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.

 

Maundy Thursday (B): Caretaking as Love

Maundy Thursday (B): Caretaking as Love

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

By: Sarah Harcourt Watts

Four years ago, I gave birth to my first child. After hours of intense labor, I was exhausted and in need of rest and healing more than ever before. Ironically, the finish line of the giving birth marathon was also the starting point of a new marathon. Before I even left the delivery room, I began caring for this squishy and vulnerable little person. As I held her on my chest to keep her warm, caring for her became the most important purpose in my life. I have taken care of her nearly every single day since. Though she constantly becomes more independent, I am back in the trenches of baby care with my new son. It truly is a marathon of feeding, changing diapers, bathing, snuggling, and assuring that both children are tended to every moment of every day.

I have always loved the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet for the way it resonates with what I understand to be the very heart of Christian teaching: that by humbly serving those considered lesser by the world, we can experience God’s love for us. That in Jesus’s love for each of us, especially the poor and oppressed, the whole world is saved. Since becoming a mother, though, I understand this passage in a new light. Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, even knowing that he was about to be betrayed, was not a mere symbol of his love for them. This act of physical care is a literal representation of his love for his disciples. Though I understand the symbolism of feet within this context, I would argue that this act is not about the feet. When I change my son’s diaper, it is impossible to separate the act of caretaking from the love I have for him. The wiping, the words I speak to him, the songs I sing, the eye contact I make, the care I take to ensure the tabs are not attached in a way that scratches his skin—these things are all physical manifestations of my love. Though these years of constant physical care are certainly draining, my husband and children are the very easiest people for me to love. In practicing love for them, I become better equipped to love each person in my life.

In the second part of this passage, Jesus says, “Just as I have loved you, you should love one another.” By washing the feet of his disciples, Jesus demonstrates a love that we can extend to anyone. The way Jesus encourages us to extend love reminds me of the Buddhist principle of lovingkindness. Lovingkindness is the kind of love that actively changes the way you see others, “the heart-felt aspiration for the happiness of beings and is the antidote to hatred and fear.” In the development of lovingkindness, love of even one’s enemies begins with meditation on loving one’s self. Only once you truly love yourself, believing that you are deserving of peace and freedom from suffering, you move to loving someone dear to you. After myself, I might focus on my baby son, who is adorably easy to love. From there, you move to someone who is neutral to you, and eventually on to someone who is difficult for you to love. From your starting point of loving yourself and those close to you, you can picture the ways that this not-so-lovable person is not very different than you or your beloved at all. That person that is hard for me to see eye-to-eye with was once someone’s baby. Someone once changed that person’s diapers, fastening the tabs to make sure they weren’t scratchy.

Though I (thankfully!) don’t physically care for every person I come across, these acts of physical care for those closest to me can nurture a love that I can ultimately feel for any person. Jesus washing his disciples’ feet was not only an act of love for his disciples, but an act of humble love for the whole world. I imagine that Jesus intended this initial physical act of service to symbolize how we are to love the world. Like a stone dropped into a pond, the ripples of water starting small but quickly growing larger to reach all the water, our small acts can help us to love as Jesus loved. Jesus washed the feet of only a few men, but in doing so taught us to love and serve everyone.

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Sarah Harcourt Watts

Sarah Harcourt Watts is the Executive Director of Reading Camp. She is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School. Sarah lives with her husband, Luke, and two children in Lexington, Kentucky. She is a member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

 

 

Good Friday (B): The Arc of God’s Universe

Good Friday (B): The Arc of God’s Universe

John 18:1-19:42

By: The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron

The scripture passage for Good Friday is a narrative so dramatic it leaps off the page. When I read John’s account, I’m transported back to a live Stations of the Cross in Biloxi, Mississippi several years back. As we followed the man playing Jesus in the last moments of his earthly life, being hoisted up onto a cross with a crown of thorns on his head, my emotions were on a roller coaster. In the space of less than two chapters, after all, we have anger, betrayal, disbelief, unimaginable sorrow, fear, shame, impotence, bloodlust, and more. The writer of the gospel certainly has crafted a tour de force designed to bring us into the thick of the action.

Despite the pathos of the story he tells, though, John’s goal here is not necessarily to excite our empathy. Just as he started off his gospel with John the Baptist’s testimony that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, he continues to make his case in Jesus’ last mortal moments. As in the beginning, scriptural fulfilment (18:9, 32; 19:24, 28, 36) and others’ testimony are given priority; it’s as if John insists, “Don’t take my word for it.” And we get no help from Jesus himself, who confirms nothing other than his name and his hometown, pushing his interrogators to decide for themselves just who he is.

I have to admit, this is not my favorite Jesus. The other Gospel crucifixion scenes dwell on Jesus’ humanity; Jesus talks to God, cries out, bleeds, sweats, agonizes. By contrast, John’s Jesus does everything according to scriptural formulae laid out long ago; even his thirst is a pre-ordained fulfillment of prophecy rather than a matter of simple biological need. And though he shows compassion for his disciples and his mother, there is no hint of personal suffering. John’s portrait of Jesus as the cosmic Logos, somewhat distant from the upheavals of everyday life, is consistent even in death; very little humanity clouds the aura of his stoic, enigmatic Messiah.

In a way it can be deeply reassuring that Jesus is untouched by the world’s cruelty; sometimes we need a Savior who is above it all, a classically powerful, unchanging rock to which to cling. But I find more comfort in the very real dilemmas of the other characters portrayed. While Jesus may be the calm at the center, the supporting cast is anything but static. Whose inner turmoil do we identify with? When have we betrayed; when have we faltered; when have we had our hearts broken seemingly beyond repair?

To his credit, John has given us many points of entry into these mini-dramas. There is Judas, as John portrays him a pawn of the devil (13:2) betraying Jesus out of demonic compulsion or perhaps out of his own fear (which may be, in the end, the same thing.) There is Peter, eager to defend Jesus from behind the shield of violence, yet without it unable to admit his association with his teacher. There is the police officer, frustrated at Jesus’ obfuscation. There is Pilate, hemmed in by his own impotence and apparently by divine fiat (19:11), unable or unwilling to risk his authority to do what is right. There is the crowd and the soldiers, acquiescing to a mob mentality they may later regret. There are the Marys, silent but steadfast witnesses to their beloved’s torture. There is the heart-wrenching moment linking Jesus’ mother Mary and the disciple whom he loves, given to each other as a balm against the raw wound of his approaching death. There is Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, both afraid to publicly admit their discipleship while Jesus lived, but clandestinely willing to care for him in death.

John’s commitment to the fulfillment of scriptural destiny means everyone is caught up in machinations they have no power change. Pilate struggles the hardest to turn the tide but ultimately fails; as Jesus tells him, none of this would have happened without having been ordained by a higher authority. This, too, can work to distance us from a God who has long ago ordered that it should be this way; or it can help us feel that we are not alone in being overwhelmed by events beyond our control.

John’s narrative is one of sweeping power and momentum; we, along with Jesus, are driven unswervingly to its end. Evil, grief, and suffering often seem this way—inexorable, insurmountable. Yet John’s dramatic arc extends through resurrection—an event of equally cosmic proportions reminding us that God’s universe is ultimately tuned to goodness, to redemption, to grace—to life.

PS: John is notorious for his use of the broad term “the Jews” to refer to those who clamor for Jesus’ death. (The Synoptics refer to a narrower group defined by their religious authority, not simply their religion.) This has long fueled anti-Jewish attitudes no matter John’s original intent. (Scholarly opinion varies from accusing John of straight up anti-Semitism to catering to an audience that wouldn’t have known who the Sadducees were to calling it a “class designation.”) When reading the Gospel aloud, I encourage you to consider using alternate translations such as “the religious authorities,” “the Jewish leaders,” or even the Jesus Seminar’s preferred term “the Judeans,” i.e. residents of Judea, a province hostile to Jesus’ ministry.

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The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron

The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron is the pastor at Park Avenue Congregational Church United Church of Christ in Arlington, Massachusetts. A self-proclaimed thriftvangelist, her ideal day involves an outdoor run; some good thrift shopping; a dance party with her 3-year-old; and cooking something stupidly easy and delicious for dinner with her husband, Chris.

Palm Sunday (B): Gradually and Then Suddenly

Palm Sunday (B): Gradually and Then Suddenly

Mark 14:1-15:14

By: The Rev. Kim Jenne

One of my guilty pleasures is watching movies about some type of earth-ending event, movies like Armageddon (1998), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), 2012 (2009), and San Andreas (2015). I love how most of these movies start calmly, pleasantly even, with everything just fine. The characters might even be in a celebratory mood—a new romance has blossomed, an important, high-profile job has begun and then, suddenly, things turn catastrophic. Life as they know it has ended. In a movie, this quick turn from good to bad is expected. It is part of the Hollywood formula. To go from a parade to an execution order and tortured death in the span of 45 minutes in worship, however, is almost too much for a congregation to handle. In the words of Ron Burgundy, “boy, that escalated quickly.”

But, did it really? Mark’s Gospel, our text for Year B, is known for its quick-tempo; but reading along throughout Lent, we have watched the rising escalation between Jesus and the religious authorities since the scripture’s abrupt beginning. I am reminded of Ernest Hemingway’s dialogue in The Sun Also Rises:

“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.

“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”

Gradually and then suddenly. Mark’s Gospel starts off with a bang—healings, exorcisms, preaching with authority, and growing crowds drawn to Jesus, but we barely get out of the second chapter before the scribes began to question among themselves who this man from Nazareth thinks he is (2:6-7.) Gradually and then suddenly.

The arrival of Palm/Passion Sunday each year is the source of liturgical infighting among worship teams. There are camps that wonder why we can’t spend the whole Sunday focused on the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Why can’t we wave our palms and enjoy Jesus getting “his due” for once before we head into Holy Week and the cross? There are other camps that would prefer to skip over the palm parade and spend the Sunday firmly rooted in the Passion as in this excerpt. Those in this camp argue that practically one-third of Mark is taken up with the events of the last week of Jesus’ life,

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From The Lion Illustrated Bible for Children (2007). Christina Balit, illustrator.

the story of Jesus’ betrayal, suffering and death. Only 11 verses tell of his triumphal entry into the city of David. Still others feel we must compromise and squeeze it all in—start with joy and celebration at the gates of Jerusalem and move to grief and despair as the tomb is sealed. We should start of gradually with pomp and circumstance and then arrive suddenly at the tragic end of Jesus’ ministry. Liturgical whiplash be damned. Gradually and then suddenly, that’s how the end of our brief encounter with the God-of-us.

In my childhood Bible, I remember the illustration from the palm parade—it looked like there were thousands lining the streets welcoming Jesus, hanging out windows and up trees, it looked like an ancient version of the ticker-tape parade. My current favorite children’s illustration looks nothing like my childhood memory. This Jesus, in Christina Balit’s illustrated world, is wrapped tightly in his robe, bound tightly for death upon the colt, face drawn as in a death mask. Regardless of how Jesus looked upon his entry, viewed through the lens of Empire, the procession must have certainly looked foolish to Rome.

It may be helpful to congregations to temper their palm pageants, often led by the children of the church, with the reminder that there were likely two processions in Jerusalem. In one, Jesus entered Jerusalem on a colt, with no weapons and no army. There was simply singing, celebration, a quick visit to the Temple, and then it was all over (at least in Mark’s account.) In the other procession, Pilate rode into Jerusalem on a warhorse accompanied by legions of Roman soldiers with all the pomp and ceremony of an Imperial authority figure. Today’s Passion reading is a counter-narrative to the Palm Sunday reading and intensifies the dialectic between the insider/outsider perspectives.

Perhaps the “let’s have it all” camp has it right. One approach to Passion Sunday is to demonstrate for the modern disciple how Jesus’ earthly ministry ended gradually and then suddenly once Passover weekend in Jerusalem. With such a long reading, it is helpful to break it up in vignettes or through a dramatic reading because Mark covers a lot of ground in the two chapters selected for the appointed Sunday. Mark spends time preparing Jesus for his burial through the anointing at Bethany and the quiet, intimate Passover dinner with his disciples. He is quickly betrayed by those he loved and turned over to the religious authorities. In short order, he is handed to Pilate, who, washing his hands of the mess, allows the crowds, hungry for blood, to issue the ultimate and final verdict. It makes one wonder, how short are people’s memories? Had they already forgotten the recent parade where they welcomed and called on him to “save them now” (the basic meaning of Hosanna)? Were they so naïve that they easily believed the religious leaders? Mark is playing all the time with the notion of who is on the inside, who is on the outside. The crowds move from inside to outside, the disciples move in and out of this dance repeatedly.

And, yet, in the last week of Jesus’ ministry on earth, he continued to challenge all the various forms of human Empire. Instead of a show of wealth, power and brute force, he revealed a way of being and of living together that was in complete contrast. Instead, revealing the Reign of God through giving, community, and simplicity. This Sunday’s readings allow pastors to remind their people of this contrast. A skilled preacher will quickly move the congregation from the ways in which we have witnessed, over the past 40 days, how Jesus chose not to flee from the pain of the world, but to head straight into those places in the world that frighten us. How Jesus challenged the Empire at every turn of his ministry. The last week of his life is no different.

Given the reality is that most of our congregation will fail to experience the fullness of Holy Week, we can allow Mark’s Passion narrative to help our Sunday morning crowd experience the fullness of the Jesus’ earthly ministry. For some of our flock, they have never allowed ourselves to spend any amount of time thinking about the sacrificial love of God for each one of us. They jump from the Palm parade to Easter brunch without even a glance at the events that lead to resurrection. Embracing the fullness of the passion will allow churchgoers to sit with Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion for a time before we rush to the tomb.

Before we get to Resurrection Sunday, before we put on our new clothes, before we welcome new lives into the baptismal covenant and sing our way to the Holy Table, to truly experience love, we must face suffering, trusting that love is always stronger than fear, that hope is stronger than despair and that life is stronger than death. For some of us, that witness and revelation, comes upon us gradually and then suddenly during Holy Week. We realize gradually and then suddenly that on the other side of that suffering, we can stand together as witnesses to the greatest love of all, God’s love for each one of us born upon that cross in Christ Jesus.

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The Rev. Kim Jenne

The Rev. Kim Jenne is the Director of Connectional Ministries for the Missouri Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. The Office of Connectional Ministries is responsible for Annual Conference, Boundaries, Communications, Discipleship Ministries, Safe Sanctuaries, and Leadership Development through the Nominations Committee. Before her current appointment, Kim served as senior pastor of Webster Hills UMC in St. Louis. She is a die-hard St. Louis Cardinals fan, loves NASA and is sorely disappointed we aren’t already living on Mars. She considers herself an inconsistent but persistent disciple of Jesus Christ.