There You Go Again…

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have spent many Sundays since late 2017 immersed in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. At the later service on Easter Sunday (April 21, 2019), we concluded that study by looking at Mark 16:9-20, a passage missing from the earliest versions of this Gospel.  The first reading came from Isaiah 65:17-25,

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I hope that not all of you have been in this situation before, but I’m sure that everyone can imagine it. Let’s say that you’re driving along, minding your own business, and another car suddenly swerves into your lane, cutting you off, and you wind up hitting the telephone pole.  The ambulance comes, you’re taken to the hospital where they set your broken leg, and then your family comes in to see you just as the doctor arrives to tell you how things look.

You tell your family what’s happened up to this point, but you don’t need to tell them what the doctor says, because, well, they’re here.  They see and know the doctor at this point. You’ve told them what they don’t know, and that’s good enough.

Now, two weeks later you’re at your uncle’s house for a holiday party. Someone asks you about the cast on your leg, and so you start to tell the story about the other driver and the telephone pole and the ambulance.  And when you’re finished, your brother-in-law – who wasn’t even there, by the way – adds details to your story: “The other car was an SUV, driven by some kid who was texting, I think.  And the city has now changed the traffic pattern on that stretch of the highway, which is a good thing.  That’s always been a dangerous road…”

And when that happens, you might be tempted to look at your brother-in-law and say, “Oh, for Pete’s sake, there you go again…”  It’s irritating, sometimes, to have people add to or interpret your story.  But as you reflect on what he’s said, you also think that maybe his comments could be helpful for those who are a little more removed from the story.  They add some useful context to what happened.

Les Saintes Femmes au Tombeau, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, (1890)

So it is with Mark chapter 16.  The Gospel writer pretty clearly ends his telling of the Jesus story in verse 8. In the face of the angelic announcement that Jesus has risen from the dead, the first community of Christ-followers were confused and afraid.  That first Easter morning, they didn’t know whatto do, and they didn’t know whoto believe.  The original ending of the Gospel shows us people running out of the cemetery, scared out of their minds.

And that ending, frankly, worked well enough for Mark’s original audience. Most of the community to whom Mark was written was living there in Rome and knew, or at least knew of, the Apostle Peter.  They had access to other witnesses to those early days of the church – and they were familiar with the things that happenedafterthe crucifixion.

But before long, there began to be more and more people who didn’t know all of the same people, and who were not familiar with the events that took place on that first Easter and the days that followed.

At that point, someone else in the community plays the role of Mark’s chatty brother-in-law and picks up the pen to add a few details to the story.

What I’m saying is this: that Mark 16:9-20 is almost certainly not the work of the author of the rest of the Gospel.  There are differences in style, vocabulary, and phrasing.  Most of the content in these verses is, in fact, simply reflective of other material that we’ve come to know in Matthew, Luke, John, and the book of Acts.  Most scholars see this part of the Gospel as an appendix that has been written by another hand, and therefore not so much a part of the second Gospel but rather a reflection on it, or an attestation of the truth to which the Gospel points. It’s as if a new generation of the church found a dog-eared copy of the Gospel and said, “Yes! This!  There you go again!  This is the truth!”

With that in mind, then, let me invite you to look with me at what this passage has to say.  How does this next generation reflect on the Gospel that it’s received?

I’m struck by the church’s characterization of the people to whom the risen Christ appeared.  There are no starry-eyed dreamers here, no wistful backward glances at the first followers of Jesus. When the author of these verses remembers those who gathered with the risen Lord, he or she does so with an acknowledgment that Jesus didn’t wait around for a perfect church to appear or be formed. Rather, this is a blunt description of the fact that the group that met with Jesus was comprised of people who struggled with their faith and who were above all else, stubborn. That is to say that while the three days in the tomb and the resurrection may have totally transformed Jesus, his followers were still the same people.  This is what they had to say about themselves: we’re not sure what to think, but we can be really obnoxious.

You can’t make this stuff up…

Can you imagine a church with a motto like that today?  Some years ago, my wife and I visited a little town in Texas with an unusual name.  We were surprised, however, when the congregation in that place took on the town’s name and became known as “The Church of Uncertain.”

I love that sign, and I love this affirmation at the end of Mark’s Gospel: it goes to show me that Jesus is willing to work with what he had – with who I am.  The Risen Lord is not hanging around beating the doubt out of his followers, waiting for them to become perfect; there’s no call for you or me to somehow get our acts together beforewe start living like Jesus asks us to. We are called to move forward with who we are and what we have, trusting that Jesus will continue to work on, in, and through us.

The early church remembers that, as recalcitrant and doubtful as they were, they were given two primary charges by the Risen Lord.

First, they are called to preach.  That is, to point to God’s intentions for the world and those who live in it.  Preach the Gospel to all creation!  Celebrate the purposes of God as you live in the world and with others.  That community, like you, would be familiar with the descriptions of God’s intentions as described in places like Isaiah 65.

Les malades attendant le passage de Jésus, James Tissot (between 1886-1894).

And secondly, in addition to preaching, or proclaiming, the reign and rule of God, this group of stubborn doubters is called to participate in those intentions by becoming agents of healing in the creation.  It’s as if the Savior is saying, “Look, the longer we hang out together, the more you’re going to find that reality can, in fact, change. Be a part of that!  Engage your world on God’s terms, and invite your world to be more intentionally and fully aligned with God’s design for that world.

This “appendix” to the Gospel of Mark then ends with a surprising affirmation: “the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it.” That’s another way of saying, “Hey! Everybody! It worked! Seriously – we did this – and we found that when we lived like Jesus told us to that some amazing things didhappen!”

Back toward the end of 2017, this congregation embarked on a study of the Gospel of Mark.  When we did so, we remarked that this second Gospel begins with a different quote from the book of Isaiah.  We watched a ragged prophet called John the Baptizer announce the coming of and presence of a new way of life and living, a new understanding of God’s purposes. John pointed us to Jesus of Nazareth, who called this new way of living “The Kingdom of God”, and who went on to say that this Kingdom is at hand – it is present, it is palpable today.

Calling Disciples, He Qi (contemporary)

For the past eighteen months or so we have affirmed that Mark’s Gospel is not centered on a system of belief.  Nowhere in this document is a series of intellectual suppositions that we must affirm in order to gain entry into some heavenly club. There is no list of right answers on which followers of Jesus must insist before extending grace, forgiveness, and kindness.  No, this little pamphlet is a call to a life of boldness centered on an acknowledgement that this reality that Jesus called the Kingdom of God is present and accessible right now to people like us.  It is an encouragement for the people of God to live in a way that points to the reign and rule of God, that demonstrates God’s intentions, and fleshes out God’s hopes for creation.

To be sure, the Gospel is full of stories, including the events of Holy week, that demonstrate that this manner of life is not always easy and that there may be a cost.  The original hearers of Mark’s Gospel surely knew and appreciated that.

And yet, when the dust had settled, someone picked up Mark’s pen long after he himself had died.  That community recalled with joy that Christ had come, and suffered, and risen to rule the world.  Those folk celebrated that this Kingdom of God, this reign and rule of the Holy that echoes the landscape painted by Isaiah and demonstrated in the life of Jesus of Nazareth is in fact ours to live.

There was a certain roller coaster ride at the Kennywood Amusement Park that began with the announcement, “Hold onto your hats, please.  No repeat riders.”  I’m pretty sure that the mechanized voice that issued that warning hundreds of times a day didn’t think that it was making a theological affirmation, but I’m convinced that is the essence of the Gospel as received and transmitted by Mark’s community.  Brace yourselves for adventure – this is a good, good life that we’ve been given. Yes, we will encounter great pain and even death along the way – but pain and death are not the end of the story. The presence of the Risen Lord infuses our lives and all creation.

The Good News of the Gospel is that you don’t have to have it all figured out. We participate in this Gospel as we engage in grateful and hopeful lives and share that gratitude and hope with those we meet.  Along the way, we are given the opportunity – or the responsibility – of looking for, asking for, or waiting for the presence of the One who preached the Kingdom’s truth and then rose from the dead to affirm it’s nearness to the heart of God. So beloved, the call of the Gospel today is this: seek that presence today, and be a sign of it in the world. He has Risen.  He has risen indeed.  So show someone what that looks like!  Thanks be to God!  Amen. 

And Then What?

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have spent many Sundays since late 2017 immersed in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. At the first service on Easter Sunday (April 21, 2019), we read through what most scholars consider to be the ending of this Gospel.  Like them, we were confused by the abrupt nature of the conclusion, and wondered how that form might impact the content.  The Gospel text was Mark 16:1-8; we also heard from the Apostle Peter in Acts 10:34-43?  

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When is an ending not an ending?

The Gospel of Mark is puzzling, to say the least.  It’s confusing, at best.  Here we are, just a few hours away from the end of our multi-year study of what so far as we know is the first attempt at a written record of the life of Jesus, and it ends in the middle of a sentence.  Mark’s account of the life of Jesus ends with the word “for” – in Greek, it’s gar.  “They didn’t say anything to anyone, they were afraid for…”  Who ends a story with the word “for”?  It’s crazy talk, that’s what that is.  It can’t be right.

And for centuries, people agreed with that assessment.  Obviously, there’s a problem.  So if you look in your pew Bibles, you’ll see that the gospel of Mark goes all the way to verse 20.  But there’s a footnote saying that “most ancient authorities conclude the Gospel at the end of verse 8.”  People have argued for centuries – what happened here?  Did the original ending get lost?  You have all had old books laying around the house and pages just sort of fall out after a while…Is that the story?  Or did Mark somehow mean to walk out on the story so abruptly?  If you really want a nice, tidy, ending, you’ll have to come back for the 11:00 service, because at that time we’ll take up the “alternate ending” of the Gospel of Mark.

In the meantime, though, I’ll tell you that most recent scholars, and your pastor, believe that Mark knew exactly what he was doing – and he cut the story short.  After all, if you remember the beginning of the Gospel, you’ll recall that Jesus’ entry was pretty abrupt – there’s no infancy, no childhood – he just shows up. Well, here, he just leaves.  And then what?  It’s a mystery.

What do we know?  Well, on Thursday, we read a pretty conclusive passage indicating that Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried.  We can know for sure that he was dead – the executioner, the women, Joseph of Arimathea, and even Pilate’s personal intelligence officer all agree that Jesus had died.  There was a corpse.  And we know that he was buried. A leader of the council put him in his own tomb.  The women followed and saw him buried.  There are witnesses to these things.

artist unknown

And then, a few days later, the women go back to do things right – they had been too rushed, and perhaps too afraid, on Friday.  So Sunday they stop by to visit the grave and take care of things.  All of a sudden, things look a little different.  The tomb is open.  And there’s a young man inside.  Matthew tells us that he’s an angel.  Luke and John say that he had a friend with him.  It doesn’t seem to matter to Mark.  The young man gives a message to the women.

Now I want you to pay attention here, because you’re seeing something in the Gospel of Mark that you haven’t seen before.  All through the Gospel, the people who follow Jesus seem to bounce around in their ability to be faithful.  Mostly, they’re consistent.  Sometimes they are able to hold onto the faith, other times they leave it. Even Peter denies Jesus.  In the garden, everyone, including the young man we think was Mark, flees.  But so far, there has been one group of people who have managed to do, more or less, what is asked of them: the women. No matter how much the other disciples screw things up, the faithful women seem to be there for Jesus.  They don’t always ask the right questions, as when the mother of James and John asked if they could sit next to Jesus in the kingdom – but they are consistently present, and invested, and willing.

But what does this young man say to them? “Go, and tell the disciples…” And what do they do? “They fled…they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”  Finally, it comes to this.  Even the women – the ones who were willing to go to Hell and back for Jesus – bail out.  They can’t get their heads around the idea of resurrection.  It’s just too improbable, even for them.  Even for God.  And so they run away, silent and scared.

In Mark’s telling, the first Easter was characterized by confusion.  By people running around in the half-light of dawn, sure that something has happened, but not sure what.  Someone is lying – is it the Roman Guards, who are accusing the disciples of having stolen the body?  Or is it the disciples themselves?  What’s going on here?

Remember when we began this study, I mentioned that we think that Mark is the first Gospel to have been written.  Think about that, and then think about the ways that the other Gospels end.  Matthew has the angel I’ve already mentioned, and then Jesus himself is there.  There’s an incredible ending where the risen Christ is worshipped by his disciples, and then he gives them their final orders, and then he is taken into heaven as they watch.  And Luke, probably written about the same time as Matthew, ends with the risen Christ showing up on the road to Emmaus, spending quality time with his disciples, engaged in contemplative conversation and even having devotions over dinner with them, for crying out loud.  John, writing even later, can’t say enough about the resurrection.  We see the empty grave clothes; we walk around inside the empty tomb. John shows us Jesus and Mary in the garden, Thomas and Jesus meeting in the upper room; Jesus is having lunch with Peter and the fellas on the beach…

But Mark?  In Mark, we’ve got “a young man” – was he an angel?  Maybe? – who says, “Yes, I know, you’re looking for Jesus.  Well, good news.  He’s not dead anymore.  He’s been raised.”

That’s it, Mark? That’s the best you’ve got? An unidentified male of indeterminate ethnicity telling us that Jesus has been raised? Where’s Jesus?  Where’s the Lord?

Mark doesn’t show us the risen Christ – he shows us a witness telling us that Jesus is risen…and then he says, “And what do you think?  Can you believe this?”

And Mark doesn’t seem particularly eager to convince us himself…because as we’ve said, the women were afraid.  Our last hope for faithful witness has apparently failed.  They are told to go and tell people, and Mark says that they didn’t say anything.

But of course, eventually, they did, right?  I mean, if the only witnesses never said anything, then we’d never know anything about the resurrection, right?  Obviously, eventually, they said something to someone. Mark just stops telling his story before the women start telling theirs.  Because Mark knewthe story of the resurrection. Mark’s community in Rome knew the story of the resurrection.  They probably heard it from the same source as you did a few moments ago: Peter himself vouched for the fact that the story got through.

So that means – follow me here – that somehow, sometime, somewhere, after the women failed to tell, they eventually came around and said something. They testified.  In spite of their fear, in spite of their confusion, the first witnesses to the resurrection were able to find it in themselves to regain their courage and composure and to point to the best thing that has ever happened. This morning we can praise God for, and learn from, women whose faith overcame their fear

And that best thing was great news for Mark’s community. Because they were in fear.  They were unsure what was going to happen to them.  They were afraid of what their faith might cost them…and they, no less than the women, were able to hear the voice of a witness who said, “He has been raised from the dead.  Go and tell people about it.  And better yet, he is going before you.  You will see him – just like he promised.”

Mark’s readers didn’t have the luxury of walking around inside the empty tomb, or having dinner with Jesus, or getting all poetic about the good news of resurrection.  They were being eaten alive by wild animals or being burnt by the government as they tried to hold onto their faith.  All they had was the promise that Jesus will be ahead of them.  That they would see him.  That he would be waiting for them.  Isn’t that good news?

And if they fail to witness – if their fear gets the best of them, or anxiety shuts their mouths – there’s hope for them, just like there’s hope for every single follower of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark.  This ending is great news for Mark’s friends.

Les Saintes Femmes au Tombeau, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, (1890)

And to be honest, it’s my favorite Easter story, too. The other Gospels all end with the disciples having figured it out, at least a little bit.  Look at Matthew, John, or Luke, and you’ll see that the disciples have found the resurrected Jesus, they have begun to understand something of what resurrection is about.  They’ve gotten it together, at least a bit.

My life is not usually like that.  I can’t usually identify with Jesus’ disciple, Thomas, who touches Jesus’ hands and side and falls down crying, “My Lord and my God!”  I mean, it looks swell in the painting and everything, but I’ve never touched him.

But Mark’s ending?  Grief? Fear?  Amazement?  I mean, I spend half my life asking, “And then what?  What am I going to do NOW?”  Disciples that are running around scared and confused and uncertain?  These are guys that I can relate to!

I don’t know everything about your life, and you sure don’t want to know all about mine.  But I know that there have been plenty of days in even the past few months where I’ve found myself scared and confused and uncertain.  There have been times when I wasn’t sure who I could trust, with what, and everything I looked at seemed to be blanketed with a thick gray fog. I am certain beyond a doubt that some of you know what that looks like.

And if, for some reason, you find yourself staring at the pastor this morning thinking, “what is that man going on about?  Fear? Uncertainty? Anxiety?  Here? In Church?  Why, never have I ever experienced anything close to that…” – well, all I have to say to you is what Penguins announcer Mike Lange says: “Get in the fast lane, grandma! The Bingo game is ready to roll!”  There’s a lot in this world I can’t be sure of, but of this I am completely and utterly convinced: you will be confused and afraid.  You will know doubt and anxiety.

The Good News from Mark is that we don’t have to have all the answers. We move forward in the sure and certain knowledge that we don’t have much sure and certain knowledge…only that he is going ahead of us.  In the confused and scary places.  In the celebratory places.  And we will see him.  And that will be enough.  You can count on that.

Thanks be to God!

Amen.

The Rashomon Effect (and does it matter?)

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have spent many Sundays since late 2017 immersed in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On Maundy Thursday (April 18, 2019), we looked at one of the few members of the community to be named in each of the four Gospels: Joseph of Arimathea.  Who was this man, what did he do, and why did it matter?  The Gospel text was Mark 15:42-47.  We also listened to selected verses from Hebrews 9

To hear this sermon as preached in worship please use the media player below:

One of the best things that has happened to me in the past year or so is the “slow reading” of Mark’s Gospel that this sermon series has allowed. I find that especially true during this season, where we’ve had the privilege of notrushing through the last 100 verses of the story in just a sermon or two.

As I read and re-read the passage at hand this evening, I recalled a couple of films with which you may be familiar: Courage Under Firewith Denzel Washington and Vantage Pointwith Dennis Quaid and Forrest Whitaker. Each of these films employs a device called the Rashomon Effect – this is a way of storytelling wherein we see the same events through different lenses.  In Vantage Point, for instance, there is an attempted assassination of the President, but just when we think that we know everything, we see the same occurrence from a different, well, vantage point.  And each different perspective adds to our understanding of what really happened in the plot line.

Joseph of Arimathea stained glass window in The Church of St. John the Baptist, Glastonbury, England

In fact, there are some folk who would say that the presence of four Gospels is itself a demonstration of the Rashomon Effect, as each author is selective about what to include, and therefore what to exclude, in the narratives about Jesus.  One character that shows up in each of the four Gospels, however, is this man called Joseph from Arimathea.

As I read the text slowly this week, I began to jump to different conclusions as to who Joseph might have been, and why it’s important to remember his presence.  Although Matthew, Luke, John, and Mark all note that he was there – each of them only mentions him on the day of Jesus’ death, and he doesn’t show up anywhere else. Who was he, and what is his function in the story?

Each of the gospel writers implies that he was some sort of a disciple.  Yet he was not a public disciple in the way that Peter, James and John were.  He was a secret follower – he lived in fear of his relationship with Jesus making the rest of his life more difficult (or in fear of the rest of his life making life more difficult for the disciples).  Mark tells us that he was a prominent member of the council.  If you’ve been paying attention the past few weeks, you’ll recall that there were precious few people in that group who might have aligned themselves with the Lord.

Does the Gospel include this story because we are to believe that Joseph’s secret fascination with Jesus was an example of “too little, too late”? I can’t believe that Mark’s original readers would have been impressed with a man of power and privilege who sought to keep his affiliation with Jesus a secret.  These were people living in Rome who were experiencing persecution for having identified themselves as Christ-followers, and apparently Joseph of Arimathea was a leading member of the body who condemned Jesus to death. According to Mark himself, Joseph said nothing at Jesus’ trial (14:64 reads, “and they allcondemned him…”).  If that’s the case, then isn’t he worse than Peter, who simply denied knowing him?  Or maybe even worse than Judas, who simply told the authorities where Jesus might be found?

But there’s another way to look at this.  Joseph was, evidently, a wealthy man.  Maybe he was a member of the council who had a heart that matched his bank account. Sure, he had been a part of the body that ultimately executed Jesus, but he felt so badly about it that in order to assuage his guilt for his participation in this enterprise, he bankrolled the entire burial expense – thus ensuring that Jesus would not meet the fate of so many common criminals and have his body lay exposed to the elements. Joseph regretted his action with the Council, and as a way of making up for that, he sought to at least do right by Jesus after death.  Did Mark include him as a means of demonstrating that stewardship is important and it’s never too late to get on the right side of history?

Joseph of Arimathaea Seeks Pilate to Beg Permission to Remove the Body of Jesus, James Tissot (between 1886-1894)

There are some who have argued that neither of these is the case, and in fact that Joseph is worthy of admiration because even after all of the original disciples run away, Joseph himself is the only person who actually actslike a disciple.  In chapter 6, Mark narrated the death of John the Baptist, and went out of his way to tell us that although John, too, was killed as an enemy of the state, John’sdisciples had the courage to go and get his body and give it a proper burial.  Maybe Joseph is included in this story to show Mark’s readers how a realdisciple acts.

In the past few chapters, Mark has shown us that the number of true friends that Jesus has appears to be in decline.  When he’s giving away lunch on the mountain top there are 5000+ willing followers; later at a Bible Study, only 72 show up.  There was a throng at Palm Sunday, but the number had dropped significantly by the time dinner on Thursday rolled around.  Later that same evening, they “all” fled, so that on Friday all we’ve got left is a group of women hanging around within earshot of the cross.  And yet Joseph emerges as the hero of this scene and actslike a true follower would act.

In fact, there are some critics of the New Testament who insist that Joseph is a little too perfectto be a real person.  The fact that he doesn’t show up in any other places of the Gospel, combined with the inability of any biblical scholar to point to a town called “Arimathea” on a map, added to the fact that the word “Arimathea” can be loosely translated as “ari” = “best” and “mathea” = “disciple-town” has led a few people to believe that Mark made up this character specifically to show his community what truedisciples do.

There’s one more angle, though: Frederick Buechner suggests that while Joseph of Arimathea might have been a nice and even generous man, his vision was limited and he is therefore remembered as the one person who apparently cared more for the dead Jesus than the living Christ.  Buechner writes, “It is important to give Joseph of his due for his mortuary solicitude, but at the same time it is hard not to see him as the first of many Christians who spend so much time stewing about the blood of the lamb that they lose sight of the fact that the lamb has long since gone on to greener pastures where he’s kicking up his heels in the sunshine and calling to others to come join the dance.”[1]

So there you have it.  What’s your take on this? Was Joseph of Arimathea a secret, and therefore a worthless follower of Jesus? One whose cowardice during Jesus’ trial could not be overcome by the donation of a prime cemetery plot after the inevitable outcome of that trial?  Or was he a wealthy benefactor who sought to cushion the blow to Jesus’ family and friends, and whose largesse was worthy of imitation in the centuries that followed?

Maybe you hold fast to the notion of Joseph as being bold, courageous, and a disciple’s disciple, doing that for Jesus which not a single other follower would do.  And, as I mentioned, it’s possible to maintain that he was an eminently sensible man who was just trying to put this whole affair to rest as quickly and as quietly as possible – as if he said, “Let’s just get this funeral over with so that life can get back to normal around here…”

St. Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury with the Holy Grail and the Staff that Flowered, by the hand of a Monk of the Brotherhood of St. Seraphim of Sarov.

The Rashomon Effect suggests that there are multiple layers of interpretation of Joseph’s character, and each interpretation carries with it a moral lesson of something to embrace or to avoid. Perhaps you know that the Christian Tradition has fallen in love with the character of Joseph of Arimathea. Some have said that he was there to hold the chalice used at the Last Supper to catch some of the blood of the Christ, and thereby giving rise to the legend of the Holy Grail; some say that in AD 63 he went on a missionary trip to England and became known as Joseph of Glastonbury.  I think all that proves is that the church has always been in love with celebrities and rich, beautiful people.

And yet no matter where you think Joseph’s heart was, and what you think his motivation was, there is one incontrovertible fact in these few verses. More than anyone else, Joseph of Arimathea is the one responsible for ensuring that Jesus of Nazareth was provided with a death certificate.  Now Jesus’s family didn’t need one of those for the insurance company or the Social Security folks, but we have come to rely on Joseph’s assurance that Jesus was, in the words of the Apostle’s Creed, “crucified, dead, and buried.”

It is noteworthy that a man described as a prominent member of the Sanhedrin took it upon himself to march into Pilate’s office and request that the Roman Military attest to Jesus’ death.  This is seemingly unimpeachable evidence: a member of the Jewish Council, the Roman Procurate, and an officer of the army of the occupation are all convinced that on this day we have come to call Good Friday, the life was drained from Jesus’ veins.

Cristo con José de Arimatea, Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo (1525)

Jesus was dead.  He wasn’t pretending to be dead.  They weren’t afraid he was going to die.  It didn’t seem as if he might be dead.  He was dead.  Whether this was Joseph’s aim or not I cannot know; but these six verses in the Gospel of Mark are enough to convince me that whatever happened next was the thing that happened after the worst thing possible.

To put it another way: Joseph of Arimathea, and Pilate, and the Centurion all appeared to think that Mark 15 was the end of the story. The only two friends that Jesus had left, apparently, Mary and Mary, must’ve thought so too.  They came to make sure that things were done right.

The fact – not the appearance, but the factof Jesus’ death would appear to preclude anything of interest or hope in Mark 16.

And yet, beloved, there is a Mark 16.  That is a story for another day, and I hope you’ll be here to hear it.  For tonight, I just want to remind you of this, my friends: You have all stood at the grave.  You have all watched as the one you loved entered into that dark place.  You have each gone home and wondered, “Well, what in the heck am I supposed to do now?”  You have each come into a situation where you thought that all was lost.  Like Joseph, you have done what you thought might have been impossible and rolled that giant stone in place in an attempt to seal yourself off from the death that you thought might consume you.

Like Joseph, like you, and like me, Jesus was present at funerals. And yet he went, not as a mourner, but as the corpse. Make no mistake: Joseph, along with Mary and Mary, are here to point to the exact spot where Jesus’ corpse was laid.  The daylight flees, and the few friends that Jesus has left melt into the darkness, convinced that sin and death have won the day.

I have often been close to knowing how that feels, and I know that you have too.  In our zeal to get to all things Easter, let us not rush through this Good Friday and the day that follows it.  Let us hold on to the sure and certain knowledge that as Jesus was, so shall we be.  And let us remember that when we get to Sunday as well, for as he became, so shall we also become.  Thanks be to God for the gifts of hope and life.  Amen.

[1]Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who(San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979), p. 79-80.

Yishar

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have spent many Sundays since late 2017 immersed in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On Palm/Passion Sunday (April 14, 2019), we imagined a friendship that might have shaped the world… We tried to see the crowds at the crucifixion, and we sought to consider what is the crux of the matter.  Our Gospel text was Mark 15:21-41, and we heard it after considering the words of Isaiah 53.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship please visit the link below:

As I was preparing for this message I was struck by something that seemed surprising at this point in our study of Mark.  You’ll remember that we have observed that Mark is typically the “sparest” of the Gospels.  It’s the shortest, and it has the least of just about anything.  There is no infancy narrative; there are not many extended teaching passages; and as we’ll see in the week to come, his treatment of the resurrection is the most abbreviated of all the Gospels.  Mark is writing a short and to the point account of the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.

The Crucifixion, Luca Signorelli (c. 1505)

This is demonstrated in his treatment of the central event of his entire Gospel – the death of Jesus on the cross.  His account of it is given to us in three words in verse 24: “they crucified him” (in the Greek, that’s only two words).  It’s short and to the point.  Just the facts.

And yet that stark reality is contrasted with the amount of detail that Mark lavishes on the scene surrounding this central event.  In particular, I noted the naming of characters – something that Mark was not always eager to do.  In these twenty verses, we hear the names of Simon, Alexander, Rufus, Elijah, Mary, Mary, James, Joseph, and Salome.  We are further directed to consider a host of un-named participants: two bandits, countless passers-by, chief priests, scribes, many other women,and a centurion.  I think that is Mark’s way of indicating that this event, and the Gospel, are to be known and interpreted in community where people’s names are known.  In my attempt to do that, I’m imagining a scene in Rome close to 2000 years ago.  There are forty or fifty individuals crowded into a catacomb under the city, listening to an aged black man tell a story.  Listen with me:

Early Christians Worship in the Catacombs of Saint Calixtus (19th c. woodcut)

Sisters and brothers, I am amazed at this unlikely community that the Master has formed here in Rome.  I know that you see each other all the time, but I am here to remind you that it is unusual to come across a gathering that includes Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, male and female – people from every walk of life are represented in this small circle.  I am grateful for the ways that you have welcomed and loved my sons Alexander and Rufus in this place, and I am delighted even to see my second-born’s namesake, my old friend Rufus here – once a Centurion of Rome, now a man of leisure…

I do not know how you came to know the Master, but for me, it began in the context of community.  I wasn’t looking for a savior; I wasn’t looking for a new religion; in fact, all I was looking for was the shortest route to the Temple in Jerusalem.

Growing up in Cyrene – I believe that some of you may know this area as Libya – in Northern Africa, coming to Jerusalem was a dream.  I mean, we had a community of Jews in Cyrene, but all we talked about was one day making it to the City of God – all of the boys and men dreamed of being able to be in Jerusalem for the feast – and in that particular year, I had made it!

Pilgrimage to the Second Jerusalem Temple, Alex Levin (used by permission http://www.artlevin.com).

I was rushing through the outskirts of town trying to find the Temple.  I was eager to worship YHWH in a new way, where I could see and smell the sacrifice and stand shoulder to shoulder with my brothers in the faith.  I’d planned this trip for years.  The last thing I wanted was a distraction.

I saw a crowd – it looked like a parade of some sort.  The previous evening I’d stayed in Jericho, just outside of Jerusalem, and all the talk at the guest-house was of the events of the previous week when a teacher from Galilee rode into the city on a donkey, being proclaimed as Messiah.  I had heard of others who claimed to be the ones to throw off Rome, or to bring liberation, and I wasn’t interested in politics like that.  I hadn’t come to take part in a protest – I just wanted to see the splendor of the Temple.  I wanted to see the place where YHWH dwelled.

But then, as I looked for an appropriate direction to go, it seemed as though all of a sudden the crowd was upon me.  In a second, I sensed that somehow, all eyes were directed toward me – and I didn’t know why that was.  I looked, and there was a giant of a man – a Roman Centurion – in fact, that man right over there – Rufus – and he was pointing directly at me, yelling words in a language I did not understand.

I tried to take it all in, and as I looked around wildly I saw what I knew to be the heart of the procession: there were three prisoners, each struggling under the weight of a cross.  And even though I didn’t speak his language, I knew what that Roman Officer was saying.

We had, from time to time, crucifixions in Cyrene.  And I knew that it was not uncommon for the Romans to make the condemned man carry his own cross beam.  After all, why would a soldier get his hands dirty and his back sore merely to execute a common criminal?  That was what was happening here.

And while two of the convicts were making their way all right, the third man was clearly not able to continue.  He appeared to have been beaten savagely, and I was surprised he was able to even walk, let alone carry the timber that must have weighed a hundred pounds.

I felt sorry for the man; it was indeed a pathetic situation. But I grew up in Cyrene.  I had seen plenty of pathos before.  I didn’t want to get involved.  And yet, in all of my years, I have not figured out how to say “no” to an armed Centurion backed by his entire cohort.  And so I put aside my plans, girded my robe, and picked up the cross beam.

I was ashamed to be connected with that enterprise.  At first, I was embarrassed – what if people thought that I was a criminal?  In fact, I tried to get it over with quickly.  I walked as fast as I could – outpacing the condemned man.  The Centurion cracked a whip and told me to slow my pace and walk with the convicts. Then I was angry and frustrated, as I saw my chance for worship in the Temple – and for sharing in the sacrifice – slipping away.

And then we got to a place that is called Golgotha.  Some soldiers came and took the wood from me. After taunting me for a bit, these men pushed me aside and gave me to understand that I was now free to go – that my work was done.

For the first time, I turned and I looked right at the prisoner whose cross I’d carried.  I was unsettled to find that he was looking right at me.  And then, I could tell that he was trying to speak.  He licked his parched lips and he croaked out a single word. He said, “Yishar.”  I had never heard that word before, but I later learned that it is the Aramaic word that Galileans use to say “thank you.”

“Yishar.”  That is the only word that the Master ever spoke directly to me, and yet it has come to mean more to me than all the other words of his that I have come to know.

Well, my friends, I became a man transfixed.  I could not leave that hillside.  I was there to witness it all – the jeering of the crowd, the taunting of the bandits beside him…  And yet the thing that I found most appalling – and surprising, since I had in fact come to see those men – was the way that the holy men I had come to see and worship with in the Temple were so eager to leave the beauty of the Temple and the splendor of YHWH behind in order to come and heap scorn and derision on this man as he was dying in a dump. I didn’t understand how it was that they who already had so much power and prestige – they had clearly already “won”, from what I could tell – and yet they could not say enough vile things about this poor man.

Now remember this, my friends: I had never met this man whom I’ve come to consider to be my Master; and I didn’t know any of those priests and scribes from the Temple, and yet even a man as simple as I was wise enough to know that the God whom I’d traveled to worship would not take delight in the suffering or death of anyone.

Remember, I had come to Jerusalem encounter the Divine Presence. To stand on the Promised Land. And most importantly, to pray. And on that Friday so many years ago, I only heard two prayers.  And neither of them was in the Temple that had been the object of my journey.

The first prayer I heard came from the lips of the Man himself. It was a guttural cry of lament, loss, and brokenness.  He managed to cry out the first verse of the 22ndPsalm, and that led me to consider the rest of that song – the ways that God’s people experience such pain and alienation.

The second prayer that I heard that day was uttered by our friend Rufus, the Centurion.  When it was all done, I heard him whisper, “Truly, this man was the Son of God.”  Rufus told me later that he didn’t think he was praying, and that it was in fact the first prayer of his entire life.

And yet it was a prayer.  And we are here this morning because brother Rufus was right.  The man who was killed that day, Jesus of Nazareth, was the Son of God.  It occurred to me that perhaps I had, in fact, been witness to a sacrifice after all.

And it would be a good story, my friends, if I were to stand here and tell you that Rufus and I went out that evening for some wine, and that we spent the next few days in the company of the friends of Jesus as we learned and prayed together.

But that didn’t happen.  I was a poor foreigner from Africa.  He was a Roman soldier with work to do in a place that didn’t like or respect Rome.  So I faded into the twilight at the end of the day.  I made it to the Temple after all, and was witness to the disturbance that was caused when the curtain that separated the Holy of Holies was torn in a manner that no man could have done…  And even when I was there, peering in on the altar itself – I was aware that the holiest thing I would ever see was the death of this Son of God.

I remained in Jerusalem.  I had only planned to stay for a couple of weeks, but I got sick and by the time I recovered it was time for the Feast of Pentecost, and I decided to celebrate that feast with the people in Jerusalem.  On the day of the feast I was making my way down the street when I heard a voice calling, crisp and clear, in my own language.  I turned, and I recognized the speaker to be one of the followers of the Galilean who had been killed.  That man seemed to be as surprised to be speaking in my language as I was to hear it!  And yet on that day I was able to hear, for the first time, the significance of the life that this man had lived – and I heard the news of his resurrection as well.

Later that day, as I listened to Peter preaching about the new life that Jesus offered, I turned and saw a shock of red hair and recognized Rufus as the Centurion who had been present at Golgotha.

It was thenthat Rufus and I did become friends.  Together, we went with the followers of Jesus back to their lodging and shared in a meal.  We became more than friends – we are brothers.  In fact, my second-born son bears his name.

And yet – and yet, I realize that the story of how God worked to bring the lives of a simple laborer from Cyrene and a Roman Centurion together in this place – well, that’s a story for another day.

Today, we are gathered to remember what is crucial.  We are here to consider the cruxof the matter, as our friends might say in Latin.  We have heard from the book written by our brother Mark in Greek kai staurousin auton.  In the language of Rome: et crucifigentes eum. And they crucified him.

That’s all our brother Mark tells us.

And yet it is the crucial thing.  It is the crux of our faith.

I cannot say that I am glad that it he was crucified.  I would have preferred it to be me, in fact.  I surely deserved it more than he. No, I am not happy that it happened, and yet I must say that I am glad to have been there. Sharing in his death has made the opportunity of speaking of his life and resurrection even more meaningful to me.

Sisters and brothers, you know that the world has much evil and many problems.  The fact that we are forced to worship here, in the catacombs, hiding among the dead while we proclaim life and light to all – that is one of the ways that you know that the world is a broken place.  And yet, let us leave those great problems of the world aside for now.  Let us meditate on those three words: they crucified him. And let us claim how that event has led us to experiences of new life, of improbable community, and of an understanding of the willingness of God – the one who I thought was hidden behind a curtain in the temple – let us hold fast to our appreciation for the fact that thatGod has demonstrated a willingness – no, an eagerness – to enter into the dark, hidden, painful and yes, even deadly places of our own lives.

Let us celebrate this Lord’s day the fact that the God of whom I had learned as a boy growing up in Cyrene is the One who was revealed in the person of Jesus to the Centurion; the One whom we had thought to dwell in a room in Jerusalem has risen to fill the world.  Let us embrace as the crux of the matter the truth that because he has known death, we can know life.  And as we think on all of those things then let us, beloved, find it in us to whisper back to him that which he said to me: yishar. Yishar.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

But If Not…

During the season of Lent, 2019, the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are listening to, and learning from, and maybe even seeking to practice along with the ancient book of Lamentations. Each Wednesday, we will consider one of the poems from this volume and seek to understand something of its meaning and purpose in both the original and current contexts.  On April 10, we read the final chapter of that book (included in the text of the message below).  My primary guide for the textual work in this series is Dr. F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp’s insightful Interpretation Commentary on Lamentations.  Incidentally, I find it refreshing that an authority on such a difficult and, frankly, gloomy book goes by the nickname of “Chip”.  Anything that sounds remotely profound in my interpretation of these passages was probably lifted from Dobbs-Allsopp’s work.  Incidentally, the topic for this entire series was suggested by the time that our session (our church’s ruling board) spent studying Daniel Hill’s remarkable book White Awake: An Honest Look at What it Means to Be White.  Hill calls our culture to a practice he terms “hopeful lament”.  This message is an attempt to practice some of that.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship please use the media player below:

As we bring our Lenten series of meditations on the book of Lamentations to a close this evening, I’d like to make a few comments on the nature of the book as a whole before we dive into chapter five.

As we’ve discussed previously, Lamentations is a collection of five very tightly and carefully constructed poems, originally written in Hebrew.  Each of the first four poems is written as an acrostic – there is a stanza, or in the case of chapter 3, three stanzas, that begins with the first letter of the alphabet; then a thought beginning with the second letter, and so on.  Each of the poems has 22 verses, with the exception of chapter 3, which has 66 verses.  It is plain to see that each poem is a reaction to, in some way, the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE.  Each poem offers a glimpse at the horrors that befell the city of God, and some interpretation as to how or why that event came about.

In fact, the Hebrew title for this book is Eichah– a word that means “How?”  Three of the four poems we’ve already considered begin with this word, which presents a summary of the book’s theme: how could this have happened?  How could God have allowed this to happen?

As we turn our attention to chapter 5, we should note that this is the only poem in Lamentations that is notan acrostic.  The tone is shifting as we come to the end of the work, and that would not have been surprising to the ancient readers of this poem.  The form of Lamentations was not uncommon in the ancient Near East.  There are several examples of “City Laments” that survive from around this time period, and many of these laments end with a prayer to the god of that particular city.  In fact, most of the “typical” city laments end on a victorious note, with a prayer to the god of that city and then an account of what that god did (or soon will do) to restore that city to its former glory.  So someone hearing a poem in this fashion might sense the change in tone and say, “OK, we saw this coming.  This is the big finish, right?”

Not only is the tone different because of the lack of an acrostic structure, it is by far the most communal of the poems we’ve seen thus far.  The Hebrew forms that relate to the first person plural – words like we, us, or our – occur 34 times in these few verses.  The poet is screaming: pay attention!  Something is happening here!

Our opening stanza is an appeal for God to once more notice what is going on in the city:

Lord, consider what has become of us; take notice of our disgrace. Look at it!

In fact, in some of your bibles this chapter is subtitled “The People’s Complaint”.  What follows is a summary of the difficulties that God’s people have had to endure.  Listen to the body of this poem in verses 2 – 18:

Our property has been turned over to strangers;
our houses belong to foreigners.
We have become orphans, having no father;
our mothers are like widows.
We drink our own water—but for a price;
we gather our own wood—but pay for it.
Our hunters have been at our necks;
we are worn out, but have no rest.
We held out a hand to Egypt
and to Assyria, to get sufficient food.
Our fathers have sinned and are gone,
but we are burdened with their iniquities.
Slaves rule over us;
there is no one to rescue us from their power.
We get our bread at the risk of our lives
because of the desert heat.
Our skin is as hot as an oven
because of the burning heat of famine.
Women have been raped in Zion,
young women in Judah’s cities.
Officials have been hung up by their hands;
elders have been shown no respect.
Young men have carried grinding stones;
boys have stumbled under loads of wood.
Elders have left the city gate;
young people stop their music.
Joy has left our heart;
our dancing has changed into lamentation.
The crown has fallen off our head.
We are doomed because we have sinned.
Because of all this our heart is sick;
because of these things our glance is dark.
Mount Zion, now deserted—
only jackals walk on it now!

This is, in fact, the people’s complaint.  It is a litany of awfulness.  In some respects, the bulk of this poem sounds like a lawyer’s closing argument. We are called to remember that no one has been spared from the horrors of this tragedy: the women, the girls, the boys, the men – everyone has suffered unspeakably.  From outright attack and violation to shame and humiliation, the whole range of degradation and defeat is laid out here.

In fact, not only have God’s people suffered, but the land itself is bearing the curse of God.  Water and firewood have become scarce commodities, and the sun has scorched not only the people but the earth itself.  All of this is summarized in verse 18, which depicts the supreme irony that the place that was once characterized as a land flowing with milk and honey and the space within that land that was regarded as the holiest and most life-giving, life-affirming, God-honoring place on earth was now a site of desolation populated only by scavengers and filled with death.  The complaint made before God is pathetically blunt: we have no joy, there is no real life; we can’t see well, and there is no hope to be found in us.

Now, in a typical city lament poem, this is where we would expect to hear the tone change yet again – this is where readers would anticipate hearing the statement of final victory in the face of disintegration and death – their god, and the god of that city, will show up and show up in a big way.  It’s not uncommon in poetry of this type to have statements that are triumphal and even arrogant: yes, this is where we are, but just you wait!  You’ll see!  This amazing thing will happen and we will be on top once more!

Here is how the book of Lamentations ends:

But you, Lord, will rule forever;
your throne lasts from one generation to the next.
Why do you forget us continually;
why do you abandon us for such a long time?
Return us, Lord, to yourself. Please let us return!
Give us new days, like those long ago—
unless you have completely rejected us,
or have become too angry with us.

Wow!  Did you hear that?  There is no “happily ever after” for God’s people who survived to write the book of Lamentations.  Instead of triumphalism, we hear a tentative plea that if it doesn’t presume the silence of God, it at least allows for the silence of God.  The writer acknowledges that it’s possible that God is finished with God’s people.

And yet… And yet… Remember the name of this book in Hebrew?  Eichah? “How?”

Here’s something that you might not know about Hebrew.  When writing Hebrew, the only letters that are used are consonants.  The vowel sounds appear as small symbols that are written beneath or within the consonants.

For instance, you might read words like this:

See the words reading “cap”, “cup”, “cop”, and “hat”, “hit”, “hot”, “hate”. Note that with the consonants enlarged the words appear more similar than usual.

So when you see a word, you have to look closely to see the vowel sounds below; a number of words will remind you of other words.

The consonants in the word Eichah look like this:  אֵיכָה

That is to say, here in this amazing book of poetry that describes how horribly broken things are, the people of God are looking for God and saying, Eichah? How could this be? Where were you when this happened to us, God?

If you were to turn all the way back to the beginning of the story – back in Genesis, we find that the roles are reversed.  Do you remember that there’s another poem – a poem about a Garden and a Tree and a Man and a Woman and a Snake?  And the humans make choices that break things horribly, and God wanders through the Garden calling out to humanity, “Where are you?”  Do you remember that part of Genesis?

The Hebrew word that God says in Genesis 3:9 is Ayekah, and the consonants in that word look like this:  אַיֶּֽכָּה׃

אֵיכָה

אַיֶּֽכָּה׃

Can you look at those words and see how similar they appear to be?

The first poem in the Hebrew Bible includes a God who is wandering through creation, calling in the midst of brokenness, Ayekah?  Where are you?  And here in the book of Lamentations, a people who by their own acknowledgement have chosen to do things that break God’s heart are now calling out almost the same word.

I’m suggesting that the parallelism here is intentional.  The poem, and the book, concludes, not on a note of triumphalism or with a declaration of certainty as to how the story ends, but rather with an appeal to God’s character. This is not, as some of the other ancient poems were, an assertion of the vindication that would come to people who deserved it.  Instead, it is a proclamation of who God is even in the midst of trial.  The authors of the book of Lamentations wanted to remind their readers that the God to whom this lament is addressed is a God who goes out looking for those who have experienced brokenness – and is willing to even look for those who have causedbrokenness.  “God, you sit on the throne.  You are God for ever and ever.  No matter what happens here, you are still God.”

Actual leaflet dropped by the Luftwaffe onto Allied troops near Dunkirk.

Listen: in the Spring of 1940 the British and French armies were on the run from Hitler’s troops.  They were being driven back relentlessly by the mechanized divisions as well as by air assault, and in May of 1940 the Luftwaffedropped leaflets on the troops indicating that they were totally surrounded, and there was no hope for escape.  The British Navy was unable to get into the shallow and rough harbor at Dunkirk, and the 400,000 soldiers under Allied command were low on food, water, and ammunition.  To make things worse, the Germans had been able to crack all the codes, so there was no possibility of a secret plan.

The British commander sent a three word telegraph to his superiors in London.  It read simply, “But if not…”  That telegraph was a direct allusion to the words of the three Hebrew children in Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace in the Book of Daniel.  The pagan king had ordered them to be burnt alive, and before they went in to the blaze, they said, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace; and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up.”(Daniel 3:16-18)

“But if not…” that simple 3 word message indicated that “maybe we will be saved, maybe we won’t be saved, but in either case that doesn’t say anything about the rightness of Hitler’s cause.”  It was a testament to the truth that experience is not the only arbiter of truth.  And, if you’ve seen the recent movie about the experience of the soldiers at Dunkirk, you’ll recall that the simple message galvanized an unlikely fleet of 800 fishing vessels that were able to safely evacuate nearly 340,000 allied troops.

This is the cornerstone to the entire book of Lamentation, and to our own work as those who lament today: God is God.  We may, or we may not actually survive this disaster that has befallen us today. But even if we do not survive, that does not say anything about who God is.

Listen to that theme here in Job: “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him…” (Job 13:15)

Or again from II Timothy 3:15: “if we are faithless,God remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself.”

Lamentations 5 ends by raising the possibility that God is and will be silent. It points us, this Lenten season, to the agony of Jesus’ questions in the Garden.  It is a reminder that we are creatures of time and space who are seeking, always, to relate to a creator who is constrained by neither time nor space. How can we even share a vocabulary with a God such as this?

In the days following the fall of Jerusalem, God’s people cried out against hunger and death and violence and humiliation.  They threw those words to God and trusted in a God they could not always see or hear.

In the opening years of the 21stcentury God’s people cry out against famine and flood and racism and abuse and addiction and gun violence and broken families. We throw out words to a God who seems inexplicably and maddeningly silent sometimes.

And at the end of the day, our affirmation is the same as was theirs: we do not always know where God is, and we may not always know what God is doing, but we can and do know who God is.  That is the promise, beloved, and you can trust it.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Never Underestimate Us

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have spent many Sundays since late 2017 immersed in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On the Fifth Sunday of Lent (April 7, 2019), we sat and listened to the crowds clamoring for Jesus’ life outside of Pilate’s palace… and we considered what it means for we who might consider ourselves to be “typical people” in 2019.  Our Gospel text was Mark 15:1-20, and we interpreted it light of Paul’s words about “thinking like Jesus” to his friends in Philippi: Philippians 2:5-11

To hear this sermon as preached in worship please use the media player below:

I’m dating myself here, and I’m asking some of you to date yourselves, too.  I wonder if anyone has any idea what the number one selling toy in 1975 was.

For six months in my fifteenth year, the best-selling toy for the Christmas season was… the pet rock.  Somehow, a man named Gary Dahl persuaded 1.5 million people to pay $4 each for some stones he acquired for a penny apiece.  To put that into perspective, $4 in 1975 is equivalent to about $19 now.

H. L. Mencken was an American journalist and writer who is reputed to have said, “No one in the world, so far as I know — and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the plain people.”

Is he right?  Have you ever underestimated the intelligence, the wisdom, or the goodness of our culture?

As we continue in our conversations about the Gospel of Mark, this morning we’re going to look at some of the plain people that are described in the second gospel.

Our reading for this morning is strikingly parallel to the one we shared last week.  Once again, we find Jesus undergoing a trial.  In this case, however, rather than standing before the religious leaders, he has now been dragged before the chief civil authority for the whole region, Pontius Pilate.  Although the venue and the inquisitors have changed, Jesus continues to be resolute and stoic as he calmly subjects himself to unjust treatment.

Mark chapter 14 describes a religious council that was sure about what they wanted to do with Jesus – but they lacked the power to carry out their designs.  So they hand him over to the Roman Empire and ask Pilate to do their dirty work.

One difference is that Pilate could not care less about the finer points of the Jewish faith, and so rather than asking Jesus if he’s the Messiah, he asks him whether he claims to be some sort of a king.  He wants to know whether the young man from the Galilee is a threat to the peace and stability of the region, and whether he intends to mount any insurrection against Rome.

Jesus’ answers satisfy the Governor, and he acts as if he’s ready to let the Rabbi loose.  This is intolerable to the religious leaders, though, and so they start to throw more accusations.  Still, Pilate appears unfazed.  “Jesus isn’t really bothering anyone,” he says.  “He’s a little misguided perhaps; maybe naïve; but he’s no threat to me or to Rome.”

And that’s when the situation changes drastically by the addition of yet another character into our drama: the crowd.  The ordinary common people of Jerusalem show up, and they demand action – action in the form of Jesus’ death.

Behold the Man (Crucify Him!), Mihály Munkácsy (1896)

So, if you’re keeping score at home, this is where we stand: The religious leaders really, really want Jesus to be executed, but they have no authority to impose the death penalty.  Pilate has that authority, but he’s not really interested in putting an innocent man to death.  But the crowd wants someone to die, and they are convinced that Jesus is as good as anyone else in this regard.  One writer puts it this way:

In this tumultuous scene, rival authorities vie for power. The chief priests, elders, and scribes have religious authority, which they can exercise only by manipulating a Roman governor and an excitable crowd,  Pilate possesses civil authority, but will not act on his own judgment because, like the religious leaders, he fears the crowd. The crowd clamors for blood, but with no clear sense of purpose or direction.[1]

As this trial ends in the same fashion as the one the previous day – with Jesus undergoing yet another undeserved beating and humiliation – I think that Mark’s point is really clear: there are no bystanders at this point in the story.  Somehow, we are all participants in the extermination of this teacher from Nazareth. The commoners in Jerusalem saw no intersection between their lives and that of Jesus – or, if his life did affect theirs, it was to disappoint or anger them to the point where they clamored for his death.

Remember, friends, that the Gospel of Mark was written as a handbook for the Christians who were undergoing trials of their own in Nero’s Rome. All of this had to be, for these first hearers of the Gospel, an encouragement.  In their suffering and persecution, they were in some way more like Jesus.  Although Mark doesn’t spell it out as clearly here as does Paul in Philippians 2, I think his point is similar: the common Christians in Rome can identify with Jesus because he can identify with them.

Crucify Him, Peter Gorban (1923- 1995)

So what about us?  We are, I think it’s safe to say, “commoners” here in Pittsburgh in 2019. What is the impact of all of this on our lives?

On this 5thSunday in Lent, 2019 we need to make sure that disciples of Jesus are absolutely paying attention to what happened on that morning so long ago.  When we scan the faces of the hostile crowd, we need to recognize our own faces, and those of our neighbors.  When we observe the religious leaders’ commitment to destroying the life of someone whose understanding of Gospel was at odds with their own, we need to remember that kind of destructive instinct is not peculiar to our sisters and brothers of 2000 years ago.  We need to confess the fact that even the most ardent of disciples in our day and age will often find it easier to identify with the religious leaders or with the crowds than we do with Jesus.

And perhaps most strikingly to me, I am tempted to see my own reflection in the face of Pilate.  I recently discovered a letter that was written in the voice of Pontius Pilate to a colleague in Rome.  Listen:

The Most Noble Tertius Quartus, Rome

Your Excellency: You may have heard of the disturbance in Jerusalem last spring over the trial and execution of one Christus. It was quite a nuisance. But then, everything in this miserable province is a nuisance.  But it pass off all right, and we will never hear of Christus again.

My skirts are clear.  I rather liked the man.  He was what these Jews call a prophet, from upcountry, unsophisticated, of course. But compared to the rabble yelling their heads off, and the priests pushing their flimsy charges with no evidence at all that would hold in a Roman court, he was dignified and attractive.  I told them plainly and courageously that I found no fault in him.  But they kept yelling, ‘Crucify him!’ so I washed my hands of the whole affair.

My reasons were sound.  To have let this Christus go free would have meant a riot and disorder and, no doubt, complaints to Rome.  And you know that could be a lot of trouble.  A procurator must keep order above all things.

Besides, it was none of my business, really.  The man had committed no crime, but after all it was not my affair to mix into the squabbles of these fanatical Jews. It was their business, not mine.

And then it just happened to be a lucky chance to get solid backing from two groups usually opposed to me – the priests and the populace. I couldn’t let that slip.  It will mean a lot to my prestige and career here, and I hope in Rome too.

So if you hear any different reports, dismiss them.

With high esteem,
Pontius Pilate[2]

I found that little bit of creative writing to be spot on, because it illustrates that at the end of the day, Pilate chose to do less than his best, and less than what was right, because it was too much trouble, it was none of his business, and it might wind up costing too much time, energy, or money.

One of the reasons that I find that arresting is the fact that every day, common folks like you and I make a thousand different decisions.  We walk and talk and live and breathe and buy and sell and, if we’re not careful, Pilate’s Jerusalem or Mark’s Rome could seem like places that are far removed from us.

But this morning, my beloved, I would urge you not to make the mistake of underestimating in your life the power of the temptations that faced Pilate.  We are called to follow Christ.  We have said that we would follow him.  We are here, we think, following together.  And yet, how often do some or all of us shrink back from fully embracing the Kingdom of God because, well, because it might be more trouble, or fuss, or cost than we think we have to spare right now?

I will add my voice to Paul’s in encouraging you (and me) to “put on the mind of Christ” each day.  To recognize that there are times when we will move forward in resistance to the powers that surround us.

I saw this when I was walking with one of you and there was a grown man yelling at a child. Not in discipline, but rather berating and belittling the child.  The little boy was whimpering and crying under the onslaught of the cursing, but the man was drunk, or high, or crazed with anger.  And one of you stopped and said, “Hey, man – is that how you want to be talking to your boy?  Is that how you want him to remember you?  I don’t know what happened here, but I’m pretty sure that he doesn’t need to hear that kind of cursing from you.  Maybe you could find a more appropriate way to vent.” It was a risk to have said that.  I might have cost something.  But I think that Jesus would have said something, and one of you did.

I saw this kind of discipleship when one of you heard about an opportunity to make a financial gift in support of a ministry that was changing lives.  You were planning to retire, but you figured that if you worked another six months, that would allow you to do something important in a community that needed it.

I saw courage and purpose like this when one of you challenged your pastor on an important social issue. You thought that maybe I was coasting, that maybe I was taking the easy way, and you wanted to be sure that I was being attentive to the voice of Jesus, and so you came in and sat with me and asked me some hard questions.

And I saw what the mind of Christ looks like when one of the young people in the congregation talked about befriending a classmate who was being mistreated because of that student’s wardrobe and apparent lifestyle. I don’t know whether our young friend agreed with all of the decisions of her classmate… but I do know that she reached out in love and extended a welcome that the other student had not found elsewhere.

In those, and so many other ways, I see what it looks like to put on the mind of Christ.  When I read the story of the day that Jesus stood in front of Pilate and was condemned by the crowd, I need to remember that somehow it made sense on that day for common people in Jerusalem to choose a man of hate and violence over a man of love and peace.  When they did that on that day, they ensured that he would literally die for them.

That’s what the crowd did on that day.  We can’t undo it, but we can learn from it.  Mark Twain is credited with saying “while history may not necessarily repeat itself, it often rhymes.”  Today, we have the privilege and the responsibility to honor Christ’s authority in our lives by looking for ways in which we might choose to live wisely and well – for him, and for our neighbors, whom he loves.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

[1 ]Interpretation Commentary on the Gospel of Mark, Lamar Williamson, Jr. (Louisville : John Knox Press, 1983) p. 273.

[2]The Christian Century, March 14, 1951, p. 329; quoted in The Gospel According to Mark and its Meaning for Todayby Ernest Trice Thompson (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1968) pp. 230-231.

An Elegy For The World

During the season of Lent, 2019, the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are listening to, and learning from, and maybe even seeking to practice along with the ancient book of Lamentations. Each Wednesday, we will consider one of the poems from this volume and seek to understand something of its meaning and purpose in both the original and current contexts.  On April 3, we read Lamentations 4 (included in the text of the message below).  My primary guide for the textual work in this series is Dr. F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp’s insightful Interpretation Commentary on Lamentations.  Incidentally, I find it refreshing that an authority on such a difficult and, frankly, gloomy book goes by the nickname of “Chip”.  Anything that sounds remotely profound in my interpretation of these passages was probably lifted from Dobbs-Allsopp’s work.  Incidentally, the topic for this entire series was suggested by the time that our session (our church’s ruling board) spent studying Daniel Hill’s remarkable book White Awake: An Honest Look at What it Means to Be White.  Hill calls our culture to a practice he terms “hopeful lament”.  This message is an attempt to practice some of that.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship please use the media player below:

When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, Walt Whitman was moved to compose one of the most famous poems in the English language: ‘O Captain! My Captain!”  That work is fairly short – 3 stanzas of 8 lines each, and the last line in each stanza reads, “fallen, cold and dead.”

Whitman’s poem is an elegy – a work that is written in order to express some corporate grief and lament; to celebrate the memory of one who had a deep impact, and to provide some assurance that even though the subject of the verse (in this case, Abraham Lincoln) is dead, the world will remember that one’s presence and will be better because of that presence.

As we turn our attention to Lamentations 4, I’d like to suggest that this work functions as an elegy in the midst of a book of poetry that was written to help a community deal with tragedy.  Like the previous three poems in Lamentations, chapter 4 is an acrostic. There are 22 verses, and each verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  Our text for this evening, however, differs slightly from the other three in that it is not as full of emotion as the others. In fact, Lamentations 4 contains a number of phrases that suggest that there is a numbness or a remoteness that is used to describe the suffering that has occurred after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE.

As we continue to seek to be a community that learns from and about the practice of lament, let us consider that poem now.  It begins with a single word: in our current text it is translated as “Oh!”; it could also be read as “How?”

Oh, no!
Gold is tarnished; even the purest gold is changed.
Sacred jewels are scattered on every street corner.

The same word is used to begin the poems of Lamentations 1 and 2.  It conveys a sense of woe, and intimates that the world has changed drastically.  In fact, as the opening stanza reveals, the world is vastly different – values have changed to the extent that pure gold is worthless and sacred jewels are laying around on the streets.  The elegy deepens in the next three stanzas:

Zion’s precious children, once valued as pure gold—
oh no!—now they are worth no more than clay pots made by a potter.

Even jackals offer the breast; they nurse their young.
But the daughter of my people has become cruel, like desert ostriches.

The baby’s tongue sticks to the roof of its mouth, thirsty.
Children ask for bread, beg for it—but there is no bread.

Here is a lament for the children of Zion.  They were once considered to be treasures worth their weight in gold, but they now are dying faster than they can be buried.  Why do they suffer? Because famine has filled the land. Look at the next six stanzas as they offer a description:

Those who once ate gourmet food now tremble in the streets.
Those who wore the finest purple clothes now cling to piles of garbage.

Greater was the punishment of the daughter of my people than Sodom’s penalty, which was quickly overthrown without any hand-wringing.

Her nazirites were purer than snow; they were more dazzling than milk.
Their limbs were redder than coral; their bodies were sapphire.

But their appearance grew darker than soot; they weren’t recognized in the streets. Their skin shriveled on their bones; it became dry like wood.

Things were better for those stabbed by the sword than for those stabbed by famine—
those who bled away, pierced, lacking food from the field.

The hands of loving women boiled their own children
to become their food during the destruction of the daughter of my people.

The suffering of the hungry is so great, according to the narrator, that it would have been better for them to have died in the original attack.  In addition to the children’s deaths, the community laments the destruction of every echelon of society.  Even the wealthy, who are often spared the ravages of conflict and trauma, find that they have nothing to eat; there is even a suggestion that cannibalism is rampant.

Earlier this evening I mentioned that this poem could be considered an elegy. As we read the first 10 verses of Lamentations 4, I note the sad truth that the events described here could have happened anywhere.  We know, because we’ve been here for three weeks already, that this poem is in response to a particular tragedy – the siege and defeat of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. But I have seen the deaths of children and the trauma of famine far too often in my own lifetime.  As horrible as the events described are, one of the things that makes it even worse is that such atrocities have seemingly become everyday realities in the life of a particular community.  The general lament of the first ten stanzas of this poem becomes a little more specific in the next six. Listen:

The Lord let loose his fury; he poured out his fierce anger.
He started a fire in Zion; it licked up its foundations.

The earth’s rulers didn’t believe it—neither did any who inhabit the world— that either enemy or adversary could enter Jerusalem’s gates.

It was because of her prophets’ sins, her priests’ iniquities,
those who shed righteous blood in the middle of the city.

People wandered blindly in the streets, polluted with blood.
No one would even touch their clothing.

“Go away! Unclean!” was shouted at them, “Go away! Away! Don’t touch!”
So they fled and wandered around. The nations said, “They can’t stay here anymore.”

It was the Lord’s presence that scattered them; he no longer notices them. They didn’t honor the priests’ presence; they didn’t favor the elders.

Do you see that the narrative now gains a particular context.  Although these things could have happened in a number of places, they actually occurred right here in Jerusalem.

In some ways, the opening verses of this poem remind me of a twelve-step meeting.  Everyone has gathered because of a general condition.  This building is full on Monday evenings because there are a number of people with substance abuse issues – that’s a common theme to their lives. Yet each meeting occasions the telling of a particular story: it’s as if each gathering begins with an acknowledgement that alcohol and drugs bring pain and grief in general, and then we are directed to look at a particular case in which that has been true.  In the same way, while the suffering of children and death from famine occur in many ways around the globe, this is the story behind these particular deaths, and this particular pain.  Even though the voice continues to be one of narration from a third-party perspective, it is a particular scenario that is described.

As we lean into the next four stanzas, listen for the change in the voice of the poet:

Our eyes continually failed, looking for some help, but for nothing. From our watchtower we watched for a nation that doesn’t save.

Our steps were tracked; we could no longer walk in our streets. Our end had drawn near; our days were done—our end had definitely come.

Our hunters were faster than airborne eagles.
They chased us up the mountains; they ambushed us in the wilderness.

The Lord’s chosen one, the very breath in our lungs, was caught in their traps— the one we used to talk about, saying, “Under his protection we will live among the nations.”

Did you hear that? Instead of being a dispassionate narrator using the third person voice (they, them, theirs), now we hear from those who have suffered:  oureyes failed, our days were done, they chased us; weused to talk…

When this happens, the reader’s participation in the poem moves from hearing a description of events that took place to a retelling of the horrors that happened to us.  Have you ever noticed that retelling a story of horror and grief is a way not only of reliving the trauma, but of sharing, interpreting or understanding it.  The poet is saying, “Look, not only did this terrible thing happen – but it happened here!  To us!”

Some of you know that a friend of mine died violently some time ago. When I first discovered what had happened, I didn’t have words for it.  I was horrified and wounded.  And yet as time went on, I found myself needing to find some way to speak that story to some other friends. I even took a couple of them to the place where it had happened – because I found that sharing the story in this way allowed me to have some measure of control over the pain and disorientation that had come into my life.  I know that some of you have been in that situation, too – you have needed to tell someone else about the difficulties you’ve lived through, or the terrible thing that has happened.  I believe that’s what’s going on in these verses of the poem – that the use of the first person adds a voice of intimacy to the narration and makes the pain share-able in the community.

Chapter 4 ends with two short stanzas in which the tone shifts one more time:

Rejoice and be happy, Daughter Edom, you who live in the land of Uz.
But this cup will pass over to you too. You will get drunk on it. You will be stripped naked.

Your punishment is over, Daughter Zion; God won’t expose you anymore.
But he will attend to your punishment, Daughter Edom; he will expose your sins.

The poet ends with a warning to those who live in neighboring communities: “Listen, friends, you can be happy that this hasn’t happened to you yet, but be aware that it is coming toward you.  And Jerusalem, or Zion – while you have been crushed, you can be thankful for the fact that your worst is already past.

As we contemplate this poem in the first part of the 21stcentury, what are to do with it?  I mean, it’s a horrible sequence of events, all right, but what are the imperatives for us? What is our take-away?

I’d suggest that this poem, perhaps even more than any of the previous three, opens up for us the language of lament in the face of atrocity.  As I mentioned, the general language and the detached voice that comes in the first half of the poem in particular allows us to find a voice that elegizes the horrible things that we encounter.

About fifteen years ago there was a horrific famine that struck the land of Malawi. I went with a team of other Christian leaders and we took stock of the effects of the damage and we sat with those who had been afflicted. One young pastor with whom I met was called Abusa Dennis.  He was in a remote region of the nation, and I asked him, “Dennis, look: is all of this making a difference?  I mean, we’re coming here and we’re trying, but is the suffering reduced at all?”  And right away, he took my hand and he said, “Abusa Dave, it is!  A year ago this time, I was conducting 8 or 9 funerals a week, and they were mostly for children.  It was horrible. But now, I’m only preaching 2 or 3 a week and it’s mostly for old people.”  I had to stop and weep at the thought of doing “only” three funerals a week, and I wondered how I might survive in a community wherein I was burying a child every single day.

These verses may offer you some vocabulary as you name and lament that which is broken in our world.  Look at these verses, and consider what you know about the realities of the Holocaust, or the plight of refugees around the world right now.  Read through them again, slowly, and allow your mind and your heart to summon up images of those who have been slaughtered in schools or places of worship around the world in recent months and years.

Although this lament is written in response to a particular set of tragedies that befell a specific community a long time ago, can you find that some of this language makes your lament a little deeper?  Can you see a connection?  That’s what elegies are for – to help bring people together in times of pain and loss and grief.

But consider this, beloved, and do not lose sight of it.  Remember how the book of Lamentations came to be, and in particular how chapter 4 reached our ears: this is a narrative written by someone who survived.  While many perished, the author did not.  That means something.

One of my favorite books and movies of all time is a striking memoir by Frank McCourt entitled Angela’s Ashes.  It is a vivid first-person narrative that begins this way: “When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while.  Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.. . the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters…”

Page after page finds young Frankie narrating the horrors of his childhood – the deaths of his siblings, the pain of his father’s alcoholism, the grip that depression had on his mother…  As I read that book, I had to keep reminding myself, “Look – he’s telling the story.  HE lived.  It’s horrible, but hegot through it.”  A memoir is like that, isn’t it?  You know that in order to have written the story, the author had to live.  It’s difficult to read, but as you are reading it you can remember that somehow the person passed through the trial.

One of the core lessons of Lamentations 4 is that somehow, the community survived.  In the context of being a community that did survive, they had to learn how to become a resource to others who were in pain.  Those who suffer greatly are, in some ways, able to be more deeply attentive to the needs of others in the wider world. While not advocating increased suffering, the authors of this work would no doubt hold fast to the truth that someone who has lived through a great tragedy, someone who has been shaped by a difficult story, now has the opportunity or maybe even the responsibility to stand with others who find themselves in the midst of great pain.

It was for this reason that a week ago Friday I went to the Islamic Center and found myself standing with dozens of Jews who were handing out roses to Muslim worshipers reeling from the pain of the shooting in New Zealand.  Because the Jews had felt the pain in the Tree of Life slaughter here in Pittsburgh, they found it important to stand with the Muslims in their time of pain. Some of you have known the difficulty of, say, miscarriage; when you find a friend experiencing that loss now, it’s important for you to say, “Yeah, I’ve been there…”

Beloved, the suffering you have experienced and witnessed has shaped your life. And yet, here you are.  You are a survivor.  You and I have survived different things, to be sure, but do not forget that you are changed because of the pain that you have seen, known, and carried.  This Lent, may we remember that pain, and be motivated by the memory of such suffering to share in the plight of those around us in our families, our community, and our world.  Thanks be to God for the gifts of lament and elegy, Amen.