You are invited to join us for a Pope Francis Address to Congress Viewing Party! Thursday, September 24, from 9:30-11am at Doyle’s Cafe in Boston.
Facebook Invite here! Please share widely. Sinners and Saints, welcome.
You are invited to join us for a Pope Francis Address to Congress Viewing Party! Thursday, September 24, from 9:30-11am at Doyle’s Cafe in Boston.
Facebook Invite here! Please share widely. Sinners and Saints, welcome.
Sunday September 20, 2015
“Childish” A sermon on Mark 9:30-37
Please pray with me:
This is the conversation we have after the kids have left the room. The hard stuff, the
awkward stuff, the unresolved stuff where there are no good options left on the table. This is what we say when they’ve gone up stairs and gone to bed. This is what we say in hushed tones, whispered as the light fades. These are the things you don’t want to say in the searching light of day.
“The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” Three clauses in that one brief sentence and two of them are awful- betrayed, killed- rising almost seems like an afterthought.
If Mark 9:30-37 were a film, with adult themes, violence, torture, strong language and death, it might receive a rating of PG-13.
First there is prophesy of Jesus’ death while in Galilee, then a disagreement in Capernum about who is the greater, and finally the object lesson with the child. How on earth is all this smashed into one 7-verse passage of Scripture? Mark is always the shortest and most brusque, but here we seem to get snippets of longer stories and something is missing in the transitions.
I love Scripture for the infinite discoveries and possibilities in reading it together. The geography of scripture often gives us clues. Jesus prophesies of his death while walking on the road in Galilee. Is there something to pay attention to that he tells them while traveling? Like those hard conversation we have in the car because it avoids the intimacy of looking face to face? And Scripture sometimes hides clues in the ordering of things- what is next to one another? Biblical Scholar Micah Kiel notes, “Mark also places stories side by side as way of making a point that could not have been achieved without such juxtaposition.”
Something about God comes through in the rub. And right next to Jesus’ prophesy of his suffering and death is this curious image of Jesus picking up someone’s child. I think this is the paradox of the Christian life, where our deepest suffering is placed right next to God’s gracious embrace.
After such hard news, Jesus starts a fireside chat. Actually, it seems to me more like a sermon. Any good preacher worth her salt ought to be able to turn an object into a children’s sermon. (pull something from behind the pulpit) And here, Jesus our high priest takes an unknown child and says, “This. Be like this.”
Here we have a child who has snunk down the stairs and entered an adult conversation. In our time, it loses the surprise and is as boring and mundane as my effort at twelve-years old lie silently in the hallway as my parents watched the R rated “Pretty Woman.” But in Jesus’ time, children were not only not seen and not heard, they were not relevant. The world in which Jesus and the disciples moved includes a social setting where the few rich are the social elite and the majority poor are subjects of domination. Children are a non-issue.
Do not let our domesticated, cult of childhood preciousness blur your vision- Jesus is not a shopping mall Santa Claus pulling some big eyed child upon his knee for a photo op. No, when Jesus says “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” and puts the child among them, Jesus is upending the entire social order. He’s giving the childish disciples the children’s sermon and saying this, be like this.
In contrast to the petty argument among the disciples about who is first in the lunch line, Jesus is not telling us to be childish, but child-like. This is not theological permission to stick crayons up your nose just to see if you can actually reach your brain, or to fling yourself on the dining room floor when carrots and peas accidentally intermingle on your plate, or to stomp around the room when you don’t get your way at the deacon’s meeting, or to draw superheroes in your hymnals when you get bored with the sermon. That is childish. This is childlike: to wonder without boundaries of things like feasibility studies or budget constraints, to dream big without saying “we’ve never done that before!”, to ask why again and again and again; to try new things without the assurance that you’ll be any good at it, to see the world not from a high up perch but from the low-down, to be entranced with rocks and sticks and mud and clay; to sing out loud because you can! (not because you’re good); to dance when the mood hits you in the glorious body God fave you without care for who watches your weird movements; to splash around the waters of baptism like a baby bird; to take big chunks of communion bread because you’re hungry right now.
We adults get afraid and self-conscious. We see the disciples do it. Jesus tells them all this harsh stuff, and in verse 32 Mark says “But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” The disciples, who have been jockeying for attention and status, are each afraid to be the one who says, “I don’t understand.” It’s like a whole classroom that didn’t get the lesson, but no one will admit to it first. The fear of how they would look in front of one another was stronger than their desire to understand. The disciples’ argument about the greatest is childish in the worst sense: self-involved, petty, inconsequential.
Jesus in Mark’s Gospel can come off sounding a little brusque, like maybe it would be hard to say to him, “I don’t understand.” But throughout scripture, we hear the story of the God who is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. The God who promises in Isaiah, “before you call, I will answer, and while they are still speaking, I will hear.”(Isaiah 65:24) I think we have a God who is infinitely more interested in our questions than judgment.
Against the backdrop of the prophesy of torture and death, things that are decidedly not kid-appropriate, Jesus introduces an unnamed child, as the infant Christ was introduced into a world of forced migration, occupation and fear. Maybe the promise of Christ’s ultimate betrayal, torture, death and rising is this: the promise of a kingdom come that is tender, gentle, and just.
A world where kids don’t need to be protected; A world where aunties don’t have to step in to nurse because a child’s mother is lost off a rubber boat to the churning sea between refugee camps in Turkey and the promise of new life in Greece; a world where dads don’t have to explain to their black sons what to do when they are pulled over; a world where a young Muslim boy isn’t first presumed to be a bomber rather than a tinkering scientist; a world where moms don’t have to explain to their daughters that sometimes when you say “No” about your own body, people won’t hear you, they’ll keep going, they’ll think you’re playing hard to get: a world without violence ratings. Jesus points to a world where we don’t have to protect children from violent news because there is no violent news.
A pastor colleague recently posted to Facebook asking if she could borrow someone’s child. Well, borrow just for the afternoon. See it turns out that the new Legoland Discovery Center in Somerville only allows adults to enter if you are accompanied by a child.
What if we all are invited to enter the kingdom of God with the hand of sticky, tiny child tucked in our own? Not because childhood is some sort of paragon of Christian maturity, or the suburban idealization of children as some sort of Freudian projections of all our highest aspirations, but because the reign of God will be tender enough, gentle enough for the most vulnerable among us.
A deep, mature, adult faith might mean being child-like, to know our vulnerability and our dependence on our heavenly Parent. To resist the adult-like tendency to think we are in charge, or we are self-sufficient or to push to be first in line.
A deep, mature, adult faith in Jesus Christ might mean being a little less childish, and a little more child-like.
“Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
(sung) “Little ones to Him belong. We are weak, but he is strong.”
First Congregational Church, Chesire CT Sunday May 31, 2015
My geographically separated brethren, I greet you in the name of the One who calls us to be one. If a flock of Connecticut church leaders is willing to hear a word from a Massachusetts pastor, even if only for 7-9 minutes, I think we are at least halfway to the unity that the Ephesian church longed for! I’ll take the liberty to presume I speak among friends, kindred Congressionalists- we know that New Hampshire isn’t the only place that subscribes to the mantra “live free or die.” We know that a presumed self-sufficiency, a functional congregationalism no matter the denomination is endemic in this land. The Disciples of Christ pastor Michael Kinnamon said “Denominations make powerful adjectives, but idolatrous nouns.” We know that tucked in the back of our locked cabinet, behind the good silver and the musty church records, is a porcelain idol of independence- and maybe, secretly, we like it there. Maybe, secretly, we don’t want move it out on the front lawn for the parish rummage sale to be sold for $0.50 along with some mismatched wise men and shepherds from an incomplete crèche.
Now, “maybe there are no more cowboys in this Connecticut town,” And maybe this isn’t true in your churches, but certainly in Massachusetts, our churches act as if accepting help of another is a sign of weakness. We drag our feet. We go at it alone before trying together. Collaboration is for the weak, not the strong. In a town that shall remain nameless, I visited a UCC church next door to an Episcopal parish. The UCC deacon showed me the exact spot where you can inconspicuously spy on the Episcopalians to see whose parking lot is fuller, because if someone else is winning, we must be losing… With this mythology of competition, collaboration becomes a second option, rarely the first. Yet, deep down, beneath the rock and the clay and the silt and the sand, 6 feet below where the earth is still cool from winter, we know that our splendid isolation will leave us entombed in clapboard white coffins.
Therefore, I charge you, sisters and brothers, be worthy of the holy calling to which you are called, only connect. Build up the body of Christ, not just your own parish. Build up the body of Christ, not just your own denomination. Build up the body of Christ, for the sake of the world. We in the ecumenical movement have done a lousy job of remembering the second half of John 17. We remember that our Lord and Savior, just before his death, prayed that his followers might be one. We forget that he prayed that his followers might be one, so that the world might believe in the one who sent him. Our unity is not simply for our own good, to tamp down the tempest in the teapot that is the divided Church, but for the sake of our reconciling witness to the world! Reclaim the wide, thick commitment to the oikoumene, not just the Church, but the whole inhabited world. Reclaim the oikoumene, and maybe start in your neighborhood. I wonder if the end of an official ecumenical structure in Connecticut doesn’t actually free you for more vitality and life at the local level. To butcher Tip O’Neill, maybe all ecumenism is local.
About a year ago, I developed an unexplained pain in my right hip. I had been in a cycling accident, but the injury was to my back, not my hip. The doctors tried to treat the site of my pain, but no relief. Finally, a doctor diagnosed my suffering as “referred pain.” The site of the suffering is not the same as the source. While riding my bicycle again, my legs had gotten strong, but my back and core were still weak- so my hamstrings were pulling my tendons tight across my hips without the rest of my body compensating. The Church in Ephesus was told to attend to each part, because when “each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”
Therefore, I charge you, the body of the United Church of Christ in Connecticut, join and knit together. Bind up the broken, so that every ligament, each part is working properly together. We’ve learned to compensate for our brokenness, hobbled by our fractures yet unable to remember what it was like to be working properly. We’ve grown familiar with our “referred pain,” unaware that the site of our suffering is not the same as the source. We’ve grown so used to our divisions that they seem natural, pre-ordained even. We can barely imagine the possibility of working with the Roman Catholic parish next door. And yet, to the wider world, to that whole oikuemene, the difference between a Congregationalist and a Lutheran and an Episcopalian and an Evangelical means less and less and less. Massachusetts is the fourth least religious state in the nation at 28%, and you, always just a bit better than us, are the eighth, with only 32% identifying as ‘very religious.’ All our denominations are religious minorities now. Our differences are small compared to an entire oikoumene that does not know, does not care about our precious denominational divisions.
A few year’s ago, a colleague from Duke Divinity School came for a few days to visit and observe the church in Massachusetts. I showed him our fine buildings, our town squares, our attempts at adaptation. At the end of the visit, he said, “You still have all of the burden of being establishment and have not yet claimed all of the creativity of being marginal.” Church, I charge you, for the sake of Gospel for the whole inhabited world, claim the creativity of being marginal.
Finally, I charge you, beloved servants of God:
“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon.
Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted,
And human love will be seen at its height.
Live in fragments no longer.
“We All Mix:” A Gullah Sermon on Pentecost
Christ Church United & Lao United Church of Christ, Lowell MA (Special thanks to Host pastors Ted Rasakham and Peter Lovett. During the multi-cultural, multi-generational service, we sang two Gullah songs “Kum Ba Yah” and the amazing “Open the Window” arranged by Elise Witt.)
Sunday May 31, 2015
Let us pray…
Ebry poson beena say wa de Holy Sperit wahn um fa say.
This is not an easy story of our faith. I fear we have domesticated the story of Pentecost. We’ve made this story understandable, easily-consumed. We call it the birthday of the Church, with sweet pink birthday candles flickering atop the heads of the disciples. We’ve removed the chaos, the fear, the confusion, the unmistakable scent of singed hair. But make no mistake, Church, the day of Pentecost was chaos.
The disciples, left alone after the ascension of Jesus, have gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish festival of Shavuot. The town is full of visitors, tourists for the holiday. There’s no room at any inn. And as the disciples huddle together, the Spirit swoops in. No knocking, no polite entry. Forcefully, violently, without invitation or warning, the same Spirit that drove Jesus into the wilderness, enters without asking. It must have been chaos. Were there chairs knocked over? Did glasses shatter as they hit the stone floor?
We tend to envision the Holy Spirit like a gentle dove, but this scene seems more to me like a wild turkey let lose in your living room.
And then, as if a wind that breaks into your home, envelops the room, hits you in the middle of the chest and knocks you down isn’t confusing enough, then fire appears? Fire appears. Fire appears, splitting, cleaving into tongues of fire, alighting atop of each head? We sing “Breathe on me, breath of God…” without being prepared for the Spirit we are inviting.
Perhaps we’ve made Pentecost become so familiar, so safe, so far from that pent-up wild bird Spirit because we think it is too darn hard to follow the Spirit and learn a new language.
“Ebry poson beena say wa de Holy Sperit wahn um fa say.” Or , in the New Revised Standard Version, “4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”
It took 26 years, but the Spirit gave them the ability. Vernetta Canteed was on the bible translation team for 26 whole years before the American Bible Society published De Nyew Testament, printed in the Gullah language. It took 26 years and generation upon generation- because Gullah was discredited for a very long time. People said it wasn’t a real language. People said, it was just broken English. People didn’t recognize the rich mix of West African and indigenous languages coming together through the enslaved Africans sent to work the rice farms of the South Carolina lowcountry and Georgia Sea Islands. It took generations and generations and 26 years to publish the New Testament in Gullah. And when that Bible was finally published in 2005, Vernetta Canteed said, “That’s the first time I heard God talk the way I talk.”
On that day of Pentecost, God talked the way Vernetta talked.
How many of you are bilingual, or multi-lingual? You are our tutors. You are our guides. We will need you to teach the rest of us. You know how to translate. You know how to stand, maybe uneasily, with your feet in two different worlds.
You know the thrill of hearing you own first language in an unexpected place, in line at the grocery store. You know the struggle of having the exact right word in your mother tongue, but not knowing how to say it in English. You know the attentive skill you develop to listen carefully, to pick up cues and hints beyond the words themselves. You know the comfort of being lost in a strange place and hearing a stranger ask, “Necesitas ayuda?” Do you need help?
You who speak Lao, and French, and Cambodian, and Spanish. You who speak Arabic, and Swahili, and American Sign Language, and Gullah. We need you. The Spirit needs you. The Church needs you, because we are all going to have to learn new languages if the Church is to be embodied in this emerging culture. You all have a major university just down the street, with students from around the world. There are now whole generations of youth and young adults who do not know the Church’s language. They do not know the language of our denominations- and do not care about the difference between a Congregationalist and an Episcopalian. They do not know what the chancel is or where the narthex is or even what the doxology is. They have not been formed by the language of the Church.
I think, our job isn’t primarily to teach them our language, but to learn theirs, so that we can help them hear God speaking in their own language. How will this community learn the language of your neighbors?
When the parish of St John’s Episcopal Church in Northampton listened carefully to their neighbors at Smith College, they heard the students say that they were hungry and they were anxious, especially during finals. So now, twice a year at the end of the fall and spring semesters, St John’s Church cooks up thousands of pancakes, hundreds of pounds of bacon, serves gallons of coffee to weary, nervous students at their Midnight Breakfast during Finals Week. My message isn’t that you should put on a midnight breakfast too, or set up a “Rent-a-grandparent” but that these churches went and listened carefully to how the students in their neighborhood named their deepest needs and sense of the holy- they went an learned another language.
In the Gullah translation of Acts 2, we get the long list of places where people came from before arriving in Jerusalem: Galilee, Mede, Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya, Rome, Crete and Arabia.
And then, the Gullah translation has this glorious, short sentence. “We All Mix.” We all Mix, say it with me, Church. We all mix. Acts 2:12-13 “De people all been stonish an all mix op, so dey beena aks one noda say, ‘Wa dis mean?’ Bot some oda people been mek fun ob dem dat bleebe pon Jedus, say ‘Dem people don drink tommuch wine!”
That mix makes people nervous, confused. You know it. When this great glorious, unimaginable diverse unity happens, the crowds think that the believers in Jesus are drunk.
The day of Pentecost was chaos for the participants and confusion for the crowds. And I don’t know about you, but I’m not always good at living with chaos and confusion. I want to pin it down, smooth it out, make order, make sense. The Pentecost story resists our efforts to make it plain- There is fire burning and wind blowing, but the wind doesn’t blow the fire out. There are people speaking in languages from tribes of people that have extinct for 500 years! There are all sorts of people learning how to live together, listen to God together.
Maybe God is bilingual. As Christians, we pattern our lives on the life of Jesus Christ, the one who was both fully human.
Maybe God is multi-lingual, speaking throughout time and Creation as the Creator, the Child, the Spirit.
Maybe God is beyond our language, and the best we can do is make like the writer of Acts and humbly say God is like the wind, God is like the fire.
For this is the truth of Pentecost, it is scary and chaotic to follow the Spirit. It’s dangerous and unpredictable. Following the Spirit asks of us than we can ask or understand.
I do not know how to make sense of what happened on the Pentecost day, but I do know this: God is at work in the chaos. God is invested in a diversity of people and languages, not privileging one over the other, but listening to each. God so loved the world, and so desired unity for the Church that when the day of Pentecost arrived “We all mix.” Amen.
Rev. Laura Everett, Executive Director, Massachusetts Council of Churches
Thursday April 23, 2014, 7:30pm
She spoke truth. With the clipped diction of a Boston Protestant from a certain social strata, the 75-year-old suffragette and abolitionist Julia Ward Howe climbs the stairs to the podium at Faneuil Hall. Just over a mile from here, on November 26, 1894, the Boston Armenian Relief Committee gathered. Julia, the same woman who finds the words to write the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and writes provocative essays asking “Is Polite Society Polite?”- that very same Julia- struggles to find words to name the emerging horror.
“I could not stay away from this meeting. My heart was here, and I came, not so much to speak, as to hear what is to be done about this dreadful trouble. For something must be done. I have to pray God night and morning that He would find some way to stay this terrible tide of slaughter….”
Let us pray… Holy God, give us the word that we need to hear this night. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, Oh Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer. Amen.
To be set free from that which binds us, we must speak truth. To heal, we must name things for what they are. Tonight, in this church, we cannot but speak truth.
Jesus knows that to be released from our torment, we must call a thing what it is. As his ministry of healing expands in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus and the disciples travel across the River Jordan to country of the Gerasenes. There, among the tombs in the graveyard, removed from the land of the living, is a man tormented, possessed. Mark takes pains to describe a tortured man, pitiful to look upon: his wrists bruised and raw where the chains have held him; his shoulder bones pointed under the taunt tent of his skin; his eyes wide to look upon someone, anyone who might be able to heal him, to free him.
In polite society, it is awkward to speak seriously about one overtaken by an evil spirit, the stuff more often of horror films and novels. Our ancient forbearers in Jesus’s time lived with a strong belief in unclean spirits, evil powers that can overwhelm and overtake a person. We know how evil can burrow in and take hold of a person, a people, a nation. We know of evil so entrenched that we cannot free ourselves.
The possessed man shouts, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?”(Mark 5: 7). Jesus, looking upon this tormented man, demands, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit.” Nothing. Silence. There is a pause, a break in the action. The man is not released, the torment remains.
How is it that Jesus, Son of the Most High God cannot remove this unclean spirit? Then Jesus asks, ‘What is your name?’ ‘My name is Legion; for we are many.’
To be free from that which binds us, we must name a thing for what it is. The Geresene man cannot be free until the unclean spirit is identified, named, known for what it is.
To be freed from torment, to be released from evil and received back into the community of the living, we must call a thing by its name, An illness cannot be treated until it is known; a sin cannot be forgiven unless it is confessed; an evil spirit will not be released until it is named. So we name the evil that has possessed us, and we demand that all others do the same. We will not mince words. We will not keep polite society by whispering instead “Meds Yeghern.” We will not use euphemisms to speak of “the Armenian Question” as if there’s something left unanswered. We will name the evil that has overtaken this body, the body of Christ. We will name this evil for what it is: genocide.
Because, nothing, nothing short of this naming will suffice. Nothing short of this truth can free us.
Speaking the truth is not simply a political necessity, though our government needs to speak the truth of the Armenian Genocide. Speaking the truth is an historical necessity, a moral necessity, a spiritual necessity. His Holiness Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians writes, “our souls resound with a powerful call for justice and truth that will not be silenced.” The Turkish scholar and journalist Cengiz Aktar wrote, “The Armenian genocide is the Great Catastrophe of Anatolia, and the mother of all taboos in this land. Its curse will continue to haunt us as long as we fail to talk about, recognize, understand and reckon with it.” Like the Geresene man tormented by the unclean spirit, our world will be haunted as long as we fail to name and reckon with this great evil. What we do not name, we risk repeating.
We gather tonight to speak truth, to name things for what they are, perhaps even to be freed from that which has tormented us.
My dear Armenian sisters and brothers: You have been carrying this truth alone for too long. The burden is been heavy. Your backs are bent and weary. Your soul’s weighed down.
Tonight, the wider Church embraces you. Tonight we draw near, side by side with you and help to shoulder the load. For this is our burden to bear as well yours. The Armenian Genocide was not simply a crime against Armenians. It was, it remains a crime against humanity.
Do you remember the protests, a hundred thousands in Istanbul’s streets after the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was assassinated? The people carried signs saying, “We are all Armenians.” “We are all Armenians.” Image via The New Yorker
Tonight, we are all Armenians. This night and from now on, we all assume the burden to carry with you this history, this memory, this genocide, this story of resurrection, this truth.
Like Julia Ward Howe we come “not so much to speak, as to hear.” As the wider Church embraces you and your newly sainted martyrs, we vow to listen as you speak the truth. You need not remember these martyrs alone. We will stumble in our speech, wrapping our clumsy tongues around unfamiliar names, but you will teach us. And our God, who desires unity among us, desires truth between us, will be pleased.
Over the last century, too many names have been lost. Too many names changed in desperate hope that a less Armenian sounding name might protect against unspeakable crimes. Too many names of murdered men never carved into a gravestone. Too many names lost somewhere in the parched desert sand as desperate mothers try in vain to call out the names of dying daughters.
Too many names known to God alone.
But tonight, this night, the ancestors you prayed for are now the saints we pray to. We name them truth. We name them not just your grandmother or your great uncle, but now we name them martyrs and saints. And we speak their names together.
(Today, your martyrs become saints, for all of us)
Terror and Amazement: An Easter Vigil Sermon
Saturday April 4, 2015, St. Andrew’s Longmeadow
Ecumenical Easter Vigil
“Something strange is happening – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.”
So began an anonymous ancient Easter Vigil homily– words preached every year on this night for generations and generations, and to you, ye watchers and ye holy ones. That ancient preacher continues, “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.” Let us pray…
In my house, death and duty taste like cheese quiche. Maybe in your house, death and duty tastes like lasagna or deviled eggs, collard greens or Jello mold, but in my family, death and duty has the distinctive taste of eggs and Swiss cheese, with the smell of just a little bit of spice: mustard powder and dill. At the news of a death, my mother would bake a quiche, since there were always eggs and a pre-made Pillsbury piecrust in the fridge. There was always a yellow tin can of Colman’s mustard and always a plastic jar with a red lid of dried dill that was probably purchased in 1986. I need no recipe. We knew what to do when someone died.
Maybe this routine for death was familiar with Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome too. Go to the store, and go get your supplies that now have the distinctive association of smelling like death, meet up on the corner in-between all your homes, and walk to the graveyard together. The Greek word used for “spices” in Mark’s gospel is αρωματα, (aromata) and since the Jewish people didn’t embalm their bodies, the spices or aromatics, were simply an act of love to cover the smell of a body starting to decompose. After all those quiches, mustard powder and dill will always smell like death to me. Duty and routine provide some stability when our worlds are turned upside-down by death.
But this death, the death we look for this night, despite all the warnings that it was coming, was not routine.
Whether you came tonight out of a sense of duty or seeking something more, we all gather this night to look into the tomb together. Not alone, but like the women, together. The Easter Vigil harkens back to our Jewish roots, as the next day starts at sunset the night before. Like generations who gathered before us, our Easter Vigil happens at night, because at the earliest possible moment, we gather not in isolation but to look into the tomb, together.
The soldiers are gone. The stone is gone. The women look into the tomb, and the body is gone. Nothing is where it should be.
Mark is the Gospel for our doubts, the story for those of us who look at the empty tomb not with joys and halleluiahs but with terror and amazement. We are not assured of Jesus’s resurrection with the smiling Messiah waving outside the tomb. We are not treated to a Hollywood ending, reuniting the scared and scattered disciples with the Good Shepherd. No, (in the words of Matthew Skinner) “Mark’s not interested in proving that Jesus rose. Mark puts readers smack in the middle of an existential crisis: a faith crisis.” Can you believe in what is not there?
Instead of finding a body in the tomb, an unknown man stands aside. “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”
The women run, their dresses getting caught between their legs. Their myrrh and nard, mustard powder and dill, are tossed, forgotten and scattered along side of the road.
“Terror and amazement had seized them.” It’s the combination of these two emotions- terror and amazement, or in Greek “τρόμος καὶ ἔκστασις”/ tromos kai ekstasis. Trembling and ecstasy, terror and amazement. Sometimes it causes us to tremble, tremble. In the Gospel of Matthew, Easter morning is marked with an earthquake. In Mark, the tremors are internal to the women.
But of course they are seized with terror and amazement! Every death interrupts our routines, but this, this was even bigger. Anna Carter Florence says, “If the dead don’t stay dead, what can you count on?” The dependable duty of death is disrupted at Christ’s tomb. Death does not end the story. The dead don’t stay dead. The consequences of an empty tomb are too much to imagine and so the women flee in terror and amazement.
But even as they flee back home, the risen Christ has gone on ahead of us. On this first day, this new day of Creation, the young man tells them, “he is going ahead of you to Galilee.” To Galilee- not to Jerusalem to worship at the temple, not back to his hometown of Nazareth, not to the desert to be alone, but back to Galilee- the site of the every day, the healing, the feeding, the teaching.
At his birth, John the Baptist was the fore-runner to Jesus. Today, at his Resurrection, Jesus Christ is the fore-runner to our lives. The Good News of Easter isn’t just the resurrected Christ, but Christ going ahead. We who sang “Prepare the way of the Lord” in Advent, are now having the way prepared for us, a path to freedom and life abundant.
He goes ahead of us. The Risen Christ goes ahead of us into Monday. Into our everyday. Into the classroom, into the office, into the courtroom, into the hospital, into the nursing home. Into the traffic jam, into the hard conversation, into the waiting room, into your home. We look into the tomb to find “he is not here.” He is already going ahead of us to Galilee, to Longmeadow, to Chicopee, to Springfield, to Agawam. He is already going ahead of us to Tehran, to Nairobi, to Cairo, to Aleppo. He has endured rejection and suffering, death and the grave, and so knows the path we are to travel. We do not go alone.
Our security isn’t in one who stays nicely and dependably put in the tomb, but in the One who goes ahead of us, who clears a way where there is no way. This is the test of faith tonight: Can you look into the empty tomb and trust that Jesus has gone ahead of you into your life? Can you believe, even for a moment, that all the stories of God’s provision include even you? Can you trust that the God who delivers the Israelites from slavery also delivers you from whatever keeps you bound? Can you try on the idea that our God goes ahead of us to Galilee? If that small, orange ember still glows among the coals, can you let the Spirit blow through you this night to kindle a new fire? If the smell of death has clung to your nostrils, can you leave your spices by the side of the road and follow the one who himself knew our suffering and death?
The promise of Easter is this- Christ is going ahead of you. We do not walk this way alone.
If any have toiled from the first hour,
let them receive their reward.
If any have come after the third hour,
let them with gratitude join in the feast!
Those who arrived after the sixth hour,
let them not doubt; for they shall not be short-changed.
Those who have tarried until the ninth hour,
let them not hesitate; but let them come too.
And those who arrived only at the eleventh hour,
let them not be afraid by reason of their delay.
For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.
The Lord gives rest to those who come at the eleventh hour,
even as to those who toiled from the beginning…
Let no one lament persistent failings,
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.
Let no one fear death,
for the death of our Saviour has set us free…
Christ is risen, and life is set free!
Ecumenical Good Friday Service, April 3, 2015. Hosted by the Northbridge Clergy Association, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Whitinsville MA.
The Betrayal, Arrest & Crucifixion of Jesus: John 18:1- 19:42
Sung: Were you there when they crucified my Lord? (Were you there?)
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
O! Sometimes it causes me to tremble! tremble! tremble!
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Let us pray…
Tremble. It causes us to tremble, to look on that much suffering. It causes us to tremble, to watch an innocent person be tortured and die. We cover our faces. We cast down our eyes. Today, this Good Friday, we take the slow, long look at the suffering of Jesus.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Peter was there, for a bit. But then he wasn’t. He wasn’t there when they crucified Jesus, wasn’t there when they nailed him to the cross, wasn’t there when they pierced him in the side, and wasn’t there when they laid him in the tomb. Gone.
You know this Simon Peter. We’ve seen him all through the Gospel of John. He was there at the very beginning, joining the disciples with his brother Andrew (1:41-42). When the teachings of Jesus got hard, and others turned away, Simon Peter stayed and confessed Jesus as “the Holy One of God”(6:68). Peter, who at the Last Supper asks not just for his feet to be washed, but his whole body (13: 9). Peter has been with Jesus all along. Through the wandering, the healing, the teaching, Peter was with him the entire time.
But here, in the garden, it all becomes too much. The pleasant road for the disciples of healing the sick and feeding the hungry dead ends into a standoff with the authorities. Good Friday is not for the faith of heart. It asks of us more than a fondness for a moral exemplar, healing servant, wise man. It asks, will you go with me to the court, the cross, the tomb? Good Friday asks more questions than it answers. Good Friday asks “Were you there?”
Here, in the Garden, Peter fights. The Roman soldiers, and the chief priests come to
arrest Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus freely admits, “I am he” and asks to let the other men go. But Peter takes out his sword to fight the arrest and cuts off the ear of chief priest’s slave. But Jesus wants no fight; “Put your sword back in its sheath.”
Then, in the courtyard, Peter flees. Around a charcoal fire in the courtyard, they warm themselves, while the high priests interrogate Jesus inside. Three times, he is asked, “you are not one of this man’s disciples, are you?” Three times, Peter denies, “I am not.” And then he is gone. Not at the trial, not at the cross. Peter flees as his teacher and savior is tortured and crucified.
Peter’s not the explicit betrayer, the easy villain like Judas. Peter’s not the patsy politico who has power to end this torture but refuses to use it like Pilate. Peter’s not even the religious hypocrites like the chief priests getting in bed with the Roman police to protect themselves. No, Peter is utterly, simply human.
And in Simon Peter, we see two utterly human responses- fight and flight. In 1915 not far from here in Cambridge MA, Walter Bradford Cannon, the chair of the Department of Physiology at Harvard Medical School, coined the term “fight or flight.” In Dr. Cannon theory of “Fight or flight,” animals have a physiological reaction to an attack or a threat of survival, and because of secretion of certain chemicals, the body is then ready to either fight back the attack or flee. An “acute stress response” Fight or flight.
You know this fight and flight. You know this tendency in your own life. When someone insults you, you know the impulse to insult them back. When someone betrays you, you’ve felt the temptation to hurt them back. Or maybe you’ve felt that urge to flee, to flee the conference room when the divorce proceedings are too much, to flee to the other side of the street rather than look in the eyes the fellow human asking for loose change, to flee the hospital room when the suffering is to great, to flee the people who love you for the solitary company of a bottle when you cannot tell the horrors you have seen.
Maybe this is what makes Good Friday, “good.” Good in the sense that here we have a place to lay down our brokenness in the arms of our God. Today is our day designated for our deepest grief, our most entrenched hopelessness, our most intractable sorrow. Good Friday is where we place all of the broken relationships, broken bodies, broken world at the foot of the cross and weep. And maybe, just a little bit at first, we entrust this brokenness to our crucified God, who knew brokenness and rejection too.
The Gospel gives us an alternate example of what can be done in the face of fear and suffering. Not fight. Not flight. But abide. Abide with me. Stay with me. Remain with me. In Jesus of Nazareth, pinned to a cross, we see Our God so committed to be in solidarity with all who suffer as to endure the shame and humiliation of the cross. If our God would endure all that, surely our God will stay with us through the night of our darkest fear so that when we cry out “Were you there, Lord?” Jesus responds, “I am.”
The names of the author and composer of the hymn “Where you there when they crucified my Lord?” are lost to history. The hymn was likely composed by enslaved Africans in the American South, a people who regularly saw their sons, their mothers, their grandfathers, scourged, tortured, and killed. Fighting back meant death. Fleeing near certainly meant death. And yet, for so many enslaved Africans in the Americas, there remained a bedrock conviction that the Son of God who was nailed to a tree, abided with them through their enslavement, their torture, and even their lynching. “Were you there when they nailed him to a tree?” And yet a faith so deep as to still believe that God abides.
Today in our prayer, we pray “that all who believe in him might be delivered from the power of sin and death, and become heirs with him of everlasting life.” So if there’s a small orange ember left in that charcoal fire in your heart that wants to believe, but isn’t quite sure- let the spirit blow through you this night and kindle it anew. Look upon the cross and try on the conviction that death does not have the final say. Look upon the cross this day and know the depths of God’s commitment to never leave you or forsake you, no matter how great the suffering. Look up the cross and believe, maybe just for a moment, the promise of our Christ- not that we will never suffer in this weary, broken world, but that we will never suffer alone. Amen.