A Big Story

A message given September 10, 2006

by Rev. Scott Summerville

Asbury UMC

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Mark 7:31-35

Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.

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This is a festive time for our church. The Sunday after Labor Day is traditionally the time we have a picnic and have fun. Since 9/11 there has been in the background of these festive times the awareness and the remembrance of great sorrows. During the year that followed the horror of 9/11 this church hosted a support group for relatives of the victims of 9/11.

I will always remember those times, in the evenings when the business of the daytime was done, with the nursery school children gone home, often I would be alone in the church as the families of the victims came and went. The children did not give much outward sign of the trauma that had fallen upon them. Children can slide things in and out of their minds, and particularly when there are other children around, they run and they jump and bounce around. Seeing the children, you would not have known necessarily that anything unusual was going on. But the adults moved more slowly, more quietly. They came in the evenings to tell their stories and to hear each other’s stories.

There is something about the human being, deeply rooted in the physiology and soul of the human being, that connects speaking and listening and healing. When people are able to tell their stories and feel that they have been heard there is a healing of the heart.

The capacity to speak – to tell our stories — is an awesome thing.

In the Gospel today Jesus does something peculiar. Depending on your sensibilities, you may find what he does is disgusting:

Mark 7:32] They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 7:33] He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue….

The phrasing of these verses is interesting. “They” brought to him — it doesn’t say who “they” were. We may assume that these were his dear friends, perhaps his family. They were people who cared enough about him to bring him to Jesus and to beg — to beg — Jesus to lay his hand on him… “Just place a hand on him — just a hand!..” Then we notice that Jesus did not lay his hand on him as they asked — no quick, “Bless you my son,” for this person. Instead He took him away in private, stuck his fingers into his ears, and then spat and wiped the spittle on the man’s tongue.

They brought the man to Jesus for the usual treatment, but Jesus seemed to think that this case called for something more than a simple word or a simple gesture. So this person got the full treatment: his earwax is cleaned out and Christ the Lord spit on his tongue.

Jesus gave him the capacity both to speak and to listen.

To speak and to listen.

He gave him the capacity to tell his own story and to hear the stories of others.

Christians tend to think that Jesus did everything effortlessly, but this story suggests otherwise. There is a fierce intention in what Jesus does. He and the man together contend with the forces that control speech and hearing. This is not something Jesus does casually.

It is an awesome thing to speak. It is an awesome thing to listen to the telling of another life.

We who take speech and hearing for granted forget how awesome these faculties are. We who pass by one another so casually, even here in the house of prayer, forget what an awesome thing every life is.

Every human life is a big story. That may be the most important thing a pastor learns: every human life is a big story. Each of the lives lost in 9/11 was and is a big story. Each of the lives affected directly — family members and friends — is and was a big story.

Each of the responders during and after the event each of them — the dead and the living — is a big story.

Now we come to learn how much many of the responders and site workers will suffer permanently for the service they gave.

In the wars that have come in the wake of 9/11 so many have died; each of them is a big story.

Every human life is a big story.

In the spring of this year as my father was dying the question arose as to who would speak of his life at his funeral service. Who from the family would tell his story? I had at first expected not be to be the one to tell his story. I decided to be alongside my family, in the congregation, on the day of my father’s funeral. But as that day approached and when my father died it became quite clear that there was no one else prepared to tell his story, and it was the wish of my mother and brothers that I do so. I also had come around to a different way of feeling about the occasion, to a desire to stand before the congregation and tell the story of my father.

In February while my father was still able to go out we had arranged a special dinner in his honor and in honor of my mother and my parents church. At that time lots of people told lots of stories about my father. My father was able to listen and to enjoy that affirmation. On that occasion many people said, ” I’m so glad we got to tell the stories about your dad, and I’m so glad that he got to hear them.”

At his funeral service I found that it was not an easy thing to be in the role of speaking publicly at such a moment, but I was glad to be doing it. It was challenging because of the complexity of his life and personality. It was challenging also because, for all that was known about him, there was much that was not; he was not given to the sharing of his inner being. There was much that had to be inferred.

It is a momentous thing — a thing which I always take very seriously and with sacred appreciation — to tell the story of another human life. It is particularly momentous when it is your own parent.

At the reception following my father’s funeral service, many people spoke to me with deep emotion. Many of them mentioned the fact that it was so good that at the earlier gathering my father had heard people tell stories about him while he was alive. I was very touched by all of this. But the thing that touched me most were the comment of one person who looked me in the eye with sadness and longing and said, “I wish I had someone to tell my story.”

Every human life is a big story. I was reminded of this very strongly just two days ago when I received a phone call about a funeral service. Some of you may remember seventeen years ago, 1989, in New Rochelle, there was a series of random shootings. The killer was never found. Some of the victims survived, profoundly injured. One of them was a plumber named Sheldon Williams. His friends knew him as “Chip.” In a single terrible moment he went from living a normal life as a husband and father and workingman to being a paraplegic.

He was married to Bonnie, sister of a member of this church. When I met the family on Friday they told me the story of his life. At Tuesday’s funeral service it will be my privilege to tell the story once more. I always considered the privilege and honor to tell the story.

In this case the story has the outward form of tragedy. This dreadful act of violence, these seventeen years without use his legs, and then a multitude of illnesses. But that is just the outward shell of the story. The story was not told to me as a tragedy. Chip did not see or live his life as a tragedy; he did not live out the remainder of his of his life as a tragedy, and so perhaps it was not.

There is something awesome in that. I feel humbled to be speaking Tuesday at the culmination of such a story, and to look into the faces of those who lived this story firsthand, and who will always carry this story in the depths of their hearts.

I have found that it takes about an hour for a family to tell the story of a life. That has been my experience in hundreds of cases: when a family sits down to tell the pastor the story of a loved one it takes about an hour. It doesn’t matter how old they were or what they did for a living; it takes about an hour. That may not seem like much, but of course it isn’t a whole life we are telling; it is the heart of a life as loved ones have experienced it.

So when the person looks in my face and says, “I wish I had someone to tell my story,” I ask myself, “Isn’t a spiritual community, the church, a place where we should be able to find the hour here and there to tell our story and to hear each other’s stories and so to carry one another in our hearts, so that no one would feel “There is no one to tell my story?”

It is an awesome thing to speak.

It is an awesome thing to listen to the telling of another life.

We who take speech and hearing for granted forget how amazing it is to speak and to hear.

And we who pass by one another so casually, even here in the house of prayer; we forget what an awesome thing every life is. Every human life is a big story. Yours is, too. And the person’s sitting next to you as well.

Grace and peace to you.

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