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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Still Rising

 This is the sermon I preached on, April 23, 2017, the Sunday after Easter, at First Church Simsbury. I revisit the story of “Doubting” Thomas. Someone said that this sermon deepened their understanding of the Easter sermon Rev. Kev and I preached together last week. You might read them together.

John 20:19-31

I confess I groaned when I first saw that this Sunday’s reading was the one from the gospel of John about the disciple popularly known as Doubting Thomas. I groaned, in part, because I have preached so many times on this passage that I doubted, no pun intended, whether I had anything new to say. But also, because I have come to feel that Thomas has gotten a bum rap as a doubter, and I grow weary of having to come to his defense every year.

But the more Thomas and I spent time together this week, the more I felt compelled to again enter into his story together. So, here we go.

Let’s rewind to Easter morning. Peter and another disciple, the one who Jesus loved, see the empty tomb but have not yet laid eyes on Jesus. Mary then sees, touches, and speaks to Jesus outside the tomb and, we are told, tells the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”

That’s where this morning’s story picks up. It is now evening of that same day, and we find the disciples locked in a room, afraid of those who crucified Jesus. If these are the same disciples Mary reported to, they haven’t believed that Jesus has risen from the dead. They have not had a personal encounter with Jesus following the resurrection. Until now.

Jesus appears to these disciples and shows them the nail marks in his hands and the wound from the soldier’s spear in his side. This confirms for them that this is in fact Jesus.

He then breathes on them, further confirming that Jesus is alive. This breath of the Holy Spirit empowers and equips these disciples to go forth into the world to forgive sins, to share the life changing grace of God.

We now encounter Thomas. He was not with the other disciples in the locked room who saw Jesus with their own eyes. As Mary first told them, they now tell Thomas, “We have seen the Lord!” But Thomas says, in effect, I need to have the same experience that you have had; I need to see the marks in his hands and the wound in his side just as you did. Then I will believe too.

Indeed, a week later, Jesus again appears to the disciples. This time Thomas is with them and Jesus invites him, not just to see, but to touch his wounds, saying “Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas touches, experiences for himself, and affirms Jesus’ divine authority, saying “My Lord and my God!” Note that there is no record that the other disciples make such a proclamation of faith following their encounter with Jesus. Even Mary does not make such a bold affirmation.

Jesus then says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen, yet come to believe.” History has understood this as a rebuke of Thomas as a doubter, but I think this is where he gets a bum rap. Jesus doesn’t condemn Thomas for his doubt. He goes out of his way to provide Thomas with an experience of the power of God, so that Thomas might carry that message to others. Rather than criticizing Thomas, Jesus’ words are a blessing upon those who follow Thomas, who come to believe without having personally experienced the power of God to bring forth new life from death.

So, that’s the rescue mission I feel obligated to launch on behalf of Thomas every year at this time.

And here are some of my new observations upon this text so framed.

In two separate sermons in the past month I have shared the view of Bible scholar Karoline Lewis that resurrection is not so much something to be believed, but something to be experienced. Mary, the disciples in the locked room, and Thomas all had first-hand experiences of resurrection. Their belief followed from their experience.

But there is more than that to these stories. Mary has an experience of the resurrected Jesus, believes and tells the disciples. The disciples have their own experience, believe and tell Thomas. Thomas has his own experience and believes.

An experience of resurrection can be communicated in such a way that others may then experience it for themselves. Resurrection is reproducible.

This ability to communicate and reproduce an experience are cornerstones of the scientific method.

We live in a time where that which is directly observable and reproducible, in fact science itself, is under attack by some. New words have been introduced to the lexicon, fake news and alternative facts. We watch a video that shows a politician saying something, then the politician says “I never said that.” A picture captures an event as it unfolds, and someone insists that the event never happened. The conclusion of years of scientific research are dismissed based on something someone read on the internet. Yesterday, Earth Day, thousands of people in Washington, D.C. and around the world participated in a March for Science. Frankly, it seems incredible to me that anyone should need to stand up for science.

Now, let me be clear. I am not saying that resurrection can be proved by science. But I am saying that individual experiences of resurrection can be shared and are reproducible. Jesus tells Mary, go tell the disciples what you experienced. Jesus tells the disciples, I empower and equip you to go forth in my name and share the good news of God’s grace and forgiveness.

Those of you who were here last Sunday know that Rev. Kev and I preached that an experience of resurrection is any experience in which we first encounter a dead end in our life, undergo a crushing loss, make a mistake that seems irredeemable, or fall into despair or depression, only to encounter God’s grace, a second chance, new life. This is what I mean when I talk about an experience of resurrection.

I can’t imagine I am alone in saying that I have made mistakes in my life, betrayed and hurt those I love. In those times, I was convinced that this was the end, the end of a relationship, the end of a good life. I saw no way out. But beyond all hope and reason, the stone was rolled away from the tomb, a way was made where there had been no way. This is a resurrection experience, and it is reproducible. It is reproducible, not just by telling others about it, but by becoming, and being, and living resurrection as God’s new creation.

I am Thomas, believing in Jesus after seeing and experiencing resurrection for myself. Jesus says, blessed are those who have not seen but come to believe. Jesus no longer walks the earth to inspire such faith. But we do. We are, therefore, required to do more than tell of our experience, but like Jesus we are called to show our wounds and share our stories of redemption. We become as Christ, wounded and risen, that others might share in an experience of resurrection.

If you are a widow or widower who has been restored to a full and happy life after losing your spouse, then foster redemptive relationships with those who still mourn. Let them see resurrection in you. If you are gay or lesbian and have found joy and wholeness following a childhood of condemnation, then model that freedom for those who still doubt that they are loved by God. If you have betrayed ones you loved but confessed, made amends, and found forgiveness, share this hope with others, not just with your words, but by committing yourself to walk side-by-side with those who are trapped in despair. If you have overcome an abusive childhood to raise happy children who know they are loved, reach out to extend that love beyond your family to other hurting children.

Belief in resurrection follows an experience of resurrection. Mary to the disciples. The disciples to Thomas. Thomas forward into history to us. If you have experienced resurrection, tell it, live it, be it. If you are still waiting to experience resurrection in your life. Believe. New life awaits.

 

Come Out… of the Tomb

This is the sermon that I preached with my partner in ministry, Rev. Kevin Weikel, at First Church Simsbury on Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017. Rev. Kev begins, then I pick it up half way through, and we finish together.

Matthew 28:1-10

Kevin:

First Church Music Director extraordinaire Mark Mercier was joking with Pastor George and I last week about outdated church words, especially the words that are most prevalent this time of year.  For example, last week was Palm Sunday and we shouted, “Hosanna,” but have you ever used that word in your daily life?  “Hosanna” literally means, “God save us.”  I’m sure there have been times you’ve watched the news and thought, “God help us,” but I doubt you’ve ever shouted “Hosanna.”

Today, Easter Sunday, the word is less outdated than complicated.

“Resurrection.”

Like “Hosanna,” It is not a word we use very much outside of these four walls, but even more importantly, what does it even mean?

To fully understand the word resurrection, it might be helpful to think back again, just for a moment, to what happened last week.  Jesus rode that humble donkey into Jerusalem as the people shouted, here’s that word, “Hosanna, God save us!”  That donkey was symbolic we recall.  Leaders going off to war rode horses; leaders coming in peace rode donkeys.  And the people believed that God, through the love and peace that Jesus preached, taught, and embodied, would save them from the corrupt, uncompassionate, and war hungry Roman empire.

In the days after Palm Sunday, in the week we just experienced we call Holy Week, the hope the people felt as they waved those palm branches on Palm Sunday turned to hopelessness rather quickly.  Fear and sadness took over as, after Jesus had ruffled the feathers of the Roman Empire so that they could take no more, he was taken away, tried, and led to the cross to die.

As we saw on the faces of the actors and actresses in our skits who played the role of the women who came to the tomb to pay their respects to Jesus, they were experience deep grief.  Their Jesus, in whom they had placed so much hope, had died.  He was gone, and so were his message and his movement.

As we also witnessed, however, these women were shocked when they arrived at the tomb to find the stone that had covered the opening of the tomb had been rolled away and Jesus was not there.  He had come out.  He was resurrected.  And we too experience resurrection every time we come out of a dark place in our lives to renewed life, to find that God has made a way where previously there seemed to be no way.

When have you come out of a tomb, out of a dark place and into the light, and experienced resurrection?  When you finally felt you had your strength back after a serious injury?  When you found that one person who seems to completely understand the grief you’ve been experiencing?  After you admitted you made a mistake, and apologized for it?  When you shared with a cherished friend or family member that you are gay, and they affirmed you?  When you got up the courage to go to a soup kitchen and returned with a heart so big you thought it might burst?

Yvonne Josephson is a nurse at High Point Regional Hospital in High Point, North Carolina.  Yvonne and her husband got married, and like all newly married couples, believed they were going to share many wonderful years together.  Soon after Yvonne and her husband were married, however, he got sick with a chronic illness and, even though they both loved kids, they felt they had to make the hard decision not to have children.  And then one day her husband died suddenly.

Yvonne was obviously devastated.  She felt lonely and hopeless.  She was in a dark place, a tomb you could call it.

But then one day Eppi, a Sudanese refugee who was a student at the University of North Carolina, stopped by the hospital where Yvonne was working because Eppi needed some guidance on the senior paper she was doing on strokes.  Yvonne volunteered to help.

As Yvonne and Eppi spent time together, they became fast friends.  Yvonne became somewhat of a mentor to Eppi and told her that if she ever needed anything to give her a call.

The following Monday Yvonne got a call from child protective services, Eppi needed a home.  Initially it was going to be a temporary situation but that’s not the way it worked out.

Over time, Eppi started calling Yvonne her American Mom, and Yvonne started calling Eppi her Godchild, because she believed God had worked things out for her.

Eppi says, “Yvonne needed a daughter, I needed a mom, and we met and connected.  And now I can’t imagine my life without her.  I call her every minute, whenever I run into problems or need someone to talk to.”

Eventually, Eppi met someone, got married, and had a baby.  Through Eppi, Yvonne became a grandmother.  Eppi says, “Yvonne loves the baby so much, whenever she sees her she just takes her and says ‘I miss my baby.’  It has been great for my daughter to have a grandmother because I didn’t have one.”

Eppi says Yvonne is her role model, and she wants to be as good as a mother to her daughter as Yvonne has been to her.  Through Eppi, Yvonne found her way out of the tomb and experienced resurrection, renewed life.

You see, resurrection is happening all around us, all the time.  God is always making a way for us to come out of the tombs of our lives to experience light and love, even sometimes when we thought it was not possible.

George:

I’m going to begin with a rather adult topic, so I am going to try to speak about it simply so children present might follow along.

About thirty-five years ago, before many of you were born, a dangerous new disease appeared in the United States called AIDS. AIDS made people very, very sick, and at first almost everyone who caught AIDS would die from it. In the beginning it only infected a small number of people, but over the next twenty years about half-a-million people would die from AIDS in America. Scientists figured out that people caught AIDS from infected blood and other body fluids. Though anyone can catch AIDS, in these first twenty years it was mostly gay men who caught it, mostly gay men who got sick and died of AIDS.

A gay man is a man who loves other men, who wants to be in a relationship with another man, maybe marry another man. Thirty-five years ago, when AIDS first came to America, many people thought there was something wrong with being gay. There isn’t, but that’s what many people thought. Back then, many gay men kept the fact that they liked other men a secret because they were afraid of being criticized, bullied, or hurt. If a gay man loved another man, they might meet secretly so no one would find out they loved each other.

Not only was this very sad, (if you love someone you would want everyone to know, right?), but keeping secrets also made it harder to help gay men protect themselves from getting AIDS, or get them medical treatment if they caught this disease. Even when a gay man started getting sick he might not tell his family he was gay because he was afraid of being rejected by them.

Keeping a secret about being gay is sometimes called “being in the closet.” Kids, think about hiding in a closet in your house during a game of hide and seek. Some gay men didn’t want anyone to find out they were gay so they hid who they really were “in the closet.”

When a gay man decided to let people know that he loves, and wants to be in relationships with other men, this is called “coming out of the closet,” or just “coming out.”

Even though gay men with AIDS were afraid to “come out” they quickly learned that if they stayed “in the closet” they couldn’t get the medicine that could save their life. Staying “in the closet” led to death; the closet became a tomb. “Coming out” led to a new and better life.

From 1995 – 1998 I led an organization called Pacificare that helped people who were living with AIDS. We trained volunteers to be companions or “buddies” to someone with AIDS. When I worked there I got to know many, many remarkable gay men. I will never forget one man in particular, named Valentine Cosmo.

Valentine was both a client of and volunteer for Pacificare. I remember very clearly the first time I heard him speak at a volunteer training; he introduced himself to a class of prospective “buddies” by saying, “I lived my whole life by a river in Africa called “Da Nile.” Get it? The Nile. Denial. He went on to explain to this group of strangers that he had been in denial about his identity as a gay man. This denial had led to unsafe behavior that brought about his infection with the HIV virus. His pathway to new life began when he came out as gay and started speaking openly about his illness.

Valentine was a beautiful, extraordinary human being. In time he would come to write a regular column called “From the Heart” for the Pacificare newsletter. When I first asked him to share a monthly reflection he refused; he would later confess his fear, “that I didn’t have anything inside myself that anyone would want to read.” But he eventually agreed and penned lovely, personal, poignant reflections about life and love, and in his last column wrote, “I have loved writing for the newsletter more than any fear I had.”

The name Valentine, of course, brings love to mind. But as I prepared this sermon I realized that his last name, Cosmo, evokes the infinite expanse of the universe. Valentine Cosmo, Cosmic Love! When I left Pacificare to respond to a call to ministry at Central Union Church, Valentine presented me with this Teddy Bear that he had made; to me, it represents a love that has been set free from the tomb.

Bible scholar Karoline Lewis writes that resurrection is not so much something to be believed but something to be experienced. By confronting his fear and coming out, out of the closet, out of the tomb, to live and love fully as God created him, Valentine entered into and shared that universal love of God.

I had coffee with our church member, the good Reverend Stoddard Williams, on Thursday, and he told the story of visiting a tomb in Jerusalem called Gordon’s Calvary that is said to be very much like the tomb that Jesus was laid in. Set in a cliff face, one must stoop to enter this small, cold, damp, dark hollow. Todd describes the frightening chill of death that lingered in that place, and the thrill of turning around to see the sunlit garden that awaited just outside the tomb.

George:           So, brothers and sisters, this is Christ’s invitation to each and all of you.

Kevin:             Face your fears.

George:           Then turn around.

Kevin:             Come out.

George:           With Jesus as our guide,

Kevin:             and Yvonne and Valentine as our examples,

George:           come out of those dark places that entomb you

Kevin:             to live and love as God created you,

George:           and enter into that universal love of God.

 

 

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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