A Realistic Expression Of What It Means To Encounter The Risen Christ

Christ is risen!  Love wins!  Resurrection is real!

… and yet the Year of Mark is not over yet. :)

This week I preached on the shorter ending of the Gospel of Mark and I talked about how, even thought this is probably the least satisfying resurrection story, it is also a really realistic one when it comes to how we experience the Risen Christ in our lives.

Enjoy!

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
July 7, 2019

Mark 16:1-8

A Realistic Expression Of What It Means To Encounter The Risen Christ

This is it!  Christ is risen!  God’s love has proven to be stronger than death, itself, and here we are at the, um, almost end of the Year of Mark.

You might be wondering why Christ is risen and, yet, we still have a week to go before we finish the Year of Mark.  Well, as it turns out, there are actually two endings to the Gospel of Mark.

I mean, technically, there is one ending – Christ is risen.  However, the jury is still out as to what happened next; after the women discovered that the tomb was empty.

If you were to open up your bible to the last chapter of the Gospel of Mark, chapter 16, most likely there would be 20 verses.  However, verses 9-20 are notably missing from the earliest and most reliable Greek manuscripts of Mark.  Most scholars believe that verses 9-20 did not appear until the late second century, likely because the scribes recording the gospel were not satisfied with the original ending that we just heard.

In fact, it is commonly understood that Mark ends with that eight verse, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”  The two sentences that follow this verse in brackets with the title, The Shorter Ending Of Mark, – “And all that had been commanded them they told briefly to those around Peter.  And afterward Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the scared and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.” – were added no earlier than the fourth century.

The Gospel of Mark is the oldest of the four gospels – it is the earliest recorded history of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. You can understand why, perhaps, scribes recording this important piece of the history of their faith wanted something a little bit more resolved than what is at the end of verse 8, “and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”  After all, this is supposed to be the defining moment of Christianity: Resurrection!  Redemption, eternal life, salvation for all who believe.

I have to admit, the original ending does seem a little anticlimactic.  The story does not end with reassurance and bold proclamation, but with fear and timid reticence.  This ending does not really lend itself to a confetti-filled sanctuary on Easter morning; rather there are still so many unanswered questions.

And yet, part of me thinks that this is the most realistic expression of what it means to encounter the risen Christ.  It is not always confetti flying through the air and science experiments demonstrating God’s overflowing love.  Sometimes it is fear and hesitation to tell others what we have seen and experienced.  Sometimes it is not resolved as nicely as we would like it to be.  Sometimes there are still unanswered questions.

One of the things that I love about the resurrection story is the unexpected nature of it.  Three women – Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome, who is not identified in the Gospel of Mark, but is in the Gospel of Matthew as the mother of the sons of Zebedee – approach the tomb and expect nothing else but to find the stone rolled in front of the tomb with the body of Jesus inside.

There is no indication in this story that they even thoughtthey might arrive at the tomb and find something different. In fact, as they approached the tomb, they were so preoccupied with a conversation about how they were going to roll away the stone, that it was not until they arrived and “looked up” that they saw the stone had already been rolled back.

We were in Connecticut this week for my parent’s 4thof July party and Bruce and I were, unsuccessfully, trying to get Harrison to nap one afternoon at my sister’s house when I ran outside to get something out of my car and Harrison insisted on coming with me.  I had him in one arm and a bag in the other arm and was not at all paying attention to anything else happening around me when I looked up and realized we were standing ten feet from a black bear.

And, like the women who arrived at the tomb and looked up and unexpectedly saw that the stone had already been rolled away, I was not at all expecting to see a bear when I looked up (though the difference between the women and Harrison and me is that we told everybody what we had seen!).

But I think it is in the unexpected moments where we experience the Risen Christ in all of its glory; these are the moments of resurrection that remind us that God’s love is powerful and that grace is real. Even here at church, the most memorable encounters with grace often do not happen in the moments that I carefully orchestrate, week after week, but in the moments where I accidentally say, “angeltude” during the Christmas Cantata or look up and realize that a cat has run into the sanctuary at the end of my sermon.

This story teaches us that resurrection is quite often found in the unexpected.  It is sometimes nothing that we can plan for – but it is real and it is powerful and it is life-changing.

One of the reasons that I think people find this ending to be so unsatisfactory is that the very end goes against what we are taught as Christians – that we are supposed to proclaim the Good News that Christ is risen, that we are supposed to talk about our faith and tell others about the moments in our lives when we realize just how powerful God is.

But the women “said nothing to anyone” – they were afraid to tell people what they had seen.

And yet, again, what a realistic expression of what it means to encounter the Risen Christ and then figure out what to do next. How many of us sitting in this sanctuary today have hesitated to talk about our faith?  How many of us have been afraid to even tell someone that we come to church?

Running from the tomb boldly proclaiming that Christ is Risen makes for a victorious celebration on Easter morning, but, in reality, living this out every single day of our lives is not always easy.

And so, when I read this story, the original ending of the very first recording of Jesus’ life, I take heart in knowing that my own struggle with talking openly about my faith sometimes is something that Christians have struggled with since the very beginning.

Are we supposed to fervently declare the Good News of Jesus Christ?  Yes. Is that sometimes a scary thing for us to do?  Apparently it always has been.

Finally, I think what also makes this story such a realistic expression of what it means to encounter the Risen Christ is the way in which we really do not know how the story ends.  Jesus’ body is gone, the women encounter a young man dressed in white who tells them Jesus has been raised and they are supposed to tell Jesus’ disciples and Peter to meet Jesus in Galilee.  The women flee the tomb, but are afraid to tell anyone.  End scene.

So what happens next?

This ending has always reminded me of a television series that ends without really tying up all of the loose storylines.  Those shows often receive negative reviews afterwards because people want things to be resolved and they are not.

But also – neither is life sometimes.  There are things that happen in this world and in our lives and in our faith that we just cannot reconcile.  And I think part of being Christian and holding onto the hope of resurrection is believing that God’s triumphant love is just as present in the midst of the unresolved stuff as it is in the stuff that makes a lot of sense.

As we read this story today – the resurrection of Christ as told in the shorter ending of the Gospel of Mark, I encourage us all to put ourselves inside the narrative.  Because I do think that, on an ordinary, everyday level, this is a real and human expression of what it means to encounter the Risen Christ. Resurrection is not always confetti flying through the air and brass ensembles filling the sanctuary with some of our favorite Easter hymns.  Sometimes resurrection is unexpected, it is hard to talk about and it is unresolved. Sometimes resurrection can be found in grief and sadness, in mistakes and frustration, in stuff that just does not seem to be working itself out.  Sometimes resurrection can be found in the arguments that we do not win, the things we do not understand and the moments where we feel like we have failed.

But it is still resurrection.  It is still the bold proclamation the death did not, does not and will not have the final word.

And so while it might not be resolved and while it might not be satisfactory, it is still resurrection.  In this story, God’s love has still won.

Just like it does every single day of our lives.

Christ is risen!  He is risen, indeed!

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

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Remembering Our Loved Ones

I preached this sermon on the heels of a really hard funeral for a lot of us the day before.  I had planned to end the service with Old Rugged Cross and when I looked out in the congregation so many people had tears in their eyes.  It has been a hard year for a lot of people and I think reading through this Passion Narrative has been oddly therapeutic as it has reminded us that grace is still present, even in the hard stuff.

Have a safe and happy 4th of July holiday everyone!

Enjoy …

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
June 30, 2019

Mark 15:40-47

Remembering Our Loved Ones

So you’d think I’d have a lot to say about burials.

The irony of me having to preach on Jesus’ burial right now is not how many funerals I have done over the past four months, but that I am actually sort of working through my own thoughts about what I would want one day.

You see, I never really thought it was important. That’s weird, right? Considering what I do for a living.  But I guess I just never wanted anyone to make a fuss.  I actually told Bruce once that when I died, I wanted to be cremated and then he should just accidently trip and spill my ashes one day and be done with it.

Which, for the record, I do not think he would have ever actually done.

And then I slowly started to have a change of heart.

I don’t know what it was; some combination of grace and the fact that I have done a lot of really inspiring funerals over the past year or so.  There was something about riding in the funeral procession for Earl Goff with the fire department marching on foot behind us, singing Amazing Grace while we got poured on when we buried Alice Wagner, preparing a beautiful altar honoring Lou Peranzi’s life for his memorial service, watching the Fire Department walk through at Mark Johnson’s funeral while Lynyrd Skynyrd played quietly in the background, hearing taps played at the cemetery more times than I can count and lining up the two hearses carrying Paul and Kathy Lumbra in front of the church before we took the trip out Bourne to bury them that just started to remind me of just how important ritual is, not only in life, but in death.

When Rachel Held Evans died, they livestreamed her funeral, which was a Requiem Eucharist, a funeral mass in the Episcopal tradition.  The liturgy was beautiful; and when I watched them process her casket into the sanctuary while the priest walked behind her and boldly proclaimed that promise of our faith – I am Resurrection and I am Life – I wept.

Because I realized in that moment that, even though sometimes it is really hard to take part in these rituals surrounding death, they are so important in helping us to process our grief and to remind us of the redeeming hope of resurrection in Christ.

This morning’s scripture reading is the story of Jesus’ burial.  We enter the story while Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of James, look on from a distance.  Evening was coming, which meant that soon it would be the Sabbath (it was Friday, remember – Sabbath begins a few minutes before sunset on Friday).

Knowing there was not much time before the sun set, a man from Arimathea named Joseph went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. When the centurion told Pilate that Jesus was, in fact, dead, he granted Joseph permission and Joseph bought a linen cloth, took Jesus down off the cross, wrapped him in the cloth, laid him in an empty tomb and rolled a stone again the door to close it.

My first question in reading this story is, who is this Joseph guy?  He is supposedly a respected member of “the council,” although the story does not specify which council.  Jesus, you may remember, appeared before a council made up of the high priest, the chief priests, the scribes and elders and they condemned him as deserving of death, but there is no confirmation that he is a member of that same council.

Regardless, Joseph goes “boldly to Pilate” and asks for the body of Jesus.  The part that intrigues me about Joseph is that the scripture identifies him as, “Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God.”

Who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God.

What does that mean?

Okay, I want to jump back to the very beginning of the Year of the Mark, I think the second week; Jesus was baptized and then driven out into the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan for 40 days and then he traveled to Galilee proclaiming the Good News of God.  When he arrived in Galilee, Jesus said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.”

I think one thing we have all learned throughout this year of studying the Gospel of Mark is that the kingdom of God is not necessarily something that is far off, but something that is here, that is attainable.  The kingdom of God is something that we can create here on earth if we live out the Gospel, if we put to action the call of Jesus to love God and to love one another, if we commit to healing the sick, feeding the hungry and reaching out to the poor and the marginalized.

And so when Joseph of Arimathea is identified as someone who is, “also … waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God” and then goes boldly to Pilate to ask for the body of Jesus, I have to think that the two are somehow related.

It kind of makes me wonder if what we do when people die enables us to bring the kingdom of God to earth; if our rituals, our remembrances and our desires to pick up the light of someone who has died and carry it with us in our own lives actually widens the depth of the kingdom and shares the Good News of Jesus Christ with a world that so desperately needs to hear it.

For the record, I do not think our rituals have any bearings on whether or not someone gets into heaven; God is more powerful than the words that we speak and the rituals we perform.  However, I do think how we handle death significantly impacts how we move forward here on earth after someone dies; how we cling tightly to our faith in our moments of despair and are reminded of the sweet promise of resurrection.  I think how we handle death enables us to carries someone’s memory with us so that their spirit always lives on.

Joseph did not know what was about to happen; he thought Jesus was dead.  And it was not because he buried Jesus that God resurrected him; but it was because he buried Jesus that he was able to honor the life that Jesus lived and believe that kingdom of God was very much attainable here.

And I think the same is true in our lives today. It is not because we participate in rituals and traditions when our loved ones die that they go to heaven; but it is because of these things that we are able to see what heaven might look like as we then carry their spirit with us in our lives.  It is because of our rituals and traditions that we are able to bear witness to the lives of those who came before us as we seek to bring the kingdom of God to earth.

And so I think, as people living on this side of the resurrection, we, too, have to think carefully about the ways in which we care for our loved ones after they die.  And I am not just talking about funeral arrangements, either, I am also talking about the rituals and the traditions that we create after they are gone to remember them, as well.

I think about my Grandmother Miko every time I make chicken paprikash, because she is the one who taught me how to make it. I think about my Grandmother Keck every time I see coins on the ground because she once very proudly told me that she dodged traffic one afternoon when she saw change in the road and collected 32 cents.  I think about my Grandfather Keck when I look at Harrison because he is his namesake. I think about my mom’s best friend, Diane, every time I make pancakes, because she told me once that if you add sugar and a little bit of vanilla to pancake batter, they taste so much better. I think about my college chaplain, the Rev. Charles Rice, every time I argue with someone about the reality of systemic racism because he was the one that gave me the courage to have those conversations.

And then I try to carry their light into the world.

It is not necessarily the big things – but then again, it does not always have to be.  Sometimes it is the little things that make a difference.  It is the little things that remind us of the people that changed our lives.  We have to boldly tell our loved ones stories so the other’s lives might be changed, as well.

So whether you are laying someone to rest, celebrating their life at a memorial service, paying them a visit to the cemetery, making a meal they always cooked, toasting them with their favorite drink, playing music that they loved, gathering at their favorite vacation spot, planting flowers in their memory or just taking their best quality and carrying it with you in the world, may you know that the kingdom of God is near and that you are an active participant in bringing it to life.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

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Seeing Jesus For Who He Was

When I decided to preach through the Gospel of Mark, I didn’t really think much about what it would be like to preach through the end of it.  We usually just tell the story – I’ve never preached on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday.  It’s been a really good challenge for me, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t considering preaching at some point next year during Holy Week.  There’s a lot going on in this passage – my sermon barely scrapes the surface!  I talked about the role of the centurion and what this means for us as we see Jesus for who he is and then proclaim that message to the world.

Enjoy!

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
June 23, 2019

Mark 15:16-39

Seeing Jesus For Who He Was

Bruce and I were at the driving range on Thursday night discussing this week’s sermon (welcome to life married to a preacher) and the, sort of, complicated nature of preaching through the story of Jesus’ death. SO much is happening in a very short amount of time and I almost think, as a preacher, I have to decide whether I want to speak broadly to the whole narrative (knowing that, while I am touching on everything, I am not really digging deep into anything) OR find one obscure part of the story that is intriguing to me and focus on that (knowing that, while I can dig a little bit deeper into one thing, I am missing other parts of the story).

The thing is, I do not think there is a right or wrong way to approach preaching this text; in fact, there was actually a fleeting moment last night where I thought to myself, “well maybe one day I’ll preach through the Passion Narrative again so I can get another crack at this story and take another approach.”

But it was fleeting.

Regardless, instead of speaking more broadly about how I feel about the crucifixion and what I think it means in my own life, I am just going to focus on one thing this morning.  Now, this does mean that there are going to be parts of this story that I do not really get into – and in focusing on one thing, I am not saying that the other parts are not important, it just means that this is what jumped out at me this week.

But so much is happening in this morning’s text; if I dug into everything, we would probably be here until 5:00 tonight.

I could talk about the very public mocking of Jesus, and the contemptuous way the soldiers dressed him in royal garb.

I could talk about the way Mark intricately wove two of the Passion Psalms into this narrative.  Mark talks about people passing by Jesus and deriding him in verse 29, which references Psalm 22:7, “All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads.”  Mark mentions the offering of sour wine to Jesus in verse 36, which gives nod to Psalm 69:21, “They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.”  Mark records Jesus’ last words as a direct quote from the book of psalms.  “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” which is a direct quote from Psalm 22:1.

And what about those last words of Jesus?  I could also talk about the four different Gospels and three different accounts of those last words.  Mark and Matthew both record Jesus’ final words to be, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” but Luke records Jesus as saying, “Father into your hand I commend my spirit” and in the Gospel of John Jesus simply says, “It is finished.”

I could also talk about this three-hour solar eclipse that apparently happened between the time that Jesus was crucified and the time that Jesus actually died, something that – in the Old Testament – signified a heavenly sign of God’s judgment (although had I know we were going to have that crazy storm we had yesterday, I might have been tempted to go down the road).

I do feel badly for the other patrons of the Atlantic Golf Center because I have a feeling they just wanted hit their golf balls in peace and not have to listen to me yammer on about the details of Jesus’ death.

But what I want to talk about today is actually the very end of this story.  Because I think sometimes when we are reading this story during Holy Week, we get to this point and just keep our eyes on that resurrection prize; because we know that Easter is coming.

And so it is admittedly harder to read it in this context, where we get to the end of the story and Jesus is dead and we cannot keep reading.

I kind of have the same feeling today that I do every time I see Jesus Christ Superstar and the performance ends with Jesus dying and the lights fade to black on stage then the curtain goes up and the cast cheerfully runs onstage for their curtain call.  Because that is not actually how the story ends; and the person inside of me that is living on this side of the resurrection very much wants to tell the wholestory.

And yet here we are.  And the thing is, it is almost more authentic to read it like this, because this is how the very first followers of Jesus experienced the story. When Jesus died, they did not know what was going to happen next.  They, like we have to today, had to sit with the grief and the discomfort and the agony of what it meant to watch Jesus suffer and die and not know that in three days he would rise.

I have to be honest, I am really glad we do not have a baptism today.

The end of this morning’s scripture reading is really dramatic.  You have the darkness coming over the land, Jesus screaming, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, someone shoving a sour-wine-filled sponge into Jesus’ mouth and the curtain of the temple ripping into two pieces.

And then the centurion comes into the picture.

Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s son!’(Mark 15:39, NRSV)

Centurions were commanders in the Roman army; we would understand them today as company commanders.  There were six grades – or ranks – among the centurion, with the highest level reaching a position similar to a knight.

There are two things that are really important to understand about the centurion here.  First of all, he is the first personto identify Jesusas God’s Son. Up until this point, only beings have identified Jesus as the Son of God – 1) the heavenly voice of God at Jesus’ baptism and at the transfiguration and 2) the demons in the healing stories.

But now a person has made that identification.  Now a personhas seen what Jesus knew to be true all along.  Now a person has realized what, precisely, God has been up to this whole time.  Now a person has experienced the redeeming work of God in his life and in this world and by saying it out loud, “Truly this man was God’s son!” he was proclaiming the truth that, even though they did not know how the story was going to end, that God was not finished yet.

His world changed when he saw Jesus for who he really was.

The second thing that is important to understand about the centurion is that he was a Gentile.  So not only did a person see Jesus for who he really was, but a Gentile nonetheless; which confirms that Gentiles now had the same access to God’s redeeming love that Jews did.

The world was turned upside down; no one knew what was going to happen next.  But despite the uncertainties, despite the agony they had just witnessed, despite the brokenness of that moment, the centurion’s eyes were opened to who Jesus was and he was not afraid to proclaim that Good News.

And I think this is one of the life-changing messages of this story; that even when we are in the midst of strive, even when our future may be uncertain, even when we are surrounded by grief and chaos – in these moments we can all still see Jesus for who he is, no matter who we are or where we are on our journey through life.  It does not matter if we have been coming to church our entire life or we are just meeting Jesus for the first time.

And we can proclaim this message with awe and confidence and hope.

We are coming up on the end of the Year of Mark. And this year has done a lot of amazing things for me; there has been something about doing nothing but preach about Jesus that has renewed my focus as a preacher and convicted me as a Christian. And the strange part is that I am reading Rachel Held Evan’s first book, Faith Unraveled, where she talked about her journey of challenging her conservative evangelical upbringing and then coming back into the faith.  And she said in her book that during her period of intense questioning one of her mentors told her to go back to the basics, to just spend time in the Gospels and read about Jesus.  And she said that made all the difference.

And it has for me, too.

Because this is the heart of what it means to be Christian; to, like the centurion, see Jesus for who he really was, to read the Gospels and recognize what Jesus was doing and try to emulate that in our own lives and then to proclaim that message to a world that needs to hear it.

I have two things I want you to do for me. The first is to take your bulletin home and re-read this morning’s scripture.  Because, like I said at the beginning of my sermon, there is a lot going on and I can only barely scrape the surface.  But, like the centurion, we have to face the cross and bear witness to the whole story.  So I would encourage you at some point this week to re-read the scripture and see what else jumps out at you, see what else might be speaking to you where you are on your journey right now.

And then the second thing I want you to do is more of a long-term thing; I want you to keep spending time with Jesus when the Year of Mark is over.  I am not sure what is next (other than a sermon series on hospitality that will take us through the end of the summer).  But I know we will find ourselves back in the Old Testament and also further along in the New Testament wondering what the heck Paul meant in some of his letters. We likely will not, for awhile anyway, spend this much time in one Gospel.

But no matter where we are, I hope you regularly spend time reading the Gospels and learning about Jesus.  I hope you will see Jesus for who he is, not just in the world but in your own life.  And I hope you will be changed.  I hope you, like the centurion, will testify to this Good News with awe and confidence and hope, no matter what the journey ahead might look like.

Friends, may we leave this place today and, like the centurion, see Jesus for who he was and boldly proclaim this truth to a world that so desperately needs to feel the redeeming love of God.

And may the world be changed.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

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