Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Easter Amazement

Sermon for Easter Sunday
April 8th, 2012

Listen here.
Delivered at The Episcopal Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, California

Mark 16:1-8

I have a question for you: Why are you here?

Maybe there are as many answers to that question as there are people in the room. But I invite you to dwell on that question this Easter Day.

When I was growing up in the Midwest, I remember when I was six or seven years old piling into the car and driving thirty miles up the road to the Cathedral in Salina, Kansas. We were going to a one-man dramatic presentation of Mark, something a number of fine actors do around the country to this day.

I invite you this Easter to take a couple of hours, and read through the Gospel According to Mark in a single sitting. Mark is a fascinating gospel, and this day we heard the original ending to the book. It’s an ending which does not leave us with any grand proclamation or mission, but rather with the women fleeing with terror and amazement from the empty tomb. They are silent. They tell no one what they have seen.

At some point in the later first century or early second century, somebody came along and decided he didn’t like this ending to Mark, so he tacked on a new, little ending. Then again, another person or community came along a bit later and decided they didn’t like that ending, either, so they tacked on yet another longer one. For many years, when I would open my study bible, this original ending really bothered me, too. It didn’t sit well with me as I was searching in earnest for something more final, more definitive, more compelling to prove the Easter story.

But now, I have grown to like the original ending because it leaves us hanging. It leaves us with a question.

The beauty of Mark’s gospel is that it’s really pithy, short, and direct. In a way, you could say it could be titled “Jesus and the Three Stooges.” Jesus is out preaching, proclaiming, teaching, and healing, while the disciples are biffing and bopping one another and saying, “We don’t get it.” Mark understands that there is always another character in the story – perhaps the most important character of all (other than Jesus) – and that is Mark’s audience. He is always teasing us in a way, tickling us under our chins, contrasting our faith with that of the disciples’, our awareness of what this is all about in contrast with their comedic ignorance.*

What I most remember about the dramatic presentation of Mark at Christ Cathedral was the actor himself, a short man perhaps in his fifties, dressed in a simple tunic and pacing back and forth barefoot on the cold concrete of the chancel step, beads of sweat forming on his brow as he re-told the fast-paced narrative with a fiery passion. At the end of his telling I also distinctly remember a woman sitting nearby who said to someone sitting next to her in a pragmatic way that only a Kansan could, “Well! I’d be surprised if he didn’t catch pneumonia.”

Looking back on it now, I don’t think she quite got it.

But then, that’s the thing about Mark. Nobody in the gospel gets it. The women at the tomb don’t get it! We hear about them today approaching the tomb expecting to find a body, and thinking about very practical things, like how they might roll away the stone sealing the entrance to the tomb. They, like us, think they know how life should be, just as we think we know how life should be: We are born, we live what we hope is a decent life, and then we die. We spend a huge amount of energy building institutions, financial plans, and societal structures around this assumption, this assumption of the linear model of being human: birth, life, death (and maybe we end up with a plaque someplace with our name on it.)

The women were going to embalm the body of their Lord and Savior. They have walked with Jesus through his passion. In some ways, they have been more faithful than the apostles, who all betrayed Jesus and fled during his trial and execution. Who knows where they are? Sleeping in on a Sunday morning? Hiding out someplace out of fear? But the three women are at the tomb, and they are startled to be greeted by an open tomb and a figure inside who says, “He is not here.” In a way, he is asking the women, “Why are you here? Why are you looking for Jesus amongst the dead?”

These days in the secular press, it’s very clear in black-and-white that the Church is dying, along with so many other institutions in the West that are floundering. If you read only a little more deeply, you can easily reach the conclusion that there are ecclesiastical authorities who are more than happy, it seems, to help the Church die.

Why are you here? Have you come to look for Jesus amongst the dead? Have you come to a dying institution for sentimental reasons, for family reasons, or for the Easter Egg hunt?

Why are you here? Mark poses these questions to us in today’s Easter gospel. What are you looking for?

He is not here!

Jesus has gone out ahead. He is risen! He is not stuck here within these walls simply for you to come by and get your “Jesus fix.” What we’re about to do is give you a small portion of bread and share a common cup to remind you that Jesus is risen, but not to tell you that Jesus is stuck up here on the altar. Rather, we share in communion to remind one another that he is risen in our hearts and he is risen in the world out there, waiting to greet us where we are called to serve, just as he was waiting to greet his followers in Galilee!

I challenge you this Eastertide not to come to church simply to find Jesus here, but to look for Jesus out there: the work and the life of the Risen Christ waiting to meet and greet you in acts of mercy, justice, and compassion; defying death; confronting the world’s linear notion of life. Our life is not linear. Nor is it cyclic or karmic. It is instead what one of my spiritual directors calls the spiritual life of the spiral: the spiral upwards towards God’s heart. And that spiral driven more by questions than answers is an eternal journey that binds together all of the human family: living, dead, and yet to come in the Risen Life of our Lord and Savior.

And this Easter life is not what you’d expect. You will be amazed, you will be frightened, you will be inspired, and you will be devastated.
But you will be given new life.

For this is how we live, and how are called to be as an Easter People.
*I owe this perspective in large part to The Rev. Dr. Katherine Grieb, Professor of New Testament at Virginia Theological School, and a retreat she led on Mark with the Brotherhood of St. Gregory in January, 2011.

Friday, April 06, 2012

I Thirst

A reflection for a Good Friday ecumenical service on the Seven Last Words.

After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.”
John 19:28

When it was all finished, when Jesus knew it was all done and completed, the work over, the job at an end, the terror, pain, agony, and shame of the cross borne and the terrible days, hours and minutes run down to seconds, Jesus uttered (to fulfill the Scripture) “I thirst.”

“To fulfill the Scripture.” I wonder about how we hear John’s parenthetical statement so close to the climactic moment of the Passion. I wonder what we think it means “to fulfill the Scripture.” I’m tempted to take it through the lens of the old-fashioned American Protestant work-ethic: that is to hear it as part of Jesus’ salvation productivity check-list, near the end of the Messiah’s task-list. “Oh yes, I must say these words from the twenty-first verse of the sixty-ninth Psalm. Check.” The thought makes me want to take the author of the gospel aside and berate him for ruining an otherwise perfectly dramatic moment.

Or maybe I could take the Biblical Scholar Approach and argue the author tying the Passion remembered with the sacred texts his audience already knows... Trying to persuade them Jesus is who he says he is, who we say he is. “I thirst” is then the proof-text for our argument, simply another piece of evidence in the great rhetorical gambit to sway the jury.

But I should know better. John does not waste words. And mere checklists or evidence don’t rise to the occasion. They don’t lift my eyes to the cross or get me out of the cloudy places in my head and down into the plumbing of the heart, the depths of the soul.

Jesus fulfills scripture. He doesn’t simply prove it all in a court of law or cleverly wind his way into our intellects. Nor does he please his God, his Abba Father, by simply checking every box on the Messianic to-do list. No, he fulfills scripture. He makes the old text leap to life and jump into the messiness of our own with the deep yearnings of humanity wound up in the eternal yearnings of our God.

“I thirst,” as God has thirsted from the beginning for a people who would trust and follow their Maker and Redeemer through the wilderness of this life into the Promised Land. “I thirst,” as the faithful prophets and the countless, silent unnamed holy ones thirsted for righteousness and for justice in their own time, that it might tumble down like mighty waters and wash away the idolatrous, craven, murderous appetites that run the world.

“I thirst” for the pure water that gives life, the water our sisters and brothers even this night in too many places can’t have because greed, corruption, and warfare dam it up beyond their reach. “I thirst” because you thirst and we all thirst for something we cannot quite explain, a completion yet to be rendered, a spigot yet to be opened, a tap yet to be turned. “I thirst” for the water that wells up to eternal life, to really believe and to really know that I am God’s beloved, for that water and heart-knowing that means I will never have to thirst again. I thirst, I yearn to be home with Abba, with Papa God, with Mama Wisdom, where the table is always set and the feast always prepared, and the water and wine quench every thirst and satisfy every last fiber of my being. Where there are enough chairs for everyone I love and even the strangers and enemies I don’t.

“I thirst” for that overflowing cup the Good Shepherd promises, even if he himself forgoes it so that in those last gasping breaths on the cross, the whole world may see beyond all of our denial and self-deception...may see for a few beats of the stricken heart our true thirst revealed for what it truly is: a thirst for the God that gives us all life and a Savior able, across all the chasms of suffering, shame, and death, to lead us there.

Painting: Eloi, Eloi, lama Sabachthani? by Ann Kim