The Beginning of the Good News
The Rev. Dr. Baron Mullis
December 7, 2014 - Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8

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The Beginning of the Good News
Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8               

Rev. Dr. Baron Mullis
Morningside Presbyterian Church
December 7, 2014

On my office wall, just above the sofa, hangs an embroidery given to me a number of years ago by my very dear friend Barbara, who died last year.  It is a small item, a cream colored field with a circle in the middle with a shimmering dove carrying a red cord.  Around the dove in Hebrew and in English is the word shalom. Barbara had given it to me because I had gotten in the habit of signing my name with the sign off, shalom.

In retrospect it was probably a little bit fusty of me, but I had been working with a neighboring rabbi on a radio program regarding the Iraq war and she had spoken so movingly of shalom being more than the mere absence of violence that I was quite taken with it.

That’s true.  While we most often translate shalom as peace, it actually goes much deeper than that.  shalom is the deep peace on which all of creation rests – much more than the mere absence of violence, indeed, the presence of God’s desired balanced well-being of creation.

So, Barbara, a great lover of all things antique and unusual had taken note of my new-found practice and on her annual trip to Maine where she spent her summers she was poking around a shop, and she spotted this embroidery. 

She went to the shop owner, because she loved the story behind things, and asked about it.  She said, “This is for my pastor, because he signs his name shalom, but how did you come to have it here in this shop?”

“Well, what did he say,” I asked her.

“First,” she said, “It didn’t look like this when I got it.  It was terribly damaged, but the shalom was in pretty good condition.  It had what appeared to be fire damage around the edges, and so I had to take to a textile restorer in Greensboro and they cleaned it and they had to trim off the damaged portions and stretched it into the frame and preserved it.”

I was already deeply touched by the gift, but she went on, “The textile preserver told me it wasn’t worth very much – that really value of it would reside in the frame because it wasn’t from a known maker and it is most certainly less than a hundred years old.”

“It’s beautiful, but why did you go to so much effort?” I asked.

“I’m getting there,” she continued.  “So the shopkeeper said, ‘I got it by way of an estate sale.  I can’t really keep everything that I find of sentimental value in my business, so I’m just selling it for what it’s worth.  But what you need know about it is that it came from the estate of a rabbi who had come here to retire, and that particular scrap was part of a much larger banner that had hung in the synagogue he served.  The synagogue was burned and most of the banner was destroyed, but the dove and the surrounding area survived.  The rabbi salvaged it and carried it into the new synagogue when it was rebuilt.  They gave it to him when he retired.  He had no heirs, and I couldn’t bear for it to be sold for rag.’”  So, she said, “Because of the story behind it, I knew I had to preserve it.”

How quickly scraps become important because of stories. 

How quickly something insignificant becomes significant because of stories. 

Stories enrich our lives and enrich our relationships. 

We are not a huge church, but we’re not a small church either and so it’s virtually impossible for us all to know each other equally – of for me as your pastor to know each of you equally – but the more we know of each other  - the more we intentionally engage one another, the deeper and richer our relationships become. 

That is true of churches.

That is true of marriages and partnerships.

That is true of friendship.

That is true of communities. 

That is true of the world. 

How much deeper and richer it is when we engage each other’s stories. 

I’ve thought of that quite a bit over the past weeks with the news cycles that we’ve all shared together of Ferguson and New York.

I’ve observed through media and the social media a broad disagreement that seems to be wedged into culture.

There are, to my eye, folks who look at the evidence and conclude that justice is utterly absent and so sympathize with those who protest.

There, again, to my eye, a great number of folks who simply do not know what to believe – who do not want to think ill of police or protestors – but know that someone has surely been wronged, but they are not sure how or who or what to do about it.

And finally, to my eye, there are those who are fairly sure the decisions were the right ones and the protestors are wrong.

But we’re not meant to divide into camps.  That’s not shalom.

But stories make the difference, don’t they?

I have learned through the years that you cannot hijack someone else’s story.  Only they can tell it. 

Your experiences are not mine, and vice versa.  But we can tell one another. 

There’s something redemptive, I expect, about the sharing of stories. 

Think of our text from Isaiah today.  They are lovely words.  Comfort, O comfort my people, says the Lord.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. 

They’re lovely words and they stand at a pivot point in Isaiah’s prophecy.  Isaiah is sort of three different books, they can be caricatured “bad things are going to happen, bad things are happening, and bad things happened.”

Right here in the fortieth chapter, they’ve moved from going to happen into happening.  That is when they need to remember the story in which they are living in order to know that God is with them. 

It is only within that story of their whole lives and God’s constancy with the Hebrews in slavery in Egypt, God’s constancy with the Israelites in the Wilderness, God’s covenant constancy to David and his people that these words really make much sense at all.  But within that story of God’s providing care, these words come: he will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep. That’s shalom.  I don’t know about you, but I need to see some shalom.

In the middle of the broken shalom comes the reminder that God’s ongoing story with us isn’t over.  Surely that’s good news?

But it can’t be good news for just some folks.  It has to be good news for everyone.  Otherwise, it’s not good news.

As I was musing over these things and thinking about shalom, what a difference it would make when our stories are shared?

Do you remember the so-called beer summit at the White House a few years back?  It was a meeting between Professor Henry Louis Gates, Sergeant James Crowley and the president and the vice president. 

I remember that it largely came about because of an off-hand remark about sharing a beer and I also remember that the media either gave it positive press or considered it an utter fiasco, because you know, that’s how they think we divide, but that’s not where I’m going with this. 

I really am not concerned about what the president and the vice-president had to say at the event or really even that it was held at the White House.  What strikes me about it is that two people whose behavior devolved in such a way that I seriously doubt either looks back on the story with unbridled fondness heard something more of each other’s story.

That is not easy.

Honestly, that takes an intentional change of heart.

The beginning of Mark’s gospel account has always struck me as abrupt.  He starts simply, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.”

No verbs, just a declarative statement.

But then Mark moves immediately into a story of honesty and change.  John the Baptist appears inviting people to repent – well, more hollering at them – but the point remains that how they are isn’t how they’re stuck.  They can change.  The Greek word for repentance means changing your mind.  The Hebrew word is simpler, it just means turn around. 

John is standing out in the water inviting all who will come to let the story change.

The story can change. 

Sometimes I wonder if that isn’t what Mark is driving at when he tells the Gospel story.  You see, John starts it off with a promise of a baptism of the Holy Spirit which we never see, and then the Gospel ends abruptly with women leaving the empty tomb and going and telling no one – I think between the lines of the gospel that Mark is yelling, “The story can change.  In God’s power, the story can change.  The lame can be healed, the demons can be cast out, the dead can rise, and God’s broken shalom can be restored. 

Shalom can be restored.  Indeed, by the sharing of stories and lives, we begin the repair of God’s shalom, of which Christ has already assured us the final outcome.  Here we can come and hear the beginning of the good news.  But let it not be then, the end of the good news.

This is the time of year when we hear a familiar story.  Even folks that come to church only twice a year know this story really well.  (I guess if you’re only hearing two bible stories, It’s pretty easy to remember them.)  But the whole sweep of redemption history is wrapped up in those two bible stories: of God becoming incarnate and entering our story, and of Jesus’s resurrection and our invitation into God’s ongoing story of redemption. 

We are all invited into the story of redemption and restoration of broken shalom.  It starts right here at this table when we come together and like all good meals, stories are shared and breaches are healed.  Like all good stories we come to understand one another more.

Yes, we come to this table where all our stories are known by God, where all our stories are valued by God, and where all our stories are loved by God.  It is the beginning of the good news.  Let it not be the end. 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.

Last Published: December 12, 2014 12:07 AM