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Buzzkill

Stories
Contents
“Buzzkill” by Keith Hewitt
“A Capable Woman, Past And Present” by David O. Bales
“Like A Tree To The Very Last Leaf” by David O. Bales


Buzzkill
by Keith Hewitt
Mark 9:30-37

With practiced hands, James slit open the belly of the fish, held the slit open with one finger, and pulled out the inner organs with the fingers of his other hand, flicked them into the pile at his feet. He put the fish in a basket, picked up the next and started to scale it. “I’ll tell you what,” he said softly, with a quick glance over his shoulder, “Jesus can be a real buzzkill. Here we are, having a pleasant conversation, and then he starts talking about how he’s going to die. Why does it always come down to that lately?”

He flipped the fish over, began scaling the other side furiously; scales flew off, glinted in the sun before falling to earth. “‘Hey Jesus, what do you want for breakfast?’ ‘Just some bread, because I’m going to die,’” he said, mimicking their teacher’s voice. “‘Hey Jesus, do you think it’s going to rain today?’ ‘I don’t know about rain, but I know I’m going to die.’” He shook his head. “Why does it all have to come around to him dying? Who does he think is going to kill him?”

“I don’t know,” a deep voice answered from behind, “but he may have decided to do it himself, after listening to you argue all afternoon about who the favorite disciple is.”

That elicited appreciative chuckles from the men and women gathered around the fire. James looked over his other shoulder toward the voice, then faced forward again and rolled his eyes. “Big talk, Nicodemus. I didn’t hear you getting into the argument.”

“That’s right, you didn’t.” Nicodemus stepped into the circle, found an empty stone and sat on it. “Jesus is trying to teach us about salvation, and redemption -- and all you can talk about is who he loves the most. I’ve got a news flash for you -- he’s like any parent, or any teacher: he loves all of us the same.” He picked up a twig, snapped it a couple of times and threw it into the fire. “Leastwise, that’s all he’s ever going to admit to. James, John, Peter -- Andrew…you all have your own special charm, but he’s not here to teach us about who’s first among his followers. Haven’t you been listening?”

“Of course we have,” James said irritably. “We’ve heard all about God’s Kingdom. We’ve heard all about love, and loving one another, and serving one another -- that whole last and first thing. We heard all that. And we’ve shared all that with others, all along the way. But this obsession he has with dying just…it beats me.”

“Who do you think would want to kill him?” John asked. “You’re part of the Sanhedrin, you keep your ear pretty close to the ground -- who has he made that angry? And what can we do about it?”

Nicodemus picked up another twig -- a thicker one -- and began to break it methodically, first in half, then quarters, until he couldn’t break it anymore. “It’s hard to say,” he answered, looking into the fire. “It could be the Pharisees -- he’s ticked them off more than a few times, and made them look like idiots. It could be the priests. It could be the Romans.” He shrugged, tossed the broken twig into the fire. “Take your pick, they all have a reason to want him dead. He’s a marked man, and he knows it -- that’s what’s got him so itchy.”

“Then why are we -- I mean, is he -- just hanging around, waiting to get picked off?”

“He’s told us often enough -- because this is how it has to be. For whatever plan he has, the first step is that he has to die.”

“It hardly seems like there could be a second step,” James mused, and dropped another fish in the basket.

“Well, there is -- he’s told us that often enough, too. I don’t understand it, but there is. And I think he focuses on it -- on dying, I mean -- because it scares him. And it’s our job -- James -- to help him through his anxiety by listening and supporting him. Helping him, when he needs it.”

He looked around the circle, his eyes resting on each of the disciples sitting there. “You worry about being most important -- but you’ve heard the Master: if you want to be the most, you start by being the least. You serve. You make yourself nothing. You empty yourself of what you want, so that you can fill yourself with what others want and need and give yourself over to them.”

James frowned. “How did you get to be so knowledgeable, Nicodemus?”

Nicodemus shrugged. “I know I’m not one of you -- but I’ve been following him for awhile now, and I listened. You can learn a lot, if you listen more than you talk. But most of all -- I came to him like a child. Thirsty for knowledge, not understanding the world around me. And he filled me up. Now I try to do the same for you.” He shrugged again. “I don’t know how well I can do that, but I try. And I do it for you…and for him.”

“Do you ever wonder -- about all this dying talk he does?”

“I do. But then I remember: he once told me that to enter the Kingdom of God…to understand where he is trying to take us…I needed to be reborn. So maybe dying is just one more face of that.”

“Or maybe it’s just the ultimate emptying of self?” James suggested doubtfully.

Nicodemus smiled. “Maybe. Perhaps one day we will know -- but for now, it’s enough just to serve, is it not?”

“Hard to argue with that,” James said ruefully. “And coming from me, that’s saying something.”

And both men laughed.

* * *

A Capable Woman, Past And Present
by David O. Bales
Proverbs 31:10-31

Leon hadn’t wanted to perform the funeral for his sister-in-law. He’d been retired from the pastorate for 13 years. Plus, as he put it, he wasn’t emotionally wired to perform a funeral for a dead loved one. Yet his nephews and nieces -- as well as his brother -- were living loved ones and they as much as begged him to minister to them in their need.

The songs had been sung. Proverbs 31:10-31 was read. Pastor Leon gripped the lectern, coughed, breathed deeply and said:

......

The Book of Proverbs collects the wisdom of the ancient world and centers it on life among the twelve Hebrew tribes that became Israel and Judah. Proverbs has a lot to say about women, and not much of it flattering. Yet at the end of the book, the last chapter talks about “a capable wife,” or, it can be translated, a woman of strength. Through this woman’s activities Proverbs records everyday life in a culture far removed from ours, where females were less valuable than males and they certainly didn’t vote or even speak up in a town meeting. However, although we must reach across millennia, oceans, and cultures, we can more than appreciate this description of a “woman of strength,” we can understand it as we think of how much of it describes Arline.

A woman of strength. It takes strength to love. Love takes effort. A weak person can’t love with a self-giving, sacrificing love. A weak person merely surrenders to the will of others. Love, on the other hand, is decidedly work. Love can be the drabbest of labor and involve the deepest of suffering. Lots of people think of love in Hollywood terms -- a thrilling first kiss, romantic moonlight nights, fantasies of living happily ever after. Maybe love is a little of that sometimes; but, when viewed over a lifetime, such things don’t occur often.

You can spot love in a woman who cares for her household day by day, enjoying family and friends while working at life’s duties. The day-in-day-out life recorded of the woman in Proverbs 31 isn’t all a woman does do or can do -- then or now. But it pictures the daily living, even the drudgery, in which real love shows itself, no matter the age or culture.

No one makes a person care for family and friends. Only love, though maybe the word isn’t used at the time, only love can keep a person going day by day in life’s ritual chores, no matter the toll it might take upon one’s health or life span.

Think about Arline. Among other things, the word “strong” must come to your minds, or you don’t know what strong means. “Energetic” at least. Arline was a person in charge, able to make plans, and carry them out. And people knew it. She had a strong will to go along with a love for life. A capable, knowledgeable, talented person, she was doubly appreciated because she directed her strength for the good of others: her family -- first and always her family -- but also her friends, her community, her students.

She was enthusiastic and joyful, genteel and downright fun, easy to be around, and worth being around, because her life was centered around Christ and his love for the world. And so people loved her in response. She was your beloved wife, sister-in-law, mother, mother-in-law, grandmother. She was your colleague, fellow church member, friend. She was capable of much not just because she took notice of details, but because she lived her faith by caring for others. You’ll most remember her for her deep loves and long friendships. You’ll think of her at the house, at church, at work, on vacations and in service organizations, because there you received her love -- love, everyday common love, and everyday extraordinary love, from God to Arline to you. In her own time and place, she in so many ways duplicated that ancient “woman of strength” in the Bible.

A woman of strength. And so Arline’s family agrees with the family in Proverbs 31, verses 28 and 29, “Her children rise up and call her happy,” or, as the older translations put it, blessed. “Her husband too, and he praises her: ‘Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.’”             

Our Biblical passage concludes: “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. Give her a share in the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the city gates.”

That’s also the last word in the whole Book of Proverbs. It won’t be the last said about Arline. But for now it’s appropriate for all of us to thank God for the gift of Arline, and it’s necessary for us to release her and to entrust her to God’s eternal love.

......

Pastor Leon stood silently grasping the lectern. There was nothing else he was prepared to say and nothing more he was able to say. His 15 seconds of stillness at the lectern allowed everyone present to silently agree with him and -- as the Bible certainly intended -- to infinitely expand on what the Book of Proverbs said … about Arline.

Preaching Point: A Biblical ideal observed in modern life.

* * *

Like A Tree To The Very Last Leaf
by David O. Bales
Psalm 1

William Sydney Porter, known to us as O’Henry, wrote at the turn of the 20th century. His flowery writing style isn’t currently the fad, and may never be again. His name, however, is forever stamped on stories with a surprise ending (a twist, a “snapper” as he called it). When one reads his work untroubled by his ornate and breezy style, the substance of his stories is truly worthwhile. He wrote about common people in their own world -- often forgotten by the rich and powerful -- who performed admirable and extraordinary things. Psalm 1’s depiction of a faithful (“blessed, happy”) believer as a tree nourished by God can’t be improved but it can be amplified by a retelling of O’Henry’s story “The Last Leaf.”

......

At the turn of the 20th century the Greenwich Village neighborhood in Manhattan, New York City is a refuge for struggling artists -- rooms with good light and at low cost. Two of the artists are young women who room together on the third floor: Sue from Maine, and Johnsy from California. Two stories below them another painter lives on the ground floor, a sixty-year-old German: “Old Behrman,” who always talks of painting his masterpiece, but has yet to accomplish it.  

When winter comes to the Village it strikes many people with pneumonia. Johnsy also becomes ill and she immediately loses hope that she’ll live. Lying in bed without moving, she merely looks through the window at the wall of the house across the alley. The doctor visits and warns Sue that Johnsy doesn’t hold any strong hopes for the future -- projects, travel, or even romance. The doctor states that, if people have something to live for, plans or hopes for the future, their chances of recovery double. Sue tries everything she knows to pick up Johnsy’s spirits, aiming her towards the future. However, Johnsy lies in bed, refusing to eat, staring out the window at the tree between the houses. Sue hears her now and then counting backwards, “Twelve… eleven… ten.”

Sue asks what she means with this countdown. Johnsy says, “Leaves. On the tree. When the last one falls, I must go, too. I’ve known that for three days. Didn’t the doctor tell you?” No matter what Sue tries or how she reasons that the number of leaves on a tree makes no sense (and lies that the doctor said Johnsy would get well), Johnsy is convinced she’ll die when the last leaf falls.

In Sue’s search for help she decides to summon “Old Behrman” to come up to their room upon the ploy that she needs him for a model in her current painting. An evening rain and snow storm is brewing when Sue goes downstairs to get Old Behrman and explains Johnsy’s state of mind. He finally returns to sit for Sue’s painting, grumbling and asserting to Johnsy that the number of leaves on a tree means nothing. He departs late in the night and Sue, who has pulled the cover over the window, dreads the morning.

Morning arrives and Johnsy is wide-eyed and looking toward the window. “I want to see,” she tells Sue. Yet, no matter that the rain and wind haven’t stopped all night, one leaf remains against the wall, 20 feet above the ground, still dark green near a branch, its edges turning yellow with age.

The day passes and with the night the wind blows again and beats against the window. Morning comes and the leaf remains. It’s what Johnsy needs to say she’s ready to eat something. By the afternoon she even mentions a scene she wants to paint. The doctor visits again and agrees that Johnsy is recovering. He can’t stay long but must visit another person in the building much sicker whom he’ll arrange to get to the hospital in order to help him die in some comfort.

The following day the doctor confirms that Johnsy is safely on her way to health and needs only food and care. But that afternoon Sue comes and puts her arm around Johnsy to tell her that Old Behrman has died. He’d been ill for two days. Two mornings before, the janitor found him in his room helpless with pain. His shoes and clothing were wet through and icy cold. No one knew where he’d been that night until they found a lantern, still lighted, and a ladder that had been dragged from its place, and some scattered artist’s brushes next to a palette with green and yellow colors mixed on it.

Sue says to Johnsy, “Look out the window, dear, at the last leaf on the wall. Didn’t you wonder why it never fluttered or moved when the wind blew? Ah darling, it’s Behrman’s masterpiece -- he painted it there the night the last leaf fell.”

Preaching point: Nature cooperates as a channel for God’s love.


*****************************************

StoryShare, September 23, 2018, issue.

Copyright 2018 by CSS Publishing Company, Inc., Lima, Ohio.

All rights reserved. Subscribers to the StoryShare service may print and use this material as it was intended in sermons, in worship and classroom settings, in brief devotions, in radio spots, and as newsletter fillers. No additional permission is required from the publisher for such use by subscribers only. Inquiries should be addressed to permissions@csspub.com or to Permissions, CSS Publishing Company, Inc., 5450 N. Dixie Highway, Lima, Ohio 45807.
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