Thursday, June 8, 2012 was my first full sabbatical day and overnight in my little 1840‚Äôs cabin at Sievertgarden sheep farm near the village of Hattfjeldahl in northern Norway. This was also the first day in that part of Norway that the daytime temperature went above 0 degrees centigrade ‚ÄĒ that is, above freezing ‚ÄĒ for a whole day. A whole day above zero meant it was finally time to let out the sheep. You see, in northern Norway, the sheep ‚ÄĒ in this case 50 of them ‚ÄĒ spend the entire winter ‚ÄĒ from October until June ‚ÄĒin the barn; if you went anywhere near the barn, you knew they had been in there a long time. So on my first morning in Sievertgarden, I awoke to the sight and sound and smell of fifty newly-liberated sheep roaming amidst the snow. At that very moment I lost my ‚ÄúNew York state of mind.‚ÄĚ Ten hours later, the temperature dropped below freezing again and we had to bring the sheep back in. My host, Per Arne Engdahl and two of his grandsons asked me to help them. Close your eyes and picture that scene. Whatever you picture is probably right. On that twi-lit, freezing Norwegian night I learned that, except for the smell and the occasional ‚Äúbaah,‚ÄĚ
it‚Äôs hard to distinguish a sheep from a pile of snow. The sheep knew this. They laughed at me. So did the grandsons. So did Per Arne. Later that night I thought of a Norwegian aphorism: You can‚Äôt see the sheep for the snow like you can‚Äôt see the forest from the trees.
That‚Äôs often our problem with the stories in Mark‚Äôs Gospel. We don‚Äôt see the sheep for the snow. We don‚Äôt see the forest for the trees. We get lost in the details and miss the big picture.
Today‚Äôs narrative, with two healings, is a perfect case in point. Jesus crosses into Gentile territory; we aren‚Äôt told why. He restores a little Gentile girl at the persistent behest of her mother. Immediately he crosses back into Galilean territory and gives a deaf man back his life. There are lots of details and two magnificent and meaty conversations and lots of details. The girl and her mother are SyroPhoenician. She‚Äôs incapacitated by a demon; she cannot leave her bed. Jesus is traveling quickly. His disciples, as usual, are confused.
The deaf man has an impediment of speech. Jesus takes him in private, uses a special language, spits, touches the man‚Äôs ear and tongue and the man begins to hear and speak again.
Incredible stories! Easy to get lost in the details, and be so focused on the individuals so as to lose the narrative bout what God is doing to inaugurate a new way of living for the girl and her mother, the man and his friends, for disciples and critics and you and me. Mark tells these stories as snapshots of that larger picture to provide a glimpse of God at work, entering our world and transforming it through Jesus Christ. While the individuals are important and the details interesting; it‚Äôs God‚Äôs action, God‚Äôs purpose, God‚Äôs future ‚ÄĒ the big picture ‚ÄĒ that Mark wants us to see so that we might have a hopeful experience too. So that we may see the bigger picture: God at work in each of our stories.
We love to hear and tell stories; personal stories like our own; personal stories the girl‚Äôs and the deaf man‚Äôs and his friends and her mother‚Äôs. We love to hear and tell personal stories, especially in church.
What are our prayers but a collection of our stories? What are our conversations but the sharing of ourselves? Most of our hymns, our psalms and our anthems are simply our stories transformed into song. It‚Äôs easy for us to be stuck in our stories, in the details, locations, in our joys and our wrongs. It‚Äôs easy for us to get so stuck in our stories that we lose the great story which gives meaning and purpose and hope for our life. It‚Äôs easy to miss the sheep for the snow and the forest for the trees.
That‚Äôs why God gives us the Gospel ‚ÄĒ the Church, the sacraments, the Word of Life ‚ÄĒso that we would see God in each of our stories and see the big picture, the Great Story and narrative, in each of our stories of everyday life. And have hope. And have purpose. And find meaning. God‚Äôs Gospel, God‚Äôs story, connected to ours has a future and gives us a template to shape our story around the way life is going to be and the way life is going to proceed. The Gospel gives us the vision and the nourishment and the energy to creatively, hopefully, fearlessly shape our story ‚ÄĒ our life in our present and life in the city today.
The little girl‚Äôs healing, the speechless deaf man‚Äôs speaking and hearing and every one of our own personal narratives, the stories that we will tell and hear about this 150 year old community and its buildings and its mission all find fulfillment in the Gospel, the greater narrative that God gives us so that we might be sure of our ending and have hope for our future so that we might transformed and heal and change our world.
What is the Gospel? What is God‚Äôs story? Is it incidental healings and hearing and speaking or is it something more? Is the Gospel only about Jesus, embracing all people, opposing oppression and dying unjustly, leaving nothing but an empty tomb?
No! The Gospel we are hearing, on which we are feeding, the story of God acting of which our story is a part is not about one, not even about many; it is about the wholeness and healing for all. It‚Äôs not about ‚Äėway back then. It‚Äôs not about far ahead in the future. It‚Äôs about every person in their own here and now. The little girl. Her mother. The deaf man. His friends. The disciples and Jesus and the women at the empty tomb.
This is the Gospel, this is God‚Äôs story. Our story, our future our mission rolled up in one:
Here is your God.
He will come and save you."
5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
6 then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
7 the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water.
That‚Äôs the whole story of everyone‚Äôs life.