Easter Sunday Sermon
April 1, 2018
‘The Unfinished Gospel’
The long process of cleaning out all of my stuff has slowly begun. After all of these years, I have a lot of things tucked away that need to be dealt with. One of the things I have discovered is that after all these years, I only have 4 sermons that I have saved. I know that is a bit of a disappointment for everyone who were really looking forward to me putting them into a book that you could buy in a few months. Sorry about that. One of these sermons was the very first one I ever preached, which surprisingly is really bad. A second one was part of a series that was used when a previous church built a new facility. The third was the Sunday after September 11, 2001 and the 4th? Well, you get to hear it today. It is one that is really special because part of it was written by one of our folks here at FPC. So here goes. If you remember it, I am really impressed. If not, then it is new to you. So here goes.
‘The first thing the world noticed about the early Christian was that they ate together’. So begins Rachel Held Evans words on communion in her book ‘Searching for Sunday.’ It is an amazing book about her journey on loving, leaving, and finding Church. These words aren’t too surprising because for the early Christians because the life of Jesus-his death and resurrection, changed everything in their lives, so men and women, slave and free, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile gathered to eat.
The story of the resurrection is amazing, so amazing that apparently Mark couldn’t find the words to describe it. This morning we hear Marks gospel story, the original 8 verses he wrote to tell about what happened on that Sunday morning. As we heard Mary Claire read these words, the main thing you may have noticed is that Mark’s story just sort of ends. Really, it’s not a great ending. I can understand the urge to fix it-the rest of the verses in chapter 16 were added later by well meaning people hoping to sync it up a bit more with the other gospels, maybe to give it more of a victorious feel. And I can understand why these extra words were added. Because while Mark starts out in the usual fashion, its early Sunday morning, it’s still dark, the women are going to the tomb to tend to Jesus’ body, the stone is rolled away, they hear the word that Jesus has been raised, they are sent back to tell-Mark seems to botch the ending completely with his last words…’so they went out and fled the tomb, for terror and amazement has seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.’ Do you see what I mean? It’s the only resurrection story in the Bible where Jesus never actually makes an appearance. And then these women disciples fail at what the young man tells them to do. This is all pretty surprising. They have been told not to be afraid—words that the Biblical code words for ‘good news is coming’—but it doesn’t happen for them. All they do is run off and hide, afraid, fleeing the tomb and saying absolutely nothing to anyone. And there you have it, a resurrection story scene without Jesus that seems to end in failure.
So what is going on with Mark? To be honest, I thought for the longest time that he just wasn’t very good with endings. But the more I read this, the more I realize the genius and beauty of what Mark is up to. Instead of leaving the gospel story where it is, Mark does something really remarkable—he lets us wonder. He lets us think. He lets us finish the story. Mark writes this very open ended gospel that seems to end in failure precisely to place the burden of responsibility for telling the good news squarely on our shoulders. Mark isn’t terrible at endings, it turns out-Mark is rather brilliant, and by telling the gospel this way, Mark invites us-the disciples, the early church, you and me-into the story, to pick up where the story left off and to tell the good news of Jesus.
So that got me thinking. What can we do, what can you and I do to continue what Mark started? What did these women do? What did the disciples do? And for some reason, my mind stated wondering to a couple of things…Mary, the mother of Jesus, and a family wedding. So, I sought out an expert-one of our moms- Mary Claire Brass. You may not know that along with being a great mom, Mary Claire is also an amazing blogger.
Now, no one could ever fully grasp what Mary went through—seeing her son go through all of the horror she witnessed. What did she do? So I asked Mary Claire to put herself—as a mom—and see all of this through her eyes, through the eyes of Jesus’ mother. And her words are “A Mothers Hope”
A Mother's hope
She lay in deafening silence. Her heart was empty, broken. Her mind raced-the thoughts came without warning. He was bad, wrong, evil. He didn't deserve to be here in the first place, he's wasn't good enough. These were the words of others, but they were infiltrating her brain as if they were her own. She shook her head to rid herself of the doubt. It had been months, but the uncertainty still crept in.
What she knew, what she reached for was what he meant to her. But not just her-what he meant to countless others-those he touched, those he came close to, those he loved without condition, those he healed, those who believed. Her will started to come back and she lifted herself to her knees. It was still too much. The sobs came like a flood and she let them come so she could release the doubt, the fear. She embraced the condemnation of others so she could then send it away, it wasn't hers to keep. She decided right then she would love like he loved, forgive like he forgave, stand like he stood-with the weak, the poor, the broken, the sick. All as one, all as equal. How could she start? How could she heal? She reached deep within her soul or what she felt was left of it and decided bringing people together would be the only way. For the people who loved, doubted, even hated Him to come to eat and drink surrounded by his spirit, brought together by love. Love would be the only way for so many to sit down as one. She hadn't sunk so deep that she had forgotten that love was the only thing that outlives us all, the only thing that really mattered. And so she decided, people would come together for communion to remember and celebrate his sacrifice. His life for each of theirs-his life, his death, and ultimately his resurrection. And in this decision she was able to stand and raise her arms wide open to allow herself to be filled back up again. Filled with all of the things that her son was to her-belief, honor, love, forgiveness. She would replace grief with determination. Determined he'd be remembered through her eyes, through her actions, through his meal. Who she knew him to be. Her heart became full. For once again when she was totally lost, she was able to pick herself back up and open her heart. And she became filled with something she thought she had lost when she lost him. She was filled with hope.
‘For the people who loved, doubted, even hated Jesus to come together and eat and drink surrounded by His spirit brought together by love’
Pretty amazing, isn’t it. To bring people together around a table because God knows what can happen, what will happen, when we break bread together. And this brings me to a wedding. A few years ago, Marsha and I headed off to Austin Texas for the wedding of my nephew Stephen to Elisabeth. Most of us hadn’t met her, but were really looking forward to this opportunity, not only to meet her, but also to join together in this celebration of the covenant of marriage. And it was great to meet Elisabeth, and how do I describe her. Well, there is lot about her that some might not appreciate. She is a lovely young woman, wild red hair, body art, multiple piercings, wildly liberal, divorced, wants nothing to do with God, and worse of all, a huge fan of the University of Texas. But she loves my nephew, and love overlooks a lot, doesn’t it. Well, after the wedding in the park that they wanted, we all gathered for a reception at a combined yoga studio/art museum, one of their favorite places.
And as we gathered around this table, there was this family, my family. There is one sister in law, a widow, the grooms mother, who is a self ordained Pentecostal minister who uses her religion to hurt others. My brother, who isn’t sure what he believes about God anymore as he has watched his wife struggle in her 10th year of dealing with cancer that has nearly bankrupted them. Sadly and strangely, it is the same cancer that hit the Webster house up here in Kentucky. Over in the corner is a nephew, who is still struggling with the effects of some poor decisions he made a few years back-decisions that have changed his life forever. There was my sister and her husband and their 3 kids, who still miss and grieve the death of their oldest daughter Sara many years ago when she was 15. And there was my oldest sister, who pretty much embodies everything good and holy, but who wasn’t able to marry her partner because of the state she lives in.
The Webster clan is an opinionated, loud, stubborn, arguing group of people. But here we were, with all of our flaws, and our needs, and our struggles, adding one more chair around the dinner table, welcoming one more person to the family.
And as I was sitting there, breaking bread with my family, I started to see the real power of the words that Mary Claire wrote, and what the resurrection and the table are all about. It is in the midst of the brokenness, our disunity, our wounds, and our joys and love, that God brought Jesus back. Like those women, we don’t really understand what happened on that Sunday morning, we might never fully understand, we might even run away, but we gather to remember, to celebrate, to break bread, to pull up some more chairs and allow more people to be welcomes to God’s table.
Easter is a celebration for the broken, for the questioning, for the doubting, for the scared, for those who want to run away and for those who are certain, who have no questions, who have it all together. And that is the way that you and I can finish the story that Mark started. We open our arms, we pull up another chair, we welcome those we love, and those we don’t, and we share in this amazing gift of resurrection and of the table.
As Rachel Evans writes, ‘the gospel doesn’t need a coalition devoted to keeping the wrong people out. It needs a family of sinners, saved by grace, committed to tearing down walls, throwing open doors, and shouting ‘Welcome! There is bread! There is wine! Come eat with us and talk!’ This isn’t a kingdom for the worthy, it is a kingdom for the hungry. As we live in this Easter moment, we are the church speaking the word of God saying ‘I’m throwing a banquet, all those mismatched, messed up people are invited. Come and eat!’ Hmm. It is just like a family pulling an extra seat at the wedding banquet.
Friends, Easter is a celebration of the feast of God. It is God welcoming us to the table. When Jesus wanted to explain what his death and resurrection was all about, he didn’t give a theory. He didn’t give his followers a set of scriptural texts. He just gave them a meal around a table. Today we join together to discover Jesus as we sit around the table and break bread, here at this table, and also as you sit at table with your family or with friends every day.