Mark and the Movement

Sermon for Sunday, April 30, 2017 || The Feast of St. Mark (transferred) || Mark 1:1-15

After services today, we are kicking off our celebration of the 150th anniversary of St. Mark’s Church here in Mystic, Connecticut. While the church’s roots go back to the creation of a Sunday School in 1859, the traditionally accepted date for the founding of St. Mark’s jumps forward to Christmas Eve 1867 and the first service here at the Pearl Street location. Our history tells us that a wooden causeway had to be constructed that December night so members could navigate the tidal pools swirling on the lawn outside.

Of course, our church is more than this building with its simple, bright, lovely interior and occasional problems with flooding; indeed, a church is technically a gathering of people, not a location. We don’t go to church. We are church: we are a community of people gathered for mutual support, to praise and worship God, to deepen our commitment to follow Jesus Christ, and to partner with God in mission in our neighborhood. Continue reading “Mark and the Movement”

Better Angels

Sermon for Sunday, November 6, 2016 || All Saints C || Luke 6:20-31

What are the two things your grandparents told you never to talk about? Politics and religion. Well, today I’m going to break that rule. Don’t worry: I’m not going to talk about specific partisan issues or endorse candidates. Rather, I’m going to speak to a common misunderstanding about the intersection of politics and religion in America; then I’m going to talk about Jesus, who was a pretty polarizing political figure in his own right; and then we’ll finish up with some stirring words from Abraham Lincoln. Continue reading “Better Angels”

The Living Among the Dead

Sermon for Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016 || Easter C || Luke 24:1-12

thelivingamongthedeadGood morning, and welcome to St. Mark’s Church on this Feast of the Resurrection. You know, every Sunday is a Feast of the Resurrection, but today is special. Do you know why? Because today is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox – and that makes today Easter. So if a late night talk show host ever jumps out of a cab and asks you how to calculate the date of Easter, now you know.

Today is also special because of the week we’ve just had here at St. Mark’s. We’ve walked with Jesus from his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, to the last supper with his friends to his agony in the garden, to his betrayal and arrest and trial, to his crucifixion, to his burial in the tomb. We’ve been through the darkness of Good Friday; we’ve been to the foot of the cross. Now the dawn breaks on Sunday morning, and once again we set off, walking this time with the women and their spiced ointments.

I doubt they slept much the last two nights, Mary Magdalene and the other women who rose early on the first day of the week to minister to their dead Lord. Every time they shut their eyes, I’m sure they saw the silhouette of Jesus’ cross in the distance, his limp body barely recognizable because of his torturous hours hanging there. No, I doubt these women slept much, though if they did finally fall into fitful slumber, it was because they cried themselves to sleep. When all you have left is your tears, you’d want to hoard them; but that’s when they flow all the more freely.

I’m sure the tears began again when they awoke early Sunday morning. New grief is like that. Each morning you wake and remember again that your loved one is gone, and again the pain stabs you anew, just as fresh as the first time. They bear the rawness of their grief by taking on a mission; after all, staying busy is one way to soften the blow. And so the women take up their burden of fragrant spices and trudge out into the darkness in order to arrive at the tomb at first light.

Out of deep troves of love and compassion, these brave women are ready to care for the body of their Lord and to prepare it for proper burial. It turns out Mary and her friends are making the happiest mistake in the history of mistakes. They are ready to wash and anoint a lifeless body, but what they find is no body at all. They find an empty tomb. For a horrible moment, their grief threatens to overwhelm them because the mission they were planning to perform – the one they had been clinging to since his death – is gone now, too. They didn’t think they could be more desolate, but they are wrong. For this horrible moment, the empty tomb magnifies their desolation.

But into this scene of despair and grief comes the sudden presence of two gleaming messengers. They enlighten the woman as to their happy mistake: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has arisen.”

The messengers continue talking, but the women have ears only for that last word: “Arisen!” For the first time since Friday, they remember Jesus’ words, and first one, then another, then another breaks out into a tentative smile. “Could it be true?” they ask each other.

“Yes, yes, yes it could.”

“Jesus never lied to us.”

“How could we forget his words?”

Then one repeats the messengers’ question: “Why are we looking for the living among the dead?”

This question echoes down through the centuries, and we find ourselves asking it when we read the beginning of the final chapter of Luke’s account of the Gospel. Why do you look for the living among the dead? How often in our day-to-day lives could we hear the gleaming messengers ask us this question? How often do we trudge down our own well-worn paths to life-defeating things hoping this time – maybe this time – something life-affirming will happen?

Perhaps you’ve had a string of boyfriends who were real losers. Your friends tell you so at every opportunity, but you’ve got a blind spot for the proverbial bad boy. They treat you with no respect. From time to time they’ve even called you a name that I can’t say during this sermon. And yet you meet another one and all the signs are there, but you dive in headfirst anyway. To you the gleaming messengers say, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

Perhaps you’ve been sober for three months. Your sponsor hands you your chip and slaps you on the back. You’ve got a couple of other three-month chips in a drawer somewhere, but that’s not on your mind right now. On your way home from the meeting, you run into an old buddy from back in the day. The next morning, you stagger to the drawer and toss the newest chip in. Maybe you’ll get another one in a few months time, but for today your salvation is at the bottom of a bottle. To you, the messengers say, “Why do you look for living among the dead?”

Perhaps you work through your family vacation because you’ve got too many projects on your plate. Or you’ve given into the tiny fearful voice that says you’re too old or too sick or too broken to make a difference in someone else’s life. Or you spend every waking hour mindlessly surfing YouTube and Facebook and Instagram. Or…or…or… Every one of us has a few life-defeating paths that we have no trouble finding. To each of us, the messengers say, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”The Resurrection of Jesus Christ spurred this question all those centuries ago. The women made the happy mistake of looking for a dead messiah, when the Risen One was alive again. Our life-defeating paths lead to tombs, as well, but they are not empty, for our dead messiahs are there waiting to suck the life from us. But the tomb of the Risen Lord is empty, and a new, life-affirming path stretches from that tomb and reaches into eternity.

Today, on this first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox, on this special Feast of the Resurrection, we see most clearly this new, life-affirming path stretching from our feet off to the sun-drenched horizon. As we walk it together and with our Risen Lord, we will pass by so many people going the opposite way down the life-defeating paths. This may be due to their own choices or because they are caught up in systems that will never produce anything but defeat; systems of poverty, injustice, racism, apathy.

But as we walk this life-affirming path, we have the opportunity to be apostles like those brave women, to show people the power of the Risen Christ in our lives, to hook arms with folks going the other way and help turn them around. We have the opportunity to be the gleaming messengers who ask one simple question. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

And then we have the glorious opportunity to share the heart of the Good News. “He is not here, but has arisen.”

*I preached a version of this sermon at Easter in 2013. The old version had a lot of problems (mostly, it was two or three sermons smushed into one, which is a sign of lazy thinking and writing on my part). I think this rewrite fixes those things. Of course, in a few years time I might think the same thing about this version, too. And so it goes…

Good News

Sermon for Sunday, December 7, 2014 || Advent 2B || Mark 1:1-8

goodnewsThe Gospel writer Mark wastes no time telling us what his story is about. The very first words of his account of the Gospel proclaim without hesitation: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Matthew begins with a genealogy linking Jesus back to Abraham. Luke begins with a short address about his research methodology. John begins with a mysterious poem about creation. But Mark just hits the ground running and never looks back. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

Now, Mark’s Gospel tends to hurtle from one scene to the next. Everything happens immediately after everything else. The fast pace of this sixteen chapter account of the Gospel just makes me want to keep reading and get to the end as quickly as Mark seems to want me to. But if we did such a binge reading, we’d miss the depth and intricacy packed into this, the shortest of the Gospel accounts. So with this in mind and because Advent is upon us, let’s slow down for a few minutes and really digest this first verse: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

In today’s parlance, when we hear the term “good news,” the two words are usually embedded in the sentence: “Well, I’ve got some good news and some bad news.” We’ve all used this conversational staple.

“The good news is the rest of this week will be lovely; the bad news is next week we’re in for a Nor’ Easter.”

“The good news is no one was seriously hurt in the accident; the bad news is the car was totaled.”

“The good news is I found the recipe; the bad news is we’re out of eggs.”

In meetings, around kitchen tables, on the bus, we use the words “good news” to talk about the sometimes funny, sometimes bland, sometimes serious details of our lives. These two words are so ordinary, so normal. Because they sound so common, I wonder how we encounter the words “good news” when we hear them right at the beginning of Mark’s account of the Gospel. Perhaps Mark is really excited about the story he’s going to tell. Perhaps Mark is employing a specific term that Jesus’ himself or his first followers used to describe his message. Either way, Mark is almost certainly doing something that we 21st century citizens would miss entirely because of our modern connotation of “good news.”

You see, in the first century Roman Empire, of which Israel was an occupied region, the term “good news” had a special connotation. The word was used exclusively for propaganda about the empire and usually about the Roman emperor himself.

“Good News: the Emperor won a victory in Gaul!”

“Good News: the Emperor’s wife has given birth to a strapping infant boy!”

“Good News: the Emperor has had another birthday!”

The Roman propaganda machine churned out these ancient press releases, and the strong arm of the military bade the cowed citizenry of occupied countries to celebrate. This was one small way that the Empire kept control of all that conquered land.

So when Jesus and later Mark proclaim their own “Good News,” they are tacitly setting their story, their message, their view of who’s really in charge squarely in the face of the Roman establishment. The “Good News,” which Jesus and his followers proclaim, is a stark challenge to the ruling order of the day. Indeed, Mark shows his faith and his gutsiness in the simple act of writing those two rebellious words on the page.

Okay, file this stark challenge away for just a minute and let’s back up to the first two words in the verse: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The beginning. These two words seem completely innocuous. They obviously start the story. They’re on page one. They would have been at the top of the scroll in Mark’s day. So then why does Mark need to tell us that we are reading the beginning of the story when we are obviously reading the beginning of the story?

Perhaps Mark isn’t just stating the obvious. Perhaps this “beginning” is greater than “the opening verses of Chapter One.” Perhaps the “beginning” that Mark has in mind encompasses the entirety of his sixteen-chapter Gospel. Now we’re on to something.

If the whole, entire Gospel is the “beginning of the good news,” then the natural question becomes, “What is the middle and end of the good news?” And this is where followers of Jesus Christ down through the centuries come in. Jesus lived the beginning of the Good News. Mark, along with Matthew, Luke, and John, wrote down the story of that beginning. And you and I are characters in the middle of that same story begun two thousand years ago. You and I are players in the unfolding drama of the Good News. You and I have taken up the narrative of the Gospel that God continues to tell in our lives.

All right, go ahead and un-file the stark challenge we talked about a minute ago. Remember that Mark’s usage of the term “Good News” was a gutsy, implicit challenge to the ruling order of the day. This ruling order touted their empire as the “Pax Romana,” the “peace of Rome.” Of course, this “peace” was accomplished through conquest, coercion, occupation, and fear. But Jesus Christ replaced this so-called “peace” with a peace of his own invention. Jesus’ own Good News, his own triumph was accomplished through welcome, healing, sacrifice, and love.

Of course, when these two versions of “peace” clashed, the broken, imperial establishment utterly crushed Jesus. However, by not fighting back, by sacrificing himself to halt the cycle of violence, Jesus succeeded in his challenge, even though he died. But even then, the story was just beginning. With his resurrection, Jesus demonstrated that his version of the Good News is truly the Good one. As characters who have now appeared later in this same narrative, we have the opportunity to take up the same challenge that Jesus and Mark after him championed. The Pax Romana of our day rules through apathy, self-centeredness, greed, and fear. But when find ourselves in the middle of the story begun in the Gospel, we find the strength and courage to combat those evils with Jesus’ own arsenal of welcome, healing, sacrifice, and love.

This opening verse of Mark’s Gospel invites us once again to read the prologue to our own lives as followers of Jesus Christ. This beginning of the Good News gives us who live in the middle our meaning and our purpose and the promise that we are part of the great story of God’s mission to reconcile all creation back to God. The Good News was a challenge in Jesus’ day. And it still is in ours. But we’re up for the challenge because once the Good News of Jesus Christ has lodged itself in your heart, you can’t help but share it in your words and in your deeds.

Now, I’ll end this sermon with some good news and some bad news. Which do you want first? The bad news. Sure. The bad news is there’s still so much brokenness in this world, so many places where God’s reconciling love seems so far away. The good news is that with God’s help, we can challenge the ruling order of our day and bring the wholeness of this reconciliation to those broken places. The good news is that we are the current characters in the story begun in the Gospel. The good news is that the story isn’t over yet.

My Pavlovian response to the word “evangelical”

There’s a good chance I’m about to get incredibly soap-boxy, but I’m going to try my best to fight that tendency.

Do you remember the WABAC (“way-back”) machine on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show? You know, the segment with the professorial dog and the red-headed kid who asked inane questions. If I could join Peabody and Sherman for a jaunt in their time machine, I would go back to the very hour that the word “evangelical” started being synonymous with “conservative” and attempt to stop the connection. I would fail, of course, like the guy in the movie version of The Time Machine who tries to save his wife’s life because of the temporal paradox. (i.e. If I succeed peabodyand sever the connection between “evangelical” and “conservative” I’d never have to go back in time to make the attempt, thus the words would be connected, thus I’d go back in time and sever them, thus I’d not need to go back in time…you get the point. I’ve said it before — Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the only book I’ve ever read with a truly well-reasoned time travel plot.)

Okay, I apologize for that stunning example of my ability to digress. I could delete it, but then I’d have no reason to use the picture of Sherman and Peabody. Let’s begin again.

You know how some people say “taxi,” some say “cab” and some say “taxi-cab,” but they all mean those yellow cars that you have to pay to ride in? The same thing has happened with the words “evangelical” and “conservative.” The media combine these two words in various permutations when discussing moral, ethical, or religious issues, and they bank on quickly instilling in your mind the vague image of a bellowing reactionary picketing an abortion clinic with a sign that says “Jesus hates gays.” Some media outlets do this so you will know to disagree with such “evangelicals”; others do it so you’ll know to agree. I’m not sure about you, but the image of the sign-wielding picketer has reached Pavlovian proportions in my mind. The fact that the image is a caricatured worst-case scenario is lost on a population conditioned to react strongly (one way or the other) to the word “evangelical.”

The current connotations of the word “evangelical” could not be further from what the word once meant. Peabody and Sherman could jump into the WABAC machine and travel to Mark’s house in about the year 65 and find the word in the fresh ink of the first line of Mark’s account of the Gospel. “The beginning of the euangelion of Jesus Christ.” Euangelion — one etymological hop and a few millennia brings us to “Evangelical.” Do you see the word “angel” in the middle there? That’s the Greek word for news or message. And the “ev-” at the beginning used to be “eu-” as in “eulogy” (good word/speech) or “[e]utopia” (good place/land).  This beautiful word — this word that has been co-opted, dragged through the mud of bigotry, and associated with narrow-mindedness and hate — used to mean “good news.”

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. Not “The beginning of the reactionary bigotry of Jesus Christ.” Not “The beginning of the messy-ideology-of-hate of Jesus Christ.” Good News. Gospel.

I want the word “evangelical” back. I wish I could call myself an “evangelical” without being handed a “Jesus hates gays” sign in someone else’s mind. Of course, I am not saying that everyone who self-identifies as an “evangelical” hates gay people or thinks Harry Potter is the most inherently evil thing since evolution. These are facile characterizations that discount the good that “evangelicals” do in the world. But, as I see it, there is a latent schizophrenia in the “evangelical movement” that leads to simultaneous digging of wells in African villages and campaigning for Prop 8. Mix in the media’s fostering of the image of the sign-wielding picketer and the blustering of certain conservative demagogues, and the rebranding of “evangelical” is complete.

I have no illusion that the word “evangelical” will ever mean what it once did.  Words are collections of sounds and signs by which we signify objects, thoughts, and feelings, and these significations can change over time. Did you know that “happy” used to mean “lucky?” Juliet’s line “O happy dagger” (as in “O lucky weapon that I happened to find lying next to me”) makes more sense that way, right?

But this is a cautionary tale. If “evangelical” can take on such a twisted meaning, what’s next?

Notes

* You may wonder what spurred me to write this today. Well, to be honest, I’m a little bummed that Barack Obama picked Rick Warren to do the invocation at the inauguration. (I know that The Purpose Driven Life has sold millions of copies and helped a lot of people. But I can get on board with very little that Warren preaches or stands for.) Because of this announcement, the word “evangelical” has been on the news about 917 since yesterday.

** I edited out several very snarky pieces of this entry before publishing it. I still think I got too soap-boxy, but what can ya do?