Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Ecstatic Community

My sermon preached at Epiphany on Easter Sunday, 2012

“Alleluia! Christ is… missing? Christ is missing indeed? Alleluia?”

That might be a more appropriate acclamation for the Easter story in the Gospel of Mark than “Christ is risen.” You all came to church today to hear a resurrection story… but instead, Mark gave us an empty tomb story. Mark is the earliest of the four Gospels to be written, and the author did not give us a clear resurrection appearance like Matthew, Luke, and John. The very last words of the entire Gospel of Mark are the very last words we heard today in the Gospel: “For they were afraid.” In order to believe in the resurrection, we have to trust the word of the young man in white; and we have to trust that Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome got over their fear enough to tell the other disciples, go to Galilee, and see the risen Jesus. This was so disturbing for subsequent editors of the Bible that they “corrected” Mark’s omission, tacking on an ending more like Matthew’s a few centuries later. Scholars have since found older copies of the Gospel that end here, in fear.

But fear is not a bad place to end in 2012. There is plenty of fear in our world today. Fear about where the global and domestic economy is heading; a lack of trust in institutions, leaders, and government; violence and discrimination at home; terrorism—both past and threatening the future; wars ongoing, concluded, and looming. We know what it is to feel afraid, and to be uncertain about how the story will end: will there be a glorious reunion in Galilee, or will we get to Galilee and discover that Jesus is not there? Or will we be so afraid that we don’t even go to Galilee to see if Jesus will meet us there? The ambiguity of Mark’s ending mirrors the ambiguity of our own time.

When we are faced with these fears, how do we respond? Do we retreat or do we move forward? I never thought I would quote John Wayne in a sermon—certainly not in an Easter sermon. But the Duke said: “Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.” When we’re scared to death—God calls us to act with courage.

Now, courage isn’t a word or concept the Gospels have much to say about. The Hebrew Bible is full of the word “courage” as this person and that person “take courage” and act in faith. But the Gospels only use the word “courage” once—the Gospels are not centered on individual acts of valor or bravery. Where courage comes into it is in the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles which talk about encouragement a lot—we are called to encourage one another—to give each other courage. In the Christian life, courage is a collective endeavor, something you give to others, not something you do on your own. To hold hands, to stand behind, to lift up each other so that we believe we are capable of all that God desires for us. It is no accident that Mark has not one person but three go to the tomb: any of the women by themselves might have been overcome by their fear and not ultimately responded with faith. But with three of them to encourage one another, the good news could be shared later. The two Marys and Salome must have encouraged one another to share the message with Peter and the other disciples, so that even though they were afraid when they left the tomb and didn’t want to tell anyone, by the time they returned to the city, they had found their courage and were able to tell what they had seen—because there’s obviously more to the story than Mark records, or we wouldn’t be here today.

Can we, too, have the courage of our faith? The courage that the story doesn’t end, even when the words on the page do—the courage that God really does love us, intimately, even when we are broken? Can we have courage as people who worship the prince of Peace, that war and violence are not inevitable; that for people who worship the one who fed 5000 people with 5 loaves and two fish hunger is not inevitable; courage that as people who follow the one who suffered and died and rose again that our personal struggles may be horrific, but that they end not with the cross but with the resurrection? I believe we can.

In the face of every legitimate and practical and obvious answer why we should conform to the world and give up on these things, to believe takes incredible courage. As much courage as it did for Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome to overcome their fear that Jesus’ body had been stolen and instead to repeat the words of the man in white that Jesus would see them in Galilee. And then to pick up, travel to Galilee, and meet Jesus there. Believing isn’t just in your head, or even just in your heart. It’s something you do with your feet and your hands.

If we don’t believe that peace, ending hunger, healing, compassion—can be possible, then they won’t be. We can participate in the self-fulfilling prophecy of the world, which says that what’s sexy sells, image is everything, greed is good, violence has answers… or we can have the courage to preach a different Gospel; the gospel of Jesus of Nazareth, who has been raised, and who will see us in Galilee.

If that’s the gospel you want to believe in, that you want to share, that you hear Jesus preaching in every story in the Gospels, then this is the day to celebrate that and the place to do it. Epiphany is—and I pray will be ever more every day and every year—a place where we believe with courage. And audacity. Where we feed the poor. Where we send kids in Tanzania to school. Where we educate children at our Day School. Where we make beautiful music, offered for the glory of God. Where we welcome strangers into our fellowship and worship every week. Where we care for the sick in local hospitals both as medical professionals and as spiritual caregivers. Where we take seriously the New Commandment to love one another as Jesus has loved us, in a community that is young and old, rich and poor, gay and straight, black, white and every color in between.

There can be no closed door or impossibility in our own lives that is more closed or impossible than the simple fact of Jesus’ death. Jesus is dead. The women go to the tomb not to greet him but to anoint his decomposing body as a final act of love. But it is in their loving and courageous compassion—going out late Saturday night to buy ointments and spices, getting up early on Sunday morning to get to the tomb, with no real plan for how to roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb—it is in that act of compassion that the door is opened for something so much greater. The announcement of the resurrection by the man in white—the angel, as inexplicable characters dressed in white usually are meant to be understood.

Mark says today that the women at the tomb were seized with “terror and amazement” at the message of that man in white. A better translation than “terror and amazement” might be “trembling and ecstasy”. The Greek is tromos kai ekstasis. That courageous community of the first three witnesses of the resurrection is an ecstatic community.

Now, if you googled the term, “ecstatic community” you probably wouldn’t find churches—I know that’s a phrase I didn’t want listed on the history of my work computer’s google browser, so I didn’t dare look it up. And yet that is what we are called to be. A community that trembles with ecstasy. A community that knows deeply what it is to be afraid—that doesn’t wear rose colored glasses, and sees the daunting reality ahead of us. But also a community that embodies joy from head to toe. A courageous, ecstatic community, continuing the tradition of the Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, by living the gospel, practicing compassion, and loving one another as he loved us. And when we encourage one another like that, it is then that we can proclaim with confidence that Christ is risen… not missing. Because he is here, in our midst, in every one of you, in me, and in all the space in between. So Alleluia! Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

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