. Things looked even better on Thursday morning, May 2. I was there first thing that morning and when the doctors and staff made their rounds. They discussed moving Dad from ICU to a step-down unit that afternoon. Later in the morning, my brother came in to relieve me. I went out to have coffee with Billy Beasley, a friend of mine whose friendship goes back to my elementary school days. While there, I got an urgent text from my brother to come back, that Dad’s intestines were leaking. Over the next hour, we learned there was nothing more they could do. Dad understood what was happening and with my brother Warren and I on each side of the bed, sniffling, he told us not to cry. He later thanked us for being there and for being good boys. They moved Dad that afternoon to hospice, where he spent the next five days. 

Fishing off Jetty at Masonboro Inlet, Wrightsville Beach
Fishing at jetty at Masonboro Inlet (~2010)

Thankfully, the first two days, Dad did well and was able to see a lot of friends and family members. My younger brother was even able to make it in late Friday night from Japan.  One of the highlights during this time was one of the visits of the pastor of his church. He is relatively new and thank my father for all he did to support his ministry and how he checked in on others within the congregation. My father said, “that’s what we’re supposed to do.

By Saturday, May 4, Dad began to slip and mostly slept. Once, he woke up enough to say, “That was nice,” after I prayed over him. They had to keep increasing morphine to keep his pain under control. Although a strong man, fate took over. Yet, it took him a long time to give up. He would eventually stop breathing when alone (my brother was in the room but asleep). 

Probably ten years ago, my father had me write an obituary for him and my mother, Barbara Faircloth Garrison, who died in 2020. I pulled out the obituary from my files, updated it (mostly increasing the number of great-grandchildren), and began editing it with my siblings. Below is the final product: 

Mom and Dad in front of a camellia bush
Mom and Dad in the 1990s the (copy of photo wasn’t the best)

Charles Albert Garrison died on May 6, 2024 from complications following intestinal surgeries. Charles loved being on the water and never felt more alive than when he was out on his boat or fishing. He and his late wife were known for their love for each other and their hospitality toward others, including annual New Year Eve oyster roasts. 

a b&w photo of dad in a cap and gown in 1942
Dad at six years of age

Charles was born on December 29, 1936 in Pinehurst, North Carolina to Helen McKenzie and A. H. Garrison. He was an Eagle Scout and while a high school student played football, basketball, and baseball. In 1955, he graduated from Pinehurst High School and two months later, on July 29th, married Barbara Jean Faircloth. Their marriage lasted 65 years, till Barbara’s death in 2020. Together, they had four children: Charles Jeffrey (Donna), Warren Albert (Sheri), Sharon Kaye and David Thomas (Monica).

In 1962, Charles went to work for the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company. He was employed by the company for the next forty years. He began his career in Petersburg, Virginia in January 1963. In 1966, he jumped at the opportunity to move to Wilmington, North Carolina where he could be near the ocean. He would live the rest of his life in Wilmington except for two overseas assignments in Japan and Korea. During his career with the company, he was an insurance inspector, an ASME Code Inspector for Boilers, Pressure Vessels, and a Nuclear In-Service Inspector. He retired from Hartford in 2002 but continued to do consulting work for another five years. He finally gave up working to care for his wife. 

Surf fishing at Cape Lookout
Fishing off Cape Lookout (Fall 2008)

Charles remained active throughout his life. In his younger years, he hunted and fished, played basketball and softball. Once he moved to Wilmington, he continued to play softball for a few years and limited his basketball to outside pickup games with his sons and their friends. He devoted as much time as possible to fishing. He often spent weeks in the fall of the year camping and fishing on Masonboro Island. Later, he would make a sojourner of a week or so to Cape Lookout, where he would camp and fish with family and friends.  

Mom and Dad with grandkids in the 1990s (notice the reindeers in the yard)
Dad with grandkids in the 1990s (notice the reindeers in the yard)

The church was always important to Charles. Like his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, he was a Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church. He served on many committees, especially the building and grounds committee at Cape Fear Presbyterian Church, where he remained a member for 58 years. Charles attended church every Sunday he was able. He and his wife made many friends at Cape Fear and often visited new families within the church. They also delivered tapes of the church services to shut-ins within the congregation. 

Basketball goal
Basketball goal (in need of a painting)

Charles was a craftsman and handy man. He restored a home in Pinehurst and added on to his home in Wilmington. In high school, he made his future wife a cedar chest which they used for the rest of their lives. An excellent welder, he built the basketball goal which still stands in his yard. His great-grandchildren now play basketball on this goal. He also welded a Christmas tree stand out of steel that would have survived a nuclear war (the tree might have snapped off, but the steel stand wasn’t going anywhere).  Charles was also known for his handmade wooden Christmas decorations including a sleigh and reindeer which populated his front year during the season. He also built many Rudolph the Red-nose Reindeer door hangers and poinsettias holders which he gave away as gifts. 

Charles also served as a leader in the Boy Scout program when his sons were in scouting and helped coach baseball. Charles continued to enjoy attending the ball games of his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. He also served for many years as a Myrtle Grove Volunteer Firefighter and as a Gideon. 

Charles was preceded in death by his parents, a sister (Martha Kay), and his wife. In addition to his children, he is survived by his brother Larry (Louise), his four children, seven grandchildren (Craig, Kristen, Elizabeth, Jonathan, Clara, Thomas, and Caroline), twelve great-grandchildren, a niece (McKenzie), and many cousins. For the last three years he enjoyed the company of Ginny Rowlings and her family. They spent many evenings at the NC Symphony, concerts and plays and eating ice cream. 

In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to Cape Fear Presbyterian Church and the Lower Cape Fear LifeCare of Wilmington (hospice).  A graveside service will be held at Oleander Memorial Gardens on Monday, May 13, 2024 at 2 PM. The Rev. Aaron Doll of Cape Fear Presbyterian Church will officiate. Charles will be buried by his wife in a plot they picked out and where his body will lie in rest near the salt water he loved and where, at high tide, it might even tickle his toes.[1]

Paddling in the Okefenokee, 2014
Paddling in the Okefenokee, 2014

Some more “Dad Stories:

Four days in the Dry Tortuga’s

Lessons from Dad (with some great photos)

Lumber River Paddle (my last great adventure with Dad)

Fishing off Cape Lookout, 2020

Thanksgiving Day Hunt

Dad’s 85th Birthday (and my last time paddling with him)


[1] Some might wonder about this last line, so let me explain. My parents brought cemetery plots in the 1980s, after coming back from Japan. His mother (my grandmother) wanted to know why he wanted to be buried so far away and not with the rest of the family at Culdee Presbyterian Church in Moore County. My father told her that he wanted the salt water to tickle his toes during high tide. My grandmother didn’t think it was funny, but I Dad (and I) got a laugh out of it.

2024 Festival of Faith and Writing

Title slide. Blooms on a tree on the Calvin campus

I started this post two weeks ago, when I was in Detour Village in Michigan’s UP. Today, I am in Wilmington, NC, , as my father is recovering from four bowel surgeries…  I know this is a long post. If you find what I say about one author boring, just skip to the next. In a way, this massive data dump is my way of summarizing what’s in my journal. I placed photos of the books which I came away with from the festival.

Pre-Conference Workshop on Wednesday

Northern Red Oak
“I am the vine, you are the branches,” Jesus said.
“Cut off from me you can do nothing.”
Yet, the heavy oak branch,
sheared from its life source,
fallen from the empyrean, 
decomposes slowly on the forest floor 
in a bed of rotten leaves
from which trout lilies sprout. 

Wednesday at the Festival

I scratched out the above poem in a workshop by Paul Willis, a poet I first met at the festival nearly 20 years ago. He gathered us into groups of four and set us free in the nature preserve behind the Prince Conference Center at Calvin University. We were to quietly make our way through the preserve, taking turns leading and then pointing out something of interest. We would each make notes, and another person would lead the group. After 45 of so minutes of silence, we discussed what we saw. Then he gave us just a few minutes to take one of the things we’d written about and to create a poem. Hence, the poem I wrote about a large branch of an oak tree resting on the forest floor. 

New moon, a day after the eclipse

After seeing the eclipse in South Charleston, Ohio on April 8, I attended the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing. This is my fifth time at this festival, which is held every other year. The last festival I attended was in 2012. And, because of COVID, this year’s festival is the first in-person gathering since 2018. Over the years I have heard a many great authors speak about writing and faith including Salman Rushdie, Wally Lamb, Scott Russell Sanders, Eugene Peterson, Kathleen Dean Moore, Thomas Lynch, Parker Palmer, Mary Karr, Debra Dean, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Craig Barnes, and Ann Lamott. Each year, the festival draws in around sixty authors and a couple thousand participants. While almost all the authors are Christians, the only requirement is that they write about faith. In addition to Christian authors, there have been Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and even atheists. 

Here are the authors I heard. There’s no way one can hear all the authors in three days. I tried to capture a bit of what I learned from them. I have listed the authors in order that I first heard them at the conference (in some cases I heard them speak twice): 

Thursday at the Festival

Margaret Feinberg  is a podcaster (The Joycast) and author of Scouting the Divine: Fight Back with Joy, Taste, a See.  Feinberg spoke on sustaining a writing life. She detailed two practices and drew from her own life and her book for examples: 

  • Cultivate a life of Adventure (or live a compelling life). She drew on her parents’ examples as well as on those who grow grapes. 
  • Cultivate a life of healing. Here, she drew on the work of olive growers.

Ruth Graham Born in an evangelical family, Graham now serves as a religious writer for the New York Times. Thankfully, she noted, the job of a religious reporter today isn’t focused on denominational meetings. She’s more interested in getting to the heartbeat of religious experiences. She told of a story she wrote for Slate, about a man from Dalton, Georgia, whose Bible leaked oil. She tried to tell the story, which she suggested was about a man who had a religious experience which got out of hand, in a way that is fair to all sides. 

Sara Horwitz Born in a secular Jewish family, Horwitz rediscovered the faith of her ancestors in her mid-30s working in the Obama White House. She first was on a team of writers for the President, and later became the speech writer for Michelle Obama, the first lady. Horwitz spoke about how encouraging everyone in the White House was to her desire to practice her faith (including turning off her cell phone on the Sabbath). She gave up an opportunity to help Michelle Obama with her memoir to write a book on her journey into Judaism. Religion, she said, should draw us out from ourselves and into something larger. She found freedom in the Jewish law which she interprets as a system of maintaining dignity in others. 

Marilyn McEntyre A popular podcaster and Bible teacher, Feinberg titled her talk, “Writing Through a Fog of Fear: Finding Life, Giving Words in an Alarming Time.” Acknowledging the challenges facing writers today, she spoke of our context while providing questions for discernment and strategies for publicly presenting our work. She began with two epitaphs: “Be not afraid,” -Jesus.  And “Be afraid, very afraid.” -Mel Brooks. 
Discerning questions: 

From where does my energy or sense of urgency come? 

  • Who would I most like to read this? If only one reader, who?
  • Who will take offense or be troubled? How can I address their concerns?
  • In writing this, what does it mean to me to be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves?
  • We bring our own association to every word. But the same works for others. What words of ours will be their triggers? 

Strategies for speaking into fear:

  • Study your favorite risk takers (suggest reading Gaza Writes Back)
  • Have meta-conversations where you can. Talk about language behind our words to help people better connect.
  • Listen to the call of the moment.
  • What does it mean to be faithful? Do you put a name to what you are faithful to?
  • You don’t have to go into anger. You can model debate, hope. Let your style be modelling.
  • Be responsible to speak to the complication of the issue. What do we want people to hear? Honor complexity of beliefs. 
  • Don’t under-estimate the power of beauty.
  • Be surprising. Change up our writings with exhortation, humor, lament in the same piece.
  • Change genres. Try out new genres.
  • Offer authentic antidotes. Try following Jesus’ example and speak into issues. 
  • Stories are important. Stories help disarm.
  • Acknowledge the emotional weight (Susan Sontag writing on the pain of others)
  • Play with paradox. Be a gentle alarmist, a light-hearted doomsayer.
  • Be a prophetic trickster, a Riddler.
  • When you have the privilege from writing with safety, remember those being killed for their speech. We can speak because they can’t.
  • Write with others.
  • Pray for clarity, for when and to whom to write, for obedience, courage, and passion. 

Tracy Smith (keynote). Smith provided the Thursday night keynote address. A graduate of Harvard and Columbia, she also was a Stenger Fellow at Stanford. She has served as nation’s poet laurate (2017-2019), has been awarded the Pulitzer-Prize and has published poetry, a memoir, and non-fiction. Currently, she teaches at Harvard, and has recently published To Free the Captives: A Plea for the American Soul

Her speak focused on reading certain poems and reflecting on how they came about and how they might be interpreted. In her introduction, her work was described like “Jacob wrestling with God” and how our “paradoxical wounds can heal.”  The poems she read and reflected on included: “Hill Country,” Weather in Space,” “We all Go Chasing All We Will Lose,” “Political Poem,” “The United States Welcomes You,” “The Fright of our Shared History,” and “Wade in the Water.” 

Sadly, all her books of poetry had sold out, but I came away with a signed copy of To Free the Captives and look forward to exploring her vision of a better world. 

Friday at the Festival: 

Mary DeMuth spoke on “stories as healing.”  Telling the truth, she proclaimed, is the key too both good writing and good living. She provided six things to consider if we fear sharing a story:

  • Discern timing. “Don’t vomit on the reader.” A story never told can never heal, but we should remember that our call is to first write, not necessarily publish.
  • Exactness is not the same as truth. We must remember that it is our story and no one else can tell the story in the same way as we can. Storytelling is an effective truth delivery vehicle. 
  • Expect opposition. While we should welcome helpful feedback, we also take a risk of putting our work out there. Sometimes, when you tell the truth, you engage is spiritual warfare. She finds having a prayer team helpful as they both pray against attacks but also help keep her humble.
  • Name our fear.
  • Expose evil but love your readers.
  • See the benefits (God gives us glory in our weakness).

If we don’t tell the truth, we misrepresent people.  Our job is not to enlarge villains but to enlarge Jesus. 

Matthew Dickerson and Fred Bahnson titled their conversation, “Ecology Imagination and why stories matter.” Dickerson part of the conversation was often based on Tolkien. I haven’t read Tolkien since college. Bahnson (I’ve read his book Soil and Sacrament), drew more from Wendell Berry and Barry Lopez, two authors I continue to read. Bahnson described how the richest life is found where rivers meet oceans, and how writers need to put themselves in such uncomfortable and risky settings to best flourish. 

Diane Mehtu spoke about Dante and Virgil (Dante’s guide through hell). This was a fascination lecture even though the presenter read from a paper. She uses powerful language. She presented the idea of the friendship of the two poets, who lived over a Millenia apart, and what she’s learned from repeatedly reading the Divine Comedy.  What made the lecture even more interesting to me is that I had been listening to an unabridged reading of Augustine’s City of God and had just heard Augustine dealing with Virgil. 

Karen Swallow Prior titled the lecture I attended, “Imagination: It’s not just Hobbits and Hobby Horses.” She questioned how we often consider imagination as something playful within our childhood and mostly individualist. This she challenged, suggesting that we often inherit language structures (language is based on imagination) without understanding how it came about. This she applied to evangelicalism, of which she was critiquing and suggests needs to embrace imagination to work its way out of its crisis. Another criticism of evangelism is that it tends to draw more on American ideals than the Christian faith and is a product of modernity and late-stage capitalism.  She also critiqued evangelism’s emphasis on the end times, suggesting that we don’t need stories about the end but about how to get there. The early Christians, who called themselves “people of the way” understood this. 

Yaa Gyasi (Friday evening keynote) This “conversation” between Gyasi and Jane Zwart focused on her two novels and how they deal with grief and loss. Gyasi was born in Ghana, but grew up in Huntsville, Alabama. Her experiences seem to provide her a unique perspective even though I haven’t read her books. Quote: “Prayer and writing comes from the same place.  From your pen to God’s ear.” 

Saturday at the Festival

Christian Wiman is a professor of communication arts at Yale Divinity School (and former editor of Poetry).  I attended his lecture titled “The Art of Faith, The Faith of Art.” Wiman read several of his poems  and reflected on the faith and art within them.  Sadly, I was running late and missed part of this lecture.


Danielle Chapman  I heard Chapman speak twice. The first session was a discussion with Jim Dahlman on Southern literature. While both have published books which I came away with, I questioned their representation as a Southern writer. But her poetry is engaging as is her memoir, which I have already started and will review.

 I later heard her talk on memory in non-fiction and poetry. 


Sonya Bilocerkowyez gave the best lecture I attended outside of the keynotes. Sadly, it was also one of the least attended lectures. An American-Ukrainian, she’s the granddaughter of Ukrainians who were displaced during the Second World War. She happened to be teaching in Ukraine in 2014, when the Maidan Revolution kicked out the Russian puppet government and Russia invaded the Dobast and Crimea. Afterwards, she published a collection of essays titled, On Our Way Home from the Revolution: Reflections on Ukraine. 

Her lecture was titled, “Whose Manuscripts to Burn? On the Role of the Writer during Wartime. Drawing on “cancel cultural” and “imperialistic language,” she spoke passionately about how Russia once again attempts to cancel Ukrainian identity. She credited her grandmother for teaching her an 1840 poem against Czarist imperialism.  

She made four points on the role of the writer in war:

  • The role begins before the war.
  • The role is to document.
  • The role is to save lives. 
  • The role is to free the land (Decolonization cannot be a metaphor).

Throughout her lecture, she drew on Ukrainian writers (such as Oksana Zabuzhko and Victoria Amelina, as well as those from Bosnia and Gaza.

Stacie Longwell Sadowski lead a lunch circle dealing with the use of social media for writers. As she and her husband maintain a site that encourages people to explore the outdoors, I joined her group and learned a bit more about what I am doing wrong Smiling face outline with solid fill. Actually, I did learn a lot from the luncheon circle. However, since I am not into monetizing my site, I’m not changing much. Check out her website, \Two Weeks in a hammock.  

Anthony Doerr

Anthony Doerr (closing keynote)  Doerr was the reason I decided to make the trek to Grand Rapids for the conference this year. I am still amazed five years after reading his breakout novel, All the Light We Cannot See. He began the final keynote of the conference, before a packed house, speaking about similes.  Doerr questioned if the age of similes is over. quoting polls and exposing outrageous similes he’d come across in his reading. He drew upon Homer and Superheroes and made fun of the mistakes he’d made in his slides. 

Doerr was by far the funniest speaker I had heard at the festival.  He was very free in his presentation which was given in Calvin’s fieldhouse. At one point, he pauses and looks up at the banners hanging around and says, “Calvin’s girls volleyball team must have really been good.” At another point, in this long diatribe on similes and metaphors, he pauses and looks around at the crowd and says what many were thinking, “You thought you were going to hear the bald guy talk about All the Light We Cannot See, didn’t you?” 

Then Doerr made a serious turn. His talk about similes was to point to the interconnectedness of our violent and conflicted world. He suggested reading as a way for us to get beyond our self-centeredness and to make connections with the larger world. Next, he called for leaders who could make such connections. Then he encouraged writers, who have the advantage of metaphors, to bring these connections out in our writing. He advised us to tell stories, which are needed to bring our world together.  It was a simple message that extended to 45 minutes through his humorous antidotes. When he was over, he received a standing ovation. 

After the lecture was over, I met Bob, a friend of mine from Hastings, and the two of us drove up to Detour Village in the UP, arriving a little after midnight on April 14th. More about that later… 

The Parable of the Sower

Title slide showing bounty from a garden (lettuce, beets, onions, and a cucumber)

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry & Bluemont Churches
April 28, 2024
Mark 4:1-19

Sermon recorded at Mayberry on Friday, April 26, 2024

An introduction to today’s theme:

Around the 5th Century, a minor holiday arose within the Western Church, called Rogation Days. The word comes from the Latin and means “to ask.” The sixth Sunday of Easter was set aside as the day to observe the fast as they asked God to bless their crops. Remember, at this time, most everyone was involved in agriculture and if a community’s crops failed, it resulted in starvation. So, the beginning of the gardening season was an appropriate time to ask for God’s blessings.[1]

While the roots for this day was on the continent of Europe, the day caught on in England. It continued to be celebrated even after the Reformation, through the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Sadly, as happens with many good things, the day became one of revelry and drunkenness. When the Puritans had their revolution in the 17th Century, they ended it. Only recently has it come back through the Anglican Church as well as some Lutheran Churches. While we don’t officially celebrate the day, we should still honor its meaning and ask God to bless our efforts whether it’s working with the soil or another endeavor. 

But let me clear up something. Christians don’t worship the earth. Instead, we worship the God who created of the earth and all things seen and unseen.[2] This is an important distinction. Yet, because God is over all and whose providence provides what we need, it is appropriate for us to ask God’s blessings. We pray for the ground from which we plant our seeds, for the sun which warms the earth, and from the clouds from which the rain comes. 

We should remind ourselves that while we may work hard in the garden, there are things out of our control. Therefore, we pray for God’s blessings, which we’ll do at the end of our service this morning.[3]

Introduction to today’s text: 

We’re continuing our work through Mark’s gospel. I tried to lay out my preaching on this book while I was away and found that I only need 45 more Sundays to finish in 2024. So, I don’t think I’ll finish it this year, but we’ll continue working through it and then probably finish the last few chapters during Lent of 2025. That said, there’s a lot of good stuff in Mark, so hold on and let’s enjoy the journey. 

The Parable of the Sower is today’s passage. It’s familiar and found in all three of the synoptic gospels.[4] While we call this passage the Parable of the Sower, we could give it other titles for the Sower only appears in the opening verse. The parable of the soils or the parable of the scattered seeds have been suggested as other options. But none of these titles, including the Parable of the Sower, are found in scripture. The placement of such titles found in some Bibles came later, just as did the chapter and verse notions in scripture. 

In today’s parable, we will see again one of Mark’s literary techniques in which he creates a sandwich. Earlier, we saw Mark place Jesus’ teaching between two passages dealing with this family and his opponents.[5] Here, Jesus tells the parable, then teaches about the purpose of parables, followed by an allegorical interpretation of the parable. The slices of bread deal with the parable, the peanut butter represents the purpose between the slices.

Chapter 4 is also a departure from Mark’s normal style of writing. Most of Mark’s gospel consists of narrative. As we’ve seen in the first three chapters, Mark appears more interested in telling us what Jesus did than what he said. That changes in the 4thchapter, which along with the 13th, contain a large block devoted just to Jesus’ teachings.[6]

The parables in Mark 4 are all about the mystery of God’s kingdom. Next week, God willing, we’ll look at the other parables in the chapter. While some parables are easy to understand, these contain a riddle.[7] They remind us of God’s hidden work. 

Read Mark 4:1-20

Some parables lend themselves to sermons and to making statements about how we should live. We’re to be like the Good Samaritan and help those others ignore. Or, in the Prodigal Son, we should be like the father who welcomes his wayward boy home. We should even be like the younger brother who confesses his wrongs. We should not be like older brother who is unable to rejoice that his younger brother is restored into the family. Of course, the meaning of those parables go even much deeper, but at least on a simple level we can apply them to our lives. 

But what about the parable of the Sower? Where do we see ourselves in this text?  Are we the Sower? The seed?  The soil? How might we understand this parable? Does it have any influence on how we live?  Or does it help us understand the mystery of God’s kingdom? After all, Jesus proclaims at the beginning of Mark’s gospel the kingdom as having come near?[8]

As I noted before reading the scripture, the kingdom parables in the fourth chapter of Mark are riddles or puzzles. Jesus tells this parable to the great crowd that had pressed around him along the lakeshore. But when it’s just Jesus and the disciples,[9] he acknowledges they’ve been given the secrets to the kingdom, but others won’t understand.

The placement of this parable within Mark’s Gospel might help us to better understand its meaning. If you remember back a few weeks, when we finished our look at the third chapter, we saw Jesus being challenged by both the religious leaders of the day and his own family. While Jesus was popular, there are those who don’t accept his teaching. In the case of the religious leaders, they don’t think his deeds are from God.[10] How do we handle the failure of some seeds to produce? This parable shows us a way to understand.

Jesus sows God’s seed. The seed represents God’s word. But not all the seed takes hold and brings forth growth. Much of the seed falls on the hard paths and never germinates but is consumed by Satan. Others fall among thorns and choke out by competing interests. Others fall in in rocky soil and, while they first show promise, they are unable to establish roots. Only that which falls in good soil takes root and produces an abundance of harvest. This helps explain why the religious leaders and Jesus’ own brothers struggle with his message. 

For those of us who have spent much time in a church, the parable also rings true. We know how some people just don’t get it and stay away from the gospel. Others become so excited, like the seeds growing in a rocky soil that shoot up, only to be burned by the sun as they have no roots. Those are the ones who get excited, but after a short while, fall away. 

Taking the parable literally, it sounds like only 25% of the seed produced an abundance. That doesn’t sound very good, except in baseball. While batting .250 may not make you a superstar, it does mean you are still a valuable player. And if the whole team bats at .250, with a little defense, they’ll go far. 

This parable is best understood as a description of God’s kingdom. Like seeds we’ll be sowing in our garden, the kingdom’s growth is mysterious. While there are things we do to help the garden such as getting rid of rocks, not planting in compacted ground or among thorns, and watering in drought, it’s still up to God to give growth. After all, there are many things we can’t control including the weather or even, heaven-forbit, a swam of locust. 

But if we do what we can and trust in God, some of the growth of the kingdom will be astonishing and for that, we have hope and give thanks! God is in charge, we’re just to do our part of making the ground (whether our gardens or our souls) fertile so that the seed may take root. As disciples, which we read in verse 20, we’re to hear what God says. It’s imperative we listen to the one who sows. Amen. 


[1] For more information on Rogation, see J. Connelly’s article, “Rogation Days’ in The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship, J. G. Davies, editor (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1986. See also https://theclewerinitiative.org/blog/what-is-rogation-sunday and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rogation_days.

[2]  I was reminded of this recently reading Augustine’s  The City of God, Book 5 and Book 7:29. 

[3] Parts of today’s liturgy came from this UK site: https://worshipwords.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Complete-service-Blessing-Gardeners-PDF.pdf

[4] Matthew 3:1-23 and Luke 8:4-15. 

[5] See Mark 3:20-34 or my sermon on the text: https://fromarockyhillside.com/2024/04/07/the-unpardonable-sin-baseball-doing-the-will-of-god/

[6] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 126. 

[7] Douglas R. A. Hare, Westminster Bible Companion: Mark (Louisville, KY: W/JKP, 1996), 52-53. 

[8] Mark 1:14-15. See my sermon on the text: https://fromarockyhillside.com/2024/01/14/you-catch-em-hell-clean-em-jesus-begins-his-ministry/

[9] Verse 10 indicates that Jesus was with just those around him including the 12, so we may assume there were more than just the 12 named disciples, but without “the very large crowd” indicated in verse 1. 

[10] Hare, 54. See Mark 3:20-35 and my sermon, https://fromarockyhillside.com/2024/04/07/the-unpardonable-sin-baseball-doing-the-will-of-god/

harvest of lettuce, beets, onions, and a cucumber on a bench
Spring Harvest from my garden on Skidaway Island (2018)

While away, I’ve been reading

Title slide with cover of three books that were reviewed
Lake Huron from the St. Mary's River in Michigan's UP
Looking toward Lake Huron from St. Mary’s River

I’m away for two weeks. I left early on Monday, April 9, and quickly drove across West Virginia and Ohio, to position myself in South Charleston for the eclipse. After 2 minutes of awe, I headed up to Michigan. I attended the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids (and will write more about it later). Then I headed up to Michigan’s UP and am in Detour Village for 8 days of reading, hiking, and discussions with a good friend.  These reviews are from books read so far during this trip: 

Freighter heading up toward the Son
Heading up to the Soo

Jonathan Healey, The Blazing World: A New History of Revolutionary England, 1603-1689

Cover for "The Blazing World"

narrated by Oliver Hembrough, (Random House Audio, 2023) 19 hours and 42 minutes. 

A lot happened in 17th Century England. It was an age of conflict between ideals. 

  • Did the king rule because of divine right or at the consent of the population? 
  • What role would parliament play in a monarchy? 
  • What was the best way for the citizens to practice religion? 
  • And would England remain Protestant or would it resort to Roman Catholicism?  

These ideas were debated and fought over. It was a century of much bloodshed. From civil war(s) to frequent executions of those who challenged order (from a king, to dissents, to a few condemned for witchcraft), blood flowed freely through much of the century. By the end of the century, with the Glorious Revolution, the Stuart’s dynasty was out and England began to resemble the country we now know.  

While listening to Healey’s book, I couldn’t help but think of the parallels to the American Revolution. Taxation was an important issue to both revolutions. In England, only parliament could authorize taxes which curtailed the king’s power. But the king could send home the parliament if he felt things weren’t going his way. The king tried other ways to raise funds, which eventually led to a war between the king and parliament. By the end of the century, parliament had more power and no longer ruled only at the king’s behalf.  

Much of the middle of the book focuses on Cromwell. In a way, as the “protectorate” he became like a king. There is much to dislike about him, but the same can be said about Charles I, who lost his head after the first revolution. As a Puritan, Cromwell tried to push Puritanism on England. Not only did this create turmoil in England, but it also drove a wedge between the English and the Scotch Presbyterians and Irish Catholics. Cromwell’s armies killed large numbers in Ireland, and he also brought in Scots to replace the Irish Catholics. 

The religious issues were numerous during this era. The Stuart kings looked more favorably on Catholicism than most of their county. Mary’s reign at the end of the 16th Century, which she attempted to steer the country back to Catholicism and executed hundreds of Protestants, left a bad taste for such a tradition. In a likewise manner, the harsh Puritan rule left a bad taste and after the death of Cromwell, England was more than ready to compromise with a king and parliament. While the country maintained an established religion after the restoration, it became more tolerate of other traditions, including the Quakers, Dissenters, and even Catholics. Interestingly, Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island and the Baptist tradition in America, played a role in England as he modeled more tolerance toward other traditions. 

While Healey mentions the Westminster Parliament which created the Westminster Confession of Faith, he says little about it.  Of course, after the restoration, it had little impact in England. However, the Church of Scotland adopted the confession and because of this, the confession has influenced Presbyterians around the globe. (For more information, see my review of John Leith’s Assembly at Westminster). 

I may obtain a written copy of this book and spend so more time studying it. I recommend the book because I think understanding the English revolutions helps Americans understand our own history. 

Steven Galloway, The Cellist of Sarajevo 

Cover for "The Cellist of Sarajevo"

(Riverhead Books, 2008), 235 pages, no photos. 

I enjoyed this short novel. Drawing on a real-life event during the siege of Sarajevo, Galloway shows us how people struggled to live in a city reduced to rubble and under constant mortar and sniper attacks from the surrounding hills. After a mortar kills civilians waiting to buy bread, a cellist decided he’ll play a concert every afternoon for 22 days to honor those killed in the attack. Will the cellist also become a victim to those attacking the city?  

Galloway uses three characters to tell the story. Each story of survival provides an insight into the tragedy of Sarajevo. 

Kenan walks every few days with a bunch of containers to obtain water for his family and an older woman in his apartment building. The city’s brewery is the source for potable water. To make the trek requires a difficult crossing of bridges and intersections that exposes individuals to guns of the snipers in the hills. 

Dragan is a baker. His wife and daughter fled the city, but he stayed behind. His home was shelled in the opening days of the battle, so he has moved into a small apartment with his sister’s family. He doesn’t get along with his brother-in-law, but he’s tolerated because he brings the family bread.

Arrow is a young woman who had been on the university’s rifle team. We’re not given her name, at least at first. Her father, a police officer, was killed in the opening battle for the city.  Because of her shooting skills, she’s recruited to serve as a sniper. She kills the men who have laid siege to the city. It was an uneasy transition, from shooting at paper to shooting men, but she’s a good shot.

After introducing Arrow as a sniper, she’s called on to protect the cellist. He has become a symbol of defiance and those laying siege to the city want him dead. Studies the cellist’s location, she attempts to get into the mind of the enemy sniper. She almost makes a mistake and the enemy sniper shoots at her, but misses. Then, she kills the sniper even though he hasn’t yet aimed his gun and is listening to the music. The psychological battle between the two snipers reminds me of Liam O’Flaherty’s short story, “The Sniper” which I first read in Junior High. 

In a way, Arrow becomes the main character. After protecting the cellist, she has had enough of killing. They assign her to a new group but refuses to kill the enemy civilians. She runs away. Her story ends with the city’s soldiers coming to kill her. At first, she thinks about killing them, but then decides against it. She doesn’t want to be a fugitive and waits. As they bust down her door, she speaks, “My name is Alisa.” While we don’t know what happens, I’m left with the sense she decided her death was preferable to continuing to kill. In this way, she becomes a Christ-like figure in a world of turmoil. 

All three characters reminisce about the city’s past and have hope for its future. I recommend this book and found myself constantly thinking about those in Ukraine who now live under such situation with the Russian invasion. 

John Lane, Gullies of My People: An Excavation of Landscape and Family 

cover for John's Lane's "Gullies of My People"

(Athens, GA: University of Georgie Press, 2023), 204 pages including source material and black and white photographs. 

Lane explores his family’s past while also learning about the gullies which washed away much of the Piedmont near his home in Spartanburg, South Carolina. The chapters of the book flip back and forth. In some he’s traveling to see where his relatives lived and farmed, often with Sandy, his older half-sister. In other chapters, he hangs out with geologists, studying the erosion of the soil, building their explorations upon the research of the Soil Conservation Service of the 1930s and early 40s.  And in others, he writes about his family’s and his own history.  Like the gullies, which can never completely heal, the hurts of the past still haunt the lives of the living. 

The Second World War creates a dividing line and hangs over the book like a dark shadow. The gullies in the Piedmont were well established before the war, driving many of Lane’s ancestors from the land and into the mills. During the war, Lanes mother, a young mill worker, became semi-famous as a runner-up to a beauty contest for women working in the mills. She would carry around the magazine article with her on the cover for the rest of her life. But her fame flamed out and after her first marriage (Sandy’s father), she struggled with alcoholism for much of her life. Lane’s father spent the war in the army. He served in Africa, on the second wave on Omaha Beach, and across Europe. He suffered emotionally after the war and took his one life when his son was still young. 

The war also brought an end to the Social Conservation Service work in the South. It wasn’t that there were more no gullies to study. Instead, the war took away the resources and the scientists became engaged in other activities. Interestingly, among the early soil scientists was the son of Albert Einstein. Lane even has a vision of Albert at the river site of his son’s laboratory on erosion. 

In addition to recollecting the memories of his family and learning about the erosion of the land, the book highlights the difficulties of memories. Lane even tells some of the family stories from the perspective of different people to show how such memories can manifest themselves differently.

Toward the end of the book, Lane allows his mother’s a chapter which he drew from her personal journal. In this chapter, we get a sense of her hard life. She died in 2004.

John Lane recently retired from Wofford College, where he taught environmental studies. 

From his other writings, I knew Lane and I share a common birth location. Both of us were born in the Sandhills of Moore County, North Carolina. Lane is a few years older than me. He was born right after Hurricane Hazel blew through the area (I was born two days after Humphrey Bogart’s death). Lane spent his earliest years in Southern Pines. I spent my earliest years a dozen miles away, along the Lower Little River, between Pinehurst and Carthage.

Both of us left the area before starting school. Lane’s mother moved him back to Spartanburg after the death of his father. My father moved his family away from our family’s roots after starting a new career.  Through this book, I learned of another connection. One thread of Lane’s family (the Mabes) is from Carroll County, Virginia, where I currently live.  And, on the eastern side of my property is a large gulley which I suspect washed out after the death of the chestnuts.  As I read this book and looked at the cross-cut of the gulley used on the title pages, I couldn’t help but think of my own gulley. 

Canadian geese eggs buried in the rocky limestone along Lake Huron's shore
Canadian Geese eggs along the shore of Lake Huron

The Unpardonable Sin, Baseball, & Doing the Will of God

Title slide showing a photo of the Pittsburgh Pirates playing at their home stadium

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry & Bluemont Churches
April 7, 2024
Mark 3:20-35.   

What is the unpardonable sin? As we’ll see in our reading this morning, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is not forgivable. When I was an early teen, I thought this meant one could not say, G-D. Now, we shouldn’t say that word, but the idea of it being unpardonable was scary. Ever hit your thumb with a hammer? If that’s the unpardonable sin, should I give up hope. I’d committed the sin, along with most everyone I knew. And if there’s no hope, we’ll I might as well not worry about other sins. 

But what is this sin. After all, Jesus never clearly defines the unpardonable sin. I would later hear the sin described as one who repeatedly denied the call of the Spirit to repentance until it was too late. That’s the approached taken by the evangelist A. B. Earle, in his sermon titled “The Unpardonable Sin. He preached this sermon frequently while on the sawdust trail across the American West in 1866-1867. 

He told of a Civil War surgeon who patient artery was cut. He could only hold the artery so long. He knew when he let go, the patient would likely bleed out before he could sew it up.[1] He used this story to encourage those at his revivals to immediately get right with God. Earle pulled a few emotional strings by threatening damnation if they don’t accept Jesus. Interestingly, that’s not something Jesus ever did. Yet, Earle definition of the unpardonable sin seems closer to the truth than mumbling the wrong word in frustration. 

As one scholar noted, if we are worried about having the committed the sin, it is obvious that we haven’t committed it. Furthermore, there is no Scriptural record of God denying forgiveness for those who ask for it.[2] That’s the good news!

Before reading the Scripture

After two weeks further ahead in Mark’s gospel, we’ve moved back to the 3rd chapter. Here we see one of Mark’s literary techniques. He creates a sandwich. Here, he places Jesus’ teaching in the middle, between interactions with people.[3]

We will also see a new name for Satan, Beelzebub. There is some question as to the actual meaning of this name. Perhaps it derived from the ancient Baal gods, but we don’t know. Instead, the context in the passage clarifies its meaning, referring to the ruler of demons.[4] Or Satan. 

Read Mark 3:20-35

It’s baseball season. And the Pirates started off hot, winning their first five games! But that doesn’t have anything to do with today’s passage. 

Do any of you remember Red Barber? For a Southern boy, he did good. For many years, Red was the announcer for the Brooklyn Dodgers. In 1953, he was stolen away by the Yankees. And in the 1950s, before my memory, the Yankees were the hottest things in Baseball and Barber was the hottest thing on radio. 

After his retirement, Red did a short weekly program for National Public Radio. This is how I came to know of him. During this era, I didn’t own a TV and caught the news on NPR.  

Sometime around 8:30 on Friday mornings, Bob Edwards, the show’s host, would give a call to Red at his Florida home. Bob and Red would chat about important things to the kingdom, like gardening and baseball. Red always stole the conversation from the younger Bob, whom he referred to as “Colonel.” “Fridays with Red” always made you feel good, and they kept the show going for 12 years. It was a sad day when Bob announced to his listeners of Red’s death in 1992. 

A year after Red’s death, Bob Edwards published a wonderful memoir titled Fridays with Red. If you’d like to be taken back to a simpler time, I recommend it. He tells this story in the book.

Red was also an Episcopal lay reader. He should have been a Presbyterian, as he grew up attending the Presbyterian Sunday School, but he married an Episcopalian. This is kind of like how things work in baseball. One farm team raises up a player and another team reap the benefits… I suppose our efforts helped strengthen the larger church with Red’s development. Red would become a favorite in the pulpit and often led worship services for the Yankees when they were on the road. (My cynical side thinks the Yankees are always in need of some good preaching.) 

Red titled his favorite sermons, preached many times, “Look Behind the Cape.” He described having once gone to a bull fight. He detested the afternoon. A bull slaughtered for sport wasn’t sportsman-like to Red, but when in Spain you do as the Spaniards. Red admitted, he found himself rooting for the bull. In the arena, the bull becomes confused. That’s why he always loses. Before being released from the chute, the handlers aggerate the bull. Then he charges the only thing he can see, the red cape. He becomes so focused on the cape, that he pays no attention to the matador, the one with the sword. 

Red said he even tried mental telephony, telling the bulling to “look behind the cape.”[5]

That’s good advice. Look behind the cape. What are peoples’ intentions? And, while we are at it, what are our intentions. Where do our allegiances lie? We should also look behind our capes before we go seeking what’s behind others. Jesus said something like this in the Sermon on the Mount.[6]

The third chapter of Mark’s gospel began with the conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders breaking out into war. We saw this in verse 6, when the Pharisee’s recruited their enemies, the Herodians, to help do away with Jesus.

But the religious leaders have a problem. Jesus is gifted with great power to do wonderful things. And, because of his miracles, he draws huge crowds. 

So many people flock to Jesus, he’s left with no time to eat. His family is concerned, so they suggest Jesus is out of his mind. 

The scribes are now coming after Jesus on a new tack. They attempt to convince the crowd that Jesus’ powers are demonic. 

Look behind the cape! What are the intentions of the religious leaders? Is it to help those caught up in sin and evil? Or do they desire to protect their power? Jesus used his powers for the good! Not thinking about the good he’s done; the leaders want to do away with Jesus so they can continue to enjoy their privilege spot in society. 

But Jesus is clever. He doesn’t accuse the religious leaders of working for Satan. That would have resulted in each side calling the kettle black. Instead, Jesus asks a riddle, “How can Satan cast out Satan?” “Why would Satan do himself in? If Satan has the power over a person, he won’t give it up without a battle.” Then Jesus tells a parable which is key to understanding his work in the world.

How can a man enter the house of a strong man and plunder the strong man’s goods? On a quick reading, we might think Jesus refers to the crime of breaking and entering. But then, we realize Jesus isn’t talking about a thief. He’s referring to himself. 

The “strong man” house which Jesus breaks into belongs to Satan. But Satan’s possessions don’t really belong to him. So don’t think Jesus is encouraging robbery. Jesus frees people from Satan’s power by tying up the “strong man.” Only by doing so, can he free those caught in Satan’s trap of sin and deceit. 

Next, Jesus refers to the unpardonable sin. Again, as I said at the beginning of the service, this is a difficult passage to understand. In Jesus’ words here, we find encouragement at the possibility of forgiveness. But we’re also warned against suggesting the Spirit’s power in Jesus is demonic. If we want to experience forgiveness, we must be willing to accept Jesus’ offer. 

Finally, Mark lays the other slice of bread onto the sandwich by returning to his family. We’re told that Jesus’ mother and brothers are waiting outside for him. While we are not told whether Jesus goes out to greet them. Instead, Jesus uses this news to teach something else. “Who are my mother and brothers?” he asks. And then he answers himself, “Whoever does the will of God.” 

Jesus crowns this sandwich with this last teaching. We should turn it into a question we ask ourselves, as we look behind our own capes. Are we doing the will of God? Or do we have some alternative motive? Our faith must be centered on God as revealed to us in Jesus Christ. What’s important isn’t our wants and desires, but God’s will. Amen. 


[1] I discuss this sermon in detail in my article on Earle’s revivals. See Charles Jeffrey Garrison, “Bringing In Sheaves: The Western Revivals of the Reverend A. B. Earle, 1866-1867,” American Baptist Quarterly XXXV, #3 (Fall 2006), 247-272.

[2] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 224.

[3] Edwards, 117;  and Douglas R. A. Hare, Westminster Bible Companion: Mark (Louisville, KY: WJKP, 1996), 50

[4] Edwards, 120.  See also Hare, 50 and Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (1991, Hendrickson Publisher, 1997), 115-116.

[5] Bob Edwards, Fridays with Red (New York: Pocket Books, 1993), 145. 

[6] Matthew 7:1-5. 

Solo Backpacking in Idaho, 1988

title slide with photo of camp sign and the Boulder Mountains

Hunkered down in a storm

dead tree high in the Boulder Mountains
Dead tree (probably from lightning) in the Idaho high country

Looking back, it was foolish. Out west, in the summer, one should never climb high passes late in the afternoon. But the summer of 1988 had been so dry. Afternoon thunderstorms were infrequent. I didn’t give it much thought. but should have known better. Hiking alone and cross-country made my decision even more dangerous.

I could have spent a lazy afternoon sulfur springs by the old Bowery mine, reading, napping, and soaking. But instead, I decided to make it back early and spend Saturday night in Ketchum. Or maybe I would head north to the Stanley Stomp. After a week of hiking alone, a cold beer and real food sounded good. So, I set out up the climb up the backside of Ryan Peak. But at around 9,000 feet, I found myself huddled in my sleeping bag under a tarp weighed down with ice.

The Storm

The storm blew up quickly, not long after I left tree line. I still had 1000 feet or so of vertical to cover when I first heard thunder. I hasty retreated downhill, to where the stubby trees began. Soon, lightning popped around the dusty mountains, dry from the summer’s drought that had burned up much of Yellowstone.  I could smell the ozone.

Then came the rain. I pulled on my rain parka as hard pelting drops of cold water assaulted. Quickly, I strung a line between two trees. I threw my tarp over the line, and quickly tied off the ends to rocks and logs as the nylon sheet flapped in the wind. Securing it enough not to blow away, I climb under it. Stripping off my rain jacket and pulled on a sweater and slid into rain pants to warm my wet legs. I leaned back against my pack, while watching lightning bolts pop around me. Waiting, I ate a candy bar and wondered again, what I was doing this high up in mid-afternoon.

The storm didn’t last long. When it had passed, I heard more rumblings from behind the mountains, so I set about making sure the tarp was secure and all my gear dry. Fifteen minutes after the first storm passed, the second one hit. This time the sky dropped hail and sleet. I again retreated to my tarp, which was soon covered in accumulating ice. Shivering with cold, pulled out my sleeping bag and covered it with a ground cloth and crawled inside. I quickly warmed up. I began to ponder the danger of fire from lightning strikes. 

My plan had been to spend this week hiking in Yellowstone, but so much of that park was burning that I decided to stay in Idaho where I’d been running a camp for the summer. This was my one week off and I’d planned to spend it in the backcountry. 

At least, I thought, we’re getting some rain. Of course, it wasn’t enough to reduce the fire danger and the lightning made it move problematic. However, I shouldn’t have to worry too much for at this altitude, even if a fire occurred, there wasn’t much to burn. 

Preparing for evening

After the second storm, I walked to a nearby stream and filled a pan with water for noodles. Coming back, I set up my stove and fired it up. The roar of the burner drowned out any other noise as I boiled water. Before adding noodles, I poured off a cup for some tea, then added noodles and let it boil while I savored the tea. At this elevation, it seems to take forever to cook noodles. When they were done, I drained off the water, mixed in some powder milk and the package cheese mix and was soon devouring a pot of macaroni and cheese.

My week on the trail

I’d been hiking all week. The first four days I did a loop within the Sawtooth Mountain Wilderness Area. Then I came back to camp, picked up more provisions, and set out on my second leg of my journey. I was dropped off just north of Galena Summit. I hiked up Grand Prize Gulch. Mostly, I hiked cross country, following streams flowing from the north side of the Bounder Mountains into the Salmon River. 

West Pass, Boulder Mountains, Idaho
West Pass

After crossing the pass at the end of Grand Prize Gulch, I dropped down into the West Fork of the East Fork of the Salmon River, or at least I think that’s the name of the stream. It’s certainly not a very creative name, but most of the streams in this part of the country seem to have such names. It was also just a small creek. I followed it a few miles stopping for the evening. I set up camp under lodgepole pines. After dinner, I sat around enjoying a cup of tea while watching the light fade from the valley. .


Birds woke me the next morning as the valley filled with light. The sun rays seemed muted a bit with so much dust and smoke from the Hell’s Canyon fire burning to the west. After my usual breakfast of oatmeal and tea, washed down with a pint of Tang, I continued hiking downstream. Soon, I came to a two-track road that hadn’t been used for a long while since there were no tire tracks in the dust. The road was probably built for mining, but I had a suspicion it was now only used occasional, mostly in the fall by hunters. 

Bowery Hot Springs

I continued along the path heading for the hot sulfur springs at a place on the map called Bowery. I could smell the sulfur before I arrived. Once there, I shed my pack and took a leisurely lunch, eating crackers, with cheese and peanut butter while soaking in the creek at the confluence of the water from the hot springs. There, where the hot and frigid waters met, I found a place where the temperature was just right and soaked my body. 

After lunch, I explored the area. There was an old mine that drifted back into the hillside, from which flowed warm water. I took out my flashlight and looked inside. I knew better than to go exploring. Mines are hazards, not just from cave-ins or unmarked shafts, but also from bad air and gasses that might quickly cause one to lose consciousness. Unlike most mines, which are quite cool, this one was warmed because of the hot water. From the entrance, I could see the supporting timbers had rotted. 

Heading toward Ryan Peak

Lupine along a trail
Lupine, this photo was taken on another hike in Idaho

In early-afternoon, I packed my stuff back up and continued, following West Pass Creek. A few miles upstream, I came to an old mining cabin. The roof had collapse and the logs were rotten. Looking around, I found a rusty shovel and a pile of old tin cans. I kept hiking. About 3 PM, left the creek, cutting cross country, aiming for the saddle west of Ryan Peak. I spotted snowbanks, tucked in under the high peaks, shaded from the sun. While climbing up a draw and breathing heavily, I surprised a large elk. The beast turned to look at me, allowing me a good view of his large rack. Then he fled. 

Climbing higher, the trees began to thin out and the slope became steeper. With no trail and a steep pitch, I began to zigzag, crossing back and forth over a small stream of snow melt. The trees became shorter. In the draw, by the trickle of water, Indian paintbrush and lupine with their tiny purple flowers grew. Such discoveries had been set aside once the thunderstorms hit. 

Evening

That night, after the storms and dinner, a third thunderstorm moved through the area. I went to bed early, reading till the light faded from the sky, then falling asleep. I dreamed of fires. Every time I woke, I’d looked around for flames and sniffed the air for smoke. 

Morning

I was relieved when morning arrived. Everything was fresh and clean; the dust had been purged away and sage scented the air. A cool light breeze blew out of the north, gently flapping the tarp, helping it dry. I fixed myself a cup of tea and a bowl of oatmeal. After eating, I wrote of yesterday’s adventures in my journal and read some Psalms. Then I packed up, shouldered my pack, and continued the climb. 

There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I took a break at the top of the pass, tanking up on water. Dropping down the south side of the saddle, I came upon the trail to Ryan’s Peak and followed it as it zigzagged through the sage, down into the valley. I passed a few day hikers, the first people I’d seen in almost 48 hours. They were  As they headed up to the peak, we exchanged a quick greeting. I didn’t stop until I was at upper stretch of the North Branch of the Big Wood River. These waters flowed into the Snake River and through Camp Sawtooth, my home for the summer.. 

I paused for a snack while watching a man with a fly rod cast into a pond behind a beaver dam. He didn’t seem to be having much luck. After a short rest, I continued, walking the dirt road toward camp. I was surprised the ground was so dusty. When I got back early that afternoon, still in time to get to town for the evening, I discovered that although those at the camp could hear the storms and see the lightning the evening before, the camp didn’t receive a drop of rain.

Boulder Mountains look up from Idaho 75, mountain reflecting in a small lake along Big Wood River.
Boulder Mountains looking from the west along Idaho 75

Easter 2024

title slide with sunrise photo

Jeff Garrison 
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches 
March 31, Easter Sunday 2024
Mark 16:1-8

Sermon recorded at Mayberry on Friday, March 30, 2024

At the beginning of worship: 

I’ve told you this story before, but it’s one of the most moving conversion stories I’ve heard. In her book, Traveling Mercies, Ann Lamott writes about being totally down and out. It was 1984. She lived on a small houseboat on the San Francisco Bay. She had an abortion because the father was married. But something went wrong after she was released from the clinic. She started hemorrhaging blood. Instead of seeking help, she self-medicated through alcohol and drugs. She wanted to die. 

Throughout this time, she felt someone sitting at the foot of the loft where she had her bed. She turned on the light. No one was there. But she was sure it was Jesus watching over her. He was gone in the morning. However, for the next few days, she felt as if Jesus followed her like a cat. And, like a cat, she knew if she ever let him in, she could never get rid of him. But after about a week, she relented. She accepted Jesus into her life.[1]

Like Lamott, we may be down and out. We may be filled with grief. We may be looking for direction. And then Jesus shows up. Sometimes, like with Lamott, he’s by himself. Other times he shows up through the actions of another believer who reaches out to us. And Jesus offers hope. The tomb is no longer the end. Life is beautiful and continues. “Come, follow me, let me show you,” Jesus says. 

Before the Reading of Scripture: 

Last week, I talked about how short Mark’s account of the crucifixion is, when compared to the other gospel. Mark provides the basic facts, nothing more. “Just the facts, Ma’am,” as Sargent Joe Friday of Dragnet used to say. 

As it was with the crucifixion, so it is with the resurrection. This is especially if we only look at the original ending. The oldest manuscripts end at verse 8, leaving the reader in suspense. In the third century, there were some attempts to clean up Mark’s ending. A shorter and a longer ending was added. But this was couple centuries later. Most Bibles identity them as a shorter and a longer ending. 

There have been many debates about the reason why Mark’s ending. 

  • Was the original ending lost? 
  • Did Mark not get to finish his manuscript before he was torn away to be martyred? 
  • Is this an attempt at some literary move which forces the reader to complete the story themselves. 
  • Did Mark think that too many people were focusing on Jesus’ resurrection, and Mark wants to emphasize Jesus’ ministry? 

All of these are options as to why Mark cut his ending short. 

While Jesus’ doesn’t appear in Mark’s original ending, Mark continually makes it clear, starting in the 8th chapter, that Jesus would be killed and would rise from the grave.[2] I tend to think Mark wants the reader to finish the story. The empty tomb is frightening. The speechless women leave us pondering what happened and what this story means. 

Read Mark 16:1-8

Mark has an interesting way of telling the Easter story. Just after the sun rises, two women, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome, head to the tomb. We saw these women twice in our passage last week. First, they were off in a distance watching the crucifixion. Then, they saw where Jesus’ body was laid.[3]

They’ve come to the tomb for the sole purpose of anointing Jesus’ body. They know he’s dead., but hey want to prepare the corpse for its eventual decay. As Jesus’ friends, they carry with them spices and bandages. It’s their duty and a way to say goodbye and to put this part of their life behind them. Doing this act, just as we hold funerals, is a marker that allows them to say goodbye and then to resume their lives.[4]  

Because Jesus died late on the day before the Sabbath, he had to be quickly placed in the tomb before the Sabbath began at sunset. So, there wasn’t time to properly prepare the body for the grave.

These women set out to do what they were not able to do on Friday. Yet, they head to the tomb with some faith. After all, they know they can’t roll away the stone in front of the tomb. They have faith someone will show up to help. Along the way they discuss this problem. Unable to come up with an answer, they proceed with faith. 

Surprise at the Tomb

Then, when they reach the tomb, they find the unexpected has happened. The stone has already been removed. And when they look inside, instead of finding Jesus, they see a young man dressed in white. 

Obviously, he’s a messenger from God.  Seeing him, they’re alarmed, which seems to be an unnecessary bit of information. Of course, they’re alarmed. We’d be, too. There’s no body and there’s this strangely dressed man who seems to know their intentions. 

This young man acknowledges they are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who had been crucified. Certainly, those who suffered on the cross don’t rise from the grave. Yet, that’s what he said has happened. Jesus has been raised. They are to go and tell the disciples that Jesus will meet them in Galilee. 

And what do the women do? Scared to death, they flee. They don’t tell anyone what happened. After all, who’d believe them? That is the original ending of the book of Mark.[5] And it’s where I am ending the text we’re wrestling with today. 

Mark’s gospel compared to John’s

There is a reason Mark’s gospel contains the least favorite resurrection story. Most of us prefer John account, with its beautiful language and storytelling, which we heard at sunrise this morning. There, we’re told Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb alone. It’s still dark. She comes, probably wanting some quiet time with Jesus’ body, only to find the stone rolled away and Jesus missing. She runs and tells the disciples. Next, there’s the foot race between Peter and John to see which one will arrive first at the tomb.

While Peter and John check out the tomb, Mary Magdalene hangs around outside. A strange man comforts her. She takes him as the gardener. But when this man calls Mary by name, she recognizes him. Out of a deep devotion, she calls him Rabbi… Jesus has made his first resurrection appearance.

Mark’s Endings

But Mark ends his story with the women running away so distraught that they cannot tell anyone. It doesn’t seem right. Of course, they do eventually tell someone, how else would we know. A century or so later, in the end of the second or early in the third century, we have two additional endings of Mark’s gospel. One is short, the other is long. 

The long one contains several interesting appearances of Jesus along with a commissioning that speaks of them handling snakes and drinking poison, something not mentioned in the other gospels and certainly not done in most Presbyterian Churches. Besides, they seem to go against the command not to put God to the test. So that ending is questionable.

The original ending of Mark’s gospel leaves us wondering. How do we finish the story. Do we believe it? And, if so, does it make any difference in our lives?

Where Jesus’ Meets Us

Another way to understand the ending is to consider what the women were told. They were to tell the disciples that Jesus was going to meet them in Galilee. Why Galilee, we might wonder? Well, Galilee is where they’re from. They’re tourists or pilgrims in Jerusalem. They were raised and lived in Galilee. It’s where they work, and their families livet. In other words, Galilee is their ordinary life. 

And where does Jesus meet us? For some, it happens in church, but most often, I suggest, Jesus meets us where we live and work and play. Or Jesus meets us in our pain, as he did with Anne Lamott. In other words, Jesus meets us in the ordinary. 

Hope at the Empty Tomb 

We gather here today as Christians have gathered over the millenniums, because the empty tomb gives us hope and provides us with possibilities of what life is all about. We gather because once we investigate the empty tomb, our lives are changed. No longer do we need to look back, like the women did when they were ready to anoint the body with spices. 

We can now look forward into a new and exciting future being created by God. On Easter, we’re reminded not to only enter the tomb in sadness, but to pause and look around in awe and then leave amazed at what God can do.   

Conclusion

God’s power extends over death, so we no longer must be afraid of dying. God’s power extends over evil, so we no longer must be afraid of what might happen to us in this frightening world. God’s power extends over our lives so that we don’t have to live in fear that we’ll mess us. “Do not be afraid,” the young man said to the women, “for the tomb is empty.” Halleluiah! Christ is risen! Amen.  


[1] Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (New York: Anchor Books, 1999), 48-50. 

[2] Douglas R. A. Hare, Westminster Bible Commentary (Louisville: WJKP, 1997), 223. 

[3] Mark 15:40-41 and 47. See https://fromarockyhillside.com/2024/03/24/jesus-crucifixion-as-told-by-mark/

[4] The Jewish tradition honored the body but didn’t not try to embalm the body like the Egyptians. James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 491.

[5] There are several possibilities according to Bruce Metzger: 1. The evangelist intended to close his Gospel at this place. 2. The Gospel was never finished. Or 3. The Gospel accidentally lost its last leaf before it was transcribed. See Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (1971, United Bible Societies, 1975), n7.  

Sunrise off Laurel Fork Road, March 21, 2024

Easter Traditions

Easter Tradition title slide with photo of me and my siblings from the early 1970s, along with a photo of a jitterbug

I can recall many Easter traditions from my childhood. Of course, we went to church. That was true regardless of the holiday. If it was a Sunday, we were in church. We often had ham with pineapple baked on top for dinner. And sometimes we’d go for a ride around Greenfield Lake, looking at the flowers. I can only remember going once to a sunrise service before I could drive myself. I think it was too much to get a family of six up that early!.

Me (to the left) with my siblings in front of my Dad's Ford Torino in the early 70s
In front of Dad’s Torino, early 1970s
from left; Me, my sister, my brother, & in front, our younger brother

But two traditions stand out. The first, before Mom allowed us to ditch our new church clothes for play clothes, we had to pose for a family portrait. My parents made us stand at attention in front of some flowers, generally azaleas which often bloomed in Eastern North Carolina around Easter. But one year, Dad had a new yellow Ford Torino that was brighter than any of the flowers in the neighborhood. They lined my siblings and me up in front of the car. It must have been around 1971 or 72. 

Before church, we always received our Easter basket, even though we had to sit them aside until afterwards because my Mom didn’t want us to get chocolate on our new clothes. Of course, this didn’t keep me from trying to sneak a piece of candy or two into church. Each basket came with a small gift. I’m pretty sure Mom prepared the baskets for us kids. It included eggs which we’d dyed the day before, along with a variety of candy. My favorite were the malt balls covered with chocolate and hard candy. It’s still a favorite just in case anyone is reading needs a hint. 

While Mom handled the candy and decorating, I’m sure Dad picked out the small gift, at least for us boys. I have no idea what kind of gift my sister received, but the males of the family almost always received some sort of fishing gear. Over the years, there were packets of plastic worms and a variety of lures, but the one that I will always remember was a yellow jitterbug with silver strips on top. This was the Easter after my brother and I received a Zepco fishing rod for Christmas. I was in the second grade. My brother’s jitterbug black. They were both larger lures. When it came to fishing, Dad’s ambition was large.

Interestingly, I thought I remembered what happened to those two lures. My brother’s ended up on a powerline over my Uncle Frank’s pond and for years you could see it dangling there, beside other lures and tackle, looking like a trotline for a flying fish. He grew tired of me joking about his failure to catch flying-fish. But my memory tricked me. A few years ago, when I told this story, my brother insisted he still had his jitterbug. The next time I saw him, he even produced it. So, it must have been another lure that my brother sacrificed to flying fish. 

I never lost my jitterbug while fishing. It remained in my freshwater tackle box; its paint having flaked a bit over the decades. Someone broke into my car and stole that tackle box when I lived in Utah. I only hope the lure still catches fish.

A jitterbug is an ideal lure to catch bass. In the evening, as the air cools, the fish move close to the surface to feast on bugs. The lure stays on the top of the water, and waddles back and forth, much like giant water bug. The fish hears and feels this movement across the surface and strike, ending up on the wrong end of a triple hook. 

Recalling this tradition of receiving fishing lures for Easter, it seems this is an appropriate Easter gift. My favorite post-resurrection story of Jesus is him on the beach, roasting fish for the disciples who’d spent the evening on the water. A few of the disciples were fisherman and Jesus tells them that they’re to continue to fish, only for people. They’re to continue to cast out metaphorically onto the water.

the author fishing at sunset in the Quetico Wilderness in Western Ontario
Fishing in the evening in the Quetico. While I don’t think I caught this pike on a jitterbug, I do remember catching a few bass on such a lure while on this trip.

Jesus’ Crucifixion as told by Mark

Title slide with photo of a cross draped with a purple cloth

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry & Bluemont Churches
March 23, 2024
Mark 15:20-47

Sermon recorded at Bluemont Church on Friday, March 21, 2024

Introduction at the beginning of Worship:

Over the past few weeks, I have read two books most people would consider totally dissimilar. Both I reviewed in my blog this week.[1] One is the novel by Chimamanda Ngogi Adichie, a Nigerian born author, titled Half a Yellow Sun. The story, set in the 1960s, takes the reader from shortly after Nigeria received its independence from Britain through the Biafran Civil War. 

The second book is The Garden of the Beasts by Erik Larson. He’s a favorite author of mine who writes non-fiction which reads like a novel. The Garden of the Beast is about the American ambassador Franklin Roosevelt appointed to Germany in 1933. Hitler had just taken over and Roosevelt had a hard time finding someone to assume the position. He ended up with William Dodd, a historian and academic who had spent a few years studying in Germany. Dodd took his family, and the book mostly focuses on his and his daughter, Martha’s, experiences. Do you see what I mean by dissimilar.

The inhumanity shown in both books

But both books show us how inhumane people can be toward others. In Half a Yellow Sun, the Igbo people are slaughtered in Nigeria, especially in the mostly Muslim north. The terror these people experienced was horrifying. As a result, they tried to pull away from Nigeria and create their own country. And the war was equally horrifying. We, as Americans, probably know less about the war because we were up to our necks in Vietnam at the time. 

Of course, we all know what happened in Germany. Dodd and his family were there at the very beginning. No one would listen to his warnings about just how bad things might become as Hitler militarizes the German people and scapegoats the Jews. 

Both books deal with a group of people demonized by those in power: the Jews and the Igbo. Sometimes, it is hard to realize that people can be so evil. But it continues. After the holocaust and Biafra, we’ve had the Kimber Rouge in Cambodia, the ethnic wars in Bosnia, the killings in Rwanda, and most recently the Russian strikes against civilian targets in Ukraine, the horrific Gazan attack in Israel followed by Israel’s brutal revenge in Gaza, and this weekend terrorist attacks on Russia. 

Our world is a mess. But this should not be surprising for Christians. For we believe in a God who came to us and unjustly suffered a horrific death at human hands. 

Palm or Passion Sunday?

Today is known as Palm Sunday, but it’s also Passion Sunday. We’re focusing on the latter. When you jump from the celebration of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, Palm Sunday, to Easter morning, you skip the ugly side of humanity. The crucifixion is the central focus of our faith. It shows, not just our capacity for evil, but also God’s love which forgives our sinfulness and defeats death and evil. 

Introduction to the Scriptures

We’re jumping forward in Mark’s gospel, skipping over 12 chapters. I’ll come back to the rest of the gospel after Easter. Today, as I said, we’ll hear about the crucifixion of Jesus. I am going to break up the scripture into three readings. A different person will read each passage, and then I will follow the reading with brief reflections. 

This is a long piece of scripture, from the 15th chapter of Mark’s gospel, which begins with Jesus being led to his crucifixion and ends with his burial in the tomb. Before the first reading we learn of Jesus’ mocking by the Roman soldiers. Ironically, they call him the King of the Jews, but we discover he’s the King of Kings.[2]

Mark builds up to the Jesus’ death going back to the Pharisees and Herodians conspiracy at the beginning of the 3rd Chapter.[3]

Mark’s account of the crucifixion is brief. As one of my professors wrote in his commentary on Mark, “Jesus is not portrayed as a model of courageous faith to be imitated but as a unique instance in the history of God’s saving activity.” As Mark has already informed us, Jesus’ death is a ransom for many.[4]

In our service this morning, different people will read the various texts of scripture.

Morning:  Mark 15:20-32    

readers: Leslie Shelor/Jerry Potter


Reflections
One of the interesting things about Mark’s description of the crucifixion is that he doesn’t focus on Jesus. Instead, Mark focuses on those around Jesus, at least at first.[5] You have the soldiers who compel a foreigner in the crowd, an African, to take the cross. We’re not given a reason and left to assume that Jesus physical state was such he’d died before he got to the place of execution. 

Once on the hill, they strip his clothes and gamble for them, which fulfills prophecy.[6] Refusing the drink designed to deaden his pain is Jesus’ only actions.[7]  Everyone mocks Jesus: the religious leaders, those passing by, and even those crucified with him. One is crucified to this right, the other to his left. The staging of the crucifixion reminds Mark’s audience of James and John’s request to be on the right and left hand of Jesus in God’s kingdom.[8]

There’s irony in the mocking of Jesus. They all speak of Jesus not being able to save himself, not realizing that through his death he open salvation to all. 

Afternoon:  Mark 15:33-41 
reader:  Jack Palmer/Libby Wilcox

Reflections
Things around the cross change in the afternoon. First, the taunting from the morning disappears. Something strange happens. Darkness descends over the land. This is not a natural phenomenon, such as an eclipse. An eclipse would be quickly over and occurs during a new moon. The Passover always falls on the full moon. God called forth the darkness,[9] almost as if cosmos returns to its pre-creation state of chaos.[10]

Only now, does Jesus speak. But it’s not the gentle voice of our Shepherd Savior. Instead, we hear the agony of a man in pain. Jesus carries the weight of the world’s sorrows. Mark gives us both the Aramaic phrased cried out by Jesus along with a translation. He’s quotes 22nd Psalm, asking why he’s been forsaken. Jesus feels totally abandoned. 

But those watching don’t understanding. Because of the cry, they think Jesus calls on Elijah to come save him. Someone wants to give Jesus something to drink, perhaps thinking a bit of moisture in his mouth would make his cry more understandable. But others want to wait, curious if Elijah will show up. Because Elijah didn’t die but was taken up into sky in a fiery chariot,[11] it was thought he could back to rescue the faithful.[12]

But it doesn’t matter. Exhausted, Jesus cries out in pain and dies. The curtain in the temple splits. Mark doesn’t interpret this for us, but again we see Jesus is doing something new. The wall between God and us, symbolized by the curtain, has been torn down.[13]

We’re given two reactions to Jesus’ death. The first comes from the Roman soldier assigned to Jesus’ execution, who having experienced everything of the day, acknowledges Jesus as God’s son. While some question the meaning of the soldier’s words, the idea that a deified man would undergo such treatment would have been a scandal to anyone: Jew, Greek, Roman or barbarian. It would have been considered foolish.[14]

Did the soldier’s statement come from a revelation he had into the mystery of our faith?[15] If so, it would be just like Jesus, the one who encourages us to love and pray for our enemies and persecutors,[16] to have the first post crucifixion conversion be the one responsible for his execution. If that’s the case, there’s hope for us all.  

I have a feeling when we arrive in the kingdom, we’ll all be surprised by some of the others in heaven. 

The women are the second reaction. These women followed and supported his ministry. Now they gather to watch from a distance. While they don’t say anything, we’ll see them at the beginning of chapter 16 bringing spices to anoint Jesus’ body. This action reinforces the idea of Jesus’ death. Once death descends, hope dies. They honor him by preparing his body and then will attempt to pick up their lives and continue. 

Evening Mark 15: 42-47  

readers: Barbara Wagoner/Jeff Garrison

Reflections
Our final scene is Jesus’ burial. Normally, the Romans kept bodies of those executed exposed. Crucifixion reminded everyone of Rome’s power. The message, “Don’t mess with Rome” was visually reinforced. The body remained to warn others. It was left to decay and to be picked at by birds. 

However, Rome was also practical and knew this went against Jewish sensibilities. The Hebrew scriptures forbid abusing the bodies of the deceased. Even a criminal deserved burial.[17]

Wanting to keep the peace, Pilate, after making sure Jesus was dead, allows Joseph of Arimathea to take Jesus’ body and bury it. Furthermore, as the Sabbath approaches, this meant they had to work quickly to get the body into a tomb before the sun set. 

Mark sets the stage for what happens next. The women watch They know where to go on the day after the Sabbath. 

Mark’s account of the crucifixion contains numerous reminders of Jesus’ death. He didn’t want his readers to think that perhaps the disciples took Jesus off the cross while still alive and, after a few days, recovered.[18] Dead and buried, Jesus takes our sin to the grave. He pays the ramson for our sin through this horrific death.  

Death by crucifixion was ugly and messy. It displays the worse of human behavior. Yet we know it’s not the final word. The crucifixion shows the extent God will go to reach a fallen human race. Somehow, through Jesus’ death, our sins are forgiven. We are freed from that burden and opened to the hope we’ll experience on Easter Sunday. Amen.


[1] https://fromarockyhillside.com/2024/03/20/two-books-which-remind-us-of-the-reality-of-human-depravity/

[2] Douglas R. A. Hare, Westminster Bible Companion: Mark (Louisville: KY: WJKP, 1996), 210. See also Revelation 17:14, 19:16).

[3] Mark 3:1-6. See my sermon on this passage at https://fromarockyhillside.com/2024/03/10/the-plot-against-jesus/

[4] Hare, 211. Mark 10:45. 

[5] Hare, 2011. 

[6] Psalm 22:18.

[7] See Psalm 69:21. Luke links this drink to a charitable act by the women of Jerusalem, Luke 23:28. 

[8] Mark 10:27

[9] Hare, 215. James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 475.  The crucifixion happened during the Passover which falls on the full moon. Edwards also rules out a dust storm, but the spring is the rainy season in Palestine.

[10] See Genesis 1:1-2.

[11] 2 Kings 2:1-12.

[12] Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (1991, Hendrickson Publishing, 1997), 376. 

[13] See Hebrews 9:1-5.

[14] 1 Corinthians 1:22-25. 

[15]  Edwards, 480-481. 

[16] Matthew 5:43-44. 

[17] Deuteronomy 21:23. Edwards, 487.

[18] In Matthew 28:11-15 we hear a similar account in an attempt to discredit Jesus’ resurrection.