God the Gardener

God the Gardener

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; April 29, 2018

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Acts 8:26-40; John 15:1-8

 

Guinn and Janice Hollingshead, Kinney’s parents, were incredible gardeners. Honestly, I think they could have brought dead twigs back to life. When they retired, gardening became the task that drove them from sunrise to sunset. Rose gardens, flower gardens, an herb garden, a vegetable garden—everything was neat and tidy—hardly a weed in sight. They even had holding beds of plants that they would relocate at the perfect time to assure there was always something blooming on the front lawn for visitors to enjoy.

 

Gardening was Guinn and Janice’s passion. It is a passion of God’s as well. God the Gardener, God the Vinedresser—these are images of God that are woven throughout Hebrew Scripture. And Israel is often likened to God’s chosen vine. In a covenant made with Abraham, promises are made. God keeps them. Israel does not. God’s chosen vine repeatedly disobeys and disappoints—refusing to allow the Master Gardener to lead, guide, and direct. Judges warn of God’s pruning hand. Prophets offer reminders of what God requires: “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”[i] But the people refuse to listen. All seems lost until, in God’s good time, a new vine is planted—Jesus. Jesus will not disappoint but will humbly bow to the will of his Abba Father’s hand. He will remain faithful to the Master Gardener to the end, which, of course, will be only the beginning.

 

Our Gospel reading for today gives us the last I AM statement Jesus makes to his disciples: “I AM the true vine, and my father is the vine grower…I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” As one commentator puts it, Jesus makes clear he is not God, but he is intimately connected to God. Without God, even Jesus recognizes, he has “no life, no ministry, and no mission.”[ii] God is the vine grower…Jesus is the vine…we are the branches. Herein, we are offered an invitation to examine our lives and consider whether we are abiding in Christ—for abiding is our one duty. If we obey, then the fruit will grow of its own accord.

 

But what does it mean to abide? It means to remain, to stay, to live, to dwell. In remaining close to Jesus, the vine, a kind of abiding in God occurs that results in shalom—peace, wholeness, health. As the church, by abiding in Jesus, we become woven into the texture of one another’s lives. Obviously, we come to the church as individuals. I haven’t had your life experiences. You haven’t had mine. Yet here we are, branches, learning day by day to live and grow together. Too often though, people approach the church with one question in mind, “What can this church do for me?” without ever asking the follow-up question, “And how might I contribute to this community?”

 

For Jesus, the Kingdom of God is all about community—a community characterized by living in love and bearing the fruit of love—a community characterized by interconnection and interdependence. In the words of an African proverb, “Because we are, I am.” Only by abiding in Jesus and growing together can we become a community that produces a bountiful harvest—a bountiful harvest for God, the Vine-grower. For in the end, it’s not about us. It’s about God. It’s about bringing glory to the Gardener as we abide in Jesus and grow more and more into his likeness.

While it is our work to abide, it is the vine grower’s job to prune; to cleanse; to cast off the dead wood. But the idea of being pruned, cut back, or made to grow in a direction not of our own choosing seems harsh. We don’t want to be cut back. We don’t want to be pruned.

 

Years ago, Kinney’s parents gave us two Rose of Sharon shrubs. Although they started out small, in time they began to bloom, profusely. The blossoms would appear in June and remain throughout most of the summer. One lovely fall day Kinney decided to prune the Rose of Sharon shrubs. I didn’t think much about it—but I should have. You know where this is going, don’t you? A little while later, I walked out the back door to find my two lovely Rose of Sharon shrubs cut nearly to the ground—the forsythia, too. Needless to say, Kinney does not “prune” much anymore. In fact, one year when we were making plans to vacation in Tennessee, our oldest son, Samuel, texted: “Mom, don’t worry. I am pruning the shrubbery before you arrive!”

 

But even when pruning is done correctly, the process often leaves vines, shrubs, or trees looking a bit forlorn. Yet those who know a lot about vineyards say that the sweetest fruit is found near the root of the plant, where the nutrients are most concentrated. Pruning focuses the growth of the vine to where it needs to be, close to its life-source. And while pruning is necessary for plant health, it’s necessary for our spiritual health, too. Jesus says to those who follow him, “You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.” Then he continues, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish and it will be done for you.” The pruning tool of the Father-vine grower is the word. When this word shapes us, the result is a life that produces good fruit in abundance.[iii]

 

But notice, by the grace of God, we don’t bear fruit on our own. Kinney’s mom and dad’s vegetables didn’t plant themselves or make themselves grow. Neither can we make ourselves bear fruit. We are unable to muster up the energy and power alone. Instead, we are to remain close to Jesus and allow our Source of strength to bring forth fruit through us. This is how we, the branches, will bear fruit that will bless others, fruit that will show the world what a community built on love really looks like!

 

John’s Gospel begins with, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him…” These words describe Jesus, who invites us to abide in him. Oh, the mystery of God’s love. Jesus calls us close. He calls us to be honest with him, with ourselves, and with one another. In the presence of Christ, we can learn to dwell—sharing our hopes and fears, our dreams and disappointments, our successes and failures. Jesus, the Son of God, reveals to us the deep love the Father has for this world. And because of his love and acceptance of us, we can love and accept one another, knowing that we are all imperfect and yet, beloved.

 

Jesus, the True Vine, calls us to abundant life that is made possible because of his obedient sacrifice. Remember his words on that last night in the Upper Room, “This is my blood, poured out for you.” At the Last Supper, the fruit of the vine became the drink poured out, representing the amazing bearing of fruit Jesus was about to accomplish. Still we gather around the table as branches to be nourished by this one True Vine. Indeed, as the church, we are a Eucharistic Community. Like Jesus, we are poured out for others. Like Jesus, we are nourished by God and equipped by the Spirit to produce a bountiful harvest.

 

I invite you to hear the words of Jesus once more, from Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message:

 

I am the Real Vine and my Father is the Farmer. He cuts off every branch of me that doesn’t bear grapes. And every branch that is grape-bearing he prunes back so it will bear even more. You are already pruned back by the message I have spoken. Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you. In the same way that a branch can’t bear grapes by itself but only by being joined to the vine, you can’t bear fruit unless you are joined with me. I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you’re joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated, you can’t produce a thing. Anyone who separates from me is deadwood, gathered up and thrown on the bonfire. But if you make yourselves at home with me and my words are at home in you, you can be sure that whatever you ask will be listened to and acted upon. This is how my Father shows who he is—when you produce grapes, when you mature as my disciples.

 

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[i] Micah 6:8.

[ii] Barbara J. Essex, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2.

[iii] Joyce Ann Zimmerman, ed. at http://liturgy.slu.edu/5EasterB050612/theword_working.html

*Cover Art “True Vine”  © Stushie; used with subscription

 

The Shepherd and the Wolf

The Shepherd and the Wolf

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; April 1, 2018

Fourth Sunday of Easter

Acts 4:5-12; John 10:11-18

 

“I AM the good shepherd,” Jesus says, echoing Yahweh’s response to Moses at the burning bush. God’s name will be the calling card Moses uses to enter enemy territory and rescue God’s people from oppression. Tell Pharaoh, “I AM” sent you. In the Gospel of John, Jesus offers seven sets of names to help would-be followers to understand just whom they’re following. I AM the bread of life, the light of the world, the gate, the resurrection and the life, the way, the truth and the life, the vine, and, I AM the good shepherd. Each of these metaphors helps us understand the nature of God’s grace in a deeper way. “The triune grace,” writes Marva Dawn, “that rescues, restores, establishes, nourishes, indwells, enlightens, guides, protects, saves and raises us.”[i]

 

I AM the Good Shepherd! For those of us who have never tended sheep (and I do not think I am going out on a limb here to say that’s most of us)—we have a hard time wrapping our minds around what it means to be a shepherd. Most people, on this side of the globe, have a romantic notion of the whole thing. We may imagine young David, sitting with his sheep, pulling out his mini-harp and singing lullabies to his fluffy flock. Perhaps when we think of a shepherd, what comes to mind is Jesus with a helpless lamb draped around his shoulders, caring so tenderly for it—and thereby, for us. However, the truth is being a shepherd in the 1st Century was not a warm and fuzzy affair. It was dangerous, risky, hard work. Also, keep in mind, by referring to himself as a shepherd, Jesus aligned himself with the least socialized, least educated, and least polished of society. Most assuredly, the Pharisees and scribes are not lining up at the Temple University registrar office dying to take a class in “The Wonders of Wool.” One commentator claims that a modern-day equivalent of Jesus saying, “I am the good shepherd,” might be, “I am the good migrant worker.”[ii] Yet, this is the image Jesus offers, for the Son of God has always been and will always be concerned about the most vulnerable in society.

 

If Jesus is the good shepherd, what does that make us? If we are living as we should, that makes us the dutiful sheep. Although sheep are not known for their intelligence, we need not take offense at being referred to as sheep. Truly, there are aspects of their nature that we would be wise to imitate. For example, when Barbara Brown Taylor compares the behavior of cattle to sheep, she notes that cows are herded from behind with shouts and prods from the cowboys. On the other hand, sheep prefer to be led. In fact, if you stand behind sheep making noises, they’ll just run around behind you. Taylor writes, “Sheep seem to consider their shepherds part of the family, and the relationship that grows up between the two is quite exclusive. They develop a language of their own that outsiders are not privy to.”[iii] And what are the tools of the shepherd? The shepherd uses a rod to ward off evil and a staff to snatch the sheep from danger. This is the care that the sheep depend upon so, have no doubt, they know the voice of their trusted shepherd.

 

Another character in this story is the hired hand; the hireling. This is someone, who is not emotionally connected to the sheep, so when danger comes, he darts off in a flash.  In the historical context, it is likely that he represents the religious leaders of the day who are not caring for God’s people as they should.

 

And then, there is the wolf —the big, bad wolf. It’s easy to overlook him in the story, but he bears a second glance. Listen once again to Jesus’ words: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd, and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.” The wolf snatches. The wolf scatters. Who is the wolf? The wolf represents anything that intentionally seeks to harm the sheep—think Satan—think the Devil—think Evil—its names are legion.

 

If we spend much time at all considering Satan—the Devil—Evil—we may end up at the final battle fought between good and evil as it is played out in Revelation. Let me just say, with a background in a conservative, evangelical tradition, I have heard some dreadful sermons preached from Revelation. But a dynamic Presbyterian preacher renewed my faith that good preaching from Revelation is possible. The sermon, preached by Dr. Brian Blount, President of Union Presbyterian Seminary, focused on Revelation 12. In the text, the woman gives birth and the dragon comes after her, with tail sweeping; seeking to devour the baby. But the child is snatched away and taken to God, and the woman is protected. But the angry dragon goes off to make war on the rest of her children, the rest of the children of God. With our modern-day sensibilities (being so smart and all) we have trouble taking this dragon stuff seriously. After all, Dr. Blount admitted, “There’s no such thing as a dragon…not in Rwanda, not in Baghdad…not in Somalia, not in North Korea, not in Iran…[not in Syria], NOT in the United States, not in the real world…There is no such thing as a dragon.”[iv]

 

And if there is no dragon threatening the world, surely there is nothing to worry about in the church. But look at the church! Dr. Blount shared that with all the gasping and heaving going on in the church, it reminded him of the movie Pirates of the Caribbean. At one point in the movie, the sunlight betrays the ghostly figure of the villain Captain Hector Barbossa and he says to the lovely Miss Elizabeth Swan, whom he has kidnapped: “You best be believin’ in ghost stories, Missy. Cause you’re in one.”[v]

 

Essentially, John is saying to those of us who read his Revelation: “You best be believing in dragon stories, Christian. Cause you’re in one.” It reminds me of the dangerous character alluded to in our text from the Gospel of John. Now, you might say that wolves are real, and dragons aren’t. Point taken! But they both represent evil; they both represent the powers that are eager to harm anyone who follows the Good Shepherd. So as your pastor, let me offer a word of warning, “You best be believing there are wolves, Christian, cause they are lurking about.”

 

With an increase in secularism, with many churches too small to even afford pastors, with a world that seems to be spinning out of control—yes, you best be believing there are wolves, Christian. Now, lest you think your pastor has had some mysterious religious experience that has left her a card-carrying Holy-Roller, take heart. It isn’t so! But I concur with C.S. Lewis who wrote, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.”[vi]

 

We are foolish if we think there is nothing rushing about to and fro threatening the church of Jesus Christ. But we are even more foolish if we do not recognize who has ultimate power. Five times in our reading from the Gospel of John, Jesus refers to laying down his life. Furthermore, he says, “I lay down my life for the sheep…I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”

 

While there are many things in the world and in our culture that threaten to undo us, there is danger inside the church, too. There is danger when we fight with one another and lose our witness to the world. There is danger when we rest on our laurels because we are convinced change is unnecessary—we have always done it this way—and this way is fine, thank you very much! There is danger when we pretend everything is okay and refuse to speak the truth in love—instead of dealing with issues that are sure to arise wherever fallen, forgiven people (aka Christians) gather.

 

If the church—if we—are under spiritual attack, what should we do? Well, we could start by acting like sheep, staying as close to the shepherd as we can get. We need to hear his voice, and I know of no better way to do that than to be people of fervent prayer—calling out to the shepherd and listening for the response. Now here’s where the preacher goes from preaching to meddling. Let’s stop for a moment and examine our prayer life. Are we praying for one another? When I was installed here as your pastor, you promised you would pray for me and I promised I would pray for you. How are we doing in this regard? Consistently, are we praying for the life and health of First Presbyterian Church? Are we praying that when challenges come our way, we will speak the truth in love? Are we praying to be a witness to God’s mercy and grace in this community and beyond?
Jesus is the Good Shepherd. He will speak. He will guide. He will protect. He has the power. At the cross, Jesus did not have his life stolen from him. He offered it freely. And for what? For a bunch of clueless, helpless sheep in need of a Good Shepherd! O, that we may hear his voice and follow! In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[i] Marva J. Dawn, Gospel of John Commentary in the Life-With-God Bible, NRSV, 154.

[ii] Nancy R. Blakely, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, 450.

[iii]Blakely, Feasting on the Word, quoting Barbara Brown Taylor, 450.

[iv] Dr. Brian Blount, “Call of Duty” preached at Seminary Sunday, Richmond VA, 4/22/12

[v] Ibid.

[vi] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

*Cover Art Stained Glass Window at First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta, GA;

“Easter Affirmation” written by John Birch, and posted at www.faithandworship.com/

 

Easter Life

Easter Life

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; April 8, 2018

2nd Sunday of Easter

                          Acts 4:32-35 and John 20:19-31

 

 

Easter has come and gone. Or has it? The liturgical calendar tells us that we are now in the Season of Easter—7 weeks that conclude at Pentecost—50 days for us to examine what it means to be Easter people—what it means to live an Easter life!

 

Our reading from the Gospel of John occurs on the first day of the week. It is still Sunday. Earlier in the chapter, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb to find the stone rolled away and the body of Jesus missing. She runs to tell Peter and John. They run to the tomb and find that her words are true. Peter and John return to their homes, while Mary stands at the tomb weeping until Jesus appears. She only recognizes him when he speaks her name, “Mary.” Then Mary rushes to tell the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”

 

That same evening the disciples are in the house together. If they really believed Mary’s story it has had little impact because they are still locked behind closed doors in fear of the Jews. Then, Jesus comes among them. “Peace be with you,” he says. To prove his identity, he shows them his hands and side and then, “Peace be with you,” he says again. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” He breathes the Holy Spirit upon them, transforming them, as one commentator puts it, from those who follow (disciples) to those who are sent (apostles).[i]

 

They will now represent Jesus to the world. Yet, a week later, they are still behind closed doors. Not much has changed except they have told Thomas they have seen the Lord. He refuses to believe them though, going so far as to say that he will need to do more than see the wounds to believe; he will have to touch them. Into their midst, again Jesus appears offering words of peace and offering himself to Thomas. “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” A better translation might be: “Do not be unbelieving but believing.”[ii]

 

Down through the ages, Thomas has been stamped with the name Doubting Thomas, but who Thomas is in the story is not nearly as important as who Jesus is. Certainly, Jesus has every right to scold Thomas since he has been told repeatedly by Jesus himself that Jesus will return. At the very least, we might expect Jesus to show his disappointment in Thomas, and all the others for that matter. But that is not what Jesus does. Instead, he walks through a closed door to get to Thomas. Jesus meets Thomas where he is, and Jesus does what he does so well—he offers himself, in love.

 

The disciples receive the Easter message and they are called to respond to it. Just as he was sent by his Abba Father, Jesus sends them into the world to spread the good news. These are big shoes to fill. Are they up to the task? Not at first! A week after Jesus makes his resurrection known, the disciples remain paralyzed by their circumstances. They may have been called to live as Easter people, but they are not yet capable of doing so. But, in time, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we know that they do.  Eventually, these same men who fell asleep when they should have been praying, who denied Jesus when they should have proclaimed him as Lord, who abandoned him when they should have clung to his side—these same men become so sure of Resurrection hope for all people, that most of them will die as martyrs because of their faith in Christ as the Risen Savior.

 

Today, some 2000 years later, how do we represent Jesus to the world? How do we live the Easter life? Do we live like we believe that Jesus has made all things new or do we celebrate Easter as just another holiday on the calendar? Do we live in hope or do we look at the state of the world and the state of the church and let a vocabulary of death creep in and push Easter out the door?[iii] Through the waters of baptism, we are claimed as God’s children. We are followers of Jesus, and even in our crazy mixed-up world, we are witnesses. We can be a witness by serving as a missionary in a far-away land or by serving the needy in Valdosta. We can teach a Sunday school class, sing in the choir, share our own experience of God’s love with someone who needs a word of hope…In large ways and small ways, we participate in God’s story of love for all people.

 

Erich, who was born with Down’s Syndrome, was in his early 50’s by the time I became his pastor. Soon health problems began to emerge so that he was frequently away on Sunday mornings due to an illness or a hospital stay. But when he returned—let me just say—he did so with flair. Bursting through the doorway with arms flung wide, Erich would announce at the top of his lungs, “I’m back!” You see, Erich loved church. In fact, his mother was convinced he would have been a preacher if things had been different. For Erich, being in God’s house was special, so special he insisted on wearing his suit coat and tie. Everything had to be just right and then, “I’m back!”  By his actions, he showed his heart’s yearning to be in God’s house. Erich was a witness!

 

Day in and day out, we have a choice to make. How will we live this Easter life? In our modern world when there are so many choices of places to be and things to do on any given Sunday morning, one radical, counter-cultural way that we can be faithful witnesses is simply to show up.[iv] Think about it! Perhaps just being here says the thing we need to say most: Gathering as a community of believers to pray and confess and hear God’s word, and worship—it matters. Just showing up matters. And if we are away for a while, returning is important! We might even return with a little flair, “I’m back!”

 

Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! And not only on Easter. Christ is risen every day of our lives, every day for all of eternity. We stand in a long line of saints who have proclaimed to the watching world: “Jesus has made a difference in my life and he can make a difference in yours, too. There is hope! Come and see!”

 

One week after his resurrection, Jesus meets Thomas where he is and provides what he needs. Neither Thomas’ skepticism nor the closed door can keep Jesus out. Finally, when Thomas recognizes him and proclaims, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus responds, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Jesus pronounces a blessing on those who will come to believe down through the ages. He pronounces a blessing upon us. Through God’s grace we have accepted the Easter message as true: Jesus has been raised from the dead and now life can be lived—not in fear—but in joy because nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God.

 

It is a messy world we live in. Wars continue; the global economy shifts from day to day, and the future of our young people causes us concern. Yet, there is hope if we take up the mantle handed to us and continue to love in the name of Jesus. As representatives of Jesus to the world, we are called to live an Easter life! And, by the power of the Holy Spirit, living an Easter life transforms us—inspires us.

 

Joseph T. Nolan has written a poem that speaks of the hope Christ planted in our hearts with his words, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

 

We have not seen…and we believe

We believe in God whom we do not see

because of Jesus who was seen

and people who live by his Spirit.

 

We believe in God whom we do not see

because of truth and beauty,

love, goodness, and integrity,

which makes the divine a part of human life.

 

We believe in the Spirit we cannot see

because we see the Creator Spirit

at work in our lives

and hear the Spirit’s voice in our silence.

 

We believe in the earth and its people

in spite of the evil we see

because we have shared their goodness.

 

We believe in the church we see

with its saints and sinners

because it has given us the Word

and gathered us in the breaking of bread.

 

We believe in a providence we do not always see

because God made us,

and here we are,

with [countless] years behind us.

 

We believe in the resurrection

in spite of the death we see

because we have been raised up many times,

and passed from death to life.

 

We believe in God whom we do not see

because of the One who said,

“He who sees me sees the Father.”

 

We have seen him in our humanity,

in his risen body,

and we believe. [v]

 

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[i] Ibid, D. Cameron Murchison, 402.

[ii] Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol.2, Beverly Roberts Gaventa

[iii] Feasting on the Word, Gail R. O’Day, 405

[iv] A prophetic word shared by Father David Teschner during Lectionary Group

[v] Joseph T. Nolan, Let the Earth Rejoice: Scripture, Prayers and Poems for the More Abundant Life, Thomas More Publishing, 2002, pp.23-24.

*Cover Art “Christ Shows Himself to Thomas” by Rowan and Irene LeCompte from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54879

The Risen Son

The Risen Son

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; April 1, 2018

Resurrection Sunday

Acts 10:34-43; Mark 16:1-8

 

Without a doubt, the most challenging sermon to preach in the entire Christian year is the one preached Easter Sunday. For one thing, because the message is critical to our Christian story, there is a lot of pressure to tell it rightly. For another, Easter tends to draw all sorts of people into the church—those who have heard the story a thousand times; those who have seldom heard it; even those who have never heard it. Yes, this is an important day in the life of God’s people. With so much hanging in the balance, maybe the best approach is the KISS method—you know, “Keep it Simple, Silly.” Using the KISS method, then, it seems to me the pressure is off because the simplest and the most important words have already been spoken: “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!” With these words still hanging in the air, then, I guess my work is done. Happy Easter! (With hands raised in blessing, start to leave the pulpit.)

 

April Fool!

 

Isn’t it bizarre that Easter falls on April Fool’s Day this year? On the other hand, maybe there is no better pairing. After all, the joke is on Satan, the joke is on Evil, the joke is on Death. In her book, Wearing God, Lauren Winner writes:

 

Jesus’ crucifixion was layered with…irony—calling Him king, clothing Him in mock-royal garb. But if Jesus’ elevation was mocked by the Roman [authorities], that very mocking was in turn undone by the resurrection. It was not the Romans who had the last laugh.[i]

 

It was not the Romans who had the last laugh. It was not the religious leaders who had the last laugh. It was God! For with the rising of God’s Son, Christ was victorious and through him, abundant life is available to all of us for all time! Therefore, in a host of different languages, today the greeting resounds around the world: “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!”  Easter marks the beginning of Christianity. Without Easter, there would be no Gospel; no Good News to proclaim. Without Easter there would be no reason for us to be here this morning in this church—there would be no church—and all would be lost.

 

All seemed lost that first Easter morn, when Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome headed out to tend to the body of their Lord. These same women, along with others, had looked on from a distance that Friday that seemed anything but good. They had watched while all their hopes and dreams of new life were nailed to a cross!   In 1st Century Palestine, it naturally fell to women to care for the bodies of the deceased. So, after the Sabbath, they rose with the sun, to perform the natural only to be met with the supernatural.

 

Imagine their distress, when they entered the tomb and were greeted by a young man, dressed in white, who said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 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.” 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 End!

 

The End? What’s this? Another April Fool’s joke? Surely there’s more to the story. Surely Mark doesn’t mean to leave us hanging with a resurrection scene minus Jesus, minus the disciples, minus Peter.  Well, if we look carefully at our Bibles, we notice that not one, but two additional endings have been supplied—a shorter one and a longer one. How strange—we have choices!

 

Do you remember the children’s book series “Choose Your Own Adventure”? My children loved them. They were more than books—they were games. The books were designed to allow the reader to select different actions for the characters. For example, if the reader wanted to go in one direction, he might have the option to leave page 7 and resume the story on page 11. If another action was preferred, page 19 might be the better place to continue. The creator of the book series came up with the idea while telling bedtime stories to his daughters about this character named Pete, who had wild and fun adventures. But one night, the father ran out of ideas, so he asked his daughters, “What should happen next?” With enthusiasm, they came up with different paths for the story to take…and thus, “Choose Your Own Adventure,” was born.[ii]

 

I wonder if that’s what happened with the ending of Mark. Maybe one monk, and then, later, another, encountered the ending and thought it to be a terrible way for the adventure to conclude—with no resurrected Jesus, no disciples, no Peter… Surely the REAL ending was lost, surely the REAL ending went a little like this…. Regardless of how it transpired, Mark 16:8 is widely considered to be the end of Mark’s gospel: “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.”

 

If we allow this conclusion to stand on its own, we may find that instead of an incomplete ending, it provides the perfect beginning. In her commentary on Mark, Kimberly Clayton Richter points out two major themes woven throughout this gospel.[iii] First is the person of Jesus who is the Christ, the Son of God, who preaches, teaches, heals, and loves all people. He embodies the authority and power of his Abba Father. Jesus embodies that which the powers of the world will stop at nothing to silence!

 

The second major theme relates to the disciples. At first, they act like models of faithfulness, dropping everything to follow Jesus. But repeatedly, they are portrayed as fellows who just do not get it. They misunderstand; they doubt; they are filled with fear. And even though Jesus speaks of suffering and of being last and least, his disciples want to know which of them is the greatest, and who will sit on his right and his left in glory. They fall asleep when he needs them most. By the end of the gospel, one of them has betrayed Jesus, one has denied him, and all have fallen away.

 

Surprisingly, in Mark’s telling, it is the women who are portrayed as “getting it” more times than not. Yet, the women witness the empty tomb only to run away in fear and tell no one! So, the dilemma is this: Who will go and who will tell? Only the reader is left! Thus, Mark’s ending sends us back to the beginning of the story to re-read Jesus’ words, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”

 

WE are left to share the good news and continue the mission of Christ in the world. Along the way, like the disciples, we may doubt. We may fear taking up our cross and following Jesus. Often, we will prefer glory to suffering. Instead of watching and praying, we may fall asleep. Nevertheless, it falls upon our shoulders to receive and believe Jesus’ resurrection promise: “He is going ahead of us. We will see him.”[iv]

 

Where do we expect to see Jesus, the Risen Son? At home, at work, at school? Do we expect to see Jesus in the faces of loved ones AND strangers? Do we expect to find Jesus in the baptismal waters; in the spiritual food provided at the Table he has set for us all? Where do we expect to see Jesus? If we look, we will see him. For no matter where we go, Jesus is already there. He has gone ahead of us!

 

On that first Easter morning, the women knew that the sun God placed in the sky had risen; they knew because of the light it provided for their trek to the tomb. They would soon learn that God’s only begotten Son had also risen—risen to be Light for the world! Hallelujah! The Son is risen and on this day around the world, in a host of different languages, the greeting rises from the midst of God’s people—Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!

[i] Lauren Winner, Wearing God, 198.

[ii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Choose_Your_Own_Adventure

[iii] Mark Commentary, The Life with God Bible, NRSV, Kimberly Clayton Richter, 62-63.

[iv] Ibid, Richter.

*Cover Art “Christ is Risen” ©Stushie Art; Subscription