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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Let’s Talk!

Here is my column from the May issues of the First Church, Cornerstone, newsletter.

Building a strong, healthy, community of faith requires communication. I don’t mean the weekly church email or monthly newsletter, but earnest, open conversations about our thoughts, feelings and beliefs regarding the important things of life and faith. People too often avoid such substantive conversations out of a concern that disagreement might lead to conflict, or because they fear being judged. I have found that church members can sometimes be reticent to talk to their pastors when a sermon has touched a nerve or raised a concern. Preachers most often hear such concerns second-hand in the form of someone-said statements, as in, “I heard someone say they had a concern about your sermon on Sunday.” I have heard a few of these someone-saids about the Easter sermon I preached with Rev. Kev.

For those who didn’t hear it or read it online (see the church website for a transcript and recording), Kevin and I brought a resurrection message that encouraged everyone to exit the tombs that hold us back in life that we might live fully into the people God created us to be. Kevin used the example of a widow who experienced a joy-filled life following the death of her husband by becoming like a mother to a young woman, a Sudanese refugee in need of maternal support. I drew on my experience leading an AIDS service organization in the nineties, using AIDS as a metaphor for a tomb, and the example of men “coming out” as gay as a symbol of resurrection. Recognizing that there were children in worship, I sought to craft my words in a way that would be both accessible and appropriate for young listeners.

I had a meaningful call from a parent who told me that my sermon caused her child to ask a number of questions that she wasn’t ready to address. She affirmed the content of the sermon, but said that from a parenting perspective, explaining the relationship between AIDS and sexual orientation to her child presented real challenges. She would have much preferred to talk to her child about such things in her own time on her own terms. I hear this. And I have been pondering the choices I made in preparing and presenting that sermon.

As for other concerns, a certain amount of guess work is involved since these perspectives have not been shared with me directly. But from what I hear second-hand they are along the lines, “It was a good message, but not appropriate on Easter.” My initial response to this is, we are an ONA church fifty-two weeks a year. And what better Sunday to demonstrate this than on Easter Sunday when the church is full of people who might be here for the first time.

But I have also thought that there might be more to this “just not on Easter” perspective. I know many people bring family members to church on Easter, parents, grandparents, or adult children. I know of particular cases where these visiting family members hold more religiously conservative views than those represented here at First Church. The discomfort of these folks may have been quite apparent to family members, and may have even led to difficult conversations over brunch. I am sympathetic. I like a happy, tension-free Easter brunch as much as the next person!

Let me share a few things about what led to that particular sermon. I did not choose my sermon illustration to be intentionally provocative. Instead, my sermon emerged organically, bringing experiences in the church and in my life together with the story of Christ’s resurrection. Did you know that since the church year began last September, at least a dozen visitors or members have come out as LGBT to me or Rev. Kev? This includes a number of our church youth. Some of these folks have been harshly judged in other churches before venturing into First Church. I am forever inspired by the courageous decision LGBT people make to come out, whether to family, friends, clergy, or the world. These good people were on my mind as I prayerfully contemplated the significance of the empty tomb, and this led me to recall my own, life changing experience of loving people who live with AIDS.

I had another meaningful conversation with a parent, this one with a child who “is on a gender journey and is contemplating precisely what (the sermon) was about.” She thanked me, saying that she found the sermon to be profound, and that it touched her child deeply. While hearing the “just not on Easter” concern, and empathizing with those who might have experienced tension-filled Easter brunches with family, exchanges like the one with this mom might suggest an alternative perspective, “especially on Easter!”

In the past week I have thought deeply and prayerfully about all these things, trying to hear and understand various perspectives. Here are some closing thoughts.

We are indeed an Open and Affirming Church fifty-two weeks a year. Using legal language, our ONA identity is the equivalent of “settled law.” We won’t retreat from or qualify this covenant we have made.

I am sensitive to the concern of parents who feel like they were thrust into difficult conversations with their children without notice or preparation. I will continue to reflect upon the implications of this perspective for future sermons.

And I realize that we need to do a better job preparing and equipping our members to think and talk about such things. Let’s work together to develop the capacity of our congregation to have these conversations with one another.

And I conclude as I began. Let’s talk! Especially if you recognize yourself as one of the someones in someone-said, let’s talk! One of the reasons I wrote this is to provide some entry points into a conversation with you. Find something in here you agree with, disagree with, or would like to explore more, and let’s talk. Faithfully engaging such important topics in a way that we can all learn and grow together is what it means to be the church.

 

Pastor Pondering: Death and New Life

Published in the March 2016 issue of the First Church, Simsbury newsletter, The Cornerstone.

For those who dare to follow, I invite you into the stream of consciousness that became this Cornerstone reflection:

Oh no, it’s Thursday afternoon and my Cornerstone article is due. What in the world am I going to write about? Think, George, think! What am I hearing from people in the church that suggests a topic? Members are still asking, “What are we going to do?” I wrote about that in the January Cornerstone but there is more to say. I know! I’ll write about a vision and mission for First Church. That’s it! … write-write-write-write-write-write… (three hours and 600 words later) OK, let’s see what I’ve got …blah-blah-blah-blah-blah… Help me Jesus! This is complete garbage! <select all> <delete> Start over. Time’s up, what am I going to do? I need a theme. (while driving home) think, think, think. It’s still Lent. (while eating dinner) think, think, think. Easter is coming. (while watching Bruins game) think, think, think. I know, I’ll Google “Lent and Easter.” Ugh! Just more blah-blah-blah. Really?! My eyes are getting heavy, must sleep. I’ll have to revisit this in the morning. Lourdes is waking me up, “Come on, we need to pack, we need to be on the road by 8:00.” Panic sets in; we’re driving to Baltimore for my Uncle Sunny’s funeral. The Cornerstone article is late! If only I had a poignant Lent and Easter story to share. Uncle Sunny, why did you have to die; this isn’t a good time. I’ll have to write my article in the car. At least I get to see my mom. When I saw her at Christmas she was really beat down by her radiation and chemo treatment, weak and wobbly. Can’t believe the MRI doesn’t show any cancer now. We all thought this was the end, but mom sounds strong and happy. Lent and Easter. Lent and Easter. Come on George, think!

Oh… Duh!

In response to my frantic plea, the chaotic jumble of my mind cleared to reveal the presence of death and new life.

Less than twenty-four hours after hearing about her brother Sunny’s death, my mother received the news that the cancer that had filled the cavity behind her eye, wrapped itself around her optic nerve, and was intruding into her skull, was now undetectable. Both grief and hope are woven into the fabric of creation. This is the message of Lent and Easter. God acts in the world through death and new life, but we often have a hard time recognizing this because death can be so darn scary and sad, and hope can seem irrational. So we compartmentalize (newsletter article), distract ourselves (Bruins game), and refuse to think about death or recognize new life even when it is right in front of us (Sunny and Mom).

These themes don’t just manifest themselves in our family. The Black Lives Matter movement, birthed in response to the violent deaths of young black men, calls forth new life, testifies to hope in the very presence of fear and despair.

Some might say, “Pastor George why did you have to go there? I was touched by the story of your uncle and your mom; did you have to mention Black Lives Matter?” But you see, that’s my point. Lent requires us to confront the places death intrudes unwanted, sometimes violently, into our lives. And Easter demands that we proclaim hope in the very face of death, even and especially when this makes us uncomfortable.

And herein, after all, is the makings of a vision and mission for our good church.

In Christ,

Pastor George

New Moon: Vampires, Werewolves and Resurrection

I’m not sure if this will work or not, but here is the connection I am exploring.  I believe that there are universal yearnings, cosmic questions that work themselves out in our lives.  My perspective here is informed by Joseph Campbell’s work on myth.  The world’s great religious traditions evolved to give expression to these yearnings and questions, but too often become dull and legalistic over time.  When this happens, we look elsewhere for our answers, to psychology, to pop culture, or to literature.

Many of our yearnings and questions emerge out of our powerlessness and accompanying fear.  One question might be, “Can we claim power out of our powerlessness?  Can we leave fear, hurt, and suffering behind to become something new?  Can we find freedom from those things that threaten and enslave us?”   Another question follows from our fear of our ultimate powerlessness, death.  “Do we have to die?  Why can’t we live forever?”

These two questions seem to be given expression in the Twilight series of books and movies by werewolves and vampires.  Werewolves transform into something powerful in response to vulnerability and suffering.  Vampires live forever.

Christ responds to these questions through resurrection.  So, why Christ instead of werewolves and vampires?

Published in: on March 24, 2010 at 3:14 am  Comments (2)  
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