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The Estranged

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Stories
Contents
“The Estranged” by Keith Hewitt
“The Greatest Story Ever Told” by C. David McKirachan


The Estranged
by Keith Hewitt
Isaiah 40:1-11

John Randall took a casual look around the diner, and when no one seemed to be watching, he put the tip of his finger on the edge of his plate to prevent the last bit of graham cracker pie from escaping his fork. Swallowing, he leaned back against the cushion of the booth and looked past the young black man sitting across from him. The TV was on, for no apparent reason—for the last fifty minutes, Ed Sullivan had conveyed a series of mutes across the small black and white screen. Only once was the sound turned up, for a three-minute performance by that young Presley fellow.

Randall had tried to get his companion to comment on “Jailhouse Rock”, but the young man had only glanced at it, then turned his gaze back to his cup of coffee, staring as though the swirl of cream against a backdrop of blackness might allow him to know some divine, deep secret from the universe.

Randall sighed heavily and put his arm up on top of the back cushion. “So,” he said slowly, quietly, “do you want to tell me what you did?”

Russell Cashmore’s gaze shifted slightly, to show that he had heard the question—then he shook his head, answered just as quietly, “I don’t think so. Any time I think about saying it, it just sounds stupid—a stupid argument. And then I think, ‘is this what’s going to end us?’” He lifted his gaze, then, looked across the table at John. “I mean—she can’t stay mad forever, can she?”

Randall did not answer immediately, taking time to decide whether his companion wanted to be reassured or enlightened. Finally, he signaled the waitress to freshen his coffee and said, “Russell, in 1920, my father backed Warren Harding for President. He’d been through the war, and he really wanted the return to normalcy that Harding promised. Mom, on the other hand, was brought up in a strong union family, and was an ardent supporter of Governor Cox. As luck would have it, 1920 was the second year they were married, and the first year they could both vote for president.”

He paused, took a sip of coffee. Then a second.

Finally, Cashmore raised an eyebrow. “And?”

“Russell, in my capacity as a clergy member, I can never condone telling an untruth. But if I could, the election of 1920 would have been one of those times. Not only did my father vote for Harding, but he compounded his error by telling my mom.”

Another sip.

“So, what happened?” Cashmore asked, when John did not speak right away.

“Well, Mom did forgive Dad. I remember it well: it was 1952, and they both liked Ike.” He raised his cup, made a toasting gesture toward Cashmore. “So, there is hope.” His young companion rolled his eyes and let his head fall back against the back of the booth, stared up at the ceiling. After a minute or two, Randall shifted in his seat and leaned forward across the table. “Look—Russell—you know what you did, right? To make her mad?”

He nodded, raised his head. “Sure. I mean, I don’t get why it’s a big deal, but I know. I was careless and did something she’d asked me not to do…more than once. And this time she blew.” He shook his head, eyes fixed on something only he could see. “I mean, I’ve never seen her that mad.”

“What did she say?”

Cashmore smiled shyly. “I’m not sure I’m comfortable repeating it, you being a man of the cloth and all.”

Randall smiled briefly. “I got it. Did she tell you things were over between you?”

Cashmore thought for a few moments, shook his head. “Not in so many words. But there was a definite sense of unhappiness, shall we say. I just don’t see how she can still want to be engaged if she’s that mad.”

“Russell, I want you to consider this—just consider it. If she wasn’t that invested in you…if she didn’t really care…do you think she would be that mad?”

“I…umm.” Cashmore paused, seemed puzzled.

“Look, here’s the thing—and I am not an expert, but I’ve been married for a couple of years, now, and I think I understand some things. What you and Karen have is a relationship, right? She cares about you, you care about her, and you’ve both invested time into it, right? Now when one of you does something wrong—something that chips away at that relationship by disrespecting the other person—that can make you kind of mad. But that doesn’t mean you have to throw the whole thing out. Or that she wants to, in this case.”

“You didn’t see how angry she was.”

Randall shrugged. “If she didn’t care about the relationship—about you—she wouldn’t get that angry. Look, remember last week, we talked about Psalm 85? How the psalmist was wondering if God would be angry with them forever, but then was talking about how God forgave the Israelites, and reached out to them again, tried to restore that relationship? That’s what I’m talking about. God—the way I see it—God has cast his lot with the Israelites, wants to be in that serious, respectful relationship with them, and then is driven absolutely nuts every time they goof it up. So, God simmers for a while, then he reaches out again to bring them back.” He shrugged. “If God didn’t care that much—if he didn’t love them so much—he wouldn’t get that mad, and he wouldn’t keep trying. I mean, you never see God fretting that much over the Amalekites.”

“Do you really think so?”

“I do. That’s what love is—the ability to get mad at someone, but still care enough to want to stay in relationship with them. The way I see it, the time you really have to worry is if your wife—or your fiancé—doesn’t care enough to be angry with you. That would be like God telling the Israelites they’re through, any one of those times when they’ve turned their back on him. But what does he do? He might get angry, but still spends the Old Testament trying to turn them around.”

“So…doing something stupid and having your girl get mad at you is actually OK? It can be a good thing?”

“I wouldn’t go that far, anymore than I’d say sinning is OK because it gives God a chance to forgive you. But from time to time, I guess, it can remind you of how much you’re loved—and how much you have to lose.” He looked past Cashmore once again, this time at a tall, young black woman who had just stepped into the diner, was looking around in search of someone. “Now’s your chance to tell her you love her, Russell—and then show her you mean it by living up to being the man she knows you can be.”

Russell Cashmore turned, saw her, and stood up—stepped toward her like a man going home.

And John Randall smiled at his coffee cup.

* * *

The Greatest Story Ever Told
C. David McKirachan
Mark 1:1-8

Here we are in Advent, again. Here we are swimming upstream in the Niagara of polluted expectations taking our people far, far away from the barely adolescent mother and the terrified step father, trying desperately to make sense of the train wreck that God has given them to begin the greatest story ever told. It seems no matter what we say or do, our people are caught, trying to find hope, peace, joy, and love. But we’re not taught to wait. We’re not taught to live in expectation. And mystery? We’re not taught to value that which stands outside what we can touch or understand.

This year, how are we going to bring people beyond their anxiety and fear and depression in the midst of being stalked by the specter of infection, economic collapse, and loneliness? I don’t know about you but considering a Christmas when we must leave behind our treasured moments and memories isn’t troublesome. It’s brutal.

See what I mean? It seems that what we have to offer folks this year is even less than what we’ve offered in other years and though it was wonderful then, even that was insufficient to help people discover the miracle of the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us.

And here we have John the Baptist dependably yelling at people, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” But you know, what he speaks to me in this situation is of insufficiency. He says, “I baptize you with water, “He who comes will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” We use water. Holy napalm is not ours to use any more than it was his. To cleanse our world, to provide a witness to the presence of God’s living mystery, fire of purification would be handy. John also said that, “I am not worthy to tie the straps of his sandals.” John knew he was not worthy. He knew what he offered was not sufficient. He also knew that the worship at the temple, though it and the traditions that surrounded it meant the world to people, that it had become an idolatry that kept the people from knowing that God had other things in mind than the holiness of that temple and those traditions. He knew it because he was willing to look squarely into their insufficiency.

So, as prophets of the living God, we must be willing to look squarely into the insufficiency of our culture’s and our worship’s traditions and agendas. Until we are willing to do that, we’ll be running on the wheel, doing our best to perfect an empty observance of tradition and culture’s agendas. God is not present there.

In the season of Christmas, we are called to consider what God is doing, how God is coming into our world. That is not a seasonal but a perpetual question. Yet in this time of year it seems to me that in spite of our insufficiency God‘s gift is given, not as we expect it, not as we prefer it, but humbly, bowed down, with words and actions that seem anything but normal — or what we expected.

In this year, without the choirs’ anthems, without the pageantry, the stirring and inspiring words in the dim candlelight, the Lord will be born. In this year, perhaps in the midst of loneliness, in the midst of joblessness, in the midst of anxiety for a fractured world, in spite of all the things we’re used to, things that make Christmas a moment in our lives we depend on to lift us above the cacophony of life, in spite of Christmas’ traditions being squeezed into a lonely corner, leaving us unworthy, God’s grace is born.

And ye beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low
Who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow
Look now for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing
O rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing.


I wonder if the angels thought their song was worthy?

They sang anyway.


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

StoryShare, December 6, 2020 issue.

Copyright 2020 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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