Sunday, July 22, 2018

The Rest of the Story-- Sermon for Proper 11B

When I was a kid, my siblings and I would often be cooped up for hours on long car rides across the Oklahoma prairie to go visit one of my grandmothers. No matter which grandma we were going to go see, even with my father’s lead foot, which was known to Oklahoma state troopers far and wide, we would be trapped for at least 3 hours in the back of one of the used Lincoln Continentals that my dad loved to buy.

These were the days when children were seen and not heard, and above all, when children better not force Dad to pull over—ever. So there we were, zooming past wheat fields trying not to get carsick as Dad alternated among smoking, drinking Folger’s coffee with the pungency of turpentine, and chewing tobacco. If Mom opened up the Vienna sausages or the Underwood Devilled ham, all was lost, but most of the time we knew that if we refused to admit we were hungry, we might be spared that layer of odor that would push at least one of us into turning green. Good times.

Dad controlled the musical selections, as well, and so when he got tired of his collection of 8-track tapes by Marty Robbins, Connie Francis, or Lord help me, Conway Twitty, he would spin the radio around the dial until he found something he liked. If it was noon on Friday, chances were it would be Paul Harvey’s voice that would jolt us out of our stupor in the backseat. “Hello, Americans! This is Paul Harvey. Stand-by for the neeeews!” he would intone. 

After twenty minutes of reporting on whatever had caught his eye that day, Paul Harvey would often do his famous segments called “The Rest of the Story,” where he would provide little known facts or stories supposedly from history, always with a twist at the end. He would always end with, “And now you know… the REST of the story.”

When reading three of our readings today, one of the things that struck me is what was LEFT OUT of the story, and it made me think of Paul Harvey. We need to know the rest of the story, if we are to make heads or tails of these readings, and learn from them.

Our reading from 2 Samuel ends abruptly in the middle of verse 14, with God promising to be a father to David’s future offspring, whom we know with hindsight to be Solomon. All sorts of things are promised to Solomon. What gets omitted, however, is the second half of verse 14: “When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings.” Wow. That’s decidedly different in tone from the previous promises made to David about him and his dynasty.

David himself sometimes did terrible things, especially when he thought he could do what HE thought best rather than what God thought best, and he himself believed that he was punished by God for them. And if you know anything about his son King Solomon, he may have been rich and wise and dripping in hundreds of wives, but he was also the last king of a united Israel, and was supposedly punished by God for allowing his wives to worship their own gods, among other things. So that’s part of the rest of the story.

Likewise, in our psalm for today, the verses that are presented only detail the covenant made between God and David and his descendants. It abruptly stops right at the same point our reading from 2nd Samuel stops—where we learn that David has been punished by God for disobedience, for breaking the covenant God had made with him. More of the rest of the story. And in these two cases, we get warnings about leaders who become so arrogant they forget the good of the people. They fail to be good shepherds for their flock, and they do things like take other men’s wives, or worship power instead of God. That’s the rest of the story.

Then we get to our gospel. There are some interesting choices going on here in this editors of the lectionary in putting the verses in our gospel together. Omitted in the middle are the stories of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, as well as Jesus Walking on Water. Instead of working sequentially, we get the verses before these two amazing miracle stories, and then the verses after those two amazing miracle stories.

So, just like with our psalm and with our reading from 2 Samuel, we have to do some digging to find out “the rest of the story.” If you recall, a couple of weeks ago Jesus had sent the apostles out to evangelize. It is evident that they have returned. And it sounds like they are exhausted—exhilarated, but exhausted. That’s why Jesus has compassion on the apostles, sees what they need, and prescribes a little quiet time with God as just the thing to recharge their batteries. And so he sends them off. Then they feed the 5000, and Jesus walks on water, which we don't hear today.

Our story then takes up again with them having crossed back to Gennesaret. Yet Jesus’s reputation as a holy man and a healer precedes him even in the countryside. Word has gotten out that Jesus and his disciples are in the neighborhood, and a crowd gathers, trying desperately to find them. Jesus sees the crowd, but rather than being annoyed or feeling overwhelmed by their constant demands, Jesus has compassion upon them, because he sees how desperate they are. It is highly probable they were drawn there by Jesus’s miracles—probably the very miracles our lectionary omits.

But I think there is some wisdom in not hearing those stories for us today. It helps us hear details we normally wouldn’t, distracted as we would be by those shiny miracles.

Jesus’s ministry is not just about miracles. It’s about teaching and healing, but in Mark, especially the healing—which often involves reconciliation, restoration of relationships, and providing peace of mind. The crowds of people mentioned in this gospel we hear today do not have peace of mind. They are desperate. That’s why they are rushing around all over the countryside, so desperate to even touch a thread of one of Jesus’s garments that they are trying to anticipate where Jesus and his disciples might go next and get there first.

If you notice in what we read today, first Jesus teaches them. Then Jesus heals them. Understanding Jesus’s teaching takes effort, and requires give and take between the teacher and the student. Healing is passive on the part of the sufferer, besides requiring faith. All they have to do is receive the healing. In both the teaching and the healing, Jesus demonstrates his compassion, and tries to lead us into compassion as well.

And it’s even harder for us. Especially now, when compassion is not seen as a virtue by the warped values of the world, but often as a weakness. It’s easy to chase after Jesus when you’re looking for a miracle. It’s harder to allow ourselves to be transformed and changed by Jesus’s teaching. That requires real effort and will on our part. Yet it’s the transformative nature of Jesus’s gospel that truly saves us.

Jesus as the Incarnation reveals to us who God is, as well as whom we are called to be as fully enlightened beings created in the image of God. This characteristic of compassion is pivotal both in terms of our understanding of God and our understanding of ourselves. Jesus calls us to ourselves embody the same kind of compassion he had—one that is not condescending, looking down on those seeking healing, but one that places us right alongside our brothers and sisters—shoulder to shoulder as equals, regardless of our differences.

Rather, Jesus teaches us that true compassion can be an act of resistance and even disruption to the status quo. Jesus teaches us that true compassion is standing with those in need of relief, standing with those in need of justice, standing with those whose human dignity is being denied, and sharing in their struggles as an act of justice.

Jesus teaches us that true compassion takes seriously the very real possibility that other people suffer indignities, inequalities, and outrages that we ourselves may be blessed to be in a position to avoid—and choosing to use our power to imagine ourselves in their shoes, and act as their true brothers and sisters.

True compassion is also embodied in the image of shepherds—who were often female, then and now, by the way-- carrying their lambs on their shoulders when the lambs need help, using their strength for others.

With God, and with Jesus as the Son of God, compassion is foundational to God’s very being. With the rest of us humans, however, it is not quite so easy. Too often we equate compassion with pity, or with weakness, with the lack of a killer instinct in this dog-eat-dog world. This is part of the ongoing transformation that we are required to do within ourselves and in our relationships as disciples of Jesus, and it’s hard—because everything we are taught about competition causes us to see exploitation of others’ weaknesses to be the most successful attitude to take, rather than the working together for the common good.

The story of Christ’s saving work in the world is not over—it continues, and we have been entrusted to help tell the rest of Jesus’s story in our words and actions so that others may know him too.

As children of God, and as disciples of Jesus, we are called to ourselves embody that Christ-like compassion and mercy in the world -- to those who are clinging to the margins of our society, and to the margins of our experience. Sometimes even to the shepherds and apostles among us, as they themselves try to do the best they can under burdens they often feel they have no one to share them with.

We worship a risen, living Savior—one who has entrusted us to carry on his work in the world, and who equips us for this holy work gathered around this altar every week, joined together by his compassionate love as his body in the world. 

WE are the rest of the story. We are the hands and heart of Christ in the world today.

May we be the compassionate ones to those we encounter, not stopping to wonder whether they deserve compassion or not. Christ doesn’t end the story there—and neither should we. Christ's gospel of love and healing continues as a living force for change and redemption through us.

And THAT'S the rest of the story.


Preached at Christ Episcopal Church, Rolla, MO, at 8:00 and 10:00 am on July 22, 2018.

2 Samuel 7:1-14a
Psalm 89:20-37
Ephesians 2:11-22
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

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