The Rest of the Story

This is the sermon I preached on Easter Sunday, April 1, 2018, at First Church Simsbury.

Mark 16:1-8

Before I read this next account of the resurrection, let me make an observation about the reading the kids just shared, then give you an assignment. From the Spark Bible for children, the simple version these guys read combines plot elements from several of the gospels.

The four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, were each written for different audiences, different purposes, and at different times. So each writer tells the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection differently. The gospel of Mark was written first, around the year 70, about 37 years after that first Easter morning.

I invite you to listen to Mark’s story and see if you notice an important way it differs from what the kids just read.

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “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.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

What did you notice, in particular about the way the story ends? How does Mark end his account of the resurrection? What is missing?

Here is his last verse, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

That’s it, the end of Mark’s story!  Why is that interesting or important?   Well, in Mark’s gospel, no one sees the resurrected Jesus.

The gospels that were written later tell stories of Mary and the disciples seeing Jesus, of Jesus speaking, of the disciples eating with Jesus, of the disciple Thomas touching the wound in Jesus’ hand.  But not Mark.  The guy in white just says, he’s not here, he got up and left.  Go on, get out of here, you’ll see him down the road.

Isn’t that awesome!

Not so sure?

Mark doesn’t tell us about particular people at a particular time in history that had a specific encounter with the flesh and blood risen Christ.  Instead, Mark’s account invites us to head on down the road to seek experiences of resurrection in our own lives.

Mark’s story is open ended. Mark leaves it up to the disciples, and so leaves it up to us, to tell “the rest of the story.”

Some of you, of a certain age, will recognize that phrase, “the rest of the story.”  Back before pastors found sermon illustrations on Facebook, there was radio, and there was Paul Harvey, a beloved radio commentator.  From 1976 until his death in 2009, Harvey had a daily segment on radio called, “The Rest of the Story.”  He would tell a true story about a person or event but would withhold some key fact, like the person’s name, leaving that a mystery until the end.  Finally, at the very end, he would reveal the missing piece that made sense of the story.

Here’s a great one, told just as Paul Harvey told it!

What I’m about to say is not to be construed as another round in the continuing debate over capital punishment; it’s merely to let you know that Broadway’s latest star, a name that you would recognize, once was, through no fault of his own, on death row.  And it is because his name is so frequently spoken in the annals of show business that you must wait just a little bit longer for the rest of the story.

 

Technically, legally, actually, there is yet a crime on the state books of Connecticut for which one may burn.  And it is for that crime that Broadway’s latest award winning star was once in the pen and the big countdown, the last mile, death row, his jailors seemingly callous, had to be, for theirs was the dirtiest job in the business.  And of course their apparent apathy only increased his anxiety, only made him more suspicious of the next man to enter the corridor, for one last meal, and one long last night stood between him and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow morning he would die.  As a matter of the greatest good fortune the next man to enter the corridor was not the bearer of his last meal but the harbinger of many meals to come, a messenger of freedom, and his name was Bill Berloni and he was looking for types with which to cast a new play headed for Broadway, now stay with me as incredible as this sounds, it happened just the way I am describing it.  Bill was looking for a particular type actor, no previous experience necessary, among those in confinement, by chance, he passed death row, he saw the doomed prisoner that we have been talking about and that prisoner was just the one Bill had been looking for.  Naturally it was explained to Bill that the prisoner was condemned to die, within hours in fact, but Bill did not care.  With some pull, with some clout, he affected a stay of execution, he got the case reviewed, he got bail granted and eventually the prisoner was exonerated.  My goodness look how far he’s gone since then.  The show opened at the Goodspeed Opera House.  The production went from there to Broadway just as Bill Berloni had promised it would.  Now as of last month this most remarkable of all contemporary Broadway hits played to its one thousand two hundred and fifth standing room only audience.  Awards include the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best musical, seven Drama Desk awards, seven Tony awards including best musical, and including one for the one who one year ago was on death row.  Now some are saying that he shouldn’t have gotten that award even though there can be little doubt that his personality had contributed to the advanced ticket sale of millions of dollars.  And to the Broadway smash based on a comic strip, Annie.  Now recently the actor who once was condemned to die attended a black tie dinner at the White House, was a guest of the President of the United States.  And that, I’m sure you’d agree, is a long way from the wire mesh pen at the Newington Humane Society where he was ready to take the fall on a vagrancy rap but was bailed out for eight dollars to steal the show as Sandy, Little Orphan Annie’s sad-eyed, flop-eared, mongrel dog.  And now you know the rest of the story.

This old tale told by Paul Harvey is so much more than a heart-warming story about a dog.  It is a parable about life, death and resurrection.

This story serves as a reminder that the freedom and new life of resurrection only have meaning in response to imprisonment, suffering and death.  We live in a world that too often imprisons, inflicts suffering and promotes death, both literally and metaphorically.

We know this through our own experience.  While none of us have literally been on death row, each life includes experiences of deprivation, discouragement, rejection, loneliness, betrayal, fear and despair.

And we know this by opening our eyes to the suffering around us.  Poverty, abuse, condemnation, selfishness, hunger, violence and injustice.

In the words of the orphans in the Municipal Orphanage, Girl’s Annex,

It’s the hard-knock life for us!

Like Annie and like Sandy, we can face the seeming callousness and apathy of a world that holds us captive.

And like Sandy, as a matter of greatest good fortune the next man to enter the corridor of our hard knock life is not bearing our last meal but is the harbinger of many meals to come, a messenger of freedom. But his name is not Bill Berloni, it is Jesus Christ, and he is looking for types with which to cast a new and more abundant life, looking for types from among those in confinement, no previous experience necessary.  And we are just the ones he is looking for.  With some pull, with some clout, through his resurrection, he has affected a stay of execution, he got our case reviewed; we have been exonerated.

But just as Sandy wasn’t released to return to a life of vagrancy, so Christ does not free us from captivity just so we can return to our old lives.

Remember, Mark’s story is open ended, leaving it up to us to tell “the rest of the story.” Jesus frees us to perform a role in God’s never ending story of resurrection.

What might this resurrection look like? I share this brief example. I was invited by John Fox from our local VFW post to attend a program on veteran suicide prevention at the Simsbury Library yesterday. It is as if those who contemplate suicide, whether because of depression, addiction, or trauma are trapped in a tomb that feels inescapable. But I learned that asking someone directly about their suicidal thoughts lowers anxiety, opens communication, and reduces the risk of an impulsive act. And simply saying, “I want you to live, I’m on your side, and we’ll get through this together,” will most often be met with agreement and relief. Just a willingness to listen and help can rekindle hope, can save a life. This is what resurrection looks like.

I am convinced that Mark ended his gospel the way he did because he wanted his community to know, wants us to know, that resurrection is ours to live and share. It can be as simple as expressing a willingness to listen and help.

So, refuse to let experiences of deprivation, discouragement, rejection, loneliness, betrayal, fear and despair rule your life.  Confront poverty, abuse, condemnation, selfishness, hunger, violence and injustice in all its guises.  This is what it means to live resurrection.

The tomb is empty and he has gone ahead of us.  That’s it!  That’s all we need to know.  It is up to us to write, tell and live, the rest of the story.

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The Crucifixion Generation: A Defiant Hope

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on Palm Sunday, March 25, 2018.

Mark 11:1-11

About a month ago, on Friday, February 23rd, I took my daughter Abby to the Bushnell to see the musical, The Bodyguard. Based on the 1992 movie starring Whitney Huston and Kevin Costner, the acting was uneven and the plot kind of silly, but the Whitney Houston music was fantastic, and it was a great father-daughter night out.

There was a point in the play when the villain came on stage with a large pistol. It had one of these red lasers affixed to it, so a red dot would appear wherever he pointed the gun. For what seemed like an eternity, the actor aimed the gun into the audience, the red dot landing on one person, then another, then another.

This was just 9 days after a gunman killed seventeen people and wounded seventeen more at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Every time the actor swung his gun in my direction, I winced and squirmed. I looked over at Abby, and she had completely disappeared down into her seat, curled into a fetal position. On the way home, I asked Abby about that moment, and she said that it had “triggered her PTSD.” Now, I doubt that Abby could give a clinical definition of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but she sure as heck knew her own feelings of trauma. She had been traumatized by the shooting at the Parkland, Florida high school, and has been left fearing for her own safety. She is not alone.

Though Abby may not know the clinical definition of PTSD, Dr. Megan Ranney and Dr. Rinad Beidas do. One is an emergency physician and violence prevention researcher, the other a clinical psychologist with a focus on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and they are also parents. Together they just penned an article, Generation Parkland: How Mass Shootings Are Affecting America’s Children, And How We Can Help.

In their work, they observe evidence of trauma, not just in kids who have directly experienced gun violence, but in this so-called mas-shooting generation. They write, “Our combined experience and expertise make us particularly concerned about these events’ psychological effects on American kids.”

This generation of children, they say, “has grown up with turtle-time, lockdown drills, ALICE (Alert Lockdown Inform Counter Evacuate) maneuvers and the very real threat that a classmate will bring a gun to school.

As a parent, this knowledge makes me feel helpless, terrified, and angry.

As a preacher, I can’t help but bring my feelings and experience to my reading of the Bible. Thoughts of the trauma experienced by our children were weighing heavily on my mind, when I turned to this familiar and beloved story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.

Jesus’ followers lay palm branches before him and greet him with shouts of Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest! (meaning, “Saved! We are saved!). Like his disciples, this crowd is sometimes thought to be naïve or foolish. By this interpretation, his followers assume that Jesus is the promised king, God’s anointed, that has come to restore Israel to its former glory; and they fail to anticipate or understand that Jesus will soon be brutally executed on the cross.

But were they really naïve? Did the crowd really misunderstand?

I think an experience of trauma informs our understanding of this story.

Though they didn’t have 24/7 news coverage, and they didn’t have social media, Jews in first century Palestine were regularly exposed to something that was just as traumatizing as mass shootings today, crucifixion. If kids today identify as the mass shooting generation, it could be said that those growing up in Roman-ruled, first century Palestine were the crucifixion generation.

New Testament scholar Hal Taussig writes that “Romans practiced both random and intentional violence against populations they had conquered, killing tens of thousands by crucifixion.” Crucifixion got rid of those Rome perceived as threats, and fostered fear in the Jewish population as a means of social control.

First century Jewish historian Josephus writes that the Romans crucified thousands, sometimes on the walls of Jerusalem so all could see.

Television and social media bombard us with horrifying images, but imagine going about your day and seeing bodies, some of whom you recognize, hanging from Roman crosses dying, dead, and decaying.

Crucifixion is literally the background for everything we read in the gospels about Jesus’ life and ministry.

And crucifixion is the background for this morning’s well-known story about Jesus’ so-called triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

So, do we still think his followers were naïve? They would have been well aware of the tensions that had been building between Jesus and Jewish and Roman authorities, and knew full well what fate awaited those who were perceived as a threat.

So maybe Jesus’ raucous welcome into Jerusalem was not out of ignorance of the cross, but in defiance of the threat of crucifixion.

We know from other historical sources that Jesus’ was one of two processions into the city that day. At the same time Jesus was entering Jerusalem from the East, the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate was entering through the western gate at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and solders. Because the approaching Passover festival celebrated Jews’ liberation from an earlier empire, it was a time ripe for social unrest. So every year before Passover, Pilate and additional troops would enter Jerusalem to assert Roman power.

With crucifixion casting a traumatic shadow over daily life, and the acute threat of Roman power in the form of Pilate and a company of soldiers entering the city, Jesus chose this moment to enter Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. And knowing the threat, his followers responded with shouts of “Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest! Saved! We are saved!

The researchers Ranney and Beidas make four suggestions for what we should do to help our kids and our communities to be resilient after a mass shooting.

First, parents need to take care of themselves. In the way we are asked to put on our oxygen mask first during an in-flight emergency, we need to make sure we reach out for help to respond to our own fears before we can support our kids.

Second, set limits around TV and social media, specifically how much we allow our kids to watch and re-watch coverage of traumatic events like mass shootings.

Third, ensure our kids have social support available and don’t become withdrawn and isolated,

And fourth, kids must be able to create a sense of control that generates hope.

In the aftermath of Parkland, youth like Emma Gonzales, that remarkable, young woman with the shaved head, are leading a movement. This movement is critically important for American communities in more ways than one. It may well lead to an effective and lasting response to pervasive gun violence. But taking action is also important for this generation. It gives them hope, and gives us hope.

Not every child is Emma Gonzales, but almost every child can take some action to help feel in control and to help feel like they can make a difference.

On March 14th, one month after the Parkland school shooting, my daughter Abby participated with several hundred other Simsbury High students, and close to a million students around the country, in a 17-minute, #neveragain walkout. Though the school administration had offered its support, Abby was especially pleased that the walkout was meant to be held in the school gym, but all the students walked right past the open gym door to gather outside instead, contributing to a sense of control that fostered hope.

I felt that same control and hope as I joined millions of others around the country at yesterday’s student-led March for Our Lives.

Which brings us to today’s Palm Sunday message for us all, whether or not gun violence is among your trauma triggers. As did Jesus, we live in traumatic times. We don’t need to know the clinical definition of PTSD to experience the fear, helplessness, and anger that trauma brings. Maybe gun violence prompts your fear. Or maybe it is the threat of nuclear war. Or the devastating breakup of a marriage. Or maybe it is the loss of a spouse, or a child. Or maybe you are facing bankruptcy. Or maybe the affair that has been kept quiet is now public knowledge. Or maybe the addiction you thought you had under control is now threatening your life. Or maybe the world just feels like it is changing too darn fast. Too often our lives feel out of control; hopelessness threatens.

We aren’t naïve, nor are we foolish. As in Jesus’ day, crucifixion casts a traumatic shadow in our lives. We know that crosses await. But as people of faith, we also know that our story does not end with the trauma of the cross. And on Palm Sunday, with the faithful of every generation, we lay claim to hope and choose life, welcoming Jesus into our lives with joyous shouts of, Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest! Saved! We are saved!

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