A Four-Day Hike in the Sawtooth’s

Title Slide with view of Hell Roaring Lake, Idaho
Lower falls at Cramer Lakes

A car approaches from the north. I turn around and stick out my thumb. “Was this a good idea?” I ponder. I haven’t hitchhiked since the summer before, when I completed the Appalachian Trail. And now I could use a ride back to my car at a trailhead. Otherwise, I’ll have an eight to ten mile walk beside hot asphalt under an intense sun. But they’re few cars in this lonely country. The car rushes by, its wind providing a moment’s relief from the heat. With no clouds and no wind, it’s hot, even at this elevation. Heat rises from the asphalt, its waves blurring the scenery. I turn back and resume walking along the shoulder of Highway 75, south of Stanley, Idaho.

I hear another vehicle crest the hill behind me. It sounds like a truck. I turn around and stick out thumb. It’s an old jeep; this will be my ride, I’m sure. Jeeps always pick up hitchhikers.

I recall an autumn day on the beach, six years earlier. I’d been on a conference on Wrightsville Beach. A hurricane was offshore, and we had to leave the island. When I got in my car, I realized that I my gas gauze was on “E.” Shortly after cross the waterway bridge, the car sputtered and quit.

Out of gas, I crawled out of the car and hoofed it in the rain a mile or so to the closest gas station. They lent me a can and I purchased some gas and when I started back when one of those bands of blinding rain hit. About that time a jeep came by, without a top. He shouted for me to jump in, and I did. His windshield wipers worked overtime, but it didn’t make much difference for there was as much water inside the glass as out. I began to wonder if riding his open top jeep was a good idea. But it beat walking. The rain was so hard; I could hardly see my car parked on the other side of the road. I put the gas in and headed home. Thankfully, the hurricane turned and went out to sea.

This jeep in Idaho didn’t stop. “Son of a…” I started, and then thought better. I couldn’t believe he ignored me. I turned and continued walking south. A few other vehicles rushed by, but none of them stopped. Each time, I’d resume walking. Then I spotted a minivan. I didn’t expect them to stop but still stuck out my thumb. The driver flew by, then hit her brakes, pulled over to the side and began to back up. I ran up and noticed that there were kids in the back waving at me. This wasn’t who I’d expected to offer a ride, but I was thankful for not having to walk all the way to my car.

“I don’t normally pick up hitchhikers,” the driver confessed, “but the kids recognized you as the hiker on the ferry when we came back across Redfish Lake. Looking into the back seats, I smile. The oldest is probably eight or nine. We’d played some silly games on the ferry ride across the lake and they were curious about what was in my pack. I thanked her for the ride and told her my car was at Hell Roaring Creek trailhead, just off the highway about eight or so miles south. She then asked about the trip.

Hell Roaring Lake with the “Finger of Fate” to the right of center

“I started out four days ago, spending the first night at Hell Roaring Lake,” I began, “camping under the ominous ‘finger of fate’ peak. It’s a lone bent rock pinnacle could have served as a model for Michelangelo’s “Finger of God.” The lake was surrounded by dead tree trunks from winter avalanches. Many of those trunks were waterlogged, but the ones not provided plenty of firewood. Although open fires had been banned for the summer (Yellowstone and Hells Canyon were being consumed with flames while I was hiking) I counted four campfires along the lake. I was invited over to one’s family campfire. I joined them and was shocked to learn that one of men was a Forest Service employee.”

Trail high in the Sawtooths

“The next day I continued hiking deeper into the Sawtooth Wilderness area, climbing over a steep pass. There were so many lakes, I can’t recall them all,” I confessed. “Imogene, Virginia, and Hidden were some of them, each surrounded by rocky peaks sparsely covered with gnarly trees. After leaving Hell Roaring Lake, I was alone with only the pikas keeping me company at night. I ran into a group of smoke jumpers, hoofing it out after having extinguished a small lightning fire deep into wilderness. We talked for a few minutes, as I picked up my pace to keep up with them, but then they left the main trail and headed to their pickup point.” 

“It’s all beautiful,” I said, “but my favorite had been the Cramer Lakes, each with a waterfall outlet that spilled into the next lake.”

“We were there,” she said. “We took the ferry across Redfish Lake and hiked up to Lower Cramer for a picnic and a hike up to the falls.” 

I’d been looking back at her kids as I talked. Suddenly she yell, “Oh my God.” I turned around and looked out the windshield. There was that jeep, lying on its back in the edge of a field. The dazed driver stood. 

“I’ll check it out,” I said. “Park down the road a way.” 

Jumping out as she slowed down, I ran over toward the jeep yelling, “Are you okay?” Another car pulled up. The driver, shaken and with tears in his eyes, begged for a fire extinguisher. No one had one. Drops of gas dripped onto the ground and the fire was began to burn under the jeep and in the grass. Without a fire extinguisher or other equipment, there wasn’t anything we could do. I told them I’d get a ranger and ran back to the awaiting minivan. I knew a ranger’s station was across from the trailhead from where I’d left my car. We flew down the highway, turning off and leaving a trail of dust on the dirt road up to the ranger station. I reported the accident and the fire. The ranger called it in and got into his truck. 

High in the Sawtooths

Then the lady in the mini-van drove me over to my car. Rushing, I thanked her for the ride, I dropped my pack in the trunk and headed back to the accident site. There, I helped the ranger, and several other men dig a line around the fire. Luckily, as dry as it was, there was no wind, and the fire didn’t get out of hand. With everything under control, a fire truck arrived and hosed down the jeep and extinguished the grass burning inside the line we’d established. All that was left of the jeep, that I was so sure could have been my savior, was a charred pile of metal.  I got back in my car and headed back to camp. 

I think it was C. S. Lewis who said, “we’ll spend half of eternity thanking God for prayers not answered.” And I was thankful this jeep had not stopped to offer me a ride. 

Another story of a solo backpacking trip during my Idaho summer of 1988

A Healing and a Resurrection

Title slide with photo of Laurel Fork with Mountain Laurel in bloom

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry & Bluemont Churches
June 9, 2024
Mark 5:21-42

Sermon recorded at Mayberry on June 7, 2024

At the beginning of worship:
A group of retired men gathered regularly for breakfast and solving the world’s problems. One morning, the day after they had sadly said goodbye to John, who’d been a member of their group, they nursed their coffees and reflected on all the good things said at John’s funeral. Then they began to reflect on the end of their own lives and what might be said of them. 

One guy, a retired physician, said he wanted to hear about all the babies he delivered who are now adults. Another, a lawyer wanted to hear about his honesty and hard work to protect those often overlooked within the legal system. A teacher wanted to hear from the students he taught. A contractor wanted to hear about the joy of the homeowners found from those houses he built. Around the table they went. 

Everyone had chimed in except for Paul. All eyes turned to him. Finally, Paul shrugged his shoulders and said, “I want to hear someone say, “Look, he’s moving.” 

If you caught the weird news of the week, you probably heard about the woman in Nebraska. She had been pronounced dead, her body was picked up, I’m assuming in a body bag, and taken to the funeral home. There, to the surprise of the undertaker, it was discovered she was still breathing.[1]

Our text today contains two miracles: one involves a healing, the other a raising of the dead. The latter, I suggest, is different than misdiagnosing death as happened in Nebraska. 

While our Christian hope involves life everlasting, we live out our faith in this life and in these bodies. Even the story of the raising of the dead found in today’s text is more out of a concern for the grieving parents than for the life of the one restored. 

Before reading the text: 

We have already seen a couple of examples of one of Mark’s favorite literary techniques, the sandwich.[2] This is where Jesus starts with one topic or project, then goes off on a tangent, before returning to the main theme. This happens in our story today. We have a grieving father whose 12-year-old daughter is dying, and an older woman who has been ill for 12 years. Jesus cares for both. Our story can also be found in Matthew and Luke, the other two synoptic gospels.[3]

These stories conclude a set of three set of miracle stories which began with the calming of the waters, followed by the healing of the demoniac. In a way, chapter 5 of Mark’s gospel, while not only including several major miracles, focuses on the ritually unclean. These are desperate people. One commentator suggested that chapter 5 should be the “St. Jude Chapter,” as Jude is considered the “saint’ for lost causes.[4] But Jesus never met a lost cause.

All three of the miracles in chapter 5 require Jesus to ignore the Jewish restrictions. He encounters both the man of the tombs, which made him unclean,[5] as well as the deceased girl and with women with ongoing menstruation. Jesus, whose continually places people over rules, immediately acts to relieve the suffering of others.  

Another interesting tidbit about our text comes toward the end. When Jesus awakes the girl who was dead, we’re given the words Jesus used in Aramaic, a later version of Hebrew, along with its translation which was originally in Greek. In most English translation, the Greek is translated, “Little girl, get up,” while the Aramaic words remain as Jesus would have used them. It seems odd to have the original language and a translation, since Hebrew or Aramaic speakers wouldn’t need the translation. This has led some scholars to suggest that Mark is writing to an audience that’s more Gentile than Jewish.[6]

Read Mark 5:21-42

One interesting thing about this text is that, except for the girl’s father, it involves women. In the Old Testament, we have stories of those ill and ritually uncleaned who are healed as well as those dead being restored to life.[7] But they are all men. In the Roman world, women had little status. It was even common for girl infants to be abandoned, kind of like female infants in China during their one child per couple era. While such practice would have been considered an abomination among Jews, for pagan gentiles it would have been less so. 

One way the early church set itself apart from the pagan world was to adopt and care for these abandoned children.[8] In his ministry, Jesus showed the value of everyone. 

Jesus is now back on the Jewish side of the Sea of Galilee. Unlike on the other side, as we saw last week, where people wanted him gone out of fear, he’s welcomed back on his home turf. Again, as has happened throughout his Galilee ministry, a crowd swarms around Jesus. 

Amid the crowd is a leader of the synagogue. He’s probably not a rabbi, but a local lay leader of the synagogue, who took care of the business end of the enterprise.[9] But this also indicates he’s someone of status. The rest of the synagogue has placed him into a position of authority. He’s obviously also one who believes that Jesus has special powers, for his daughter is ill and he comes to Jesus for help. He believes that Jesus’ touch will be enough to save her. 

But don’t forget that the crowd presses in on Jesus, so much so that he can hardly move. And while he heads off to help the girl, a woman in need comes and touches his robe. She was someone who had status. She had wealth, but in the past twelve years in which she had bleed, she had spent everything she had on doctors, hoping to find a cure. Now, she’s broke and Jesus is her only hope. She believes that if she can just touch the seam of his robe, she’ll be healed. 

This interruption places tension in the story. The girl, we’re told is at death’s door. Jesus needs to come fast to save her. And while the crowd pushed in, Jesus realizes some of his healing power has left him, so he stops and asks who’s touched him.

To the disciples, this is an absurd question. Everyone has been touching Jesus; they can’t help it. It’s like being on a crowded train into Tokyo during rush hour, one of those where the attendants along the tracks push those crowding into the cars to make more room for everyone. But Jesus has felt his healing power leave, so he looks around, and the woman who had reached out to Jesus confesses that she was the one. She’s honest, but also afraid and only confesses with fear and trembling as she knees before Jesus. 

Jesus, using endearing words, says, “Daughter, your faith has made you well, go in peace and be healed.” 

This interruption has cost precious minutes and now the father of the girl receives word that she died. They advise the father not to bother Jesus anymore. It’s time for him to begin mourning; but Jesus encourages faith and belief as he heads off with the man and the disciples to his home. There, the funeral home has already arrived and begun to arrange things. We can imagine neighbors and members of the synagogue hauling in food while crying out in grief.  

You know, one thing about grief is that emotionally we shift around quickly. I’ve known this all along, but it became more evident with my dad’s death.[10] One minute, we’re crying, the next, we’re laughing. 

When Jesus asks about the fuss going on and suggests the girl is going to be fine, the gathered crowd goes from grief to laughter. They’ve seen the dead and the dead don’t crawl out of the casket, something Jesus’ ministry will challenge. 

The wording here gives us pause to ponder if she was really death. Or perhaps she was like the woman in the Nebraska funeral home. Jesus says, she’s just asleep. But Mark is also making a point that Jesus’ power extends over death, so I take it he means that she is sleeping in the way we speak of the deceased “eternal rest.” Or maybe, as one commentator suggested, he speaks of her asleep to say she’s not “irrevocably dead.”[11]

Taking only his top three disciples—Peter, James and John—along with the parents, Jesus goes inside to where the girl lies.  And here, with his words which mean “Little girl, get up” he takes her hand. She rises and walks about. Jesus then tells them not to tell anyone what happened, but to get the girl something to eat. There’s aways a practical side to Jesus! 

Mark may have placed these miracle stories—the calming of the waters, the healing of the crazy man, the healing of the woman, and the raising of the girl—back-to-back to point out Jesus’ divinity. But we also learn something else from these stories, especially the one we looked at today. 

Jesus is concerned with individual lives and his concern extends even to those sidelined within the Roman world.  If Mark, as many suggest, wrote primarily to a Gentile audience, the idea no one is excluded from Jesus’ love is welcome news. And it should be good news to us, too. Amen. 

[1] See https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2024/06/03/nebraska-woman-declared-dead-alive-funeral-home/73964988007/

[2] For examples see Mark 3:20-35. (https://fromarockyhillside.com/2024/04/07/the-unpardonable-sin-baseball-doing-the-will-of-god/) and Mark 4:1-20 (https://fromarockyhillside.com/2024/04/28/the-parable-of-the-sower/).

[3] Matthew 9:18-26 and Luke 8:40-45.  Both maintain the “sandwich” structure found in Mark’s gospel. I preached the  Luke text in 2022. See https://fromarockyhillside.com/2022/07/17/do-you-have-faith-or-are-you-just-a-spectator/

[4] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002),161. 

[5] See my sermon on this text: https://fromarockyhillside.com/2024/06/02/jesus-and-the-man-living-in-the-tombs/

[6] Edwards, 167-168.

[7] See 2 Kings 5:1-19, 1 Kings 17:17-24, and 2 Kings 4:18-37. 

[8] Douglas R. A. Hare, Westminster Bible Companion: Mark (Louisville, KY: WJKP, 1996), 68.`

[9] Edwards, 161.

[10] https://fromarockyhillside.com/2024/05/11/a-tribute-to-my-dad/

[11] Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (1991, Hendrickson Publishers, 1997), 150.  

Laurel Fork in the early morning

Up North

Title Slide with photo of me along the shore of Lake Huron

I’ve been wanting to post something about my time in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, but things have conspired to keep me from writing about it.  After a week of Continuing Education, I took a week of vacation to head further north.

Saturday, April 13, 2024

Looking at the Presbyterian Church in DeTour Village, MI
Union Presbyterian Church, DeTour Village, MI

After finishing up with the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, I meet up with Bob, a friend of mine from my Michigan days. I had invited Bob along on this trip, as I have always enjoyed spending time with him. Professionally, he’s an editor and a saxophone player. He has incredible knowledge of plants, with a fondness of carnivorous plants. And he’s a storm chaser. Bob had a friend bring him up from Hastings, so he wouldn’t have to worry about where to leave a car. He threw his sax and his suitcase in my car, and we were on the road. As it’s over five hours, I wanted to get as much driving done before dark as we headed north. 

As the sun began to set, we could see we were entering a different climate zone, as farmland disappeared and hardwoods gave way to forest of paper birch mixed with pines and spruce.

We had a great conversation, talking about several topics along with listening to some Robert Raurk short stories from The Old Man and the Boy. We didn’t stop until after dark, picking up fast food at Burger King in Kalkaska, a town featured in two short stories by Ernest Hemingway. A hour or so later, we stopped for gas in Petoskey. These were our only stops and we arrived in DeTour Village a little after midnight. 

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Ship heading up to the Son
Heading toward the Soo

In a way, my time off was a busman’s holiday. The church in DeTour has a nice manse overlooking the St. Mary’s River. I agreed to preach (I reused sermons I’d preached in January) for the opportunity to stay in the Dmanse and to relax for the week. This meant that we had to get up early on Sunday morning. Knowing that I was arriving late the night before, some people in the church provided food in the refrigerator so that Bob and I could enjoy bacon and eggs with toast for breakfast the next morning. 

Church came early the next morning as we were both exhausted. I preached and Bob excited the crowd by playing a couple of songs on the sax. Afterwards, we had lunch and the Mainsail, one of two restaurants open this early in the season in Detour. Afterwards, we both retreated into our bedrooms and took a nap, before going out and spending some time exploring fins along Lake Superior.  These wetlands that were separated from the shore by dunes are diverse with plant life, most of which was left over from last season. Bob pointed out several carnivorous plants: pitcher plants and sundews.  While he continued to look around, I hiked out onto the rocks jutting into the water and discovered a nest laid by Canadian geese. 

We can back to the manse for a nice dinner of cabbage rolls made by another Bob, along with his wife Nelda, members of the church. As Bob had never seen “A River Runs Through It,” and there was a DVD of the movie in the manse, we watched it. 

Canadian Geese Eggs along the shore of Lake Huron

Monday, April 15, 2024

Monday, we set what would be our routine for the week. We spent the mornings in the manse. While Bob would work on his edits, I spent the time reading and writing. We’d take an occasional break to watch a ship make its way up or down the St. Mary’s River. Bob was especially excited when I pointed out the Arthur Andersen, the ship that was behind the Edmund Fitzgerald the night it sunk in November 1975.  On my first day, I read The Cellist of SarajevoLater in the week, I started reading Danielle Chapman’s Holler, along with sections of Augustine’s City of God, along with some writing.  The afternoons were reserved for hiking. 

In the afternoon, we spent time exploring some of DeTour and the trails nearby. Then, as the day sun dropped lower into the sky, we drove to Cedarville for the grocery store. We had dinner at Snows Bar and Grill, located above Snow Channel, along the north shore of Lake Huron. The place was wonderful. I had the walleye special and a Great Lakes Brewing CEO Stout while Bob had the UP special, a Cornish pastry. Afterwards, we went back to the manse and watched “The Jesus Revolution,” a movie I had brought along with me to watch in preparation of using it on a movie night at church. Bob, who is more familiar with contemporary Christian music, knew more about those portrayed in the movie than I did (Chuck Smith, Greg Laurie, and Lonnie Frisbee).  We discussed this movie several times over the week. 

Walleye Dinner
Walleye Dinner at Snow’s Bar and Grill in Cedarville, MI

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Hiking in Michigan's UP

Tuesday afternoon, we hiked to around Cranberry Lakes to Caribou Lake, a walk of about 6 miles which I had done before. The trail takes us through cedar swamps with high ground consisting of paper birch forest mixed with spruce. It’s too early for wildflowers, but lots of smaller plants under the canopy have begun to brighten up after the winter.

After our hike, we head back to Snows Bar and Grill, where I enjoyed a wonderful Pepper Jack Burger with an Atwater Dirty Blonde. The burger was great, but the CEO Stout of the previous night I felt was superior to the Dirty Blonde. As there were a set of movies that featured Sandra Bullock. Since we both like her, we watched “Two Weeks’ Notice.” We were surprised to see Donald Trump in the movie, as he was featured much in the news with the beginning of his latest trial, as well as we recalled Sandra Bullock’s refusal to back him for the Presidency. 

Cranberry Lake
Cranberry Lake

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Wednesday was a rainy day.  I still did a couple of miles hiking in the rain, coming home to a hot shower.  We stayed close to home for dinner, eating a great burger in the DeTour Bar and Grill, where we got into a conversation with locals.  We watched Sandra Bullock in “Ms. Congeniality” in the evening. 

The Arthur M. Anderson freighter
Arthur Anderson, a freighter built in the 1950s
and the last ship to see the Edmund Fitzgerald afloat in 1975

Thursday, April 18, 2024

Thursday morning, I received a text from my sister, telling me that our father would be having surgery. I called, but he was already being prepped for surgery for a blockage in his intestines. I talked with my sister and brother for a bit. Little did I know this event would change my plans for the next month. She later texted to say he came through the surgery and was doing fine. We went for an early evening dinner at Snows in Cedarville, followed by a stop at the grocery store there for food to serve that evening. A group of people from the church came over and we had desert and a Bible Study.  

a 1000 foot freighter
1000 foot freighter leaving Lake Huron

Friday, April 19, 2024

Friday, Bob and I spent the day on Drummond Island. After talking with my father in the morning, we caught the ferry over the island. David and Sandra, members of the church in Detour, picked us up and toured us around the island. Then they dropped us off at Maxton Plains for a hike.  

Hiking in Maxton Plains

Hiking in Maxton Plains
Bob hiking on Maxton Plains

I was hoping to make it to the cliffs along the northeast side of the island, but the recent rains had created ponds on the alvar surface. Alvar is limestone pavement. The glaciers of the last ice age had smoothed the limestone leaving only a minimal amount of topsoil. At places the pavement is like smooth finished concrete, allowing plant growth only in cracks. Unfortunately, for us, water takes longer to work though the rock, so the rains of Wednesday and Thursday have resulted in ponds which we have to work around. We make it almost to the cliffs, when we are blocked by a larger impoundment of water due to beaver activity.

Alvara pavement
Alvar pavement
Beaver dam
A beaver swamp blocking our path

As it’s getting late and we’re scheduled to be at a dinner at 6 PM, we hike back. This is my second failed attempt to make it to the cliffs, as I’d tried to find them when in the UP in 2021.

We were picked up at the trailhead by Dave and Sandra and taken to a home on the lake where a group from the Lighthouse Church on Drummond was holding a potluck. There were a few musicians present, Bob got to play the sax with them. I spent the evening getting to know new friends, especially Scott, the pastor. A former Episcopal priest, he’d been the pastor on the island for 10 years and joked about how he no longer dresses up on Sunday morning. Instead, he just finds a clean pair of jeans. We had a good time with everyone and caught the 9:30 PM ferry back to DeTour. 

Saturday, April 20, 2024

A ship going through the St. Mary's River, MI
A “Saltie” (grain hauler),
making it’s way up toward the Zoo

On Saturday, winter returned. We had several snow squalls. Bob was working on a project for a new client, so I left him and hiked out on DeTour Point, through a large Nature Conservancy protected area. At times the blowing snow, mixed with sleet, pelted against me. Then the sun would make a brief appearance before the wintry mix returned. I saw several ships, both salties (ships that travel across the oceans and enter the Great Lakes through the St. Laurence Seaway and the Wellington Canal, and lakers (ships that haul mostly iron ore, coal, and limestone and are too large to leave the Great Lakes Basin. I arrived back to the manse around 6 PM and grilled steaks for dinner. Then we began to pack up. 

Photo of shoreline along Detour Point
Between snow squalls
DeTour Point Lighthouse in fog
DeTour Point Lighthouse in fog

Sunday, April 21, 2024

The next morning, we had a joyful time at church where Bob again played the sax. We then went out to lunch at the Mainsail, before packing up and heading back south. I dropped Bob off in Hastings, then drove to friends in Portage Michigan for the evening. On Monday, I drove back to Virginia. 

An old laker heading south toward Detroit or maybe Cleveland

Previous posts on trips to DeTour Village

July 2021

September/October 2022

Photo of author of blog in a snow squall
Selfie during a snow squall

Jesus and the Man Living in the Tombs

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry and Bluemont Churches
Mark 5:1-2
June 2, 2024

Sermon recorded at Bluemont on Friday, May 31, 2024

At the beginning of worship: 

Bob lived on the edge of society in Virginia City, Nevada. Some people were afraid of him, but most just took pity on him. He was never known to harm or threaten anyone. Bob mostly wanted to be left alone. He lived outside of town in a shack but would come into town and dumpster dive for food and alcohol. He carried around a gallon glass jug. Going through the dumpsters behind the saloons, he’d search for whiskey or wine bottles and pour the dregs into his bottle. He drank this gross cocktail. 

I once tried to invite Bob into a potluck we were having at church. He ignored me. A member of the church then suggested that we fix a plate of food and sit it out on the steps by the boardwalk. We did this about the time Bob would be heading by the church on his way out of town for the night. When the diner was over, the plate of food was gone. That was Bob’s way. He didn’t want a handout. He just wanted to be left alone. 

I’m not sure of all of Bob’s problems. Some said his mind was fried on drugs. He had once been somewhat normal. In the early 70s, I was told, he had even run for sheriff.[1] There are things that happen to individuals that we may be unaware. We must be compassionate, do what we can, and ponder what Jesus would do. 

Today, in our gospel story, we see that folks like Bob and those even in worse shape didn’t scare Jesus. He saw something worth saving and using his divine powers, interacted with them and freed them from their bondage. 

As the old saying goes, “God don’t make no junk.” And while we are not able to help everyone, we shouldn’t give up on anyone. Instead, we pray for them and do what we can (or what they will let us do) for them. As followers of Jesus, we should be known in the community as those who care for even those who society deems as unlovable. 

After the reading of Scripture: 
Last Sunday, we explored the passage of Jesus calming the storm as he sailed with the disciples across the Sea of Galilee. After the tempest calmed, they sailed on and arrived across from the water from Galilee. It appears evil wants to keep Jesus out of this territory. As I noted last week, large bodies of water were seen as evil’s domain in the Hebrew world view. So, the storm could be interpreted as evil’s attempt to keep Jesus away from this new territory. And, as we’ll see, once Jesus walks on shore, a man seriously infected with evil spirits confronts him. 

Jesus and the disciples are in a territory unlike Galilee, which includes many gentiles. While not mentioned in the text, we know a Roman garrison is included among the gentiles. They stand ready to move into Galilee or to Jerusalem if trouble arose. Rome kept a smaller presence in the predominately Jewish enclaves to appease Jewish sensibilities. 

As I read this passage, I encourage you to consider the humor in the story.[2] I’ll explain what I mean in my sermon.

Read Mark 5:1-20

What does Jesus have against pigs? Four thousand hams and enough spareribs to feed Carroll County washed to sea. And think of all the bacon. Having come from Eastern North Carolina, where pig pickings are major social events and eating “high on the hog” isn’t an empty phrased, I’m saddened by such a lost opportunity. Just thinking of all those ribs sauced up and slow roasting over hickory coals makes my mouth water.

Of course, it’s obvious what Jesus had against pigs. As an obedient Jew, he followed the law which prohibited the eating of pork. As Christians, we can be thankful for Peter’s vision at Joppa, where he learns that such things are not profane.[3] But that came later. When this incident occurred, the God-fearing people were under the old law. 

Jesus and his disciples had crossed into gentile territory. Since gentiles didn’t adhere to Jewish law, they eat pork. I wonder if the presence of so many pigs, an incredible number of animals in the pre-factory farm days, was to feed the Roman garrison? It’s possible, and if so, those who hear of the story would chuckle at denying their enemy of a barbecue. 

But let’s go back to the beginning of the story. Jesus steps off the boat and immediately a crazy man runs up to him. The guy must have been quite a sight, running around howling. Strong, he broke chains used to subdue him. He lived in a tomb, which makes him unclean from a Jewish perspective.[4] But it may be the only place he can live because he’s been banished from the city. After all, who wants a werewolf running around. At least, as far as we know, the dead didn’t complain about his demeanor. 

The dialogue begins, seemingly between Jesus and the man. However, it soon becomes apparent the dialogue is between Jesus and the evil spirits residing in the man. Mark provides enough detail about this encounter to show the power of evil. This possessed man is strong and uncontrollable. But Jesus’ power is greater.[5]

There’s a jockeying for position going on. As I pointed out in an early sermon with Jesus confronting demons, in the Biblical worldview, names were thought to have special powers and to name someone or something implied domination.[6]

So, the demons address Jesus as “Son of the Most High God,” as if by calling him out they can control Jesus. But Jesus has power and demands his name, which the demons respond, “It’s Legion, for we are many.” A legion was a unit within the Roman army that consisted of 4,000 to 6,000 men. 

Of course, Jesus’ power from God transcends all other powers. He orders the demons to leave the man, but grants them their wish not to disappear, but to inhabit a herd of swine. For a Jewish audience hearing of this encounter, they would have thought this hilarious. The demons enter the swine and then do what evil does best. It destroys. Not only are the demons done in, but they also take with them a bunch of pigs to their deaths. Of course, Jesus doesn’t address the economic loss here.[7] Instead the purpose of the story to express Jesus’ power. 

There are three theological truths I’d like you to glean from this text. The first is one Mark has been making, Jesus is divine. As God in the flesh, Jesus has power to evil and has come to set about a change in the world. He dethrones evil. 

Because of Jesus’ power, we can trust him to cure any troubled soul, and there was none so troubled as this man. 

Second, the story confirms the nature and intent of evil, which is to destroy. Eventually, the demise of the pigs would have been the man’s destiny had Jesus not intervened. Evil seduces and then destroys. It often masquerades as good or desirable, and then, once in position of power, shows its true face. Scripture takes evil seriously, but at the same time shows us we shouldn’t fear it. When we sign up for God’s side, we are assured of the outcome. God’s power is greater than any combinations of evil spirits. 

A third theological truth we learn from this passage involves the man. He was a victim. Jesus never blamed or condemned him. He needed help. Instead of blaming the victim for his own plight, as we too frequently do, Jesus freed the man from that which kept him in bondage. 

The man is thankful and wants to travel with Jesus across the sea. But Jesus instead gives him a calling to tell what happened to his own people. Mission always starts in our backyard. 

In addition to the theological truths of the passage, there are practical applications. Just as the man ran from the hills to meet Jesus on the lakeshore, we too are to take our troubles to him We don’t have to bear the burden of bondage by ourselves. We can trust Jesus. 

And those of us who have experienced the grace of our Savior, like the healed demonic, have a story to tell. We are to proclaim and tell others what Jesus has done for us. 

Finally, this passage reminds us that no one is beyond God’s grace. God’s love extends even to those shunned from society. So don’t write people off. Love them, like Jesus loves. Amen. 

[1] Long after I left Virginia City, I heard that a local sheriff deputy had a confrontation with Bob. Feeling threatened, he shot him. Bob died. People were so upset at the deputy, for no one had ever seen Bob be violent toward others, that the deputy had to leave town.  

[2] For a discussion on humor in the passage, see Douglas R. A. Hare, Westminster Bible Companion: Mark (Louisville: KY: WJKP, 1996), 65.

[3] Acts 10.

[4] According to Jewish law, contact with the dead required a period of cleansing. See Numbers 19:11-14. 

[5] Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (1991, Hendrickson, 1997), 142. 

[6] See my sermon on Mark 1:21-28.  https://fromarockyhillside.com/2024/01/21/jesus-in-the-synagogue/

[7] For a discussion on this see James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 159. 

St. Bonaventure Cemetery, Savannah GA, with azaleas in bloom
St. Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah, Georgia during the Spring

Goyhood: a wonderful read!

Title slide with copy of the book, "Goyhood"

Reuven Fenton, Goyhood: A Novel (Central Avenue, 2024), 276 pages. 

The story of twin boys is as ancient as Esau and Joseph. In this story, David and his younger brother (by forty-three seconds) Marty are raised by a single mother in a small town in Georgia. Together, they make quite a team. Then their lives change one afternoon as they come home on their bikes and discover a rabbi talking to their mother. She confirms their Jewish heritage. This sets them on divergent paths. Marty takes this revelation seriously (and changes his name to the more Jewish sounding “Mayer”). He becomes a model Jewish student. He receives a scholarship and heads to New York for more study. There, he marries the daughter of a leading Orthodox Jewish scholar, who provides for their needs. He spends his life studying and living as an observant Jew. 

David, on the other hand, becomes involved in all kinds lots of shady business deals. He makes and loses money, but mostly loses money.  Then he finds success. Now middle-aged, their mother’s death brings the boys back together.  She committed suicide and left behind another revelation in the form of a letter.  While there to morn their mother’s death, and with the revelation that he’s not even Jewish, David encourages Mayer to go on a road trip as the brothers become reacquainted. 

For Marty, who has lived his life in a sheltered Jewish enclave in New York, it’s a chance to really see the world, a sort of Jewish Rumspringa.  The travels and his brother’s experiences amaze Marty. Along the way, we learn more about both brothers as well as Mayer’s marriage. They have a few close run-ins with the law, and adopt a dog.

In New Orleans, David picks up Charlayne, an African American social media influencer he met on the internet. She’s planning on hiking the Appalachian Trail, and David suggests to Mayer they drop off her at Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the trail. Two white guys traveling through the South with a black woman sets up some interesting encounters such as one which happened in a fireworks store. They even hike a day with Charlayne, allowing David a chance to experience nature and to ponder the meaning of worship. Charlayne, who has dealt with her own grief, gives Mayer a copy of book she’s read multi-times, C. S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, which opens his mind up to the thoughts of non-Jews on the subject of grief. 

David also arranges for him and his brother to attend a Jewish retreat in the mountains. This allows for more interesting encounters, from a phony self-centered musician who acts as if he’s unable to walk, to a woman rabbi. The whole concept of a woman rabbi is beyond Mayer’s comprehension, but she opens his eyes to possibilities beyond previously narrow life. 

I’ll save the ending of the book for the reader. This is a quick read, and there’s plenty of laughs along the way. I recommend reading the book. I read the book at a time I needed some chuckles, mostly while sitting in my father’s hospice room in the days before his death. But the book isn’t just humorous. Fenton explores the meaning of faith, belonging, race, and family. 

My one wish is that the book would include a glossary of Jewish words used throughout the book. Such words are sprinkled throughout the book and add to the story. While I knew some of the words, most were unfamiliar to me. I found myself googling some phrases. The word “Goy,” used in the title is a Yiddish word for a gentile or non-Jew.  

I received an advanced publication of the book for the purpose of reviewing the book. The book was published earlier this week.

Sailing in Rough Waters with Jesus

Title slide with a photo of a sailboat in fog heeled over in the wind

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry and Bluemont Churches
May 26, 2024
Mark 4:35-41

Sermon recorded at Mayberry on Friday, May 24, 2024

At the beginning of worship

Mark Twain had an acquaintance, a saintly woman, probably a Sunday School teacher, who was deathly ill. Nothing could be done. The doctors gave up. But Twain knew just what she needed. Standing over her bed, he shared his good news. She was greatly relieved. Twain confessed to having had a similar problem. “I beat it by giving up some of his bad habits,” he said. “Pretty soon, the starved illness left my body for more fertile ground. Just give up a few bad habits,” Twain assured the dying saint. 

“But I don’t have any bad habits,” the woman proclaimed. “None?” Twain asked. “None,” she assured him. “I don’t run around with men. I don’t smoke, drink, dip snuff, curse or even bite my nails. I’ve been a good woman, almost without fault.” A frown came over Twain’s face and he bowed his head and said, “I’m afraid the doctors are right, there’s no hope. You’re a sinking ship with no ballast to throw overboard.”  

I don’t recommend Mark Twain’s variation of fasting. I’m thankful we don’t have to try to please the Almighty by giving up stuff to win God’s favor.  That’s the theology of pagans and shamans. Instead, as Christians, we accept God’s grace and then, order our lives in such a manner that they praise God. Yes, we’re to give up sinful ways, but not to get God’s attention. We give up our sinfulness out of thanksgiving for what God has done.

Before reading the Scripture

We continue our journey through Mark’s gospel. In the last two sermons, we’ve seen how Mark broke away from his traditional structure of telling what Jesus did and provided examples of Jesus’ teaching.[1] Today, Mark returns to his narrative structure, as he tells a story found in also in Matthew and Luke’s gospels.[2]This passage is linked to the previous passages by a boat. Jesus taught the parables in a boat, now they set out across the Sea of Galilee.[3]

The calming of the sea is the first of three miracles Mark recalls in rapid succession. Following this miracle, we have the healing of a man possessed by demons and the raising of Jarius’ dead daughter. These stories were not haphazardly arranged. Mark reveals aspects of Jesus’ sovereignty—his power over creation, evil, and death.[4] In other words, through these three events, Mark makes a Christological statement, demonstrating that Jesus’ power is equal to God’s and implying, through examples, Jesus’ divinity.[5]  

READ MARK 4:35-41

It’s Memorial Day weekend and for many people that means the beginning of boating season… Isn’t this an ideal passage for today? 

You know, there is nothing more dangerous to the safety of a vessel on the water than having the crew panic during a chaos. When things get dicey, all hands need to be “on deck” and willing to carry out their assigned task to make sure the boat safely handles the trouble. 

Having grown up near the coast and spending a lot of time on the water, this is a favorite Bible stories. I appreciate both the fear of the disciples at the power of a storm and the comfort that comes from having someone like Jesus, who assumes control when danger lurks.

Let’s look at our text for the morning. Three problematic questions are raised in this passage. The first comes from when the disciples wake Jesus and ask: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing.” What kind of question is this? There’s some cynicism in the tone with which they ask it, as if they believe Jesus has the power to save them, but they are unsure he’s going to act.  

Did the disciples think Jesus would let them drown? Maybe…  It must have been a shock for them to find Jesus asleep. After all, they’d toiled to reef the sails and control the rudder. Their hearts raced as they batted down hatches and tightened knots. And then, soaking wet, they observe Jesus napping. While the disciples can’t appreciate this at the moment, Jesus’ sleep shows his trust in the Father to protect them.[6]

There’s a parallel between this story and Jonah. If you remember, Jonah booked passage on a ship heading away from God’s call. As the ship sails out into the sea, out beyond the horizon, it encounters a storm. The vessel fills with water. The sailors, taking Mark Twain’s advice, throw cargo overboard to lighten their load and keep their vessel afloat. Then the crew spots Jonah, like Jesus, fast asleep.       

Jonah tells the deckhands he’s disobeyed his God, the God of heaven, maker of the sea and the land. Jonah then suggests they cast him into the sea to appease God. But the sailors don’t want to do this; they continue trying to save their ship. After all, tossing passengers overboard would hurt their bookings. Who’d want to sail with such a crew? But the storm continues and soon these seasons sailors are at wits-end. So, they toss Jonah into the waters, and witness the power of God over the seas.[7]

In both stories, we see the power of God, the power of the Creator who calmed the ancient waters and separated land and sea. God’s power extends over all which is why Jesus can stand amidst the howling winds and command the sea to calm and the winds to cease. 

Now we now come to the second and third problematic questions, which I link together. Jesus asks the disciples, “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?” On a human level it’s obvious why they are afraid… We all would be afraid. It’s natural. After all, things are out of our control. We like to think we have a grip on life and don’t like to be in situations where the forces of nature, or the forces of other people, control over our ability to act and respond.

Jesus’ questions here are often seen as a rebuke. God is a God who has power over nature, then God is to be feared, not nature.  Furthermore, if God is good and has power over nature, we should willing place our faith and trust and seek guidance from such a God for his love tempers our fear and calls us back to him. 

The sea frightened the Hebrew people. Israel wasn’t a maritime nation. They lived in a desert; they farmed and herded animals. What few fishermen there were, sailed on inland lakes and seas. However, like we see in this text, even lakes can be dangerous. 

Large bodies of water, in Scripture, are often portrayed as the reservoir of evil.  Think about it. What is one of God’s first tasks at creation? God tamed the chaos of the waters, separating water and land. The apocalyptic visions we have in Daniel and Revelation depict evil coming from where? From the sea![8]Symbolically, in scripture, the sea is the Devil’s Triangle. It’s frightening. These formerly nomadic people wanted to keep their feet on dry land; they don’t like venturing out into the ocean.

If we grasp this ancient Hebrew concept of the sea harboring evil, then we can understand the deeper meaning to Jesus’ actions. Jesus’ power over the sea is also an indication of his power over evil—not just over a bunch of demons, but the whole system of evil. When our lives seem to be chaotic, when wickedness seems to have control over us—then our friendship with Jesus is even more valuable because he calls us to believe and trust in his power and will keep us safe when evil confronts.  

Yet, we must admit, tragedy is a reality. Not all ships caught in a storm survive. Some sink; others miraculously endure. There seems to be no rhyme or reason why one event ends in triumph and another in disaster. The frailty of life should drive us to our knees in humility. We owe our lives and our continuing existence to God.  

The hope this passage offers has nothing to do with whether our prayers during times of peril are answered in the way we expect. The hope offered comes from the calming presence of our Savior. Even during the midst of a storm, Jesus remains by our side. 

Artists have portrayed ships on stormy seas with Christ at the helm as an interpretation for the church. The ship in a storm demonstrates the difficulty of our lives on this planet. But the reminder of Christ at the helm, having things under control, reassures us. 

We live in a world of uncertainty. But as Jesus reminded the disciples, a crisis is no time to panic. Instead, we must trust in God. As Paul reminds us, nothing in life or in death that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.[9]

A sermon by Augustine of Hippo, the great theologian of the early church, brought this text into the lives of his listeners. His words still ring true: 

When you have to listen to abuse, that means you are being buffeted by the wind. When your anger is roused, you are being tossed by waves. So, when the winds blow and the wavs mount high, the boat is in danger, your heart is imperiled, your heart is taking a battering… On hearing yourself insulted, you long to retaliate; but the joy of revenge brings with it another kind of misfortune—shipwreck. Why is this? Because Christ is asleep in you… You have forgotten his presence. Rouse him…. Let him keep watch within you.[10]  

Although I joked about it earlier, Twain’s suggestion of throwing our bad habits overboard isn’t a bad idea. But if we desire smooth sailing, ridding ourselves of ballast is only a small part of the answer. We must turn the helm over to the one who calmed the seas. He can calm our hearts. Amen. 

[1] See https://fromarockyhillside.com/2024/05/19/our-role-in-the-mysterious-growth-of-the-kingdom/ and https://fromarockyhillside.com/2024/04/28/the-parable-of-the-sower/

[2] For my sermon on the Luke passage, see https://fromarockyhillside.com/2022/07/03/let-jesus-calm-our-hearts/

[3] Mark 4:1. See also Douglas R. A. Hare, Westminster Bible Companion: Mark (Louisville, KY: WJK Press, 1998), 61.

[4] William Lane, The Gospel of Mark: New International Commentary on the New Testament. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 173.

[5] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 151-152.

[6] Edwards, 149. 

[7] Jonah 1. 

[8] Daniel 7:2-3 and Revelation 13:1f

[9] Romans 8:38-39

[10] Augustine, Sermons 63.1-3, as quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament II: Mark (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1998), 65. 

Sailing in fog with boat heeled over in wind
A foggy and windy day of Skidaway Island, Georgia

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. 


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)