April 13, 2009

Sermon 4/12/2009

Sermon for Easter Sunday B
April 12, 2009

Michael Coffey

Text: Mark 16:1-8

We’re not supposed to be here, you know.
Yeah, I know it’s Easter,
and this is what we do.
We get dressed up and go to church
and get chocolate on our new white shirts
and drink mimosas for Easter brunch afterwards.
Well, at least I am. Maybe I’ve said too much.

But we’re not supposed to be here.
We really shouldn’t be gathering in celebration
and finding joy at the heart of life.
We are in one of the most uncertain
and fragile moments in our nation’s and the world’s history
in a long, long time.
Economic turmoil is a dangerous thing.
It leads to instability and nations seeking to blame one another,
and rises in crime and depression and families falling apart.
Quagmire in war leads to despair
and hopelessness that seeps into our minds and bones.
Even church has become ...

So you can see, it doesn’t make any sense
to come together and make ridiculous claims
about new life and joy
and God doing something astounding
in the face of so much fear and death.
But we are here,
and I expect you expect me to say more than that,
since we all bothered get to clean and dressed up.
And more than that,
we have all bothered to seek to rise above the prevailing fear and despair
that are filling our world and our minds these days.

Let’s go back to Mark’s story,
because Mark was written for people
who had no good reason to come together in joy and celebration.
Mark was written for faithful people
living in a fragile moment in history
with the power of empire looming overhead
and the threat of losing job, family, home, and life were real.

Believe it or not,
this is how Mark’s Gospel ends:
Women visit the tomb
not to see if Jesus was raised from the dead
but to anoint his body for burial.
When they see that the tomb is empty
and hear that Jesus is raised from the dead
and has gone ahead of them to Galilee,
they are told to go and tell the others the good news.
But they flee in fear and in stark silence
and say nothing to anyone
because fear shuts up words of hope and joy.
This original ending of Mark was so disturbing to early scribes
and felt so incomplete to other biblical writers
that they added more to it.
But I trust Mark knew what he was doing
by ending his entire Gospel with one word
that affects us all to our core: fear.

The first thing to know about Mark’s story of Jesus
is that fear is the driving force
that keeps people from living life fully
and responding to the good news of God.
There is fear of failure,
fear of losing,
fear of humiliation,
and at the root of it all, fear of death.
People will do anything and everything
to avoid facing their fear.
In trying to avoid the unavoidable things in life
that cause fear
people end up doing harm to others
and missing out on what God is up to
in mending their lives
and healing the whole universe.

In Mark, this means people who live out of fear
are incapable of loving others,
lacking in generosity,
stuck in self-concern,
and will go to great length to protect themselves,
even when it means other people will suffer.

So the first thing we have to hear on the day of resurrection
is that we, too, live out of fear:
fear of losing ourselves,
fear of giving up,
fear of being small in this vast world,
fear of dying,
fear of a slipping economy,
fear of a world growing ever more uncertain and confusing,
fear of terror,
fear of the next great storm,
fear of all the genes in our DNA that we can’t control or change,
fear of our body’s decline
fear of not attaining the dream we have been told
we have some kind of inborn right to live.

This fear holds us back.
It keeps us from living life fully.
It leads us to protect ourselves at all cost
and to harm others,
whether intentionally or not.
It keeps us stuck inside ourselves,
like a dark tomb we can’t get out of.

In Mark’s Gospel,
the antidote for this kind of life-diminishing fear
is faith in the good news of God.
Jesus teaches that God wills good for people
and for all creation.
God is working mysteriously in the world
to bring healing, reconciliation, peace, and new life.
But the hard part of this, as Jesus teaches and lives,
is that you can’t avoid all of the struggles and pain of life.
You have to go through them
trusting that God works through these crucifixions.
Jesus taught his disciples that he would have to be rejected,
suffer, die on the cross,
be raised from the dead to new life,
and then he would go ahead of them to Galilee.
Jesus himself has to face his fear.
He curses a fig tree for not being a sign of salvation already here.
He prays and cries in the garden
that he could be spared from suffering and death.
He cries out from the cross:
Why, God, have you abandoned me?

Jesus takes the fearful journey of living this life fully and boldly
trusting in God even though that can be the hardest thing to do.
Jesus takes our fearful journey of life with us and for us.
And God raises Jesus up to new life.
God responds to Jesus’ faithful life:
Yes! Your trust in me is not in vain!
I am the God of new life,
who works through the cross and the pain of life
so that new life can com from the old.

The ending of Mark’s Gospel is one of the most startling moments
in the Bible, and perhaps in all of literature.
Chapter 16 ends with the women running away in fear and silence.
You’d think there has to be a Chapter 17, but there isn’t.
Yet, this ending is an ending that is not supposed to be an ending!
As one commentator on the Gospel of Mark wrote:
"When is an ending not an end?
When a dead man rises from the tomb,
and when a Gospel ends in the middle of a sentence."

If you think the story of Jesus can’t possibly end in fear
and silence and running away,
you’re right!
But the ending of Mark is not in the text.
It is in our lives.
It is in our fear become faith.
It is in our faithful response to God’s good news.
The ending is when fear becomes faith
and faith becomes inexplicable joy.

There is one piece of the ending that opens up a world of hope and faith:
The man in the empty tomb who is not Jesus.
He is mysterious and surprising and unexplained.
He speaks to the women who are awestruck:
"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.
7But 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."

There it is again, just like Jesus said earlier:
He will be raised, and will go ahead of them to Galilee,
and there you will see him.
Galilee in Mark’s Gospel is not just a place.
It is the center of Jesus’ ministry of telling good news,
healing, forgiving, calling people out of isolation and loneliness
and fear, to live boldly with faith in God.
In Mark’s Gospel, this is the answer
to the question “Where is Jesus now that he is raised?”
He is back in the midst of life,
doing the things of God,
calling his disciples to follow him again,
even though fear drove them all away.

And then Mark throws in one more twist for us to wrestle with:
Who is going to go to Galilee
with faith and openness to what God is doing
and see Jesus there?
Not the men who followed him! They ran away in fear a long time ago.
Not the women at the tomb! They fled in silent fear.
Who will carry on with faith that overcomes fear
and do the healing, forgiving, loving work of God in the world?
The only people left at the end of the story,
are you and I.
We are Chapter 17 of the Gospel of Mark.

The power of the resurrection for us in this life
is to move forward into the future with faith instead of fear,
and let faith lead us to joyful living.

The joy of the resurrection does not remove the cross,
it radicalizes it as the way of life for God’s people.
The power of the resurrection does not eliminate fear,
it minimizes fear’s ability to stop us from living for others
and for God’s reign of peace.

Each Easter year when we read Mark,
I think about printing up T-Shirts for everyone gathered that say:
Mark 17: Live it.
I imagine a bunch of people trying to find Mark 17 in the Bible,
and seeing nothing after Mark 16,
except some confusion about where it actually ends.
And they would say: Where is Mark 17?
And we would reply: Exactly!


As much as we shouldn’t be here,
we also should be here
and must be here.
It seems to be part of God’s work
that communities of faith gather
in the midst of life’s turmoil and struggles
to share joy, and break bread, and live life together,
and practice grace.
This is big, important stuff for the church.
We in the church in many ways
have settled for being in insiders club,
a few remaining faithful who are committed enough to stick it out.
And thank God for all of the faithful who are keeping it going.
But the real heart and energy of the church
is to see and believe that our purpose transcends us.
God plants the church as a community living
with fear become faith become joy in the world.
It matters, and the transformation of fear to faith to joy
trickles from this word and this table
out into the rest of the community and the world

Maybe you have seen the film “Schindler’s List.”
One of the most moving aspects of that stunning black and white movie,
is the way Steven Spielberg only uses color in a few places.
Two of those places
are at the beginning and in the middle,
when faithful Jewish people gather on the Sabbath
to light candles, say prayers,
give thanks to God,
and transcend their own fear and despair
to be a small gathering of faith and joy
when they knew full well they had no good reason
to be doing that.
But when those candles are lit,
the film becomes color for a moment,
and the reddish-orange glow of warm fire fills the screen,
and all the gray of life is revealed for what is really is:
A lie.
A gross blindness to the reality of God.
A giving up on love and mercy and neighborliness.

The struggles we are facing today
require a community of faith gathering in joy,
sharing bread,
living out mercy,
and never, never letting fear drive our actions,
but only faith in the God of new life and possibility
and endless mercy.

People of God gathered here and now in faith and joy
when we really shouldn’t be here doing this,
whether you are here nearly every Sunday,
or only on a few, high points of the year,
I want you to know:
We shouldn’t be here,
But we have to be here.
Fear must be turned to faith,
and faith transforms us to joy.
In all kinds of places on earth, some communities
gather in faith to bring color to all the gray around us.
And all the gray around us can only soak it up
and become more and more the color of joy.

Let the joy of Jesus’ resurrection seep into your life today,.
God is raising us up right now from fear to faith to joy,
in the raising up of Jesus from death to life.
Joy in laugher.
Joy in tears.
Joy in silence.
Joy in song and dance and drums as we sing an Easter song.

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