Easter 6(B): The Gift of Friendship

Easter 6(B): The Gift of Friendship

John 15:9-17

By: The Rev. AnnaKate Rawles

In this sixth Sunday of Easter, it seems appropriate to turn our attention to love. After all, Easter is about the love God has for humanity. We throw around the word love a lot: I love coffee, I love my spouse, I love Sunday afternoon naps, I love my best friend, and I love my dog. Love means something different in each of these instances and we ought to take the time to talk about what Jesus means by love this week.

There are several words for love in Greek: phileo, agape, eros, and epithymia. The Gospel writer sometimes uses the words phileo and agape interchangeably. In this passage, agape is used to mean a love that is interested in the good of the other person, rather than one’s own. This love does not try to own or possess anything, and is not limited by time and place. This is the type of love that Jesus says the disciples, and we, should have for one another, and for all people.

Jesus says, “my father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love…  This is my command, that you love one another as I have loved you.” In this Jesus says I have put you above my own self even to the point of death. Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus has alluded to his death and to the disciples being important not only in his life, but in the time to come. In this passage he takes their relationship to the next level. Jesus says, you are my friends and friends love one another, love others, and lay down their lives for one another. We read this passage every three years, and often we use it in other sermons, and I think we forget just how shocking it is for Christ, God incarnate, to call us friends. And nearly as profound, Jesus says, “You did not choose me but I chose you.”

Friendship changes us, makes us into people who are bound together. Aristotle says, “A friend is another self.” Christ offers a level of friendship that is beyond having dinner and playing board games, it is intentional life-altering friendship that changes who we are and how we see the world. Friendship with the Divine is a friendship that is not about attempting to gain favor or about just having good and pleasant feelings being friends. Jesus says the mark of a friend is someone who loves so deeply and truly that they might lay down their life.

In this Easter season, we cannot help but think of chapters that follow this, the chapters that lead to the arrest of Jesus and his crucifixion, his literally laying down his life for the love of others, all of which he willing goes to. The commandment given by Jesus is to love one another as he has loved his friends. It is clear that we are called to lay down our lives for others. Laying down our life could mean literally dying that we might save one we love, but might it also mean laying aside our desires, ambitions, and self to be fully present with another person. Perhaps in this age where we are so aware of discriminations of people of color, women, and LGBTQ+ persons we might acknowledge the privileges we each have and lay that privilege aside, or even better, use that privilege to come alongside our brothers and sisters in their struggles. We have a lot to lose, but so much more to gain when we all are living into the fullness of love that God first showed us.

Perhaps this week’s sermon can be used to remind our congregations that we are not only called to love one another as Christ loved us, but also that if we say love Jesus we must do works of love as a tangible sign of our discipleship, a sign of our friendship. We have a world that desperately needs people who stand alongside the outcast, the other, and who stand against those who stand for injustice and hatred. The mark of a faithful, loving community of God is one that looks like Christ, and that lays aside, or uses its privilege in acts of love.

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The Rev. AnnaKate Rawles

The Rev. AnnaKate Rawles is a Methodist Minister in New Orleans, Louisiana. She attended Converse College, a liberal arts women’s college, where she earned her Bachelor of Arts in English and Religion. Following college, AnnaKate attended Emory University’s Candler School of Theology where she earned her Master of Divinity. She also attended Cambridge University where she wrote her thesis on John Wesley and the Holy Club. She is currently a Doctor of Ministry candidate at Candler School of Theology. She enjoys traveling, volunteering at the Audubon Zoo as an educator and advocate for animal conservation, and eating tacos.

Easter 5(B): Being Cut Off

Easter 5(B): Being Cut Off

John 15:1-8

By: The Rev. Patrick Faulhaber

Can I be honest here? I have really mixed feelings about this text. On the one hand, I value this text that reminds me that I am a part of something larger than myself, and I value this text as a sacred reminder that the fruitfulness of my life does not come from my own work, but instead comes from Christ dwelling within me. On the other, I grieve Jesus’ words that a branch that is withering will be cut off from the vine and thrown into fire. That is really hard to hear.

In my own life I have gone through some significant periods of doubt and mistrust of God. I have seen friends die tragic and sudden deaths way too early. I have witnessed depression and anxiety that has quieted and dulled some of the most vividly alive spirits that I have known. I have watched addiction pull families apart. And to think that this doubt, pain, or withering would bring God’s holy pruning shears breaks my heart. In fact, it seems to go against the scope of God’s grace, which may point to a greater truth that Christ is naming for his disciples.

These two significant overlapping feelings of abiding trust in the sustaining vine of God, and fear that I could be cut off at my most vulnerable moments are so overwhelming to me that I’m not even really sure how to react. This tension is almost enough to limit my relationship with God. With this tension, I’m not sure I will be allowed to stay on the vine or not. I can be pretty dry sometimes. I have doubts, I have persistent questions, I have days where I am confused, and I have days where I am just not interested. If that means I would be cut off, I’m just not sure I want to show those parts of myself.

The truth is that those feelings, questions, and experiences of doubt and uncertainty already make us feel pruned back, raw, and vulnerable. And maybe that is the point Jesus is making. Maybe Jesus isn’t warning the disciples that God will remove them from the vine if they make a mistake, or doubt, or have periods of fruitlessness. It may be the case that my initial reading of the scripture as judgmental and exclusive missed some significant details that provide hope and healing. Maybe God is naming a truth that the disciples will learn in just a few short days.

These verses of scripture are a part of the last conversation that Jesus has with his disciples before he is arrested, put on trial, beaten, and crucified. They are lingering at the door after the last supper. Jesus has already washed everyone’s feet (John 13:1-20), Judas has already left to sell Jesus out to the leaders of the day (John 13:27-30), and Jesus has even said, “Get up, we’re leaving this place.”(John 14:31b) I wonder if Jesus is trying to help his disciples prepare for their grief.

Jesus knows that the disciples will abandon him, according to Matthew’s Gospel he’s even told them that they will (Matt. 26:31). Jesus knows that Peter will deny Jesus three times, he’s even told him that he will (John 13:38). Jesus knows that he will die and then come back, he’s even told the disciples that he will (John 10:17-18; 12:20-36). But hearing these things is much more palatable than actually having to live through them.

If there were ever a withered vine to be pruned, it would be Peter. He denies Jesus (John 18:15-27), he walks away from ministry to return to his fishing boat (John 21:3), and yet, it is his redemptive conversation with Jesus after the resurrection that John’s gospel focuses on (John 21:15-19). Peter isn’t cut off in his moments of denial. The disciples aren’t cut off in their moments of grief. Thomas isn’t cut off in his moments of doubt. It is in those moments that Jesus shows up most vividly.

Jesus doesn’t pull nourishment away from a fruitless vine. Jesus doesn’t withhold life from a dead branch. Jesus speaks life into death. The message of the Gospel has nothing to do with having to be fruitful, perfect, or righteous. The message of the Gospel has nothing to do with God’s judgmental pruning shears. The message of the Gospel is that Jesus has conquered death. A branch attached to the vine cannot die. Any of us who struggles with life and faith is in good company of everyone else who has ever lived. Life is filled with heartache and tragedy as much as it is with joy and hope. But when we try to block that out, or when we try to put a happy face on when we just don’t feel like it, we cut ourselves off. See, I don’t believe God prunes us off of the vine, but I do worry that we cut ourselves off every time we try to pretend everything is okay when it isn’t.

As we continue our celebration of Easter this Sunday, I wonder what would happen if we opened our hearts and minds to a God who meets us in our grief. Like the disciples before us, we live in a complicated world that can be simultaneously inspiring and terrifying—sometimes in the same moment. What would happen if we could dwell in the presence of our God even through that tension? What if we brought our dry and weary bones to Christ’s presence seeking nourishment and resurrection? I imagine we might find that God finds a way to bring new life even to the most wounded and disconnected parts of ourselves.

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The Rev. Patrick Faulhaber (with his wife, Susannah Bales)

The Rev. Patrick Faulhaber currently serves as the pastor to North Decatur United Methodist Church in Decatur Georgia, and as an associate to the Greater Decatur Cooperative Parrish. He and his wife Susannah Bales live with their dogs in Decatur, where they enjoy the wonderful food, fabulous walking trails, and creative spirit of the community.

Easter 4(B): What About the Mediocre Shepherd?

Easter 4(B): What About the Mediocre Shepherd?

John 10:11-18

By: The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

When I was in seminary, course assignments often asked students to imagine that they are serving a parish that is dealing with some issue—the need for a new Sunday school curriculum, the need for a policy of some sort, or any number of psycho-social conflicts that tend to arise when groups of people spend lots of time together in the same place. Whenever I was charged with completing one of these “what would you do” assignments, I would take my creativity to its logical and snarky conclusion, naming the imaginary church in question the “Church of the Mediocre Shepherd.”

The truth is, John 10:11-18 is so familiar that it’s gotten a little stale. It relies on agricultural imagery that is second-hand knowledge at best for most of us, so we insert idyllic and pastoral notions of fluffy white sheep gleefully following a dutiful and attentive shepherd. From there, it’s easy to see how the text becomes a simple allegory about Jesus’ sacrificial love on one side of the equation and the threats of wolves and fickle-minded farm hands on the other.

All of that is to say nothing of the tendency of preachers and parish leaders to cast themselves in the role of “Good Shepherd” tending the flock of Christ. But as Gerard Sloyan reminds us, “The danger is that shepherds who are doing the preaching will identify themselves with the “noble shepherd” at all points. It is good, even essential, to make Jesus’ cause one’s own, but making one’s cause that of Jesus is a risky business.”[1]

Perhaps a better homiletical move is to consider what might be underneath the text. We know of the dangers of wolves and derelict farm hands, but there’s another danger lurking just under the surface here. Think about it: If there is such a thing as a “good” shepherd, then it stands to reason that there have to be at least a few “not-so-good” shepherds around, right?

Let me explain what I mean: Jesus claims that a “good shepherd” lays down his life for the sheep. And yet, our political discourse is laden with words like “weak” and “small” and “lame” as adjectives for anyone who is not a macho, gun-toting, threatening figure. (Fragile masculinity, anyone?) We all know stories of heroes and heroines laying down their lives for someone helpless in harm’s way. Firefighters, first responders, police officers, and other folks who sacrifice themselves for others in this manner are rightly and justly celebrated.

But what about laying down one’s life for a sheep who has gone out of their way to get themselves into trouble? Sure, we’ll risk it all on a damsel in distress, but what about a sheep who has knowingly and willfully distanced herself or himself from the flock over and over and over again, refusing to help her or himself? Self-sacrifice for the sake of self-sacrifice isn’t exactly a good résumé builder.

And what about these other sheep that don’t belong to this fold? The “good shepherd” is going to get a reputation as a poacher if he’s not careful! Even in ecclesial circles, crossing into another shepherd’s pasture to minister to her or his flock is tricky! Better that there are many mediocre and not-so-good shepherds in the name of peace and “free association” than one “good shepherd” who is impervious to concerns about letters of transfer and membership status and ecclesiastical reports.

The threats facing the flock aren’t as easily-identifiable as wolves, or even inexperienced farm hands. It should come as no surprise that the cult of Nationalism is alive and well. “My shepherd is the strongest, the most well-armed, and the most able to protect me from danger. Everyone is afraid of my shepherd!” Maybe so, but will your big strong shepherd who’s armed to the teeth selflessly lay down his weapons and his very life for yours?

There are hundreds of Christian denominations in the United States alone, each with their own theological, doctrinal, geographical, and cultural eccentricities. How much are our mediocre shepherds really working to build ties that bind us together? I mean really? Psalm 85 speaks of righteousness and peace meeting and kissing each other. I’d be happy if the local clergy group could meet over pizza and discuss real-world concerns like racism, sexism, and gun violence without it turning into a snowball fight!

My point is this: When it comes right down to it, we who are in ecclesiastical leadership roles have two essential tasks. The first task is to admit that we’re not perfect. Our churches aren’t perfect; our flocks aren’t perfect; the world isn’t perfect. But perfection isn’t the goal. Discipleship is the goal. That leads me to the second task: our job as shepherds—mediocre as we may be—is to point our flocks to the Good Shepherd. Jesus is the Good Shepherd. We are not. We do our best and most important work when we remind the faithful (and ourselves) that the path of discipleship is not about following us mediocre shepherds; it’s about following the Good Shepherd.

[1] Gerard Sloyan, John in “Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching” (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), 130.

 

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The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly was elected the 26th rector of Grace Episcopal Church in May of 2015. A native of Paris, Kentucky, Marshall earned a BA in American Studies at Transylvania University, and a Master of Divinity and Certificate in Anglican Studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, where he is currently completing doctoral work in Biblical interpretation. Marshall is also the editor of ModernMetanoia.org. Most important and life-giving of all, he is Elizabeth’s husband.

 

 

 

 

 

Easter 3(B): Experiencing Jesus

Easter 3(B): Experiencing Jesus

Luke 24:36-48

Rev. Kevin W. Cravens-Koch

In the days following Jesus’ crucifixion, it seems as though the disciples are a little on edge. I imagine that they were experiencing some PTSD of sorts having just seen one of their closest friends and leaders meet such a brutal death right in front of their eyes. I imagine they were experiencing some grief as well. Sure, Jesus had prepared them for the work that they were to do following his death, but like any group of folks who has experienced the death of a leader, I imagine that they were in a sort of wilderness phase themselves. They were likely attempting to understand for themselves just how they fit into this whole teaching and preaching thing and working to garner up the confidence to do the work for which Jesus had prepared them.

And just then, like magic—BAM!—Jesus appears to them. Well…not exactly like magic. Jesus had already appeared to at least some of them on the road to Emmaus, but he felt it necessary to reappear. It becomes obvious in the verses that follow that Jesus did not need to do this for himself, as Jesus is already pretty confident in who he is. Rather, it was important for Jesus to reappear to the disciples, as it seems that no amount of reassurance on their part would have been too much. So much for faith, right? These were the people who had travelled with Jesus, had heard his teaching and preaching, and still could not seem to wrap their head around the fact that it could actually be him? What kind of disciples were they?

They were human. Jesus’ reappearance defied all conventions of humanity and mortality as they knew it, and as we still know it today.  They had watched him be crucified. They had witnessed his death. And in this moment, Jesus was not just reappearing to them as a ghost, but as a person in the flesh. He showed them his body, complete with the holes from the crucifixion that they had all seen with their own eyes. The fear, confusion, and doubt that overcame them was comprehensible by all human understanding.

And Jesus sat with them in that space. He let them experience their doubt, their confusion, and their fear. They were never chastised for being afraid; he never rebuked them. Neither, though, does he let them remain controlled by that fear. His role in reappearing to them seems far greater though, than just an appearance.

After he entertains their questions and their doubts, Jesus does what Jesus seems to do best—he breaks bread with them. Not just breaks it—blesses, breaks, and shares it with them. There seems to be some metaphorical significance to his doing this, as is often the case. It seems that this is also the structure of their visit together. Jesus reappears, blesses the disciples, and then breaks them open to this transformative experience of witnessing the resurrected Christ, before sending the disciples on their way to proclaim the good news and to offer this experience to others.

He seems to be readying them for the journey ahead. Sure, he had done all the teaching he needed to do in order to prepare them for their ministry, but there was one important thing missing from that toolkit—and that was the experience of the risen Christ. The experience that transcends any understanding that one may encounter from simple teaching and preaching and invites one into a new relationship. They knew who Jesus was, but it wasn’t until they were able to experience him that they were truly transformed.

I wonder how this translates to our present context in our local churches. We spend all this time preparing our folks to spread the good news, but I wonder how often we are missing the opportunity to experience the risen Christ. We have faith formation and Christian education classes, certainly. They have the opportunities to learn, understand, and interact with the stories of our faith; but how often are we inviting them into that next level relationship? Certainly that experience is not just through baptismal classes, Sunday schools, and Bible studies. What are the opportunities that we have as a church/as ministers to transform others?

When I was in college, I was serving a church as their youth intern. It was a small church with a youth group that consisted of about 10 kids, mostly siblings or cousins. One Sunday, I came in and one of the youth said, “You all—something crazy happened to me this week at school.” We all looked at her just waiting for the “crazy” moment, as she had described it when she finally said, “I was in the cafeteria one day, and this boy came up to me. He said, ‘Stephanie, what is it like to know the love of Jesus?’” she continued, “I was kind of confused. I just stared at him, and then finally asked, ‘What do you mean?’” She explained that she never really talked about her faith much at school, that it was kind of something between her and God, but in that moment, he said to her, “You just…I mean—it’s just obvious by the way that you conduct yourself that you know what it’s like to experience God’s love. And I want to know that feeling too.”

It was obvious that, through her relationship and her experience with Jesus, that she had been transformed. We all have that opportunity to be transformed. Pay attention to the ways in which that experience presents itself to you.

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The Rev. Kevin W. Cravens-Koch

The Rev. Kevin W. Cravens-Koch is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and lives in Springfield, Missouri with his husband, Ryan, and their three dogs, Bailey, Rey and Lexi. He was born and raised in Northern Kentucky where he lived until he moved to Lexington to attend Transylvania University, earning his BA in Religion. He received his MDiv from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He is a lover of Chipotle, bowties, and dogs.

Easter 2(B): Doubting Thomas…Or Not!

***EDITOR’S NOTE: Due to an emergency with the scheduled author, we are re-posting the featured essay from 2016.***

Easter 2(B): Doubting Thomas…Or Not!

John 20:19-31

By: The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

Doubting Thomas: a tale of skepticism, suspicion, and contempt—or at least that’s what we’re supposed to believe. In reality, we’ve gotten far more mileage out of the label “doubting Thomas” than we have from the meaning of the story itself. And yet, every year on the Second Sunday of Easter, we hear this story. In fact, this is one of the few passages in the three-year cycle of the Revised Common Lectionary that never changes. Every year, we journey through Lent and Holy Week, arriving at Easter Sunday with an interchangeable combination of Matthew, Mark, and Luke as our guides with John occasionally appearing along the way. But on this and every Second Sunday of Easter, we always hear from the twentieth chapter of John’s Gospel.

There is much fertile ground for preaching and teaching this text by following the trope of doubt—both in the text and in our lives. On closer reading, it becomes clear that Thomas’s doubt is not the exception, but the rule. Much the same is true in our own lives of faith. We all have moments—some longer than others—of doubt. It is important to note that Jesus never condemns or rebukes Thomas for his doubt and indeed, lovingly reminds both Thomas and us, “Do not doubt, but believe (John 20:27).” Preachers and teachers who follow this exegetical path will also find several good commentaries and other resources, such as the Feasting on the Word commentary series, or through several of the helpful resources provided weekly by TextWeek.com (oh, and an unsolicited plug: if you don’t know about the wonderful weekly preaching and teaching resources provided by The Text This Week, do yourself a favor and check them out!)

For my part, however, I find flowing from this passage a different but no less pervasive aspect of human identity being brought to bear: blame.

Although there are no overt mentions of the disciples blaming Thomas for failing to believe, this passage has been preached and taught as an exercise in blaming the “other” in innumerable ways. As early as the late 4th and early 5th centuries CE, St. John Chrysostom wrote that Thomas “is held to blame” for his unbelief at the Apostles’ assertion that they had seen the Risen Lord.[1] Artwork dating to the early 6th century also portrays Thomas as an obstinate, incorrigible doubter. The famous “Incredulity of Saint Thomas” is a fixture among the mosaics at the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy.

The Patristic authors and classical artists aren’t alone in their contempt for Thomas. History is teeming with scores of (often bloody) examples of Christians rushing to position ourselves for Jesus and against anyone or anything we decide is against Jesus. And in Thomas’s case, doubting Jesus is just close enough to being against Jesus to wind up with a less-than-glamorous remembrance.

We know this “us versus them” dynamic all-too-well. If we can assign blame to the “other” political party or the “other” religious sect or the “other” ideology, then we can create for ourselves a cozy (albeit false) blanket of security, thinking ourselves immune from whatever interpersonal or religious or societal ills we’ve hocked at our enemies.

The Buddhist mystic and author Pema Chödrön writes eloquently and provocatively about our need to blame others in her book, When Things Fall Apart:

We habitually erect a barrier called blame that keeps us from communicating genuinely with others, and we fortify it with our concepts of who’s right and who’s wrong. We do that with the people who are closest to us and we do it with political systems, with all kinds of things that we don’t like about our associates or our society. It is a very common, ancient, well-perfected device for trying to feel better. Blame others… Blaming is a way to protect your heart, trying to protect what is soft and open and tender in yourself. Rather than own that pain, we scramble to find some comfortable ground.[2]

Was Thomas the only person to doubt Jesus’ resurrection? Of course not. In fact, everyone doubted it! Was Thomas lacking in moral fortitude? Hardly. After all, Thomas’s affirmation of the Resurrected Christ as “My Lord and my God” is perhaps the most powerful statement of faith among any of the disciples. No, Thomas is our scapegoat; he’s our “fall guy.” And like it or not, we’ve all met him, and some of us know him well.

Thomas is the embodiment of the “other” that we blame for the problems facing our religions and our societies. Thomas is the one we saddle with blame so we can protect our hearts from vulnerability, from pain, and perhaps even from the parts of ourselves we’ve spent our lives trying to ignore and outrun.

The 19th century Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard said that our fears, our anxieties, and our insecurities lay the groundwork for sin because it is from these things that we are led to absolutize our values, identifying ourselves as “right” and everyone and everything else as “wrong,” in an attempt to satiate those very same fears,  anxieties, and insecurities.[3]

Perhaps, then, it is fitting after all that we hear this very same tale of Thomas every year on the Second Sunday of Easter—fitting because maybe we need Thomas to convict us of more than our doubts. Perhaps we also need Thomas to bear witness to all that is “other” in our world, blamed for an ever-expanding litany of sins, but in the end summoning the faith and the courage to proclaim, “My Lord and my God!”

 

[1] John Chrysostom, “Homily 87 on the Gospel of John.”

[2] Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart (Boulder: Shambhala Publications, 2000), 100.

[3] Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety: A Simple Psychologically Orienting Deliberation on the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary Sin, 1844. Trans. Walter Lowrie, 1944.

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The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly was elected the 26th rector of Grace Episcopal Church in May of 2015. A native of Paris, Kentucky, Marshall earned a BA in American Studies at Transylvania University, and a Master of Divinity and Certificate in Anglican Studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, where he is currently completing doctoral work in Biblical interpretation. Marshall is also the editor of ModernMetanoia.org. Most important and life-giving of all, he is Elizabeth’s husband.

Easter Vigil: It’s All a Joke!

Easter Vigil: It’s All a Joke!

Mark 16:1-8

By: Kristen Leigh Southworth

There’s a Korean joke that asks, “What noise does a toaster make?” The answer is the Korean word for bread. Hilarious, right? How about this one from Japan: “There is a mandarin orange on an aluminum can.” ROFL? No?

Humor doesn’t translate very well across languages and cultures. Comedy is grounded in breaking expectations, so in order to even pick up on the fact that something funny is happening, you have to have a pretty good handle on the cultural assumptions and linguistic norms of a given context. You need to know what is expected in order to recognize when something unexpected has occurred.

Many people, Christians especially, are surprised to learn that the Bible—and Gospels in particular—are actually filled with humor, wit, irony, satire, and even jokes. I had a professor in seminary who said that most of Jesus’ parables would have been hilarious to their ancient hearers, but since we have lost so much of the context, most of the time, we just don’t get it.

Christians in general also have a tendency to take the Bible very seriously…. perhaps a little too seriously. Whether we are part of sola Scriptura traditions that interpret the Bible literally, or liturgical traditions that parade heavily-ornamented Gospel books around during worship, most Christians tend to approach the Bible with an attitude of solemnity, and an expectation for rational, moral instruction. There is nothing wrong with a little reverence, but when we approach Scripture with these kinds of expectations, we potentially miss out on important layers of meaning in the text that are communicated through its creativity and its sense of humor.

Mark’s resurrection story is probably my favorite example of this. Perhaps no story in the Bible is approached by Christians with more seriousness than Jesus’ resurrection, since our entire faith hinges on it. People have been arguing for two millennia about whether to take this story seriously or not. Mark’s version of the story is the earliest, with many scholars dating the text to about 40 years after the events it describes, so one might expect it to be taken the most seriously out of all the Gospel accounts.

But many people have come to think of Mark’s resurrection story as something like a “first draft” –it provides basic information, but it seems to end rather abruptly, with nobody having seen the resurrected Jesus and nobody spreading the good news. The last verse in our excerpt today is the original ending of Mark; verses 8b and 9-20 are not in the original manuscripts, and they are understood to have been added much later since neither Origen nor Clement of Alexandria seem to have any knowledge of them.

Most Christians deal with this seemingly incoherent conclusion by either ignoring Mark’s account entirely or by drawing from Matthew, Luke, and John to fill in the rest of the details. However, I think that Mark’s version of the resurrection is the most compelling by far, and that we must take it on its own terms, and in its original format. Besides, otherwise we miss the joke.

In the very first chapter of Mark, we read about Jesus healing a leper. Afterwards, he sternly warns the man, saying, “See that you say nothing to anyone.” But the man goes out and begins to proclaim it freely (Mark 1:40-45.) A few chapters later, Jesus raises the daughter of a synagogue leader from the dead, but strictly orders them that no one should know about it (Mark 5:43.) Nevertheless, the news of Jesus and his healing powers spreads, and a couple of chapters later, the crowd brings him a man who is deaf and mute. Jesus pulls him away from the crowd to heal him, and then tells everyone gathered not to say anything about it. But the text says that “the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it” (Mark 7:36.)

At the end of the book, the women go to the tomb after Jesus’ death to offer him a proper burial, only to find an empty tomb, and a man sitting there dressed in white. He instructs them to go and tell everyone what they have seen: that Jesus has been raised from the dead.

So what do they do? They run away and say nothing to anyone.

Get it? They finally listened to Jesus! I think it’s hilarious.

Especially when you consider the fact that the Gospel of Mark was written during a time when the first generation of disciples and eyewitnesses to the mission of Jesus had recently died or been killed, it is all the more remarkable that the text does not depict them in a more honorable light, as the mighty heroes of the one, true, pure faith. Instead, they are shown to be a bumbling group of fearful and incompetent witnesses, who always did the exact opposite of what Jesus told them to do, all the way up until the very end when they were finally supposed to do the opposite, at which point they turn around and finally follow the original instruction.

The depiction of Jesus’ original followers is indeed very funny, but its function is not merely comedic. Through this humor we are offered a resurrection story that demands our presence and participation. The Gospel of Mark is not about recounting the facts of something that happened in a distant time and place. And it’s not about glorifying people from the past, or comparing our experiences to theirs. Later accounts of the resurrection would fill in some of the post-resurrection details with stories of how it happened to Mary, and Peter, and John, and Thomas. Those stories seem to offer us a more satisfying conclusion by giving us something clear that we can hang our hats on. But they also maintain a kind of distance between ourselves and the resurrection reality. Those other people from the past, they had these miraculous encounters with Jesus after his death, and that’s what this is all about.

The Gospel of Mark does not give us the option of making Jesus’ story into a story about the past, or the story of other people. Its ending requires us to show up and fill in the rest ourselves. Like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, it leaves it up to the reader what will happen next. Will the women eventually go and tell the rest of the disciples about what they have seen and heard? Will the disciples listen and go to Galilee? Will they see Jesus there? Will you? If you want to know the end of the story, you have to live it yourself.

Mark’s original resurrection story is not simply a first draft. It is a literary masterpiece that calls forth new generations of Christians continually to take up their crosses and resume the mission of Jesus. The foibles and failures of the previous generation of disciples become our call to action. Instead of simply being asked to simply respect the heroes of the past, we are invited to take their place, to succeed where they failed, to pick up their slack, to seek the resurrected Jesus in our own lives in new and unexpected ways and to proclaim the good news of his resurrection based on our own experiences, not simply by reporting the vicarious witness of others.

Mark’s story leads us to the threshold of faith and then leaves us to stand there, asking ourselves whether we will cross. Will a new generation of disciples go and tell what they have seen and heard? Will they open themselves to encountering the resurrected Jesus? Will you?

 

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Kristen Leigh Southworth

Kristen Leigh Southworth is a freelance writer, theologian, and indie folk singer-songwriter with a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where she studied cultural theology, Biblical interpretation, theological aesthetics, and ecumenical worship. She is currently living in Asheboro, North Carolina, where she works as a freelance writer, musician, and teacher.

 

Easter Day (B): What Should You Preach?

Easter Day (B): What Should You Preach?

John 20:1-18

By: The Rev. Anna Tew

Here you are again (or again for the first time), trying to write an Easter sermon. If you’re a parish preacher and you’re like most new preachers, this task doesn’t seem easy. This is, after all, one of two times per year that you’ll see some of your parishioners: the fabled “Christmas and Easter” crowd. It makes sense, then, that preachers would be tempted to throw everything into this sermon, telling a story so compelling that at least one of the “Christmas and Easter” crowd will become a regular.

Every year, preachers make Easter their Super Bowl, trying to find some new take on Easter that will compel and wow the congregation. And every year, preachers fail at this task for one reason: the resurrection story was already compelling enough. People are not coming to church to hear your take on the Easter story.

            People come to church to hear the Easter story.

They come to smell the flowers and to shout, “Christ is risen indeed!” and to see everyone they haven’t seen since Christmas. And that’s okay. Because, you see, the tomb was empty before anyone else arrives. In John, there is no angel to announce that Christ is risen. The tomb is simply empty, and that is all God’s doing.[1]The tomb was empty before Mary arrived, and preacher, that is true for you, too.

Before the Easter flowers arrive, before the paraments are changed to white, before you write your sermon and put on your vestments, and before the people arrive at the church on Sunday morning, Christ is risen indeed.

So what should you preach?

The story of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Nothing more, and nothing less.

You don’t even really need that much setup. Regardless of how often they come to church, the people that you will see from the pulpit do not need convincing that death is an impossible and draining reality. You will look from the pulpit into faces of those who have just lost their spouse to cancer last year, those who lost a friend in a car crash last week, those so overcome with depression that they only made it to church on Easter because they knew they’d hate themselves if they didn’t. You will look from the pulpit into the eyes of adults whose marriages are crumbling, children just coming to terms with the reality of the death of a grandparent, and the young adult who’s are hiding her addiction all too well. You’ll see the transgender teen who’s wondering if their parents will ever accept them as they are, and you’ll see the preteen who dreads going to school tomorrow because the other kids are so cruel to him.

Those people do not need to hear your groundbreaking fresh take on Easter; they simply need to hear that Christ is risen. In the words of Harvey Milk, “You gotta give ‘em hope.”

So here’s your chance, Preacher. Take a breath and get ready to tell them the story.

Tell them the story of a radical rabbi born to a poor carpenter and his fiancé who grew up in an occupied land. Tell them about how he grew up to tell everyone that God is loose in the world. Tell them about how he caused such a ruckus that his loved ones begged him to lay low for awhile, but he wouldn’t, because he had a mission. Tell them about how the powers that be captured him and mocked him, beat him, and killed him while the people looked on or even joined in. Tell them about how he was buried in a cold tomb hewn out of the rock, sealed there presumably forever, like every human who had died before him. And then tell them how Mary found that tomb empty three days later.

            Preacher, just tell the story they came to hear.

The story they need to hear.

            Tell the story you need to hear.

Because it’s also true that you have tombs of your own. If you’re preaching on the first Sunday of Easter, chances are good that you’re in parish ministry. You’re tasked with so much with so little support. You’re responsible for reports to the local denominational body and preparing for Bible study and pouring a ton of effort into sermons that a very limited number of people are likely to either read or hear. You’re answering emails with silly questions and consoling people who are upset over the color of the carpet and maybe even wondering if this whole church thing is worth it anymore. There are moments of hope and joy and there are wonderful people, yes. But there’s a lot of loneliness, too.

The church can indeed be a lonely place, especially if you’re the pastor and you’re the only person your age in your parish, as is the case with many millennial pastors.

It’s been pointed out many times before that Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus at first. She comes to the tomb, overcome with death’s effects, overcome with grief, weighed down. And the risen Jesus calls her name.

Because the Good News is that God is still loose in the world. Through the closing churches and the angry emails and the frustrations and the loneliness, God is still loose, undeterred by the Church’s failures, even the failures that are our own.

            Through it all, God still finds a way to get to us. Not even death could stop God.

So let go of trying to find a new take on Easter. Instead, consider preaching that Jesus is loose: in wine and bread, in water and words, in human bodies and broken souls. Jesus is loose and that matters, regardless of — well, anything else.

Preacher, Jesus was risen long before you arrived on the scene. Your job is simply to give ‘em hope — so just tell the story. Tell them that

            “Death took a body, and discovered God.

            Death took earth, and encountered Heaven.
            Death took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see….

            Christ is Risen, and death is defeated!

            Christ is Risen, and demons are cast down!

            Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!

            Christ is Risen, and life is loose!”[2]

            Jesus is loose. God is loose. Love is loose in the world, coursing through your church sanctuary and every seemingly forsaken corner of the world and our own hearts.

That is all they need to hear. And just maybe, it’s all you need to hear, too.

Go get ‘em, Preacher.

 

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The Rev. Anna Tew

The Rev. Anna Tew is a 30-something Lutheran pastor serving Our Savior’s Lutheran Church (ELCA) in South Hadley, Massachusetts. A product of several places, she was born in rural Alabama, considers Atlanta home, and lives in and adores New England. In her spare time, Anna enjoys climbing the nearby mountains, traveling, exploring cities and nightlife, and keeping up with politics and pop culture.

 

 

 

[1] Gail R. O’Day, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, p. 377.

[2] John Crysostom, Easter Homily, (paraphrase)