Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Awful


First Presbyterian – Lafayette, Louisiana
Sermon Delivered April 8, 2012

Before reading the Mark passage I acknowledged that the oldest Greek manuscripts stopped at verse 8. Manuscripts containing the longer ending (vv9-20) can be dated to around 200 CE. Manuscripts with the shorter ending can be dated to around 400 CE. After reading verses 1-8 there was a moment of silence, followed by the shorter ending. Scholars believe that Mark’s gospel is probably the oldest text of the synoptic gospels, possibly preceding Matthew’s gospel by 15 years.

I want you to know that I have beautiful feet. It’s true! Romans 10:15 says, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” An old mentor of mine told me about that many years ago. He was the same one who told me about preaching in a small country church and being told his sermon was awful. It turns out that the person meant “awe-full” or “filled with awe.” He meant it was inspiring!

I could not get past the idea of this double meaning when I read the shorter ending of Mark. The idea that the earliest Christian proclamation about Jesus ended for the first 200 years with, “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” is pretty mind blowing.

Obviously they said something to someone. This ending is all wrong. It’s awful! Have you ever watched a movie or read a book and felt that way about it? Maybe you did not even finish the book because it just did not sit well with you. Perhaps the hero won too easily, or the plot was never resolved. Sometimes there are TV dramas that are just too full of messed up people making bad choices for me to enjoy because I have enough of my own problems. I really don’t need to watch a show about people inventing new ways to mess up their pretend lives and relationships.

Especially not today - especially not on the one day where everything is happy bunnies, eggs, and Easter Lilies. Today is a day that many look forward to with great anticipation. In fact - some Christian traditions in other countries celebrate Easter more than Christmas. Today is the day when our hope is assured, our questions are set aside, and we celebrate the gift of God’s grace! Today is Easter.

At least Isaiah got it right. God is going to prepare a feast! God is going to wipe away every tear. God is going to remove all that harms us - even death itself! What a comforting story this must have been to share during the Babalonian captivity. I can see mothers holding young children and lulling their hungry bodies to sleep by adding their favorite treats to the list. I can see fathers by the campfire giving instructions to older children on how to be patient and wait on the Lord.
Every culture has these stories of hope and redemption - it is one of the ways we cope and survive. One of my favorite examples from the depression era in our culture is the hobo song, “Big Rock Candy Mountain.”
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains there's a land that's fair and bright
Where the handouts grow on bushes and you sleep out every night
Of course this was just a story - just a myth in the tradition of hoping for a self-serving paradise. Our story is different than that, isn’t it? Our story is in the tradition of the prophets - those who speak for God. Our story is about a man, chosen by God, who chose to give up his life in order to follow God.
Peter tells our story when he tells the story of Jesus to Cornelius. Peter tells God’s story by telling us that the invitation has been made for everyone to love and fear God. The invitation has been made for all of us to know that God is with us in all things, because Jesus has broken down the barriers between God and humanity once and for all!

That is what the cross was about. The cross was the attempt of political forces to say that they had the power to cast someone out - not just out of society, but out of the reach of God. And that is why the empty cross is such a powerful symbol!

I once had a friend compliment me because I did not have “a dead guy on my cross necklace.” I was a little offended at first, but then she said, “My God is alive!”

Of course, at the time of the resurrection there were still plenty of crosses with dead guys on them. Perhaps that is why the women ran off in fear. It could have been a trap - if not only for them, definitely for the disciples of Jesus. What a terrible conversation. “Yeah, you don’t know me, but trust me. Jesus - he’s fine. Go tell his disciples - especially that guy, Peter - that he catch you, er um, catch up with you in Galilee.”

Mark’s gospel does not tell us that he is an angel, that he is someone they would know, or anything else. He is simply a “young man” who happened to be hanging out in the tomb that Jesus was buried in. That’s probably why “terror and amazement seized them.” It must have been awful - just awful. They came to honor their dead mentor and friend, and he was just gone. They were vulnerable. They were scared, and they ran.

I think that is not a bad parallel for the church in some ways. As the church continues to lose influence in society we may sometimes feel like we are doing what we are supposed to do, but it is not connecting with anyone else. Have we become caretakers of a dead body that we keep trying to anoint?

Sometimes it may seem that way. Sometimes it seems to me that the story we have to tell no longer makes sense. I have to admit that every time I get into conversations with non-believers or members of other faiths and begin to tell the story of Jesus they look at me like I’m Linus trying to tell the story of the Great Pumpkin.

But somehow, when I talk about making 300 Easter Baskets to show underprivileged children that someone cares about them, people get it. Somehow, when we talk about the results of the One Great Hour of Sharing Offering and results like the efforts of the Self Development of People program to rebuild the fishing industry in the Gulf Coast and Louisiana or to provide seeds for farmers in Haiti, people get it. When we talk about that, people begin to understand what the resurrection is all about. Somehow, when we talk about the way that we are a part of something greater than our own struggle to survive - well, that’s when even I start to understand what the resurrection is all about.

You see, here is what I find awful (meaning terrible) about the story of the resurrection of Jesus. First, it was a horrible death that I don’t believe was brought on by a blood thirsty God as much as it was by a blood thirsty humanity. Jesus lived in concert with God’s will, and the result of that was conflict with the powers that be. The second is that it simply sounds like a fairy tale to those who have a purely analytical mindset. The resurrection of Jesus is central to what we believe as Christians, but it can also be the thing that keeps others from taking God’s active presence seriously. The story seems like a myth about the past and a hope about the future more than an experience to be celebrated. The third thing that bugs me about the way we have responded to the resurrection of Jesus is that, culturally - not necessarily individually - we have taken the idea of Jesus’ death as a substitution for our sin to mean that we have no responsibility.

But there is hope. The motto of Presbyterians for Disaster Assistance is, “Out of Chaos - Hope.” So, here is what I think is awe-full (meaning terrific) about the resurrection.
Through the cross we know that God is present in suffering, all suffering - even our own. Through Christ’s resurrection we know that hope and redemption are always at work - because God is not bound by time or place. Christ’s resurrection was not simply about God’s action for one man’s body; it was and is about God’s action for every body. Through Christ’s resurrection we can wait with confidence, knowing that God has swallowed up death, and we also experience redemption and wholeness here and now.

I’ve heard stories of miracles like that - resurrection happening here and now. I’ve seen it in some of the lives of our members and their loved ones. Of course it doesn’t always have to be about healing. Sometimes resurrection and redemption are even more beautiful and powerful in the midst of brokenness.

There’s a story about redemption in the midst of brokenness that has been kicking around the internet for a while now. In 2008, Sara Tucholsky was playing for the softball conference championship in her senior year of college - the last game she would ever play. In a once in a lifetime moment she hit her first and last ever home run, but as she rounded first she overstepped it and turned back - tearing her ACL in the process. The ruling is that her team could not help her or replace her. She had to round the bases - or no home run. That’s when Mallory Holtman, the player with the most home runs in their conference history, and Liz Wallace - both players on the other team - stepped in, scooped her up, and walked her around the bases. Sarah’s career, along with the players who lost the championship because they helped her, ended then and there. But I would imagine that her experience of redemption and resurrection only started there.

Like the story of the women at the tomb, the ending has not yet been told. That’s what I find truly awe-full and inspiring about the shorter ending of Mark. It does not attempt to answer any questions about doctrine or dogma. It simply leaves us with the challenge. We have been told that Jesus was crucified so that we might know and experience God’s active presence. We have been told that even death cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. We have been told that the Jesus we are looking for is waiting for us to move forward and spread the good news - the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation. This news of death and resurrection that you can share whether you are broken or whole is good - and you have beautiful feet! And to God be the glory, now and always. Amen!
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