Monday, April 17, 2006

Sermon: "The Resiliency of Community" (Delivered 4-16-06)

Reading -- Mark 16:1-8, Shorter Ending, and Longer Ending verses 9-14

“When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very larger, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he 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.”

Shorter Ending: “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 sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.”

Longer Ending, verses 9-14: “Now after he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from who he had cast out seven demons. She went out and told those who had been with him, while they were mourning and weeping. But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it. After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them. Later he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table; and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen.”

Notes on Reading

Now, how many of you knew that Mark had three endings?

The Gospel of Mark, the shortest of the four gospels, was likely composed in 70 A.D. making it also the earliest of the four. However, the fact that it was written first does not mean that it is the most historically accurate. In fact, it is perhaps the mostly overtly theatrical and stylized gospel. There are all sorts of literary conventions that it follows. One example of this is that in Mark, like in the other gospels, the Passion is told in a way that is modeled allegorically on rituals related to the observance of Passover. (This was something that John Shelby Spong taught me.)

Mark is believed to have been written right at the time of the destruction of the second Jewish temple – the gospel references this devastating event, is conscious of it. Yet another feature of Mark is its stylized secrecy. New Testament scholars call this “the Messianic Secret”. Which makes Mark a coy text. There is suspense as we watch the characters act amidst a secret that is concealed from them.

The last thing that I might say about Mark is that it actually has three different endings. All three of the endings are included in the Bible. What are we to make of this? Do we read it as a “choose your own adventure”? Or would that be a “choose your own resurrection”? The normal ending is abrupt and does not offer any resolution. A shorter ending tries to tie it all together in two sentences. A longer ending takes a bit more time to tie it all together, and then offers a bit of apocalyptic sermonizing including mention of snake-handling, poison-drinking, faith-healing, and speaking in tongues. (Which we won’t get into today.)

As it turns out, New Testament scholars believe that the early Church struggled with the abrupt, unresolved original ending of Mark and tacked a longer ending onto it. However, this morning I am interested in what the multiple endings may suggest. In the first ending, nobody says anything, for they are afraid. In the shorter ending, they tell it “briefly.” In the longer ending, the news of the resurrection spreads in fits and starts to the entire community.


Whatever happened to telling the truth?

Just take a look at the headlines from this past week. Here in the Kansas City metro-area we had a teenage girl in Independence fake her own abduction. Even more bizarrely, we saw the unraveling of a sympathy scam when it turned out that a couple over in Grain Valley had not actually given birth to sextuplets. Both scams were certainly born out of a desperation that it may be difficult for us to imagine.

On the national level this past week we saw the pending perjury charges against baseball player Barry Bonds. We also saw the ongoing trial of former Enron honcho Jeffrey Skilling. These may be examples of larger-scale liars, or, even more astounding, perhaps Bonds and Skilling are examples of people with a seemingly infinite capacity for self-deception and self-delusion.

Writ-large, self-deception is something we all live amidst, to one degree or another, is it not? If this were not so, Iraq and Darfur would be leading off the nightly news, not Barry Bonds or the sextuplets scandal.

The truth is a difficult thing. Emily Dickinson advised telling it slant. We can all, in our minds, think of an example where someone’s decision to speak the plain old ugly truth – as they saw it – did not bring anyone any closer to resolution. Honesty in its absolute forms can impede.

Here the example that comes to mind is one that I share with you reluctantly and with much trepidation, because it is such a groaner of a story. It is a story that I heard told at a ministers retreat, which elicited from me a response of embarrassment and horror. This story involves a particular Unitarian Fellowship, maybe fifty years ago, a Fellowship that was a true stronghold of humanism and a bastion of reason. In this story, the religious education program at the Fellowship is run by volunteers and one of the volunteers is duplicating what was done in her Methodist Sunday by teaching all of the children of the Humanist Fellowship to sing, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” The minister, so the story goes, happens to be walking down the hall that day and hears the singing. He enters the class, interrupts the singing, and explains calmly and dispassionately to the children that Jesus, in fact, does not love them because Jesus is dead.

I need to qualify this story by stating emphatically that this story is not representative of the substance or attitude of our religious education program. As a church, our theology is much more developed. Thankfully so. But the point is: the meaning of things is often different than the fact of things. Or, as one great Biblical scholar put it: “The stories of the Bible are not literally true – just eternally true.”

I want to see this morning if I can offer a way of reading the Gospel of Mark, and a way of understanding the Easter event, that shines a new light on it. I offer this interpretation, I hope, not for cleverness’s sake and not for the sake of being novel. No, the reason I share this is because I want for this wisdom to be available to us, I want us to have resurrection as something that is available, meaningful.

First, I want you to imagine that you are a person who would have been reading or hearing the Gospel of Mark in around Year 70 of the Common Era. It is not a good time for you. The 60’s were a time of tremendous persecution at the hands of Nero. Christians were made scapegoats for a fire the broke out in the city Rome and the authorities used that disaster in order to encourage violent retribution against Christians. In the year 70, the Roman armies leveled the entire city of Jerusalem, including the Jewish Temple. The destruction of the Second Temple was a particularly traumatic and devastating event. The symbolic meaning of the Temple’s destruction was destabilizing. That’s the context in which the people who heard the Gospel of Mark understood it. A community in the midst of loss, grief, devastation.

It is only natural that they would have looked back to the story of the empty tomb, imagined themselves amidst and amongst the women who discovered that the stone had been rolled away, and identified with the three women’s experience of first disappointment, then devastation, then surprise, and finally hope. “Tell no one.” “They fled from the tomb for terror and amazement had seized them.” “They said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.” And you can imagine that glimpse of hope spreading, but spreading slowly, as they uttered their astonishment at the unthinkable when every instinct was to say, “It’s over. It couldn’t be.” So, one of them tells another and is not believed. Then two more hear about it and pass the word along, but the rest do not believe them. Then, finally, all of them learn, are upbraided for not believing.

I want to suggest, and this is the crux of my message this morning, I want to suggest that resurrection is not a personal / individual phenomenon. I want to suggest that it is rooted in community, grounded in community, takes place in the midst of others, and has fundamentally to do with resiliency in the midst of hardship, commitment in the midst of frustration, and transcendence in the face of disappointment.

It is not surprising to me that in all of the gospel accounts the empty tomb is not discovered alone, but rather in fellowship, in community. There is an inherently transpersonal quality to it. Its essence is almost social. That is the great truth: The resilience of community.

When I discuss theology like this, a frequent source that I cite is the book “Proverbs of Ashes” by Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock. Parker is a minister dually ordained with the United Methodists and Unitarian Universalists. She is the President of our seminary in Berkeley, California. Rita Nakashima Brock is a feminist theologian. Their groundbreaking work, an expose of the theological shortcomings of traditional Christian doctrines of redemptive suffering and sacred violence, again and again and again indicates that it is the community that gathers in the midst of devastation – the ability of people to tend to each other’s pain and loss – that is the true source of salvation. Community is the place where resurrection works its magic.

Yesterday, nineteen of our members went to work with Habitat for Humanity. They joined a dozen members of a Baptist Church, working to make livable a house in Kansas City. Community rebuilds.

Last weekend, I went on a retreat with the members of the Preaching Practicum. You’ll hear them in the pulpit this July, sharing from a place of personal authenticity and deep investigation about an issue of importance to them. Community evokes.

On Friday night some of us gathered here in Fellowship Hall for a Good Friday Tenebrae service where we meditated on loss, bore witness to the victims of violence. Alone, people are only able to mourn. Together, they can grieve. Community heals.

In my ministry I constantly run into people for whom this community, this church has brought something out of them they did not know they had. Helped them be someone they didn’t know they could be. Community abets creation. It is the locus of new life, of life renewed.

For me, one of the most powerful and instructive Holy Week images is the image of Jesus’ crucifixion flanked on either side by criminals. The way this gets talked about is always interesting to me. Some people have been known to refer to this aspect of the story as being somehow degrading to Jesus to be crucified “as if he was just a common criminal.” On the flip side, we learn in the gospels that Jesus is mocked by those two, who make fun of him and taunt him. What I find so instructive about this is the degree to which it is possible to deny community, to deny our common humanity. How often it is that one is right next to us who shares our common fate and we find a way to reject them. We find a way to think that we are somehow better, somehow different, somehow special.

As one theologian writes: “Is it possible that the real significance of resurrection might be, not that weakness can become power, but that the only real power is the power born of weakness?… And the only glory that born of dishonor? Is it possible: that the meek will inherit the earth not because of their meekness but because the highest sovereignty is that born out of meekness? And the highest good that born out of evil?”

This past week Liberal Religion in America lost one of its great prophets. His name was William Sloane Coffin, who died at age 81. He was minister of the Riverside Church in New York City. You will most likely hear more about this man’s great, great life in a sermon at a later date. As a civil rights worker, a leading war protester, an organizer for nuclear non-proliferation, Coffin was a prolific leading figure of Liberal Religion.

Coffin once said, “Honesty does not come painlessly. The truth may make you free, but first it makes you miserable! That God is against the status quo is one of the hardest things to believe if you are a [person of faith] who happens to profit by the status quo… There are those who prefer certainty to truth, those who put the purity of dogma ahead of the integrity of love. And what distortion of the gospel it is to have limited sympathies and unlimited certainties, when the very reverse – to have limited certainties and unlimited sympathies – is not only more tolerant but far more [faithful].”

Do not mistake certainties for sympathies. (That minister of the Fellowship might benefit from this lesson.) Certainties and sympathies: Resurrection, life again, I am convinced has to do with the latter.