As we move from one season to another (seasons of the earth and seasons of the church) we can look back, gather our thoughts and memories and then look forward with clearer eyes We don’t have to split the past from the present or the future. We can integrate and celebrate what we have learned and try to make sense of this rapidly changing world. (We have an opportunity to take stock of our experiences of the past year today at 11:30 using the coffee hour link)
On this 2nd Sunday of Easter, the readings bring forth a couple of themes that resonate with my experience this past year.
The first is the a deeper understanding of the themes of scarcity and abundance. Psalm 133 is full of symbolism which describes a people of abundance: the choicest oils, a city green and vibrant, and a people living in unity. From our Canticle today we hear of a holy people, freed from their oppressors, and speaking with tongues of new-born Easter people. Luke tells us, in the Acts of the Apostles, that there is plenty enough of everything if everything is distributed fairly. Anna Woofenden has written a lovely book about establishing a “Garden Church” in southern California. The book is called “This is God’s Table: Finding Church beyond the walls. Anna says that a feeling of scarcity is what separates us. That the worry that there might not be enough can actually tear us apart in community. Luke says that to be of one heart and soul (or to be united in the Beloved Community), we must reorient our lives towards justice and generosity, and away from scarcity.
Early in the Pandemic we saw what it means to have a mentality of scarcity, and I sometimes felt overwhelmed by it myself. We saw what happens when we view life as an 8” pie. If one person takes a big piece, that leaves less for everyone else. A scarcity mentality sees limitations in all things. A mindset of abundance sees a pie amazingly, infinitely huge, sort of like how I imagine the size of God!
In our James and Andrew Good News Garden Group, we learned from native American culture about “The Honorable Harvest” This is a covenant of sorts, a promise of reciprocity between humans and the land, a way of living that ensure everlasting abundance. Here are the ideas in this covenant:
When I’m feeling a bit of ministry burn-out, and my glass feels half empty, wise counselors remind me to reach out and tap into the abundance of resources that are out there in the world. This year I found a group of Faith Community Nurses from Northern California. They have become important “virtual colleagues” and their creativity and support has given me energy when I needed it most. I recently reached out to friends who are passionate about food justice issues and they have connected me to several groups of folks who have organized distribution of surplus fruit and vegetables in the Town of Montague. Seems there is an abundance of ministry partners as well.
So, how can we develop a spirit of abundance? Can we try to focus on what we have, to hang out with folks whose glass is half full, not half-empty, to believe in both/and not either/or, and to develop daily gratitude practices, to take a few moments each day to thank God for this abundant life.
The 2nd theme that speaks to me comes from John’s Gospel about faith. I will no longer refer to Thomas as doubting Thomas. Instead, he will be Honest Thomas. Thomas was not with the other disciples when Jesus made his post-resurrection appearance to them, and apparently the disciples did not do a good job of convincing Thomas. I’m a pretty scientifically minded person (although I do have a firm belief in things that cannot be proven!). Nurses, you see, like to see, hear, touch and even (sorry) smell the evidence before making a nursing diagnosis. Like Thomas, “Show me” is our mantra also. We measure, compare, and evaluate endlessly. I love that Jesus doesn’t chastise Thomas. He understands that belief is difficult, and he gives Thomas the proof he needs. I believe Jesus is telling all of us whose faith has wavered from time to time…. “remain steadfast, you will come to believe.” Keep looking, keep searching. One Forward Day by Day writer said that doubt is not the opposite of faith, it is the companion of faith.
I find myself thinking back to the spirit of abundance again. I think that Jesus is telling Honest Thomas, that he is enough, just as he is, in his unbelief and his belief. That he and we are wonderfully made, and we are made new in abundance at Easter. Consider your own abundant life this Easter season.
In the world that God hopes for, there is enough, and we- are -enough.
The last time I preached Easter morning I chose John’s gospel, the most detailed and complicated version of the Easter story. It’s the one where two of the male disciples go to the tomb with Mary Magdalene, but then run off, leaving Mary alone weeping, and she meets the risen Christ.
This morning I wanted to listen to Mark’s account. It’s the earliest and simplest version, and it seemed to me that after the year we have been through, we could connect with the deep uncertainties reflected in Mark’s telling of the story.
Mark’s Easter story is in some ways also the most interesting. If you look in any modern Bible, you will find that right after the account we heard this morning, somewhere in parentheses, it will say “The short ending”. And there will be a space, and then another twelve verses, and another parentheses enclosing the description “the longer ending”. The additional twelve verses include three resurrection appearances (including a commissioning of the disciples by Jesus) and the ascension. Older Bibles, including the King James’ Version, don’t differentiate two endings, but simply include all 20 verses of chapter 16.
Modern scholarship has determined that there is an issue with what past generations accepted as the ending of Mark’s gospel. The “long ending” of Mark is actually a compilation of endings by authors other than the “Mark” who is responsible for the rest of the gospel. It is generally accepted, today, that the original text ended just as we heard it:
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.
At some point, generations and many decades later, other authors, unsatisfied by Mark’s ending, tacked on additional material.
Can you imagine why? Can you see what must have bothered them about the original ending? Did you notice, as we listened today, what was missing from Mark’s Easter morning story?
Mark’s original ending has no resurrection appearance. Jesus is not there. The resurrected Christ is missing: all we have is the word of the unidentified “young man” – presumably an angelic messenger – telling the women that “he has been raised” and “he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” There is nothing that testifies to proof of the resurrection. For many Christians – though not all – the truth of the gospel story depends on a literal, bodily resurrection. No wonder that those later scribes, laboriously making copies of the sacred texts long before the printing press, felt that they just HAD to improve upon Mark’s ending.
So why didn’t Mark go further? As he was writing, perhaps 35 years after Jesus’ death, he must have known stories of Jesus’ resurrection appearances. Immersed as he was in the story, he has to have appreciated what impact it would make to conclude his testimony by reporting that the women were terrified and didn’t tell anyone.
Many, in the recent decades since it became clear where Mark originally ended his story, have thought and written about this provocative question. I’d like to share and reflect with you on two observations that seem compelling to me.
Firstly – Mark wanted to emphasize the women’s fear and uncertainty, rather than rushing into the happy resolution of a resurrection appearance. Perhaps he wanted to allow us to identify fully with their experience, which is in so many ways like our own.
Mark's Easter Gospel ends with silence rather than "Alleluia!" “Alleluia” was simply not the word the women said at the end of their long night of waiting. “Alleluia” is not what they were preparing to say when the Sabbath was over as they made their way to the tomb. They had been there on Friday when Jesus died and the sky turned dark at midday. Mark remembers all three women by name: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. They looked on from a distance when Jesus was crucified. Mary Magdalene had been there when Joseph of Arimathea wrapped Jesus' lifeless body in linen and laid him in the tomb.
They asked a pressing question as they made their way toward the grave: "Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?" When they neared the tomb they saw that the stone had already been rolled aside. But even then, they didn't shout Alleluia. Even after they heard the young man in white tell them that Jesus had been raised, they didn't shout "Christ is risen!" That's what we might want them to say, but they didn't behave as we would like.
They fled from the tomb for "terror and amazement had seized them." The words are even stronger in Greek: tromos (trauma) and ecstasis (ecstasy). So not just “fear and amazement” but trauma and ecstasy had taken hold of them. They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. Mark's Gospel ends in silence and Jesus never appears.
Of all the Easter Gospels, Mark's story invites us to stand where those first trembling witnesses stood, and we can do so easily enough. The three women didn't see Jesus. Neither do we. They didn't hear Jesus call their names (as did Mary in John’s Easter story). Neither have we. They didn’t have the option to touch his wounded hands any more than we have. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome are our silent sisters.
Haven’t we, too, known those moments of desolation in these past months of watching millions die of the virus that has ravaged the world? Haven’t we known the deep ache of bereavement? Haven’t we shared the fear of an unknown future?
Despite that morning’s fear, however, the women did renew their courage and their trust: we know they did. Between the women's experience at the empty tomb and Mark's writing, the three women did speak -- or we wouldn't know the story. They did speak, or we would not be here today.
The second reason Mark wrote the ending he did, suggest some commentators, is that it invites us into the story - not only by showing us how much these first disciples’ experience is like our own, but by suggesting that the gospel narrative is left for us, the hearers, to complete. This is what’s really important about today’s gospel.
In November, on the Second Sunday of Advent, our gospel reading was the very beginning of Mark’s gospel. Mark’s first sentence is this: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Mark doesn’t just mean that the first sentence he writes begins the story. He means that the whole story he tells – of Jesus’ ministry and teaching, of his healing and feeding and preaching, of his suffering and death – AND EVEN OF AN EMPTY TOMB AND THREE FLEEING, FRIGHTENED WOMEN – is “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.”
The story of the good news has continued with every generation who have felt fear and amazement at Jesus’ empty tomb and at all of the places where loss and fear touched their lives, but have lived lives of faith and service despite it. The story continues with us. Every time we confront our own moments of uncertainty, we are being told that Jesus, who was crucified, has been raised, and has gone ahead of us to Galilee – to the ordinary places where we live our lives – and we will see and experience him there.
The empty tomb promises an open future in which the Risen One goes ahead us as our companion and guide. Christ lives, and is visible to us in all of the dramatic resurrection moments we experience in our lives, where new life and new hope springs out what seemed dead and hopeless, as well as in the everyday gifts and blessings of relationship and of the opportunity we enjoy, every day, of making a difference. Christ is alive and in Christ’s resurrection, we can face the future with strength, and courage, and wisdom as we take our place as Christ’s body, as Christ’s voice and heart and hands and feet in serving the world.
Alleluia. Christ is Risen.
Where the mystery comes in is the conviction for those who follow him (from the early days of the Jesus Movement, in fact,) that the cross, the execution of Jesus, is where the redemption of humankind is made complete. The mystery is the notion that we are saved by Jesus’ death on the cross.
Most of us learned to understand this – that Jesus’ death on the cross “saved us” and transformed our relationship with God - in a way that many of us can no longer affirm. You’ve heard me reflect on this before, but I think it’s one of those things that is worth returning to. I know that I continue to work at “unlearning” many of the “truths” I was taught in growing up.
Saint Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, declared that “Christ died for our sins”. Certainly, Jesus died because of the sinfulness of those who sentenced him and supported that sentence. He died because sinful human beings sought to protect their own privilege and authority against the threat that his popularity seemed to represent.
Over the course of time, Paul’s notion of Jesus “dying for our sins” evolved into a complex theological doctrine in which Jesus’ death came to be seen as having been required by God the Father. The religious doctrine we were taught maintains that Jesus’ death on the cross served, in effect, as the payment for the sins of the world. (This language is still reflected in our liturgies.) This “substitutionary atonement” theology maintains that humankind was held hostage by our own sins until Jesus, in effect, gave up his life on our behalf, in our place.
Such an idea – that God required sacrifice of God’s beloved child in order to forgive human sin – doesn’t sit right for many of us. It’s not consistent with the God Jesus described in his parables, a God who longs for relationship, who seeks out the lost and forgives, recklessly. The notion that violence was the necessary and pre-ordained means of human salvation does not ring true.
Theologian Marcus Borg points out that the Greek root of the word “martyr” means “witness”. “A martyr, or “witness,”” Borg observes, “is killed because she or he stands for something – which in early Christianity meant standing for God and standing against the powers that created a world of injustice and violence.”*
The powers of the world are still enacting crucifixions,
The powers of the world still crucify, and our efforts to stand in opposition so often feel like shoveling sand against the tide of human selfishness and greed – both within ourselves and in the social and political world outside ourselves.
And yet we are still left with that conviction – articulated by Paul and central to the faith of the Church – that it is the cross that saves us.
Along with others, I have come to see that the cross was not required to change God, but to change us. Jesus’ death provides us the means to face up to our deepest failings.
One of the mysteries of the cross is that it is the place where God’s grace meets and coexists with human violence.
The old hymn puts it this way:
See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
As we contemplate the cross today we see the sorrow, the brokenness. We are in the fortunate position of knowing that the sin and the brokenness are not the final word.
The power of love gave Jesus the courage to submit to the worst the world had to offer. May that same love and courage inspire and transform us as we, too, join Jesus in the work of building God’s reign justice and peace.
In our lesson from 1 Corinthians, Paul reminds us of Jesus’ words that final evening:
“...the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Cor 11:23-26).”
These familiar words have been held close and remembered in every generation. For the community in Corinth, these words were a reminder of how their divisions led them to lose sight of Christ’s teachings. For those leading the Protestant Reformation, they were a point of passionate study and interpretation, where some felt these words meant the bread and wine actually became bodily elements; for others they were a memorial meal; for still others they were bread and wine that somehow Christ is really present in. Each of us has likely experienced these familiar words in a wide variety of contexts--from different pastors, churches, and denominations. Each of these experiences plays an important role in shaping our understanding of why and how we approach worship.
My own understanding of the eucharist was largely informed by two rather different worshiping communities in the Episcopal Diocese of Maine. The first was the parish I attended in middle and high school. St. Mark’s was a church that had clearly enjoyed wealth and prominence at one point in time, reflected in the richness of the building itself and in the ornate way in which the community embodied high church practices--think smells and bells. Our Latvian priest would set the table with the assistance of acolytes, and then he would begin to chant the eucharistic prayer. At the invitation to receive communion we would make our way up to the high altar where the priest stood behind a locked altar rail. When we stretched out our open palms, the priest would place the bread into our hands. We would consume the round, strangely dissolvable wafer, and then discreetly shuffle back to our pews.
St. Mark’s Church did a particularly fine job of creating sacred space where divine mystery could flourish, using chant, bells, candles, and incense. Yet however intoxicating that mystery might have been, I was equally troubled by the community’s emphasis on children and youth being seen sitting still and not heard; by the long trek we had to make to the high altar where the priest stood guarded and locked up handing us something that we called bread. Somehow those aspects of the worship did not feel in keeping with the warm and intimate meal shared by Jesus and his friends all those years ago. How did this sacred meal become so strangely formal, with an almost private quality to the communal worship?
The second community which played a large role informing my understanding of the eucharist was the Diocese of Maine’s youth and young adult ministries. The environment we cultivated during our quarterly retreats was quite different from my home parishes’ formal and high church worship. When it came to worship, we always seemed to be sitting in a circle. We were a fairly unkempt group-- all unwashed teenagers, some dressed in their Sunday best while others remained in their pajamas. There were no vestments, and seemingly anyone willing to be trained in a couple of minutes could assist with worship. Youth and young adults were the ones giving sermons; serving as Eucharistic Ministers and actually distributing the bread and wine; teenagers gave all the readings and proclaimed the gospel.
Instead of the people helping the priest as the primary actor, it was the congregation, the gathered people who led the worship while being shepherded by the priest. Even as the priest led the eucharistic prayer, youth leaders stood nearby holding up the fragrant loaf of blessed bread and the pottery chalice of wine at the invitation. The community was not perfect, but gosh, did they do radical welcome at the eucharist well, with a deep sense of connection to fellow worshippers.
Little did I know how scandalous this way of worship was. Years later, when I switched roles and was hired as a Youth Missioner for the diocese, I quickly learned these practices were not normative, but rather were exceptions for special situations as approved by our bishop. While I understood it, I also always struggled to accept it wholeheartedly. Somehow those worship services felt more in line with what Jesus was doing with his friends in the Last Supper than what my home parish did on Sunday mornings. These two different communities within the Episcopal umbrella produced a bit of liturgical quirkiness in my own theology of worship.
Normally, I save my questions for the end, but I want to give you some right now...
Part of why it is so critical for us to do this work of reflection is because the global pandemic has lit a fire on our understanding of what it means to be the Church and how we approach our worship. And I think it is a Holy-Spirit-Kind-Of-Fire. In the early days of the pandemic, every faith community was forced to try and figure out what it might look like to be the Church when we could not safely be together in-person.
Churches like ours embraced the idea of virtual consecration, where we invited you to prepare your own altars in your homes as an extension of our community altar. We told you to bring your own bread and wine. The idea being if we engaged in this worship together, even if it was virtual, the community was still gathered together and that somehow, God would still become really and truly present in the bread and wine at our various altars. Many of you shared photos of these altars, and those images continue to move me as much as any experience of consuming the eucharist in-person. This communal act of faith was a poignant reminder of the ways the Spirit was with us and holding our community together, even as we remained isolated in our homes, scattered across Franklin and Hampshire counties, into Vermont and New Hampshire.
With time, virtual consecration was ruled out by the House of Bishops, and as your Rector, I worked with Molly and Ann to help our parish transition to spiritual communion and what would become more than a year long fast from the eucharist. Yet, speaking as a priest in the Church and as a follower of Christ, I will confess that I still remain a firm believer in virtual consecration. Virtual consecration speaks to our belief in what is possible when a community leans into God together, and I hope our tradition will return to the conversation in the coming years or we risk limiting our understanding of God by putting her into a box.
Other churches experimented with Zoom Worship, and found people actually liked looking at one another. Folks in those parishes have begun asking if those forward facing pews are really as helpful as we once thought they were. The list of things that were experimented with during this last year across denominations is pretty vast. The Spirit set our hearts on fire for finding ways to keep being the Church, to keep embodying this intimate sense of community we witness between Jesus and his loved ones during the Last Supper.
As our Church prepares to resume some in-person worship at the end of the month, I hope we will ready our hearts for what is possible in the future. And as we make our way towards the grave and then Easter, this seems like the right time to do the working of readying our hearts...
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