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Despite Unreliable Witnesses

“Despite Unreliable Witnesses” by David O. Bales
“Appeared Also To Me” by David O. Bales
“The Wonder of Grace” by Peter Andrew Smith

Despite Unreliable Witnesses
by David O. Bales
Mark 16:1-8

“Even together, I don’t think we can move that stone,” Salome said. The two others continued walking, watching their steps in the dawn’s deep shadows. The evening before Salome had questioned why she went to the merchant so late. Now she lagged behind and tried every excuse she could think of to convince the other two to abandon their mission to the dead. “It’s such a huge stone.” The two Marys, consumed with grief, didn’t even turn around, just repeated as they’d said many times, “Come on Salome.” She didn’t tell them why she was reluctant, but of course she’d never told anyone why she cringed at life’s every step.  

No one knew the terror that followed her, the horror always above her. No one saw what was constantly before her eyes: more than an uncertain, a dangerous world. As she followed the others, she was so anxious she had to remind herself to breathe. Bad enough that the cruelty of the Romans had combined with the envy of the religious leaders and led to Jesus’ suffering and death. With his death, her sons’ hopes were shattered like pottery thrown against a stone wall. What could compound such tragedy? For Salome it was that, along with the other two women, she must touch Jesus’ corpse.

As though the other two thought nothing of the stone rolled away, they just dashed in. Salome stepped into the dim tomb last, looking down, fearfully watching her feet. She bumped into the other two who’d halted abruptly. She raised her view and screamed when she spotted the empty shelf where Jesus had been laid. She nearly fainted when a young man spoke, telling them to report Jesus’ resurrection to his disciples. She was the first out of the tomb; but the other two ran past her quickly.

As they fled the walled garden, the women nearly collided with the squad of confused Roman soldiers. The soldiers hardly noticed them. One menaced them with his sword. The others kept arguing about whose fault it was. That’s when Salome became separated from the others, lost in the olive trees. She ran alone crying blindly, doubly panicked, calling to them.

She’d shuddered last night when her husband Zebedee told her, “Go along with them. It’s our family’s duty to assist in preparing the body,” as if now the family would start doing something helpful for Jesus. What had the men in her family done in the last days to help Jesus? They accompanied Jesus for their own gain. On the way to Jerusalem, they’d even pushed her forward to ask Jesus to share his kingdom’s reign with James and John.

Yet, Zebedee didn’t know Salome’s full terror of life. No one knew what constantly threatened her. Death had started it. “Kiss her now,” her aunt had said. Her mother lay on the floor on a shroud with aromatic spices sprinkled around her body. Her aunt’s hand was on the back of Salome’s neck. Eight-year-old Salome was rigid and shaking. Her aunt pushed her closer. “Kiss her. You’re supposed to kiss her. Last kiss.”

For eight-year-old Salome that proved to be the only kiss she remembered. That had started her horror of life as well as of death. Its memory infected every thought and movement. It reduced her life to placing each step along a high precipice. Always uncertain. Never freely joyful.

The other two women had run away wildly. They fled with a terror that approached her own. Yet Salome had started fleeing a lifetime ago. After her mother died, she’d survived the normal childhood diseases that killed two siblings. With their deaths, however, she could never be coaxed or forced to kiss their bodies. She would have fought to her own death not to.

She’d endured her body’s strange changes into adulthood, married as she was told to do, gave birth to her two sons, performed the household’s drudgery as every village woman did: pulling up buckets of water from the cistern, grinding with the hand mill and carrying wood for the oven. Through it all, glancing side to side to identify what imperiled her.  

She realized now that she was running north. The morning sun slanted toward her right shoulder and she ran crossways to the shadows. Her breathing rasped her throat. All this because of Jesus.

Jesus had come to their village and summoned her sons to follow him. They’d enjoyed tagging along with him around Galilee, always bolstering their hopes that Jesus was the Messiah who’d install them in high office after God defeated the Romans. Then for this last Passover, Zebedee had insisted she accompany him and their sons to Jerusalem with Jesus. The three days’ walk was disorienting enough, leaving the village and the only place she’d ever known. She made sure to stay in the center of the caravan and did her best not to let her face show how frightened she was at every twist of the trail.

Now on a trail that led nowhere, she ran until she was exhausted, then she tripped, and her feet tangled as she tried to catch herself. She collapsed, tearing skin off her left arm from wrist to elbow. Gasping and panting, she remained lying on the ground. Her throat was on fire into her lungs. Dust settling around her. She wanted to spring up and continue, run faster, farther, but where to? She fumbled to her hands and knees but couldn’t stand. She shook with her wheezing. Sweat stung her eyes. She asked herself what she was doing.  

The young man had said that Jesus went ahead to Galilee. Right now, by chance that was the direction her body faced, wreck that it was, directed by a mind as rattled as the body. She shook alone in despair. Another experience of fear leading to failure. Her group of three women, they were supposed to give directions to Jesus’ students?

Still swaying on her hands and knees, saliva dripping from her mouth, snot from her nose, Salome couldn’t think well, just ask questions, almost like prayers: Would it end like this? Would Jesus meet anyone in Galilee if he depended on people like her to deliver the message of his resurrection?  

Preaching point: The good news of Jesus’ resurrection arrives despite fearful, unreliable witnesses … like you.

* * *

Appeared Also To Me
by David O. Bales
1 Corinthians 15:1-11

“You sure you want to hear this?” Caleb had said.

“Yes,” Seth had stated firmly. “Have I ever asked you anything?” The answer, of course, was ‘no.’ Seth wasn’t his friend. They’d known one another only across the table in corporate conferences. They said hello when meeting in the hall, but Caleb always felt that Seth didn’t like him and that it was because Caleb was a Christian.

Caleb wore a cross and kept a Bible on his desk. He was told that his display of faith put off some people; yet, he never initiated discussions about faith. Seth, however, threw him. He’d walked into Caleb’s office, closed the door, looked him in the eye, “You’re a Christian.”

Caleb fumbled a bit, but said, “Yes.” He didn’t smile when he said it. He would’ve preferred to smile; but he didn’t know Seth well enough to guess what was behind this meeting. He’d gestured to a chair and Seth sat and was silent for a moment looking down. He cradled his head in his hands and spoke quietly toward his lap. “I need help.”

Caleb had pulled a chair near Seth, then stretched backward across his desk to press a button, “Raul, hold my calls. I’m in conference.”

These two men could’ve been brothers: about 35, trim, Caleb in a dark grey suit, Seth in blue pinstripe. To someone looking at them they seemed confident, successful businessmen.

Seth gave a little groan. Caleb’s chest tightened, but he attempted to appear calm. His thoughts flew back and forth, trying to recall everything he knew about Seth. Caleb’s wife Heidi knew Seth’s wife. Three young children, two in grade school. But at work all Caleb knew was Seth’s reports as chief accountant. Word around the building was that he was a rock climber and for some silly reason Caleb remembered at a corporation meeting he got a laugh with his report when he’d quipped that he ate oatmeal every morning.

Seth spoke with head down. Caleb could barely hear him. “I’m hanging by a couple fingers. Our marriage.” He extended his hands in front of him. They didn’t touch. “I hope you can help. Sheila knows Heidi and says you two get along well.”

“We do okay,” Caleb managed to say, confused about what Seth needed or expected.

Seth glanced up to Caleb and then looked back down, “Alex said I can trust you.”

Alex was Caleb’s best buddy. They played out their friendship once a week on the racquetball court.

“Alex says I need faith and you can help. I’m at my limit,” he rubbed his hands on his face like he was trying to wake up … or prevent tears. “I’ve put it off a long time. Last night Sheila listed my failures. I did my best to resist, but truth is, her accounting weighed ten to one against me. Faith’s the only thing I can turn to. Desperate, I know, but that’s what I’m asking for. I want to know about faith. Where it comes from. Or at least where’d you get it?”

And then Seth had answered, “Yes,” to Caleb’s question, “You sure you want to hear this?”

Caleb scooted his chair closer to Seth, tipped his head back, briefly eyeing the ceiling, and said, “I’ve always been in the Christian faith. Grew up that way. Boy did I grow up that way. It’s all my family and friends knew. Tight community in Georgia built around the church, but one specific church, not those ‘other churches’ that we always heard about in sermons but never experienced.

“Faith was all I knew. Growing up I continued in the faith through everything everybody endures. In middle school and high school, we were in youth group every Sunday night. We sang our cute little choruses and the emotionally juicy songs about the joy of becoming a Christian. Often had a special speaker describing hell or promising heaven—along with quite a string of dos and don’ts. Most of us, one time or the other, experienced a burst of feelings we were taught was proof of faith.”

Seth was now looking up and Caleb could tell that he was genuinely interested. “And that was good enough for then,” Caleb said. “Had ups and downs in college and some bumps in the road after we were married. I don’t mean our marriage is super-better than others,” he held his hand towards Seth, “but we got through. We’ve been in the faith all our lives: Study groups, mission trips, serving on committees. But slowly, and I only figured this out afterwards, it was as though I’d been trained to concentrate on getting myself into heaven, or at least fleeing from hell,” he chuckled, and for the first time Seth gave a little smile.

“Always in the faith and I’d always be in the faith, no doubt about that; but I realized I needed a different motivation, a stronger reason—I don’t know what to call it—dimension, of why to remain in the faith. I’d been taught that Jesus’ life centered around getting me into heaven. Not completely wrong, of course, but ….”

Caleb squinted in concentration, “Ten years before we moved here, Heidi and I worshipped and served in a congregation five years. That was the rough time in our marriage. We weren’t slamming doors and packing suitcases, but we were in the rapids of life’s river.

“Sooo.” He took a deep breath and exhaled, “An elderly man in assisted living started worshiping there. To summarize him: he was the most self-centered, disgusting human I’d ever encountered. In so many ways despicable. Meets you and starts talking about himself and how badly people have treated him, from the person who brought his breakfast to his first-grade teacher. He could hardly walk. Someone needed to pick up him for worship each Sunday. It’s the only time he got out of his facility. Various reasons I’d love to tell you for the joy of despising this man, but I’ll restrain myself. Just that I’d happened to be outside the pastor’s office when the administrator of his facility visited the pastor. She mentioned Harry and I stopped. Shouldn’t have. Couldn’t resist eavesdropping as she stated that, no matter how decrepit he appeared, Harry shouldn’t be left alone near children, even his own relatives.

“Within a year the old guy had worn out everybody who drove him to and from worship. Then this middle-aged bachelor—don’t know if he’d ever been married—Dorwin, who seldom spoke unless spoken to, volunteered. Because of what I knew about Harry, I was particularly interested. I watched Dorwin help Harry toddle into the church and Harry slap him away when he was up the steps and no longer needed a hand. I heard him in the fellowship hall after worship shouting at Dorwin to hurry and get him home, so he didn’t miss lunch. Interesting to me, he never called Dorwin by name.

“For four years, I watched Dorwin deliver Harry and then cart him home. Four years of seeing Harry ignore and abuse Dorwin and Dorwin often waiting quietly, back to the wall in the fellowship hall until Harry tired of boring or frightening people as he stuffed his mouth with cookies and spilled his coffee. Then he’d wave with this exasperated gesture to Dorwin or yell, ‘Come on.’”

Caleb leaned back in his chair. “You wanted to know about faith. For me, never having known anything but faith, I wanted something to keep me in the faith. I’m telling you about Harry and Dorwin because Dorwin developed a brain tumor and died within a month after diagnosed. The congregation, dealing with Dorwin in his last days and the arrangements for his funeral, either forgot or, more probably, chose not to deal with Harry. His facility’s administrator phoned that Harry had been left waiting on Sunday and was insufferable because of it. Pastor asked if I’d get him. I made sure to take the family to worship early so no one else was in the car.

“This is a long way around to what you asked. But when I picked him up, same grumpy, selfish Harry, he lashed out, ‘Where’s that other guy?’ meaning, of course, ‘Where’s Dorwin who used to pick me up?’ I said, ‘Dorwin died nine days ago.’ He said, ‘Oh.’ That was it. No visible concern for Dorwin even to mention his name.”

That’s when it struck me. In church as a kid, every sermon and class aimed us to experience faith like Paul’s—a flash and a voice from heaven. But Paul was the only one that happened to. Why should we expect exactly the same? Behind the steering wheel I recalled how one man selflessly served another. Yet, the man cared for wasn’t interested enough even to remember his helper’s name. Driving out of the assisted living parking lot, my eyes were opened to serving as Jesus did: loving God and others, not out of good feelings, fear of punishment, or expectation of reward. That,” Caleb swallowed hard, “as undramatic as it may seem to anyone else, is when the risen Christ appeared to me.”

Seth sat silently. He appeared very serious.

Preaching point: The risen Christ appears in selfless service.

* * *

The Wonder of Grace
by Peter Andrew Smith
Acts 10:33-43

“God shows no partiality.” Harriet traced her fingers over the verse that began Peter’s speech to the crowd and frowned. She understood that God loves everyone, but the words Peter spoke troubled her. After all, didn’t other verses in the Bible say that God especially cares for widows and orphans? Didn’t some Bible stories show that God has a soft spot for those who got themselves into trouble like Jacob or Jonah? Her fingers went over the words again. How could God possibly show no partiality?

“All finished, Nana,” Mark said as he came into the front room. “That tap won’t drip anymore. Are you still reading your Bible?”

“Yes, I am,” she said. “I find it helps center me and deepens my faith.”

“I couldn’t agree more.” He wiped his hands on a cloth before returning it to his back pocket. “I can’t imagine a day without exploring the word of God.”

“Wait a moment.” Harriet looked him in the face. “You read the Bible each day?”

“Got the scriptures with me everywhere I go.” He held up his phone. “I play them through the car speakers on the commute.”

“Huh.” Harriet shook her head. “I didn’t know that.”

“Do you mean that you didn’t know that you could play the Bible in the car or that you didn’t know that prodigal grandson actually reads his Bible?” Mark winked at her.

“You may have been prodigal, but you know I always love you.” She said giving him a kiss on the cheek as he leaned forward.

“I know. I think that is actually what got my life turned around.” He picked up his toolbox. “See you next week.”

“Take care of yourself and give my love to Mary.”

Harriet watched as he went out the front door. She had spent many sleepless nights worrying about Mark and she still prayed each day that he wouldn’t be overcome by the personal demons that plagued him when he was younger. She took a deep breath. He was doing well through and she was so proud of him.

The phone beside her rang. “Hello?”

“Hey Nana, have you got a moment?”

“I always have time for you, Nicole. What’s up?”

“I was trying to figure out why my chocolate chip cookies aren’t tasting like yours. I’m mixing my third batch and they just aren’t right.”

“Do you have the good brand of chocolate chips?”

“I do and before you ask, I’ve made sure the baking soda is fresh and the butter is melted.”

“Hmm.” Harriet tapped chin. “Are you dumping all the ingredients together or are you creaming the butter and sugar together first?”

“Dumping them all together.” There was silence for a few second. “I guess I need to do the other thing, don’t I?”

Harriet smiled to herself. “Do that and make sure you dissolve the baking soda in the water as well. Oh, and don’t forget to add the eggs one at a time. I find it helps.”

“Perfect. I’ll try that. The cookies I’ve been baking taste okay, but they just weren’t right which is why I called for your help. You’re the best, Nana.”

“I try,” Harriet said. “Why the sudden need to bake the perfect chocolate chip cookie?”

“I have some friends coming over tonight.”

“One of them wouldn’t be named Tom, would he?”

“Maybe.” There was a brief silence. “I really like him you know.”

“I know and I think he likes you too. Just be yourself Nicole and let things happen as they will.”

“Okay. Thanks for always being there Nana,” Nicole said. “Oh, by the way David texted me and said that he was out on a call last night but would be drop by your place for supper. He mentioned something about cooking chili. What is it with firemen and chili?”

“No idea, Nicole. Thanks for letting me know about David. I heard the sirens and wondered if he was on a call.”

“You mean you worried he was on a call when you heard the sirens.”

“That too,” Harriet admitted. “I worry about all of you.”

“More so about some of us than others though?”

“I worried about you the whole time you were overseas on deployment. I was so relieved when your tour ended.”

“Me too, Nana. Well, I best go try these cookies again. Bye.”

Harriet hung up the phone and looked over at a picture of the three grandchildren standing together. She loved them all so dearly but worried so much about David now that he was in harm’s way with the fire department. She was proud of him, of course, just as she was proud of Mark for changing his life and Nicole for her military service. She was glad their lives were calmer now and she didn’t have to worry about Mark and Nicole as much as she used to.

Harriet turned her attention back to the verse that had been troubling her in Peter’s speech. “God shows no partiality.” She looked back up at the picture of her grandchildren and smiled. She had worried and paid more attention to each of them when they were in need, but she loved them all dearly. She turned her attention back to the verse and kept reading reassured that while God shows no partiality there are never limits to God’s care and attention for those who are in need.


StoryShare, April 4, 2021 issue.

Copyright 2021 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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