When the World Doesn't Look the Same

Easter 2012: Mark 16:1-8

I don't know if you are like me, but when I make my choices in entertainment, especially in movies, one of my favorite weekend pastimes, there is only major requirement I have.

And that is: I like a good endings. I hope for  loose ends tied up. I want an ending where I feel like the story I've invested my 10, 12 or in some cases $15 was well spent. The alternative to this often is frustrating isn't it?  Investing hours of your time into a storyline, only to be disappointed in the end that you don't know what happens!  Stories that don't end in the imprisonment of all the bad guys, kissing and making up for all the "they are so perfect for each other couples" and the most hopeless of characters coming to their senses and making some good choices: I simply don't like them.

We go to movies to escape the drudgery, the monotony and the unsettling parts of our lives and so "happy endings" in somebody else's life seem to be such a big part of it. Without all plot lines settled in the end, we feel gypped.

In the same spirit, if we came to church this Easter morning hoping for a proclamation of the gospel where all was well in paradise, where we get the 100% perfect happy ending that we've been waiting for throughout the Lenten season, I have sad news for you.  In Mark's account of the resurrection story, we don't get it. We are left with a cliff hanging end of unforeseeable proportions. Without some further exploration of this text, we might feel like we are missing our Easter ending too.   

Though we read of the stone being rolled away, Jesus not being in the tomb and the angel appearing to the women saying, "Do not be alarmed, you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here" which calls for us to shout words of joy, "Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed" Mark's account gives us no tidy ending. In fact, we are left with response that most preachers like to avoid at the end of verse 8.  The women, who heard, the news, "went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid."

Though there's this amazing, all-inspiring story of Jesus not being in the grave and an angel, yes dressed in a white robe telling Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome that Jesus was not there.  . .

And though the good news that Jesus had been predicting all along in his years of teaching and preaching-- that yes, I'll be crucified but on the 3rd day, I'll arise from the grave-- is coming true . . . Christ is risen (Christ is risen indeed).

And  though the women are told specifically in verse seven, "But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you" and are given everything they need to take the next step . .

Scripture tells us that the women do nothing. They do nothing. For it is in terror and amazement of what has happened that these women say nothing.

Jesus does his part. The angel did his part. And the women were given the opportunity to respond and follow the orders. But they don't.

And for this reason, all seems lost. All seems ruined. How about this story for a happy Easter, celebration! It is a real downer, right?

Seems like a complete sour kind of ending doesn't it?

Such is why countless translators through the years have sought to insert an alternative ending to Mark chapter 16. If you have your Bible with you open it to Mark 16 now (or if not make a note to do so when you go home today). What you will notice is the presence of section of scripture that is known as the "alternative ending."

And though most of Bible translations contain these sections, almost all Biblical scholars agree that the addition of Jesus' resurrection appearance to Mary Magdalene, to the two believers traveling along the road, the giving of the Great Commission and the ascension story were all most likely added 200 years later. For none of the earliest gospel manuscripts contain them.  In fact, if we study the original Greek as it flows from verses 1-8 and then verses 9-20, we find distinct changes in tone and tense of verbs. All in all, in all thoughtfulness, we can assume that Mark meant to end his gospel at verse 8.

But what a shame! It would be so much easier to have verses 9-20 to get the happy ending that we all crave.  It would be nice to have the later commentary on the story because it wouldn't force us to talk about resurrection in terms of how the women experienced it-- in terror and amazement.

It seems so un-church-like doesn't it to think about Easter in this way? Shouldn't have the women been shouting, "Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!" to all their friends? Shouldn't they been overjoyed to share Jesus, their teacher wasn't dead? Shouldn't have they been able to recognize in an instant how this proclamation was going to change their lives-- for if Jesus had conquered death, didn't that mean something good for them too?

But none of this was clear. None of it.

And although some Biblical commentators want to stop us at this point and make parallels between the response of the male disciples (all of those guys who fled the scene and didn't stay with Jesus at the cross) and the female disciples (saying, hey the women messed up too-- see women weren't up to the task of following Jesus either)-- I believe all of this thinking completely misses the point.

Because, really the resurrection was a lot to take in. More than these women could have ever imagined on the adventure of following Jesus.

I ask you this morning-- have you ever had an experience in your life that surprised the heck out of you? I mean, really, really surprised you in a mind-blowing, "I never saw this coming" kind of way?  An experience that maybe you hoped for or even prayed for but never thought in a million years would actually come true?

Well, if you have, then, I believe that you understand how truly bewildering it was for the women to find the empty tomb that early morn.

Sure, they'd heard Jesus mentioned this was going to happen. Sure, maybe even they'd been around at the home of Mary and Martha when their brother Lazarus was raised. But, deep in their hearts, it was hard to believe that such was going to happen to their beloved teacher and friend. No, Jesus couldn't rise again. No way! Resurrection wasn't natural. No way. Death was a final event after all. We are born, we live and we die. It is just what human beings do. How could Jesus not be in the tomb?

Eyes crusted over. Hair uncombed. Shoes on but going through the motions of walking yet not quite sure where they were going.  Tears stains still on their cheeks. Tears in their eyes ready for water works to pour at anytime as the simplest of words of memories ever-present to set them off again.  The flood of shame, of uncertainty, of anger of loss: why did this happen to their Jesus?

They were lost in a sea of unanswered questions, of last words that should have been said, that needed to be said. They were caught up in the power of grief as it came to strike them and sought to bury them too in pain that was more than they knew how to bear.

Of course they were in shock. So of course they were afraid.

One commentator even unofficially diagnoses the women with what we know in modern times as post traumatic stress-- both from the trauma of the crucifixion and of the jarring news to their tear stained faces that indeed Jesus was not there. Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed.  It was such good news that they just couldn't take it all end. The women were speechless.

If you happen to be a fan of YouTube, you might already be familiar with a video of Sarah Churman that has gotten millions of hits since its posting in September of last year. Sarah was born with a rare genetic deformity that means she’s missing the hair in her inner ear that transmits sound to the brain. She was fitted with her first hearing aid at age 2, but even with that technology she could only hear some vibrations and loud noises. She compensated throughout her life by becoming adept at reading people’s lips. She’d worked so hard to compensate in other ways; the thought of being able to hear just seemed out of the realm of possibility

But in late 2011, Sarah was fitted with a device called the Esteem Inner Ear Stimulator, an implantable hearing aid for the specific kind of hearing loss Sarah suffered. On the popular YouTube video, you can see a video of Sarah Churnam hearing for the very first time at age 29.

I have to say that it is quite moving to watch. As Sarah hears for the very first time her own voice: her laugh, her tears, the sounds of others around her, it's a reality she never could have imagined, not under any circumstances, not in any amount of time.  Not in her wildest dreams did she ever believe such would come true, but it does. And in response, she weeps. And weeps and weeps.

Imagine hearing for the first time the sound of her husband. Imagine hearing the chatter of your child for the first time.  Imagine all of this.

And when it happens, Sarah is stuck dead in her tracks for minutes, upon minutes. Smiling. Full of joy but paralyzed to move toward anything at first. Sarah's life would never be the same.

And, likewise, paralyzed in their tracks too the women who heard the news of the resurrection were overwhelmed too. Everything they knew, believed and staked their lives on? changed.

Resurrection of their Lord begged them to consider.  What if Jesus was the real deal: God with us? What if Jesus' healings all those years had really come from God?  What if the kingdom of God, the abundant life they'd be hoping for was real?

Resurrection clouded their view from what had always been. Resurrection shifted their gaze from their own pain to what God could do in their pain, how God could restore their broken spirits. Above all, resurrection meant they were going to have to spend some time re-learning the stories on which they'd based their life.

What if the end was not the end?

What if new life could come from the most unlikely of places?

What if God could be trusted to care, and protect and guide them their entire life through and beyond too?

And, what if God trusted them so much and all of the Christ followers to come-- like us-- to keep the story going?

What if the ending was not about Jesus saying or doing this or that, but people like us being a part of the world not being the same?

Then, if resurrection was real,  everything was going to have to change.  No more shrinking into the back of the crowds. No more taking the worst news at face value. No more being a second class citizen. No more being exclusive of people who looked just like them. No more.  In resurrection the world did not look the same.

And, though the ending of Mark's gospel is still an unresolved cliff hanger, so we want to ask ourselves, what did the women do next? How long were they afraid? How long did they not say anything to anyone? With our 2000 year plus perspective,  history tells us the rest of the story. And the rest of the story is that we know the story.  We know the story because eventually they did tell the story. And upon each telling and re-telling of the good news: "Christ is risen; Christ is risen indeed" the world never looked the same. We are living the story now.

I know this morning, I'm telling most of you a story that is not unfamiliar to you at all. In fact, you hear it every year. You've sure got Jesus is risen thing down. You know it well. You could recite it to a friend easily, just like I did with the children sermon this morning.

But, what I wonder is resurrection real for you, more than just a word that floats off your tongue in the spring time? I need to tell you today that resurrection, my friends, is not a noun and just an excuse to have a holiday celebrate, but it is a verb that asks of us action. And it is a verb that is meant to be inserted into the sentences of our lives not only on days like today but throughout all the moments of our lives.

We are called to action because of the gift of the resurrection. We are called to the action of being storytellers of the change. To be active bearers of this good story to our families to our friends, to our communities, to anyone who will listen.

At times, this story as each and everyone one of us experiences it, is going to overwhelm us. Sure, we might just have to be quiet for awhile in awe of what life altering news might do to our plans. Sure, we might even have to do some running away from time to time to get the  enormity of emotions out of our system so we can begin to act on what we see and feel.

But, regardless our call is to tell. Our call is to be the story. Our call is to keep writing and writing the chapters of the gospel tale so that the goodness of Jesus Christ that we've experienced it can be experienced by others too.   

Today: I tell you because of the resurrection, we've got chapters to write together, we've got a story to finish. Come again next week because we've got to live out resurrection together.

Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed!

AMEN

Guest blogger: Jayme Cloninger

On February 19, Washington Plaza Baptist participated in the Baptist Women in Ministry's Martha Stearns Marshall day of preaching by inviting Jayme Cloninger to preach, a recent college grad who is a friend of Pastor Elizabeth.

Jayme currently serves as a human rights advocate for the Enough Project on the Raise Hope for Congo Campaign in Washington DC. Jayme grew up as a small town girl in Denver, North Carolina, where her heart for global missions and social justice grew in her involvement with local community development work and her three trips to South Africa. After attending Samford University in Birmingham, AL (where Pastor Elizabeth also attended), Jayme followed her passion and vision for faith and human rights to help mobilize the faith community and grassroots efforts to influence US Foreign Policy towards the Democratic Republic of Congo. Jayme is thinking of going to seminary sometime in the near future.

I'm proud to share her sermon here! I know you will be blessed as you keep reading. We all think Jayme has a bright future in ministry ahead!

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Thank you for sharing your Sunday morning with me and for this opportunity to participate in a declaration of truth found in Isaiah 43. As Pastor Elizabeth mentioned, in honor of Martha Stearns, a pioneer for women in ministry from the second half of the eighteenth century, this month, Baptist Women in Ministry are inviting young women to preach a sermon at a local Baptist church. And so, here I am, a young female, giving my first sermon. A place I never thought I would ever be.

I grew up in a traditional home, where I was homeschooled for all 12 years, and attended a pretty conservative Southern-Baptist church. Jokingly, I often refer to myself as a recovering home school evangelical.

For my parents, homeschooling was an opportunity for them to raise their children with a “godly education.” As a result, my faith is very much interwoven with my love for academia. Education and faith were seen as two tools for breaking generational sins. Both my parents come from broken homes with alcoholic parents, sexual abuse, poverty and so much more. Higher education was not an option when the reality of life called them to care for their younger siblings. And so, when the time came for them to raise their own children, they looked to faith and education as the gateway to redeeming the generational sins that have for too long tainted our family history.

Reconciliation for a broken past and hope for a better future are two things both my parents eagerly seek after from the Lord. In telling my mom that I would be speaking from Isaiah 43, it shouldn’t have surprised me when she  immediately began to recite the verse from memory, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” Following the promise recited, my mother asked, “Jayme, did you not know that Isaiah 43 is my favorite chapter in the Bible? Did you not know that I pray those words for our family everyday and have done so for thirty years?” I couldn’t hold back my tears. In that moment, chills ran down my spine, for I could truly sense the Lord’s renewing spirit in not only my life, but also in the life and story of my family.

As with each of you, my story will continually evolve, a fluid journey of past, present and future. When we look at our past circumstances, we often get caught up in over-analyzing what was, in the hope of creating a solution for the present that will allow us to avoid the same bad situation in the future. In doing so, we allow our past circumstances to define our current situation.

Now, let me pause here and ask a question: Do we really want to be a people who orient our lives according to the past? Is that the hope that we have?

This is where we find the people of Israel in Isaiah 43. A people who allow their former transgressions to determine their lack of present hope, blinding them to the faithfulness of God.  Here Yahweh calls out the promise of deliverance in saying, “I am about to do a new thing.”

The Lord declares that “now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” In the present moment of despair and exile, God reminds His people of his continual faithfulness. For the presence of God never left, it was continually in the midst of exile and despair.  

If the truth of God’s faithfulness and redemption was true for the people of Israel in their dark season of defeat and captivity under Babylon, how much truer are those words for you and I in our present season in life?

God calls on Israel to adopt a new way of life. A way of life that is not bound by their sins or their transgressions. As the Lord moves through history, from the story of Israel, we witness hope come to fruition in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ. Thankfully, with the life of Christ we can actually experience the new. For as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 5:17, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, all things have become new.” This new creation, this new way of life is a life redeemed. A life bound no longer by death, but by a resurrection.

This morning, I would like to spend the rest of our time together discussing what it truly means to live in the new, to live a life bound by the resurrection of Christ.

Such a conversation is timely with the transition from the season of Epiphany into Lent, and for those who has participated in the sermon series God Calls, and the study on spiritual gifts. As you have walked through Epiphany, you have wrestled with its practical implications for your individual lives. This season of Epiphany has been a time for us to celebrate the revelation of the mystery of Christ.

Pastor Elizabeth has walked with you through a large discussion on how God calls each one of us to live out the gifts God has given us. I to have been on this journey with you. Reading and following Pastor Elizabeth’s blog and having numerous follow-up conversations with her and other friends. In the initial sermon on God Calls, we reflected on what it means to care for oneself, and how to glorify God with our bodies as agents of service and love.

From the story of Jonah, we learn that God Calls you and I to “those people.” God commissions you in love and deed to care for all people.

In the study of the Spiritual Gifts and the sermon on God Calls you to Listen when No One Is, we see the life of Samuel and how the Lord developed in his heart the ability to listen keenly to the Spirit and to use his spiritual gifts for the Kingdom. Here we are challenged to use our Spiritual gifts, as did Samuel, to bless others.

In the previous two sermons, there has been an underlying theme of renewal. As Pastor Elizabeth pointed out, with both Israel and our present lives, “because God was God-- the ruler of all, the Lord of all, the Creator of all things, even in exile, even in these undesirable circumstances--- there is a call for renewal. A call to begin to consider anew the most troubling circumstances in light of who God was and is.”

So what does it actually look like for each of us to live in the new, even in the midst of our own moments of exile?

We may be surprised by the answer.

As God parted the Red Sea and brought Israel out of Egypt into the wilderness, in their second exodus, God promises to “give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.” The water in the wilderness is God’s faithfullness to continually redeem and make all things new. God is not bound by the previous exodus to usher in a new act of salvation. As God did for Israel, God will surprise us with his ways for redeeming our past and present.

As did Israel, we often fall victim to our own works to live out the new. Our problem solving skills not only burn us out, but as we read in Isaiah 43, we end up burdening God with our self-attempts at righteousness. We often miss the core of experiencing the new, connecting with the eternal.

As Paul Tillich put it,There is something that does not age, something that is always old and always new at the same time, because it is eternal. That which creates the new is that which is beyond old and beyond new, the Eternal.”

In The Shaking of the Foundations, Tillich continues to explain that with the life of Christ, we now have the opportunity to live a life that represents the very thing that transcends the old and the new. Love.

Through the mystery of Christ we are revealed a new kind of love, a love brought through self-expenditure. A love that took on our human nature to overcome our transgressions.

In living out this new, we have each been equipped to carry out this love for the edification of the body of Christ and the service of the Kingdom. With your study of the spiritual gifts, you may now realize that you are a perceiver, server, teacher, encourager, giver, ruler or been given the gift of mercy. May this love become the revelation of the new in our lives.

It is easy for us to talk about using our gifts as we sit in a church and have room to reflect on their meaning. But what happens when we are back in our moment of exile? Our moment of defeat?

As someone who is an advocate for justice and human rights, I daily seek solutions to broken situations within our society. I serve as a community organizer for the Enough Project, an anti-genocide and crimes against humanity organization. Specifically, I focus on the conflict in eastern Congo, a place known to be the home of worst war since World War 2, claiming over 6 million lives. It’s a conflict perpetuated by a corrupt government, struggle over natural resources, where rebel group control and battle the different mines and in attacking other local mining communities, use rape as a weapon of war.

For me, as someone who is far removed from the conflict and who works inside the beltway to make Congo a priority for US Federal Government, I daily battle with the cynicism that there is no hope for Congo.

I started this job in June of 2011, and in the first half of my time at Enough, I was overwhelmed by the history and situation of Congo. When you think you have a solution to a problem, you usually will cause another.

After about six months, I began to finally meet a lot of the Congolese diaspora community here in the United States, opening the door for new friendships to be cultivated. These relationships give me hope.

The Congolese community mobilize themselves around practical solutions for the crisis in their own country. Despite not being able to directly care for their friends and family in Congo, they are using their time here in the US to raise awareness and pressure the US Government to take stronger action on Congo. The diaspora model for us what it means to live in the new, advocating for hope and peace, in the midst of the worst trials and moments of exile.

Just as the Triune God advocated for the freedom of Israel in exile, and his deliverance through Christ, so too are we to advocate for hope and justice in the midst of our community’s darkest season in life. In our new creation, we are to model the same love Christ has lavished us with. For Paul continues to write in 1 Corinthians 5, “that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”

As ambassadors of Christ, we have been given the tools to live out the new and to advocate for God’s continual redemption in and through the world. Adam Taylor, the director of advocacy for World Vision, writes in his book, Mobilizing Hope, “God has made us for a profound purpose. When we sit on our gifts or make a litany of excuses for why we aren’t prepared or able, we block the manifest glory of God that is within us. Trying to tackle injustice based on our limited abilities means playing small. Instead we must tap into the renewing power of faith to overcome the barriers that get in the way of transformed nonconformism.”

And so, I pray that as you transition from the season of Epiphany into Lent, that the eyes of your hearts will be opened to the power of the spirit in your life to equip you to live in the New. To live a life bound by the resurrection of Christ. For as Tillich eloquently said, “Love is the power of the new in every man and in all history. It cannot age; it removes guilt and curse. It is working even today toward new creation. It is hidden in the darkness of our souls and of our history. But it is not completely hidden to those who are grasped by its reality. "Do you not perceive it?" asks the prophet. Do we not perceive it?

Yesterday was the last Sunday in our "Sanctuary on Sabbatical" worship series. After four weeks of worshiping in the Plaza Room sitting around round tables in a participatory style of gathering, we will return to the sanctuary this Sunday  to resume "normality."

This idea for summer worship emerged out of several conversations with my clergy group during a retreat last May, and as much as I was excited about it and found the worship ministry team excited too there was fear in me about this "shaking things up" idea . I wondered what it would feel like to worship in a different space. I wondered how the congregation would respond to the intentional change. I wondered how preaching without a manuscript and notes only would feel, and could I really do it? I wondered what first time visitors would think and if they would be scared away by what one member called "coffee hour church."

Yet, unless I just haven't heard-- there haven't been too many complaints. Several folks have expressed how much they like the "close feel" of the service and how they liked how personal and engaging the sermon and music was.

I would love to hear from others about what you thought of worship this July. This is what I am thinking, though:

1. I delighted in having the personal interaction with the congregation during the sermons. Instead of going through a manuscript and wondering at times what the congregation was thinking, during the past several weeks there would be times when I would stop and ask questions and actually get to hear what the gathered community thought. Loved it!

2. With that said, my love of a manuscript has grown. As good as it was to have spontaneous responses, I look forward to getting back to having words carefully chosen. Manuscript preaching is simply my style. But as I go back to my style, I hope to incorporate a type of sermon delivery that makes space for more causal moments from time to time.

3. It was beautiful to hear Ken, our music director lead us through moments of singing that felt more worshipful than I've experienced at Washington Plaza in a long time. I look forward to the congregation singing more response songs such as "Hear Our Prayer O Lord" (which we sang every week) in the future.

4. I felt closer to my church family, their needs and prayers throughout the month. There's something about sitting close to people in worship-- you begin to realize that this "following Christ" thing is not something you are doing alone.

5. Communion was served every week, and I'm still processing how I felt about it. My goal was to offer a teachable moment between the spiritual food of communion and the physical food that we eat together each week as we gather for lunch. I'm not sure I found a way to make this connection explicit and I'm unclear if anyone in the congregation found meaning in the greater frequency of taking communion.

6. To my surprise over the past four weeks, there have been fewer people saying for lunch after the service than usual. Maybe it is because folks have gotten their "fellowship fix" during the course of the service or maybe it is summer and folks just have other places to go. The lack of people sticking around for lunch after worship has been a disappointment.

7. I will be glad not to worry so much about the room set-up. As is the case with many small churches, the pastor and a few others do a lot of the work when anything new is attempted. It took a lot of time on Sunday mornings to transform the Plaza Room (where we normally host classes and meals) into a worship space. A few of us did a lot of the work, and this always brings cause for concern and exhaustion afterwards.

So, will we do it again next summer? I hope so. All in all, it was a refreshing break, a good sabbath even with the challenges. But, see you on Sunday UPSTAIRS!